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