I like old things. When I was a teenager my granddad entrusted me with my great grandfather’s fob watch, and it always gave me a thrill to think that I was holding something of (it seemed at the time) inestimable age. It was probably only manufactured in the early twentieth century, but I carried it to school with pride; not for me the digital marvels of the rinky-dink Casio (itself now probably a retro collector’s item).
I still use Great Granddad Scott’s fob watch when teaching first years about new media. How better to indicate the supposed wonders of convergence than with a piece of definitively ‘old’, analogue kit, designed for the sole purpose of telling the owner what time of day it was? No camera. No Apps. Just lovely precision clockwork (it still keeps excellent time if I remember to wind it).
Although initially seduced by the portable music player, I have in recent months gone back to vinyl. I say ‘back to’; I was never much cop with records when I was a teenager. Only owning a cheap deck, I never got that whole ‘warm’ sound that stereo heads bang on about, and was so clumsy (still am) that I inevitably ended up scratching the few discs I did own. CDs were a godsend; the only advantage I saw to vinyl albums was the fact that the cover artwork looked so much better. One of my students was interviewed on the news recently, frequenting the record shops in Manchester’s northern quarter. He admitted he didn’t own a record player; he just admired the record sleeves as pieces of art, and thought they looked good on his wall.
However, the other month I asked a friend who knows about such things how much I would need to spend to get a decent record player. I had inherited a pretty decent amplifier and set of speakers from my granddad (yes, the same one who gave me the watch; he liked his music, and knew a thing or two about sound systems), and my chum steered me towards a respectable ‘entry level’ record player.
The odd scratch, crackle and pop aside, I at last understand what the ‘warmth’ argument is about. Closing my eyes while listening to my current Hi-Fi set-up, it sometimes sounds as though Ray Davies or Bryan Ferry are actually there in the flat with me, peddling their art rock wares. After years of shuffle play I’ve gone back to listening to albums in their entirety, as the artists intended, and there’s something rather pleasurable about taking the disc out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable, and reverentially lowering the needle.
Watching the black vinyl rotate is also strangely soothing after a hard day’s essay marking; you don’t get that with downloads, do you?
So, going back to old forms and formats can sometimes be a good thing, which brings me to my subject for this month: the situation comedy Upstart Crow, commissioned as part of the recent Shakespeare 400 celebrations, which drew to a close this week. Aside of the hilarious Cunk on Shakespeare (in which the eponymous Philomena reported that, though he turned out some pretty boring stuff, Shakespeare was at least responsible for authoring Game of Thrones), this was, for me, the best thing about the Bard-Day I know; it was the four hundredth anniversary of his death, not his birthday, but the pun proved irresistible. celebrations. Russell T. Davies’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream discovered some interesting subtexts (or took some right flippin’ liberties; you decide), but it clearly felt the need to resort to incidental music in order to convey meaning in all the non-comic scenes, and – somewhat tellingly – the promotional trailer contained not a word from Will himself; just lots of FX and a bit of Björk. When the season kicked off with Shakespeare Live! I was hoping against hope that it wouldn’t open with the Jets and the Sharks bit from West Side Story, in an attempt to show the kidz just how relevant Shakey still is, but – perhaps inevitably – that’s the path they trod.
Upstart Crow, however, is much more my cup of tea. Those who like their situation comedy made single camera, on location, with NO laugh track (maybe in mockumentary form? That never gets old, does it?) will probably already be groaning at the idea of a multi-camera studio sitcom that doesn’t at least play around with the formula by breaking the fourth wall (Miranda, Mrs Brown’s Boys). However, Upstart Crow is resolutely retro, and ticks all the sitcom boxes: an excitable studio audience (there were letters to the Radio Times after episode one, complaining about the volume of the ‘canned’ laughter; it turned out to be the genuine article, albeit cranked up in the mix); reliance on a limited number of studio interiors (even when the setting is a blasted moor); and, in David Mitchell’s Will, the as yet unacknowledged genius whose social aspirations are regularly pricked by the more grounded cast of recurring characters. These include Harry Enfield, as Shakespeare’s ne’er-do-well dad, Paula Man About the House Wilcox as his snobbish mum, and Lisa Tarbuck as Mrs Shakespeare; the only one who divines the true potential of her husband’s work (‘Such a clever idea; putting on a play to prick a guilty conscience’).
Penned by Ben Elton and set in 1590s, at a time when Shakespeare has yet to quite make a name for himself, the show has drawn inevitable comparisons with Blackadder II, but while it would be easy to see parallels with Baldrick in the illiterate and earthy manservant Bottom (Rob Rouse), in fact this character is far cannier than all bar the series one incarnation, and puts me more in mind of Sid James to Mitchell’s Hancock. Tim Downie’s ne’er-do-well Kit Marlowe could be read as a watered down Flashheart, while Master of the Revels Robert Greene is played by Mark Heap in a slightly more villainous Melchett mien. Shakespeare’s regular complaints about the delays on his coach journeys to and from London re-employ Elton’s old trick of allowing historical characters to lapse into modern idiom, though I like to see the explanations provided (‘lack of rolling stock’) as his homage to the late David Nobbs’ Reginald Iolanthe Perrin, whose daily commute was regularly delayed by eleven minutes (‘seasonal manpower shortages at Clapham Junction’).
Performances are thoroughly projected (I’m teaching my students to write ‘heightened’ instead of ‘OTT’), and in this respect it’s interesting to see actors such as Mitchell and Heap, whose sitcom pedigrees consist primarily of ground-breaking single camera productions (the excellent Peep Show and Spaced, respectively) seamlessly adapt to the more traditional. ‘frontal’ multi-camera mode, playing out to the crowd. But then, they were – like us – weaned on exactly this kind of fare, and the fact that they have returned to a format which their earlier work might be said to have been a reaction against is rather telling. The only misstep is the decision to have clown de jour Robert Kempe portrayed by Spencer Jones as a parody of Ricky Gervais, which at times feels as though Elton is taking a swipe at the comedy vérité style (Mills 2004) which overtook his more traditional work in the early 2000s. In ‘What Bloody Man is That?’ Kempe’s ‘not a fly’ improv (which he claims is all the rage on the continent) is definitively given the bird by the gathered audience, only for the more old school Burbage (Steven Spiers) and Condell (Dominic Coleman) to save the day with their hilarious ‘kick up the backside’ shtick (‘Master, now thy arse be as red as thy face!’).
Although no walls are broken, there is plenty of twenty-first century reflexivity, the continually frustrated ambition of aspiring thespian Kate (Gemma Whelan) providing a regular comment on the belief of the time that ‘Women can’t do anything interesting.’ The indifference and incomprehension with which Shakespeare’s work will be regarded by future generations of secondary school students is also a recurring theme. From Shakespeare’s protest that, if his readers only do their research, his jokes are really funny, to his epic love sonnets being deemed too tedious to harm the morals of any youth who might be forced to read them, the humour is broad enough to amuse the great unwashed who suffered his works at school, while more specific references to particular plays will appeal to those who are actually familiar with them. Apologies if that sounds smug; I’m sure you get all the jokes, too. Plays utilised to provide comedic source material in the first series include Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and – in this week’s finale – The Merchant of Venice, which saw Towne’s attempt to claim his pound of flesh from debtor Will frustrated when Kate (disguised, of course, as a man) employed the ‘but not a drop of blood’ defence. The payoff here was that Judge Robert turned out to be none other than cross-dressing Blackadder stalwart Gabrielle ‘Call me Bob’ Glaister.
Intertextuality; who’d have thought it?
Despite being tucked away on BBC Two at 10 o’clock (when did sitcoms start to be shunted back so late in the schedules, like an embarrassing relative?), Upstart Crow has gained increasingly effusive reviews over the last six weeks, rehabilitating Elton’s reputation after the disappointment of The Wright Way. Although unable to compete with the likes of Top Gear and Peaky Blinders in terms of viewing figures, the programme has not lagged so very far behind; the opening episode just missed out on the channel’s five most watched programmes with 1.95m, and the series has since settled around the respectable 1.3m mark (BARB). A Christmas special and second series have already been commissioned, and while there is (alas) probably a limit to the number of Shakespearean works parodied that will successfully connect with the general public (I think we’re unlikely to see any Timon of Athens gags), it is pleasing that the BBC’s decision to invest in a format that many regarded as obsolete seems to have paid off.
Dr Richard Hewett is Lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media. He has contributed articles to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television and Adaptation. He is not going to mention his forthcoming book, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting, this month.