Archives for posts with tag: David Mitchell

It is unusual for me to write about a show after it has finished. I see myself as making a case for why you should invest time or not into it, which is pointless if it is no longer on air. Of course, there is catch up, but my brain still doesn’t quite treat that as an equal to watching it on actual TV.

However, the ending of the most recent series of Upstart Crow is a special case. But before I go into it, I want to first briefly discuss how Ben Elton ended another one of his comedies, Blackadder Goes Forth, as there is more than a passing similarity.

In Blackadder Goes Forth, the final episode ends with the men in the trenches of the First World War, waiting for the signal to go over the top and meet their almost certain death. The signal is given and, in one the most emotional scenes a comedy could produce, meet their doom.

There has not been another full series since. One-off specials yes, but nothing more. It would be wrong. Such a note-perfect ending would be disrupted by a new series, no matter how distant the setting or how big the time gap. It’s a brave move to say enough is enough when people still want more, but it is often the right one.

Upstart Crow has finished on a similar note. The final episode closes on the revelation that Shakespeare’s son has died from the plague. There is no attempt to make it funny. Instead, we see genuine grief on David Mitchell’s face as he realises what he has lost and how his pomposity has cost his son his chance to be confirmed. The nature of faith is questioned – is the fact God spared his other two children a token of his generosity or the fact he has taken one a mark of cruelty? Does he even exist at all, if he allows such things to happen to a family?

No news has been confirmed as if there is to be a new series, but I hope not. As with Blackadder, to suddenly switch back to comedy would be jarring. For a start, could we really buy in to Mitchell still playing Shakespeare as slightly foolish and very pompous when such attributes have cost him his last moments with his son? Would he even care about his rivalries with other theatres or the inadequacies of Elizabethan coach travel in light of this tragedy?

I think not. While there is arguably more stories to tell, the show would need to find a new tone to tell them. A layer of darkness would always be there, and it would not suit what is basically a slightly silly family comedy. Ben Elton has made this brave decision before. He should make it again.

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How much of a liberty should you take with history when producing a work of fiction? I suppose it depends on what you want the end result to be. A serious period drama needs more attention to detail, and besides, real historical events rarely need extra dramatization adding. A more fluffy drama (e.g. Downton Abbey) needs less of this, as your audience is essentially wanting a soap in period costume. The social changes are merely a jumping off point for characters rather than being the tale you want to tell.

But what about comedy? Yes, again your audience is hardly going to bristle at 21st-century values being imposed on a historical figure, but you still want to feel as if the writer knows what they are talking about. Satirical jabs at our ancestors can become inane if not handled carefully. Quacks trod this line quite well. Upstart Crow, less so.

You see, the big problem with Upstart Crow is that it tries too hard. The veiled, or not so veiled, references to Brexit, Trump and other problems of our down are heavy-handedly transposed into a late 16th-century context. This is surprising, as Ben Elton did this so well in Blackadder.

In fact, the problems with Upstart Crow are laid bare when you look at Blackadder. Having a background cast that hams it up is fine if there is someone central that keeps it level, as Rowan Atkinson did as Edmund Blackadder. But in Crow, David Mitchell is as OTT in his performance as everyone else. It leaves you feeling as if you are being bashed over the head by a group of toddlers chanting ‘laugh, laugh, laugh’.

And then you have the tricky biographical details. Are we really to believe that Shakespeare was an idiot, entirely dependent on his sensible wife and uber-feminist friend to give him inspiration? I know we can stretch our imaginations a little, but this characterisation of Shakespeare borders on the unbelievable. If the whole point is to show how someone from a modest background rose to be one of our greatest writers, isn’t this rather dulled by making him a stupid man with ideas above his station? I don’t believe in hagiographies, but nor do I like this rather ‘know your place’ attitude the show seems to have.

Another example is the representation of Christopher Marlowe as a caddish womaniser when more and more evidence is showing he was actually as close to being an openly practising homosexual you could possibly be for the time. It’s 2017, viewers won’t demand heads on sticks if you write him as such.

Overall, what felt like a novelty in series one is feeling old and tired now. Most of the jokes are recycled from previous episodes bar the plot specific ones and the characters remain one-note. If you are going to satirise history, you need to show some teeth, especially if you are going to stretch the past to its breaking point. Taking liberties is only worth it if the end product is good enough. In this case, it feels like it is not.

Have you ever read a review by a TV critic and wondered what the hell they were watching? I don’t mean the bloggers like me who is happy to admit that they are entirely objective. I mean the professionals who have been given the status of arbitrators of taste. Maybe they slam a show you love, for example, ignoring any joy the programme might give.

More annoying though is when they decree a triumph for a show that isn’t worth of it. Take Back, for instance. This a comedy about Stephen (David Mitchell) dealing with his father’s death, when Andrew (Robert Webb) returns. Turns out Andrew was a kid fostered by Stephen’s parents for five months. The plot revolves around Andrew’s manipulation of Stephen’s family, presumably to claim some money out of the inheritance.

This is a dark premise for a comedy, but not necessarily bad. There is a lot of potential in fact. And it does exploit some of it well. Mitchell draws out Stephen’s fastidiousness well, but then that isn’t a stretch for him. Likewise, Webb is reliably good as the scheming charmer Andrew. There are even nicely drawn side-characters. Some of the lines are funny, and, when allowed to go slightly eccentric, the show really starts to fly.

Yet there are also many faults. There was an unnecessary plotline of a dying dog in the first couple of episodes, which did nothing in my view to draw out any laughs. In fact, it seemed purely to be a device to add an extra humiliation to Stephen. And that is where the show for me has its biggest weakness: it is entirely dependent of humiliating one character, who is basically a nice but fussy guy. I can’t help but think inflicting misery on someone in a comedy that isn’t a monster isn’t actually funny. It works when, say, Edina in Absolutely Fabulous fails, because she is a vain, egotistical person who doesn’t deserve success. But Stephen is harmless.

Not that you would see it as a problem if you read the view of the professionals. This is apparently a brilliant show, so funny yet so clever. I fail to see how a show that maybe raises one or two smiles and one genuine laugh per episode deserves such accolades, but I assume this is why I merely blog and they get paid. There is no doubt some deep, wonderful thing that I am missing.

Frankly, I’m only sticking with it in the hope Andrew gets his comeuppance and Stephen becomes the rather mild-mannered hero of the piece. Although judging by the show’s form, I wouldn’t count it. The critics would probably prefer to see Stephen wither away into perpetual embarrassment then have a happy ending.

One of the iconic programmes in British comedy history is Blackadder. It had an unusual concept for a comedy, in that it was set in a bygone era of English history, a different one for each series, with central figure being a distant descendent of the previous central character. Each time the figure of Blackadder fell slightly down the social ladder, from prince to courtier to servant to mid-ranking army officer.

What was so good about it was that it delivered such brilliant satire. Not only did it skewer the times it was set in, but it also mocked the modern world as well. It also skewered major figures of the era, my favourite being Elizabeth I being written as a petulant sociopath. No doubt many would argue this perhaps wasn’t too far from the truth.

There have long been rumours of a fifth series, but to no avail. Instead, its creator, Ben Elton, has written Upstart Crow, a comedy satirising the life and works of Shakespeare. It shares that skewering of historical figures, not least Shakespeare himself, as well as the modern myths that we have created around him. We are introduced to a man who leads a fairly normal family life, who don’t quite get his apparent genius.

Yet despite this, I struggle to actually laugh at this show. I think part of the problem is that, having got so used to watching comedies that are understated and about the subtleties of life, watching something where the jokes are more in plain sight requires a gear change that I cannot manage.

I quickly here want to add a note about the use of live audience laughter – some people thinks this kills comedy dead, but I disagree. Graham Linehan uses it in his comedies, and they don’t detract from anything there. Rather, it is the heavy-handedness of Elton’s writing in Upstart Crow that is to blame.

For example, Helen Monks plays Susannah, Shakespeare’s teenage daughter. This could have been handled any number of ways, but instead we have the well-worn trope of the sulky teenager. You would have thought that after Kevin and Perry, this characterisation would have died a death. It feels like a waste of Monks’ talent, certainly in comparison to her role as Germaine on Raised by Wolves.

There are some bits I like. The occasional joke lands quite well. There was a particularly good recurring one in episode two revolving around where are you supposed to put the coconuts down a woman’s vest if she already has breasts. But they are few and far between. Couple this with a feeling that everything is being slightly overdone in terms of the acting, and you have something that lacks any cohesion.

Despite this, there seems to be some love for it amongst the critics. Maybe if I accept it for what it is, I will enjoy the ride more. Still, I can’t help but feel this is an opportunity missed.

Christmas TV is a challenging affair. Firstly, the schedules are all out of whack, meaning the purchase of a TV guide and some highlighters are essential if you want to stay on top of the soaps, the news or any other regular TV event that gets shunted round. Then there is the odd balance of repeats of previous years’ Christmas specials with new, costly specials or one-off dramas. It does feel as if both the BBC and ITV spend the entirety of their Christmas budget on just 2 or 3 baubles and fill the rest of the airtime with any tapes from times gone by that still work.

Still, there are always things to look forward to – Doctor Who, Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife all give their audiences what they want, although there will be a Downton­-shaped gap next year. I hope ITV have something good up their sleeve, or Christmas Day night is going to feel very long.

Personally, my favourite Christmas TV event is Channel 4’s knockabout The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. The format is deliberately simple; Jimmy Carr presides and asks six comedians/celebrities questions of the year’s events. Nothing too serious – think David Cameron putting his genitals in a pig rather than ordering air strikes on Syria.

Of course, so much is dependent on the guests. Mel B did her best to kill the mood last year, while in 2012, Jack Whitehall and James Corden went almost too far in their humour. The best duo ever has been Russell Brand and Noel Fielding as ‘The Goth Detectives’, although frankly both have been strong without the other when teamed up with others.

This year saw a good balance. Rob Brydon provided a strong first half running joke of trying to take over the show from Carr and launching a pseudo-political revolution. As that joke reached its crescendo and ebbed away, Greg Davis and Richard Ayoade started their own long running joke of answering everything with ‘Bad Dong’. Claudia Winkleman brought a more genteel pace, and was paired nicely with David Mitchell.

Mitchell and Ayoade are always good bookings for anything like this. Both have a geeky obsessiveness, with Mitchell having a nice line in biting satire and Ayoade a surrealism that slowly builds throughout the show. Strangely, the weak link seemed to be Jo Brand, who I normally love. Maybe the mood wasn’t right for her to be at her best. She has never been one to compete to be heard, and increasingly looks more comfortable on shows where she is in the driving seat and playing individually.

Still, the mood was still jovial and refreshingly lacking in cruelty. Perhaps as the show has been on for more than a decade it is starting to grow up. But hopefully not too much. It still needs its silly, absurd edges. In an increasingly serious world, it is nice to end it with a smile on your face.

Political and social satire is a difficult thing to get right. Be too glib, and people will dismiss what you have to say and therefore your aims you will never be accomplished. Be too serious, and you essentially just become another version of the news. Which is why good satire is to be treasured. So why is there so little of it? Ok, we have panel shows like Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week. But all too often they just become shows were 4 (or 6) men, and the occasional token woman, compete to be funny. With the exception of the peerless Ian Hislop, there is little insight into the news that is actually being satirised.

Thankfully10 o’ Clock Livefills that gap. And my word is it an enoyable hour! We all knew of course going into this that Charlie Brooker does excellent monologues and that Jimmy Carr is the king of the one-liner. The revelation came in the shape of David Mitchell. Again, we all knew that he was able to destroy arguments with a mind thaat is more logic machine than thought processor, but the effectiveness of it in the first series, whether it was a monologue, one-on-one interview or studio debate, was brilliant to watch.

Of course the first series had its faults. If the debates involved three people then it often became the two loudest voices that got heard, irregardless of whether they were the best ones. Lauren Laverne looked lost, more often forced to play supply teacher to her naughty tearaway co-presenters. Carr was also wasted, forced into dull and obvious sketches. So when the second series returned I tuned in to see what had changed.

Well, good news! Most of the faults have gone. The debates are now streamlined to two participants, given Mitchell more time to ask genuine questions. Laverne has now been given her own monologues, and a good job she does of them too. Brooker’s role hasn’t changed, but then it didn’t need to. One fly in the ointment though- Carr’s sketches are still in. Why? Are you that scared of taxing people’s intellects that you have to give them a 5 minute break besides the adverts?

Other items have been sacrificed to make space for the sketches. Mitchell’s monologues. And his one-on-one interviews. If you don’t want him having to much screen time, why not give the latter to Carr? Or move people round a bit. Give Laverne the debates to chair, Mitchell an interview and Carr a monologue. Or develop something new- Carr does a q +a with a guest and the audience. Let’s face it, if you are treading on Newsnight‘s toes you might as well do it to Question Time as well. Wahtever you do Channel 4, just find something to replace those sketches. This show is too good to waste.