Upstart Crow: funny or not funny? That is the question

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Upstart Crow: funny or not funny? That is the question

May 09, 2016 - 12:56
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17 reader reviews
Average: 4.6 (302 votes)
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William Shakespeare’s wife pleading with him not to do comedy (“It’s not your strong point”), lots of jokes about the real meaning of “wherefore art thou” and The Bard wondering how to end his latest play Romeo And Juliet.

David Mitchell and the cast of Upstart Crow

William Shakespeare’s wife pleading with him not to do comedy (“It’s not your strong point”), lots of jokes about the real meaning of “wherefore art thou” and The Bard wondering how to end his latest play Romeo And Juliet.

Welcome to Upstart Crow, written by Ben Elton and starring David Mitchell as the guy with the high forehead. If you loved Ben’s tour de force Blackadder, chances are you’ll enjoy this spoof on the life and ribald times of our greatest ever literary genius.

But is it just a Blackadder rip off? Does Mr Elton need to move on? Or is he on top form? And is this hysterical historical romp a much needed fresh and funny new addition to the TV scene? Tune in and tell us what you think.

There are 17 Comments

Llwynog45's picture

Like a who's who of comedy this. Certainly not laugh out loud comedy, but clever and makes you smile. I'll see how it develops.

Rufus the Dog's picture

I am going to give this the benefit of the doubt as it was just the first episode but the it did have the appearance of taking an old Blackadder script and just changing the names. Shakespeare for Blackadder, Bottom for Baldrick even Kate for 'Bob' who was Kate as well, 'Lord Melchett popped in too to be a bit threatening. Even 'Cunning Plan' re-appeared in a different guise. The dead 'Romeo' bit reminded me of the beheading scene in the Elizabethan Blackadder and/or the naughty turnip drinking game aunt episode.... so it was basically a Blackadder script with 'find and replace' in frequent use. Please get better the cast deserve better

Kevin O'Sullivan's picture

I tend to agree. After The Wright Way debacle, Elton has clearly retreated to safe territory. It was well enough written, well performed and pretty funny at times. But since it's virtually a carbon copy of Blackadder, the question is: does this generation want this sort of comedy? Ben's about to find out.

Oneday1's picture

To be honest whilst Elton is undoubtedly a talent and Blackadder was excellent this is all too 'BBC luvvie' for words (the Bard excepted!) with such as the all too ubiquitous Mitchell (who along with a whole host of Brit 'comics' I find as amusing as a dose of herpes) doing what he does best - being highly irritating.

22000Days's picture

OK Kev, you asked for a review from me so here it is...

To be honest I only watched this because I heard your review on The Wright Stuff last Friday but I liked it!

It was by no means perfect, for example I found the canned laughter very annoying and the first few minutes with the family in Stratford were very stilted but as the programme went on and more characters were introduced, the interaction became less forced and I found myself smiling. Yes, you have to think because some of the humour is quite subtle, (if you don't know your Shakespeare half the jokes will go over your head), yes, it is a total rip-off of Blackadder and YES, thank goodness it definitely isn't one of the BBC's usual weak PC comedy offerings but on the whole I find myself looking forward to the next episode.

Let's just hope Ben Elton can keep up the good work.

Kevin O'Sullivan's picture

Thanks for the review, Carole! Totally agree about the canned laughter. Sounded like a 1960s American sitcom. Some of the jokes were pretty funny, so we didn't need to be told when to laugh.

Andie's picture

Hadn't read anything about this ; tuned in by accident. Should have realized it was Ben Elton as it was very "Blackadder". I stuck with it and found it clever and funny. Looking forward to more.

Anna May's picture

Before we start, yes, Harry Enfield is in this, so I was already looking forward to seeing how he played William Shakespeare’s dad. Of course, I was not disappointed. However, this wasn’t my only reason for watching Upstart Crow. I’ve always been a fan of Ben Elton as a comedy writer and stand-up comedian and, after giving up on The Wright Way, I felt disappointed for him. Personally, I felt he’d tried to inject his onstage comedy into a sitcom and it just didn’t work for me.

Here, though, he excels at what he does best and that is creating new stories from historical events by combining them with modern-day observational comedy and a generous pinch of satire. This is exactly where Elton shines, in my opinion. I didn’t find myself harking back to his previous successes. Instead, I welcomed this as a new, cleverly-written comedy I could not only understand, but see the point in. Yes, I was definitely aware of the canned laughter to begin with, but I soon forgot about it. Life’s too short.

There are plenty of factors that will add to the pulling power of Upstart Crow. These include brilliant costumes, authentic scenery, aptly dimmed lighting and actors who can deliver their manufactured Shakespearian lines with ease. If you’ve ever seen David Mitchell in anything at all (if you haven’t, who are you?), you’ll already know he possesses the articulation to spew poshness at an alarmingly inhuman rate. You could easily mistake the constant volley of playful insults between Mitchell and Lee Mack on Would I Lie to You for an audition to play the patronizing Shakespeare, who grasps every opportunity to belittle those he feels are beneath him…which is just about everyone, really.

I find David Mitchell funny in general, but haven’t watched every single thing he’s done. However, from the odd appearance here and there, he seems happy enough to present as pretentious and condescending. His role as Shakespeare is so very close to that persona, it’s no wonder he bagged the part.

In fact, each actor plays out their character very faithfully and none have struck me as unnecessary (yet). Liza Tarbuck, as expected, works well as Shakespeare’s wife, with mocking retorts and facial expressions. It’s also reassuring to see one of my favourite comedy legends, Paula Wilcox, playing his mother. Even Will’s daughter, played by Helen Monks, has something to offer…especially to younger viewers who will appreciate her olde English outbursts with a modern spin. Spencer Jones as Kempe could well irritate a lot of Ricky Gervais fans with his David Brent impersonation, but you have to admit he does it so well. Having already seen Jones in action as ‘The Herbert’, I can confirm to you now he pretty much looks like his character in real life, right down to the bowl cut and penchant for wearing tights.

I would recommend watching the first episode in its entirety to get a taste of what’s to come, before writing it off as a Blackadder copycat or Ben Elton trying to revive his career by using it as a template. I’m sorry, but why shouldn’t he draw on his talent for producing quality historical comedy using a formula he’s confident with? As far as I’m concerned this should stand alongside Blackadder as a separate series of the same ilk, not be scrutinized and lambasted for every similarity it bears to it.

To my mind, if Upstart Crow can make its mark as an entertaining, fun guide to William Shakespeare’s life and works, there is more to be gained here than just another cult comedy, which I really hope it becomes. It’s worth noting that, much to the despair of Michael Gove, the Blackadder Goes Forth script has been included as a teaching resource for A-level English Literature. Gove felt it gave students a warped view of the facts. That’s rich coming from a politician and, considering he wasn’t that great at his job anyway and has never actually been a teacher himself, he can basically kiss my arse.

NancyD's picture

William Shakespeare may be our most celebrated playwrite, but in Ben Elton’s ribald new sitcom he’s a family guy from the Midlands with a balding head and a codpiece.

David Mitchell portrayal of the Bard is not dissimilar to his character Mark Corrigan in Peep Show. Hilariously pompous and certain of his wit.

“In England I’m afraid it’s not what you know, it’s what dead farmyard animals you rogered at university,” he declares, giving a nod to the story about Cameron and the pig’s head.

His nemesis Sir Robert Greene (Mark Heap) once called him an Upstart Crow – hence the title of the show.

Written by Ben Elton, it is so similar to Blackadder, but is it as funny? Probably not. Star Crossed Lovers was only the first episode, so let’s give it a chance.

Shakespeare’s wife Anna Hathaway is brilliantly played by Lisa Tarbuck snipping at his mum: “You think you’re so posh Mary Arden. Like you aren’t sewn into your winter knickers like everyone else.”

Pervy posh boy Florian has lots of funny lines: “I shall stand beneath Kate’s balcony and strum my lute.”

Raised By Wolves star Helen Monk plays Will’s sulky 13-year-old daughter Susannah and Harry Enfield as his pipe smoking father.

The Elizabethan costumes are sumptuous, but the canned laughter is a bit nerve jangling. It ain’t half Bard.

mandy's picture

I loved Blackadder, but this... oh dear oh dear oh dear!!!

JohnJJ's picture

Upstart Crow delivers the green green grass of home when Britain is looking for the next Only Fools & Horses. Barely through the first sentence & those at home are hit with a canned laughter so half hearted the tech guys couldn't even be bothered to auto tune it... Over to the UPSC # to complain about the canned laughter & you're met with an almost (appropriately) pantomime wail of "IT'S A LIVE AUDIENCE"... Look at those defending it and inevitably they're working as 'bbcr4/bbc producer/bbc married to the cast'... One good thing about UPSC is it is different. One bad thing is Uncle Shaky wrote 37 plays so UPSC could have 37 series and we all know how greedy Ben Elton is.

Kevin O'Sullivan's picture

Yeah, a live audience on which they turn the volume up in order to tell us when to laugh. It's still canned laughter.

Anna May's picture

You'll probably hate me for saying this, but that canned laughter is timed just right to give the actors reason enough to pause and repeat the beginnings of some of their lines so they're audible. David Mitchell is well used to performing in front of a live audience and aware his comments, funny or not, may go to waste if he doesn't wait a few seconds for laughter to die down. I'm sure you won't be bothered to watch the first episode back to see what I'm getting at, but just look out for it in episode two. When scenes are recorded through a mic set-up that cancels as much noise as possible from a live audience, the actors may hear it far more clearly than is heard on the resultant footage. Hence, the addition of the laughs later. Yes...a bit up and down volume-wise...and maybe we don't need it at all, but still possibly the original laughter. I notice these things…I’m sorry.

GeordieArmani's picture

The quality of comedy on UK TV in the last years has been diabolical (khan??), but I have to say I absolutely love Upstart Crow.

Garrett56's picture

I want to say I loved it but I can't. It is witty remincent of Blackadder in some respects. Let’s not forget that the first series of this beloved comedy didn't work. Being a lover of Skakespeare's plays I like the nod to them like this week yellow crossed gartered (Twelfth Night).

When Shakespeare talks about his carriage journey it reminds me of Reggae Perrin and his journey by train to Waterloo - signal failure 15 minutes late.The Marlowe character reminds me very much of the Flash character played by Rik MayaI. I think it could be a grower needs a bit more tweeking.

22000Days's picture

Have to say this is becoming compulsive viewing - I just love it! OK it is a homage to Blackadder but it is also humour with a twist that makes you think. The jokes are very contemporary given the subject matter but it just proves that nothing has really changed since Will's day!

Hope there is a 2nd series.

ClementPowerclean's picture

Like so many other 1980s-revival BBC sitcoms, the audience's laughing really destroys the comedy. I'm sure the audience are genuinely there, but they laugh at times when no one has actually said anything funny, which makes them sound insincere. For example, the very first line of the first episode, "Sorry Dad, how old's this sad weirdo supposed to be?" gets a laugh. If a standup comic said that as an opening line, it wouldn't get a laugh. It's the same type of misplaced laughing that you hear on a lot of Radio 4 comedies. I think it's caused by (a) the audience being excited to be watching a television show being recorded -- it's a day out for them, and (b) the audience being told to be overly enthusiastic by the production staff. Misplaced laughing may as well be canned -- it sounds cheap and alienates everyone else.

The David Brent impressionist is just strange. At first I thought Ben Elton might have a problem with Ricky Gervais, but it's the David Brent character being copied, not Ricky Gervais. It's so lazy to incorporate a character from another show. I guess the BBC own the rights to the character, so no one's going to get sued.

Why do some of Shakespeare's family have (attempts at) Birmingham accents, when they're from rural Warwickshire? Even nowadays, the accents are different. It would be better if the actors just spoke in their own accents instead.

This is essentially a cross between The Wright Way and Blackadder, using the same outdated sitcom style. I wish Ben Elton and/or the BBC would watch Channel 4 or some US television to see how far the style of comedies has come since the 1980s. In a way, the Ben Elton sitcom style is nearer to the times of Shakespeare than it is to 2016.