Q&A with Count Arthur Strong aka Leeds-born Steve Delaney
Steve spoke to Chris Stratford about his life growing up in West Yorkshire, and his journey from grocer’s shop assistant, through stage manager and carpenter, to a Sony award-winning comedian.
The third TV series of Count Arthur Strong is due to air on the BBC this Spring.
Chris Stratford: At what age did you leave school?
Steve Delaney: I was almost 15. I couldn’t believe it when my son told me recently you couldn’t even leave school at 16 these days.
CS: Your first job was in Leeds Market, wasn’t it?
SD: I worked in Leeds Kirkgate Market for a year and a half - very happily. It was much better than being at school I, can tell you. I felt like an adult immediately.
I loved it there. I worked on Redmond’s grocers store. They had three fixed stalls at the top end of the market. I had a very happy time and I remember it very fondly.
I think it figures a lot in what I do now, not that I would have known that at the time as a 15-year-old.
CS: Was that in observing life, listening to conversations of the people in the market?
SD: Yes, the market was full of eccentric people; the people who used to come to the stall regularly, the people who worked on the stall. I absolutely loved it.
I also love the architecture of the market. I was so sad when the bottom half of it burned down, but at least the top half is original.
I used to love the vibe working there, the lovely Edwardian ornate rails on the balconies, and we had a store room up at the top there. In your tea breaks, you could sit with the door open and have a bird’s-eye view of people milling around the market getting stuff.
There were all sorts of interesting stalls and real, affable nutcases came in.
‘Barnsley Bob’ was a down-and-out guy who had a history. People were saying he was in the Navy during the War and he had a Navy pension, but his hands were as black as coal and he used to wander around shouting at people all day long.
CS: Presumably you weren’t aware you were absorbing details and that it would take you into the career you’ve gone into? Did you have anything in mind when you left school?
SD: It was rather silly in those days. A careers adviser would fix you up with interviews a few weeks before you left school and sometimes you would have a job to go to. Those were the days when you would pick up the Yorkshire Post and the job section would run to about three pages. It is extraordinary now when you talk to people about what it used to be like.
I thought I had left school with a promise of a job as an office junior in a firm of steel stockholders just off Water Lane, I think it was. I hadn’t heard from them when I left school so I went down there the day after I left school to ask them when I was going to start, because I wasn’t worldly wise in any way. I left school actually a little bit before my 15th birthday, my birthday being in the middle of the summer holidays.
You had to be 15 before September 6 or something and my birthday is the beginning of August so I just qualified to leave, so I was actually 14 years and 11 months.
CS: Why didn’t you start working life with the steel stockholders firm?
SD: When I got down there to the firm they had completely forgotten about me and there wasn’t a job for me, so I went swimming with some friends to the international pool, which hadn’t been open long at that point. We were just walking back through the market and I saw a sign at Redmond’s stall saying ‘junior assistant wanted’. They asked me when I could I start and I said, ‘tomorrow’.
CS: So you suddenly had money in your pocket? How much?
SD: £7/10 shillings a week and you got an extra 10 bob if you worked through your dinner hour on a Monday when all the stock came, which seemed like a fortune at the time.
CS: I was surprised, having listened to Arthur on the radio, to find how young he looks in the TV series. I had pictured a much older man.
SD: A famous episode of the Count Arthur Strong radio show goes on about how elastic my skin is, and there is some truth in that. My mother is about 98 and she is still going strong; she still gets out and plays bingo, lives by herself still, and in no way does she look like a 98-year-old or behave like a 98-year-old, so that heralds well for the future for me.
CS: Are there any bits of Arthur in you - including bits you might not want to admit to?
SD: I am quite open about that. I often used to say that I thought Arthur was an amalgam of all my shortcomings, all those things I didn’t particularly like about myself. I think it’s largely a northern notion of he’s always trying to shift the blame, always being slightly defensive when someone is trying to question you. I think of it as a northern thing, but I don’t know if that is unfair to northerners.
Arthur’s bad posture, as well, is an exaggeration of my bad posture, having been told when I was a child that if I didn’t straighten up I would have round shoulders ‘just like your dad’.
There are elements of that in there. It’s not that there are loads of things in there, things that I had to unload. It is fun and comedy and that is the way I have always approached it. I can laugh at myself; there is no pain involved in arriving at Arthur. It is just comedy you know
CS: As well as Arthur on TV appearing to be much younger than I had imagined, I was surprised how tall he is, because I had imagined him as a small person.
SD: That is the great thing about radio, but it can be slightly frustrating when people tell you that you look nothing like Arthur, which people did used to do. When I was largely doing the radio show and live performances, people would sometimes say that at live performances - ‘he looks nothing like Arthur’.
That at times can be slightly frustrating in so far as your instinct is to say, ‘what are you talking about? I AM Arthur. You can’t tell me I don’t look like myself’.
But I fully understand when people are listening to something, you picture things and you have something in mind the way somebody looks, your mind fills in all those blanks.
CS: Did you find transferring Arthur to TV was constraining in any way because of the fantastical elements that you can use in radio without incurring any great expense?
SD: No, I don’t think so really. I have never felt that about the shift from one thing to another. I always regard myself as being very lucky that I ended up being able to do all three - radio TV and theatre.
We still have fairly lunatic ideas for each episode and I think it is that lunacy that carries the characters through.
No, I have never felt constrained. It is different, of course, and those differences are very apparent, but you don’t really have to scratch your head too much to get around them.
One of the liberating things about television is you don’t have to explain what you are doing all the time whereas on the radio you might have to say, ‘well, I just think I’ll get dressed and go to the cafe’ whereas on television you just get up and do it.
I like all the mediums, though, working in a slightly different way with each one.
CS: How difficult it is to perform the Count Arthur Strong scripts when the dialogue meanders so much and involves so much hesitation and confusion?
SD: If someone handed me a script and said, ‘this is a script and this is the character’ then I would find that hard, but I have arrived at everything else that Arthur does in increments, really. I had a small idea and I did that and then I thought, ‘hmm, maybe if I added this little bit to that’. It is fairly organic.
I have added to Arthur and built him up in increments, not really having a massive overview of it really, just thinking, ‘oh’ that would be funny if I did that and then that...’
After a time of doing it you should end up with something fully rounded, really.
It would have been a real challenge if someone had given me a script and I didn’t know the character and I would have to think, ‘how do you do this?’, but because of the way it has evolved over time, and physically doing it and learning it and learning how you do it, and which bits work and which bits don’t, it has been much more organic, so in a sense it has been easy because it has been my single approach to it.
CS: There is a nice irony in the fact that you’ve achieved the fame that Count Arthur Strong thinks he achieved but never did, isn’t there?
SD: Yes, I suppose there is a nice irony in the fact that I am achieving any kind of fame at all.
CS: How did the transition come from stage manager to actor?
SD: I was a theatre carpenter at the Playhouse in Leeds, as well as Exeter, but it was kind of my intention to go to drama college at some point. In the same way that I began to work in the market, it just happened.
I used to go to church as a 14-, 15-year-old, just for something to do in a way that a lot of people did then. I’m not a great believer - in fact, I’m on the north side of agnostic these days - but it was an outlet then.
The church, St Aidans, I often mention in radio shows and in the live shows and the vica,r who had to write a letter to my Church of England school, Father Thompson, gets a mention pretty much every tour somewhere or other.
I belonged to the drama group at St Aidan’s and did a couple of plays there and thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing this’ and I had done the same at school. Even though I left quite early, I always used to be in the end-of-term plays and things like that.
I remember the last one I did, there was a bit of comedy going on and it was getting laughs. I think I was a great one for filing all those little reference points away when I was quite young.
That is kind of my approach to how I live anyway, a kind of instinctive approach. I don’t plan things out too much. It doesn’t mean I don’t apply myself because once I sense, ‘this is something I can do’ I put a lot of focus and time and energy into it.
But I like the notion that things happen instinctively and you pursue that line rather than sitting down and mapping things out and saying, ‘I have this ambition and I want to do this’’.
When I first started doing Arthur and worked with a few production companies, and started to develop ideas, I worked with Geoff Posner, who used to produce and direct ‘Dinnerladies’.
We were trying to get the project off the ground in the very early days and he said, ‘you should map out all of Arthur’s life, map everything out and get it on paper so you know everything about him’.
But I went home and thought about it and thought, ‘no, I can’t do that, it would put too much restraint on him’.
The notion of sitting down and working out where he was born - it would have been too restraining, I would’ve found it stifling creatively.
CS: When did Arthur first make an appearance?
SD: I first did Arthur when I was at drama college after I’d worked in theatres for some time on the technical side. We had an end-of-term show in 1979 based around circuses and I did Arthur in that context.
It was performed to the rest of the year and it got lots of laughs, which surprised me because - in a sense - I was just being lazy in doing stuff that came relatively straightforward and easily to me.
Ultimately a friend and I rented a comedy venue, the King’s Head, in Crouch End, and I got 20 minutes of material ready for that show and pretty much packed acting in straightaway.
I got a couple of bookings out of that evening, at Madam Jojo’s, in Soho, which was the old Raymond revue bar, and I thought, ‘This beats banging your head on the wall for auditions and things’, so I literally phoned my agent up the next day while I was putting a kitchen in for someone and I said, ‘I think it’s about time I packed it in really and try something else now’.
CS: How did you working as a carpenter come about?
SD: Because I could learn earn a living in another way - I was a relatively good carpenter - it just meant I could develop Arthur at the pace I wanted to.
When I started work in theatre I was then an assistant stage manager at the Playhouse, in Leeds.
I crewed shows at both the Grand Theatre and the Playhouse, in Leeds, and in actual fact it’s slightly more complicated than that because in the last year I was there the Leeds Playhouse rented the workshops from the Grand Theatre, so I was turning up to work in the Grand Theatre every day in the workshops there where we built sets for the Playhouse.
My godfather was the famous Billy Kay, who was the chief electrician at the Playhouse. Anybody who took shows into the Grand through the Fifties up until the Seventies will remember Billy. He was an absolute nutter. There is quite a lot of him in Arthur, I think.
One of the things they gave me to do was get props together or make them, so I ended up building the major props on the set - huge sets - and eventually I got a bit fed up of working every evening as well because I was also crewing shows.
A job came up in the workshop and I decided I wanted to work in that full-time and I became a theatre carpenter, but when I left drama college I found some workshops in Hampstead, in London, and they used to renovate and repair old furniture, fireplaces and rooms - things like that. They were very open to me turning up and working whenever I could and I learned how to do things properly.
Theatre carpentry is great, but it only looks good from one side. The reason I think I used to get a lot of work was because of the theatre carpentry mentality of saying, ‘yes, of course you can have that’ and then you had to go away and work out how you could possibly do it.
I was self-taught at carpentry, but I just had a bit of a flair for it really. I still make bits of furniture whenever I come back off tour. I used to make cupboard units, but we have run out of space now.
I still make props for the show. I don’t need to, but I like to. I find it very therapeutic just to switch off for a few hours and make a prop and then come back to the writing, the dialogue, because all that stuff needs time to brew. I find the carpentry takes me somewhere else for a while.
CS: You say ‘we’ don’t have much cupboard space?
SD: I have one boy, Alfie, who is 13, and my lovely wife Emma.
CS: There is no nastiness in your comedy, no swearing, which goes against the trend, which we have had since the Eighties. Is that deliberate?
SD: It is its own thing, really. I didn’t set out to do that. I’m not particularly foul-mouthed as an individual. We all have our moments, don’t we, but I do believe in the fact that you should be polite and courteous to people. I think courtesy is something that is sadly lacking to a degree today.
I think comedy has to go into those places at times and it can be funny by the right person, but if it is just gratuitous from beginning to end then it becomes meaningless.
I like word play. I am not saying I am clever at all, but word play is something that is clever. Swearing isn’t clever.
I suppose my comedy is a reflection of how I am and things I find funny I tend to find clever; well thought-through funny rather than those instant ‘in your face’ moments that don’t really add up to much, if that makes sense.
CS: Where did you grow up?
SD: In Harehills, in Leeds; the street where I lived is no longer there. It was the less desirable end of Roundhay Road, a long way from Roundhay Park.
I haven’t lived in a community like that since the council compulsorily purchased the council house when I was 19.
I was at art college in Leeds when I was 18, 19. I left the course because I was a ne’er do well in those days, fairly directionless, and it wasn’t till I actually started working in the theatre at 19 that I found what I was interested in. I worked technically for about six years and I realised I wanted to be around that sort of thing.
CS: Did the title of your show Sound of Mucus come to you first and then the script, and is it actually anything to do with the Sound of Music?
SD: Well, Arthur always aspires for his shows to be about something, but there is always some reason that they don’t actually quite get there or quite happen in the way that he wanted it to happen.
He always thinks he has given a good account of himself and that’s a quite important thing about Arthur; he appears like an absolute pessimist, but I think his strength is what interests me about him. He is an optimist, I think.’
He is always trying something. He’s always thinking, ‘I will do this’ and then he will do it or his version of it and he won’t think too carefully about the way you do those things.
There is a song very close to the beginning of the show and it is so obvious that he’s never really sung this song before.