Image: BBC Pictures.

Upstart Crow – ‘A Crow Christmas Carol’

When you actually take a good hard look at this year’s TV Christmas line-up, there’s not a whole lot on that’s really that festive. Perhaps the best offering is this year’s Upstart Crow Christmas special, ‘A Crow Christmas Carol’, in which the Shakespearean sitcom reimagines the work of another classic English writer to produce something funny and full of heart.

Will Shakespeare (David Mitchell) is not anticipating a happy Christmas after the (spoiler alert, although it is history) sudden death of his young son, Hamnet. Returning to Stratford, he encounters a mysterious stranger (Kenneth Branagh) who narrates a story of redemption – inspired, he recruits his family to help him save a soul at Christmas, in the hope of both doing some good and finding a positive outlet to channel his grief. His choice of a soul – Robert Greene (Mark Heap), his mortal enemy. However, despite the best efforts of Will’s ingenious scheme, will Greene’s soul prove beyond salvation?

Normally, each episode of Upstart Crow draws on a Shakespeare play in each episode, highlighting both the weird moments and the weaknesses as well as the classic elements and bits of genius – obviously, with its focus on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, this episode doesn’t operate in the same way (although there’s a fun bit at the end of the episode where Will explains why the story wouldn’t quite work as one of his plays). It doesn’t really engage with the story in that way, so this is essentially a retelling of A Christmas Carol rather than a respectful critique.

‘A Crow Christmas Carol’ sets out to retell the story with its own twist, and it does a masterful job of that

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, however. ‘A Crow Christmas Carol’ sets out to retell the story with its own twist, and it does a masterful job of that. There are ghosts both real and fictional, and a family suffering from grief (Anne [Liza Tarbuck] at one point quotes King John: ‘grief fills the room up of the absent child’) who seek to bring joy to others. You wouldn’t expect a sitcom to begin with such a downbeat premise, but that it rises from this to something so joyful is truly a mark of top-quality writing and acting.

You have the typical Upstart Crow running gags, with some quips about Will’s hairline and the insecurities of actors (in this case, how they like to do charity work but they certainly don’t like to talk about it) cropping up. You also get to enjoy some of the niggly bits of our time period reflected throughout a Shakespearean lens – anyone who has ever commuted will share Will’s concerns about how to confront a rude passenger on his coach.

The best parts of the episode are, as always, David Mitchell as Shakespeare (in a role he fits like a hand in a glove, Mitchell is the contemporary master of ‘linguistical poncing toggling’, as anyone who has seen him on a panel show can attest) and Mark Heap’s fantastically hammy and scene-stealing performance as Greene. If Christmas is the time for pantomime villains, then Greene is the perfect character for the season – I want to draw attention to his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past as a high point of the episode, in both its subversion of the classical version and Greene’s reaction. Really, if it misses out anywhere, it’s in its under-use of some of the other actors – this episode has a really large cast, leaving guest star Lily Cole (amongst others) with really little to do.

If Christmas is the time for pantomime villains, then Greene is the perfect character for the season

‘A Crow Christmas Carol’ is probably the most festive and amusing piece of TV on the schedules this year, mixing gags and wordplay with a Christmas message that spans all time – love and charity aren’t good solely for the recipient, but they also improve the spirits of the giver. If you catch up on one piece of TV from the schedule this year, make sure it’s this charming instalment of Upstart Crow.

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