The Devastation of Comedy | Upstart Crow Season 3 Review

Dear Ben Elton and David Mitchell,

I have a bone to pick with you.

(No, it’s not one of Shakespeare’s phrases. I know. It feels like it should be.)

(What am I saying? You know this already! Half the gags in season 3 of Upstart Crow are about Mitchell’s well-meaning-but-often-eejity Will taking credit for a variety of phrases that he either didn’t actually invent himself or that just seem odd to his contemporaries. Indeed, Bottom, you are quite right to point out that “in a nutshell” makes no sense whatsoever because a nutshell is, well, full of nuts.)


But OK, seriously, guys. Like, you kind of established you were doing a Blackadder deal. You even had cross-dressing ‘Bob’ turn up at the end of season 1, thirty years later! How awesome is that? Your handling of late-sixteenth-century events has that same gorgeous mix of properly-accurate-historical-detail mixed in with completely absurd, reflecting-on-our-own-time spiels – like whenever Will Shakespeare goes on about the public transport system.

And you’ve done an amazing job at being, basically, Blackadder for literature nerds. From the very beginning you’ve both poked fun at, and demanded knowledge of, Shakespeare’s life and works and myth. A particular stroke of genius in the first season, for example: Kit Marlowe, often cited – with no credible evidence – as being the ‘real’ author of ‘commoner’ Shakespeare’s plays, appears as the cool dude who turns up to in fact pass off a certain number of Will’s plays as his own.

Comic genius. As Thomas Kempe might say, as he channels Ricky Gervais’s David Brent. (Or he might not. He’s got, like, his own thing, yeah? And maybe we just don’t get it?)

So that’s all brilliant – and then, obviously, OK, grumpy teen daughter Susanna is an absolute triumph as she moans her way through adolescence but also offers up astute commentary on exactly why Juliet is just, like, so not realistic? (Until she gets a bit older and gets swoony over the whole thing, particularly the epic tragedy of it all. You wouldn’t understand.)

And OK, fine, landlord’s daughter Kate who both yearns to be in the theatre even though lady-acting is illegal (“where would you put the coconuts?”) but has also read everything ever, including all the texts Will bases his plays on, is kind of epic.

And, yeah, I suppose having Anne be so sharp and brilliant is kind of delightful, and the theatrical commentary we see with Burbage and the others is gorgeous, and Greene as mortal enemy of the Bard – he who first dubbed him the ‘upstart crow’ – is pure pantomime but wondrous . . .

Well, look, it’s all very good. And very funny. Very sharp, very funny, very brilliant.

But you don’t seem to have got that memo about Blackadder and how you leave that heart-breaking episode until the end of season 4.

And David, I’m looking at you here – with That Mitchell and Webb Look, yourself and lovely Robert had a whole discussion about the end of Blackadder! You deliberately set up that final episode of your fourth season – that last sketch where you’re an ageing Sherlock Holmes, and Webb is a concerned Watson – as a devastating heartbreaker of a closer. But we got a nudge, an indicator that something of this sort was on its way.

David. Ben. We need to have words. Because that final episode of Upstart Crow season 3 – 3! Not 4! You monsters! – is going to, or at least certainly should, go down in history as one of those utterly killer episodes in comedy alongside that Blackadder finale. And you didn’t even have the decency to give us a heads-up.

Look. Of course there are familiar points we expect the series to hit, while also being unsure of how it will hit them. The joy of the show is its delicious mix of the old-fashioned with the new-fangled, the swinging back and forth between a modern mentality and Elizabethan sensibilities. The absolutely accurate adherence to the historical and literary record – scrappy though it is in places – has been sacrificed, over the past three seasons, for the good gags – and quite rightly.

And then. Oh there we go. A punch to the solar plexus. A breath we can’t un-take.

And suddenly this thing we thought was this hilarious spoof gets real. It gets sad. It hits us in the way that only comedy can hit us when it goes dark, because that gap between laughter and tragedy is so enormous. Such a chasm.

So basically. Lads. A word. Because you pretended you were doing this silly comedy thing that would be escapism. You didn’t say that you’d sneak in the sad, the dark, the awful. You didn’t make a clever self-referential point about how you’d be dealing with all of those big, deep, philosophical Shakespearean themes but in the form of a half-hour comedy series. You just – did it.

Many a bone to pick with you, you wretched, brilliant men.

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