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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 a Ben Elton, expect lots or references to his favourite BritComs.


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."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Casting Gag: Kenneth Branagh, the foremost Shakesperean actor 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.
  • Christmas Special: Currently two extended episodes, in fact, featuring Stunt Casting.
  • 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.
  • 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 when it comes to genuinely ruinous situations Will faces he is happy to step in, sometimes 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.
  • Narmtastic: 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!"
  • 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 a baguette in his tights, but it was a misunderstanding and he was just glad to see her.
  • Playing Gertrude: invoked Will asks Condell to play Gertrude in Hamlet and the actor immediately claims that he's too young for the role but will give it a try, anyway.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Shakespeare and Robert Greene don't get along.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Invoked with Will. While he is a highly intelligent man and a legitimately great storyteller, it's pretty clear that his extremely high thoughts about himself aren't quite justified.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Blackadder. Specifically Blackadder II.
  • 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.
  • The Thing That Would Not Leave: In Series 3, Kit takes residence in Will's London lodgings and spends all day eating and drinking.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • "What Bloody Man is This?" takes a very dim view of Scottish nationalism and Scottish nationalists habit of constantly bringing up centuries-old incidents that have no bearing on current events.note 
  • 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."

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