Writing duo make Strong combination
Father Ted writer Graham Linehan is back with his own take on music hall comedy. By Gerard Gilbert
Father Ted may be long dead, but the comedy writing partnership of Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, which spawned Craggy Island's most famous son, is still thriving, albeit in different permutations.
Having met in 1980s Dublin and then moved to London to try their luck scripting television comedy, Linehan and Matthews wrote for Mel Smith, Harry Enfield and Alexei Sayle before creating Father Ted as well as The Fast Show's most celebrated characters, Ted and Ralph.
They haven't worked together since creating Big Train, the sketch show cited by Ricky Gervais as a major influence on The Office.
Now, however, the duo are each half-responsible for two of the funniest sitcoms of the moment. Matthews teamed up with Matt Berry to script Channel 4's Toast of London (a winner in this week's British Comedy Awards), while Linehan is joining forces with Steve Delaney to again bring Delaney's trilby-wearing, malapropism-spouting "showbusiness legend" Count Arthur Strong - a long-time Radio 4 fixture - to BBC1 (a promotion from last year's initial showing on BBC2).
"Graham's got fantastic television nous," says Delaney, who based his character partly on a character from the children's comic The Beezer comic called Colonel Blink ("He was very short-sighted and would have conversations with a lamp-post," says Delaney), and partly on a childhood neighbour, Billy Kay, the eccentric chief electrician at the Leeds Grand Theatre.
"He wore a full dinner suit and pince nez glasses on the first night of any show, but if that sounds quite grand this was in quite a slummy street in Leeds. I grew up when live variety was on its last legs, which is, I like to think, when Arthur got into it."
In fact, if you Google the words "Billy Kay Leeds Grand Theatre", a black-and-white picture of the man himself, taken in 1969, pops up, Kay dressed like a City gent, a lit fag in his left hand rather spoiling the image.
The subject matter of superannuated variety entertainers may be deeply 20th century, but Delaney and Linehan's working methods are bang up to date. They Skype each other from their respective homes in Somerset and Norwich, before meeting up in Linehan's London flat for a week of bashing their stories into shape.
Linehan, who went on to collaborate with Dylan Moran on Black Books following his parting of the ways with Arthur Matthews, before going it alone with The IT Crowd, is happy to no longer be working solo.
"Before I wrote The IT Crowd, I had a bee in my bonnet about showing I could do it on my own," he says. "But, since then, I've realised that the reason to do things is to enjoy them. The writing has to be fun because nothing else about the process is fun. It's a pain in the a***."
Count Arthur Strong, BBC1, Tuesday, 10.35pm