William Shakespeare will be portrayed by David Mitchell as a nerdy victim of class snobbery in a new BBC sitcom written by Ben Elton.
Upstart Crow, which returns Elton to the Elizabethan milieu of the classic comedy Blackadder, is one of the highlights of the BBC’s Shakespeare Festival, the corporation’s most far-reaching celebration of the Bard’s work, marking the 400th anniversary of his death.
The season includes the concluding instalments of The Hollow Crown, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Dame Judi Dench and Hugh Bonneville, in new adaptations of Henry VI (in two parts) and Richard III, brought to the screen by Sam Mendes.
Shakespeare Live! from the RSC, broadcast on BBC2 during the April weekend of the playwright’s birthday and hosted by David Tennant, will chart Shakespeare’s influence on performance art forms from opera and dance to jazz.
However Tony Hall, BBC Director-General, said comedy would be a vital element of a season designed to “make Shakespeare irresistible to everybody.”
Set in 1592, at the beginning of his career, Upstart Crow presents Shakespeare as a “fartsome baldy boots,” according to wife Anne Hathaway (Liza Tarbuck). The verbose writer fails in his attempts to be “cool” and his emerging genius goes unrecognised by a disdainful family and peers.
Gareth Edwards, producer, said: “He is a victim of the class system. Shakespeare is a middle-class nerd with a lot of talent trying to make his mark on a system geared to favour the titled and those with an Oxford education.”
The series’ title is taken from contemptuous dismissal of Shakespeare delivered by the poet and playwright Robert Greene, who is Mitchell’s nemesis in the series.
Another satirical highlight will be a “comprehensive guide to Shakespeare” delivered by Philomena Cunk, a regular contributor to Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe. The Horrible Histories team will also produce a special episode.
Other innovations include an app allowing users to select an emoji fitting their mood, which will reveal a Shakespeare quote expressing their feelings.
Radio 3 has commissioned a special series of Shakespeare plays led by Wolf in the Water, written by Naomi Alderman, a “sequel” to The Merchant of Venice, which asks what happened to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. Another drama follows Shakespeare’s fevered imagination on the day of his death, 23 April 1616, as he encounters old friends, enemies and a ghost.
Tony Hall said: “Shakespeare’s in our DNA. For 90 years, we’ve been broadcasting his works to successive generations, but we’ve never done anything as daring, as adventurous, as we’re doing now.”
The BBC will collaborate with the RSC and a range of leading arts organisations on the festival, which will feature Shakespeare phrases concealed within a popular Radio 4 daily drama and storylines in the BBC1 daytime soap Doctors inspired by sonnets.