No great Shakes


I watched two minutes and 38 seconds of the first episode of Ben Elton’s new sitcom Upstart Crow (BBC Two). In that time I did not laugh, and I did not smile, which seemed portent enough not to carry on with the remaining 27 minutes of it. It goes without saying that I still hold Ben Elton in high regard for writing, or co-writing, The Young Ones, Happy Families, Filthy Rich & Catflap, and the second, third and fourth series of Blackadder, plus all the stand-up routines he delivered when he was a lightning rod for the shifting tectonic plates of comedy in the 1980s and early 1990s, and his first novel Stark. (I suspect of all those, the novel will stand up least well to the passage of time, although I gobbled it up on publication, when I still thought he was a visionary.) But that all seemed a long, long time ago when I switched on Upstart Crow in good faith, as it looked for all the world to be a return to the fertile comedic ground of Blackadder. I was dissuaded of this Panglossian notion during the tortuous first two minutes and 38 seconds.


That is my review. I voted with my feet. Comedy is subjective, so I hope others enjoyed it more than I did. A large part of my own comedy writing and script-editing CV took place within the world of audience-based studio comedy, so it is not the form that’s the thing, it’s the mismatch between how funny I felt a line being said out loud by talented actors was, and how funny the studio audience thought it was. I’m sure many people find a similar discrepancy, for which there is no known cure, in Not Going Out. Making a comedy with a studio audience is the opposite of the old stand-up complaint, “Tough crowd.” But it’s a mighty long way down rock and roll, from the Thames TV studio to your remote control.

As David Mitchell said just before I switched off, “It’s what I do!”


28 thoughts on “No great Shakes

  1. I lasted pretty much the same amount of time on “The Wright Way”, Elton’s last BBC sitcom entry, when it made its much-trumpeted debut about three years or so ago. Like you, I still hold Elton in high regard for exactly the same reasons. He played such a massive part in my youth, and for that I will be forever grateful to him.

    But… My god. How big is the chasm between the quality of his work then and the painful, nay, embarrassing stuff he’s putting out now? I couldn’t bear “The Wright Way” beyond its first couple of minutes. I was planning to have a look at “Upstart Crow” tonight. I still am, although my fears that I may last about as long as I did with “The Wright Way” appear to be well-founded. The other Shakespeare comedy entry with the brilliant Philomena Cunk looks even more appealing now…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this Andrew. Your comedy aesthetic is truly reliable. Oi, Elton, nooooooo.

    Replenish your faith in BBC Comedy by watching CUNK ON SHAKESPEARE. Tit-wank, hob-nobbian genius!



  3. You didn’t give it a fair crack. It’s not groundbreaking but it wasn’t crap either.
    It had echos of Blackadder and some of the jokes were well done. He managed to contextualise some blatant digs at modern life and current politics. I will give ep 2 a chance.
    It did make me wonder how it sits with a younger audience. Being a similar age to you I was used to the style and the sets were incredibly similar to those in the early Blackadder seasons.

    Surely you need to give it a better chance than 2:38?


    • If you think that, then you do not know me, Sir! I am the fairest and most open-minded TV critic/viewer in the land. I expect everything to be good, certainly in terms of drama and comedy. But there is way too much good television in the world for me to watch something I am not legally bound to watch. A comedy needs to make me smile, or laugh, or think to myself, “That’s clever.” Equally, if a writer can’t grab me in two minutes and 28 seconds, they have lost their window of opportunity. I am under no obligation to “give it a better chance.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It actually improved over the rest of the programme, although you’re right, that first scene was terrible. Perhaps even then not so many things that made you laugh out loud (and certainly not in the way the audience was doing), but some very clever uses of language, and appeals to Shakespeare’s history and the plots of the plays that brought a smile. Hopefully it’ll improve in that vein, similar to the way that Blackadder did (though hopefully much quicker than that, where the entire first series was pretty awful).

    Have to disagree with Steve (above), I do not see the appeal of Philomena Cunk. It was funny once, for about 2 minutes, the first time she appeared in Screen Wipe. Since then it’s the same, predictable and not even slightly clever joke.


  5. The last line in today’s post echoes Tyrion Lannister’s succinct declaration from episode 2 of the current Game of Thrones series: “That’s what I do. I drink, and I know things.” Perhaps Tyrion’s remark could replace “I have been watching” as your blog’s subtitle. While I can’t comment on the drinking part, your knowledge of and insights on things televisual are formidable. And your observations have got a bit of Tyrion’s dry wit about them, too!


  6. I managed about 13 minutes; I fired up the iPlayer after reading a favourable review. It wasn’t ~awful~, just… meh.

    I too was a massive fan of Stark and I think that Blackadder the First is much maligned! Not as good as 2-4 obviously but there’s a lot to enjoy in it.


  7. I love these comments on Twitter:

    Matt Pearson ‏@MattBarpea: It’s insulting to the people who made it to review based on 3 mins. Really surprised you wrote this.

    Chris Allan ‏@scubadog: That’s not really enough time to pass a fair judgement & write a review. Will you now review films based on their trailers?

    I’m rather assuming a) neither clicked on and read the review, which I believe I have contextualised fully, and b) neither has taken into account that this is a BLOG, which I write FOR FREE, and one of the advantages of that is that I can WRITE WHATEVER I LIKE.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I watched it all the way through. It improved slightly, going from rock bottom to merely poor. Having the girl from ‘Raised by Wolves’ and ‘Brian’ from ‘Spaced’ in it just served as a reminder that comedy has come a hell of a long way since Blackadder – this was like a coelacanth trawled from the depths.


  9. Thought it was a collection of all the lines not considered good enough for ‘Blackadder’ and re-hashed. The character of Kemp seemed to be a case of “well, people think Ricky Gervais is funny, why don’t you try and do a really shit impression of him?”


  10. Oh dear…this is my first comment on your most enjoyable blog and here I am about to take a contrary view! I liked it! Perhaps I enjoyed it because of nostalgia for ‘comedy of my youth’ but I did laugh out loud a few times. I’ll keep watching. I’ve also loved Plebs and Two Doors Down both of which also have a fairly old fashioned format but so much that’s considered worth watching, the stuff we discuss at teabreak at work – Line of Duty, Peaky Blinders, Marcella, Blue Eyes, Undercover, Hinterland – is dark. Often brilliant and thought-provoking but dark (and I only have Freeview, add the subscription channels and it becomes like pitch!) So I’m quite glad to have some undemanding comedy , for those nights when I just don’t feel like watching a child being murdered or a group of men with knives fighting in slow motion or neo-nazis killing unethical business women. I missed Chewing Gum completely when it was broadcast but binge-watched it post-Bafta award this week and loved it. I want more comedy and more comedy in prime time, not tucked away after 10pm!


    • I’m all for contrary views! As long as we all play nice (like we used to on the Guardian website), I welcome all views. I like Plebs very much; never seen Two Doors Down. I agree it can’t all be serial killers. That’s why I love The Durrells.


  11. And another fan here. I even laughed in that first 2’38” although I grant you that it was mostly at the perfect delivery of Mitchell and the statement of the conceit (Shakespearean language contending with modern language) than at anything much about the lines themselves. It then shaped up into a very neatly constructed plot and had more depth than perhaps shone through immediately (the careful contrast of the two main “home” and “office” settings, the faint glimmerings of actual character arc and foreshadowing, and it even made a virtue of the whole originality vs adaptation debate, even if the punchline felt a bit flat; having said that, if it’s the same punchline every week, then it will have been worth it.)
    I will admit that basically writing Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais and Simon Callow into the main character pool and then not really having actors quite up to the job of playing them was disappointing, but even then I found them sufficiently engaging to be very happy to stick with this one.


  12. Andrew, I am with you on the rubric of your reviewing. There really is too much great television out there at the moment and a scene is generally good enough to get a feel for a program. Besides, you always seem to remain open to the possibility that something may be worth reappraisal at a later stage. I seem to remember that you were initially rather lukewarm on THE KNICK, but came back to with gusto at a later stage. I am not saying this will be the case with Elton’s latest wobble, but it’s a bit much that people are taking a pop at you for simply putting across why you have chosen not to waste 30 minutes of your life on something.


  13. I rarely judge a sit-com (in particular) on the first episode, never mind the opening scene, As a rule comedies take about an hour of screen time to hit their stride as we get to know the characterisations and anticipate the recurring motifs and jokes. I took at least half a dozen good giggles from part one and that’s a pretty good hit rate.

    As for the almost presumed retro “Blackadderness” of Upstart Crow, well yes there is some with its traditional set-ups, design, lighting and studio audience (who are actually my main gripe) but that’s hardly a bad thing for me. It can’t be arty stuff like Flowers all the time (which was wonderful by the way).


    • Oddly, I couldn’t get any traction with Flowers at all. It seemed terribly fond of itself. I hope I like Mum, tonight.


    • I am impressed by anybody who would give a sitcom more than one episode. All of my favourite sitcoms grabbed me in the first episodes. If there were only three TV channels, as opposed to hundreds, I might watch more television I wasn’t sure about. Thankfully that is not the case.


  14. I know judge people on how they feel about ‘Upstart Crow’. Luckily, my wife and close friends and family all agree with me. It was truly dreadful. If anyone thinks otherwise or, God forbid say they thought it was good, then I want nothing to do with them and would happily burn down their house and send them to live out the rest of their days in Australia, living next door to Ben bloody Elton.


  15. Now that I’ve watched three episodes, I’d say that overall, I like it. It’s filled with in-jokes and ridiculous jokes and it’s pretty much fun. But I would never have believed that after the first few minutes of episode 1.


Do leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s