Is Ben Elton’s new Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow as good as Blackadder?

Ben Dowell takes a look at the new comedy starring David Mitchell as a Bard split between London and a raucous family in Stratford-on-Avon

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Written by Ben Elton? Check. Tudor setting? Check. Studio sitcom? Check. Comic reworking of well-known plots and tropes from English history and culture in an elaborate script peppered with wordplay? Check. Check.

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No wonder the new BBC2 comedy Upstart Crow comedy is being discussed in the same breath as the hit Rowan Atkinson sitcom, Blackadder.

Ben Elton – the writer of both shows, who has been pilloried for a lot of his recent work including the fairly dire The Wright Way – is clearly returning to his strengths. And I would say this does indeed deserve comparisons with Blackadder, the brilliant comedy he co-wrote with Richard Curtis, because it is very good.

Set at the start of William Shakespeare’s extraordinary career, Upstart Crow sees David Mitchell’s William, resplendent in bald cap and wig, as an engaging mixture of bemused parent, smart-alec genius and withering observer in a well-constructed opening story peppered with some good gags and the kind of elaborate wordplay so beloved of Blackadder fans. 

Mitchell’s Bard is asked to look after the nephew of Mark Heap’s absurdly florid and snobbish Robert Greene (the rival real-life scribe who called him the Upstart Crow in a well documented pamphlet he wrote about him) to stop the wayward young man from marrying beneath his station.

Of course things go horribly and hilariously wrong in a story that – Blackadder style – is a quick-witted re-working of a well-known yarn. In the case of episode one it is Romeo and Juliet, while plays like Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night will form the template for future episodes. Each half-hour ends with William having a fireside chat with his sardonic wife Anne played by Liza Tarbuck.

Nostalgics will warm to the conventional feel and Elton’s 1980s-style political digs (remember when he was an angry young stand-up?) to complement more up-to-date targets such as Bullingdon buffoons and, er, Ricky Gervais.

The Office star is here reimagined as Shakespeare’s cocky actor colleague Kempe, constantly boasting about being “big in Italy” (pic, below).

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The latest research suggests that Shakespeare travelled more and more between his theatrical life in London and his home life in Stratford and the comedy is split between the two locations.

In London there is an extended family, his servant Bottom (Rob Rouse), his friends Kate (Gemma Whelan) and Marlowe (Tim Downie) and the members of his theatrical troupe.

What’s clever and welcome about this show is that it doesn’t turn the greatest literary genius ever to walk these islands into a buffoon. He is a smart cookie whose principal comedy foible is that he probably believes the best of people and (as we all know) was something of a middle class social striver. But he’s not an idiot.

The sitcom format also seems oddly appropriate. As Mitchell himself says (and I agree): “We felt with Shakespeare as obviously a very theatrical figure, the more theatrical sitcom form was justified, and that allows a script that’s written with laugh points, gags that land. That’s a huge pleasure to play because you say the joke, people laugh and it feels in your brain like you made it up yourself.”

I also enjoyed the way Elton made Will’s home life feel very modern – replete with Harry Enfield’s mickey-taking Dad and Helen Monks’ deliciously stroppy daughter Susanna, all talking in broad Brummie accents.

She seems to be the only member of the Bard’s household who is actually literate and you can’t help feeling that her Dad has a particularly soft spot for her.

I think a lot of comedy fans will have similarly warm feelings about Upstart Crow.

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Upstart Crow begins on BBC2 on Monday 9th May