Ahead of Upstart Crow series two, comedy writer Ben Elton reveals why Shakespeare was the original sitcom writer
I was recently given the honour of delivering the inaugural BBC Ronnie Barker Lecture, an annual reflection on some aspect of the comic arts. I chose to speak about the studio sitcom and the wonderful contribution this televisual art form has made to our culture and even national character over the past 60 or 70 years.
As any comedy-lover knows, there are two very different methods of making a sitcom. One is to record them in a studio, on numerous cameras at once in front of a live audience. The other is to shoot them on a single camera, without an audience and normally on location. I’ve worked in and love both styles, but the studio method has had a bad press in recent years. People call it cheesy and old-fashioned. In fact it’s the younger of the two forms, having been developed for television in the 1950s, while the single-camera sitcom goes back to before the First World War and the Keystone Kops.
The other charge regularly aimed at studio shows is that the laughter is canned. All I can say is that, in my entire experience over nearly 40 years, what you hear on studio shows is real. When you watch a repeat of Dad’s Army, the laughter you hear is the very same that Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier heard on the night the show was performed. The very laughs to which they timed those iconic performances.
When I began developing Upstart Crow for the BBC, there was never any doubt in my mind that it should be a studio-style show. The theatrical nature of the scripts begged a live audience to give the show life, and with David Mitchell leading seasoned comic pros like Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox and Liza Tarbuck, I knew my scripts would bowl along with their natural ensemble timing. A studio night is really just a live theatre performance, except there’s a bank of cameras between the stage and the audience.
Upstart Crow writer Ben Elton
My favourite British sitcom is Fawlty Towers, the ultimate “theatrical” sitcom. Perfect mini-farces performed largely on just a couple of sets with big double takes, pratfalls, slapstick violence and furious declamatory monologues. That kind of heightened reality and comic energy can only be achieved with an audience to play off.
And to my mind it’s perfect for Shakespeare. He was the ultimate man of the theatre and used every trick available: “asides”, internal monologues, declamatory rants, costume gags, cross dressing and oafish clowning. I wanted all that theatrical energy for our Shakespeare sitcom.
But to get that you don’t just need an audience. You also need an extraordinary community of skills – the studio sitcom is a fantastically demanding discipline. Each episode is recorded in a single evening. You get just two and a half hours. When you watch a classic Only Fools and Horses, that’s how long they had to make it. There are six or seven camera teams, all moving and recording at once, capturing the flow and timing of a live presentation. Each scene is recorded in its entirety, while in a darkened vision suite the camera feeds are edited live as the director, vision mixer, continuity person and editor cut the show together as it’s being performed.
And whatever is captured in those frantic few hours is what gets broadcast. There are no second chances. When you watch a Miranda or a Not Going Out, you’re getting a live theatrical show. That’s what makes it feel so immediate. So warm. So welcoming.
When we make an episode of Upstart Crow and I see the actors in their beautiful Elizabethan costumes about to step out before the audience, I can’t help but think of the actors of Shakespeare’s day. Burbage, Kempe and Condell. I imagine them, standing in the wings about to make their entrances. It’s lovely to think that we are all part of one great, continuous British theatrical tradition. Suddenly our TV studio doesn’t seem so very different from the famous Globe itself, Shakespeare’s original “Wooden O”.
Upstart Crow returns on Monday 11th September at 8.30pm on BBC2