Rating : ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Categorisation: Period Sitcom
Availability: You may need to search for this one – I found the DVD readily available to buy online
Plot: Upstart Crow gives us a glimpse into the daily life of William Shakespeare. But this is no highbrow series. Here Ben Elton gives us the lowbrow-lowdown on Will’s work and family life. It is visually authentic with 16th century interiors and costumes, complete with ruffs and balloon frilled trousers. Then Ben Elton’s smart script gives us a new language – an Elizabethan and contemporary hybrid. “I am a dunceling clumbletrousers” says one erring character. And when the Bard is whining about his public transport trip from London to Stratford – an ongoing gag throughout the whole series – he complains “now we’re jammed together like two boobies in a bodice”. The twenty, half-hour episodes brought together by the BBC are clever, amusing, and great fun. It’s Ben Elton at his best.
Cast: The British comedian David Mitchell plays Shakespeare perfectly as he strives to take his rightful place as England’s most important literary figure. His family remain unconvinced of his talent, and the evil and conniving playwright and critic Robert Green, played wonderfully by Mark Heap, undermines him at every turn (it was in fact Robert Green who originally called Shakespeare an ‘upstart crow’ – a cutting critique of his character that has endured over time). Everyone does well in this series. But the standouts for me are Tim Downie playing the swaggering posh-boy Christopher Marlowe, and Gemma Whelan playing Will’s bright and lively, yet constantly put-down assistant Kate. She hilariously brings the contemporary feminist voice to the series. She wants to play Juliet on the stage, but Shakespeare and Marlowe scoffingly make the obvious clear to her – men play female roles far better than any woman can …what was she thinking! The only character striking a wrong chord in the series is Will Kempe, the famous English actor played by Spencer Jones. While Jones does it well, Elton’s parody of Ricky Gervais in The Office, is excessive and becomes tiresome as the series progresses.
Filming and setting: The set is relatively simple, mostly being staged in the Shakespeare kitchen at Stratford-upon-Avon, or the Bard’s lodgings in London, with an occasional Italian excursion. It is all beautifully filmed. The biggest achievement in the series though, is Ben Elton’s script – it is rich, fast, funny and intelligent. He uses the episodes to imagine how each of Shakespeare’s plays were written, and he does so brilliantly.
Personal Comments: While I didn’t like some of the really gross humour in Upstart Crow (I concede this might be a cultural thing – the British do seem to enjoy their lavatorial humour), I think it is a terrific series. For any fan of Shakespeare, this is definitely one to watch. But be prepared – like Ben Elton’s historical sitcom, Blackadder, it’s irreverent while being historically authentic – well almost.