OK, so that is a bit of misleading title; I love Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow. History and comedy combined, yeah, it’s right up my street. The show is three series (and one Christmas special) in at the moment, and I really hope it has a few more series to go. The cast is brilliant and the acting outstanding, the writing is superb, funny, and remarkably historically accurate for a sitcom, but it has never really hit the heights that it could and should have hit. No, this isn’t a retro comparison with Blackadder, but I am going to talk a bit about how historical comedy and maybe comedy in general (in my opinion) works best on TV today.
When Upstart Crow first came out I wrote my review here, and I am going to revisit some of the themes that were apparent then. At the moment on UK telly we have four rather prominent historical comedies: Plebs set in ancient Rome, Upstart Crow, Quacks (a fabulous comedy about Victorian medics), and Timewasters following a modern jazz band sent back to the 1920s via a magic piss-filled lift. All of these shows are well acted, written and produced, but Plebs, Quacks, and Timewasters are outstanding in creating the historical world around the comedy. It is here that Upstart Crow really fails.
The audience laughter is still an issue. I know there were initially complaints about it being canned, but that isn’t the problem (and the team have pointed out it is genuine audience laughter), it is the way it breaks the immersion in the past – the modern viewers watching. Laughter tracks are common enough in sit-coms, take a look at any of massive global sit-coms since the eighties (The Big Bang Theory, HIMYM, Friends, Red Dwarf) the laughter track has been an integral part of sit-com production. Yet, British historical comedy (and British comedy in general) has moved away from filming in a studio, probably since The Office. Plebs, Quacks and Timewasters instead use a lot of location shots, a lot of extras, a lot of world-building. They have the production and feel of drama, and the laughter track is neither feasible nor needed in that format. The music soundtrack is far more prominent, most notably in Plebs and Timewasters.
Upstart Crow, by contrast, has the tight focus, small sets, cast, and production style of the past. Now, I don’t think that’s a cost issue; the sets the beeb have produced for the show are excellent, but they are still clearly studio sets, not a lived in environment. I mean, we actually have a fabulous reconstruction of the Globe in London, there are Tudor houses, interiors etc everywhere in the UK. The resource was surely available to the team, so I think it was a conscious choice to use this style of production. Quacks uses the wonderful backdrop of remaining Victorian architecture and interiors to immerse in the world; Plebs is shot in Bulgaria using the Nu Boyana Film Studios brilliant ancient world sets where films like Conan, Hercules, and 300 were filmed. Timewasters has (for series 1) any and every pre-war building in the UK it wants to use (series 2 is set in the 50s Windrush generation and I can’t wait).
To take a look at the filming history of Blackadder (yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to do that but it’s a brief and pertinent point). The first series of Blackadder was filmed mainly on location at Alnwick Castle, had massive amounts of extras, and cost a million quid back in the 80s to produce six episodes. It did exactly what Plebs, Timewasters, and Quacks do today – immersion in the medieval world. The move to a tighter focus and smaller cast and sets of series 2-4 was driven by the Beeb cutting the budget, and the arrival of Ben Elton to compliment Richard Curtis’s writing. And, it worked. Blackadder became one of the greatest British sit-coms ever. I think Upstart Crow could have surpassed its predecessor had the production team gone the other way, back to the ideas of immersion that were apparent in series 1, and in other historical comedies today. Elton didn’t want comparisons with Blackadder, and actually I think the best way of doing that would have been to go the other way with the format as well.
None of this is to say I don’t like, or won’t watch Upstart Crow, it’s still great, but with such an outstanding cast, performances and writing it could have really been groundbreaking, outstanding, genre defining, and that always leaves me feeling a little disappointed.
I am sure Upstart Crow will be back for a new series, I certainly hope so. Plebs is returning for a new series, hopefully next year. Timewasters will be back in a new time period (1950s) and started filming back in September. There are apparently no plans to bring Quacks - which is groundbreaking and genre-defining - back at the moment. Another typically mindless decision by the head of BBC Comedy that demonstrates why C4, ITV2 and Dave are spanking them in comedy shows at the moment. I still haven’t got over the cancelling Ellis James’ Crims in favour of the dire remake of Porridge. Upstart Crow will surely return, but I would rather another series of Quacks, personally, or both, which would be a better idea for the Beeb (honestly the title HoC sort of makes me think of disembodied heads cracking jokes a la Mighty Boosh).
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