Wassail, Bard fans, and bid you tuck into a longer, slightly more heartwarming version of Ben Elton’s neatly-plotted Tudor titterfest starring David Mitchell as the world’s greatest writer Will Shakespeare.
Mitchell’s Will is a slightly befuddled character coping with the demands of a writing career in London with a demanding family back in Stratford-on-Avon. But he shows flashes of genius, not least when he quotes some rather familiar-sounding lines of blank verse that he (and only he, it seems) affirms will pass one day into common usage.
His wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck) is loving and wise – but stroppy daughter Susanna (Helen Monks) is very much a 21st century teen who gives him more than enough headaches.
In the Christmas special Will prepares to present his comedy Eighth Night before quite possibly the sternest judge in the land – Queen Elizabeth I. The Virgin Queen is played by none other than Emma Thompson.
Will and his mates will also have to contend with Robert Greene (Mark Heap) and his unquenchable thirst to get one over on the man he calls the “Upstart Crow”. (There was a real Robert Greene, a snobby university-educated writer who actually detested the real-life Will for much the same reasons as he does in the comedy). To this end, Greene inveigles himself into the Shakespeare family Christmas in Warwickshire with one thing on his mind: spite.
Who is in the cast?
As already mentioned, Emma Thompson will guest star as Queen Elizabeth I while Harry Enfield plays Will’s flatulent father John and Paula Wilcox is his more refined mother Mary (again this characterisation is loosely based on historical fact). Will’s best friend (and this isn’t entirely accurate, historically speaking) is Tim Downie’s smooth-talking, affable, if slightly unscrupulous fellow writer Kit Marlowe. (He’s based on the real-life Christopher Marlowe – author of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta.) And there is an amusing troupe of players to keep everyone entertained, also based on the Bard’s real-life acting company. One of them, Spencer Jones’ Will Kemp, is modelled on Ricky Gervais and comes up with gems like: “Oh, did I get an award? Oh, that’s right I did. A proper one. Not English. Italian.”
Is it any good?
While we’ve heard a lot of the other gags before – contemporary satirical jibes filtered through a 16th century context – this is as expertly-plotted as you’d expect from the masterly Ben Elton. The casting of Emma Thompson’s Queen in the London scenes is inspired, and her appearance is foregrounded by a rather clever in-joke about the Oscar winner’s character in another Christmas favourite, Love Actually. Overall, it’s also a little softer than usual – but that’s no bad thing. A rather moving tribute to the deep joys of marital love make this both seasonal and rather special.