Friday, 16 August 2013

More thoughts about Count Arthur Strong

There's an interview with Steve Delaney, creator of Count Arthur Strong, here. It's worth reading all the way through, but the responses to two questions in particular interested me. One is that he both knows and doesn't know Arthur: that is, he knows instinctively how the character will react but couldn't necessarily articulate that beforehand:

How would you describe Arthur to people meeting him for the first time?

I've always found this tricky to do. When I first started doing Arthur, I'd phone people up that I knew and ask them for their descriptions. Arthur is someone I have added bits to over time, every time I do him. It's very difficult to give the right answer, because there are many answers to that question.

You could say he's an old variety has-been, who hasn't done half the things he thinks he has, because he's slightly deluded about his own biography. But I don't think that does him justice. He's very difficult for me to describe, even after all this time. I just know how to do him.

I never feel hamstrung by Arthur. There's lots that I don't know about him. I know how he will react in situations, but the description of him is a very difficult thing... which I'm sure you are starting to realise from this very long answer.
And secondly he cites Steptoe as an influnence, which makes a great deal of sense in relation to the TV version of Count Arthur Strong.
What TV sitcom inspired you to get into comedy?

Things like Steptoe and Son. Really classy classic shows like that. I love a bit of pathos and hopefully we're touching on that a little bit or at least in the right area. I hope there's moments where people laugh and I hope there's moments where people are touched. That's what I remember most about Steptoe and Son. Those moments where everything stopped and you were moved emotionally and then you quickly went back to the laughter. I love those moments of pathos in comedy.
I watched the final episode a couple more times and enjoyed that mixture of quite big, broad gaggery with something more human, all seamlessly linked together.

As I've said earlier, I've watched lots of bad sitcoms, and for some reason a line from the forgotten series Blind Men (as in salesmen for Venetian blinds) came to mind, a moment deemed funny enough to be used, I remember, in a trailer for the relevant episode.

Can't remember the line too well - nose hair and blowing one's brains out - but it was spoken by Sophie Thompson and it was very obviously A Gag. Could have been spoken by anyone.

Reminds me of the Channel 4 sitcom tryouts I used to see at the Riverside Studios - three potential sitcoms each night, and a significant proportion got laughs without any sort of audience involvement (and Blind Men didn't run to a second series, as far as I recall).

Again, I don't want to ruin the final episode for anybody, but during the scene with all the characters round Arthur's house there are gags, and some quite infantile, but it's the way they're bedded in that matters. And as with Simon Nye and Men Behaving Badly, there's an awareness on Delaney's or Graham Linehan's part that there's nowt wrong with a bad or corny gag if people are allowed to react to it in character. (Consider the mileage made out of "medium", for example.)

I wonder if Delaney's sense of not fully knowing his character was an advantage in adapting it for television. Did it mean there were no battles with his collaborator as there wasn't a sense of having to protect something which was inviolable? I also think of a favourite line - no, not from a sitcom but a book about TV comedy. I can't remember now who said it, but it was one of - well, I suppose you might call them the old guard. Possibly Frank Muir or Dennis Norden. Anyway, he compared Steptoe to Till Death Us Do Part, much prefering the former because, he said, Till Death ... was a howl of rage but Steptoe was inclusive: its essential message was Don't worry, this inability to communicate, we're all in the same boat. And even if only briefly we're taken into the lives of the oddballs who habituate Arthur's cafe so we can't stand apart from them, laughing from a safe distance.

Ideally I ought to end there, but there is another related thought to share. I know Babes in the Wood by Geoff Deane wasn't the best sitcom of all time. I know that. But the bit that sticks with me is when Karl Howman's character suffers a disappointment in the Christmas episode then returns to the bar where the three girls and the male proprietor, Benito wave a twig of Christmas holly over themselves, inviting a kiss. Not hilariously funny, but touching in that context.

Finally, Esther, a memory which I may have aired here before about a sitcom summer school course given by John Brennan. One of the sitcoms we watched and analysed was the episode of Porridge about a stolen tin of pineapple chunks - think it was called Just Desserts. It's a great one to analyse in terms of structure, but the moment which really hit all of us was when (I think) Fletcher was creating a diversion by having a group of cons sing Home on the Range in one of the cells. Mackay came along to see what the commotion was all about, but Fletcher continued to sing until he'd complete the line "Where seldom is heard a discouraging word."  As I recall (this class took place in 1996) we didn't manage to explain why that moment was funny but it was undoubtedly about character. I suppose, essentially, it was that Mackay had already given them a mouthful, pointing up the contrast between the life hymned and the reality of their existence, but it was also about Fletcher's coolness under fire - and under the guise of the song he is able to able that this guard is indeed less than encouraging.

Anyway. Bedding in. That's my main point here. Not being hit with gags but having them steal up on you, unnoticed, a delightful bonus as you follow the fortunes of people you care about. Not sitcom, charactercom, as John Brennan said.

Blind Men was written by Chris England and Nick Hancock.

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