The second series of Ben Elton’s Shakespeare sitcom, Upstart Crow, had a gentle start last night with The Green-Eyed Monster. The episode was framed around social climber Will (David Mitchell) trying to get a coat of arms in order to elevate his family status amongst his London peers. It became tangled however in the plot of Othello, with an African Prince falling for the landlord’s daughter and each pretending to be someone else which never ends well.
Some of the funnier scenes are with Kit Marlowe (Tim Downie) whose swashbuckling coolness David Mitchell’s Will can only aspire to. There are also some humorous nods to more modern ideas of fame and the nature of fandom as well as the likelihood of casting a black actor as a lead.
Instead of Will being the venerated genius we treat him as in real life it seems to be those around him, especially the women, who are giving him his best ideas and outsmarting him, in particular the landlord’s daughter (played brilliantly by Gemma Whelan).
Will’s family back home in Stratford-upon-Avon speak with Brummie accents and come complete with a moody teenage daughter which grounds the ridiculous escapades in a more plausible setting and there’s a lovely round up at the end of the episode with his wife (Liza Tarbuck).
While the sitcom may be an old fashioned format sometimes it still works. The best ones don’t rely solely on the title character to carry the whole show and this one has enough strong characters to keep it an ensemble piece. As well as the story of the play there is a very deliberate use of some of the common phrases that we still use that originated in Shakespeare’s day, if not definitely by him (“Green-eyed monster” being one).
The show can be appreciated whether you’re a Shakespeare aficionado, aware of him through school or vaguely remember that Doctor Who episode a while back (The Shakespeare Code). There’s something for everyone – just like in Shakespeare’s day – some base jokes for the groundlings in the pit and for the academics, references to author rivalry. For the majority of us in between though there is also a rather sweet, traditional family sitcom at the heart of it all. It is all at once ridiculous, believable, educational perhaps but mainly likeable.
David Mitchell is perfectly cast as Shakespeare as we know him to be erudite and witty and his public image is such that you can believe he probably speaks in soliloquies anyway. Although the character is Shakespeare and played by Mitchell it is often quite strongly Elton’s stand-up voice that comes though and I’m waiting for “a little bit of politics” (an early catchphrase) to be dropped in there at some point. In a link with Elton’s Saturday/Friday Night Live days, his contemporary Harry Enfield plays Will’s dad.
Ben Elton seemed to fall from favour for a while. He had as many ups and downs as his contemporaries but the media treated him disproportionately worse. Upstart Crow is a return to form and he appears to be taking delight in working with such rich material, bringing real warmth to it. I was a fan of Elton back in the day and of Mitchell now (am even partial to the odd Shakespeare play too) so it would’ve taken some doing for me not to like this. Perhaps there are not as many gags as I would have liked and some may find the shoehorning in of quotes and allusions to the period annoying but it’s not the “Be-all and the end-all”.
While I am Will–ing Upstart Crow to have more jokes, it is still an enjoyable watch and worth tuning in for again. “All’s well that ends well“
Contributed by Cecilia
Upstart Crow Continues Monday at 8.30pm on BBC2