Another one of those compelling BBC historical drama series has just finished. But don’t worry, a new series has already been commissioned along with a Christmas special. It may seem strange to mention Ben Elton’s latest comedy about William Shakespeare’s early career in the same genre as War and Peace and Wolf Hall. But historical drama is what it is and, as such, it faces the same challenges as its grander but less funny siblings.
How many liberties are you allowed to take with the facts? Good question. Upstart Crow, in fact, respects the known facts of Shakespeare’s life fairly well. Characters are mostly real and credible. Robert Greene, the show’s arch baddie, really did, as we know, hate Shakespeare and, while writing the first known review of the bard’s work, he came up with the series title. Shakespeare did not, mind you, have a servant called Bottom (so far as we know) but it is a good joke. It is quite credible though that, at the age of thirteen, daughter Susanna (played with verve by Helen Monks) was indeed a ‘stroppy little bitchington’, as described by Anne Hathaway (superbly brought to life by Lisa Tarbuck with a Brummy accent). That phrase in itself represents an imaginative approach to an old problem: dialogue. If she had called her a bitch you might have thought you were watching EastEnders, just as if Will had remarked that he feared the wrath of puritans it would have sounded like a history lesson but when he calls them the ‘God-prodding pure-titties’ we know we are still watching comedy.
All British comedy, to quote Ian Hislop, is about class (sounds sweeping, I know, but can you find a cast-iron counter-example?) and the Bard we meet here is socially disadvantaged. He is an uncertain yokel (sorry, ‘country bum-snot’) in the company of ‘a gaggle of snootish pamperloins from just two universities’. ‘I hardly think that centuries hence a tiny clique of Oxbridge posh boys will still be running everything’ is Will’s response. Nor is his work always appreciated: Henry VI is too long (do I hear an argument? No.); nobody will ever read all those sonnets; Shakespearean mangling of word-order is daft (‘That’s one of my best tricks!’) and his jokes don’t work (‘If you do your research my stuff is actually really funny’).
Special mention must go to Gemma Whelan as the landlord’s daughter, Kate, who wants to be an actress (‘It’s my dream’). She is the only member of the cast who has a chance to do real lines. While pretending to be in love with an upper-class twit (soon to die of a Romeo and Juliet pastiche) she comes out with a couple of Juliet’s so effectively that it is hard not to feel a shock of emotion as we are reminded of the sheer quality of the stuff we are laughing about. Will is also impressed and offers to help with her dream, but he keeps relapsing into contemporary accepted wisdom: ‘Women can’t be actors. Where would they put the coconuts?’
Let there be no doubt, Upstart Crow is funny because it is written by Ben Elton and is performed by fine comedy actors. But the historical irony – knowing the long-term cultural clout of the events we witness – has an effect too. The world we see is enchanted by our knowing the outcome. Trivial events become significant. For half an hour, stroppy daughters, indulgent wives and jealous enemies all apparently make their own contribution to the great Shakespeare legacy. This is a pleasure to watch precisely because it contrasts so sharply with the apparently meaningless flux of random experience which make up our everyday lives. Aye, there’s the rub.
Series 1 of Upstart Crow (BBC2) is available on DVD.