I’ve really enjoyed watching the new sitcom Upstart Crow on the BBC iPlayer recently. It’s written by Ben Elton, a man who, although he’s been responsible for some remarkably bad sitcoms (and, let’s be honest, some pretty ropey stand-up as well), has always had one redeeming feature – the fact that, back in the Eighties, he co-wrote Blackadder with Richard Curtis. He’s (finally) returned to Blackadder territory for his new one, which has been done as part of the BBC’s desire to commemorate the quadricentenary (I think that’s the right word) of William Shakespeare’s death. Set in the 1590s, Upstart Crow depicts William Shakespeare as a writer on the cusp of fame – he’s made a bit of a name for himself with some long-winded plays about Henry VI and some poetry – who’s struggling to balance his professional life in London with his home life back in Stratford. He’s played – in a brilliant piece of casting – by David Mitchell. The Bard of Stratford in the style of Mark from Peep Show? Oh yes – and it really works.
Will, as he is called here, is a genius who’s conscious of his humble origins as he tries to break into a profession in which most people went to university. He’s struggling with the first draft of his teenage romance, particularly the meaning of the word ‘wherefore’ when it’s used in the balcony scene, and toys with the idea of killing the main characters off rather than letting them live happily ever after (which is how everyone assumes it’s going to end). This leads into a running gag where his landlady’s daughter keeps badgering him to let her play the female lead, in breach of the laws of the time which only allowed men on the stage (“you know very well that it is illegal for girls to do anything interesting”). It came as no surprise to this Blackadder fan that said landlady’s daughter is called Kate, for this is the name of the young lady who pretends to be a boy in order to get gainful employment under the pseudonym ‘Bob’ in both the Elizabethan and First World War incarnations of that sitcom; brilliantly, Gabrielle Glaister, the actress who played Kate/Bob in Blackadder, makes a brief appearance in Upstart Crow as a judge called ‘Robert Roberts’ who turns out to be a woman.
Like Edmund Blackadder, the Will of Upstart Crow is a man with upward ambition surrounded by fools and enemies. His servant, Bottom, may be a bit smarter than Baldrick but Brian from Spaced goes full panto-villain as the Lord Melchett equivalent Robert Greene – a real person, best known today for his pamphlet in which he complained about an actor from the provinces who thought he could write just as well as the university-educated playwrights (widely perceived as an attack on Shakespeare himself, this is where the phrase ‘upstart crow’ comes from); as with all the best British sitcoms, there’s class conflict and snobbery a-plenty here. Over at the theatre, there’s an actor whose lines all point to a send-up of Ricky Gervais that eventually gets a bit tiresome (how, one wonders, has he offended Mr Elton?). There’s a good turn from Tim Downie as Will’s better-connected and slightly Flashheart-esque friend Kit Marlowe, while Liza Tarbuck and Harry Enfield are on top supporting form as Will’s wife and father back in Stratford (Will’s constantly travelling back and forth between London and his home town; the sixteenth-century spin on commuting jokes does wear a bit thin by the fourth or fifth episode).
There’s so much Shakespeare-related stuff that gets touched on given that this is a six-part series. Did people at the time find those laboured jokes funny? Apparently not (“don’t do comedy, it’s not your strong point”), and they’re not keen on the overly flowery language either. An actor who does the female parts complains about the lack of good lines for men who play women. If you’ve ever wondered, as many an English Lit student probably has, what Shakespeare’s wife thought of all those sonnets which were lovingly dedicated to either another woman or a man, or whether people at the time might have wondered about Shakespeare’s sexual orientation due to the latter (“God’s naughty etchings! Why does everyone presume that just because I wrote 126 love poems to an attractive boy that I must be some kind of bechambered hugger-tugger?”), we have a scenario where this plays out; the same episode has a lovely gag in which it is predicted that, in the future, hardly anyone’s going to bother reading the sonnets in their entirety anyway, although one of them could be popular at weddings.
Cleverly, each episode title is a quote from a Shakespeare play or poem, and each episode ends with Mr and Mrs Shakespeare discussing the events that have just occurred and wondering about whether the sometimes ridiculous scenarios in which Will found himself (writing a play to catch someone’s conscience, getting tricked into wearing silly hose with cross-garters, etc) can be used for future plays. There are Shakespeare-style asides to the audience (although this is only really done to good effect in the later episodes). Elsewhere, the usually ludicrous ‘Shakespeare authorship’ question, always deserving of a good take-down (see Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare for a good one), gets wonderfully turned on its head – for here, Will is secretly writing his mate Kit’s plays for him on the side as well as his own.
There may be a few bits that need ironing out (a couple of running gags that go on for too long, mainly), but for the most part there is much to like about Upstart Crow. Apparently there’s to be a second series. Hooray!