DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 3

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Upstart Crow, that is, the further adventures of Will Shakespeare, returns for a third series. As before, Shakespeare (David Mitchell) is depicted as a normal if somewhat conceited man, simultaneously brilliant while full of human flaws. He alternates between his humble Stratford domestic existence with wife, Anne (Liza Tarbuck), somewhat embarrassing parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox) and children (notably Helen Monks) and his busier London life dominated by his flamboyant contemporary, Kit Marlow (Tim Downie) and assistant Kate (Gemma Whelan).

Ben Elton’s sitcom has always had something of the air of a Blackadder II tribute act about it (not forgetting, of course, that Elton co-wrote that superb mid-eighties series). Will is essentially a less sinister Edmund, Marlow is Flashman, Greene (Mark Heap) is Lord Melchett, while Kate is a female…er…”Kate” (short for “Bob”) while Baldrick was basically a much dirtier Bottom (Rob Rouse). Ahem…

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There is also a definite sense of fatigue creeping in. The issue of Marlow’s impending murder is dealt with rather unsatisfactorily and there is also an over-reliance on extending words (for example, “strap on a pair of boobingtons”) for comic effect. It’s lazy and not even very Shakespearian. There are cameos by ex-Young Ones Nigel Planer and Ade Edmondson and, separately, by Edmondson’s daughter, rising star Beattie Edmondson.

And yet, for all that, there are frequent flashes of brilliance here. The use of language is often superb as with Mitchell’s hilarious sex monologue in the first episode. Ben Miller brilliantly sends up actor Mark Rylance as the Tudor actor, Wolf Hall and Spencer Jones continues his excellent piss-take of Ricky Gervais. The cast, particularly Whelan and Downie are also consistently great.

And, as in real life, all does not always necessarily end well. The final episode is surprisingly, beautifully and wonderfully poignant.

Release date: October 8th 2018

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 2

Upstart Crow s2Familiarity, as someone once said, can breed contempt.

Happily, this is certainly isn’t the case with the second outing for Ben Elton’s Tudor sitcom, which aims to tell the story behind the creation of Shakespeare’s plays.

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It’s not a dramatically original idea (the films Shakespeare In Love and Bill have all had a pop at it) but aided by a strong cast, this generally works well. As the Bard himself, David Mitchell does an excellent job of humanising a figure who can sometimes seem like some sort of 16th century superhero. Mitchell essentially portrays him as a likeable clever dick torn between the demands of his work, the acting ambitions of his friend Kate (Gemma Whelan), the roguish charms of contemporary Kit Marlow (Tim Downie), the rivalry of his nemesis Robert Greene who coined the term “upstart crow” to describe Shakespeare in the first place (Mark Heap) and the attentions of his more common but loving Stratford family (Liza Tarbuck, Helen Monks, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox). Noel Fielding also crops up in one episode of this series as another real life figure, composer Thomas Morley.

The 2017 Christmas special is not included here although if you’ve seen it, you will probably agree this is no bad thing.

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A modern comedy classic then? Perhaps not quite, at least, not yet. But this is certainly enjoyable, clever fun with a top notch cast and a welcome return to form for the generally unfairly reviled talent that is Ben Elton.

And, no. The “familiarity breeds contempt” quote is not by Shakespeare. Although on this evidence, the man himself might have claimed it was.

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Book review: How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb (Published by: Canongate)

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It’s probably more than a decade now since most of us became familiar with the comedy actor Robert Webb.

As Jez, the more laid-back but less responsible half of the flat-share arrangement in Channel 4’s longest running sitcom Peep Show between 2003 until 2015, he was the perfect foil to David Mitchell’s more intelligent but thoroughly anal Mark Corrigan. Although brilliant, Peep Show was never a ratings success. It did, however, lead directly to the sketch show The Mitchell and Webb Look which, though patchy as many such shows are, pushed the duo into the mainstream.

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Webb’s career is obviously linked to Mitchell’s: the two met at Cambridge in the Nineties and are currently appearing together again in Simon Blackwell’s aptly named comedy, Back. A straight comparison of the two men’s careers has led many to assume Webb is the lesser talent of the two. Mitchell has been a prolific columnist and clearly has a massive aptitude for comedy panel shows. Aside from his spectacular victory in the 2009 Let’s Dance for Comic Relief and his early performance in the TV series The Smoking Room, most of Webb’s biggest successes have been with Mitchell.

But any lingering doubts anyone might have about Webb’s talent should be vanquished by a reading of this genuinely funny and touching memoir. The title might seem to count against it: the “how to” prefix has been overused in comedy books in recent years (How Not To Grow Up by Richard Herring, How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Grown-Up by Daisy Buchanan, How To Be A Bawse by Lily Singh and the forthcoming How To Be Champion by Sarah Milican) but in fairness to Webb, the title is pretty essential to the book’s structure. The seemingly well-worn “having an imaginary conversation with one’s younger self” device, previously deployed by Miranda Hart, amongst others, is also used well here.

The book is boosted by Webb’s vivid recollections of his painful teenage years, doubtless helped by his enjoyably pretentious diaries (“Is there any romance greater than the one a teenage boy has with his own loneliness?”) which he bravely reproduces fragments from here. He is also refreshingly open about his drinking problems and his early experiments with homosexuality.

But as with Hugh Laurie who, likewise, has always been in danger of being overshadowed by his brilliant co-star, this book serves as a valuable reminder that Robert Webb is a major talent in his own right.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow

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You could feel the shockwaves reverberating around the British comedy world for days afterwards: Ben Elton had written a good sitcom.

It should not have been a shock, of course. Elton co-wrote two of the best British sitcoms of all time, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Blackadder’, indeed, the three best series of ‘Blackadder’. The ghost of ‘Blackadder II’ hangs over ‘Upstart Crow’ which also has an Elizabethan setting. It is not as good as ‘Blackadder II’ (few things are), but it’s a noble attempt.

David Mitchell plays William Shakespeare, a man torn between the demands of his rather lowbrow Stratford household and that of London and his pursuit of a career as a playwright and a poet. At home, he has a loving wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck), a permanently grumpy teenage daughter (the excellent Helen Monks of ‘Raised By Wolves’ in an underwritten part) and two elderly parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox). Much to his frustration, all of Shakespeare’s family react to his work rather as many modern schoolchildren would. His father openly admits to finding his son’s plays dull while the others tire of his fondness for clever wordplay.

“It’s what I do!” Mitchell’s Bard defends himself, in what almost becomes a catchphrase. “If you do your research, my stuff is actually really funny.”

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His London life, meanwhile, involves Kate (Gemma Whelan) who longs to act, a profession not then open to women, his manservant Bottom (Rob Rouse, a cleverer, cleaner version of Baldrick) and Marlowe (Tim Downie, excellent), Shakespeare’s doomed contemporary, here played as an arrogant but charming womaniser (“a clever girl is an ugly girl, ” is his advice to Kate). There are elements of ‘Blackadder’ in all of this: Kate has similarities to “Bob,” a reference later made explicit. Marlowe is also reminiscent of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashman and some of the scenarios and jokes involving potatoes and dungeons are reminiscent of the earlier series deliberately or not. Future sitcom scholars may also wish to compare the openings to episode 2 of this to the start of ‘Blackadder II’s final episode ‘Chains’.

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‘Upstart Crow’ goes wrong when it goes down the predictable route of showing how Shakespeare  finds inspiration for his plays in real life. This isn’t a bad idea in itself but it rarely works here. Other quibbles? The always brilliant Mark Heap (‘Spaced’, ‘Friday Night Dinner’) although impressive is never given much chance to be funny in his portrayal of Shakespeare’s rival Greene and the scenes involving the rehearsal of the actual plays are less good, the exception being Spencer Jones’ spot on piss-take of Ricky Gervais.

Twelve years ago, the idea of Ben Elton taking the piss out of then comedy supremo Gervais would have been unthinkable but the co-creator of ‘The Office’ has seen his stock fall while Ben Elton’s has risen since then. ‘Upstart Crow’ is far from flawless but it provides David Mitchell with his best sitcom role since Peep Show, contains some laugh out loud funny one liners and marks a definite return to form for Ben Elton, one of Britain’s most unfairly maligned comedic talents.

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