I Hate This Sceptred Isle: Why Upstart Crow Is The Best Of British Comedy

By Clare Rammelkamp

'Dad, shut up, you're embarrassing me in front of Europe!'

It's currently quite embarrassing to be British, or such is the opinion of a generation of Remainers. The EU is like a party full of cool kids that our parents have come to pick us from at nine o'clock, honking the car horn and muttering loudly about immigrants taking all the parking spaces.


It's even more embarrassing to be proud of being British. Patriotic feeling here smacks of nationalism. Bit racist. Thank god then, that we have Shakespeare, something all us Britons can legitimately be proud of. One of the practically indisputable sources of national pride mentioned by Hugh Grant in his heart-warming Love Actually speech, alongside David Beckham's right and left feet. Such is our reliance on Shakespeare to stand as the single pillar holding up British self-respect, that we can get a bit serious and po-faced about old Shakey.


This is very much not the approach taken by Ben Elton in his BBC comedy Upstart Crow. The Will Shakespeare of his sitcom is not the unflappable genius we learnt about in school, nor is he the dashing, eccentric sexual fantasy who kisses Gwynneth Paltrow's soft-focus 'bubbies' in Shakespeare In Love. He is, in Elton's version, a bit funny-looking (sorry, David Mitchell) well-meaning, frequently misguided, woefully short-sighted and constantly putting his foot in things. A thoroughly British hero.


Elton pokes fun at Shakespeare for nicking things and claiming them as his own ('Master, you can't claim to have invented the entire English language,' remonstrates his servant. 'Oh can't I?' replies Will) and for writing impenetrably dense verse ('Once you get your head round the language it is kind of good.' says Will's teenage daughter.). Elton suggests, in no uncertain terms, that this is what we all really think about Shakespeare even if we pretend otherwise. There is something shockingly liberating for a clever grown-up to admit that Shakespeare can be a bit boring and obscure.


And yet Elton clearly has a deep current of appreciation for Shakespeare. Each half-hour script is based on a different Shakespeare play, so even while the characters mock the convoluted plot lines, Elton's structure acknowledges that they are pretty cracking stories. And as much as Shakespeare is derided and undermined in Upstart Crow, we are always on his side. From the first episode, Shakespeare is cast as the underdog, struggling to penetrate a world dominated by 'posh boys' and 'Oxbridge men.' 'It is as though there be a ceiling made of glass against which we must constantly bonk our heads,' says Shakespeare. Then, just when the viewer is tempted to feel undiluted sympathy, Will squeals that he is 'Bloody jealous,' and he's back to the flawed, talented twit we have come to love and laugh at. It's a tender, warts and-all portrait. A loving tease.


Of course, the show is not just about Shakespeare, it is about Britain, and Upstart Crow unpicks the nature of being British with the same warm ribaldry as it mocks Shakespeare himself. It feels like a love/hate letter to the nation. Will's rants about public transport give me warm fuzzy feeling inside every time. 'They've laid on a replacement donkey service at Lemington Spa,' Will moans. In that one sentence I feel like Elton has summed up something essential to the British consciousness; we are ridiculous, incompetent, resilient, and love nothing more than a well-constructed gripe.


One area not spared by this British comedy is 'British Comedy'. Ricky Gervais is mocked in the form of a character made up of three parts Gervais, one part Will Kempe, a real historical figure, from Shakespeare's Lord Chamberlain's Men, who is insufferably proud of being 'big in Italy' and keeps insisting that comedy 'doesn't need to be funny.'


We are often fond of British Comedy for its 'subtle nuances', but it can be alienating to an audience, and fosters a kind of comedic snobbery which only reinforces a sentiment of 'us' and 'them.' Upstart Crow finds a point in between Gervais 'clever comedy' and the 'low-brow' kind of sitcom which fell out of fashion in the era of The Office, and produces something with impressively broad appeal. There are references which Shakespeare aficionados can congratulate themselves for recognising ('HA, that's clearly an allusion to Henry Vi part ii- did anyone else spot that?') But there are also fart jokes, easy slapstick punches, funny-sounding words. Even the joke that characters refer to balls as 'bollingbrooks' works on multiple levels. On one level, yes, it's a reference to Richard II. On another, it's just a really funny word. Like futtock. Or cod-dangle. I'm actually shaking with irrepressible laughter as I type these. It's a bloody clever show, but it doesn't try to make anyone feel stupid.


Much like Shakespeare originally intended, there is something for everyone in Upstart Crow. It's inclusive comedy. It's even inclusive of the Right and Left- a near impossible task in this era of political division. Occasionally the dialogue becomes little more than unapologetic socialist propaganda. And yet, because of the rather conservative sitcom format, and the rich vein of dramatic tradition, I can imagine even Rod Liddle taking a break from penning a vitriolic Spectator article to switch on iplayer and have a hearty chuckle at a reference to Love's Labour's Lost.


It's not perfect, despite this glowing review. Some of the scenes go on too long for me, some of the stereotypes are occasionally worrisome, some of the jokes don't land, or are too on the nose, but I imagine for every joke I don't like there is someone out there laughing their tits off. And, as the show frequently reminds us, even Shakespeare wasn't perfect.

Who knows if Ben Elton will be an immortal bard, but for now he has written something which makes me at least a little bit proud to be British.

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The Radical Art Review is a non-profit cooperative platform fuelled purely by people power for those who think art holds the potential for social transformation. We publish the thoughts, philosophies, and stories of all who dare to dissent. We seek to inform, to empower, and to dream collectively of a better tomorrow.

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  © The Radical Art Review 2020