MEDiA: Upstart Crow

Upstart Crow

My mum recently brought the excellent Upstart Crow TV series to my attention. Thanks mum!

Given my recent diatribes on how there’s practically nothing on current TV remotely worth watching, save the occasional re-run of something from the archives, it’s refreshing indeed to find some recently produced TV that’s not only bearable, but actually compelling, enjoyable viewing.

Upstart Crow
The Shakespeare family.

Ben Elton has done a superb job, helped in no small part by an excellent ensemble cast. And Elton and co. get to have their cake and eat it to, simultaneously mocking and celebrating ‘The Bard on Avon’, as Count Arthur once memorably called old Billy The Shake.

Upstart Crow
Gemma Whelan as Kate.
Upstart Crow
Rob Rouse as Ned ‘Botski’ Bottom.

Great sport is had with the English language, using both that of the Elizabethan era – sirrah, etc. – and a delirious mash-up of contemporary and made-up stuff, resulting in such gems as ‘puffling pants’, so-and-so ‘doth hate my gutlings’, ‘cod-dangle’ and ‘tufted lady-grotto’.

And whilst the whole thing is delightfully clever, nay, witty even, it’s also piss-pot full to brimming over with knob gags and potty humour, in the best of British traditions, partaking of a noble lineage running all the way from Chaucer and Shakespeare’s lewd comic characters through to Carry On, Benny Hill, and now this.

Upstart Crow
Mitchell as The ‘baldy-boots’ Bard.

David Mitchell is pitch perfect as William Shakespeare, both certain of his own genius and yet riddled with insecurities. And the action revolves, for the most part, around his two main haunts, the Shakespeare family home in Avon, and his ‘London lodgings’.

Upstart Crow
Kempe, Burbage, and Condell.

The cast are uniformly terrific. His country bumpkin family, with coarse father, fallen snob mother, homely milkmaid wife and petulant daughter, are a delightful lot. And in London we have his servant, Ned Bottom, Kate, his landlord’s daughter – aspiring actress and frustrated feminist – Kit Marlowe, Anthony Green, and Burbage and his ‘poor players’, etc.

Upstart Crow
Playwright and pamperloin Anthony Green.

Mark Heap’s Green, constantly scheming against the ‘Upstart Crow’, is a rare and wonderful thing, being that almost oxymoronic impossibility, a nuanced pantomime villain. His dastardly delivery of delightfully enunciated pre-cis-ee-on, and his m.o. of exiting rooms backwards, a-bowing and scraping with overdone mock politesse, all add up to a man one loveth to hate.

Upstart Crow
Green comes a-calling in A Christmas Crow.

The trio of Burbage (Steve Speirs), Condell (Dominic Coleman) and Kempe (Spencer Jones) are also terrific: Burbage the big, bluff, bear-like luvvy, all strutty and shouty, Condell the Grand-Dame and chief whoopsy, and Kempe an obvious parody of Ricky Gervais.

Upstart Crow
Strumming his lute for Kate.

Not only are all the chief players exceeding good, so to are the many cameos, from the less familiar young ‘uns (for example, in episode one Kieran Hodgson as the young ‘love lorn loon’, about to go up to Cambridge, is terrific), through Ben Miller’s Wolf Hall (an obvious reference to Mark Rylance), to Blackadder’s ‘Bob’ (Gabrielle Glaister), right up to such mega-luvvies as Ken Branagh and Emma Thompson. [1]

Teresa, my wife, stolidly refuses to be charmed by this utterly brilliant series, remaining a staunch Bl’adderite. I do love Blackadder, no mistake, but I might actually prefer Upstart Crow. It’s more consistently funny [2], more tightly jam-packed with laughs, and there’s a tighter focus. But I guess time will tell.

Upstart Crow

I definitely want this on DVD. It comes out in a few days, on Jan 14th.


Upstart Crow
Thompson as Elizabeth I

[1] I have to confess I’ve never really warmed to Branagh or Thompson, but I do enjoy their contributions here.

[2] By this I mean it arrived on our screens fully formed, whereas Blackadder took a while to evolve, changing dramatically from series one to two, and maturing thereafter.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *