Upstart Crow is Ben Elton back on form

David Mitchell stars as William Shakespeare in Ben Eltons new sitcom, Upstart Crow
David Mitchell stars as William Shakespeare in Ben Eltons new sitcom, Upstart Crow

You may not have noticed, but this week the future of the BBC was under discussion.

The Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale – yes, that guy, you know, from those stories a couple of weeks ago – published a white paper setting out the Government’s plans for the corporation.

Apocalyptic stories building up to Thursday’s announcement suggested the Tories were planning on turning it into a Government mouthpiece, controlled by ministers and filled with wall-to-wall documentaries on Andrew Campbell Bannerman and the Marquess of Salisbury.

However, more climbdowns than a PGL abseiling course saw the BBC largely spared – this time at least – from major changes. One key point did emerge – according to the white paper, the BBC should be “distinctive, high quality” and should also “have greater levels of creative ambition”.

So where would that leave Ben Elton’s new sitcom, Upstart Crow (BBC2, Mondays, 10pm)?

On the face of it, this sitcom Shakespeare is a retread of Elton’s Blackadder series: the Elizabethan setting; the faux-period music; the mix of arcane language and modern slang; the manservant who is the butt of the jokes.

Such is the familiar feel, it would have a MailOnline commenter frothing over his keyboard about repeats.

Can you hear the but coming?

But, this is something different. For a start, it’s very funny, something you can’t say about other recent BBC sitcoms. I’m looking at you, I Want My Wife Back.

There is a running gag about the Bard (David Mitchell) using two words where one would do – his nose, for example, becomes “two tunnels which lie beneath the bridge”.

And his family – the usual sitcom sensible wife, sulky teenager daughter and crotchety parents – have a lengthy discussion about the meaning of “wherefore”, and why Juliet’s asking the reason for her lover being called Romeo, and not Montague.

“Should I say ‘Montague, Montague, where are you Montague?’” asks Will.

“No,” says his wife (Liza Tarbuck), “cos that sounds like she’s lost her cat.”

In between, you can learn quite a lot about Shakespeare and his times, as the show is packed with historical nuggets.

So, is it distinctive? Not really.

But it does inform, educate and entertain, and what more could you ask for, eh John?