This summer, Count Arthur Strong will be coming to television as the eponymous hero of the show, Count Arthur Strong. No doubt, he will soon be seducing a whole new audience. Haven’t heard of him? Well, don’t mention that in his presence because he’s bloody sick of people refusing to recognise his celebrity.
Loyal fans of his long-running BBC Radio 4 series Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! (which won the Sony Award for Best Radio Comedy in 2009) know well that he is as a “doyenne of light entertainment, raconteur and bon vivre” whose adventures give us essential insight into the life of a man who knows that he is more famous and more clever than you will ever be.
In addition to his talents in acting, writing, and Egyptology, Count Arthur is mightily skilled at being impatient, confused, and cheap. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so it’d be wise to brush up a bit on his background to better understand the depth of his character and avoid annoying him any further.
Growing up in Doncaster, Count Arthur Strong comes from excellent stock: his mother could still sit on the floor at 90, if she wanted to. He maintains all his own hair, teeth, and chin. The years 1968-1969 were incredible for him: during this time, he was twice the South Riding of Yorkshire’s Pork Pie Balancing Champion; twice voted the Doncaster Advertiser‘s Sleeveless Pullover Wearer of the Year Runner Up Runner Up; twice winner of the South Yorkshire Meat-Eaters Debating Society’s Bronze Rosette; and twice voted Trout Tickler of the Year, among many, many other accolades. During his National Service, he began his journey toward becoming a show business legend.
In the entertainment branch of the Services, he starred in the musical, Fiddler on the Roofing and developed a love of ballroom dancing. He was also well known on the variety theatre circuit for his “Memory Man” act. Obviously, his talent eventually led him to both the big and small screens. On television, he was in Juliet Bravo, played Brian Blessed in an episode of Softly, Softly, and was a barrister who wore his own trousers on Crown Court. He was the thin one who did the whistling in the film Bridge Up the River Kwai; got his head chopped off in the horror flick I Spit in Your Gravy, and was in the award-winning film The Man Who Had No… Shoes. His star was on the rise when he only narrowly lost out on the part of James Bond to Sean Connery. Additionally, during the war, he might have worked on Cats with Sir Laurence Olivier, though he can’t be 100 percent sure on that since the show didn’t debut until the ’80s.
All of these successes found Arthur rubbing shoulders with many celebrities, most of whom you’ve never heard of but should have. Olivier gave him an apple corer, he’s enjoyed a dinner of whitebait with actress Anita Harris, and he almost met Prince Charles twice once. He still maintains a working friendship with comedian Barry Cryer, though most of their gigs end badly due to Barry’s unwillingness to line his stomach before drinking. Suffice it to say, if you can name a famous person, it is likely Count Arthur has sat in a car with them.
However, his talents are not limited to acting. Count Arthur Strong has also made excellent contributions to the fields of literature and culture with the publication of his diaries, which go back all the way to when he first started keeping a diary. He writes who-did-it detective books under the pseudonym Rip Bedrock and has a cookery book project on the go. He’s been called on to be a book reviewer, which he managed to pull off without even having read the book. He’s written a musical based on his life, often gives lectures on subjects as varied as Egypt and self-help, and has participated in an Oxford Union debate on creationism vs. the natural selection people.
He’s also extremely dedicated to civic engagement. He briefly ran for political office on a bi-parmesan, one platform ticket focusing on eyeglasses frames and a radical rethink about the way that opticians talk to him. A local historian of his hometown Doncaster, he will gladly give tourists the background of each of the city’s pubs and point out the parish church where he cracked his head on the font at midnight mass. He was even willing to pose nude (tastefully) for three months of a fundraising calendar in aid of the church hall.
His commitment to the community extends beyond his local area, though. He is concerned about globular warming and participated in a fundraising event for the World Wildlife Fund, because he cares passionately about all that. He donated a shilling on Flag Day and even though he thought it was actually just a sixpence, he did it because he cared enough to make that mistake. He admits he’s only truly happy when he’s surrounded by those less fortunate than himself; though, always humble, he’s not one of those people who go around blowing his own trumpet up himself but rather leaves that to the musicians.
Part of the sheer brilliance of the character Count Arthur Strong is how he manages to be so original while still being recognisable. He’s not a stereotype but rather a conglomeration of personality traits we all know (and even perhaps have): he’s grouchy, bewildered by technology, and quick to blame others for his errors, yet he’s consistent, committed, and self-confident. His creator, Steve Delaney, says, “[h]e’s just a bonkers old bloke. He’s delusional. But I admire him greatly. He gets out of bed in the morning and he’s up for the day. He’s always thinking, ‘What can I do?’” (Steve Cavendish, The Telegraph, 6 April 2012).
To Delaney’s credit, Count Arthur is so fully and masterfully developed, we never remember that he is a character, being played by a comedian. This is partly due to his voice — both the sound and style with distinctive tics, occasional shouts and malapropisms. He also has a look with hunched shoulders, glasses, hat and suit, and pencil moustache; while radio listeners can’t see this (though Delaney did wear the costume while recording), it helps flesh out Arthur as a man, making him both more believable and more funny. While Delaney has continued to refine Count Strong over the many years since his debut, he has steadily been one of the most unique and entertaining characters of contemporary British comedy.
It’s not surprising that the BBC has finally given Count Arthur Strong a chance to shine on television. Sadly, the brilliant cast of characters from the radio show — which has included Joanna Neary, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc, Alastair Kerr, Terry Kilkelly, and Dave Mounfield — will not be making the move with Arthur. The character has gone on numerous tours and released his stage show Count Arthur Strong -The Musical? on DVD in 2008, so he can do the screen as well as the airwaves. The television series was written by Delaney and the excellent Graham Linehan, whose television successes include Father Ted, Big Train, Black Books, and The IT Crowd. Recorded in spring, it’s expected to debut this summer and will certainly cement the sterling reputation as a world class entertainer that Arthur has always claimed he has.
As Count Arthur Strong himself mused, “I think it was Sophocles that once said to me, if the eye is the organ of sensation, then the ear is what it is you listen to with when you’re hearing something through it.” Let him into all your sensory orifices with his radio show (currently being repeated on BBC Radio 4 and on the iPlayer) and his upcoming television series.