In this age of The X Factor, The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent, it’s entirely possible to become famous overnight. It’s a fleeting sort of celebrity, though, and sometimes taking the longer route can be much more satisfying. Now in his early 60s, Steve Delaney has an award-winning radio show, an acclaimed BBC One sitcom and regularly embarks on sold-out national tours, all in the guise of a befuddled troublemaker who isn’t quite the beloved national treasure he thinks he is.
As Delaney suggests, there is no easy way to explain his latest show, Count Arthur Strong brings you The Sound of Mucus. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, he says: “It’s very difficult to describe a new show for Arthur because it’s meant to be about something but it’s never quite about that. That tends to be the basic premise for all Arthur’s shows – the tangents he goes off on, the streams of consciousness, never quite attaining the object of the show. I can’t say it’s a tribute to The Sound of Music because that would misrepresent the show, although that’s what it might look like on the face of it. That’s what Arthur’s got in his head, anyway.”
Over all his various incarnations, Count Arthur’s misadventures are irresistible. It’s gentle, even old-school stuff, not unlike a great lost 60s sitcom which never really existed. The daft, sometimes downright bizarre sense of humour on show has a good-natured appeal which can reach right across the ages. As far as he’s concerned, Arthur is a much-loved star of stage and screen. As far as everyone around him is concerned, he’s a rather puddled and aggravating (but somehow ultimately endearing) Doncaster pensioner.
Originally, Delaney is from Leeds, and it was while he was growing up there that the first seeds for Count Arthur were planted.
“When I was a kid I made notes, without knowing about it, in my head, about lots of things. Silly things, like an old bloke’s teeth falling out one Christmas. People behaving in a strange way and what-have-you. People I knew, elderly relatives who’d get drunk and disgrace themselves. For me, those were the reference points for Arthur.”
Delaney developed an interest in acting and theatre, and at the tail-end of the 70s he enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. One term, the students were each asked to create a character around the theme of the circus. Delaney came up with a circus strong-man, inspired by his childhood memories of Yorkshire folk.
“He sang a song at the piano as well, and he lifted the piano to demonstrate how strong he was. Then there was a tussle between him and Dracula to decide who had the strongest teeth. I mean, it sounds ludicrous now, but it went down very well at the time. A lot of people laughed. So, I made a note of that and filed it away.”
Among those impressed by Delaney’s strong-man skit was the writer Lyall Watson, one of his tutors at Central. The two became friends, and as Delaney tried to establish an acting career, Watson kept encouraging him to make more of the character. Eventually, he relented.
“We got together and hired The King’s Head in Crouch End for a few nights over a period of couple of months and put on an evening of character comedy. That’s where I did my first real spot as Arthur. It was because of the feedback on that night that I stopped messing around with acting and just concentrated on Arthur.”
Count Arthur wasn’t a strong-man any more, but he had emerged as something else, almost entirely fully-formed.
“The name was there, the look. I didn’t really have to sit down and work out what he would look like. To my mind, he always had a dinner suit on and a dicky-bow. He always had a toothbrush moustache and his hair plastered down. I don’t know where that came from, but I didn’t really have to ask myself any questions about it. Those things were kind of ready to pop out.”
In some respects, though, the character was still developing. “It was very in-your-face stuff for a small comedy club. I remember at one point haranguing a member of the audience. I was right up in his face, the poor guy, as Arthur, with venom. Arthur was quite rough around the edges then, on his first outing.”
Now, Count Arthur’s story was that he was a failed performer – or at least, a performer who had never actually noticed that he’d failed.
“I placed him as somebody who got into variety just as it was breathing its last gasp – beautifully mistimed. I’d grown up watching all those shows in the early 60s with people who had been big in variety and were making the transition to television. I remember a lot of those very well, Arthur Haynes and people like that, the singers Dickie Valentine and Dickie Henderson and Morecambe and Wise in their early incarnations on ITV. They were all kind of meaningful to me, so it’s no accident that that’s where Arthur’s placed, except he never made it, because he never established himself in variety. He didn’t have long enough. The theatres were closing as he was leaving them.”
Some observers have suggested a kinship between Count Arthur and the real-life Northern variety star Frank Randle, but Delaney doesn’t see it.
“I didn’t know much about Frank Randle, I have to be honest, until somebody posted somewhere accusing me of stealing his act. So, I looked him up on YouTube and what-have-you and I thought, ‘well, they must be slightly unbalanced, these people’. I mean, I suppose Arthur’s roots are in the same sort of period as that, but Frank Randle is quite different to Arthur. It’s funny, the notions that people have, looking back and accusing you of taking this, that and the other from so-and-so. Harry Worth is one I often get levelled at me, and whilst I used to watch him as a kid, I always used to find him slightly irritating. Obviously, you can’t create something without having influences, whether subliminally or not, so maybe there are bits of these things in there, I don’t know. There are bits of all sorts of things in Arthur. Largely people I knew, though, rather than people that were on the telly.”
Over the recent festive period, Delaney was treading the boards in his first pantomime, a lavish production of Cinderella at the London Palladium. Delaney played Baron Hardup – or rather, he played Count Arthur playing Baron Hardup.
“I’ve thought for a number of years that Arthur should be in pantomime. I mean, as a character, he’s obviously been in pantomime, but I thought I should be doing Arthur in pantomime. because I wanted to know what that was like. I’d been offered a couple in the past and not done them, but I thought Baron Hardup was the right part for Arthur.”
It was no picnic – “they do work you in those things” – but it was a rewarding experience. “The audiences went wild for it every day. For me, it was a great thing to have done, but it did feel like I was putting my toe in the mainstream. I didn’t know what that would be like beforehand, because I’ve been very self-contained doing my own thing. I’ve come away from it thinking that it was like being on the bill of a variety show. It’s the closest thing we have to variety these days, pantomime. I know pantomime is its own thing, but you don’t see those kinds of shows any more, with those set pieces and that kind of performance, engaging the audience in that way.”
Hot on the heels of Baron Hardup, Delaney is now off on tour with The Sound of Mucus (indeed, the tour was put back by a couple of weeks when the pantomime came up). No air-date has been announced yet, but the third series of the Count Arthur Strong TV series should go out while the tour is running, too. Meanwhile, the recent Christmas specials of Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! won Best Radio Sitcom at the 2016 comedy.co.uk awards. Never mind James Brown, Delaney might now be the hardest-working man in show business. Indeed, he hopes to do even more of the radio show.
“I’d like to do another full series, time permitting, at some point in the not-too-distant future. I mean, I do enjoy the radio show. The television show’s very much a partnership, really, with [co-writer and sitcom kingpin] Graham Linehan and also with the production team. It’s a different thing for me, working on the television show, to working on the radio show or working on the live shows, which I regard as being my own thing. Although that’s kind of nonsense, really, in terms of the radio show, because there are quite a few other people involved in all that side of it.”
Eagle-eyed – or possibly eagle-eared – listeners may have noticed a new name in the cast of the one of the radio Christmas specials: one Alfie Delaney as Billy, a disgruntled young customer at Arthur’s Japanese-themed festive theme park. Is there an acting dynasty in the offing here?
“Yeah, maybe. That’s my boy! The first time I had a kid’s voice in the show, one of the other actors did it and I really didn’t like the way it sounded. So, the next time I had a kid in it, I just taped my son doing it round the table on a MiniDisc. He’d done that about three times, but there was a bit more to the part this time. He just really fancied doing it live. He was brilliant, I have to say.”
He laughs. “Sorry, I’m sounding like, ‘my kid is the best kid in show business’. I’m not doing that at all, I was just very surprised and pleased that he seems to have a great sense of timing. I don’t think he’s got any interest to do it like myself, other than he felt like doing it on the day. And why should he. He can do what he wants, really. I would never insist he wore my suit.”
Delaney is more than happy to keep all three versions of Arthur on the go. Each incarnation is subtly different, but he seems happy not to over-think this.
“Obviously, if you’re moving into a different medium, then it’s only common sense to make some adjustments. If the television series was just an old man shouting and delivering monologue after monologue, I think people would soon tire of that. I would, too. But the essence of my live shows has always been the same. That’s probably why I enjoy doing all three, because they’re all different in their own way.”
Reflecting on his current success, Delaney laughs. “A lot of people say to me, ‘do you not wish it had happened when you were young?’. But time is immaterial to me. Things happen at the right time I think, really. Of course, you have to be there to take advantage of them when they do. But it’s never been to a rush job with me, doing Arthur.”
By Andy Murray
The Sound of Mucus is on tour from February 22, 2017, with dates including Durham, Harrogate, Ilkley, Crewe, Buxton and Salford. For more information, follow this link: countarthurstrong.com/events