Me­thinks I’m bored with the Bard when ye gags are flogged to death

Scottish Daily Mail - - Tele­vi­sion - CHRISTO­PHER STEVENS

Ben el­ton’s got a strange way of show­ing af­fec­tion for his favourite gags. When he finds a joke he likes, he flogs it to death — and then keeps beat­ing it.

He does this ev­ery week in his Shake­spearean sit­com Up­start Crow (BBC2), with a rou­tine about pub­lic trans­port. David Mitchell, as the Bard of Avon, whinges on about his stage­coach com­mute from Strat­ford to Lon­don — the over­crowded car­riages, the re­place­ment mule ser­vice, etc. It was quite funny to start with but, after three episodes, has now been thrashed into the ground.

It’s as though el­ton, the writer of bril­liant eight­ies sit­coms in­clud­ing Black­ad­der and The Young Ones, has for­got­ten a ba­sic fact about jokes: they aren’t funny when you’ve heard them be­fore. And a man who re­peat­edly trots out the same punch­line is just a bore.

This time, it was a gag about Will’s tights show­ing off his ‘Bol­ing­brokes’, a pun on a me­dieval royal sur­name — mildly amus­ing the first time, deader than Anne Bo­leyn by the sixth.

He did it again with a line about Shake­speare’s lat­est work, his ‘big new Jew play’. The char­ac­ters couldn’t stop say­ing that. el­ton is part-Jew­ish and, de­spite the vile left­wing re­vival of anti-Semitism, it’s im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve he meant it as a racial sneer. Still, I can’t imag­ine he would have used a black or Asian slur in the same way.

The pay-off was that, while we were sup­posed to think this play was The Mer­chant Of Venice, it was re­ally Christo­pher Mar­lowe’s The Jew Of Malta — an­other run­ning gag is that Shake­speare is ghost-writ­ing his ri­val’s plays, too. A few swotty english Lit un­der­grad­u­ates might think it’s funny, I sup­pose.

Tim Downie as Mar­lowe de­liv­ers a rois­ter­ing Rik May­all im­pres­sion. Mark Heap, as the courtier Robert Greene, is im­per­son­at­ing pompous Stephen Fry.

They could al­most be a Black­ad­der trib­ute act, though why Spencer Jones (as the ac­tor Wil­liam Kempe) is do­ing a bad Ricky Ger­vais is any­body’s guess.

David Mitchell works fu­ri­ously to save the show from disas­ter. He ob­vi­ously rel­ishes the cod-Tu­dor lan­guage, and he was de­lighted with the most in­tel­lec­tual one-liner of the night, which pointed out that ‘Clothes maketh the man’ is a mis­quote from Ham­let (the ac­tual line, if you care, is ‘Ap­parel oft pro­claims the man’).

Mitchell looked less thrilled in the scene where Harry en­field, as his fa­ther John, was squat­ting be­side him on a cham­ber pot. no doubt there’s an earnest un­der­grad itch­ing to re­mind us that Shake­speare en­joyed toi­let hu­mour, too.

Storm Troupers: The Fight To Fore­cast the Weather (BBC4) also got bogged down in aca­demic minu­tiae — lost in ar­chives and read­ing-rooms, where cu­ra­tors in white gloves lec­tured us about Vic­to­rian records. That was a shame, be­cause for the first quar­ter of an hour this doc­u­men­tary was mar­vel­lous.

Floppy-fringed jour­nal­ist Alok Jha showed us speeded-up weather-scapes of snow­storms over moun­tains and hur­ri­canes at sea, be­fore ex­plain­ing the ori­gins of proverbs such as, ‘Red sky at night, shep­herds’ de­light’. Ap­par­ently, when cloud types were first cat­e­gorised, there were nine types.

It’s why, when you’re in a sunny mood, you’re said to be ‘float­ing on Cloud nine’. And he of­fered a help­ful tip for any­one with their own deer park. The an­i­mals like to keep their rears fac­ing into the wind, so they can smell preda­tors be­hind them. When a herd changes di­rec­tion, it means the wind has shifted too.

Best of all was a visit to Barom­e­ter World in Oke­hamp­ton, Devon, where we dis­cov­ered an 18th Cen­tury Tem­pest Prog­nos­ti­ca­tor pow­ered by ‘a jury of leeches’ — 12 blood-suck­ers in glass jars that fore­warned mariners of storms, by trig­ger­ing alarm bells when they were ag­i­tated by the at­mos­phere.

Sadly, after that sunny start, a de­pres­sion set in from the west and the re­main­der was the tele­vi­sion equiv­a­lent of driz­zle.

As a suc­ces­sion of ex­perts droned on about weather charts, it felt like an end­less slab of ‘his­tory filler’, like the seg­ments on ‘buns of the Civil War’ that pad out the Great Bri­tish Bake Off. It’s worth watch­ing the be­gin­ning on iPlayer, though, just for the leeches.

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