Archives for posts with tag: Upstart Crow

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.

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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.