James Delingpole James Delingpole

Something to crow about

Plus: the latest instalment of the Hollow Crown cycle on BBC2 points to what Shakespeare would be up to if alive today – he'd be writing Game of Thrones

There’s no way of saying this without shredding the last vestiges of my critical credibility, but this new Ben Elton comedy series, Upstart Crow (BBC2, Mondays), about William Shakespeare: I’m loving it and think it’s really, really funny.

Yes, all right, it’s very like season two of Blackadder — which Elton co-wrote with Richard Curtis. But that, believe it or not, was more than 30 years ago — I know it was because I remember going to watch an episode with friends in the Brasenose college JCR, one of whom, three decades later, would become the butt of a joke in Upstart Crow on the subject of entitled young toffs at Oxbridge inserting their members into dead farmyard animals — and I’m not sure that Elton has done anything nearly as brilliant since.

Upstart Crow, though, is up there with Elton’s very best stuff — cleverly milking every last cliché about the life, works and myth of William Shakespeare to create gags which, though often broad and obvious, flatter your intelligence even as they give you glorious, cheap belly laughs. And maybe the odd knowing chuckle.

‘Will, I told ya. Don’t do comedy. It’s not your strong point,’ says Anne Hathaway (Liza Tarbuck) who, like most of his family (including his bit-of-rough dad, played by Harry Enfield), speaks in anachronisms (‘yeah, right’, etc.) with a rich Black Country accent, while only Will himself speaks in cod-Elizabethan. ‘It is my strong point, wife. It just requires lengthy explanations and copious footnotes. If you do your research my stuff is actually really funny,’ Will replies.

There are jokes about Will’s receding hairline; jokes about his use of the word ‘wherefore’ in Romeo and Juliet (‘People will definitely think it means “Romeo, where are you?”’ insists Will’s missus, who finds his language far too abstruse and flowery); jokes about his putative gayness (‘God’s naughty etchings! Why does everybody presume that just because I write 126 love poems to an attractive boy I must be some kind of bechambered hugger-tugger?’)

That last coinage could have come straight out of Blackadder, as of course could the character of David Mitchell’s Will (a preternaturally brilliant man in a world of stupid), his dim-ish manservant Bottom, his patron’s daughter and would-be Juliet Kate (shades of ‘Bob’ — and also, now I think of it, of Shakespeare in Love), and the bombastic Master of the Queen’s Revels Sir Robert Greene (Mark Heap), who comes across like a mix of Flashheart and Lord Melchett.

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