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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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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House of Cards Revisited

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“Nothing lasts forever,” muses Francis Urquhart as he looks at a picture of Margaret Thatcher. ”Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday”. 

So begins House of Cards, one of the finest political dramas in British TV history. It has recently been remade for the US by Netflix.

Based on a book by Tory insider Michael Dobbs and brought to the screen by the more left wing British dramatist Andrew Davies in 1990, House of Cards centres on Francis Urquhart, the Tory Party Chef Whip superbly played by the late Ian Richardson. Taking the audience into his full confidence – Urquhart has a disarming and involving tendency to talk directly to the audience, often offering nothing more than a wry smile or a raised eyebrow in response to events – we become fully involved and even complicit in Urquhart’s activities as he skilfully manoeuvres his way to the top of the Tory tree an into Downing Street.

The action opens in the aftermath of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s apparent retirement (at that point, an event still in the future). Indeed, Thatcher is the only real life figure (other than the Queen) referred to at any point. Urquhart assesses the likely candidates for the succession:

“Plenty of contenders. Old warriors, young pretenders. Lord Bilsborough, say — party chairman, too old and too familiar, tainted by a thousand shabby deals. Michael Samuels — too young and too clever. Patrick Woolton — bit of a lout, bit of a bully-boy. Yes, it could well be Woolton. Henry Collingridge — the people’s favourite, a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom.”

Urquhart with splendid false modesty rules himself out:

“What, me? Oh, no no no. I’m the Chief Whip, merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick around. I make them jump. And I shall, of course, give my absolute loyalty to whoever emerges as my leader.”

In fact, when the new leader Henry “Hal” Collingridge reneges on a promise to appoint Urquhart to the Cabinet, Francis turns against him, constructing a bogus scandal involving the Prime Minister’s wayward brother and demolishing all other rivals to not only bring down Collingridge but to ensure that he, Francis Urquhart, shall succeed him.

In this the role of young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) proves crucial. It is to her that he leaks information answering her questions not n the affirmative but couched in the coded evasive standard political answer: “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

 

Timing

The series was blessed by remarkable good timing. In real life, Michael Heseltine announced his intention to stand against Margaret Thatcher, just five days before the first episode went on on November 18th 1990. By the time of the fourth and final episode, Thatcher had been toppled and John Major had beaten both Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to become Prime Minister. House of Cards thus became very topical indeed. The series had the good fortune to go out during the first change of Tory leadership in fifteen years and one of the most dramatic ends to a Prime Ministerial reign ever.

 

Real life parallels?

House of Cards is obviously fiction but some have suggested similarities to real life figures. Make of them what you will. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Francis Urquhart: Urquhart does not obviously resemble any one real life person strongly. He is nothing like Edward Heath, another Chief Whip who went onto Downing Street. Urquhart’s upper class background was also distinctly unfashionable by 1990. Douglas Hurd, would in fact be embarrassed by his posh background in the leadership contest that took place while House of Cards went out and no Tory leaders emerged from upper class background between 1965 and 2005 (between Alec Douglas Home and David Cameron). Urquhart’s ideological position seems to be closest to Thatcher. Yet unlike any of these figures, he is a murderer and probably closer to Shakespeare’s Richard III than anyone in real life.

Henry Collingridge: Both Dobbs and Davies were right to predict domineering figure like Thatcher would be succeeded by a moderate more conciliatory figure. A harsh critic might say Urquhart’s summary of Collingridge: “a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom,” applied equally well to Thatcher’s actual successor John Major (or indeed, David Cameron). Major also won the 1992 election with a majority of 21 (Collingridge manages about 30). Unlike in the series, there are few immediate problems resulting from the Tory majority dropping so dramatically. John Major’s Tories had anticipated defeat in 1992 and were happy just to win at all. Major’s premiership would prove similarly troubled although more enduring than Collingridge’s. If anyone fatally undermined Major’s leadership, other than Major himself, it was his predecessor Lady Thatcher.

Bob Landless: A crude American media magnate. Clearly a composite of and Robert Maxwell, then still alive (although unlike Landless, a Labour supporter) and Rupert Murdoch.

Lord Bilsborough: Seems similar to William Whitelaw, who ran against Thatcher in 1975 but ultimately became her most loyal servant. But Whitelaw was much nicer than Bilsborough and much less tainted by “shabby deals”.

Michael Samuels: In some ways similar to Michael Portillo, then a dashing rising star in the party and with a history of left wing support and some homosexuality (then not known about) in his past. Portillo, although half-Spanish, isn’t Jewish as Samuels is though. In this respect, Samuels is more like another rising Tory Michael of the time and future leader, Michael Howard.

Peter Mackenzie: Health Minister. Physically very like John Major (he is played by Christopher Owen) although unlike Major seems to be racist and accidentally runs over a disabled protester.

Afterwards

(SPOILER ALERT) Two TV sequels To Play The King and The Final Cut are worth seeing although neither quite scaled the heights of the original. Dobbs wrote two books which followed the first series. The first book ends differently with Urquhart, consumed by shame choosing to hurl himself to death rather than Mattie.

Michael Dobbs served as Deputy Tory Chairman under John Major and is now Baron Dobbs in the House of Lords. He has written many novels.

Already a prolific author Andrew Davies (A Very Peculiar Practice), Davies has become something of an adaptation-writing machine since the huge success of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice (which featured Mattie Storin from House of Cards as Jane). Incredibly, Davies has written over twenty series since including Mr Selfridge, Bleak House and Middlemarch.

Ian Richardson died in 2007.

A new US series of House of Cards (much altered) starring Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood is is available on Netflix.