Sidelong Glances at the PCU Characters: Arthur Bryant

Bryant and May

It began with my former creative partner, the other half of my brain; unreconstructed and shamelessly old-fashioned, usually right about everything, motto; ‘The world would be a better place if everyone did what I told them.’ And generally speaking it would have been. The physical embodiment of Arthur Bryant, whom no-one dares to call by his first name except John May and occasionally, Janice Longbright.

A lifelong chain smoker, Jim died at 63 of lung cancer. Bryant smokes a pipe, of course, the nuclear option for those choosing to bung up their bronchioles. Bryant is also an amalgamation of other people I admire; a mixture of brilliant academics without social skills, backroom girls and boys, and risk-takers.

His tragedy, of course, is that Bryant never took a degree in one of the specialist subjects that fascinate him, so he remains a gifted amateur. Held back by his working class background and brusque manner, he was overlooked and ignored through the very years when he could have been of the most use, so part of his errant behaviour nowadays can be traced to a desire for revenge on so-called superiors, although he would never admit that.

One of the most delightful characters of modern times is Gustav H in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, and while Arthur would love to be as suave as that Mâitre D’ he knows he is trapped in a dumpy failing body. But to him John May is that character, the smooth part he would like to be. Together they make a whole.

Beneath Bryant’s rudeness is kindness, obviously. But a sense of mischief and frivolity always shines through, because he is a trickster and admires the same quality in others – hence his friendship with magicians and fraudulent street characters. He knows he’s an outsider, and having finally accepted the fact now revels in it.

One of the more unexpected problems I encountered was dealing with Bryant’s shifting timeline. I’ve had several goes at explaining it, but now I think I’ll let it go. Fiction means you can make shit up. If I wanted to I could slide the entire shebang into a China Miéville-like alternative London, which would be the London I most want to exist in, where the best of the old (an emptier city, where ‘The Fosdyke Saga’ and ‘Clive and Augusta’ are still in the papers) and the best of the new (café society, new openness) exist together in a blurred shared world (as it does in my mind). 

But that would perhaps be drifting into esoterica, and you’ll see the pitfalls of that when a few revelations come out in the next B&M, ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’.

36 comments on “Sidelong Glances at the PCU Characters: Arthur Bryant”

  1. Stephen says:

    Hi Chris, Arthur is my favorite character.Looking forward to the next one already.

  2. Andrew Holme says:

    ‘The Fosdyke Saga’ in the paper and it’s remarkably similar in tone bastard cousin, ‘Brass’ on the telly. Happy days. Long live tripe!

  3. Ian Luck says:

    I once worked with a bloke like Arthur – a lot of people didn’t get on with him – he was, on the surface, brusque, abrasive, rude; and yet he was frighteningly intelligent, well read, and had a heart of gold. He had a strong Suffolk accent, which, sadly, seemed, in some people’s eyes, to mean he was stupid. Far from it. He did enjoy winding up the pompous, too, which was always worth watching – he could say the most astonishingly rude things whilst keeping a stony face, and never smiling , until the target of his ire had gone. He never suffered fools, and a favourite remark of his, when encountering a particularly thick individual was:
    “If I had wanted to speak to a vegetable, I’d have brought a potato to work with me.” We got on like a house on fire (odd expression, that), and I was very sorry to see him go when he retired.

  4. Liz Thompson says:

    Ian, everyone should have a colleague like that, it would make work so much easier!

  5. Brooke says:

    Arthur is my favorite person; he’s the image of my clients…mentally exhausting to work with but so much fun.
    Free advice: Let go of your obsession with linear time–an invention of capitalist bureaucracy and unconnected to the workings of the universe.

  6. SteveB says:

    I loved Augusta.
    Remember where she’s standing in the garden with an axe in here hand and a felled cherry tree? Here father stands in front of her and asks her what happened, she says, Father I cannot tell a lie. Then she point at her little brother and says, It was Edward!

  7. admin says:

    Dominic Poelsma was the artist, I think. Bristol is sorely missed too – once played on screen by Freddie Jones.

  8. Peter T says:

    Arthur and Sherlock are the two greatest detectives and two of the greatest people that have ever lived. What? You think they exist only in fiction. No, somewhere, they and their partners are out there; immortals doing their thing. And how much we need them.

    Ian, I had a great friend who favoured the words: “You have to learn to leave thinking to people with the equipment to do it.” She was a bit of a female Arthur, a truly wonderful lady.

  9. Debra Matheney says:

    Finished ‘Oranges nd Lemons’ a couple of days ago so I am now sad and missing my friends. Arthur was at his very best, throughly annoyng ut so brillant. Can hardly wait for the next adventure.

  10. SteveB says:

    @admin, you are right, Dominic Poelsma! I had forgotten…

    @Debra, I also just finished the book. I think it is maybe Chris’s best yet (that i have read)! I am not normally a fan of these more panoramic ones, I prefer the White Corridor type, but I thought this was simply great with top-notch writing humour and observation throughout. I might post a few thoughts here if I ever get time!!!

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I’m ready to do The Lonely Hour (again) and then Oranges and Lemons (again) but have to find my copy of Lonely Hour as it seems to have walked off somewhere, much as Arthur is wont to do.
    Peter, I like your friend’s comment.

  12. Jan says:

    Be careful what you wish for this emptier almost alternative London may be yours – it’s really a ? of for how long.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    I was reminded of the surreal, creepy, empty London (and other centres of habitation), featured in the 1960’s TV show ‘The Avengers’. In reality, the backlot at Pinewood or Elstree, it was dreamlike and unsettling – especially when linked by stock footage of a bustling metropolis. Other ITC shows, like ‘Department S’, ‘Man In A Suitcase’, and ‘Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased)’ used the odd, quiet London, too.

  14. Paul C says:

    Re Bill Tidy’s Fosdyke Saga, you can buy the original artwork at https://www.chrisbeetles.com/artist/473/bill-tidy (or you can just look at them for free)

  15. Dawn Andrews says:

    I don’t feel that Arthur would be Arthur if he had been through the degree machinery. He’s unique and no conveyor belt could hold him! He would have had a lot of mischievous fun however.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Dawn, can you imagine what his essays would have been like? He’d have alternately delighted and horrified his tutors. “The Wool Industry and trade with the Netherlands in the 16th Century” Just think of his pub references for the crews and the odd business connections in London.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    “Quality control in the artisanal (sheep and goat) cheese production systems (Dorset and Wiltshire) especially with regard to ‘hoven’ and over hard paste in rounds 1779-1832, and the use of dirty horse tackle in the bluing of semi hard cheeses, as proscribed by the Royal Navy.”
    That could be another one of Arthur’s.
    There was a record, mentioned by the late, great John Peel, on a radio show, the title of which was so peculiar, I had to write it down. It was:
    “1951: Easter Island Ladies Wearing Hats As Outlawed By Government.” It looks as though it should be followed by the word: “Discuss.”

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Mind you, John Peel once played a record on his show, which had originated from somewhere in Africa, and whose label bore one word, which Peel professed on air that he could not (this was in the early 1980’s, so no internet – and even that has no idea, when checking nowadays) tell if it was the band, the title of the track, or the record label. Again it stuck with me, as it was such a weird, but fun word. It was: (Peel spelt it out)
    ‘POKOTAMEMEATBOSS’
    You can’t argue with that.

  19. Dawn Andrews says:

    Helen, that would be worth reading! Tutors get bored with the same old stuff, a friend of mine wrote his thesis in librarianship on the fictitious library of the Marquis de Sade! He got a 2.1.

  20. Jo W says:

    Still asking for no spoilers,please. Was going to Goldsboro books to get a copy of O&L,but was unexpectedly taken away in a big yellow van to the hospital. That was a surprise! So would appreciate no telling comments atm.

  21. Jo W says:

    Forgot to say, long live Arthur!

  22. Peter T says:

    Helen and Dawn, Would Arthur have studied (or been accepted for) a subject that requires writing essays?

  23. Helen Martin says:

    Peter, yes, he would have been accepted (surely) for European history (pre WW I) or socio-economic history of Britain, economic geography of Britain, social geography of Europe. Generally speaking either geography or history. He could also do literature, especially the Victorians. Perhaps that should be the next contest: essays written by Arthur Bryant on the subject of ~. Oh, and I came across an ad in our paper which uses those { } rococo parentheses but it was for some brand of skin care (I can’t find it now) that used them in the product name so that’s not real.I suspect it’s either for some mathematical function or for a phrase within a phrase, within a phrase. I just pray it’s not used in any knitting pattern I’m ever working on.

  24. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, “Submit 200 word precis, only.” Write only on one side of the paper at a time.

  25. Helen Martin says:

    Jo W what happened? Run down by a truck? Fell off the pavement? Hope it’s not serious.

  26. Anna says:

    Arthur Bryant is a wonderfully quirky character who presents as someone who is unapologetically himself – most people have a social veneer that they use for interaction though AB doesn’t have this capability, and he knows it. What he has instead is natural ability for what is termed out of left field thinking (though I suspect that is actually the imaginative right brain at work) and for me he represents the integrity and under-rated abilities of people who are often unfairly labelled “weird” because they are not normative. What a terrible place the world would be if we were all “normative”. Brilliant writers like you Christopher, I suspect, are rarely “normative” either, because they/you are so much more than that. Are there any parts of Arthur that you see something of your self in?

  27. Jo W says:

    Helen,
    I didn’t get out, in fact got no further than the loo. Very severe pains across the middle and going both ends. That was Wednesday and they still haven’t found the cause. Hey ho, it’s given me a great chance of catching up with my reading. But I still haven’t got O&L 🙁

  28. Dawn Andrews says:

    Jo, Arthur is on top form in O and L, hope you can get a copy soon. Nothing like reading to help you heal!

  29. Dawn Andrews says:

    Helen, brilliant summation, that old 200 word precis, what pencil pushing sadist came up with that I wonder? Anna, the less normative there is in the world the better, I’m not sure if it’s easier to be different in this time period of ours, I’d like to think it is.

  30. Peter T says:

    There’s a difference between an interest in and taking exams. Personally, I am interested in European history pre-WWI. I even quote the Schleswig-Holstein Question with painful regularity. But take an exam on it! Perhaps I’m prejudiced. I did a tour around Oxford buildings last summer and there were some left over exam papers in history and PPE: my goodness, questions suited only to future politicians and piffle-mongers. It isn’t for me and I don’t think it would be for Arthur, more the power crazed dipsticks in the Home Office.

  31. Wayne Mook says:

    Ian – John Peel really was wonderful and generous, his radio 4 programmes were a gift too. I’ve just been catching up on some I, Ludicrous and was reminded on a programme that he was an early champion of Thin Lizzy. At the moment Laura Cantrell is playing in the background. Championing Alt Country and Jungle at the same time.

    As Peter points out the exams would be more of a problem, you can ramble in essays and even do self directed essays. Humour in essays can be a problem, I once forgot to take out a line that’d put in just to keep me going and amused and was marked down. “and so you must be careful not to disappear up your own solipsism.” This gives you an idea of the tedium of some essays if this is what kept me amused.

    So Peter if you can quote it you remember, so your not Lord Palmerston, as he forgot it, Albert is dead so you must be the mad German professor. I claim my 5 of Prussian boots and assorted Viking helmets.

    Wayne.

  32. Paul C says:

    John Peel used to make up (often rude) band names and slip them in to the introductory list ‘….and on tonight’s show…..’

    He would also omit the news and weather to cram more tracks in. As he thought, the BBC bigwigs never noticed.

    Top man.

  33. Helen Martin says:

    Jo, regardless of what caused it, I hope the misery goes away. Surely you can send the husband to get your book. Look pathetic and frail, it does wonders even if they don’t really believe you.

    I grew up with the Irish Question and did not know about the Schleswig-Holstein Question. I now have a specific topic to guide my family search as my German speaking relatives came from there just after The Question was debated. (German speaking but Princess Alexandra pounded her fists on Queen Victoria’s table declaring that, “The duchies belong to Papa, the duchies belong to Papa!” Since the Kaiser was at the dinner I imagine tension increased at that point.) I’m sure I can boil it down to a 200 word precis.

  34. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – ‘I, Ludicrous’ are such a good band. Their frankly bizarre song titles add to the allure. A favourite title of one of their songs is:
    “I’ve Never Been Hit By Mark E. Smith.” The late, great M.E.S. being a fan. Smith’s autobiography, ‘Renegade’, is definitely worth reading, by the way. It’s almost as funny as Stuart Maconie’s ‘Cider With Roadies’.

  35. Ian Luck says:

    Paul C – Peel was a law unto himself. If he played something he liked a lot, then there was a good chance that he’d play it again immediately. I listened to his show from the mid part of 1976, up until the mid 1990’s, when the BBC started mucking about with the time-slot.
    Back in 1976, he played a very fast, very loud, and very short track that sounded like nothing I’d ever heard, and it blew my 13 year old mind. It was ‘New Rose’, by The Damned. It was this new ‘Punk’ thing. And I loved it.
    Funniest thing I heard on one of his shows was his bemoaning the breaking of a bicycle light, and eventually getting a BBC Sound Engineer to fix it for him.
    David Cavanagh’s book, ‘Good Night, And Good Riddance’ is well worth a read. I got ‘something in my eye’ reading it, as I can remember a lot of the shows featured. Memory can be such a bastard sometimes.

  36. Ian Luck says:

    I just flicked through it at random, and found the following – a record called:
    ‘Bobby Made Me Eat A Frog’, by a band called ‘The Happy Flowers’, an American duo whose members are/were: ‘Mr Anus’, and ‘Mr Horribly Charred Infant’. I wonder if those were aliases?
    I have a very odd suspicion that this would be a band known to Arthur Bryant. Not his thing at all, but he’d know they existed.

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