TV review: Count Arthur Strong is too much of a radio institution to be condemned to the TV rubbish heap, surely?
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013.
Tuesday 09 July 2013
Good radio comedy could not have sounded less funny on television, nor canned laughter more ironic. Something was surely lost in translation in the BBC's transposition of the Sony Radio Academy-award-winning show Count Arthur Strong into prime-time TV.
Did anyone muster a laugh when Steve Delaney's doddery old former variety star, Arthur Strong, opened his front door and said to hapless young Michael (Rory Kinnear): "You rang the bell. I've broken a plate because of you. That was dishwasher safe, that was"? Cue canned laughter. Or when he asked what Michael did for a living: "I'm an author," replied Michael, to which Arthur puzzled: "I thought your name was Michael… I'm Arthur." Cue more canned laughter. Also cue head-scratching from those at home who had a soft spot for the radio show's silly yet lovable humour, but failed to see the charm of these dull-witted scenes, attempting to pass for OAP slapstick.
It is sad – and perplexing – that it didn't work, given that it is written by Delaney and Father Ted creator Graham Linehan. Delaney originally created the character in the 1980s, resurrecting him for the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997 to much acclaim, and after that, for radio since 2004. Astonishingly, given its success in these other mediums, the most recent incarnation as a TV sitcom refused to spark into life: the greasy caff was filled with a man wearing a sandwich board, an old dear from Poland and some others who looked like extras from Last of the Summer Wine, while an angry café manager said "What the flip?" a lot at these old people's dribbling stupidities. The likeable Kinnear, playing the uptight son of Strong's ex-variety partner, went some way to redeem the whole thing with his straight-man act as a tormented soul.
Visually, it was so derivative that it seemed deliberate, as if the nostalgia of flock wallpaper, long-fringed lamps, and Strong's pencilled-on Hitler moustache could pass for good, funny entertaining. That said, Strong is too much of a radio institution to be condemned to the TV rubbish heap. Perhaps this opening episode just suffered a severe case of first-night nerves.
There were also heavy-duty nostalgia moustaches in the first of a two-part feature-length Australian drama, Howzat! Kerry Packer's War, mostly of the handlebar variety. This instalment was – to use a sporting cliché – a game of two halves: slow to start, and gearing up to a riveting finish. Much of the charisma lay in Lachy Hulme's fine performance as the indomitable Packer, a media mogul who revolutionised cricket by organising a breakaway series for TV. We saw Packer bring together his international band of renegade cricketers – 49 in all, including Tony Greig, Greg Chappell, Viv Richards and Dennis Lillee – as he prepared to stand up to the stuffy cricket boards around the world (the most controlling of which were the toffs at Lord's with their imperial desire to "divide and conquer" Packer's brigade).
Some archive footage of games and seminal interviews were blended in with the drama. As sporting history well documents, Packer changed the gentleman's sport for ever. But until he did, professional cricketers in this drama at least, were sometimes forced to supplement their incomes in the off-season with the dole or by working at a car-tyre firm. Packer promised them a handsome wage and took the matter all the way to the courts.
After a slow first half-hour of locker-room whisperings and scenes of Packer scaring his secretary, the drama raised its tone and tension, ending just as it looked as if Packer, having invested everything in the first world series on 24 November 1977, might just have failed in the endeavour. Of course, cricket fans know how it really panned out, but this drama, with its fine acting, its even finer attention to period detail and its slow-burn suspense did its damnedest to have us champing at the bit for the final part.
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