Count Arthur Strong.
A strange topic for my blog-space, granted, but I have just finished watching the 6th and final episode in the shows first rather experimental run. The show is written by Steve Delaney (Strong) and Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Black Books, The IT Crowd) and Linehan also directed the show.
Socially it seems to have had little or no impact to speak of, indeed anyone mentioning it at all, seem to be discussing it in a negative light, which, is fine, normally. After episode 6 I have to declare, that I believe these people have judged early, and lost out. BIG TIME.
After show 1 I instantly put up a Facebook status, complimenting the show on its refreshing comedic nature and its prowess of comedy structure. I couldn’t believe my post was in the most part *poo-pooed*. I was *not* expecting that. I LOVED it!
So what happened?
Even in my immediate Facebook status I used Mrs Brown’s Boys as the counter example to Count Arthur Strong, claiming the show was indeed everything that Mrs Brown’s Boys wasn’t. I view MBB as cheap, shallow in comedy, and full of simple smut that in essence uses the same few jokes over and over again. Put simply, I see Mrs Brown’s Boys as akin to a Bernard Manning set but delivered in a dress. I abhor comedy that uses swearing as punctuation, and utilizes NO subtlety or tension in the delivery of said swearing. Swearing is amazing, when used correctly. Just ask Brian Blessed or Stephen Fry. As it happens, Count Arthur Strong contains NO swearing what-so-ever, and *still* manages to easily outclass Mrs Brown’s Feckin’ Boys.
Yet MBB had a MUCH bigger hit rate and caused a much bigger stir on the social networks. Middle-aged men with dusty Viz magazines stashed in their garages tuned in agog, barely able to contain their shits and giggles at yet another insinuation of a swear word, followed by an actual swear word. The incidental silliness of the scenarios Mrs Brown got into were exactly that. Incidental. They added to the ingredients of the show much like the splodge of ketchup dolloped on the fish and chip suppers sat going cold and white on the coffee tables at home.
It didn’t impress me one bit. It wasn’t clever, classy, layered, dynamic, creative, or emotionally stimulating. Count Arthur Strong is ALL of these things. I believe I spotted it in episode 1. By episode 6 I feel utterly proved right beyond doubt that this body of work is a masterpiece. This is as heart-warming as Derek, although not as controversial, and yet is as tongue-in-cheek as Terry and June. Its bitter-sweet nature leaps forth throughout each episode with an increasing gravity that hits you in the heart right in the end of the series. It brought me to tears, happy and sad, but mostly happy.
The character work is off the scale. Simple characters developed over time, like a slow-cooked broth, each flavour developing in layers. As the show develops, the energy Delaney puts in to his features is infectious and nothing short of mesmerizing. The early toilet gags in the early episodes were purely a small distraction to the main course of delightful *tension comedy* and brilliant *awkward* writing. Maybe these toilet gags fell foul to some audience members, mistakenly placing it in the MBB smut-house. Seeing through that and giving the show time is one of the best decisions I could have made.
Have you any idea how hard it is to successfully act or further still to act awkwardly? No. I haven’t either. It’s too hard for me to do. To do an acting role like this, where the character is awkward, and yet maintains utter believability is ridiculously hard to do and takes a veteran to pull off well. Steve Delaney is quite simply stunning in this role. If his name was Peter Kay, he’d be a millionaire right now. Or maybe, if he’d won the same TV slot as MBB, the exposure might have pushed the show even further into the hearts of the nation.
Imagine if that had happened with Father Ted? If that show had not landed on its feet with a great TV slot, we all could have missed out on some of the finest comedy writing this country has seen. Graham Linehan has been extremely shrewd and indeed lucky, to have been able to work with Steve Delaney to really bring the best out of both as writers.
Jokes made in earlier episodes were finished later on. Derek did this too, very successfully and it takes a brave and experienced writer to do that. Shows like the Fast Show, as wonderful as they were, found a formula and re-used that formula to present essentially the same show each week, with either a simple twist to a joke, or a development of a catchphrase. No such things here. This is awkward tension humour that explodes in a crescendo of fabulous interweaving ideas, much like a classic piece of prog-rock music, only with a Rowan Atkinson-esque character genius on the drums.
I’m sad the show did not get more recognition and that it did not get understood by the people who were fortunate enough to give it a chance. I really do believe that many have judged prematurely, and that what we are dealing with here, is a TV fine dining experience, only the audience aren’t sure if it’s a number 3 with beans and toast, or a number 4 at the Ritz.
I implore you to try and watch Count Arthur Strong again. Not many shows physically make me want to sit at my keyboard and write, but this show is incredible. It might even take you up to episode 3 or 4 to suss out what meal you are eating, but once the amazing writers reveal it to you, and they will, you’ll be begging for more before you know it. Watching right up to the end of episode 6 is essential to get the full package. I mean, would you leave your meal in a Michelin restaurant before the dessert has arrived? You do not want to miss this dessert. In my humble opinion. ;)
So there you have it. A strange topic indeed, but some serious hard work and amazing talent has gone on, and too few people have watched it in my opinion. If you are neutral and haven’t watched it at all yet, then I envy you. You have a beautifully crafted and incredibly funny masterpiece to look forward to. ;)
You can follow Graham Linehan on Twitter @Glinner and Steve Delaney @Arthur_Strong.