Demise of Count Arthur Strong signals the end of the family sitcom

Dumped after three series: Count Arthur Strong. BBC PIctures

So, the BBC has decided to cancel its sitcom Count Arthur Strong after three series – presumably in favour of spending its dwindling budget on something more “edgy”. Or perhaps another cooking show?

It’s a sign of the times – the show was developed out of the long-running Radio 4 series created by Steve Delaney in 2005 following the stage success of his monstrous creation, the obscure variety star Count Arthur Strong. The television incarnation was co-authored by Graham Linehan, the genius who had revived the studio-based sitcom in such hits as Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. It tempted the well-respected Rory Kinnear into its cast. And it was very funny.

But it had also been treated by BBC schedulers with an inconsistency bordering on sabotage. When its third series moved to a mid-evening slot (its first two series having languished post-watershed) it was heralded as “the new family comedy the BBC is looking for” – but had then repeatedly lost its spot in weekly schedules.

The count never had the opportunity to develop a regular following – and the show was never repeated. “It was the lack of repeats that killed us,” tweeted Linehan. “Might as well’ve just chucked each series down a crevasse.”

It wasn’t crude, cynical or cruel. Like so many classic sitcoms, its ensemble cast of adorable eccentrics performed its verbal, visual and situational gags before a live studio audience to provide fun and laughter (and the occasional moment of emotional resonance) for all the family.

It wasn’t Peep Show or The Office or Mrs Brown’s Boys. It wasn’t experimental or mockumentary or bawdy. It was just very funny. And the BBC didn’t know what to do with it. Its breadth of appeal no longer aligned with perceptions of comedy’s increasingly niche markets.

Family appeal

Its cancellation echoes the demise, 21 years ago, of The Thin Blue Line, Ben Elton’s doomed attempt “to restage his beloved Dad’s Army”. Following Elton’s edgier and trendier successes with The Young Ones and Blackadder, The Thin Blue Line had returned British sitcom to its basics, a comedy of character, language and situation in the style of the classics of David Croft, Jimmy Perry and Jeremy Lloyd.

The problem was that Elton’s gentle farce wasn’t what audiences or programmers had expected. Count Arthur Strong was, similarly, too traditional for perceived tastes. Edgy seems better than funny, marginal is sexier than mainstream. Yet social media is abuzz with outrage from the show’s fans. The fictional Count Arthur’s own Twitter feed retweeted a number of such responses.

Many tweets emphasised the show’s rare inter-generational appeal: “Enjoyed by every generation … the whole family watch … even my mum loves it … good family comedy … the only comedy me, my dad and my grandad all equally crack up to … it got us all together on the sofa chuckling … the only show the whole family sits down and watches together … the first sitcom I and my Dad have laughed about together in years … a comedy which all ages can watch”.

An online petition has been launched in a bid to reverse the BBC’s decision. At the time of writing it had gathered more than 4,500 signatures in just a few days.

But Linehan is now working – with Sharon Horgan, Diane Morgan and Holly Walsh – on a full series of Motherland, the continuation of a not-unfunny pilot from the BBC’s otherwise bleak 2016 sitcom season – a series of remakes, reboots and pilots, which mostly demonstrated that funny’s no longer edgy and that edgy’s rarely funny.

Motherland’s pilot offered a decent blend of jokes and edge. Echoing the tone of Horgan’s sitcom Catastrophe, it won praise for its “painfully realistic portrayal of the trials and traumas of motherhood”. It was very Channel 4.

More laughs

Yet when you’ve assembled such talents as Horgan, Morgan, Walsh and Linehan on one project, you might want more laughs. Laughs enough at least to attract the kind of family audiences which BBC programming has traditionally sustained: from Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game to Bruce Forsyth’s Strictly Come Dancing; from Mel and Sue in The Great British Bake-Off to Mel and Sue in the rebooted Generation Game – and anything from David Attenborough and Doctor Who through the ages. These are programmes the family once sat together in front of – and the traditional sitcom once sat at the heart of such programming.

The BBC axed Count Arthur Strong four days after the publication of an Ofcom report on trends in TV viewing which suggested that “watching TV is a solo activity” and that “each member of the family is watching a different programme on a separate screen.”

In the age of box set binges, and of risque reality dating shows such as Naked Attraction and Love Island, that’s unsurprising. What, after all, is there for families to share? Dad’s Army still reruns on Saturdays, but the cancellation of Count Arthur Strong – a show about the joys and absurdities of friendship and family – diminishes such viewing options just slightly further.

The resulting social media furore is about more than the fate of one show. It invokes a nostalgia for a mode of broadcasting with a broader appeal – broadcasting to bring people together in a spirit of renewed social cohesion. This might, of course, be a forlorn hope – but it seems a sincere and not uncommon one.

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