It’s Will-i-am!

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - COMEDY - In­ter­view by Jon Wilde

When David Mitchell was of­fered the role of Wil­liam Shake­speare in the sit­com Up­start Crow, he ad­mits he felt daunted at por­tray­ing Bri­tain’s great­est lit­er­ary ge­nius. For at least a sec­ond.

‘I told my­self that, how­ever chal­leng­ing it might be, it’s not like I was be­ing asked to be James Bond. And let’s be com­pletely hon­est, the Bond fran­chise would have to go in a very pe­cu­liar di­rec­tion if I was up for the part.’

As it’s turned out, Mitchell has proved to be note-per­fect in the role of the Bard of Avon and, for scriptwriter Ben El­ton, the sit­com has been his most ac­claimed work since Black­ad­der. Now in its sec­ond series, Up­start Crow has been widely hailed as an in­ge­nious com­edy work on a par with the likes of Dad’s Army and Only Fools And Horses.

The first series was set in 1592, when Shake­speare was still strug­gling to make his rep­u­ta­tion as a play­wright. El­ton’s stroke of bril­liance has been to de­pict him as a prodi­giously tal­ented man in a world of id­iots. Com­mut­ing be­tween Lon­don and Strat­ford, his en­er­gies are split be­tween mak­ing his mark in the the­atre and try­ing to con­vince his hard-to-please fam­ily that he is not wast­ing his time.

Liza Tar­buck plays his wife Anne Hath­away, who ad­vises him, ‘Don’t do com­edy, Will. It’s not your strong point.’ Raised By Wolves’ He­len Monks is stroppy teenage daugh­ter Su­sanna; Harry En­field and Paula Wil­cox are back to their hi­lar­i­ous best as Shake­speare’s finicky par­ents.

Mean­while, Mitchell is in his el­e­ment in the lead role, per­form­ing with the emas­cu­lated rage that is his trade­mark. ‘We are used to Shake­speare be­ing de­picted as some­one breath­ing rar­efied air, some­one apart from or­di­nary life. But Ben El­ton has suc­ceeded in bring­ing him right down to earth. This ver­sion of Wil­liam Shake­speare is in the tra­di­tion of sit­com he­roes like Cap­tain Main­war­ing, Basil Fawlty and Del Boy. He has a chip on his shoul­der, he’s as­pi­rant and he’s frus­trated by the fact that no­body recog­nises his ge­nius. The world he moves in is far from be­ing un­recog­nis­able. The char­ac­ters in the show moan about the same things we do, es­pe­cially the lam­en­ta­ble state of the trans­port sys­tem.’

Com­par­isons with Black­ad­der were in­evitable, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the in­clu­sion of a dim, Baldrick-like manser­vant called Bot­tom.

‘Peo­ple keep writ­ing off the sit­com genre,’ says Mitchell. ‘But when a sit­com re­ally works, it can be as pow­er­ful as any­thing on TV.’

In the lat­est series, Shake­speare con­tin­ues to strug­gle to be recog­nised for his lit­er­ary great­ness, takes a cut-price trip to Verona to look for in­spi­ra­tion, at­tempts to tame his ‘shrewish’ daugh­ter and works on a play called The Eighth

Night for Queen Elizabeth I (Emma Thomp­son in a Christ­mas spe­cial). New faces will in­clude

The Mighty Boosh and Bake Off’s Noel Field­ing as a pop­u­lar mu­si­cian.

And hap­pily for the show’s devo­tees, it looks like there will be plenty more to come. ‘Ben El­ton has al­ready planned a third and a fourth series. As for me, I’m happy to be Wil­liam Shake­speare for as long as Ben and the BBC want me to be.’ ‘Up­start Crow’ is on Mon­days at 8.30pm on BBC2

From left: Noel Field­ing, David Mitchell (also be­low) and Steve Speirs

Top: Jack Dee as new coun­try dweller Steve in Bad Move. Above: with co-star Kerri Godli­man

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