“Upstart crow” is the derisive nickname his posh fellow playwright Robert Greene gave to middle-class rival, William Shakespeare. How, Greene argues, could a mere glovemaker’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon possibly be the greatest writer of all time, when he didn’t even go to Cambridge?
As we continue to be ruled by a government dominated by ex-public schoolboys, this very topical premise is one of the many reasons why Ben Elton’s sitcom Upstart Crow, which returns for a second series on BBC2, has struck a chord with audiences.
David Mitchell, the deft comedy actor who plays Shakespeare, the ‘Upstart Crow’ of the title, asks in mock horror: “How could Britain possibly be run by a public-school elite? How on earth could that happen?”
Upstart Crow, which may well be Elton’s finest work since his other celebrated historical sitcom, Blackadder, has also chimed with audiences because at its centre lies a classic sitcom figure: an aspiring man whose attempts to make it big are forever thwarted by circumstances beyond his control.
The actor continues: “The sitcom cleverly shows that there are lots of forces working against Shakespeare. It’s definitely a class thing. Shakespeare is deemed too down-at-heel to be one of the poetical geniuses of his age.
“Of course, that’s still the view of some people today. Greene’s sentiment that Shakespeare is an ‘upstart crow’ lives on. He can’t possibly be an all-time great playwright because he didn’t go to the right school!”
Whichever way he turns in Upstart Crow – which astutely mirrors the plot of a Shakespeare play in each episode – the playwright is constantly foiled by the snobbish cabal that runs Elizabethan society.
Mitchell observes that, “Shakespeare sees what’s wrong with the world around him, but is pragmatic enough to realise there is only a limited amount he can do about it. But the illogical nature of it all still makes him boil with frustration.”
Upstart Crow, whose second series opens with an episode entitled: “The Green-Eyed Monster” (a smart riff on the plot of Othello) also works as a comedy because it features a principal character torn between career and family.
According to Mitchell, 43: “Shakespeare is constantly going backwards and forwards between London and Stratford, and continually getting delayed by the hopeless 16th-century English transport system.
“He desperately wants to write and be given credit for the quality of his work, but he also wants to provide a decent living for his family. He doesn’t want to let them down with his weird choice of career.”
Mitchell, who has also starred in Peep Show, one of the most acclaimed sitcoms of the millennium, adds that, “Having a family completely alters your outlook.
"Shakespeare is trying to make money in the nascent showbiz world. But now that he has four dependents and two demanding parents, his need for success is driven by something completely different. That means the jeopardy is stronger, but Shakespeare is also more likeable and understandable.”
The sitcom also scores, Mitchell contends, because it appeals to audiences on different levels. “One of the tremendous things about this show is that there are loads of jokes.
“There are some jokes that everyone will get, and some jokes that people who know a bit about Shakespeare will get. But there are also some jokes that people who know a lot about Shakespeare will get.
“The fact that the scripts can be very stupid and very intelligent by turns is a great thing for a comedy show.”
Shakespeare is a sacred cow in this country, so there might have been a danger that Upstart Crow would upset purists unhappy with the idea of a comedy about their idol.
However, Paula Wilcox, who plays Shakespeare’s mother in the sitcom, says that was never a concern. “I wasn’t worried about that.
"This show is very clever, and it makes you think more about Shakespeare. Something that I also hadn’t expected is that it helps young people come to Shakespeare. If you start laughing about something, you’re halfway towards accepting it.”
A by-product of viewers enjoying Upstart Crow is that they might unwittingly also learn something about the playwright. Wilcox continues: “The show helps you get Shakespeare in a way that you have never got him before.
"It’s very skilful to have a hugely wordy comedy that is still very accessible. My niece told me that they studied the first series of Upstart Crow at her school. It was something the teacher felt would make them understand Shakespeare’s life better.
“So on one hand, this is a cutting-edge BBC2 sitcom; and on the other hand, it is strangely educative and informative.”
Mitchell, who has recently been reunited with his double-act partner Robert Webb for a new Channel 4 sitcom entitled Back, would love to make more series of Upstart Crow.
“I think Ben said from the start that he has enough ideas for four series. I did nine series of ‘Peep Show’, so I’m a believer that if you’ve got a good sitcom idea, you do loads of episodes of it.
“A sitcom premise that works is a rare thing, so don’t squander those opportunities.”
Finally, Mitchell reflects on why it is so important to keep celebrating our greatest artist. “In my view, Shakespeare is the greatest artist there ever was. He is a big deal – not just for us, but right around the world.
“Look at the sheer extent of his inventiveness. The language he invented encapsulates human feelings so quickly and so evocatively. And the sophistication of his characterisation is as moving and as challenging for an actor now as it ever was.
“In his own time, he struggled to break through, but he is now a figure of such cultural importance. There are lots of Shakespeare plays constantly being put on. There has never been a time when people have said: ‘Oh, let’s stop doing them now. I think we’ve had enough.’ They are perpetually being performed. That’s a mark of the man’s historic significance.”
And, Mitchell concludes with a wry smile, “Unlike most famous ‘British’ writers, he didn’t turn out to be Irish. ‘Oh, Oscar Wilde was always in London being all posh - he must have been British.’
“No, sorry, he was Irish. You can’t have him.”
'Upstart Crow' begins at 8.30pm on BBC2 on 10 September
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