It’s hard – and painful – to think that Blackadder Goes Forth first appeared on TV in 1989. I know. Twenty seven years ago.
And for 27 years, those of us who loved it have wanted it to come back. We have lapped up rumours and weighed the options. Could it be Blackadder in WW2? (Nah, too much like Blackadder 4) How about Blackadder in the swinging 60s? (I’d love to see that!)
Either way, it never happened, and the likelihood has retreated still further with the debut of Upstart Crow (BBC2). Ben Elton has sort of recreated Blackadder 2 (the Elizabethan one) but instead of Rowan Atkinson playing Blackadder we have David Mitchell, whom I usually find tiresome, playing William Shakespeare.
The similarities are endless, and tantalising. I find it impossible to watch Upstart Crow without thinking that Atkinson would make a far better fist of playing Shakespeare, or that the part of Shakespere’s rival, Robert Greene must have been written for Stephen Fry. The actor Mark Heap certainly seems like he has Fry’s booming, bombastic Lord Melchett in mind.
What was going on? Did Elton write this, hoping that his pals Rowan and Stephen would agree to be in it? Could the BBC not afford them? Did they turn it down because it would inevitably be compared with Blackadder?
And what of Spencer Jones, playing Kempe, an actor in Shakespeare’s troupe? Jones actually impersonates Ricky Gervais. This is not a performance “inspired by” Gervais, it’s an outright impersonation: gestures, voice, physical tics: the full David Brent. It is very odd, and – after a minute or so – not at all funny. Why would an actor do that? Why would a director encourage an actor to do that? Why would a writer as powerful as Atkinson allow a director to encourage a actor to do that? It’s mystifying.
Thankfully, the rest of the show much better. In fact it could end up being very funny. So far. I’ve only seen episode 1.
Instead of comparing it favourably or unfavourably to Blackadder, perhaps we should just accept that this is how Ben Elton writes sitcoms, regardless of who’s in them.
UPDATE: I’ve watched episode 2 now. I don’t think I’ll be hurrying to watch more. It was the same jokes again, more or less. Some very funny lines and Shakespearean in-jokes that we can congratulate ourselves for understanding, but I’m still wishing that Will Shakespeare was played by Rowan Atkinson. I suppose if there’s nothing else on…