Why you should be watching Shakespeare and Hathaway
Brendon Connelly | On 09, Feb 2020
Cosy murder mysteries are alive and well on the BBC. Their flagship is probably the sunny, breezy Death in Paradise, which draws in buoyant audiences through both linear broadcast and the iPlayer. But we’re not so concerned with the old-fashioned restrictions of TV scheduling; around here, supposedly-daytime fare such as Father Brown, The Mallorca Files and Shakespeare and Hathaway will be judged on the same terms as anything else. These shows are on tele when we say they’re on. No pre-emptive excuses for so-called ‘student and housewife’ telly here.
While budgets for daytime broadcast are going to be – cough – somewhat restrictive, a little bit of imagination, some good craft, and, most importantly of all, fun characters and neat stories are what really counts when catering for those who crave a good ‘cosy’ fix. There’s no reason that a program that only gets listed in the smallest of small print of Radio Times can’t actually deliver.
The longest running of the BBC’s ongoing wave of ‘murder in the afternoon’ shows is Father Brown, adapted from GK Chesterton’s classic clerical detective stories, and which has been airing since January 2013. It was many of the team behind that show who came together to launch Shakespeare and Hathaway in 2017, this time from an original concept.
The basic idea is deceptively simple. Private Investigators Frank Hathaway and Lu Shakespeare solve murders in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, and their world is absolutely stuffed with allusions to the bard and his works. Episode titles are Shakespearean quotes, characters have familiar names and lines of dialogue skew our expectations, such as “Is that Mick Jagger I see before me?” or the overheard punchline of an anecdote being “And then he was chased off by a bear.” Sometimes these are sneaky little clues, sometimes these nods exist only to wrong-foot us.
Combine those ‘culture lite’ tropes with the lovely locales of Arden and Stratford and it’s obvious why the show would prove to be eminently exportable, playing in 175 countries around the world. But none of this explains why Shakespeare and Hathaway is actually of good quality and well-deserving of your time.
The show’s real pleasures are rooted in… well, we gave you the clues earlier, if you were paying attention. It all stems from fun characters and neat stories. The title leads are both lovely and cuddly, with Mark Benton playing Frank as semi-cranky and a little bit pleased with himself, and Jo Joyner making Lu into a winningly warm and generous spin on the genre-staple natural detective, complete with a sharp eye and even sharper memory. Most of their scenes are played as comfy, emphasising their good humour and what feels like a genuine, chummy chemistry.
Less-known but just as key to the show’s success is Patrick Walshe McBride as Sebastian, a not entirely successful Shakespearean actor who pays the bills by working as Shakespeare and Hathaway’s secretary. Winningly, the writers also put him to work as the agency’s undercover master of disguise, usually with some preposterous costume and make-up, a pair of glasses that take photographs, and a strong accent that McBride can have plenty of fun with. It’s especially engaging, however, when McBride is given a little more to do – as in Season 3 Episode 10, Teach Me, Dear Creature, where Sebastian is reunited with an old RADA friend and pushed into some tough choices about his future.
The supporting cast of a cosy mystery is typically comprised of corpses-in-waiting and suspects, and it’s no different here. There are lots of welcome faces we know from other shows – Vic Reeves’ alter ego Jim Moir has great fun in the Season 3 opener, alongside Ted Robbins, while Timothy West, Morgana Robinson the late Sheila Steafel have also taken memorable turns along the way. Then, on the other hand, there’s a surprising wealth of fresh faces who acquit themselves nicely – Daisy Badger, for example, stands out as a podcaster investigating the death of her mother in the latest run of episodes.
The casting generally gels very well, and there’s always a sense of a fun set, which goes a long way into making the show come off as approachable and likeable. But then, at times, the plotlines will ask for a little more from the actors.
And this is where Shakespeare and Hathaway really comes alive. In the best episodes, the plotlines build to a final act pay-off that’s not just a surprising (almost always satisfying) solution to a murder mystery but also emotionally affecting and relevant. To vaguely spoil one early episode, we’re shown a story of spousal abuse that is somehow hidden in plain sight, at least for many viewers. Because the wife in this story has reason to cover up her situation, it’s easy to overlook the brutality she’s being subjected to – even when it happens right in front of us – and, therefore, the revelation towards the end of the story carries a lot of genuine weight. It’s the unity of a nice, friendly cast with twisty, play-fair mystery stories that still feel human that means Shakespeare and Hathaway is more than Bard porn. (A fourth set of 10 episodes has already been commissioned to premiere next February, to once again keep at bay the winter’s discontent.)
While Jonathan Creek and Columbo still stand-out as best in class for many murder-mystery fans, there’s nothing being made right now that’s quite as likeable as Shakespeare and Hathaway. When an episode manages some great clues (the postcards in the podcasting episode are just delightful) and also weaves the mystery into a character-driven yarn, then the end result is top-tier company for a nice cup of tea and some dunking biscuits on the sofa – no matter what time of day it is.
Shakespeare and Hathaway Season 1 to 4 are available on BBC iPlayer.