James Delingpole is loving Ben Elton's new Shakespeare sitcom

Plus: the latest instalment of the Hollow Crown cycle on BBC2 points to what Shakespeare would be up to if alive today – he'd be writing Game of Thrones

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

There’s no way of saying this without shredding the last vestiges of my critical credibility, but this new Ben Elton comedy series, Upstart Crow (BBC2, Mondays), about William Shakespeare: I’m loving it and think it’s really, really funny.

Yes, all right, it’s very like season two of Blackadder — which Elton co-wrote with Richard Curtis. But that, believe it or not, was more than 30 years ago — I know it was because I remember going to watch an episode with friends in the Brasenose college JCR, one of whom, three decades later, would become the butt of a joke in Upstart Crow on the subject of entitled young toffs at Oxbridge inserting their members into dead farmyard animals — and I’m not sure that Elton has done anything nearly as brilliant since.

Upstart Crow, though, is up there with Elton’s very best stuff — cleverly milking every last cliché about the life, works and myth of William Shakespeare to create gags which, though often broad and obvious, flatter your intelligence even as they give you glorious, cheap belly laughs. And maybe the odd knowing chuckle.

‘Will, I told ya. Don’t do comedy. It’s not your strong point,’ says Anne Hathaway (Liza Tarbuck) who, like most of his family (including his bit-of-rough dad, played by Harry Enfield), speaks in anachronisms (‘yeah, right’, etc.) with a rich Black Country accent, while only Will himself speaks in cod-Elizabethan. ‘It is my strong point, wife. It just requires lengthy explanations and copious footnotes. If you do your research my stuff is actually really funny,’ Will replies.

There are jokes about Will’s receding hairline; jokes about his use of the word ‘wherefore’ in Romeo and Juliet (‘People will definitely think it means “Romeo, where are you?”’ insists Will’s missus, who finds his language far too abstruse and flowery); jokes about his putative gayness (‘God’s naughty etchings! Why does everybody presume that just because I write 126 love poems to an attractive boy I must be some kind of bechambered hugger-tugger?’)

That last coinage could have come straight out of Blackadder, as of course could the character of David Mitchell’s Will (a preternaturally brilliant man in a world of stupid), his dim-ish manservant Bottom, his patron’s daughter and would-be Juliet Kate (shades of ‘Bob’ — and also, now I think of it, of Shakespeare in Love), and the bombastic Master of the Queen’s Revels Sir Robert Greene (Mark Heap), who comes across like a mix of Flashheart and Lord Melchett. But this is all to the good. Blackadder II only ran to a paltry six episodes. I hope this delightful, thinly disguised sequel runs to many, many more.

Another cliché has it that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing soaps. More specifically, though, he’d be writing Game of Thrones, as director Dominic Cooke’s pared-down adaptation of Henry VI — Part One, the latest instalment in the Hollow Crown cycle, made thrillingly, viscerally clear (BBC2, Saturday) — most explicitly in the casting of Anton Lesser (Qyburn in Thrones) as the Duke of Exeter.

I’d love to be able to carp in erudite detail about the liberties it took with Shakespeare’s originals, but unfortunately I never got round to reading them. Yes, I’m sure I pretended to at the time and probably referenced them in my essays. But the truth is when you’re looking at the Collected Works and deciding which ones you can afford to skip, the most obvious candidate is the play written in not two but three separate parts. If they’d had sexier titles — maybe Henry V: the Cursed Wytches, for part one — I guarantee they’d be much better known.

I notice that lots of reviews of this hugely enjoyable adaptation have used variations on the line ‘purists may carp…’ But I don’t think those notional purists actually exist. All the Shakespeare scholars and fans I can think of will have loved it, because it shows how endlessly adaptable and versatile and modern he is.

As regards Thrones, the weak Henry VI (a suitably insipid, pretty-boyish Tom Sturridge) was clearly the model for the nice but useless King Tommen; the voluptuous, she-wolf Margaret of Anjou is a ringer for Cersei; Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake became the more poignant and grislier death of Shireen Baratheon.

Then again, the Wars of the Roses didn’t half provide both authors with some pretty racy source material. After the Battle of Towton, for example, no fewer than 60 knights and gentlemen on the losing (Lancastrian) side were attainted. That is, they were hanged, drawn and quartered (i.e., eviscerated while still alive), had all their goods confiscated and their heirs disinherited in perpetuity.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • artemis in france

    So good to see Elton back on form, and Enfield and Mitchell enjoying the roles given to them. Although Elton is still called a left-winger, I always feel he’s more of an iconoclast and winder-upper. I certainly doubt he’s impressed with the antisemitism now rife in the dominant sector of the Labour Party. He’s never made much of his Jewishness, but he is a Jew and the older you get the more sensitive you become about your roots. He is, of course, just the kind of clever clogs success story which engenders do much envy among the Jew haters in Labour. My husband and I are looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Temporary ID

    My admiration for Delingpole is enormous. I agree with his stance on “climate change” (he was calling its bluff long ago, when doing so took much more bravery than it does today). That’s why it’s disappointing that he has (elsewhere, such as Twitter) clung to the consensus on Shakespearean biography. If anything, the Bard industry is more corrupt and conflicted than climate “science”. Orthodox Shakespeare studies and warble gloaming studies both thrive in groupthink campuses and both receive vast wads of cash for the “correct” opinion. James, there was a time when you believed the Chicken Littles and then had your eyes opened. This should make you question the nonsense about Shakespeare:

  • davidofkent

    It was quite amusing, but it does seem a lot like an underplayed Blackadder.

  • AtilaTheHen


  • JimHHalpert

    Delingpole’s word is now an anti-recommendation for me.

  • John McNab

    The HOLLY Crown cycle?? Proofreader please!

  • Jingleballix

    Well, I suppose if one is going to take liberties with the Bard it is better to do it to his face – i.e. with him represented, like Elton has done.

    When people like Emma Rice take liberties with his work, i.e. ‘behind his back’, they are just ‘spitting on his grave’. What on earth was the Globe’s board thinking about in appointing this ignoramus as Artistic Director? Zoe Wannamaker has kicked her brave father’s corpse in the gonads.

    What a con……..the last GT show I went to, they emphasised the authenticity of the production in that there was no complementary lighting……, never mind the revision of the plot/text, we have full on ‘son et lumiere’……..ridiculous.

    I shall not go until she has been removed, and somebody more sensible appointed……..which won’t be long I don’t think.

  • MenAreLikeWine

    What is the deal with the David Brent impersonator?

  • Tony Buchanan

    Some nice lines but these accents in the show are linguistically 35 miles north of Stratford in Dudley or Tipton. You’ll hear the odd Brum in Stratford because Birmingham money settles in the area but the local accent much flatter, none of the see-saw of Birmingham. Just two or three miles south of Stratty you hit bucolic Glozzur accents. Liza Tarbuck and Harry Enfield sound like they’re in Cannock! I enjoyed the show but anything vaguely based in the Midlands produces ‘comedy Brum’ as I’m sure Doc Martin produces ‘Carrot crunching Cornish’. But I suppose BBC execs, as per, consider anybody north of Oxford a bit of a Jasp (Jasper Carrot).

  • The inevitable Blackadder comparison:

    This could have been done on radio. There is no visual humour – Blackadder is peppered with situations and characters that need to be seen. And timing is everything; a line like “your name is like a cold sore, it is on everybody’s lips” is right out of Blackadder, except that by the time you hear the pay off, it’s limp.

    Somehow the show does not elevate Shakespeare to any level that is satisfying, even a satirical one. The jokes are laboured and repetitive. So, just once again, let’s have the women can’t be actors gag, because the audience must have missed it the first twelve times. And we are somehow to imagine that, in this imaginery world, where everyone else engages in 21st century argot, that Will himself spouts utter twaddle?

    There is a running gag, no crawling, shambling gag, about Shakespeare not being able to write comedy, or, if it is comedy needs notes and research to get it. The reliance upon the audience having at least some knowledge of the plays sort of deconstructs this, and rather than flattering, siimply reminds me what a cliche that is and how pretty irrelevant it is, unless you are the kind of person who feels nervous if you don’t find obscure Elizabethan wit gut-bustingly funny.

    Upstart Crow is an opportunity missed, and not one that is going to challenge the kind of fine tuning and comic simulacra that Blackadder was good for. Ricky Gervais impersonation? What the f…