Count Arthur Strong (BBC1 2017) & Count Arthur Strong- The Sound Of Mucus (Nationwide Tour) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

 

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This week at my local theatre in Shanklin on the Isle Of Wight I had the great pleasure to see live for the very first time Count Arthur Strong who brought his three man show “The Sound Of Mucus” over to the island.

Despite three series of his half-hour comedy shows on BBC television there were still a number of people who were asking locally “Who is Count Arthur Strong?”  It does seem that this comic creation by Steve Delaney whose inspiration stems from some of the comedy greats of the past is still under-rated.

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For the uninitiated the Count began his broadcasting life with in 2005 with “Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show!” which first brought to attention the  everyday life of this bewildered ex-Variety star.  The TV series is written by Steve Delaney with Graham Lineham and has been nominated for both Comedy Awards and for Best Sitcom at the BAFTAs.  The third series is currently on BBC1 on Friday evenings at 8.30pm.  This is an earlier transmission time which should bring in a younger audience as the Count is perfect Friday night family entertainment.  So far two episodes of Series 3 have been shown. This week’s gave way to Question Time but should be back with us when the General Election has been and gone.

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Predicting the election result?

The first episode of Series 3 saw Arthur roped into carrying out an exorcism and it was amusing but not classic Arthur.  I laughed more at the second episode where Michael (Rory Kinnear) ,whose association with Arthur began whilst researching a biography on Michael’s father (and Arthur’s ex-comedy partner) and who has been stuck with him ever since, was called for jury service and Arthur and odd-ball pals from the local cafe went along to support him.  There have been quite a few classic comedy moments in the previous two series.  Anyone wanting to dip into the world of the Count might want to seek out “The Radio Play” and “Arthur’s Big Moment” from the first series.  In “The Radio Play”, Arthur believes his acting career is due for a revival when he gets a small part in a radio play and “Arthur’s Big Moment” sees him, in a hilariously surreal sequence performing his variety act for a captive audience.  From Series 2 I won’t forget in a hurry “The Days The Clock Went Back” which builds misunderstanding upon misunderstanding and sees Arthur mistaken for a flying instructor in a sequence worthy of the best of “Some Mother’s Do Ave Em”.  Also seek out “Still Life” where Arthur attempts a new career as a living statue – all these have had me laughing until it hurts and so was delighted when he was making a stage appearance just down the road.

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Count Arthur with Michael (Rory Kinnear)

Something I heard somebody say as we left the theatre was “I don’t know why it’s funny, it just is” and that’s actually the joy of Count Arthur Strong.  I think it’s very British humour and seems to be in direct descendant to comedians of the past such as Harry Worth (where there are physical similarities in the hat and coat and from what I remember of Harry through misunderstandings), Hylda Baker (in malapropisms and bungled sentences), a touch of Frank Spencer (in ineptness to function), Tommy Cooper (in his ability to get laughs just standing on stage) and in his pompousness there’s even a touch of  both Captain Mainwaring and  Hyacinth Bouquets  There’s also in its joyful humour and playing with words a childishness which evokes memories of the golden age of children’s television and those people that you either dimly remember or were told about such as Mr Pastry, “Crackerjack” and Peter Glaze, Jimmy Edwards and the humour of “Rentaghost” yet it is more than a nostalgic nod to comedy pasts as it seems rooted in real people.  Like the best of comedy writing and despite its surrealness and occasional flight of fancy it seems authentic  and based upon real  (admittedly eccentric) people.

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Harry Worth most remembered for his shop window routine

Steve Delaney is 63 years old and has been playing this lovable bumbling character for over thirty years from when he was a drama student, down from Leeds and studying at The Central School of Speech and Drama.  The Count was resurrected in the late 90’s where he became part of Delaney’s club act, got the radio show and became a success at Edinburgh Festivals.   It’s been a long process, rather like the whole Mrs Brown phenomenon, another perfect case where I find myself laughing without really knowing what’s funny.

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His stage show “The Sound Of Mucus” is Arthur’s attempt to bring to life that Rogers and Hammerstein musical classic only someone has made a mistake at the printers.  Julie Andrews is suddenly not available to take the stage with Arthur so we have to wait for his friend Renee to arrive on the coach and to do her shopping from Lidl.  It co-stars Dave Plimmer (Eggy from the TV series but here playing stage-hand Uncle Alan) & Terry Kilkelly, as the Count’s PA, Malcolm.  As the show progresses Arthur has a few snifters of his special “Scottish Lucozade” which both loosens and restricts, especially when he has to come to grips with his Sulky Monkey ventriloquist puppet when he aims to re-enact “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”.  The script is both clever and funny and yet I laughed just as much at the moments away from the script, at moments of stillness, even a bench being dragged along the stage..  So did the rest of the audience.  The Count is still a bit of a cult figure and there’s always a danger of the audience not really getting it but he had them eating out of the palm of his hand from the moment he walked on stage.  The response was warm throughout especially when Arthur turned his hand at singing (his version of Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day” was a treat) and when we eventually got to the songs from the “Sound Of Mucus”, “16 Going on 17” had me almost breathless with laughter.

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Steve Delaney taking time off from the Count

The show has quite a few more dates to run over the summer including Plymouth, Weston-Super-Mare, Crawley, Oxford, Derby, Weymouth, Bristol, Margate, Nottingham and finishing off at the Liverpool Empire.  For Tour Dates see http://www.countarthurstrong.com/events/.     If you are an Arthur novice I would suggest watching a few of his clips on “YouTube” to see if this quirky humour is for you.  I certainly had a highly enjoyable evening in his company.

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for both TV and stage show

 

The third series of “Count Arthur Strong” is being shown on Fridays at 8.30pm on BBC1.  Previous episodes are available on the BBC I-Player.  The DVD of Series 3 is released on 17 July.  The first two series are available on DVD.

Peter Kay’s Car Share – BBC1 (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The success of the first series of Peter Kay’s Car Share certainly took the  name-checked star and director by surprise.  It was a much lower-key  piece than we had come to expect from this larger-than-life stand-up.  It was subtle and character-led.  I was talking to a friend about it today who said they watched just one episode and it was like watching paint dry and in a way I know what she meant.  I think expectations were high for another series like “Phoenix Nights” which could make you laugh until your sides ache or something which reflected his live shows with not enough recovery times between jokes.  A series largely composed of two people sat in the car on the way to work needed time to work its magic.  But for those of us who stuck with it, the charm of the piece hit home.  It was almost a case of letting the jokes find you.  There were the big laugh moments but for much of the time this viewer would have little more than a wry smile.  Series 1 won the BAFTA award for Best Comedy and a viewer voted National TV Award.  This was a great surprise to Kay but not, perhaps for the majority of us who are now struggling to find TV comedy funny.  For the BAFTAs it was up against “Peep Show”, which I had given up with quite a few series back and “Chewing Gum” and “People Just Do Nothing”, two shows on smaller channels E4 and BBC3.  Kay’s uncommercial idea was the most commercial of the lot. The audience rating led National TV Award saw him a worthy winner against two comedy juggernauts, long past their prime “Benidorm” and “Birds Of A Feather” and “Not Going Out” of which I’ve seen only one episode.

Peter Kay speechless at the BAFTAs

For those who had stuck with Series 1 and its more leisurely pace Series 2 was an essential.  The relationship between characters John Redmond (Kay) and Kayleigh, his car share partner from the supermarket where they work (Sian Gibson) was simmering nicely.  The warmth generated by these long-time off screen friends was palpable and it was this rather than laugh out loud jokes which made it special.  Series 2 consists of four episodes and once again followed the now more common but radical idea of having all four episodes available on BBC I-Player as soon as episode 1 has been transmitted.  Last time round I watched each episode as they were shown on a weekly basis, not really understanding why anyone would do anything different.  At time of writing two episodes of Series 2 have been transmitted, but for the purpose of this review I have found myself downloading and watching the other two.

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Checking reviewsrevues for a good review?

This series seems to be bookmarked at each end by two quieter episodes.  The first re-establishes the characters, carries on from Kayleigh giving John a copy of her all-time favourite album (Now 48) with a note to listen to a specific track (“Pure And Simple” by Hearsay).  According to news reports the reintroduction of Now 48 to Series 2 caused a huge demand for the 16 year old double compilation CD which led to appearing it on Amazon.co.uk’s Charts on the basis of its second-hand sales alone.  That demand is still continuing.  Now 47 and 49 are in plentiful supply for a penny, yet Now 49 will currently set you back £24.75.  I absolutely love that this has happened on the strength of its mention in a comedy show.

I bet that has got you going off to the CD shelves to see if you own this potential money-spinner.  (I’ve just checked Now 46 is the closest I’ve got).  I enjoyed this first episode with Kayleigh attempting to find her own way to work “I’m in court shoes, I’m not Zola Budd.”  Much of the humour came from the soundtrack of Forever FM and the character’s reactions to the ads and playlist (Eurovision runner-ups Bardo’s “One Step Further” being a little gem here).  The fourth episode has to deal further with the relationship between John and Kayleigh with some knockabout comedy when Kayleigh finds herself locked indoors and a nod towards “La La Land” for the resolution.  Once again there’s musical highspots in Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” and Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”.  However, in both of these episodes I found myself wishing that there was just a little more to laugh at.

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Get it on E-Bay quick!

What lifted this series were Episodes 2 and 3 for different reasons.  Episode 2 (shown on BBC 1 last Tuesday) set the comedy up with John and Kayleigh on the way to a staff do fancy dress Chinese banquet but then handed the whole thing over to a new character, Elsie, who they give a lift home to dressed as a Smurf.  (“There’s no taxis, it’s the Ramadan”). Costume and make-up were so convincing that I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t Peter doing one of his double roles, which had fooled many people in “Phoenix Nights” days when he played Brian Potter and the bouncer Max.  It turns out that this comedy-tour-de-force was Conleth Hill, best known for his role as Varys in “Game Of Thrones”.  Peter played second fiddle and the result was comedy gold.  But for bigger belly laughs Episode 3, which will be shown on BBC1 this week is a gem.  When John and Kayleigh decide to skive off work for a day it leads to a section which had me laughing like I haven’t done for a TV comedy in ages- a sequence where laugh is piled upon laugh which was certainly nothing like paint drying!

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Not Peter Kay but it could have been!

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Elsie – 2017’s great new comic character

This second series of four episodes has felt familiar and yet surprising.  I love Peter Kay when he is unsubtle (presenting Royal Variety Performance and in the magnificent TV talent show spoof “Britain’s Got The Pop Factor….”), I love his stand-up (made Guinness Book of Records for most successful of all time playing to 1.2 million people) I loved the whole set-up of “Phoenix Nights”, have enjoyed his three number 1 UK hit singles, but admittedly was not wild about his “Max and Paddy’s Road To Nowhere” series.  This revitalised attempt at a very British road trip, a car share journey to work, has seen him once again getting close to comedy gold.

fivestars(On the strength of Episodes 2 and 3)

The third episode of “Peter Kay’s Car Share” will be shown on Tuesday on BBC1 at 9pm.  The whole series (4 episodes) is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

 

SS-GB – BBC1 (2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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For the next five weeks BBC1’s Sunday prime-time series is the first television adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1978 novel.  It feels like there have been trailers for some time now and they all made it look very polished.  I’ve recently read the book and although the premise of an alternative history whereby Britain was occupied by the Nazis following defeat at the Battle of Britain is fascinating (and meticulously planned by the author) the plot felt a little lacklustre, characterisation dated and the relationships between the main characters somewhat stilted.  However, I did get some enjoyment from the book and thought this visual interpretation would help me at moments if my attention wandered from the story.  I do think, however if I had the job at looking at what to adapt for television I might have given this a miss in favour of the similarly themed but more satisfying novels by Tony Schumacher.

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My assumption about the visuals felt correct from the opening moments as a spitfire looped a loop in the countryside before flying into London and landing on the Mall with a bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace in the background.  A truly impressive set of pre-credit visuals to get the series off and running.  A radio news broadcast announces the relaxation of a curfew to celebrate German/Soviet Friendship Week, which we feel might suddenly become less friendly as a member of the British Resistance guns down a German Officer.

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It is November 1941 and we soon meet (post-coitally) Douglas Archer from Scotland Yard who is now solving crimes alongside the Nazis.  He is played with disappointing throatiness by Sam Riley, an actor, model and musician best known for playing Joy Division’s troubled front-man Ian Curtis in “Control” and as Diaval in “Maleficent”.  I’d not seen him before this and do not know if he naturally speaks in low, hushed clipped tones or whether he feels this is part of the film-noirish elements of the piece which didn’t appeal to me when I read the book.  Before I’d seen any of this I’d written about Deighton’s novel; “it feels like it should be read out of the corner of the mouth with a cigarette on”.  I might have suspected Riley of taking my note literally, that is if it hadn’t been filmed what seems like an inordinately long time ago at the end of 2015.

About ten minutes in, you realise what is going to happen and it has nothing to do with the plot.  This series is going to be most remembered for that bugbear of the BBC Drama – mumbling.  Like “Happy Valley” which wasn’t spoilt by the much complained about mumbling and the much-maligned “Jamaica Inn” which certainly was it is the mumbling grumbling which is going to dominate.  Indeed by the day after broadcast there had been complaints to the BBC (apparently less than 100 by Monday afternoon from a 4 million viewing audience, but the press always like a good BBC-baiting news story) and it is fairly evident that there’s little that can be done about it because the lead actor has chosen to play it that way.  Is this the reason behind the length of time between production finishing and transmission?

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On Friday’s “Gogglebox” we watched the viewers straining to decipher what was being said, which was funny, but which also means that from here on we will be watching this differently.  I had put the subtitles on very early on and it did not especially mar my enjoyment.  It was good to see James Cosmo (since the filming of this becoming much better known because of his likeable stint in the Celebrity Big Brother house earlier this year) co-starring as Harry Woods.  I also understood every word he said.

The rest of the cast wasn’t particularly familiar to me (apart from Aneurin Barnard who had been so good as “Our Bobby” in “Cilla”) and it is interestingly by a German, Philipp Kadelbach and has been written and adapted for television by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who may address some of the shortcomings of the novel.

Once we’d risen above the audibility issues the first episode felt reasonably close to the book and so I share the same reservations I had for the novel.  I am going to stick with it, however.  I am especially looking forward to a Highgate Cemetery scene which given the high production values in the visuals promises to be a series highspot.

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SS-GB is shown on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1.  The first episode is still available on the BBC I-Player.

Taboo (BBC1 2017) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The new season of shows on BBC1 continues with what seems like a brave decision for peak time on Saturday night.  It is best described as brooding – which is traditionally not what we like to do on a Saturday, but this brave decision might just very well pay off.

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What has tempted BBC1 to make this ratings risk alongside its Saturday night family fare of light entertainment and medical drama? Answer- One Tom Hardy.  Oscar nominated for “The Revenant” Hardy has the power to burn up every thing he appears in.  On TV he has been unforgettable as Bill Sikes and as the lead character in the Martina Cole series “The Take”.  Filmwise, it was the otherwise forgettable 2006 low-budget comedy “Scenes Of A Sexual Nature” which had me sitting up taking notice with a full-on-sexual chemistry scene with Sophie Okenedo on Hampstead Heath.  Since then the superbly intense performances have kept coming – the title role in “Stuart: A Life Backwards”; martial arts contender in “Warrior”;violent criminal Charles Bronson; Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” and both the Kray twins in “Legend”.  This is a man who can turn out excellently high-octane performances – so perhaps the BBC are not taking too much of a risk.

Just because I can: (from top left) Tom Hardy, as Charles Bronson, in Scenes of A Sexual Nature, in The Take.  Bottom row – Oscar nominated in The Revenant, in Warrior

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Double Take! As the Kray Twins in Legend

When you look into it the lack of risk actually becomes apparent with this eight-parter.  It’s from an original idea by Hardy and his father who wanted to create a character for Hardy to play; an amalgamation of Bill Sikes, Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lecter, Heathcliff and Jack The Ripper and they believed they came up with the goods with Jack Delaney.  The whole thing has been a labour of love for Hardy father and son and it has taken years to get to Saturday night BBC1.  Their idea has been developed and written by Steven Knight.  Knight is also known as a film director.  In 2014 he received great acclaim for the innovative one hander “Locke” which starred Tom Hardy with just a car and a hands-free phone for company.  Hardy has enlisted Ridley Scott alongside him as Executive Producer and Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm- the man responsible for “The Killing” (a man who can certainly evoke dark and brooding) to direct the series.  On a night when BBC1 introduced light-entertainment-by-numbers show “Let It Shine” and ITV were relaunching previous BBC flagship “The Voice” (for no apparent good reason), “Taboo” felt thrillingly unpredictable.

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It’s London in 1814 and Jack Delaney (Hardy) has returned from Africa for the funeral of his father, a man with shipping interests at loggerheads with the East India Company, headed by Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce).  Delaney has long been believed dead and his return is a shock, especially to his half-sister, played by Oona Chaplin (excellent in BBC2’s “The Hour”).  Delaney’s return means that he will inherit his father’s assets, including a strip of land, Nootka Sound, where Hardy’s mother lived as part of a tribe and where she was reputedly  bought by his father.  His father’s solicitor, Thoyt,(Nicholas Woodeson) does his best not to make it sound like a good proposition;

“If America were a pig facing England.  It is right at the pig’s arse.”

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Chaplin, Hardy and Pryce

The interest of the East India Company suggests otherwise and political factors make it a highly desirable piece of land.  It is certainly not in Delaney’s nature to give in graciously.  His half-sister states, “He doesn’t belong in this world” and he himself says “I’m not a fit man to be around children”.  Hardy in interviews has been comparing this character to Saddam Hussein, so there is plenty of intrigue and wrong-doings left to enjoy.

And enjoy it I did.  Taboo’s London is the visceral, gritty London of nightmares.  There’s vats of chopped meat being stirred, there’s graverobbing, seedy brothels, mud and grime and the whole thing is probably too dark and too mumbled for the Daily Mail viewer but it was really quite fascinating.  “Peaky Blinders” might come to mind (also starring Hardy) in its approach, but that was never a Saturday night BBC1 show.  It also reminded me of last year’s rather splendid adaptation of “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” which was a weekend show (Sunday nights) 0n BBC1.  I think that this has a lot of potential and however much was paid from our licence fees to Mr Hardy the BBC are sure to get their money’s worth.

fourstarsTaboo is shown on BBC1 on Saturdays at 9.15pm.  The first episode is available on catch-up on the BBC I Player.

The Great British Bake-Off (Series 7 BBC1 2016) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Series 7!  Doesn’t time fly.  I’ve watched every single episode.  It began back in 2010 tucked away on BBC2, where it felt like as long as you could turn out a Victoria Sandwich you were laughing.  Six series on and after a veritable mountain of croquembouche, pork pies, those things that resembled nuns that were so hard to make and those floating island thingies- all “bakes” that remain firmly in the memory, it’s back.

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In fact it was back last week- we are already one episode in.  If you missed that you would have missed them making Jaffa Cakes which would not be on the top of too many baking lists I would imagine- fiddly to make, dead easy to buy.  (By the way, I’m concerned now that my Jaffa Cake anecdote may just be an urban myth.  I’ve always been led to  believe that the jelly in a jaffa cake was actually apricot and it is that which gives it the deliciously tangy citrus taste rather than orange, which when combined with chocolate, as far as I am concerned transforms into the food of the devil.  (A Terry’s Chocolate Orange – not if my life depended on it!)  Yet, in the series opener they were making orange jelly, but then, mind you, some of them were making their Jaffa Cakes upside down!

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The Bake-Off Team

Onto episode 2- Biscuit week and Sue Perkins was unavoidably absent leaving Mel in the tent with Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.  Sue was in the mid-way educational bit, looking at the history of biscuit dunking, a very important aspect of British history.  I like the bits in the middle, there wasn’t one last week and I thought they might have been abandoned, that after 7 series there wasn’t a biscuit or cake left that we do not know the history of so I was relived to see Sue and food expert Anastasia Edwards wiggling langues du chat into wine and digestives into tea.

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In case you’ve been living in a tent for the last 6 years there are three challenges taking place each week in the bake-off marquee.  A signature dish upon a theme, a blind baked technical challenge and the ostentatious showstopper round which shows what the amateur bakers can really do and to sort out those who play it too safe from those whose confidence leads to recklessness.  Paul and Mary are there to award “Star Baker” and weed out the contestants one at a time and Mel and Sue do the double entendres (to the consternation of the Daily Mail who take a very dim view of discussing cream horns on a family show!)

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cream horns – ooh er missus!

This week, being biscuit week there were 24 identical iced biscuits to make, a technical challenge of Viennese Whirls and some autobiographical gingerbread work.  This showstopper provided us with the most thrills of the series so far.  Despite Paul Hollywood saying that Xmas gingerbread if made properly, should still be standing in February we saw much snapping of walls, statues, turrets and a glorious moment of complete collapse.  Herein lies the hypocritical joy of “Bake Off”.  We get to know and to really like the contestants and will them on to perform patisserie wonders but we enjoy it if something goes wrong.  (Who can forget the melted Baked Alaska ending up in the bin incident in Series 5?) So as the gingerbread started to fall we ooh’d and ah’d with delight but couldn’t help but feel sorry for those whose cookies crumbled.

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Two weeks in.  Have you spotted the winner yet?  It’s usually the middle of the pack participant who starts to shine only after the early favourites have had some culinary cropper or overstretched themselves with fondant icing.  Whatever happens, it is great to have it back as a mid-week treat although my waist-line is not so happy.  As we all know, baked goods are an essential accompaniment to watching the programme to try and watch it without is just too difficult.  There’s added pleasure in watching them plough through the recipe for a Swedish Prinsesstarta Cake whilst chomping on a shop-bought Garibaldi.

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The Great British Bake Off is shown on BBC 1 on Wednesdays at 8pm.  Catch-up episodes should be available on the BBC I Player.