This review contains spoilers.
At the end of series three, Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow went beyond its stock-in-trade gags to depict a key event in Shakespeare’s life: the death of his eleven-year-old son. It was a jarring—but, from Blackadder Goes Fourth’s co-writer, not unprecedented—shift in tone. Next to Elizabethan sound-alike gags about puffling pants and bollingbrooks, we watched a family grieve the saddest loss.
The death left Upstart Crow in an unusual starting point for this festive comedy special. Domestic tragedy might be the stuff of Albert Square at Christmas, but not of sitcom. Showing more dedication to continuity than may be strictly necessary, A Crow Christmas Carol doesn’t gloss over young Hamnet’s death, but uses it. Still grieving, the Shakespeares don’t feel much like celebrating this year. Anne in particular suffers, as she quotes King John and “Grief fills the room up of [her] absent child”. Their souls are in need of succour, and they find it in three Christmas traditions: charity, Charles Dickens and a chilling tale.
Doubt cast on true authorship being a bit of a running gag here, the episode takes the fitting premise that Charles Dickens didn’t write A Christmas Carol as much as was given it by mysterious muse ‘The Stranger’ (played by Sir Kenneth Branagh). Centuries before Dickens created Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, Shakespeare is also visited by The Stranger and told the story, which inspires him to enact his own version and save a soul. Uncharacteristically generously, Shakespeare later declines to claim the tale as his own, preferring to leave it for “another English writer as a Christmas gift.” Timeline dealt with, moving on!
One of Upstart Crow’s joys—and for those who jumped ship at the first sound of that Ricky Gervais impression, there are plenty of joys (though that ain’t one of them)—is its irreverent commentary. Each episode borrows from a particular Shakespeare play, enabling it to fondly mock weird bits and weaknesses as well as highlighting moments of genius. Upstart Crow doesn’t just celebrate Shakespeare, it takes his work—and by extension Elizabethan England—entertainingly to task for its inequalities and blind spots. As comedy it’s warm and clever and fun. As literary criticism, it’s accessible and insightful.
Without a Shakespeare play to try on for size, A Crow Christmas Carol is playing away from the home ground and as such, doesn’t appear to have the heart to get stuck in to Dickens. Without the justification of having spent three series celebrating his work, the usual task-taking might seem unfair (BBC Radio Four’s Bleak Expectations, having spent five series on Dickens pastiche, can get away with it). Commentary on Dickens’ most famous story is restricted to the Cratchit family being labelled “pukesome” – a line of argument Gemma Whelan’s Kate snuffs out with characteristic wisdom: “it’s Christmas, Mr Shakespeare, keep it sugary.”
The end result is a complicated story, with one real ghost, four fake ones, a real ‘Scrooge’ and a fictional one, and overlapping layers of intertextual irony, all dolloped over with a ladleful of worthy sentiment. At forty minutes, it’s an oversized portion that’s indulgent fun while you’re enjoying it, but sits somewhat heavily on the stomach afterwards – in other words, perfect for Christmas.
Slicing through the complexity is Mark Heap’s joyful performance as Robert Greene, Shakespeare’s nemesis, his ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ and the soul he’s trying to save. The episode is a showcase for Heap, whose delivery in Upstart Crow is as memorable as any character you’d care to name from Blackadder.
David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck and the rest of the cast are old hands at this now and reliably strong. They’re joined companionably by Karl Theobald and Lily Cole, along with Branagh giving it the full Olivier as the ghostly visitor. The running gags (women not being allowed to act on stage, the public transport whinges, entertainment industry in-jokes, Will and his “shy hair”) are all there, along with the traditional gleeful “linguistical poncing toggling”.
It may not be a classic retelling of Dickens’ story, but A Crow Christmas Carol wraps enjoyably silly wordplay and tongue-in-cheek gags around a good heart and a moral lesson we can’t ever tire of learning: that love and charity don’t just heal the recipient’s spirits, but also those of the giver. A timeless tale for now and every Christmas.