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Review (****) Upstart Crow, Season 1, BBC 2016

By Alan Brown

December 4, 2017

 

‘Upstart Crow’, Series 1 is available In the UK:

from Amazon.co.uk  as a DVD for £9.99.
Series 1 & 2 are available to stream through Amazon Video UK  at £9.99 per series or £2.49 per episode, in HD.

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In the US the same options are available at different prices at Amazon.com.

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Upstart Crow would make a great Christmas present, but maybe you should review Shakespeare-related Christmas presents in our Shakespeare @ Christmas post.

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Our Bottom Line:

It is an affectionate and entertaining parody of the man and his work. Puckish, I’d say. Two of the six half hour episodes are classified ‘15’ for ‘strong sex references’ but it’s ribald, bawdy stuff, and not at all offensive. Just admire the gross ingenuity of some sustained metaphors.

 

Our Review (****)

There is no excuse. The BBC’s Upstart Crow may not quite fit into a Christmas stocking – unless yours is a pillow case – but you can stream both seasons straight onto your tinselled network, play ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ for some period flavour and then sit back and enjoy. You do obviously have to accept that Shakespeare and his works can be laughed at.

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It may have been seriously commissioned as part of the BBC’s Shakespeare Festival 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of the writer’s death but this is still jaunty fun with a payload of comedy experience behind it. Writer/creator Ben Elton knows how to make people laugh but in particular is a master (and defender) of the British sitcom. In Upstart Crow, as with Blackadder, he’s back to messing with English history, although this is literary history and there’s a Scotsman, right enough, in Episode 5, ‘What bloody man is that?’ Who indeed.

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Elton did his ‘A’ levels in Stratford upon Avon and then Drama at University and played Verges in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. He knows enough of Shakespeare to go to town on the Bard. Upstart Crow is an affectionate and entertaining parody of the man and his work. Puckish, I’d say. Two of the six half hour episodes are classified ‘15’ for ‘strong sex references’ but it’s ribald, bawdy stuff, and not at all offensive. Just admire the gross ingenuity of some sustained metaphors. It also gets my prize for comic screenwriting and – not unrelated – screen diction.

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So, the title Upstart Crow is an insult and reckoned to be the first ever printed reference to Shakespeare. It’s from Robert Greene’s Groat’s-worth of Wit (1592) in which Greene would dismiss Shakespeare as a vulgar, if colourful, plagiarist. Elton picks this up and – from Episode 3 on – turns it into a feud in which the odious, cackling, Greene (played to the hilt by Mark Heap) is a critic hell-bent on keeping Shakespeare down and out of favour. Poor Will, for whom ‘getting a bad review is worse than getting the plague’, would love to dismiss them as ‘puerile twitterings’ but by Episode 6, The Quality of Mercy, Greene is within knife point of getting his pound of flesh.

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Each episode starts with merry dance music and animated woodcuts of London’s citizenry, noble and ragged, making their way to Southwark and the theatre. Drinking pots are flung high, there’s prancing and the flag is up on the Globe’s flagstaff and the title banner is unfurled. Star-Crossed Lovers is first; a proto Romeo and Juliet in-the-making in Stratford where Susannah Shakespeare (Helen Monks) is not at all taken by what Dad has written. Poor Will’ – again! If it’s not the slimy Greene who’s at him, it’s his own family, particularly his eldest child who is as sulky and uncommunicative a thirteen year old girl as you would wish upon a great writer. And when she does speak it is with a glorious Black Country accent. The Shakespeare family is all at home. Rascal grandfather John (Harry Enfield) smokes his long pipe by the fire and much prefers the mumming plays of the old times. His wife, prim Mary (Paula Wilcox), does her sampler and still wonders how she married such a foul commoner. Shakespeare’s own wife, Anne (Liza Tarbuck), is buxom and warm and generous, except in Love is not Love (Episode 4) when she discovers that she is not the subject of hubby’s sonnets, all 154 of them. Once mollified and smoking her own pipe at the close of an episode, she is often the prompter to William’s best ideas, kindly left to the TV audience to follow through.

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David Mitchell plays Shakespeare with woebegone earnestness and is a dead ringer for the Droeshout portrait, used as the frontispiece for the title page of the First Folio. This is a playwright who insists that ‘a sentence sounds better if you mix the words up a bit’ and that he’s in show business. He is the put-upon genius in love with (his) words, mildly exasperated and frequently worried that no-one else seems to love them as much as he does. No matter, because although there is ‘Shakespeare’ in Upstart Crow much of its language is cod English of the highest order. 55% codswallop. Men wear capacious ‘puffling pants’ to cover their ‘bolingbrokes’. Watch out for splendid cross-gartered breeks in The Apparel Proclaims the Man, Episode 3.  Will’ rants about an inconsiderate ‘pasty brained arse mongel’ who went under the wheels of his carriage. (Aside: for a UK audience, and especially for London commuters – similarly dyspeptic diatribes against public transport feature in every episode.)

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William’s London lodgings are enlivened by Kit Marlowe (Tim Downie), who may be unreconstructed but is all laddish gentleman and good mate; educated, sweet, Kate (Gemma Whelan), Will’s landlady’s daughter, who really, really, wants to be an actor but that’s just plain silly for a girl; and sturdy Bottom, honest, plain speaking servant from up North. While down at the Red Lion is Richard Burbage’s company: broad chested Steve Speirs as the impresario himself; Dominic Coleman as Henry Condell, here given the woman’s roles; and Spencer Jones terrific as Will Kempe, the arch clown with post Renaissance ‘attitude’ and mannerisms.

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You can enjoy the episodes one by one, but there is continuity from 1 through 6, so it’s worth seeing them in order. My favourite is No.5, What Bloody Man is That?, for its laugh out loud moment at Banquo’s ghost and for William unloading just some of an Englishman’s feelings about the Scots. Almost as good, for its attention to ‘theatre’ and Tudor history, is Episode 2, The Play’s the Thing.

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A third season of Upstart Crow has been commissioned and a Christmas special is coming with a one-off appearance of Emma Thompson as Queen Elizabeth I. Ho ho ho time for all us groundlings!

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One Response to "Review (****) Upstart Crow, Season 1, BBC 2016"

  • Catherine Gerrard
    December 7, 2017 - 1:32 pm Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly with this review. I love Ben Elton’s writing, and I have often laughed out loud at the Upstart!

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