Plebs vs Upstart Crow(The Battle of the Historical Comedies)
May 10, 2016
I changed my Monday night viewing last night for the first time in a few weeks. Monday at 10pm has been reserved for ITV2’s fabulous historical comedy set in ancient Rome - Plebs.
Instead, I tuned into Ben Elton’s new Shakespearean comedy Upstart Crow, starring David Mitchell. Mitchell was spot on as he was allowed to play the frustrated wordy genius, surrounded by his common sense family including Liza Tarbuck, as Anne Hathaway and the brilliant Helen Monks as daughter Susanna.
The supporting cast were similarly excellent in their performances, and the delivery of the script, and there were some crisp one liners in there - Romeo and Julian was just a working title - that made me laugh out loud. The Ricky Gervais pastiche didn’t really work - if they could have got Gervais to deliver the mocking lines it would have been hilarious, without him it just looked like a snide swipe.
The dialogue was actually good, when you could hear it, and that was my big problem. The laughter track was way too high, really breaking the immersion in the characters, and plot - a Romeo and Juliet inspired droll. The guffaws intruded into the show rather than enhancing it. I hope it’s just a level thing on the soundtrack that can be easily and quickly fixed before the next episode.
Overall it will probably grow on me, especially if they can sort the laughter, but I couldn’t help but feeling a little disappointed as I waited for Plebs, eating me chocolate hobnob and swigging back a tea. I blame LJ Trafford (author of the superb Four Emperors series - Book 2 coming soon) for sending me a tweet espousing the early showing of the Roman sitcom!
And what an episode it was.
Tom Rosenthal’s fussy, tight fisted, character Marcus and his new Gaullish girlfriend ( New this series, and I do miss Lydia Rose Bewely and Sophie Colquhoun) Delphine, played by Bella Dayne, are going through some very ‘Roman’ relationship difficulties when he invites her to move in. Joel Fry’s happy go lucky Stylax bumbles through the episode with his usual brilliance - You can't party in this! It's one in one out- and there's a wild sex scene with Laura Elsworthy as Maya. Ryan Sampson’s Grumio really stole this one, though. Our hapless hero is packed off to learn how to be a ‘proper slave’ after an argument over a carrot. By the end of the episode he has started a strike, got a slave crucified, and given his training master a nervous breakdown - all over a carrot. Sometimes I wonder if he really is a witless cretin or actually an evil genius!
Grumio is an inspired comic creation (The Suburan landlord and his muscular sidekick run him a close second for me as well) but he works so brilliantly because he is set off against the straight Marcus, and away with the fairies Stylax. As this was the penultimate episode, all I can say is ITV better not cancel the show, and can we have a Saturnalia/Xmas special please?
When comparing the two shows, Plebs really did it for me. Yes it’s in its third - and so far best - series, and it's maybe unfair to judge Upstart Crow on the first episode, but the wider production and depiction of Rome - knowing anachronisms and modern lingo not withstanding - along with the brilliant scripts by Tom Basden et all, was light years ahead of Ben Elton last night.
Upstart Crow felt a bit dated with the small sets, tight focus, and audience laughter - It was all very 80s/90s - Blackadder from Series 2 onwards and Red Dwarf did is brilliantly back then, but I do think comedy has moved on a bit - peversely more like Blackadder Series 1 which was a bit of a miss for some people at the time, but gets better and better looking back. Red Dwarf had the same problem when it was revived, although I still happily watch and enjoy it.
Next week, I think it will be back to my usual schedule, and I will save Upstart Crow and Mitchell’s Shakespeare for Iplayer.
Update - Maya was not Michelle Keegan - actually Laura Elsworthy - Sorry Laura!