Matt on the Box: The Hollow Crown, Upstart Crow, Cunk on Shakespeare, Mum and The TV Baftas

by | May 15, 2016 | All, Reviews

Welcome once again to a look back at the week in TV and in this edition we find things getting a bit Shakespearian thanks to a season of programming on BBC Two.

The season, that celebrates 400 years since the death of The Bard, is headlined by a new series of The Hollow Crown which carries on the adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays that first started in 2012. The first series of The Hollow Crown saw us take the journey from Richard II to Henry V with this new run concentrating on The War of The Roses. The final chapter of this Hollow Crown will see Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Richard III take centre stage but firstly there’s the little matter of the three parts of Henry VI to get through. Even though I’ve studied Shakespeare through both school and university, Henry VI is a play that I’m personally unaware of and I don’t think I’m in the minority on this one. In fact the most I know about this period in history was taught to me in the 2013 BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. Director Dominic Cooke’s adaptation of the play starts with the death of Henry V and the coronation of his infant son Henry. The drama then flashes forward seventeen years where the teenage Henry VI (Tom Sturridge) is attempting to deal with the war in France and his squabbling noblemen. Among them is the pompous Lord Protector Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville) and the scheming Plantagenet (Adrian Dunbar) who feels that he has legitimate claim to the throne himself. In fact one of the opening scenes sees Henry’s council attempt to choose between the King and Platagenet by picking either a white or a red rose to signify their loyalties. It is here that the seeds for the Wars of the Roses are planted and which flare up towards the end of the drama when we catch sight of the future Richard III for the first time. But until then there’s the little matter of the marriage of Henry to Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo) a match that is made by the play’s main antagonist Somerset (Ben Miles). It is Somerset’s influence upon Margaret, with whom he later conducts a rather steamy affair that sees Gloucester lose his role in the court and later breaks down communication between Henry and his noblemen completely. Somerset’s role in the drama was also the most intriguing aspect and it was the aspects of the political scheming that really won me over to the magic of Henry VI. As this opening instalment of The Hollow Crown was almost two hours long there were some aspects of it that didn’t work for me. Most of these were the scenes that took place in France that featured the death of Talbot (Philip Glenister) and the attempts to lead the French to glory from Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan). But on the whole I felt that this adaptation flowed well and that Dominic Cooke did a good job making Henry VI as accessible as possible.

Cooke was aided in this task by a fantastic cast of ubiquitous TV character actors all of whom did their best to make the audience understand the motivations of the various noblemen. Fresh off his stunning turn in the Line of Duty finale, I felt that Adrian Dunbar was perfect as Richard III’s father who believed that he should be sitting in the throne instead of the teenage Henry. Hugh Bonneville brought some of the middle-management energy that we saw him utilise in W1A to the role of the lord protector Gloucester. Bonneville was also ably supported here by Sally Hawkins as his haughty wife and the two were brilliant as the couple suffered through their social downfall in the play’s latter moments. Sophie Okonedo was brilliant as the powerful Margaret of Anjou who was able to influence the rather weak king who was ably portrayed by Tom Sturridge. Other fine turns were offered up by Jason Watkins, Samuel West and Philip Glenister with the latter making the most of his character’s bloody death scene. However the best performance of the bunch was given by Ben Miles who chewed the scenery as the downright dastardly Somerset who was able to manipulate his way throughout the course of the drama. I do believe it was the cast, especially Miles and Okonedo, who helped this instalment of The Hollow Crown be as entertaining as it could possibly be. Indeed there is always a barrier between Shakespeare and the regular TV audience due to the fact that we associate it with boring English lessons at school. That’s why Cooke has attempted to make the images on screen as visceral as possible from the blood-soaked French battlefields to the sumptuous courtrooms of England. As you would expect from a BBC period piece the costume and set direction were particularly excellent with the gowns worn by Okonedo and Hawkins being the standout offerings of the piece. I was personally won over by what Cooke and company had on offer throughout this first of two instalments focusing on the young King Henry VI. Despite it being a play that the majority of the audience are unfamiliar with I felt that themes and characters were contemporary enough for most to understand. The cast, sets and direction were all on form and combined to make this a memorable Shakespeare adaptation albeit one that had issues with pacing during its middle chapter. But ultimately I can’t say I wasn’t entertained and this opening instalment of The Hollow Crown definitely wet my appetite for the appearance of Richard III and more importantly the performance from one Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch.

For those of you who found the prospect of sitting down for an almost two-hour long adaptation of one of his plays slightly daunting, BBC Two also offered a lighter course of Shakespeare thanks to two new comedies that started last week. Firstly we had a new comedy from Ben Elton, a phrase that’s likely to strike fear into the hearts of any sitcom fan after the woeful The Wright Way. Thankfully Upstart Crow saw him back at his best although the show seems to have been made up of deleted scenes from Blackadder II. The show focuses on the life of Will Shakespeare (David Mitchell) as he splits his time between his family home in Stratford-Upon-Avon and his digs in London. As this was an opening episode, Elton seems to have focused on a universal subject matter namely the Bard’s creation of Romeo and Juliet. In Upstart Crow though Shakespeare has all intention of having his young couple living happily ever after that is until he allows the lovelorn son of Sir Robert Greene (Mark Heap) to stay at his home until he goes to university. Unfortunately Florian (Kieran Hodgson) soon falls for Shakespeare’s serving girl Kate (Gemma Whelan) and the Bard is forced to find a way out of a predicament that could cause him serious bother. Although you can see some of the gags coming a mile off, especially what will ultimately happen to Florian, Elton perfectly paces the show so that the gags never overpower the story. There’s also a great running gag about the line ‘Where For Art Thou’ Romeo that is actually very clever and Elton also satirises the sexual politics of the time to great effect. Of the cast I found that Mitchell really anchored the action well as Shakespeare and his tortured academic persona really suited that of the Bard. In supporting roles I found Liza Tarbuck and Harry Enfield gave memorable turns as Shakespeare’s wife and father respectively. Similarly amusing was the performance given by Dominic Coleman as the go-to performer of female parts who was hurt that he couldn’t play the thirteen-year-old Juliet. Although there is the argument that a lot of Upstart Crow is just recycled Blackadder gags that’s not exactly a bad thing as Elton’s historical comedy still remains one of the best British sitcoms of all time. Whilst I don’t think Upstart Crow will ever match Blackadder in terms of quality I still found it to be a consistently funny sitcom and a return to form for Ben Elton who I’d almost written off after the debacle that was The Wright Way.

Providing a neat little companion piece to Upstart Crow was mockumentary which also acted as a soo project for Charlie Brooker contributor Philomena Cunk. Cunk on Shakespeare saw the curious alter ego of comedienne Dianne Morgan attempt to discover exactly why The Bard’s plays are as well-loved as they are. As a character Cunk is a brilliant creation; a presenter who has no actual idea about the subject she’s covering but one who won’t let this fact stop her at all. As is the way with all these faux-documentaries the most interesting parts are the ones in which the character interviews real experts in the topic. It’s always great to try and work out whether or not the experts were taken in by Cunk or not and for the most part I feel they were. I felt that poor Simon Russell Beale probably had the worst of it as he had to complete the famous soliloquy from Hamlet which Cunk described as ‘a speech about bees’. Meanwhile Educating Yorkshire’s Mr Burton were as a little bemused by the presenter’s pronunciation of iambic pentameter and theatre director Iqbal Khan who attempted to explain what the audiences were like in Shakespeare’s day. The structure of the show was also expertly laid out with Cunk’s idiocy being perfect exploited through several clever segments where she discussed Shakespeare’s most famous works. I personally enjoyed the way in which Cunk drew comparisons between Shakespeare’s work and the plot of the film Taken with the presenter taking the view that the latter was a more entertaining experience. However the most hilarious moments came at the programme’s end when Cunk almost made us believe that Shakespeare’s final work was Game of Thrones. Diane Morgan must be given credit for creating a believable character whose presenting style and way with words makes her utterly convincing as a ditzy documentarian. If Cunk on Shakespeare is a sort of pilot to see if a series of shows featuring Philomena would work then I would say it was a success. As long as the scripts are as sharp as they were here, I think a full Philomena Cunk series would be a welcome return to the sort of shows that Sacha Baron Cohen used to make when he was funny. Overall I found Cunk on Shakespeare to be the better of the two comic looks at The Bard’s work and it’s a shame that it’s only a one-off. But that being said I think if the show had been over thirty minutes it may have worn out its welcome rather than being the sharp, witty mockumentary that it ultimately turned out to be.

Moving away from Shakespeare now we come to another comedy in the form of Mum; a new observational piece from Stefan Golaszewski who previously created fantastic Him and Her. The mum of the title is Cathy (Lesley Manville), a recently widowed fifty-nine year old who we follow over a year of her life. The opening episode takes place on the day of her husband’s funeral in January and sees her meet her son’s rather ditzy girlfriend Kelly (Lisa McGrillis) whose airhead nature is exposed early on when she decides to wear red to the funeral. As the episode goes on we meet the other colourful characters in Cathy’s life including her good-natured brother Derek (Ross Boatman), his highly-strung girlfriend Pauline (Dorothy Atkinson) and her late husband’s parents (Karl Johnson and Marlene Sidaway). The most intriguing character of the piece though is Michael (Peter Mullan), an old family friend who is quite clearly holding a torch for Cathy. Michael is painted as Cathy’s only confidant in a houseful of oddities and their sweet-natured conversations are a good contrast for the laugh-out-loud moments found elsewhere in Mum. Anyone who enjoyed Him and Her will know how good an ear Golaszweski has for natural dialogue and if anything the conversations in Mum feel more organic than those in the creator’s previous series. I think everyone will find something in this first episode in Mum that they identify with especially when the characters talk about what the post-funeral buffet will involve. Mum brilliantly combines its humour with moments of pathos such as the latter part of the episode when Cathy finally lets her grief get the best of her. By this point in the episode Cathy has already been painted as a sympathetic character by Golaszewski and the fact that we care about as much as we do is also a testament to the performance put in by Lesley Manville. Manville totally captures Cathy’s feelings on the day of the funeral and is brilliant at reacting to the various characters that have come to her house. However it’s the aforementioned breakdown that sees Manville at her best and I’m hoping that next year sees her win the BAFTA she lost out on this year. Great support is provided by Lisa McGrillis as Kelly and Dorothy Atkinson as Pauline the latter of whom utilises a number of great pompous facial expressions. But of the cast I was most impressed by Peter Mullan who is a revelation giving a rather subdued performance as the kindly Michael. Watching Mullan and Manville together on screen is a particular treat and their scenes together are some of Mum’s best and that only continues as the series gets going. Mum is one of those series that I just can recommend enough and I urge people go and seek it out as it is really that good.

Finally we don our glad rags and head to the BAFTA TV Awards; a night which became a forum for various winners to get impassioned speeches about the BBC. In fact the telecast of the BAFTAs was bookended by the star and director of the multi-awarding Wolf Hall doing their utmost to stick up for the public service broadcaster. After winning the award for Best Drama Series, the period drama’s director Peter Kominsky criticised the government’s need to demolish both the BBC and Channel 4 and take them out of the hands of the public. Several speeches throughout the night followed suit with James Nesbitt, who was presenting an award, praising the number of quality dramas the BBC have produced whilst writer Jack Thorne later said more needs to be done to help out disabled performers. However it was Mark Rylance, who won Best Actor for his role in Wolf Hall, who summed it up best when he talked about the entire gambit of entertainment that the TV brings into our home from drama and comedy to news reports and cooking shows. I thought that the way Rylance talked about being entranced by the video clips shown throughout the evening brought into focus the great TV that we produce in this country and on the night most of the awards went to the right people. I personally was very happy to see Chanel Creswell be rewarded for her fantastic performance as Kelly in This is England ’90 with the show itself picking up an award for Best Miniseries. The triumph of Peter Kay’s Car Share was another joy, as was the second speech Kay made when he talked about making people laugh. Other deserved winners included Tom Courtenay, Suranne Jones, First Dates and The Murder Detectives as well as old favourites such as Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake-Off. For me the only missteps were the awful Keith Lemon winning an award and the predictability of Poldark scooping the Audience Award despite being completely ignored by the academy elsewhere. Even though it’s a lot less mainstream that the National TV Awards, I do feel that the BAFTAs serve a purpose in so far as they give promotion to some great shows that people may have missed. If for example, fifty more people check out Don’t Take My Baby after its Best Single Drama win then I feel that the award show has done its job. My only quibble with the BAFTAs is the way in which BBC One make severe cuts to the ceremony so we only get to see a certain amount of awards handed out. I personally would’ve liked a red button option so I could make the choice for myself as I would’ve loved to see Shane Meadows and company receive their Miniseries Award in full. That issue aside, this year’s TV Baftas flowed wonderfully and in a year that was all about diversity it was great to see Lenny Henry’s Special Award win closing the show.

That’s your lot for now remember to follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I’ll see you next time for more of the same.

Matt Donnelly

Matt Donnelly


Made in Staffordshire, Matt is the co-editor of the site and co-host of The Custard TV Podcast. Matt has been writing about TV for over fifteen years and has written for the site for almost a decade. He's just realised this makes him a lot older than he thought he was.


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