“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”.
Hands up how many readers knew that what Juliet is actually asking in the famous balcony scene is not the whereabouts of her lover, but why he belongs to the house of Montague – 'wherefore' meaning 'why'. Why are you Romeo and not somebody else?
My hand can now reach to the ceiling thanks not to some scholarly BBC4 documentary on the Bard's use of Elizabethan language, but because I've been informed so by a knockabout new Ben Elton-scripted BBC2 comedy in the Blackadder mould.
Upstart Crow stars former Peep Show star and ubiquitous panel-show contestant David Mitchell as William Shakespeare, attended at home in Stratford-upon-Avon by a Baldrick-like servant called Bottom (played by Rob Rouse), wife Anne Hathaway (Liza Tarbuck), daughter Susannah (Raised by Wolves' Helen Monks) and his parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox).
But it's Mitchell who drives Elton's comedy, capturing the same asperity that Rowan Atkinson brought to the character of Edmund Blackadder. Or as BBC comedy commissioner Shane Allen puts it: “He does a Ben Elton rant better than Ben Elton... his quiet fury is extraordinary.”
Mitchell's waspish, not-suffering-fools-gladly intelligence is on display when answering a question about whether or not the BBC is right to be making such a fuss about Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death – his reply worth quoting in full.
“We do anniversaries as a species”, says Mitchell, just warming up. “You could say let's celebrate things every 81 years, but we've gone with 100... it's base ten system and it's too late to go back on it. If we accept that premise, which I admit is random, then I think when that significant number has come round for the fourth time since the death of the greatest artist who has ever lived than that's one of the times that you do that.”. Take that!
“But it is amazing”, he continues in a calmer vein. “Shakespeare is arguably globally the most significant creative figure and he's a random bloke from the Midlands. That's something for this country to mark and the BBC is a key broadcaster in this country so, of course, the BBC should do a big thing about it and it would be terrible if it didn't.”
The opening episode of Upstart Crow manages an informed but gag-rich pastiche of Romeo and Juliet, as well as referencing Shakespeare's sonnets and making jokes about the way female parts are played by men and boys (“lady acting is illegal”, as Mitchell's affronted Bard puts it), while making topical quips about the poor state of public transport and aristocrats “rodgering dead animals” - a risque joke they decided to keep after the studio audience gave it a massive laugh (a substitute line was apparently received in silence).
“If the news story [about David Cameron and 'Piggate'] hadn't broken that line would still have worked”, says Mitchell. “But there was the added pleasure of the prime minister violating meat.” An allegation Cameron has of course denied.
The series was filmed at London's South Bank studios, just along the river, Mitchell notes, from the original Globe theatre. “It's lovely to get to play scripts that are written for an audience to laugh at. Because it's something that happens less and less in television now because things get filmed single-camera and they're more realistic.
“We felt with Shakespeare as obviously a very theatrical figure, the more theatrical studio-sitcom form was justified and that allows a script written with gags that land. 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.”
And the guffaws come thick and fast – as do obvious comparisons to Blackadder. “We often thought when we were making it”, says executive producer Gareth Edwards, “that this was happening in the same world as Blackadder but several years later just down the road. It's coming from a similar parallel universe.”
“It was a bugger to learn”, says Mitchell of Elton's cod Shakespearean language. “It's a bit harder, obviously, than things where you're just expressing things naturalistically. But at the same time it was great writing so I wanted to get it right.”
In some ways Mitchell's Shakespeare is a long way from Mark Corrigan in the the ultra-naturalistic Peep Show, which came to an end last December after 12 years. In other ways – especially in the acerbic asides – there's no distance at all.
The 41-year-old actor, who is married to Victoria Coren-Mitchell of the brainy TV quiz Only Connect (the couple have a one-year-old daughter, Barbara) is re-joining his erstwhile Peep Show co-star Robert Webb later this spring to film a pilot for Channel 4 called Back. Scripted by The Thick of It and Veep's Simon Blackwell, Back sees Mitchell playing the son of a recently deceased B&B owner, who on inheriting the establishment discovers a cuckoo in the nest in the form of Webb's character.
In the meantime, if Upstart Crow is a success – and on the evidence of the first two episodes there seems to be no reason why it shouldn't be – then the furiously hard-working Ben Elton will no doubt pound out further series.
“What's brilliant about the way Ben has constructed this scripts is that they completely, to my mind, obey all the rules of sitcom”, says Mitchell. He could add that they also deal with such British sitcom staples as class, with the striving central character, eager to restore the family name after the bankruptcy and social disgrace of his father, John Shakespeare, a former mayor of Stratford. In his own way, in other words, the Bard of Avon was as much a social climber as Hyacinth Bucket.
“One of the things that makes Shakespeare appropriate to this sitcom treatment is that he was an aspirant figure”, says Mitchell. “He was middle-class, he wanted to better himself, he had commercial as well as artistic aspirations. Something that Ben told is that he bought a coat of arms for his father, which is incredibly sort of nouv' [nouveau riche]... like getting a personalised number-plate.”
Upstart Crow begins on BBC2 on Monday 9 May at 10pm
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