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Series / Upstart Crow

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Upstart Crow is a British Sitcom that started broadcasting on 9 May 2016 as part of the BBC's 'Shakespeare 400' celebration. Written by Ben Elton, and incorporating his typical snark at the British Establishment, and starring David Mitchell as William Shakespeare, trying to make his name as a playwright in Elizabethan England.

Much of the humour comes from characters expressing ideas that are relevant to the 21st century - either condemning them, such as the idea Oxford and Cambridge universities provide all the men in positions of powernote , or saying It Will Never Catch On. As it is by Ben Elton, expect lots or references to his favourite BritComs.

The show ran for three series and two Christmas specials before transferring to the West End for a stage play which continued the story from where the television series left off, but was one of many casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic and closed after a month. The show latterly returned to TV for a 2020 Christmas special inspired by said pandemic, with Will and Kate in lockdown in the plague-ridden London of 1603.


This show provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Bottom is usually distinctly unimpressed by Will's attempts at humour, finding his jokes overly wordy and contrived, but has to admit that a few of them really are genuinely hilarious. Such as the "Villain, I have DONE thy mother." line from Titus Andronicus.
  • Ambiguously Bi: There are a few scenes that hint that Will may be more attracted to men than he wants to admit.
    • In the first episode, it's revealed that the original working title for Romeo and Juliet was "Romeo and Julian" ("Early exploratory stuff, it meanteth nothing."), and in the same scene he laments that "why does everybody presume that just because I write 126 love poems to an attractive boy, I must be — I must be some kind of bechambered hugger-tugger."
    • In the fourth episode, while taking a break from playwriting in order to focus on writing sonnets, he says that he has two muses, one male one female. While he freely admits to being sexually attracted to the female muse, he's much more coy about his feelings towards the male one.
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  • Ambiguously Gay: Condell is a little camp and Kemp claims that Condell has rendezvous with men behind the theater but nothing is confirmed.
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • "A Christmas Crow" shows Elizabeth's throne decorated with the modern day royal arms - with Scottish elements that were introduced by her successor James I.
    • Will's constant complaining about the "coaches" bears no relation to the transport system of the Elizabethan Era and everything to do with the state of modern Britain's railway network.
  • Anti-Climax: The mix-up with Anne's presents in the Christmas special. She thinks Will is giving a golden necklace to another woman and starts in on an emotionally-devastated speech, but he matter-of-factly admits to it because there's nothing to confess. He's been invited to Queen Elizabeth's presence and a lavish present is mandatory.
  • Artistic License – History: Shakespeare's family and friends complain that he keeps trying to rhyme words that don't rhyme, like "love" and "prove." In fact, they did rhyme in the era when they were written, as more recently scholarship on Original Pronunciation has shown.
    • The real Robert Greene, who wrote the Groats-Worth, from which the title comes, passed away a month before it was published, at the age of 34, in 1592.
  • Aside Comment: The cast, mainly Will and Greene, will turn towards the camera to speak their inner thoughts and explain their motivations to the home audience. Lampshaded thoroughly, with Will and Greene even announcing that they are turning away from the action.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": Kate does this after Will’s play about Queen Elizabeth has disappeared because she gave it to Kit in return for the chance to act. She holds up her hands stiffly, cries "Oh no! Oh no! Woe!" and then backs out of the room with a mumbled "Bye."
  • Bait-and-Switch: The show does this with the Earl of Southampton, who Will is depicted as having rather more than just a crush on. The audience is led to believe that this will probably be all one way, and that Southampton will regard Will as an Abhorrent Admirer—but then Southampton turns out to be a fairly realistic version of a Camp Gay man who's highly annoyed that Will is married, refers to Anne as Will's "beard", and tells him to come back when he's properly embraced his sexuality.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: In Series 3, Will thinks the constant bickering between Kit and Kate is a result of this, especially since he remembers their brief romance from Series 2. Turns out they're just really annoyed with each other.
  • Black Comedy Rape: In the first episode of Series 3 this is discussed, when Kate points out the characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream being drugged into loving someone is basically sexual assault.
  • Blatant Lies: Will is not bald. He just has a very big brain, tall face, low eyebrows, etc.
  • Bottle Episode: The 2020 Christmas special, set during a plague lockdown in 1603 England, is a two-hander between Will and Kate (barring one or two voice-only cameos), taking place in a single room in real time.
  • British Brevity: As is typical on the BBC. Each series only having six episodes and two Christmas specials.
  • The Bus Came Back: Considering the show's status as a Spiritual Successor to Blackadder II, a rather surprising one in episode six when Bob returns, 30 years after their original appearance in Blackadder.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Robert Greene, whose sole motivation to crush Shakespeare is that he's a snob who resents the fact that Shakespeare didn't go to university and yet is a more successful writer than himself.
  • Casting Gag: Kenneth Branagh, one of the foremost Shakespearean actors of his generation, guest stars as an uncultured seasonal performer who disgusts the Bard himself.
  • Catchphrase: Will’s "It’s what I do!", uttered whenever anyone reproaches him for speaking too obscurely.
    • Robert Greene's "Ah-farewell!", uttered in a threatening voice to Will whenever he's leaving the room backwards (see Signature Move below.)
  • Christmas Special: Currently two extended episodes.
  • Comedic Work, Serious Scene: This is a comedy about William Shakespeare. Will's rants about travelling home from London are a regular feature. Then, in one episode, he stomps in as usual and his exasperated rant is met by stony silence. It takes him a minute to register the change in tone. And then he finds out that his young son Hamnet died while he was away. It's not Played for Laughs.
  • Creator Career Self-Deprecation: A show about a writer of plays who's whiny, has a chip on his shoulder about the class system, and feels like he's underappreciated: score! Ironically, Upstart Crow ended up being one of the best-received things Ben Elton has written in years.
  • Crossover: Of the single character sort. Judge "Robert Roberts" ("Call me Bob") is strongly implied to be Kate from Blackadder II, being played by the same actor, Gabrielle Glaister, and still disguising herself as a man in order to find work. She's gone up in the world, now being a judge.
  • Curse of The Ancients: Everyone uses these, with ordinary rude words being disguised as archaic versions of themselves so that the character can swear without technically swearing. Frequently this is done simply by sticking '-ington' on the end of an existing word (e.g. 'arsington', 'turdington') but there's also 'bolingbrokes', invariably used to mean 'testicles', and 'futtock', which is always used in the place of 'fuck'.
  • Dawson Casting: Invoked in-universe, as Burbage and Condell insist on playing Romeo and Juliet despite being middle-aged men. Ultimately averted in this case, though, as Will manages to convince them that Prince Escalus and the Nurse are the real stars of the show.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Much humor is derived from the characters discussing 21st century social mores and declaring that such ludicrous concepts will never happen.
    • When discussing his "Jew play" with Kate, Will happily engages in denigrating the religion and its followers (since it's popular with the people and guarantees a box office success) while Kate tries to convince him that it's wrong to do so.
      Will: Nothing like whipping up violent prejudice against small defenseless ethnic groups to get bums on seats!
    • One of the more sincere explorations of this is when Will writes The Taming of the Shrew to the disgust of most of the women in his life. Kate is utterly disgusted by the infamous final monologue. Will himself seems to recognize the play's faults when he suddenly claims that he was being ironic. Kate and many of the women act as Audience Surrogate in emphasizing that Shakespeare's play is Fair for Its Day especially compared to other works. Anne also remarks that it's not too offensive as she regarded it as a farce.
  • Downer Ending: “Go On, and I Will Follow" (and by extension series 3 as a whole) ends with Will failing to win in any of the categories at the award ceremony he attends and then arriving home only to find out that his son has died of plague, the remaining moments of the episode play out in a sombre tone with Will admitting that he has lost his faith in God and the customary fireside comedic exchange between Shakespeare and his wife being replaced by a mournful voiceover monologue about grief.
  • Drop-In Character: Kit Marlowe, introduced in the series by strolling into Will's London lodgings with a "Morning, all! Let myself in! Kind of go where I please, it's just easier!"
  • Eat the Evidence: In "The Play's the Thing", Shakespeare and Bottom, fearing James VI of Scotland is about to ascend the English throne, hurriedly eat the manuscript of Shakespeare stridently anti-Stuart play.
  • Eskimos Aren't Real: In "The Most Unkindest Cut of All", Burbage expresses the belief that hermaphrodites are a myth.
  • Fake Twin Gambit: In "Go On, and I Will Follow", Kit Marlowe (who has faked his death) poses as his 'twin brother' Kurt so he can attend the London Theatre Awards and collect his posthumous award.
  • Fanservice: maybe not deliberate, but admirers of a more mature woman certainly are rewarded by the Liza Tarbuck's costume empasises her cleavage.
  • Foreshadowing: Series 3 includes a fair amount leading up to the death of Will's son Hamnet, bordering on Dramatic Irony for watchers who're familiar with the history.
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: Used in-universe, Will Kemp is big in Italy.
  • The Ghost: Queen Elizabeth I is mentioned constantly (often by her sobriquet 'Gloriana') and has a large indirect influence on the plot but has yet to appear onscreen. She finally appears in the Christmas special, played by Emma Thompson. (And is involved in a subplot taken from Love Actually.)
  • Glad I Thought of It: Will gets more and more unashamed about this as the series goes on; whenever someone comes up with a good idea for his plays he'll immediately claim that he was just about to say that very same thing. By the third series he's at the point where he'll ask for details of what he was about to say while at the same time praising his own brilliance.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many of the characters are based on actual historical figures and Ben Elton achieves a much deeper vein of humour by playing with how historians speculate the characters' real-life counterparts would have interacted.
  • Historical In-Joke: From Will complaining how posh, rich university students get all the top jobs after putting their genitals in dead animals, to Shakespeare and Burbage in a trailer — Will suggests they could interrupt the plays, and perform short sketches to say what shows are coming up, but Burbage rejects the idea, because the audience would never put up with it. The popular conspiracy that Christopher Marlowe actually wrote the plays of Shakespeare is also spoofed by being inverted; in this show, it's actually Shakespeare who writes the plays of Marlowe.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Will quotes this trope after Susanna reads his sonnets, with their references to his "dark lady", to Anne and sends Anne into a frenzy.
    Will: Why did I teach that girl to read? Hoist am I by my own socially enlightened petard!
    • Will references this trope again in 'Green-Eyed Monster' after falling for Robert Greene's ploy.
  • Holiday Volunteering: In the Christmas special the Shakespeare family and friends seek to save the Scrooge-like Robert Greene's soul in an effort to impart a bit of their love on the needy (while also convincing the actors it's for charity). They do this by re-creating A Christmas Carol via a series of convoluted plays each night to convince him to mend his ways.
    • Also more traditionally Kate is seen collecting alms for the poor from Robert Greene at the start of the episode.
  • It Will Never Catch On:
    • Many jokes involve the characters discussing topics that would seem mundane to the TV audience and declaring that nothing of the sort will ever happen.
    • Subverted at the end of the Yet Another Christmas Carol shenanigans in the second Christmas episode; Will notes that he's decided not to write up the events partly because it's not really his kind of story, but also because he hopes that in the future another writer might have something similar happen to him and write it down for themselves: "Let that future writer have it, from me, as a Christmas gift."
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Will is insensitive, selfish, self-important and all too ready to steal other people's ideas and claim them as his own. And yet, he's probably the kindest person in the series; for all his flaws he's genuinely decent, generous and forgiving to a fault — to the point where it's all too easy for others to take advantage of his good nature.
    • Kit Marlowe is a dashing scoundrel, a shameless womaniser who is happy to abuse his friendship with Will to get his name on plays he had not written a word of. However, he's always in a good mood, and when it comes to Will being in genuinely ruinous situations he's happy to step in, even at the risk of his own reputation.
  • Large Ham: Robert Greene, particularly in episode 3, The Apparel Proclaims the Man.
  • Mama Bear: Referenced by name in the third series; Anne Hathaway calls herself this.
  • Mock Millionaire: In "The Green-Eyed Monster", Will attempts to suck up to the wealthy African prince Otello as a means of climbing the social ladder. However, Otello turns out to be a Con Man from Bristol attempting to land himself a wealthy wife.
  • Mood Whiplash: Every once in a while, the show will swing hard from comedy to straight drama, with Shakespeare's texts being used for their original pathos rather than ironic humor.
  • Narm: How most of the people interpret Shakespeare's synopsis of Hamlet.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Will Kemp is a clear parody of Ricky Gervais, especially Gervais's portrayal of David Brent and Gervais's outspoken dislike of the traditional multi-cam Sitcom.
    • Wolf Hall is a clear parody of Mark Rylance and his performance in the series Wolf Hall. The series parodies Rylance Anti-Stratfordian beliefs with Greene convincing Hall that Shakespeare didn't write his plays. Privately Greene remarks that "Just because an actor can look intelligent, and act intelligent does not mean he IS intelligent!"
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: When Kenneth Branagh in the Christmas special plays Will's non-supernatural neighbour on the coach, he uses the Northern Irish accent that he grew up with.
  • Odd Couple: Confident, charismatic, unquenchably cheerful, outgoing Kit Marlowe is best friends with anxious, irritable, self-absorbed worry-wart Will Shakespeare.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business:
    • Susanna is a Bratty Teenage Daughter and Drama Queen. However, when she realizes her father considers her a shrew and believes no one will marry her if she isn't "tamed," her following rant makes it clear this isn't just her being too sensitive; she's genuinely hurt. Will then realizes he went too far and seeks to make it up to her.
    • Episodes end with Will and Anne sitting by the fire, or in bed, talking about what's happened in that episode. In the season 3 finale, following Hamnet's death, they say nothing at all.
  • Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?: In "If You Prick Me, Do I Not Bleed?", Kit says that a woman accused him of hiding a baguette in his tights, but it was a misunderstanding and he was just glad to see her.
  • Period Piece, Modern Language: The Shakespearean characters alternate between using flowery Shakespearean English and modern English phrases, purely for Rule of Funny.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Narrowly averted - Will seems on the verge of this at the end of series 3 after Hamnet's death, but forces himself to stop in order to comfort Anne.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The 2020 Christmas special is nominally about the plague in 1603, but only as the analogy for the Coronavirus pandemic. For example, when Kate goes to the window to bang a cooking pot in tribute to the "corpse collectors", and Will comments that everyone used to do that enthusiastically but now it feels a bit forced, this is a reference to the way some people in the UK during the lockdown would clap at their open windows every evening at 8pm, as a thank-you to NHS workers, until they stopped bothering to.
  • Running Gag:
    • Whenever Kate starts making noise about wanting to be an actor, other characters will look at her chest and ask her how she would fit coconuts into her costumes.
    • Will tries to claim ownership of many popular quotes and sayings, only for Kate to pipe up and say the quotes' and sayings' origins are much older.
    • Will's terrible experiences on the carriage rides to his home.
    • Events in Will's life being events that resemble events in a play that he's working on, where he's got stuck with the plot but has failed to spot that life is offering him a solution until he says it out loud.
      Will: ...Hang on. Hang the futtock on!
    • Will consoling himself for people finding his work boring or difficult by telling himself that people in the future will think it's great.
  • Rushed Inverted Reading: In "The Most Unkindest Cut of All", Kit attempts to impress Kate with his sensitivity by pointing out that he is reading poetry. She points out that the book is upside down.
  • Self-Deprecation: The Thomas Morley episode has a lot of fun mocking musical theatre in general and jukebox musicals in particular. The show's writer Ben Elton wrote the book for one of the most commercially successful and critically despised jukebox musicals of all time, We Will Rock You.
  • Sequelitis: invoked Will churns out play after play about various kings named Henry and Richard and other characters express their boredom at the limited subject matter.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Although the characters usually speak in a modern vernacular, Shakespeare and Robert Greene frequently launch into extended sections of flowery speech. Most of the other characters find this habit to be odd and pretentious. Will especially will launch into long and complicated similes and metaphors, only for the other characters to say "Why don't you just say [noun]".
    Will: Now shut, thee, that which eateth food but grows not fat, speaketh words but be not wise, and burpeth loud but makes not gas!
    Bottom: Bloody hell, master! Just say "mouth"! People aren't impressed, y'know.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Upon arriving back in Stratford, Will takes a dig each time at the English Transport system, very much in the style of Reggie Perrin.
    • To Blackadder II with the casting of Gabrielle Glaister as Judge Robert Roberts AKA Bob.
      • Also another one in the season 3 finale, when Will references "the Bishop of Bath and Wells", a one-shot villain from the series, during one of his diatribes about transport.
    • The plot with Anne's gift in the Christmas special, where she discovers a gold necklace in a box and actually gets poetry in an identically-shaped one, is a nod to Love Actually. The "other woman" ends up being played by Emma Thompson.
  • Signature Move: Whenever Robert Greene exits any room that Will is in, he almost invariably does so backwards.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Shakespeare and Robert Greene don't get along.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Invoked with Will and played with. While he's a highly intelligent man and a legitimately great storyteller, nobody else in the show believes that his grandiose opinion of himself (i.e. that he's the greatest poet who ever lived) is justified. However, he is William freakin' Shakespeare, so…
  • Smug Snake: Robert Greene, very much. To a slightly lesser extent, Will Kemp, who never tires of reminding people that he's won awards and trained in Italy.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: In Series One, Kate makes a bet with Will where if she can go out dressed as a boy and fool the theatre company, she gets to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. She gets discovered very quickly but does a better job pretending to be Will's lawyer when he's put on trial at the end of that episode. She does it again in Series Two, doing a better job of pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl and, later, playing Romeo in the premiere performance of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Take That!: Also Author Tract; Elton ridicules many 21st century British attitudes, and his left wing politics are often on show. He's not been very kind to Brexit supporters especially.
    • Marlowe's claim that he's actually a spy for Lord Walsingham is a clear reference to modern historical novels' obsession with making every character in the Elizabethan era a spy for the state, and Marlowe in particular. note 
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: In Series 3, Kit takes residence in Will's London lodgings and spends all day eating and drinking.
  • Time Skip: Series 3 having ended in Christmas 1596 (with Will still grieving for his son Hamnet), the next installment is set at Christmas 1603, with the deaths of Will's father John[[1601]] and Elizabeth Inote  mentioned in dialogue.
  • Title Drop: For the first two episodes the title of the show is a Genius Bonus, referring to Greene's Groat's-Worth of Wit in which he referred to Shakespeare as an Upstart Crow. In episode 3 Greene publishes the Groats-Worth of Wit, and drops both the historical reference and the title and subsequently uses "Upstart Crow" and variations as an epithet when speaking about Shakespeare.
  • Truth in Television: Emilia Lanier, Will's "Dark Lady", is depicted as an astute critic of poetry. The real Emilia Lanier was the first woman in English literature to present herself as a professional poet: she published her collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum in 1611. Her work still shows up in anthologies.
  • Verbal Tic: Lucy, the pub landlady and former African slave, will loudly say "Ah Ah Eh Eh" to signal that she disagrees with something another character said before she goes on to explain her own opinion.
  • With Friends Like These...: At first, Kit Marlowe seems this to Will, taking advantage of his good nature to an extreme degree. However, he is a Graceful Loser, and as the series goes on he gets many more moment where he acts as a genuine friend, helping Will out of a few tight spots.
  • Wham Episode: Series 3 finale, "Go On and I Will Follow". After attending an awards ceremony Will returns to Stratford with his yet another comical litany of complaints about public transport. Only when he's finished do his ashen-faced family get a chance to tell him that his 11-year-old son Hamnet has died of plague (Truth in Television).
  • Wham Line: Kit has taken John, Will's father out drinking for the night, to get him out the way during one of Greene's plots, and pretended to be great mates with him. The next morning, John comes down thinking he and Kit are real friends. Kit gives the 'I know thee not old man' speech from Henry IV part 2, making it clear exactly what he thinks of John, absolutely crushing him. Tim Downie, who plays Kit, absolutely nails the speech, and all of a sudden the comedy is punctured, with John visibly destroyed in front of his whole family.
    • In the season 3 finale:
      Susanna: Dad... Hamnet's dead.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: Many episodes' plots parallel those of Will's plays except, In-Universe, he hasn't conceived of those plays yet. Will has to be practically bashed upside the head to take inspiration from his adventures and almost invariably tries to turn a tragedy into a comedy and a comedy into a tragedy.
    • "Star-Crossed Lovers" is about Will's attempts to write a teenage love story but struggling with the male love interest. An annoying houseguest provides unexpected inspiration.
    • "What Bloody Man is This?" is more or less Macbeth in a domestic setting. Will even recites a monologue similar to "Is this a dagger I see before me?", albeit about a milk jug in Will's case.
    • "The Quality of Mercy" has Will and Greene's rivalry takes a high-stakes turn, similar to how the characters of The Merchant of Venice come into conflict.
    • Brilliantly done in the season 3 finale "Go On and I Will Follow", where everyone thinks that Will's new play Hamlet is a hilarious comedy about a useless college student who can't get his act together, because Will clearly hasn't brought the tragedy into it yet. By the end of the episode, Hamnet has died and the implication is that Will's grief will turn the play into what it eventually became.
  • Writer on Board: The show takes some not-so-subtle digs at modern British society that Ben Elton and David Mitchell aren't particularly fond of. The current state of British railway is a favorite target, as is the British class system.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Will has a tendency to think that life follows the same rules as one of his plays. This trait becomes more prominent in him when he gains more success in the second season, and several episodes has him trying to deal with real-life situations by employing tactics and plans from his plays. Their success rate is not, to say the least, great.
    • Indeed, it backfires horribly in "Beware My Sting!", where Will, inspired by his own Taming of the Shrew, tries out Petruchio's "taming" tactics on his own daughter Susanna by trying to get her to agree to obviously untrue things, which he does against the advice of Anne, who's already pointed out that what works in a play doesn't necessarily work in real life. Will does it anyway and Sue grumpily humours him but insists that he's just being annoying. When he finally loses his temper with her and tries to act the lord and master, she epically tells him off because she always thought that he respected her. Will is deeply shaken.
  • Yet Another Christmas Carol: The second Christmas special, for once a Whole-Plot Reference to Charles Dickens rather than Shakespeare. While journeying home from London, Will meets (or dreams that he meets) a stranger who tells him the story. Inspired by the tale's message of redemption, and hoping to get his family to focus on something other than Hamnet's death he resolves to make this Christmas a time for good deeds and spreading love. Together with his family, friends and acting troupe, he stages a version of the story for Robert Greene in the hopes of redeeming him. Greene sees through the ruse, but just as he's about to call everyone's bluff, the stranger who told the tale appears to him, revealing himself to be the actual Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come and showing Greene true visions. In the end, Will decides not to write the story down.
    "I've profited from it enough. We've all healed a little, which I believe is what the stranger hoped when he told me it. Besides, if I'm honest, it's not really me. There's not enough baffling characters and bewildering subplots for my tastes, and frankly I find the complete absence of any crossdressing very disappointing. So I think I'll leave it. Perhaps in some other age, another great English writer — though not as great as me, obviously — will be searching for a Christmas story and the stranger will visit him. Let that future writer have it, from me, as a Christmas gift."