TV Review: Count Arthur Strong, BBC2

arthur strong

Update 14/9/13 – Good to see the first series of Count Arthur Strong getting a quick Saturday night repeat run at 7.30pm from tonight. It could be the perfect feet-up, cup-of-tea Dad's Army-type slot for it. Here's a review of the wonderfully nuanced but also enjoyably broad comedy from when it first went out earlier this year. If you like the sitcom you might also be interested in Through It All I've Always Laughed: The Memoirs of Count Arthur Strong, which are published on November  7. You can order it here. The Count has suggested that this is just the first volume of a six volume collection, so start saving...

I saw a Tweet recently that asked if Count Arthur Strong was the new Mrs Brown. Having seen the first episode of the new sitcom starring Steve Delaney as befuddled old showbiz never-was Strong I think I can safely say that the answer is "no." It is not as smutty, not as low-brow, not as cliched as Mrs Brown. The only way it might be similar is that it might prove to be as popular as Mrs Brown. Though this time with good reason.

The first episode sets things up superquick then cuts to the comedy chase. Rory Kinnear plays Mike Baker, son of variety veteran Max Baker, who was once in a double act with Count Arthur (Kinnear, of course, is the real-life son of comedian Roy Kinnear). Mike goes to meet Strong and the titular character is quickly established for anybody who has not already encountered Strong on Radio 4. Nutty notices in the window, sentences mangled (though not as much as on radio) and irate, impotent confusion reigning supreme.

Yes, the show is a bit of a throwback, with real laughter and real jokes (compare and contrast with the forthcoming Family Tree – about the only thing both shows have in common is the brief coincidental use of old-fashioned broad comedy footage) but Strong is much closer to Miranda than Mrs Brown. There is even a bit of classic fall-over slapstick involving a foot spa and, well, I won't spoil it for you. Needless to say I didn't see it coming.

Count Arthur's brilliance is down to an exquisitely understated performance from Kinnear and, in particular, a tour de farce turn from Delaney, who totally inhabits the Toksvig-necked old trouper. Co-writer Graham Linehan has clearly been invaluable (and I'm sure veteran director Richard Boden was an asset too). The plotting is ultra-tight, with the rhythm falling efficiently into place and the pieces of the sitcom jigsaw slotting together perfectly. Sometimes you can see echoes – a bit of Sunshine Boys here, a bit of Soup Nazi there – but most of the time the writing sings and feels fresh and original. 

The beauty here is the mix of the old and the new. It is what Graham Linehan, presumably a fan of traditional studio sitcoms, does so well. He did it particularly well on Father Ted and The IT Crowd, showing that it is possible to produce a comedy with mainstream appeal that also never panders to the lowest common denominator. Not only is Count Arthur Strong not the new Mrs Brown, apart from the uproarious studio laughter they could not be more different. 

Count Arthur Strong is on Saturday nights on BBC2.

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