Buxton Opera House on 20th September 2019
An enthusiastic, virtual full-house in Buxton demonstrated the popularity of this comedian, best known for his radio shows in the 6.30pm comedy slot on Radio 4 This is somewhat intriguing because Radio 4 likes to see itself as the home of edgy and topical new comedy and Count Arthur Strong unashamedly falls into neither category, being essentially retro in both style and content. It is no exaggeration to say that if the Count was somehow transported back to the 1960’s, or possibly even earlier, this is extremely little that would need explaining to audiences in terms of Strong’s language, subjects, comedy style or even his dress sense, right down to the Homberg hat (typically associated with Tony Hancock from his 1950s heyday).
You would struggle to find a single invention or even model of car, mentioned in Strong’s act which was not around fifty years ago; and this largely applied also to people, the only significant exception (apart from a couple of rock stars) being some focus on Professor Brian Cox (but even this was essentially just a device to talk about Patrick Moore who’s been dead for years but was very well know back in the 60’s and 70’s). The audience in Buxton certainly comprised of many people clearly over sixty, so references for example to 60s singer Lulu or 70s comedian Jack Douglas would not have been lost on them. However, there were also a significant amount of younger people (ie. under forty) there as well. At least they could be expected to recognise tributes to relatively ‘modern’ artists like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury (even if both of them are dead and go back to the 70s). This begs the question as how Count Arthur Strong can have grown such an enthusiastic following of mixed ages based on such old material.
Strong’s appeal possibly lies in part as to what he is not or doesn’t do. He does not swear, his act steers clear of politics (save a few mild digs at modern political correctness) and his comedy is not aggressive. No one is savagely attacked or any institution ridiculed. This is the kind of stuff which was the stock in trade of old-time music hall acts and was then carried on by the popular stage and TV stars of the 60s and 70s, many of whom are still revered today, like Morecombe and Wise and Les Dawson.
A lot of influences can be seen in Strong’s act; the self-opinionated ranting is reminiscent of Alf Garnet (minus the politics and racism). Strong’s style of seeming at times to talk to the audience directly is a device popularised by Frankie Howerd whilst Strong’s constant quick-fire word play, including amusing mispronunciations and tangents, is worthy of Ronnie Barker. His various set-ups which fall apart have echoes of Tommy Cooper’s failed magic tricks and add to this some aspects of physical comedy which bring Norman Wisdom to mind and you have a consummate personification of the popular 50s-70s TV entertainer. Aside from all the clear inspirations behind the act, Count Arthur Strong certainly has his own very clearly defined persona. The self-belief that he is a walking encyclopaedia coupled with a constant battle with confusing himself, either forgetting things, getting things muddled or going off at tangents, makes for an endearing character who is determined to keep regardless.
The pace never slacked throughout the evening and it is easy why so many people enjoy Count Arthur Strong, even a lot of his references may not always be familiar across the varied ages of his audience, but that is part of his appeal. A gifted and for all the retro influences, original comedian who provides a refreshing alternative to many of the more aggressive and hyper-topical comedians who often dominate today’s TV, Radio and Theatre stages.
Reviewed by John Waterhouse