Count Arthur Strong: The Man Behind The Smile
Show type: Edinburgh Fringe 2008
Fresh from his hit BBC Radio 4 series, showbiz legend and raconteur Count Arthur Strong reminds us just what we’ve been missing since his last television series 'Robin Hodd and his Merry Squirrels' was axed in 1960 something.
Now brilliant comedy creation Count Arthur Strong has conquered the wireless, he’s ready to make his bid for televisual fame.
This year, the batty festival favourite’s show, presented as a retrospective of his 50 years in showbusiness, has a strong video element. The archive clips, which skilfully insert the fictional light entertainment icon into grainy episodes of Dixon Of Dock Green, Face To Face and Troughton-era Doctor Who are as hilarious as they are technically impressive. Of course, the scatterbrained buffoon bungles every vintage appearance, showing that his incompetence is deeply ingrained, not merely a symptom of his advancing dementia.
He doesn’t need computer wizardry to get the laughs, however, which come as always from his brutal throttling of the English language: those waffly, oxymoronic sentences with mangled syntax and littered with malapropisms as he fumbles hilariously to extract le mot juste from his age-addled brain, only to come up with a dud every time. That he’s trying to sound pompous and authoritative, while always coming a cropper, is a rich source of humour, and produces some brilliantly written lines.
The deluded Count is a man who gets into a battle of wills with a dead salmon – and still loses; yet as he slips into his anecdotage, he desperately tries to impress the audience with stories in which he claims to have had the last laugh, missing, as ever, the bigger picture.
He’s forever caught between the three prongs of trying to entertain, trying to maintain his dignity, and getting angry at the self-made failings of the show. He wants to shout at the sound technician, but the old ham in him knows he has to sing the song – even if he has forgotten the words, the tune and even how to dress himself. It’s comical farce to supplement the inventive wordplay.
Steve Delaney’s expertly realised creation is aided in his endeavours by well-meaning but simple-minded Malcolm, always the scapegoat – or ‘goatscrape’ in Count Arthur’s muddled vocabulary – and Robert Davison, the worryingly ardent fan who has acquired the theatrical nobleman’s back catalogue and is now staging this ill-fated festival of nostalgia. These supporting cast are under-used as comic foils, as their inclusion proves a relatively sane counterbalance to the Count’s madness.
The show can’t quite negotiate the tricky lull at the 40-minute point which hits many Edinburgh hours, but the pace picks up nicely for the last third, with a brilliant piece of doctored Ask The Family footage, mocking the original show as well as Arthur’s handling of it, and the set-piece finale based around Robin Hood.
It’s a daftly entertaining and deftly performed look into the eternal gloom of the broken mind, sure to be another solid cult hit of the festival.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett