Interview: Ben Elton On The Stage Version Of Upstart Crow, Not Being Blackaddery And Stand Up Comedy

Interview: Ben Elton On The Stage Version Of Upstart Crow, his Comedy Career And More
Interview: Ben Elton On The Stage Version Of Upstart Crow, his Comedy Career And More
Interview: Ben Elton On The Stage Version Of Upstart Crow, his Comedy Career And More

Earlier this year I interviewed Ben Elton for the Evening Standard. You can read that interview here. He was there to talk about his upcoming stage version of his hit BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, which stars David Mitchell, Gemma Whelan, Mark Heap, Steve Speirs and Rob Rouse from the TV version. Also joining the cast is Danielle Phillips (Ready Player One/Father Brown), Jason Callender (Shadow and Bone/4 O’Clock Club) and Rachel Summers (This Islands Mine). This 11-week season is directed by Olivier award-winning Sean Foley (The Ladykillers, Jeeves and Wooster and The Miser).

It is set ten years on from the sitcom, however, and is a completely new script, not just episodes stitched together for the West End stage. Elton had so much to say, however, that I could not fit everything in. Below are some further excerpts from a wide-ranging interview that touched on all sorts of areas, from his stage work to his stand-up. His solo tour last year showed that he is still a force to be reckoned with in his sixties and took in subjects as diverse as gender fluiity, euthanasia and the obligatory little bit of politics.

The Upstart Crow is at The Gielgud Theatre, 7 February – 25 April. Buy tickets here

Pictured in rehearsals for The Upstart Crow: David Mitchell and Gemma Whelan; Danielle Phillips and Helen Monks; Mark Heap and David Mitchell. All pictures by Helen Maybanks.

Bruce Dessau: How is the writing of the stage version going?

Ben Elton: It's really hard. It's een an enormous job writing this script. Not just because I've had to come up with some new Crow, but the burden of how much the series was loved. Not loved by tens of millions, in the old days. That just doesn't happen anymore. You know, if they put Gavin and Stacey back on it wouldn't get 10 million a week. You know what I mean?

And obviously for me the burden of not being able to use any of that... All the amount of establishment, who is this, what is this world, who are these people? What's the attitude to Shakespeare? You know, all the work in establishing his home life, my attitude, his attitudes to snobbery, his attitudes to class. All of which absolutely informed the first series of this show, and from then on. But particularly the first series, his feelings of a traditional British class oppression, of feeling he's better than his position, and he's being looked down upon by people who haven't earned theirs. The real staple of British comic characters.

All of which I had to sort of, I couldn't really use. Because no, I wanted to present...Because I had a very difficult task in that I wanted to present something that would justify the hopes of the show's fans, of which there are quite a lot.

And by the nature of the show they're quite, you know, I don't want to sound pompous, but they're quite literate. They like the show because they get it, and it is shot full of Shakespearean references, which you don't have to get, but if you do get them it adds another level. 

And so I needed to give, to do a proper play, not a... There's nothing wrong with a reworking of three episodes, and stick it on the road. Nothing wrong with that. That's fine. I've seen, I think I saw one doing that sometimes. I mean I'd certainly go and see the Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Well I might if I'm around. There's nothing wrong with that. But because this sitcom is about playwright, and I'm now taking this sitcom into the theatre, I felt absolutely a deep creative desire to make a play. A new and original play.

BD: Do you need to know the sitcom to enjoy the stage version?

BE: For those who know the series well, the play will make a lot of sense, because they start 100 miles into these characters. There's been three series, and two Christmas specials. But for those who don't, I wanted the play to work of itself.

So I kind of dealt with all of that in the TV thing. But because I'd used up so many plays in the TV thing, and cheated a bit by leaping ahead. And even though it was set around 1595, I did my Macbeth episode in the first series, I referenced Othello in another series. Because I was sort of saying, "Well this is stuff that's dropping into his head ready for later.

So because I'd used up a lot of plays already, and I'd thought quite a bit about where I might go with a fourth series, I leapt 10 years. So this is now set in 1605, which is much, much later. It doesn't really change any of the characters. But it allows me to look at a period of his creative life, which I hadn't done much with. I had a bit with Othello, and Macbeth, but let's just forget that. That was in the first series. When we did the first series I didn't know that we'd get three series, and two Christmas specials. So I was very profligate. 

At first, I arrived at 1605/06 because of the Gunpowder Plot. At first I thought, "Okay, I've used up so fucking much, maybe I'll go a little bit Black Addery, and use history more. Let's maybe make something around the gunpowder plot, with Shakespeare involved in the gunpowder plot, et cetera, et cetera."

I didn't get very far with that, because really it's not Blackadder, and it's not history. It's a literary sitcom.

BD: The play is partly about Shakespeare getting a second wind, is that the same for you? 

BE: Well I've always been pretty prolific. I just haven't always been that successful. But all the work... So yeah, I certainly don't personally... I've always resisted any invitation to draw any parallels between my creative life, and that of Shakespeare. Except for the fact that all creatives are, or basically all people are the same. That's why Shakespeare could write his plays with such stunning emotional precision. Because he understood that we all share the same emotions. 

I always say that Marlowe and Shakespeare to me remind me of Lennon and McCartney. You know everyone slightly prefers, the world sort of leans towards Lennon because he was a bad boy, and he was never trying to please anyone, or make anyone... never trying to... He appeared not to give a fuck what anybody thought. So it goes for Marlowe.

BD: Are you more Shakespeare than Marlowe then?

BE: Well fuck it, I want to be liked. So I empathise with Shakespeare. We are all nervous, we're all insecure, we all want to be liked, we're all putting on a show, or whatever, et cetera. And the Shakespeare I drew is in a way...My kids laugh, because he has similar rants about travel etc to the ones I have. And they laugh because he in series one there's a whole thing about how he's not as cool as Marlowe, and he wants to be liked, and the fact that he wants to be liked makes people not like him. Whereas the bastard...

You know, I always, in the early days of standup comedy, I'm not going to name names, but there are comics who are cooler than I am. But that's partly because they're more abrasive, you know what I mean?

Interview continues here.

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