Shakespeare gets a sitcom in ‘Upstart Crow’

Upstart Crow

The popular film “Shakespeare in Love” seemed to unleash a wave of fictional imaginings of the English writer: the plays “Equivocation” and “The Beard of Avon,” the films “Anonymous” and “All Is True,” the short-lived TV series “Will.” But 1999’s frothy Best Picture winner was hardly the first rendering of Shakespeare as a fictional character.

The Bard of Avon made periodic appearances in novels throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, from a trilogy by Robert Folkestone Williams in the 1840s to Anthony Burgess’s 1964 book Nothing Like the Sun. And his first recorded stage appearance as a character is from 1679, some 60 years after the playwright’s death, when “the Ghost of Shakespeare” emerged to give a prologue to Thomas Dryden’s version of “Troilus and Cressida.”

There is nothing ghostly about the Shakespeare we meet in “Upstart Crow,” a delightfully cheeky BBC sitcom comprising three short seasons, available in the United States through the on-demand service Britbox as well as via Amazon. As played by the acerbic David Mitchell, one half of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, this Will Shakespeare is a mildly schlubby and insecure if well-intentioned striver, dividing his time between a bustling family hearth in Stratford and a rooming house in London from which he is building his playwriting career. The show’s title comes from an epithet hurled at Shakespeare in 1592 by a jealous poet, Robert Greene, in a pamphlet.

A fictional Greene is on hand as the show’s mustache-twirling villain to pound home the familiar theme of Shakespeare’s low birth and insufficiently fancy education. In a typical pithy putdown, he dismisses Shakespeare as “a country bum-snot, an oik of Avon, a town-school spotty-grotty.” The show’s Greene also functions as a literal nemesis, positioned (ahistorically) as the Master of the Revels, the impresario and censor through whom all staged entertainment must pass muster [ . . . ]

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Mike Leigh Calls Netflix and Amazon’s Meddling ‘Totally Unacceptable’

Director Mike Leigh
Director Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh just made a movie with help from Amazon, but that doesn’t mean he thinks the studio is free from criticism. Speaking to the Guardian, the “Peterloo” director referred to streaming services in general and his benefactor in particular as a “new breed of executives” who micromanage projects in a way that’s more like traditional Hollywood than they’d like to admit.

“I’m not talking about my own experience with Amazon, who backed ‘Peterloo’ and who behaved impeccably,” he was quick to clarify. “The problem really exists for younger filmmakers.”

Leigh, one of England’s most celebrated auteurs, is best known for such films as “Naked” and “Secrets & Lies”; he won Best Director at Cannes for the former, the Palme d’Or for the latter, and has been nominated for seven Academy Awards (all in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Director categories).

“The new streaming services all like to say they don’t work like Hollywood,” he continued. “But, actually, by suggesting a director works with a particular team, or asking why you are not using a female cinematographer, or wondering whether the film should have an upbeat ending, they are behaving in a traditional Hollywood, Louis B Mayer-way and it is totally unacceptable,” he said. Continue reading