The voice on the other end of the telephone is confident and assured. It’s soon evident that Steve Delaney is a businessman as much as an entertainer. You hear only occasionally a trace of Steve’s alter ego: the bumbling, pompous, delusional, malapropism-uttering Count Arthur Strong.
The character came to light in the early 1980s when Steve was at drama school. But Count Arthur existed only in Steve’s head for the next 15 years until he and a friend started running comedy evenings. Steve opened up the shows as Count Arthur who has been with him ever since.
Count Arthur has seven radio series, three television series and more than a dozen tours behind him. He is preparing to take his new show, Count Arthur Strong is Alive and Unplugged, on the road. He will be appearing at Buxton Opera House – “one of my favourite theatres” – for the sixth time as well as Derby Theatre during a three-month trek around the country.
It follows previous tours which had more exotic names, such as Somebody Up There Licks Me in 2015 and The Sound of Mucus in 2017.
If you haven’t come across him, you won’t know what to expect from the septuagenarian Count Arthur whose trademarks are his trilby hat, bow tie, dark-framed glasses and pencil-thin moustache.
Steve reckons it’s hard to explain exactly what one of his shows entails because it unfolds on the night and he doesn’t want to give anything away.
“I always find it extremely difficult to comment on live shows. You’ll see all the traits that Arthur’s known for: delusional traits, the notion that he’s always succeeding when he’s actually failing. But I can’t really go into specifics.”
He says fans can expect “more of the same” – although that doesn’t mean there won’t be any new material in the show.
“Arthur’s Arthur – he couldn’t do anything wildly different. Hopefully it’s the writing that makes each show different.”
When I spoke to Steve he was taking the week off to finish his new show. “It’s all pretty much written but some of the words aren’t necessarily in the right order, as Eric Morecambe might say.
“I enjoy the craft of writing. It’s quite a challenge reproducing the same thing and giving it a freshness night after night.
“I like the discipline of reproducing things pretty much verbatim. I also enjoy being able to pause and go off at a tangent if I want to. But that’s never the modus operandi – that’s just a happy occurrence, really.”
Steve Delaney who this year turns 64 was born in Leeds where his father was a foundryman and his mother a seamstress.
Steve became a carpenter before he went to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, graduating in 1982. He appeared in television dramas including Juliet Bravo, Casualty, The Bill and All Creatures Great and Small, returning to carpentry during lean times as an actor.
He explains how the idea for Count Arthur came to him while he was at drama school. “It was just for an exercise to show something to the rest of the year, something that everybody had to do. I came up with an oddball five-minute sketch and it was a very embryonic version of Arthur. But it went down very well – a lot of people laughed.”
When he resurrected Count Arthur for the comedy evenings, people immediately liked the character.
“I got instant feedback and I thought ‘this is better than auditioning’ which I wasn’t really suited for. I didn’t have the right temperament for it. So I packed acting in and just concentrated on bringing Arthur on at my pace.”
Five months after Count Arthur Strong was unleashed on the unsuspecting public, Steve took him to the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Fringe.
His Edinburgh shows increased his popularity, although he has not played the festival for several years.
“When I went to Edinburgh it was to get people from arts centres along to see the show and book a tour on the back of Edinburgh. Even if you were at a good venue, you still tended to come away with eight or nine thousand pounds worth of debt.”
In 2004 Count Arthur Strong was given his own BBC Radio 4 show. Five years later it won the Sony award for best radio comedy.
Fifty episodes have now been broadcast including a Christmas special last year. Another special has been recorded which should hit the airwaves in eight months’ time.
Almost five years ago Count Arthur’s facial oddities were revealed on the small screen when BBC2 transmitted the first series of a new sitcom. Steve co-wrote it with Graham Linehan who had penned shows such as Father Ted and The IT Crowd.
Three series were produced, with the second and third transferring to BBC1. But last year the BBC announced that no more would be made despite the show being voted fourth-best sitcom of the 21st century by the Radio Times.
Steve refuses to criticise the Corporation although he admits it was unfortunate that transmission dates and times were moved around. The general election meant two shows in the second series were put back by a fortnight and others were delayed because of tennis at Wimbledon.
“The television series was a great bonus. You just have to take the decision and move on.
“If you look back and analyse these things, we were shunted around quite a bit for the entire three series. You live and die by the ratings and we just didn’t get enough people watching it.
“Graham and I felt that with every series we were almost starting from scratch, which was frustrating. I’m quite philosophical about it – I’m very busy with the rest of the stuff I do with Arthur.”
Like many people who work in show business, Steve says his career has had a fair amount of fortune.
“I’ve been lucky to be able to perform live, to be on the radio and to be on TV. I’ve enjoyed every one of them. If my life depended on anything I would say probably the live shows are my favourite because that’s where I kicked off with Arthur. And it’s where you get the instant feedback. I enjoy touring, oddly.”
Why does Steve think so many people have a fondness for Count Arthur, the variety entertainer who was never as famous as he thinks he was?
“I suppose when you start out in the comedy clubs of London you’re thinking of the metropolitan, 30-year-old audience all the time. But through the radio series we’ve started getting family audiences on the tours and that’s fantastic. There are generations of the same family there – it’s brilliant.
“The appeal to younger kids is they like to see an old bloke behaving disgracefully. They also like to see an old bloke trying to conceal the fact that he’s wrong. There’s quite a lot of humour in that, the bare-faced way in which Arthur tries to get out of something whilst digging himself into a deeper hole.
“A lot of people have said to me ‘you’re just like my uncle’ or ‘you’re like my granddad’. I think a lot of families have an elderly relative somewhere that has a little bit of an Arthur trait.
“He tends to be bits I’ve remembered from people that I knew when I was growing up. He’s made from real people.”
After the tour Steve aims to take a holiday before he starts work on his next projects with Count Arthur. “We’ve got stuff in development, both TV and a radio idea. But I can’t really go into specifics.
“I don’t have an idle day with Arthur and it’s been my living since 2003. There’s plenty of work to do, so I’m happy.”
Graham Linehan describes Count Arthur Strong as “one of the funniest creations in British comedy history”. And on his new tour Steve Delaney will again be aiming to demonstrate his finest trait: making people laugh.