Are TV reviewers on a mission to discredit British TV comedy? I only ask because the alternative is an even more depressing scenario – some critics just can’t be bothered to do their homework. Ultimately this makes them no better than the idiots of twitter who declare shows to be “#shit” five minutes in, or those who write furious frothing complaints about the BBC to the Sunday papers. The difference is, however, that these wannabe critics are not getting pay or recognition. Yet the proper, paid, real-life, grown-up critics’ reactions to the new sitcom Count Arthur Strong were infuriating for this very reason. But I’ll come back to that.
Arthur is the creation of Steve Delaney, and had previously enjoyed much popularity on Radio 4, in Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! He is a bumbling, delusional, malapropism-spouting old comedy-performer with a narcissistic streak and buckets of enthusiasm. In his recent television outing he is joined by Michael Baker (Rory Kinnear) the writer son of Arthur’s recently deceased comedy partner, looking to write a memoir about his dead dad.
If Arthur was funny on the radio, he is stomach-achingly hilarious on screen. This may well be down to the welcome arrival of the faultless Graham Linehan (Father Ted, IT Crowd) as co-writer and director. Where Arthur’s rambling speeches occasionally became overwhelming on is BBC Radio 4 show – a sort of whirling barrage of nonsense upon the ears – on screen he now has some new friends to break things up. These new characters do far more than act as a backdrop to Arthur, however. Kinnear’s hapless author, for example. Not just the necessary straight-man to Arthur’s out-of-control loon, Michael provides some fantastic moments in his own right. Kinnear excels at the blank looks of resignation at the chaos which confronts him. His pitch-perfect, anxiety-ridden wail is exactly what we’re all experiencing in our minds as we watch Arthur’s loveable yet endlessly frustrating tirades: Michael’s displays like are a neurotic teenage girl on the cusp of a minor breakdown.
Yet it is not just the two mains who stand out. From Chris Ryman’s megalomaniacal cafe owner Bulent, to the rag-tale bunch who inhabit his establishment, each character is great little comic creation in their own right. Whether this is the influence of Linehan, one wouldn’t like to assume. But given that this is the man who gave us Father Dougal McGuire and Maurice Moss, it wouldn’t be surprising. We have Eggy (Dave Plimmer), the enigmatic conspiracy theorist who wears a sandwichboard warning us against his namesake (“Don’t trust omelettes… Hitler ate eggs”), and Katya (Ruth Posner) the ancient, soup-loving “Polish Princess” whom Arthur clearly adores.
Where the show shines brighter is when matters take a less comic turn. On these occasions this sitcom creates moments of heart-rending poignancy which many drama writers would kill to reproduce. We discover the heartbreak behind Eggy’s refusal to believe in anything, (“My wife said she was going to evening classes. There were no evening classes. Not falling for that again. Not falling for anything ever again”). And in the most recent episode there is a tragedy which had my family and I go from crying with laughter to stony silence and… Well… Just crying. Delaney makes the switch so perfectly. His stutters which work so well to comic effect are an emotional punch in the stomach when they reflect Arthur’s grief and confusion. These infrequent diversions work so well to remind us of the humanity of the people we laugh with (and occasionally at). They are skilful choices and, most importantly, they are tremendously brave ones.
So Count Arthur Strong is brilliant, and it is this brilliance which makes the injustice done to it by lazy critics even harder to swallow. Many reviewers simply refused to engage with the general joyous silliness of it: more fool them for thinking “childish” is unquestionably a fault. For who doesn’t need a little childishness to relieve the bitterness and pomposity of the everyday?
No, the reviews which really took the biscuit were the ones which referred to the show’s “canned laughter”. It took me but a swift google to learn that the BBC has a blanket policy against canned laughter. The reactions you hear are invariably the sounds of a live audience watching the action unfold (even the exterior bits outside the studio set are recorded and shown to the audience). I fail to accept that it is beyond the powers of writers for The Sunday Times and The Independent, to name but two, to find out this information. Both had critics smugly criticise the show’s use of this imaginary canned laughter. So I return to my opening question: Are they intentionally trying to ruin the already-fading fortunes of British Comedy, or are they just too lazy to do it any semblance of justice?
Is it, perhaps, that the majority of entertainment critics have no sense of humour? Perhaps they just don’t have any interest in comedy? Probably a bit of both. Luckily for us audiences, however, those critics have lost this battle and Arthur has won himself a second series.
So for the love of comedy, shun the idiots who can’t even work a search engine. Give the Count the recognition he deserves. Because one thing is for sure, the hearty laughter produced by those who do chose to ignore the critics is anything, absolutely anything, but canned.
Count Arthur Strong is on on Tuesdays at 8pm. Catch up with the series on iPlayer.
Words: Jennie Pritchard