The cast of Upstart Crow talk Shakespeare, wigs and Blackadder

Mark Reynolds

Ben Elton’s hilarious new historical comedy, Upstart Crow, follows the domestic life and literary aspirations of a Midlands lad called Will Shakespeare. David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck, Helen Monks, and producer Gareth Edwards talk about giving the Bard the Blackadder treatment.

Upstart Crow is Ben Elton’s brand new BBC Two sitcom starring David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck and Helen Monks (who play Will’s patient wife and surly teenage daughter), alongside Harry Enfield, Mark Heap and Paula Wilcox,

The first episode, ‘Star Crossed Lovers’, sees Will struggling with a new idea about a teen romance in Verona (working title: Romeo and Julian) – until an irritatingly lovestruck youth is forced upon his London lodgings.

 

What's so special about working with Ben Elton?

“What’s extraordinary about Ben,” says Gareth Edwards, “is that he’s able to tell a story and at the same time do an absolute cavalcade of jokes. There’s an amazing deftness at keeping several different story balls up in the air, but making sure every single line is funny and is funny in a characterful way. And it’s that level of sustained craftsmanship that really paid off.”

“It’s written with gags that land,” says David Mitchell, “and that’s a huge pleasure to play because you say the joke, people laugh, and it feels in your brain like you made it up yourself.”

“With the greatest respect to my fellow thespians,” Liza Tarbuck adds, “we could’ve stood in a line with bags on our heads and still this would have just sung.”

 

So did Mitchell find it daunting to play the greatest writer in the English language?

“Definitely,” he says, “although it would be more daunting to play James Bond… No one knows what he was personally like, and he might have been, you know, nerdy and uncharismatic—which is how I’m playing him.”

“One of the things that makes Shakespeare appropriate to this sort of sitcom treatment,” says Mitchell, “is that he was an aspirant figure. He was middle-class and he wanted to better himself, he wanted to do well, he had commercial as well as artistic aspirations. He felt—rightly—that he was looked down upon by people who wanted the layers of society to remain as they are. And that’s something that certainly resonates for Britain today.”

 

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The first episode contains a bawdy joke about the upper class interactions with dead animals, inspired by a certain present-day rumour

“That was something that Ben came up with on the afternoon before the recording,” Edwards reveals.

"He pitched it and, I’ll be honest, I initially thought it was too contemporary. But shooting completely changed my thoughts about that. It’s not a specific reference to a news story, it’s more of a reference to a very peculiarly British tradition, the sort of weirdness that has been handed down. And the other thing that changed my mind was that it got a massive laugh.”

“If the news story hadn’t broken, that line would still work,” Mitchell insists, “so that’s its justification as well. It’s an added laugh if you’re imagining the Prime Minister violating meat, but it would work even if you hadn’t been aware of that. I’ll only say ‘imagining’…”

 

And how did Mitchell physically transform himself into Shakespeare?

“The key is a bald cap. And it’s my aspiration that the show should run long enough that I will no longer need one. It’s a very skillfully applied bald cap and wig, and then some beard topiary. And it really saves on acting."

 

Were there risks in depicting a renowned, respected figure like Shakespeare in a comic light?

“It’s something that Shakespeare himself was always doing,” says Edwards, “taking lives of important historical figures and weaving a story around them that will resonate with a contemporary audience. And I love the way this show has done that, to make people look at Shakespeare in a completely new way.”

“The reason we still love Shakespeare,” adds Helen Monks, “is he’s so universal. All the problems they were having then to do with class struggle and gender issues—and I know it’s a sitcom, so it doesn’t sit heavy on those things—they really infiltrate the comedy.”

 

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The period detail is meticulously depicted—despite all the action being shot on cramped stages in a hangar-like studio.

“What was interesting was the accuracy we needed in the kitchen,” says Tarbuck. “I was quite worried that I couldn’t peel the spuds because they hadn’t been invented yet.”

 

Was there added pressure to live up to the enduring popularity of Blackadder?

“This is happening in the same world as Blackadder,” says Edwards, “but several years later and just down the road. So it’s coming from a similar parallel universe. It’s lovely to be in that world, it’s just a world where funny things happen, so we felt very at home there.”

 

Spencer Jones plays Will Kemp, the superstar comic actor of his day, as an Elizabethan Ricky Gervais

“It was a very early element of the script, and something that we committed to very early,” explains Edwards.

“Every era has it’s own maverick comedy guy who’s slightly ahead of his time and is following the beat of a slightly different drum. So it’s a very neat and funny way—and I think Spencer’s performance is hilarious—of trying to say this is happening now, but it was also happening then, and probably in 400 years’ time there’ll be somebody else who’s wearing that Ricky Gervais mantle.”

 

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What about the challenges of performing in front of a live audience?

“It was filmed at London Studios on the South Bank, so not far from where the Burbage Shakespeare theatre was built,” says Mitchell.

“I think some actors prefer it when there’s an audience laughing, and some would rather work without that distraction or pressure. But in general, other than the initial ‘Oh my God, we’re doing this in front of people’ terror which happened every week, I think it was nice to hear people laugh, and frankly, the breather you get when there’s a long laugh before you have to remember what you’re doing next is often very welcome.”

“One of the lovely things about having a studio audience,” adds Edwards, “is that you get to road-test material. Ben tends to overwrite, so there was quite a challenge getting the episodes down to time. But that did mean you’re always distilling it down to the very best jokes.”

 

Upstart Crow starts on BBC Two at 10 pm on Monday 9 May

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