Upstart Crow’s David Mitchell on Shakespeare – and watching Only Connect with his wife

The comedian and Peep Show star says even having Victoria Coren Mitchell on the sofa next to him can't help him solve the Connecting Wall...

David Mitchell (Getty)

Unlike everyone else, David Mitchell doesn’t like watching David Mitchell on television. “It makes me nervous,” says the star of Upstart Crow.

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“I don’t enjoy it at all, though I’m slightly more relaxed when it’s a repeat of a show. Then I think, ‘Oh well, people must have liked that one – however weird I look to myself, it sort of worked.’ Otherwise it’s always a little bit like when you first hear your recorded voice on an answer machine, and you can’t believe you sound like such a t**t.”

As we’ll discover, Mitchell is at his happiest when he’s slightly unsettled and would only really worry if there was nothing to worry about. This is a man who calculates how much of his life he has spent staring at his phone – “It must have wasted my finite span, and that makes me miserable” – and goes on Twitter specifically to see what strangers are arguing about.

“I work my way back along the thread trying to deconstruct these little rows that people are having. I do a lot of that. I sincerely wish the internet didn’t exist. I think it’s awful. It’s a disastrous invention, like nuclear weapons.”

We’ve come together to celebrate the ongoing success of Upstart Crow – or as near as to celebrate as Mitchell’s relentless self-deprecating outlook will allow. Ben Elton’s comedy is now in its third series, and of course Mitchell plays the lead, William Shakespeare. But rather than the foundational genius of English drama, Mitchell’s Swan of Avon is a much put-upon Warwickshire husband and jobbing playwright juggling the demands of his family and a 100-mile commute by horse to London in the late 16th century.

“It’s some of the best stuff that Ben has written,” says Mitchell, “and I absolutely love doing it. The rhythm of it suits me, it’s so brilliantly sayable, and I’m not only working with Ben, but also Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox, some of the people I massively admired when I was younger and dreaming of what it would be like to work on TV. I still find that amazing.”

The role has irrefutably proved that Mitchell is just as funny when he’s not working with Robert Webb, the comedy partner he met at Cambridge Footlights 25 years ago. (Mitchell was president in 1996, if you doubt the determination to succeed behind that eternally defeated public demeanour.) From 2001’s The Mitchell and Webb Situation, the pair starred in nine series of Peep Show, the 2007 film Magicians and various other Mitchell and Webb manifestations, winning two Baftas and a Royal Television Society Award along the way.

Webb’s recent success as an author (his 2017 memoir How Not to Be a Boy was acclaimed) has further separated a pair of performers who were so enmeshed in each other’s lives that Mitchell jokes he and his wife Victoria Coren Mitchell have “a huge picture of Robert’s face, made up of thousands of small pictures of my face” on the wall of their London home. If Webb was the significant other of Mitchell’s early career, then Coren is the one that matters now.

Since their marriage in 2012, Mitchell has regularly and enthusiastically told the world just how much he loves her. He likes to spend his evenings at home with Coren in front of “old-fashioned DVD box sets, and occasionally a series on Netflix” and watching advance copies of Only Connect, the brainbox quiz show that Coren presents.

Back, starring Louise Brealey, David Mitchell, Robert Webb
Back, starring Louise Brealey, David Mitchell, Robert Webb (Channel 4)

“Sometimes I get an answer right,” he says. “Largely because you can pause the DVD and give yourself ten times the amount of time the contestants have had, it’s easier to get the answer. Sometimes Victoria can remember an answer from the recording but, like most viewers of Only Connect, our experience of watching is not really having a clue what any of the answers are.”

Caught up in our conversation – he is by turns both candid and funny – I find myself asking an entirely inappropriate question: if he and Victoria separated, would Mitchell have to give up watching Only Connect? “I’m sorry, what exactly do you mean?” he says, sounding momentarily offended, if not hurt. Then he continues unabated: “I’d say that would be quite low down the list of downsides! Because if we split up, my whole world would fall apart. But yes, I’d also have to avoid BBC2. But you know, I’d be in a ditch, so I probably wouldn’t have access to a television.”

Although he jokes almost constantly, I think Mitchell means it when he says he’d be in a ditch. Similarly, when he claims he was so upset by a murder in the US musical drama series Nashville, one of the box sets he and Coren watch, that he had to check that all the doors to the house were locked; “It threw me off my equilibrium.”

He’s found the state of the world “slightly worrying” since the birth of their daughter, Barbara, in 2015. “The frailty of human existence is made clear enough in everyday life, you don’t need that in order to spice up a TV programme. That’s why I always like watching old TV murder things like Poirot. Somehow the terrible crime at the core of it is brushed aside, and then it becomes a picturesque conundrum.”

Perhaps he’d be happier with kids’ television? “Actually, Barbara doesn’t watch much children’s TV,” he says. “Mainly Peppa Pig and Hey Duggee and I think they’re both great. Though I’m biased because I play Policeman Panda in Peppa Pig.” Has Barbara realised that it’s Daddy? “No, she completely failed to notice. I explained to her afterwards, and she seemed unimpressed.”

Despite Upstart Crow being on its third series, Mitchell’s home isn’t packed with Shakespeare. “I think it’s for performing,” he says. “We’ve two copies of the complete works of Shakespeare, one that I brought to the marriage and one that Victoria did. Macbeth is one of the few plays I just read. It’s not up there with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 09:00:01 on 05/12/2017 - Programme Name: Upstart Crow - TX: n/a - Episode: A Christmas Crow (No. 7) - Picture Shows: Will (DAVID MITCHELL), Queen Elizabeth (EMMA THOMPSON) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Colin Hutton
David Mitchell and Emma Thompson in Upstart Crow (BBC)

I must reel in horror because he suddenly becomes serious about the Bard. “There are too many brilliant bits of poetry that come into daily life to deny that Shakespeare was probably the greatest writer there’s ever been – but also we have to face the fact it’s all in 16th-century language, and it’s for a form of entertainment that’s a long theatrical production in the open air. I’d be the last person to say that going to see a Shakespeare production is always brilliant fun. It can be, but it can also be boring.”

Mitchell first appeared in a Shakespeare play when he played Friar Lawrence – “stick thin, and of tired brow, and habit” – in a production of Romeo and Juliet, at Abingdon, the 760-year-old public school he attended in Oxfordshire. “It’s full of very long, boring speeches, but I was in it for hearing the sound of my own voice, so the fact they were long was good enough for me.”

He’s a strange kind of show-off, self-deprecating and attention-grabbing at the same time. That might be why he’s so effective on game shows like The Unbelievable Truth on Radio 4 and Would I Lie to You? on BBC1. Both are cosy programmes for a man who claims to be concerned about the dark turn of current events.

“There’s a lot of troubles in the world, and there are always wars going on. I think you’d go mad if you took the current level of crisis as justification for suspending all light-heartedness. I also think there’s a strong argument to suggest you need to keep some light-heartedness no matter how bad things get. If you’re not a fireman, then play whatever musical instrument you like while Rome burns, whatever keeps your stress levels containable.”

Besides, he’s got the future to fret about. When should he let Barbara have her own mobile? “I will try and inhibit her phone use, but not to an Amish degree. Inevitably, that will involve me letting her have a phone and go online and stuff before I’m comfortable with that, but also later than she feels a normal parent would allow.”

That sounds like the perfect David Mitchell solution. “Yes, try and find a compromise that no one’s happy with.”

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Upstart Crows airs on Wednesdays at 8.30pm on BBC2