Shakespeare Squared: Bill & Upstart Crow

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2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and this seems to be a big deal in the UK. There’s been a wave of Shakespeare-related British films and TV programming, including two comedies: Bill, a 2015 feature film from the performers behind Horrible Histories; and Upstart Crow, a six-episode TV series. Let’s take a look at both!

 

Bill: The Feature Film

You may have heard of the British TV show Horrible Histories, a children’s show that turns history into comedy for edu-tainment. Well, the cast of that show, along with another called Yonderland, came out with a feature film last year about a young William Shakespeare. It’s set during the “lost years” of Shakepeare’s youth, during which he left Stratford-upon-Avon and rose to fame as a playwright in London.

The film itself is very much in the vein of Horrible Histories, with lots of family-friendly jokes and musical numbers. It was decently entertaining, although I only really laughed once … and I can’t remember which joke amused me!

The costumes were designed by Charlotte Morris, whose only real period-esque credit as designer is Merlin (2008-10) — although she was the assistant designer for Bleak House (2005), He Knew He Was Right (2004), and The Way We Live Now (2001). It’s very much an ensemble-comedy thing, with actors playing multiple parts, which means most characters get one costume throughout the film.

Bill (2015)

Here’s your Bill Shakespeare, super relatable modern guy.

Bill (2015)

Down-on-his-luck Shakespeare promoting vegetables with new friend Christopher Marlowe.

Bill (2015)

Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway.

Bill (2015)

Serious lack of hats in this movie, and her hair annoys me from a 16th-century perspective.

Bill (2015)

Anne’s one and only dress annoyed me too. As a haver-of-boobs, I sympathize with the armpit wrinkles, but I didn’t like looking at them.

Bill (2015)

What’s up with the modern bridal sleeve buttons?

Bill (2015)

And, criss-cross back lacing on a stomacher-fronted gown. Why?

Bill (2015)

Why, I ask you?

Bill (2015)

The Earl of Croydon, which, ha!

Bill (2015)

The earl wants to be a playwright. I like his ham pants trunkhose and all the green!

Bill (2015)

Lots of layers, which is nice.

Bill (2015)

King Phillip II of Spain surrounded by various well-dressed Spanish ladies.

Bill (2015)

Some of the other extra ladies were not so well dressed. What is on her head?

Bill (2015)

Damien Lewis has a cameo as Sir Richard Hawkins.

Bill (2015)

I admit it, I found the character of Phillip of Spain hot, despite the lack of shirt here (or maybe because of it?). I’m a sucker for a goatee.

Bill (2015)

Sir Francis Walsingham on the right. There were a LOT of boots.

Bill (2015)

Helen McCrory as Queen Elizabeth I, rocking the Rainbow Portrait hair and late 16th-century wheel farthingale look … while her ladies-in-waiting are dressed about 20 years earlier.

Bill (2015)

Who cares, it’s Helen McCrory chewing scenery!

 

Upstart Crow: The TV Series

Upstart Crow is a one-off TV series starring one-half of comedic genius duo Mitchell and Webb, David Mitchell. It goes for more of the traditional view of Shakespeare than Bill, but it’s pretty amusing nonetheless. I admit, I’ve only watched the first episode, and I wasn’t terribly inspired to watch more. That’s not to say that it wasn’t amusing, just, that it didn’t feel terribly original? It felt very Blackadder, which is a good thing, except that Blackadder did it better!

The costumes were designed by Leah Archer, who also designed for two of the Mitchell & Webb TV series, and a bunch of other things I don’t recognize but look like comedies.

Upstart Crow (2016)

David Mitchell as Shakespeare. They went for a very traditional Shakespeare look in terms of hair — of which I approve! At least they got that men HAD hairstyles!

Upstart Crow (2016)

I really liked this outfit! Stripes! Layers! The collar! Looks like the waistline is in the right place!

Upstart Crow (2016)

I like the silhouettes of the costumes very much, although, HATS PEOPLE.

Upstart Crow (2016)

Mark Heap as villain Sir Robert Greene. Yay, we found a hat, and a nice one at that!

Upstart Crow (2016)

Shakespeare’s servant, “Bottom.” Check out that fabulous embroidered wall hanging!

Upstart Crow (2016)

The ingenue role is played by Gemma Whelan, aka Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. THUNK. (Oh, and I quite liked this outfit! Lovely embroidery on the stomacher! Nice cut and fit! Nice hair although she could use a cap!)

Upstart Crow (2016)

Yara Greyjoy Kate’s dress sans stomacher.

Upstart Crow (2016)

The first episode plays (see what I did there?) with Shakespeare writing Romeo and Juliet, parts of which happen in real life.

Upstart Crow (2016)

There’s wacky behind-the-scenes theater jokes, and Kate wears a nice doublet jacket here.

Upstart Crow (2016)

Shakespeare getting dressed down while hanging with his wife Anne.

Upstart Crow (2016)

There are, of course, obligatory man-in-drag jokes.

Upstart Crow (2016)

Shakespeare’s parents on the left, Unfortunate Biggins on the right. I didn’t love the fit of Anne’s (center) bodice.

Upstart Crow (2016)

The poncy son of Sir Robert was a little bit David Tennant and a lot hilarious — especially his OTT lavender ensemble.

 

Have you seen Bill or Upstart Crow? Did they make you laugh?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

6 Responses

  1. Jenny Sa

    Can i recommended that you watch the whole of Upstart Crow as it got a lot funnier later in tbe series. Yes it is rather Blackadder but it settles into a good pace as the episodes go on.

    Reply
  2. RobynS

    I laughed a lot watching Upstart Crow. I’m happy that they announced a second series.

    Reply
  3. Janette

    I had forgotten about Upstart Crow. I must hunt it down. Thanks for bringing it back to attention.

    Reply
  4. Jay

    It’s unfortunate the guys from Horrible Histories aren’t spot on with the costumes. I know their budget is probably tiny, but I’d hoped for more from them. Heck, I’d love to hear your take on the accuracy of clothing in any of their typical Horrible History episodes! That being said, Horrible Histories is hilarious, and it often uses modern forms and song styles to teach history. Look up their awesome version of Charles Dickens singing like Morrissey/The Smiths or the heavy metal Luddite song [Lud-dite! Lud-dite! Lud-dite!!]…

    Reply
  5. Maryanne (MrsC)

    I loved Upstart Crow. And up, it is a bit like Blackadder because it was also written by Ben Elton. It grew and accumulated and got funnier. And requires watching in the old fashioned way. I have gotten into the habit of having my tablet open and messing about online while things are on, and it doesn’t work – it’s too smart and too fast.

    Reply

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