COUNT Arthur Strong is growing stronger.
Steve Delaney’s superb comic creation, a befuddled, deluded, malapropism-spouting old thespian and former music hall star, has been a favourite on BBC Radio 4 for a decade.
But his long overdue transfer to television last year, in a BBC2 sitcom co-written by Delaney and Graham Linehan, who also acts as director, was a bit of a bumpy ride. The initial viewing figures were disappointing and the reaction of many critics, though certainly not this one, lukewarm.
By the end of the run, though, most of the early detractors had been won over by Count Arthur Strong’s seamless combination of physical comedy, daft flights of fancy and quieter, more poignant moments (last year’s final episode was a proper tearjerker).
Every good sitcom needs a sprinkling of extra-special magic, and here it’s generated by the warm, easy chemistry between Delaney and Rory Kinnear as Michael, a neurotic writer and the son of the Count’s late, estranged comedy partner. They’re a perfect fit.
Now, the Count has been promoted to BBC1, where there’s a better chance of bagging the bigger audience he richly deserves. Last week’s opener, involving the retrieval of an incriminating manuscript from the home of Michael’s agent, was a solid but unspectacular introduction for first-time viewers.
Last night, however, things really took off – and I mean that literally. The Count, for whom Michael had bought a flying lesson, ended up in a light aircraft with a novice pilot, each of them believing the other to be the flying instructor.
But the real fun came in the build-up to that point, as the Count recounted the shaggy-dog story of his lost love. We were treated to a feast of flashbacks to his youth as the leather-jacked, Brylcreemed, supercool (he can play pinball with his back to the machine) leader of a gang of rockers who go to war with a gang of street urchins in Victorian dress.
This was Delaney and Linehan at their unfettered and inventive best: a brilliantly realised, riotously funny sequence that roped in spoofs of the musicals Oliver! and West Side Story, and, when the Count found himself locked in the cooler, even The Great Escape.
Back in the present day, the Count’s aerial adventure ended with another movie reference, a hilarious nod to The Right Stuff, and the whole episode was capped with a payoff line that was pretty much perfect.
The fact that Count Arthur Strong, like most of Linehan’s comedies, is filmed primarily in a studio in front of a live audience (note to persistent idiots: this is NOT the same thing as canned laughter) has led some boneheaded critics to lump it in with the wearisome Mrs Brown’s Boys and the abysmal Citizen Khan.
Believe me, the Count is in a different class to either of them. An absolute joy.
I’ve always had an unfashionable soft spot for The Mentalist. But now that Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) has slain his demon, the serial killer Red John, and the producers have done a Moonlighting by bringing him and Lisbon (Robin Tunney) together romantically, where is there left to go? Nowhere, really; that’s why the new season is the final one.
Still, I’ll miss the hokey-but-entertaining plots (this one was enjoyably ridiculous), Jane’s instant insights, and the interplay between Baker and Tunney.
I’ll also miss Tim Kang as the marvellously deadpan Cho. Any chance of his own spin-off?
Count Arthur Strong *****
The Mentalist ***