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