A Ben Elton comedy set in Elizabethan times, complete with ruffs, dead bodies and cunning plans? It’s easy to dismiss Upstart Crow, the writer’s new comedy about Shakespeare, as a budget Blackadder – or spend the whole time comparing it to that legendary comedy. Doing so, though, would miss out on what makes the show really quite good.
With one season under his belt, David Mitchell remains, as you’d expect, suitably scathing as the wannabe playwright. He’s a smart piece of casting, capable of giving the archetypal scowling antihero a hint of likeable charisma – despite being bitter about his lack of success while alive, the Bard is far nicer than Mark from Peep Show – but also a dab-hand at reciting long-winded passages of dialogue that are deliberately wordy with just enough disdain to make their awkwardness amusing. It’s partly so Ben Elton can poke fun at Shakespeare’s blank verse, which can be intimidating, but also so he can poke fun at his own determination to squeeze in as many play references as possible.
It’s a laboured gag, but one that does double work here: on the one hand, it gives literature fans (certainly part of the target audience) something to enjoy, and, on the other, it fulfills the time-honoured trope of a contrived pay-off to each chapter of the sitcom: it’s brainy but formulaic, clever but familiar. And so we have episodes that reference Othello, as a visiting African Prince raises Shakespeare’s hopes of improving his social stock, and even Henry IV Part II, as Shakespeare’s former schoolmaster comes to stay, and is secretly involved in some coverty Roman Catholic antics. At times, it’s just a cute, if flimsy, hook for a story, such as Shakespeare trying to “tame” his stroppy teen daughter, and at others, it spirals into inspired diversions: a gag about a play involving identical twins separated at birth being far-fetched stumbles into an extended cameo by Noel Fielding as Thomas Morley, whom is hired to turn the concept into a Tudor musical.
It’s the supporting cast, more and more, who elevate Upstart Crow from being mediocre to diverting. The detail’s the thing, as the series’ broad strokes conceal tiny touches, particularly the smarts of his maid, Kate (Game of Thrones’ scene-stealing Gemma Whelan), who is without doubt the programme’s MVP – and she gets an increasing amount to do in this second run. She’s balanced nicely by Mark Heap, who is enjoying himself more than ever as the snooty, conniving Master of the Revels, Robert Greene. He not only boosts Bill the Bard’s underdog qualities, but also gets a chance to imitate Iago in one episode, which is genuinely funny.
The result is far from Blackadder and hardly Tom Stoppard, but any popular sitcom that encourages engagement with Shakespeare is no bad thing. Whether you’re a fan of the Bard or not, there’s enough to Shakespeare in Like here.