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Hilarious Count Arthur deserves another series


Steve Delaney as Arthur and Rory Kinnear as Michael hit sit com gold in last night's Count Arthur Strong

Steve Delaney as Arthur and Rory Kinnear as Michael hit sit com gold in last night's Count Arthur Strong

Steve Delaney as Arthur and Rory Kinnear as Michael hit sit com gold in last night's Count Arthur Strong

AFTER last night’s sparkling episode of Count Arthur Strong, the final one in the current run, the matter of the BBC commissioning a third series should by rights be nothing more than a formality.

Television doesn’t always work that way, however, so those of us who love the Count will just have to wait and hope.

The first series of star Steve Delaney and Graham Linehan’s sitcom, shown on BBC2, started slowly – no surprise, really, since the character was still very much an unknown quantity with viewers who hadn’t been following his BBC Radio 4 adventures for the past decade or seen Delaney’s live act.

The audience was tiny, even by BBC2 standards, and some of the reviews lukewarm, although many of those early detractors appear  to have gradually revised their opinions. It’s been a different story for the second series, which went out on the more mainstream BBC1.

The most ratings stats available show the audience has doubled, at the very least; it may well have increased further in the interim. If the series were running in a primetime slot, instead of being shown at 10.35pm (later on BBC1 NI), the viewing figure would most likely be higher again.

A third series would be nothing more than just reward for a sitcom that’s been creeping towards brilliance week by week and reached another new plateau last night.

Delaney and Linehan said they wanted to write a comedy with heart as well as laughs. Well, they’ve delivered both, and in spades. This was a sublime piece of comedy writing that deftly balanced hilarity and heartbreak. Poignant and sentimental without ever slipping into mawkishness, it was equal to the best of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s work on Steptoe and Son.

The sudden transitions from the silly – a marvellous recurring gag involving a pair of tap dancing shoes with extra taps – to the serious – Arthur raging bitterly against the failure of his showbusiness career and the unfairness of life – were seamless.

Arthur believed he was headed for the big time when he landed a gig as a TV psychic on one of those dodgy premium-rate phone-in shows, and quickly lost the run of himself as his ego spiralled out of control.

Meanwhile, his long-suffering friend/surrogate son, neurotic writer Michael (the excellent Rory Kinnear), was handed a golden ticket to Los Angeles to write a movie screenplay based on his book about the Count.

It ended with Michael opting to stay home with the lovely Sinem (Zahra Ahmadi) and sending a beaming Arthur off to LA. The door has been left invitingly open for a third series. Walk through it, BBC.

But as the old saying goes, as one door opens, another slams in your face. The slamming door in this case is a very different sitcom, BBC4’s Asylum, starring Ben Miller as a Julian Assange-like whistleblower called Daniel Hern, who’s been cooped up for the last year in the fictional “El Rican” embassy, where he’s slowly going nuts with boredom.

Poor Miller. Not only is he hemmed in by the four walls and forced to spend most of each episode (this was the second) in his dressing gown, he’s also imprisoned by a mediocre script.

He’s stuck with a room-mate, too: Dustin Demri-Burns, one half of comedy duo Cardinal Burns, as internet pirate Ludo Backlash, who announces his wackiness by capering around in a bright yellow jacket and SHOUTING. EVERY. LINE. REALLY. LOUDLY.

Asylum is the opposite of Count Arthur Strong: there’s no studio audience, which is the hipsters’ preference. No laughs, either.