Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Count Arthur Strong

 [Post about final episode here.]

For reasons I will make clear at a later date the subject matter - the yoking together of an embittered writer and a variety artist - is a bit close to home, but I thoroughly enjoyed Count Arthur Strong last night on BBC 2.

I always had a bit of a problem with the radio version, not really quite buying into the main character's past, which seemed rather vague and changeable. I kept thinking: okay, who's he meant to be? Who is this based on? and never finding a satisfactory answer. There was quite a lot of discussion on the now defunct BBC Radio 7 messageboard in which I participated.

But the TV version works, and Arthur now has a believable world to inhabit. Last night was about his being offered a small part in a radio play and (of course) messing it up with predictably hilarious results, but really it was the framing of that plot strand which made the whole thing so successful.

Among other indiscretions he inadvertantly gets the main actor drunk and the director has no choice but to offer Arthur his part as well. At the end of the programme ( ***SPOILER ALERT*** ), listening to the broadcast with all his friends in the cafe he is disappointed to find that he has been replaced in the lead, and there is a moment of genuine hurt pride which is quite touching. But then he hears that his pre-recorded bit part (two lines) has been kept, and this tiny triumph makes for a delightful, unexpected but very satisfying end: we can see that in his world that counts as a major result.

The writer character is nicely set up: complicated relationship with his father and a compelling need for Arthur, exasperating as he is, to fill in the gaps for the book he is writing, as Arthur was in a double act with his father.

Two small moments in the shows so far are enough to illustrate the difference between the TV and radio versions of the character. In the radio show other characters often felt like stooges, simply there to allow Arthur to rant. But there's quite a touching moment in the first TV show where the writer has set up Arthur to do a eulogy, hoping he will rubbish the memory of his father; in fact he comes out with something positive and helpful - yet you don't feel he's stepping out of character. The writer, you feel, will have things to learn from Arthur, albeit in haphazard and unlikely ways.

And the other moment reminded me of a very good monograph about Laurel and Hardy by Ealing films expert Charles Barr. It's a while since I read it, but one of Barr's points is that Stan Laurel's character is consistently and believably childlike in his behaviour. Watching the show about the radio play last night, there was a moment when Arthur, playing lead, dragged out his death throes then was, as it were, definitively deceased.

The two female characters then moaned a bit and Arthur joined in: not, I think, out of malice or mischief, but simply because they were doing it and it seemed rude not to. He also has a way of looking around him, blinking at the strangeness of it all, which seems childlike. And I suppose that fits in with the idea that this contemporary world is, indeed, a never-ending source of fascination for one steeped in a bygone era.

I used to contribute to the late lamented BBC 7 messageboard, discussing newish and vintage repeats of radio comedy, and there was quite a lot of debate about the merits of Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show. The TV version, cowritten by Graham Linehan and the result of a long dialogue with Steve Delaney, the man behind Count Arthur, has rendered some of the arguments redundant, but if you're interested in the character you may wish to read some of the messages anyway. Below are a few of my posts, stitched together with indications of where I was responding to a specific point. You might want to read them, but if not let's make this a point at which you have to click to see more.

Here are a few thoughts about the radio series. You can find more on this page on my blog about comedy, Jifflearse. This is really just a repository for my posts on the old BBC 7 messageboard.

Entertaining enough but does anyone have the same problem as me? I always get distracted trying to work out who is he specifically parodying? I suppose I expected/wanted more specific fifties/sixties showbiz references if that's where he's coming from, a bit like Simon Day's Tommy Cockles character.

I can certainly see that he's part of a noble tradition of bumblers. But a big part of the pleasure of Shuttleworth for me is the sense of a whole world of hospices, garden centres (with their newfangled "campuccinos"), fun runs etc. I don't get that sense of a precisely realised world with the Count but maybe I'm looking for the wrong thing.

I get it and by and large I enjoy the show ... there's just that sense, for me, of something not wholly in focus. I want a clearer sense of his world, which will then give a more precise notion of what's at stake for him when he messes up.

I do like it ... maybe I need to unshackle myself from expectations.

Maybe I haven't been clear - it's not the pleasantness of the character for me; it's about wanting the world he inhabits to be consistent and fully thought out - in other words for the writer to have done his/her/their homework so throughly that as a listener I don't have to be distracted by thinking "That doesn't fit in if this is a spoof of a particular era" or "this is a sudden lurch in tone" or "what exactly is he trying to do here?"

I'm not saying the programme does or doesn't do the above; I need more time. I enjoyed the half an episode I heard today and the processes whereby he grasps the right word eventually work well, but my personal jury is still out on whether he's likely to last and resonate in the way that, for me anyway, John Shuttleworth does (we are all, like John, filling time with meaningless activity, avoiding the bleak thought of "the only end of age").

Of course if you don't like Shuttleworth then there's another argument blasted out of the water.

Comedy can perform a variety of functions: it can heal and inform; it can reassure; it can divert. It can do all these things at once, which is when it gets really good. But if it only diverts, great: a friend who was analysing the structure of a sitcom in some detail went on to mention an episode of Simon Nye's Hardware. It was slipshod and careless by comparison, he said, but by God it made him laugh and he was grateful enough for that. As, most of the time, am I.

I suppose I'm basically saying I need more time to decide whether the Count will go into my personal First Division. I will, however, say that even if you have to stretch matters to describe it as a sitcom I have no doubt, no doubt anywhere at all in any corner of my heart, that in time the comic strip Drunken Bakers in the humorous publication Viz will be regarded as the work of genius it undoubtedly is.

Arthur looks like Gilbert Harding, whom I associate with the fifties, but the name suggests to me the singer Count John McCormack, who was even earlier. He's familiar with the name of Jimmy Clitheroe to judge from the last episode but Clitheroe was around for a long time. He's also like a Harry Worth with the bumblingness but without the benevolence - which I suppose actually means not very much like Harry Worth at all.

There is a pleasure in seeing just what not-quite-right phrase he will reach for and enjoying the warped logic of the associative process ... still not hundred percent sure.

Harry Worth is essentially a well-meaning character who inadvertantly creates mayhem. With the venerable Count I don't really get him as a character other than a vehicle for all those malapropisms as he searches for le mot juste. (I can't do italics.) That is amusing and diverting but I'm not as aware of a character beneath as I am with John Shuttleworth or Harry Worth and that bothers me. With JS, he's boring but you feel that his creator loves and understands him and sees himself in him (I don't know any of this, of course, other than reading that JS was based in part on old men he observed in fancy mice contests and on his own father).

In other words, what is behind the Count? And to those who say it's simply funny, so what's the problem? Fine, and it does amuse and divert me. But it's comedy of a second division order, I feel.

So why isn't Dave Podmore, not the most profound show in the world, also second division? (Again in my opinion.) Answer: because there is a precisely realised world there; even though I know little about cricket I can make out what is being sent up in minute detail. Yes, maybe in direct interaction with an audience it's different. Though with JS my feeling is an audience dilutes him - hmmm... how would the Count fare in a radio show sans audience (like Shuttleworth and Pod)?

One BBC 7 messageboard contributor said, in response to some of the above, "He's Count Arthur Strong, there is no antecedent, he's not mimicking anyone or deconstructing anyone."

At the very least, the performer/writer is drawing on a tradition of comedians who get their words wrong for humorous intent. Hylda Baker springs to mind, though I admit I can't think of anyone who regularly makes quite the same number of associative leaps before alighting on the correct word, so maybe that counts as an innovation, though you could also see it simply as an extension of what's gone on before.

I still hesitate about him for reasons mentioned earlier: a) I'm not certain he's part of a precisely realised world and b) other than being a device for the expression of these verbal leaps, what does the character add up to? And these two related factors slightly lessen my enjoyment and immersion. It's about the need for something else between the jokes: a strain of melancholy, perhaps.

Just when I'd promised to shut up on the subject ... Ok, here goes. I am - usually - amused by the show but something holds me back from really giving in to hilarity in this particular case. And I take this to mean that the writer or performer (same in this case) has omitted something so I'm trying to work out what that might be. So the critical reaction is a way of trying to understand the rumblings in the gut (if that's not too indelicate a metaphor) - but the intestinal tract is where the unease starts.

But I don't know what I can add to what I've said before, which is that I don't think I quite buy the character as a three dimensional creation, and when I feel I'm just being sold gags that isn't enough to take a sitcom to my heart even if it passes a perfectly agreeable half hour.

I can understand what some others have said about its being about old age and its attendant annoyances, so maybe it comes down to the irrationalities of individual taste, like the letters I used to read in music papers in the seventies: "How can you say group A are the best ever when it's clear group B are the best?" But all I can say is I "get" the humanity and vulnerability of John Shuttleworth and, whether it's a reasonable reaction or not, I feel more manipulated in the case of the Count and I cannot provide any further arguments to justify this difference.

Listening to The Clitheroe Kid I heard an embarrassed Alfie tell Jimmy's sister something like: "He's just been telling me about your grandfather's windbag - downfall - windup." And Jimmy Clitheroe has been namechecked by the Count, so perhaps there's a direct source of inspiration, though his slightly more extended scrambling after intended words do tickle me.

Another messageboard person said: "There is not the time to develop character, and it's not the point anyway, characters should only be sketched out enough to provide jokes!" But I think sitcom could be more accurately described as "charactercom" (possibly coined by John Brennan): without the character element it's difficult to care. There is a relationship at the heart of many sitcoms: Frasier and Dad; Harold and Albert; Del Boy and Rodney etc.

I remember seeing the series of sitcom tryouts which Channel 4 used to do at the Riverside Studios in London. Three different shows a night onstage. Very interesting to see them but very few made it to TV. There were two common flaws.

A lot of the would-be shows were telling a single story with a conclusion; entertaining enough as a half hour comedy but lacking the essential materials for further episodes.

The other recurrent mistake was to treat the exercise solely as a means of cramming half an hour with as many gags as possible at the expense of character, pummelling the audience into exhausted submission, presumably in the hope that someone from Channel 4 would be there that night to pick up on the resultant laff-o-rama.

Even when it appeared to work you could tell which shows were really a kind of confidence trick. And I like to think that Channel 4 executives felt the same (or possibly they just didn't like commissioning shows). I certainly remember on another occasion talking to Mike Bolland, a former major player on Channel 4 and BBC Scotland, and agreeing with him that sitcom had essentially the same rules as drama - plus gags. But the gags had to come out of the characters, and therefore the characters had to be thoroughly understood first.

When, in that famous scene, Basil Fawlty berates the mini with a branch it's funny because he has led himself to this disastrous state of affairs - and even at the supreme moment he has to blame something external rather than admit his own stupidity to himself. It's a slapstick, physical comedy moment but it comes out of Basil's personal inadequacy.

The same could be said of many Frasier moments. And the regularly hymned "Don't tell him, Pike!" comes out of Mainwaring's understandable anxiety to protect the "stupid boy".

The Hancock character is more fully rounded than Count Arthur - not simply because we've seen him in a greater variety of situations but because Galton and Simpsoon understood about using other characters to illuminate that main character.

They have said that later writers for Hancock got it wrong - he needed to be up against intransigent officialdom for his bluster to appear human and understandable, otherwise he could simply come over as the term they often gave him for others: a buffoon. And I would suggest much the same is true for Victor Meldrew. Victor's actions may compound the problem but it started with a thoughtless workman etc.Knowing the character inside out is the first essential step from which appropriate jokes can then come.

A good recentish example of gags at the expense of character: Frank Skinner's sitcom Shane. I found it quite disturbing (but hypnotic) to watch the way that Skinner (and his scarey sitcom mini-me son) were unrelenting gag machines at the expense of believability and consistency of any sort.

Ditto a brief-lived series called Blind Men (I think), with Jesse Birdsall, Sophie Thompson and someone else about two rival salesmen. One line which Ms. Thompson had was along the lines of "If earhairs were explosives you wouldn't have enough to blow your brains out" and it immediately became apparent: Funny Line. The writer has written a Funny Line. Forget about what's going on in the story, just don't let this Funny Line escape. Yes, it was an ITV 1 sitcom (remember them?) but even so.

Simon Nye, by contrast, is a master at bedding down gags in character: in Men Behaving Badly it's clear how the Gary character is feeling with each jokey line he utters. And if Caroline Quentin's character had spoken a line like Sophie Thompson's character you can bet Gary would be ironically clutching his stomach, ie registering that Dorothy had been trying to be clever, to score a point off him.

In Nye's best work (not Carrie and Barry) as an audience we're having our cake and eating it, which I think is what sitcoms are meant to do: we're being amused and being carried along in the story as we see the character pursuing his or her goal.

And this doesn't exempt the more surreal examples of the genre. The world of Father Ted, say, has its own logic and rules and in each episode we can believe and accept whatever it is Ted is striving to achieve; even if you examine the supremely strange Nightingales by the late Paul Makin you will find it's clear what the characters want beat by beat, even when the show morphs into a Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Even in something as broadbrush and simple as On the Buses (which I have found myself watching recently with a surprising amount of pleasure) the characters have clear objectives and, dated as the barbs may be there is always some kind of comeback by Blakey or Olive to whatever gag-cum-insult may be hurled at them. According to the show's fanclub website Stephen Lewis even invented a backstory for Blakey - y'know, just like for real drama (just don't ask me to explain the array of dolly birds willing to throw themselves at Reg Varney).

To round off, and to get back more directly to the Count, the actress Irene Vanbrugh worked on the gossamer-light stage comedies of AA Milne in the 1920s. She said something to the effect that the characters appeared to be protected from the world by a veil of gauze, but Milne's writing was such that you felt the characters could rip that gauze down if they wanted. Sitcoms don't need to dig deep into character each week but you need to have a sense, I think, of who the characters are and what they want in order to feel totally immersed. As in straight drama, when that isn't clear then an audience, whether it is able to articulate the lack or not, will be uneasy. Which is how I feel about Count Arthur Strong. It doesn't feel to me like there's a sufficiently thought-through backstory, that it may be all gauze - all cleverness.

I may be wrong and I will keep listening. I certainly hate it when sentimentality is bolted on like that terrible sitcom with Jasper Carrott and Meera Syall/Nina Wadja, but I don't think it would dilute the comedy for us to get the occasional glimpse into whatever bleaknesses there may be in the Count's life.

Beat. Clears throat.

Erm ... Can I go now?

There is more to be found here if you scroll down on the original post on the Jifflearse blog. 

But that's just my side of things. If you want to see the text of the original BBC 7 thread you can find it in compact form here.

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