With countless tours over twenty years, plus seven series on BBC Radio 4 and three series on BBC Television, and a volume of memoirs under his belt, the show business legend and raconteur Count Arthur Strong is back on the road again with a new tour entitled Alive and Unplugged. Before heading out, the creator of the popular comedy character – Steve Delaney – took the time to chat to Exciting Stuff about all things Arthur…
A legend of the old school, Arthur is clearly a 20th century man. What do you think Arthur brings to the 21st Century, with all its new technology?
Mass confusion. And he’ll certainly break an awful lot of it. He doesn’t have much of an understanding of it, but he thinks it’s wonderful – anything that slightly baffles him, he thinks is the most wonderful thing. Technology and Arthur are funny things to rub up against each other.
What can you say about the new tour – Alive and Unplugged?
I always find it difficult to say what my shows are about, because with Arthur, everything happens in real time – so whatever he’s trying to do is unwinding before the audience’s eyes. And it’s also unwinding before his eyes, although he never really notices that. So it’s kind of difficult to say what they are about. They are never quite about what the title might suggest. Arthur is like Nero, he’s fiddling while Rome burns. If the whole scenery and theatre was up in flames behind him, he probably wouldn’t notice. And he wouldn’t not notice because he was doing his show, he’d not notice because he’d gone off on some lunatic rant about something that happened to him that morning. It’s supposed to be a show about Arthur telling everyone about what a wonderful career he’s had – like most of Arthur’s shows, it’s about him patting himself on the back in front of an audience all the time – but he loses sight of even that. It’s streams of consciousness with Arthur. Which is what he’s like in whatever medium he’s in.
Do you think Arthur’s “wonderful career” really happened, or is he deluded? Or is he deliberately making it all up?
That’s the question – and it’s a question I will never answer. I’ll never answer it for myself, or for Arthur. Because if I do, it puts parameters around him, it puts restraints on him. In terms of me writing it, and developing what Arthur does, it puts the brakes on a little bit, if there’s got to be a through-line, if I’ve got the think all these things through. In the 15-20 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve never thought it was a good idea to answer that question for myself.
So it’s kept deliberately vague?
It’s even vague for me. When I first started out, I had a meeting with a television producer of great reputation, who said “I think you should go away and I think you should map out his past life” and I thought “oh okay”, so I went away, planning to sit down with a pen and a bit of paper… and thinking “I can’t do that”. So I never did! But, saying that, for my loyalties to the character, I can’t think Arthur is pretending, or he’s lying, or making something up.
Is there any continuity at all?
No. In the live show, all these things are happening to him in the moment, he’s getting side tracked in the moment – and he gets as annoyed every night over the same things – but it has to be the first time it’s happened to him. If I acknowledge the fact that I did the same thing last night, it’s being disloyal to the character I think. It would turn the character into something else, something two dimensional I think.
You said before about different mediums. Arthur has now appeared on stage, radio and TV. Does the specific medium affect how you perform as Arthur?
It’s different, but for me it’s different purely on a technical basis. On radio you’re not seen, whereas on TV you can raise an eyebrow and that can be the biggest laugh in the show, if you do it at the right time. So they are different in that way, but the essence of the character is that same. I think a lot of people might disagree with me though. A lot of people think that the character should only exist on the radio, because that’s how they came across him, and they are very possessive about that, and were largely disappointed by the fact that TV series wasn’t a direct lift of the radio series.
Why was the TV series so different?
We’d done 50 episodes on the radio series, so a different take was essential. You have to keep yourself going by looking at different things to do with him.
Is that how you’ve kept the character fresh over the last 20 years?
Well, I’ve never got bored of him, and I suppose that’s it really. If I got tired of him, then I wouldn’t do him any more. But I’m a long way off that. I like the old bloke. I enjoy doing him.
How did you go about creating him in the first place? Is he based on anyone?
Not on any individual. When I was a kid, there used to be a lot of eccentric old people around, relatives and next-door neighbours. I don’t know if it’s different now, people live their lives in different ways, but if you grew up in a street like I did, some cobbled gas-lit back street up North, then the street was full of real characters. People were individuals and were all distinctly different, and slightly odd. So as I created Arthur, I’ve remembered all those people – some very affectionately, and some who were the kind of crabby people who you avoided – and used real character traits from real people. Although I haven’t ever sat down and deliberately tried to create a character, I’ve arrived at Arthur incrementally in quite an organic way.
When did you start creating Arthur?
I did my first Edinburgh in 1997, and I started doing Arthur properly in comedy clubs at the beginning of that year. Although I’d fiddled around with him years before, very very briefly, when I had to do something at drama college. I came up with the name – Count Arthur Strong – and put together a little skit for some exercise we were doing. It got a really good reaction, and it surprised me.
Why do you think he is so popular?
He’s popular to an extent. He’s pretty unpopular with some people I would say – and I kind of like that. Obviously, it’s my living, it’s my job, so I don’t set out to do something that’s unpopular with a lot of people, but I’d hate to do something that was universally liked. In my opinion it would mean it wasn’t that interesting.
So you wouldn’t want him appearing on more mainstream TV shows, like Ant & Dec or Strictly?
You have to judge everything on its merits, but I don’t really like performing Arthur out of context, and the context for me is writing my own material, creating his own world. I like choosing the theatres that we tour to, and I like going to a certain kind of theatre where historically Arthur should have been, with that old variety feel to it, and they are predominantly the kinds of venues we tend to go to – although we also need to make venues fit around the tour, so sometimes you play one that doesn’t look like an old Frank Matcham theatre – but by and large I tend to try to place Arthur where he would have been, in my mind.
You are rarely seen as anything other than Count Arthur. Is that deliberate?
It’s absolutely deliberate. I packed acting in when I started doing Arthur in 1997. I left drama college in 1982, and I was seeking work as an actor for 15 years, largely as a carpenter – I was a carpenter before I went drama college, which was fantastic ultimately because it meant I could subsidise doing Arthur, and do it entirely in my time frame. I used to hire comedy venues and do character comedy and do 15-20 minutes of Arthur, and try new material, and that was invaluable to me, because it meant I was never chasing the character, I was developing him as I went along.
So you wouldn’t want to play other characters?
No. I had a couple of other characters when I first started out, and I used to think to myself “I don’t really like this, I don’t like coming on as another character, and then getting changed into the character that is the whole point of me doing this”. I tried them for about a year – I did a couple of them on television as well, the late night BBC comedy series, Comedy Nation – but they never hooked me in the way that Arthur did. I find him much more of interest.
A lot of people look up to your performance as Count Arthur as comedy genius. Do you have any comedy heroes?
I don’t have any comedy heroes, but there are lots of comedians I admire, both old school and new. Ken Dodd was fantastic, Morecambe and Wise were brilliant. I love Reeves and Mortimer, Noel Fielding and Julian Barrett – The Mighty Boosh, Johnny Vegas. I’ve got lots of comic references. A lot of older comic references too. Telly was a big part of me growing up – I lived in a household where the telly was on all the time, when it was actually on – because it was only on for about 6 or 7 hours a day in the early 60s. I think the most memorable series were the character comedy ones, so I think it’s no accident I’ve ended up doing character comedy. So it was series like Steptoe and Son and Hancock that I really enjoyed, and later, things like Fawlty Towers, that had beautiful character comedy performances, full of pathos. Pathos has always been important, I think. There should always that. You want people on your side. If you are on in theatre and you have an audience, you’d like them to be on your side.
So what are your future plans for Arthur? A movie perhaps?
Well, we’ll never stop doing the tours. The first year we did the TV series, I didn’t tour, and that was the first time in 10 years, and that was just because of the logistics of the series, it happened when I would usually be writing, and I was writing the TV series with Graham. But other than that, we’ve toured every year, so that’ll continue. Arthur was a live character in the first place, so that’ll never stop really. A film would be great. We are working on a new TV series, although I can’t say any more about that. And hopefully there’ll be another book. I’m mapping something out now, a detective novel written by Arthur. In his memoirs, there were lots of pages mixed up, and there were bits of a detective novel that got in by mistake, so it’s that idea – a potboiler paperback – that interests me. I like Arthur’s style of writing.
Count Arthur Strong will be on tour this Spring. His memoirs Through It All I’ve Always Laughed and the complete Count Arthur Strong TV series is available from Amazon and other leading reatilers.