2016 marks four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare and, in honour of the famous playwright’s contribution to the world of literature and theatre, celebratory performances are rampant, peaking in BBC One’s recent star-studded Shakespeare Live production broadcast from Stratford-upon-Avon itself. But what does BBC Two have up its sleeve for the occasion, you ask? Well, it would seem, they have a cunning plan…
Rather than bombard us with more versions of Shakespeare classics or documentaries about his life and times, what we’re instead treated to here is something that somehow mixes those two elements together in the form of a studio sitcom. Fresh from the final series of Peep Show, David Mitchell jumps into a bald cap and wig to take on the role of the Bard, and acclaimed comedy writer Ben Elton is at the helm on the scripts. On paper, it sounds like a promising premise – but how does it actually work in reality? Surprisingly well, as it happens. Upstart Crow is the rarest of things – a new, genuinely old-fashioned feeling situation comedy that somehow isn’t complete and utter trollop.
The first episode in this six-part series, titled Star Crossed Lovers, is all about Shakespeare’s struggles to write his most popular play of all, Romeo and Juliet (a formula that the series looks set to follow, with a different play at the forefront of each subsequent week). The dialogue is absolutely full of all the oldy-worldy and overly poetic language that you’d expect from Shakespeare, but it’s played for laughs and the supporting characters outright question William about his inability to speak in normal sentences – it’s kind of his thing, he boasts. It’s not all incomprehensible though, with a healthy mix of contemporary(ish) talk as well – one of the characters is a grumpy teenager, after all. It may feel a little jarring at first to those who are expecting full-on historical accuracy, but once you realise that there’s actually some playful linguistic twists going on (with one character described as “a bit of a wankington”) you come to appreciate the balance of old and new.
The plot itself is standard sitcom fare – Shakespeare can’t think of a good ending for his play (nor find suitable actors to play the title roles), meanwhile he’s tasked with looking after Florian, the nephew of William’s nemesis Robert Greene, who inexplicably falls a little bit too in love with one of Shakespeare’s female associates. The climax is pretty much exactly what you’d expect – at least, if you’re at all familiar with the ending of Romeo and Juliet – and it’s a neat concept to see a take on how the Bard got the inspiration for his work in comedy form. In fact, perhaps unsurprisingly, the whole thing feels very Blackadder (specifically, Blackadder II) – which is to be expected really, considering the period setting and the fact that they share the same writer. While Upstart Crow is by no means as perfectly constructed as its obvious predecessor, the nods are welcome and a nice throwback to a simpler time when British sitcoms were undoubtedly at their pinnacle. They sure don’t make ’em like they used to.
In terms of performance, David Mitchell is great as Shakespeare, essentially playing a more pompous version of himself – complete with his trademark panel show-esque delivery of lines and self-deprecating, sarcastic wit. The supporting cast are good fun too, particularly Kieran Hodgson as Florian and Gemma Whelan as Kate. Rob Rouse’s Bottom (the character, not his… *ahem*) also deserves a mention, although he does come off as a slightly poor man’s Baldrick – hopefully he will be given more of a chance to shine in the coming weeks. Oh, and Harry Enfield is in it too, as Shakespeare’s dad – he has a couple of good moments, but he’s not one of the highlights of this episode at least. As for the script, it’s not flawless and it takes a little while to reach its stride, but when it does it hits more than it misses – there’s some subtle gags about David Cameron (or, perhaps more accurately, David Hameron) and some hilarious social commentary on the upper classes and high-ranking universities. Truthfully, that’s what Ben Elton has done best with Upstart Crow – bringing the history bang up to date with humour fit for the 21st Century.
There’s still plenty of time for the series to fully flourish – or to fall apart entirely – but, for a first outing, Star Crossed Lovers is a solid start to what will hopefully be another classic British sitcom. I’ll certainly be tuning in again at 10pm next Monday night to see what else Ben Elton and David Mitchell have in store for us.