If you paid attention in school, you will probably have heard of William Shakespeare.
And if you didn’t pay attention in school, you still will probably have heard of William Shakespeare. He was, and is, Britain’s – if not the world’s – greatest playwright and possibly the greatest artist to have come from our small island.
In a poll conducted by the BBC, Shakespeare was fifth in the list of Greatest Britons ever, which attracted more than a million votes.
Though he is a household name, his stories known all over the world, there is still an air of pomposity surrounding Shakespeare and his works, as if they are reserved only for the upper-classes and people who use words like pomposity.
However, at the time they were first written and performed – the late 16th and early 17th century – theatre was for the masses, from commoners to aristocracy. Also, Shakespeare himself was not from the upper classes (though some conspiracy theorists will try to tell you otherwise).
In fact, Shakespeare’s plays garnered so much attention at the time they were first performed, it was the upper classes who derided him, rejecting the notion that a man who was not educated at Oxford or Cambridge could write so well.
Namely, it was the critic Robert Greene who had such a problem with Shakespeare’s popularity and his background, calling him an ‘upstart crow’ and damning his writing.
Four hundred and something years later, however, and Greene’s insult is the name of a sitcom written by Ben Elton (Blackadder) and starring David Mitchell (Peep Show) as William Shakespeare. And while it delights in picking holes in some of Shakespeare’s plots, it is undeniably a work of great affection for, and celebration of, the bard.
Watch the trailer for the new series here:
Speaking to UNILAD, David Mitchell said:
I would say overall the program is a love letter to Shakespeare, absolutely a work of deep admiration for this genius – you can’t write a comedy about someone without taking the piss out of them as well.
I think Shakespeare is a genius and when there was that ‘Great Briton’ competition 10 or 15 years ago it’s ridiculous to me that Shakespeare didn’t win hands down – he’s the greatest international artist that this country can lay credit to.
But at the same time we have to be honest that his work has dated, and I think if we say that he wasn’t a genius, and all the productions of his plays aren’t fascinating, then we’re doing him a worse disservice than if we accept that, despite his genius, some evenings with his name above the title can be a bit boring.
So how has Upstart Crow, a Shakespearean comedy in every sense of the word, made sure it’s not dated and boring?
Aside from the host of amazing guest appearances – Kenneth Branagh, Lily Cole, Adrian Edmondson, for example – joining regular cast members Harry Enfield, Liza Tarbuck and Mark Heap, the show employs the old school, live studio audience to keep it on its toes.
It’s great fun to make, it’s as I imagined television would be before I got involved – we put on costumes, we’re on a set in front of an audience and we put on a show, and that’s how I thought all TV comedies would be, and very little of it is now, and it’s a very fun way to work. It’s intensive but great fun.
Returning to the theme of historical comedy like his previous, and arguably best, work Blackadder, Ben Elton has struck upon a formula that is not only genuinely funny but also takes aim at today’s issues and manages to be (whisper it) a tad educational too.
That’s the thing about Ben, he can’t write without saying something, without touching upon something difficult, it’s one of his amazing skills as a writer, to be able to do jokes that are first of all such fun and at the same time he can’t stay away from the danger areas. It means there’s always something deeper and more worthwhile in everything he writes, rather than just the gags themselves.
As Upstart Crow enters its third series later this month, the show finally addresses an issue that has caused many an argument among theatre-goers and fans of the bard – did Shakespeare write his own plays? And, more to the point, did he exist at all?
A handful of prominent actors, scholars, films and documentaries might try and persuade you that he didn’t, and that the works of William Shakespeare were done by members of the elite upper classes, such as the 17th Earl of Oxford Edward De Vere, or Sir Francis Bacon.
The theory has, always will be, a bone of contention because, y’know, someone from such a humble background couldn’t possibly have written as well as Shakespeare did, and it just had to have been a member of the upper classes instead, right?
When asked about this conspiracy theory, David said:
I am utterly convinced that Shakespeare wrote his plays, and I think the idea that he didn’t is a discredit to those that believe in it. People say we don’t know much about Shakespeare – but that’s completely untrue, we know a huge amount about him considering he’s a figure of the late 16th-early 17th century. There are very, very few people of his time that we know more about, so there’s really no credible evidence that he didn’t write his plays and vast evidence that he did.
There’s no motive for this conspiracy to pretend he wrote them rather than some elusive nobleman, and I think the people who believe that want to believe it, and I don’t think it’s very nice to want to believe that, because the thing is that Shakespeare was an ‘ordinary’ man and from an ordinary background, and the fact that an ordinary man can suddenly have this great creative gift is an inspiring and wonderful thought.
The thought that creativity was exclusively in the hands of the privileged is an incredibly reactionary thought.
Not only does the new series of Upstart Crow have some fun with the theory, but it also isn’t afraid of taking aim at one of the most prominent figures behind it.
Not to name names, but a new character is introduced called ‘Wolf Hall’, who has developed a ‘revolutionary new style’ of acting which is ‘subtle, nuanced, emoting from within’ and has many ‘long, sad-eyed stares’. Any idea who they are talking about?
Great actors and conspiracy theories aren’t the only target for the show’s humour though. In fact, one of the most notable aspects of Upstart Crow is the strange way so many 16th century problems seem to still be around in some form or other today.
As David said:
There are lots of different ways of being funny, I don’t think there’s an onus on comedy to address issues, and I don’t think Ben does because he feels there’s an onus on it. I think some people write comedy and they want it to be detached from current affairs, and that’s fair enough. And some people can’t stay away from them, they want to reflect upon it, and Ben is very much of that type. I wouldn’t want to preach to other writers that they need to do more of that but I think the way Ben does it is great.
As many people will remember, getting through Shakespeare at school was often helped by sticking on a video of the play. And while Upstart Crow may give you a flavour of 16th century life, it could do more harm than good in the classroom as it is quick to poke holes in the storyline of almost every Shakespeare play.
Of course, you can’t speak to David Mitchell without mentioning the genius that is Peep Show. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing a new series with Mark and Jeremy anytime soon. However, David and Robert Webb will be reuniting for another series of their brilliant comedy Back next year, with plenty of other projects in the pipeline.
Exit, pursued by a bear.
The new series of Upstart Crow starts on Wednesday, August 29, at 8.30pm on BBC Two.
Series one and two, plus last year’s Christmas special, are available now on BBC iPlayer.
Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.