Monday, February 20, 2017

Upstart Crow: A Shakespearean Sit-Com

“Star Crossed Lovers.” By Ben Elton. Perf. David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck, Paula Wilcox, Helen Monks, Harry Enfield, Gemma Whelan, Rob Rouse, Mark Heap, Dominic Coleman, Steve Speirs, and Spencer Jones. Dir. Matt Lipsey. Upstart Crow. Season 1, episode 1. ABC. 9 May 2016. DVD. Paramount, 2007. 

Alert reader and Shakespeare-related novel writer Jean Hegland (for whom, q.v.) pointed me toward Upstart Crow, a sit-com in the old style, complete with either live studio audience or a laugh track.

And it's brilliant.

The show is about Shakespeare trying to make a name for himself as a playwright. We're most often either in his house in Stratford or in his London lodgings. The scheme is for each episode to include a real-life event drawn from Shakespeare's fictional drama. For example, Shakespeare gets into debt to Robert Greene, with whom he's signed a "pound of flesh" agreement. Or he needs a potion to make it appear that someone is dead. Those episodes usually conclude with Anne telling Will that he should put something like that in the play he's working on—but Shakespeare usually discounts the idea, arguing that it would be too unbelievable.

I'm supremely pleased by David Mitchell's Will Shakespeare. He plays the character somewhere between Peter Bowles' Richard DeVere in To the Manor Born and Fawlty Towers' very own Basil Fawlty.

The writer of the show is Ben Elton, who wrote for Balack Adder. Some Shakespeare did make its way into Black Adder (for which, q.v.), but not nearly enough for my tastes. This show rectifies that, providing huge lashings of Shakespeare in every episode.

Other contemporaries of Shakespeare make their way into the show. Robert Greene is always trying to one-up the upstart; Henry Condell and Richard Burbage are constantly complaining about their parts; and Will Kempe is always looking down his nose at everyone else because he understands modern comedy and they don't. He's clearly a sixteenth-century equivalent to Ricky Gervais' David Brent in the BBC Office.

Let me give you a couple quick scenes as a sample. This first scene is the show's opening. Shakespeare is back at home in Stratford, working on Romeo and Juliet—and they work in some good material surrounding the perennial potential "wherefore" confusion. It moves from there to Shakespeare's London lodging, where we get him complaining about his journey in a very modern way. Finally, it cuts to part of the plot (a man in love with the wrong woman has been sent to Shakespeare's lodgings for safekeeping) that provides a callback to the wherefore material:

I'm very fond of the way the show slyly points out that the first name isn't actually the problem preventing Juliet and Romeo from getting married. And the line "If you do your research, my stuff is actually really funny" is genius of the highest order.

This next clip provides a bit of the players from episode five ("What Bloody Man is That?"). It gives us Kempe as David Brent, comedy mastermind:

And I can't resist giving one more in that vein. It's from episode six: "The Quality of Mercy," and it's clearly Kempe as both David Brent and Ricky Gervais when he proposes an entirely new kind of comedy for their proposed new theatre:

The more I dip into the show, the more I like it. It's currently only available in a Region 2 DVD, but I hope a US release is in the works. And I gather that there's a possibility of a second season for the show, so let's keep our eyes peeled for that.

Links: The Wikipedia Entry for the Show.

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Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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