Strong links with Leeds have counted in Steve's favour
But for what the man himself might call a 'Pauline Quirke of fate', British comedy might have been deprived of one of its most delightfully dotty and daftly delusional comedy characters, Count Arthur Strong, who heads for Leeds Grand Theatre next week.
His creator, Leeds-born Steve Delaney, was slated by a careers adviser to work as an office junior with a firm of steel stockholders when he left school, only to turn up at the business and find they had forgotten about him – and that there was no job.
Instead of beginning his first day’s work, Delaney went swimming with some friends and, on the way back, walked through Leeds Kirkgate Market and saw a sign advertising the post of junior assistant with Redmonds, the grocers.
“They asked me when could I start and I said ‘tomorrow’,” recalls Delaney. “I earned £7 10 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.”
It was while working in the market among a ‘cast’ of eccentrics and extroverts that, without realising it, Delaney mentally squirrelled away a hoard of characteristics and anecdotes that would ultimately play their part in shaping his comic alter ego, Count Arthur Strong.
As well as returning to his home town, the Yorkshireman will also take to the stage in Whitby, Huddersfield, Ilkley, York and Halifax as he brings Count Arthur’s Sound of Mucus tour to his native county.
Well known to BBC Radio 4 listeners for more than a decade, and to TV audiences since 2013 – a third series is due for transmission this year – the Count, an elderly former variety star, has also been seen regularly in the theatre. It is a delicious irony that Delaney has been so hugely successful with a character who has a hugely inflated view of his own alleged fame.
The Count, a self-aggrandisement not an entitlement, can go from irascibility to affability and back to irascibility again – or vice versa – within meandering soliloquies that demonstrate Delaney’s mastery, and love of, word play.
Count Arthur’s first incarnation came at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London as Delaney began to make the move from theatre stage manager and props builder to the centre of the stage itself.
“I went to drama college after I’d worked in theatres for some time on the technical side and we had an end-of-term show based around circuses,” recalls Delaney. “I did Arthur in that context. It got lots of laughs, which surprised me because in a sense I was being lazy in just doing stuff which came relatively straightforward and easily to me.”
At the time, he was supplementing his income from acting by working as a carpenter, turning his hand to anything from stage props manufacturing to fitting kitchens. But after being spotted at the Kings Head in Crouch End doing a 20-minute stint as Arthur he began to get bookings that would lead to the Count’s melange of malapropisms and mishaps featuring at the Edinburgh Festival for the first time in 1979.
Accolades since have included winning the prestigious Gold Sony Radio Academy Award for comedy in 2009 and, most recently, Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show Christmas Specials were voted Best Radio Sitcom for 2016. The TV show was voted fourth-best sitcom of the 21st century so far.
All of which would leave the Count needing to buy a much larger-sized trilby, but sees Delaney admitting that the character is a fusion of the colourful people encountered in Leeds Kirkgate Market as a child and some of his personal foibles.
“I am quite open about that,” he says. “I used to often say that I thought he was an amalgam of all my shortcomings, all those things I didn’t particularly like about myself.
“Arthur’s bad posture, for instance, is an exaggeration of my bad posture having been told when I was a child if I didn’t straighten up I would have rounded shoulders ‘just like your dad’.
“There are elements of that in there. There are not loads of things in there, things that I had to unload. It is fun and comedy is the way I have always approached it. They are things where I can laugh at myself. There is no pain involved in arriving at Arthur.”
Count Arthur Strong, Leeds Grand Theatre, April 9. Tickets www.leedsgrandtheatre.com