Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Last Night's Tele : Upstart Crow


It was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch the first episode of Ben Elton's new six part comedy series Upstart Crow (part of the BBC's Shakespeare season) last night. Let's face it, Elton lost his sense of humour around about the same time he lost his left wing political beliefs, and anyone who can recall his last effort, the notorious flop The Wright Way, some three years ago will testify to that.

Upstart Crow stars David Mitchell as Shakespeare, leading a talented cast that includes Raised By Wolves star Helen Monks, Liza Tarbuck, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox, Rob Rouse, Gemma Whelan and Mark Heap. It sees Elton return to the Tudor England setting that worked so well for him with the second series of Blackadder and, it's fair to say, much of the gags and set-up owed a huge debt to that classic - even to the point where Shakespeare said, on more than one occasion, that he had 'a plan' to get himself out of the various fixes the plot threw his way. Add to that the fact that Rouse played a near Baldrick like servant called Bottom, and Gemma Whelan played a young woman with a desire to be on the stage in a time when only men were allowed to perform in theatres. Should she have to pass herself off as a man in subsequent episodes I can only say; 'Bob'

Whilst, in fairness to Elton, Upstart Crow was far superior to The Wright Way and his sitcom before that, 2005's atrocious Blessed, it was still a rather bitty affair. The talented cast had to tackle the usual overwritten, florid gags that Elton seems famous for, and his labouring of the stereotype that all young females are monosyllabic, grumpy idiots continued (with poor Monks being utterly wasted as Shakespeare's young daughter) to the point of sexism. There was also a peculiar 'joke' at Ricky Gervais' expense which saw one actor constantly boast he was 'popular in Italy' in a Gervais manner, which might have been topical (though never funny) some 10 years ago. Much of the humour derived from making modern day references, with Shakespeare lamenting the breaking down of his Stratford to London bound carriage and the subsequent replacement donkey service to London, as well as a dig at the drinking and dining clubs of Oxford with their rituals of sticking your genitalia in dead pigs. Time was this latter gag would have a suitable frisson, but Elton's swipes at the upper class seem somehow empty now we know how far he's betrayed his political leanings.

Overall, there were smiles more than laughs and the cast were charming enough to make you wish for its success. I will tune in next week to see if it improves.

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