Looking Back At UPSTART CROW - A CHRISTMAS CROW - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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All the world’s a stage. Tony’s a critic, throwing fruit from the cheap seats.
There are precautionary words to say before you embark on A Christmas Crow.

Yes, Upstart Crow is an Elizabethan comedy. Yes, it’s written by Ben Elton. And so yes, it’s always going to face unfair comparison in the mind of anyone old enough to remember Blackadder II.

What it is overall is “What would happen if William Shakespeare had a tinge of Blackadder II about him?” Which is to say a bit of a sensibility more modern than anyone else around him.

Now, if you’re going to make a comedy about someone in the Elizabethan era whose sensibilities are more modern and ‘clever’ than anyone else’s, it’s hard to make a case for making that person anyone OTHER than William Shakespeare. His writing was entertaining to his contemporaries, and for the most part, significantly ahead of its time.

There is however an attendant danger in the 21st century that what you end up with is show more pantomime than pastiche, more ‘broad humour about Elizabethan life’ than ‘satire about how systems that define reality (like the monarchy, religion, etc) can be seen as barmy by anyone who looks at them with a sharper mind (like Shakespeare’s).’

It’s fair also to say that if you’re going to watch Upstart Crow, it’s a mistake to start with A Christmas Crow. It’s a mistake because A Christmas Crow is essentially a re-run of the Elizabethan section of Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, with some modern ranting (on the British transport system) barely disguised by an Elizabethan setting, and one interesting Love, Actually gag.

So the tendency to think of it as Blackadder II with an understudy cast is exacerbated by the fact that the situations through which Shakespeare (David Mitchell) must navigate in the episode are distinctly reminiscent of the festive Blackadder, and by much of the rest of the action having the overblown grotesquerie of pantomime.

The essential premise of A Christmas Crow is that at first, Shakespeare’s wife, Anne (Liza Tarbuck) wants her man home for a family Christmas, and she wants a special gift. Shakespeare meanwhile must return from Stratford to London – and get back again – in the week before Christmas as he’s been commanded to a) present a gift to the Queen, and b) present his new “Christmas” play without a single Christmas reference, the highly convoluted sex comedy, Eighth Night.
However, with the typical Blackadder gift for picking up problems, first one, then two, then three other characters more or less compel him to invite them home to Stratford for the festive season. First, his pal Christopher Marlowe (Tim Downie, playing the role with the energy of a Rik Mayall as Flashheart, but with a touch of Kevin Kline thrown in for good measure), bored of his duties as a spy, invites himself to come and crash with the Shakespeares rather than root out Catholics over the Christmas season.

Then, Kate (Gemma Whelan), the sickly sweet landlady’s daughter where Shakespeare lives in London reveals piecemeal that she will be all alone for the Christmas season, and intends to spend it singing carols softly to herself in her small room, eating tiny roast fowl birds, and bathing the feet of the poor in emulation of Christ.

She too gets whisked away to Stratford for Christmas, more to save her from her own stunted imagination than anything else.

And finally, Mr Green (Mark Heap), Master of the Queen’s Revels, and an out-and-out git throughout the show, pretends to have turned over a new leaf for Christmas, and gets himself an invite to Will’s pad for the festive season too.

Meanwhile, of course, there’s the business of Eighth Night to attend to. In what is probably the best scene in the episode, actor/manager Richard Burbage (Steve Spiers) and his players complain that the damn thing is much too complicated, tangential, and frankly demented. More than once the question comes up of whether Eighth Night is ACTUALLY a comedy.

In a fairly glorious rant, studded with that self-regard for their own comic abilities that marks out all the least funny people in the world, Shakespeare explains the plot of what we know as Twelfth Night, barely taking a breath throughout the complicated sex-and-clothes confusion comedy, and ultimately demanding “Now what is so complicated about THAT?”

If it reminds you of anything, there’s a chance it’s the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” sequence in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian – it’s the comedy of over-explanation and blindness to consequence, and it works probably better than anything else in A Christmas Crow.

The other positives include a sequence where Anne Shakespeare discovers a necklace her husband has bought as his Christmas gift for the Queen, and is then dismayed when, on Christmas morning, his gift to her is revealed as – some poems. Cue a somewhat merciless riff on Elton’s old Blackadder writing partner, Richard Curtis, who would go on to write Love, Actually. The sequence is lifted straight from that movie, where Emma Thompson’s character catches her husband, played by Alan Rickman, out in an infidelity this way.

When Anne Shakespeare begins to replay Thompson’s questions from the movie – whether, if Will had found her bestowing a gift on another man, he would cut and run, waiting to see if it was, say, just a necklace, or sex and a necklace, or even, god forbid, a necklace and love, Elton has him cut through her recitation with a simple “It’s none of those things, it’s for the Queen.” The joke is given added weight by the fact that in this version, the Queen is not played by, for instance, Miranda Richardson, but by none other than Emma Thompson. As a cyclic sequence in itself, this is a thing of mastery.
For those still catching up, Mr Green is very much the villain of the piece, hiding away with the Shakespeares – and Marlowe – in the hopes of condemning both the playwrights to death. Marlowe, he has arrested as a skiver, but with Shakespeare there’s much more Blackadder’s Christmas Carol in the plot. He steals the playwright’s gift for the Queen (the necklace) and is about to succeed in getting the Queen to pronounce his execution when a piece of paper comes back to his hand – Anne secretly gives him the poems he wrote her. Presenting these to the Queen instead, he wins favour, gets Marlowe freed, and so moves Her Majesty with an example of a love she will never know that the performance of the impossibly complicated Eighth Night is postponed.

All very pantomime, all very Blackadder, with Mark Heap delivering a very Stephen Fry-style villain, though naturally with his own twist. A joke overplayed in the episode is that Heap soliloquises to the audience while other characters should ordinarily overhear every word of his evil schemes. He explains that they can’t hear him because ‘it is convention’ that if you soliloquise, no-one hears you.

As a Shakespeare gag, it’s fairly lame the first time it happens. The second time it exhausts any humour left in the idea. The same is true of the cod-Elizabethan to which many characters descend when talking about sex or villainy. It might technically work in context, but it grows quickly exhausting, in an episode otherwise delivered in modern language, to have these subjects descend into an Elizabethan version of baby-talk.

A Christmas Crow is very, very busy – apart from everyone we’ve mentioned, there’s the whole Shakespeare family at home – mum and dad (Paula Wilcox and Harry Enfield, respectively), Judith, Susannah and Hamnet (Rosanna Beacock, Helen Monks and Joe Willis), along with Shakespeare’s servant, Bottom (Rob Rouse). It feels almost as though the show acts as Elton’s revenge for the limited cast and sets he was allowed on Blackadder II – here, the sets are still relatively few, but the cast is crowded as a jam jar, and it’s highly arguable that less would have been more.

Overall, A Christmas Crow is watchable, pantomime nonsense with a very broad wink to Shakespeare-fans. Will even, at one point, talking about Eighth Night, describes it in terms that include all the elements of what we know as a festive panto – men dressed women, overblown villains, etc - only to face the question “Well, who would want to watch that?”. Given the perennial popularity of pantomimes in Britain, it’s placed as a kind of extra-slow wink to validate the whole thing.

Ultimately though, A Christmas Crow is a panto that feels poorly stuffed into the setting of this sitcom, and that doesn’t invite repeat viewing too often.

Tony  lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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