In real life Will Kempe was the Shakespearean clown who was the superstar of his day.
Audiences would flock for miles around to watch the great man perform his Falstaff or famous jig at the Globe theatre after one of the plays by the great darling of the stage – and the age – Will Shakespeare.
And in Upstart Crow, Ben Elton’s BBC2 comedy reimagining of the life of the great poet and dramatist, Kempe is presented as… a cocky C16th Ricky Gervais.
The character, played by comedian Spencer Jones has precisely aped Gervais’s voice and mannerisms and frequently boasts about his popularity abroad. But instead of being big in America – like Gervais is now – Kemp is always telling people he is huge “in Italy.”
“Oh, did I get an award?, oh, that’s right I did,” he says channeling the Office star. “A proper one. Not English. Italian.”
He is described in the comedy by fellow actor Henry Condell as an “insufferable smuglington” because of his successes.
Producer Gareth Edwards said that the character was an “affectionate nod” to Gervais, adding: “Kemp, of course, was the absolute leading clown of his day. He was a huge cult figure to whom people would flock from miles around. He did a jig through Britain which was like the stadium tours now. Really what we tried to show was that every era has its own maverick comedy guy who’s slightly ahead of his time and is following the beat of a slightly different drum.
“Hollywood now was Italy then. There’s a sense that somehow we’re in not quite the best culture, there’s always somewhere overseas that’s doing a bit better. It’s very neat and very funny, that there’s always somewhere overseas that is that bit better and carries more cultural weight. And I think Spencer’s performance is hilarious and trying to say ‘this was happening then and it’s happening now’ and in 400 years time there’ll be someone else wearing that mantle.”
And while Edwards admitted that Gervais has not been told about the character, he believes he will be able to take the joke.
Gervais’ press representatives declined to comment.
Upstart Crow begins on BBC2 on Monday 9th May