Steve Delaney: ‘I stopped trying to act and just focused on Count Arthur Strong’
When Count Arthur Strong first toddled on stage to give his portrayal of Cinderella’s dad in the London Palladium pantomime last Christmas, it was as if Steve Delaney’s bumbling, elderly alter ego had finally come home. The Palladium features in Arthur’s showbiz backstory: the ex-variety turn had once even predicted it would be the ultimate destination for a musical based on his career. So for Arthur’s creator, here was the perfect match.
“In my head I’ve always thought Arthur’s history includes pantomime somewhere,” Delaney tells me as he gets ready for his forthcoming UK tour, Count Arthur Strong – The Sound of Mucus. “I’ve been offered panto before and I love it because it’s the closest thing we have left to a tradition of variety. But I always knew that Baron Hardup was the only part to do because he’s a dotty old bloke who doesn’t realise his daughter is being terribly treated. Arthur has these qualities anyway – not noticing the obvious in front of his nose – so it was the best combination.” Even so, he admits it was a novel experience. “I don’t normally do him in someone else’s show. On tour, I’m completely in my own bubble on stage.”
Delaney started “doing” Arthur on the circuit after his first Edinburgh Festival Fringe success in 1993, although he reminds me that the catastrophe-prone character was not, as the doyenne of light entertainment himself would have us believe, born in a trunk, but first saw the limelight in an end-of-term show when Delaney was at Central School of Speech and Drama, having previously worked in the theatre crewing shows, and as an assistant stage manager and carpenter.
“After college I did nothing with Arthur. Then I kept running into an old tutor who kept reminding me about him and we started putting on character comedy nights at the King’s Head in Crouch End. That was it. I stopped trying to act and pretending to be versatile when I wasn’t and just focused on one tiny thing, which went against everything I was taught at college.”
The Arthurian personality evolved, Delaney explains, by “little bits” while he earned a living doing odd jobs and occasional television acting. But eccentric Arthurisms were forming in his mind much earlier when, after leaving school at 15, he spent 18 months working on a grocery stall in Leeds Market. “I’ve never forgotten the weird characters that used to be in and out all day long. I’m sure I assimilated snippets of their conversations that were funny without them really knowing it. Almost all I do as Arthur comes from that sort of thing filed away for future use.”
Similarly, Arthur’s delusional showbiz backstory stems from Delaney’s early years watching television, when he was fascinated by performers who were big on the variety circuits and transferring to the small screen. “Also, our next-door neighbour was chief electrician at Leeds Grand, and I quite got into looking through photographs that his mum had – like Albert Modley inspecting the usherettes at Leeds Empire. I was fascinated by the history of it all at a time when these lovely old theatres were being knocked down. I love the notion that Arthur got into variety just as it was on its last legs. How beautifully mistimed Arthur’s career has been – if you could call it a career.”
You certainly can’t call Delaney’s career mistimed. After becoming an Edinburgh Fringe regular, by 1997 his sell-out tours had taken off, the subsequent crossover to radio attracting even more fans. Between 2005 and 2012, BBC Radio 4 aired more than 50 episodes of Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!, co-produced by Komedia Entertainment (Delaney’s management) and Smooth Operations. Two recent Christmas specials were voted best radio sitcom 2016 at the Comedy.co.uk Awards. Delaney’s BBC television series (co-written and directed by Father Ted writer Graham Linehan) first aired on BBC2 then moved to prime time on BBC1. Voted fourth best British sitcom of the 21st century in a Radio Times poll, a third series will be screened in the spring.
Q&A: Steve Delaney
What was your first non-theatre job? On a grocer’s stall in Leeds Market. I really enjoyed it. A very formative period.
What was your first professional theatre job? A hospital doctor in an episode of BBC1’s Juliet Bravo in the early 1980s. I was terrible in it.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? I’ve never listened to advice. I don’t think that’s good, it’s just the way I am. Not listening to what people say and being stubborn has got me this far.
Who or what was your biggest influence? People. Many people. Too big a list. Couldn’t really quantify it.
What’s your best advice for auditions? I’m temperamentally unsuited to the process of auditioning. It’s one of the reasons I started doing my own thing. So I’m not one to give advice. I won’t do them any more.
If you hadn’t been a comedian, what would you have been? A painter, but I’m not original enough, or good enough. I used to be a good carpenter, so maybe a furniture maker?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Not theatrical, but I’ll always salute a single magpie. I think it’s just because I like saluting. And I try not to whistle in dressing rooms. If you do, you have to stand in the doorway and turn around three times. No way is it superstition, though – just something to do.
So how does Delaney now look back on Arthur’s development from stage to screen to mainstream? On television, I suggest, there’s a noticeable toning down of his hilarious spoonerisms. “Well, that’s because wordplay is much less interesting on television than on radio. If three times in an episode people were watching Arthur spitting out the wrong words before he arrived at the right one they’d lose interest. So it has to be more about the character in a situation, otherwise it would be like Arthur doing an Alan Bennett.”
Collaborating with an experienced sitcom writer and director such as Linehan, he adds, was a game-changer. “Graham’s an expert at adding extra strands to basic plots. That’s one of the things that makes the series work – those strands that keep weaving in and out and coming back, and disappearing and then surprising people by returning again. For television, you have to disarm people a little bit more, be more subtle.”
The exposure on BBC1, he goes on, introduced a more family-based audience to the live shows, “which was fabulous for me because I didn’t start out imagining what my audiences might be. I’m not that clever. My starting point was just doing my own thing and if they came, they came. Now Arthur’s audience is definitely the family audience. When humour crosses generational boundaries, it’s a great thing.
All of this has led to extended tours and some bigger venues. So does that mean the more you do, the harder it becomes to keep the material new and fresh? “We’re probably on 99% new stuff this time,” he replies, “because I don’t really have benchmark routines that a lot of other people have: the chaotic live shows are all about the stream of consciousness, really – about not achieving the goal of the show. Maybe there’s a kind of Waiting for Godot vibe going on there.”
As a performer, playing such a well-defined, disaster-prone character for so long must surely be a mixed blessing? Will he ever step out of Arthur’s trousers, I ask him? “I could stop doing him any time I wanted. I know that.” And doesn’t he yearn to do something else? “I have a very healthy overview because Arthur’s what I do for a living, he’s not who I am, although there aren’t many days when an Arthur thought doesn’t pass through my head.”
But surely, I wonder, if he carries on, he’ll eventually be older than Arthur? “Oh, I’m well on the way to it. When I started out as a young man playing an old guy, I was quite guarded about my age because I didn’t want people to make judgements based on how much of an age gap there was between us or thinking I’m making fun of the elderly, which is not the case. I have great affection for Arthur. I would never take the mickey out of him.”
Looking ahead, Arthur’s big moment arrives at the end of May when he returns to the Palladium for one night only. Will he be up to the challenge? “Oh, he’ll mess it up somehow. That’s what I’m hoping. He’ll make a mess of it, but he’ll think he’s given a good account of himself.”
CV: Steve Delaney
Born: 1955, Leeds
Training: Central School of Speech and Drama
Landmark productions: Theatre: Forgotten Egypt, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (2002), Through It All I’ve Always Laughed, UK tour (2004), Count Arthur Strong – The Musical, Edinburgh (2006), Somebody Up There Licks Me, UK tour (2015), Cinderella, London Palladium (2016-17). TV: Count Arthur Strong (BBC2, 2013; BBC1, 2015 and 2017). Radio: Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! (BBC Radio 4, 2005-12)
Agent: Komedia Entertainment
Count Arthur Strong – The Sound of Mucus tour opens at Durham Gala Theatre on February 22 and continues until June 23