You'd be crazy to count Linehan's Arthur out
The Irish writer will have the last laugh, says John Meagher
Graham Linehan's new television sitcom, Count Arthur Strong, is filmed in front of a live studio audience. Canned laughter is not used and the Dubliner gets very annoyed when critics fail to make the distinction.
"These people are PAID TO WRITE ABOUT TELEVISION," the king of the British sitcom snarled to his 306,000 Twitter followers on Tuesday.
Perhaps he was irked by the mixed reviews garnered by the first episode in the series – which he adapted from a BBC Radio 4 show in conjunction with its creator Steve Delaney, who also plays the titular character. And he can't have been pleased about the viewing figures, either: Less than half the audience who would normally watch BBC Two during the 8.30-9pm slot on Mondays tuned in.
Yet, Linehan was having the last laugh when the BBC announced that it had commissioned a second series. He can also take comfort in the fact that his adaptation of the classic Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers – which has returned to the West End – has been critically acclaimed once more.
"Graham is a great comedic writer, with a fantastic eye for character and plot," says Lorraine Heggessey, the former controller of BBC One whose production company Boom Pictures partners Linehan's firm, Delightful Industries. "Like many others, he first came to my attention thanks to Father Ted. It was such a brilliantly written sitcom and still stands up to scrutiny.
"But it's not just innate talent – Graham also works incredibly hard and has a very keen eye for detail. He believes in re-writing and re-writing until the dialogue is perfect and he's very hands-on when his sitcoms are being filmed."
"His talent was there right from the start," notes ex-Hot Press colleague, the comedian Paul Woodfull. "When he came into the magazine as a writer, he became something of a star straight away. He used to get fan-mail, which was unheard of.
"He was that bit younger than myself and Arthur (Mathews, Linehan's Father Ted co-author) and had a real sense of what was cool and what wasn't."
Linehan was taken with Mathews, who then worked as the magazine's designer, and the friendship helped him nurture his comedic instincts.
According to Woodfull, the idea for Father Ted was sown in the late 1980s when their sketch troupe, The Fun Bunch, devised the character. "In his routine as the priest, Arthur would refer to a Fr Dougal McGuire," he says. "It was all there – right down to the name Ted Crilly."
On moving to London, Linehan got work writing for the now defunct music magazine, Select, but his heart was set on comedy.
He convinced Mathews to join him in the UK and the pair set about wowing the city's comedy bosses. They got their big break supplying gags to the hit show, Alas Smith and Jones.
Then came the ill-fated sitcom, Paris, which featured Alexei Sayle. It bombed, but Linehan learnt from the experience – not least the importance of keeping an eye on detail.
Such fastidiousness would serve him well on subsequent hits, including Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd as well as Big Train, which is often cited as a comedian's favourite.
Linehan's desire to control the projects he worked on would be at odds with Mathews's more laid-back approach and the pair's working relationship ended acrimoniously in the late 1990s during the development of the long-forgotten sitcom, Hippies.
"Arthur was very keen on it; Graham far less so," says an acquaintance from their Hot Press days. "Graham pulled out near the end of its development, leaving Arthur to carry the can.
"The two didn't talk for some time – there was a lot of hurt there – but they have restored that friendship in more recent years."
Right now, Mathews is filming a new series, Toast of London, and, if the already aired pilot is anything to go by, it will be far wackier than any of Linehan's recent projects.
"His comedy nowadays reflects the fact that he's a family man (he is married and has two children, aged five and seven)," Woodfull says.
"It's primetime television."
Woodfull was not enamoured with Count Arthur Strong: "I didn't think it was great, but that was just the one episode. To get a sense of what a funny writer he can be, take a look at Big Train. That's about as perfect as TV comedy can get."
Woodfull is somewhat unusual among Linehan's Dublin acquaintances in that he is happy to go on the record. Several others only speak on the condition of anonymity. "Graham can take offence very easily and he can perceive slights where there were none," one says.
"That said, he can be a very thoughtful, generous guy."
Another praises his "big heart" but feels that he has abandoned some old friendships: "Once you start winning Baftas everyone wants to be your friend. It's questionable whether the people who surround him now would have given him the time of day 20 years ago when he was a penniless music writer."
Yet, Linehan played a considerable part in boosting several high-profile careers, including those of Chris O'Dowd, Simon Pegg and Catherine Tate, who have all worked with him.
Meanwhile, Lorraine Heggessey says Linehan is keen to co-write future sitcoms with up-and-coming talent, having enjoyed collaborating with Steve Delaney. "He constantly thinks of the next project," she says.
"He's not into looking back. But what a legacy he has left behind."