TV review: Count Arthur Strong, comic masterpiece

Winning duo: Steve Delaney as Count Arthur Strong and Rory Kinnear as Michael. Photo: Colin Hutton for BBC / Fremantle Productions
15 Jul 2013 @ 1.18 pm
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Winning duo: Steve Delaney as Count Arthur Strong and Rory Kinnear as Michael. Photo: Colin Hutton for BBC / Fremantle Productions
Winning duo: Steve Delaney as Count Arthur Strong and Rory Kinnear as Michael. Photo: Colin Hutton for BBC / Fremantle Productions

Someone once observed of Peter Kay that his appeal relies on having a lovable persona that keeps the audience on his side.

As a fan of Kay’s occasionally hit-and-miss humour, I can understand that and I have similar benevolent feelings towards Count Arthur Strong (BBC2). This is a sit-com that I wanted to like, the latest in an honourable tradition of Radio 4 comedies which have transferred to television. It also features one of my favourite young actors, Rory Kinnear.

The radio show creator Steve Delaney has now teamed up with writer Graham Linehan of Father Ted and The IT Crowd for the telly version. I was coming to the programme cold, not knowing the original. There were a few sticky moments but, by and large, Count Arthur Strong won me over.

At its heart lie two tremendous performances: Delaney himself as an ageing variety man and Kinnear as Michael Baker, academic-leaning son of Strong’s former comedy sidekick. Michael has been commissioned to write a biography of his late dad and is reluctantly breaking new ground: his previous books include (and I’d like to have been privy to the writers’ conversation when they dreamed up this title) “Museums: Their Conscience, Our Conscience”.

The surreal and silly comedy of Count Arthur is not without its risks (believe it or not, a joke about masking fart noises in the lavatory actually worked) but Delaney’s performance showed us that the oldest gags, including pratfalls and absence of trousers, still have some mileage if performed with enough chutzpah.

This man is a fully-formed performance-art masterpiece, I could watch him all day. And Kinnear’s Michael was superb, neither quite the straight man (he had some of the best lines) nor the guileless innocent. He relishes the possibility of using stuttering, confused Arthur’s memories to do a hatchet-job on an absentee father whom he does not remember with much fondness.

As to where will all this will lead us, plot-wise, in the coming weeks who knows? Promisingly, I enjoyed Count Arthur Strong more on a second viewing. I could, however, have done without the laughter track which jarred a little.

Then again this has long been a bête-noire of mine: a laughing audience is the TV-comedy equivalent of writers who use exclamation marks after observations that are no more than mildly amusing! (If you see what I mean!)

Numbing brutality… Reece Shearsmith as Whitehead in A Field In England. Photo: Dean Rogers ? Film 4
Numbing brutality… Reece Shearsmith as Whitehead in A Field In England. Photo: Dean Rogers ? Film 4

We all have blind spots, towering achievements or talents to which we refuse to yield. Mine include the entire recordings of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. And I am largely out of step now as I fail to get to grips with Ben Wheatley, the rising star in British cinema.

Wheatley’s 2010 movie Kill List was a deeply unpleasant thriller about two hit men, all the more unsettling because it was not entirely without merit, making it that bit more difficult to dismiss out of hand. The release of Wheatley’s latest work, A Field In England, was a landmark day of sorts because for the first time a movie appeared in the cinema, on DVD, video on demand, and on television at the same time.

Many critics have swooned over A Field In England and it is certainly shot handsomely enough in black and white. Five men cut adrift during the English Civil War eat magic mushrooms, hallucinate and do battle with one another.

Film 4, to their credit, showed it without advertisement breaks, giving us the best possible chance to buy into Wheatley’s evocation of a time and place in which the dark arts often held sway over the forces of science and reason.

Alas, it all left me with little more than a sense of numbness brought on by the brutality and gratuitous violence which has been a feature of earlier Wheatley films.

Only one English patch of green mattered to the nation a few days ago: Wimbledon Centre Court (BBC1 and BBC2). Congratulations to Andy Murray on an incredible performance and richly-deserved success. And the same goes for Marion Bartoli, the women’s singles winner, both for her dominance of the final against Sabine Lisicki and the way she reacted with such sangfroid to John Inverdale’s crass observation that she was no “looker”.

Whether Inverdale’s comments were any worse that Claire Balding’s suggestion a couple of years ago that a winning jockey should get his teeth fixed is open to debate. But he condemned himself totally when his wretched half-apology included the words “if any offence was caused”, as if there was any doubt about the matter.