The Top 10 Greatest Episodes of Upstart Crow As Voted For By Fans

Upstart Title card2

We asked fans – What are your top 6 favourite episodes of Upstart Crow in order? (It was 6, because it was just seemed too tough to narrow it down to 5). You sent in your lists and now we can announce the top 10!

10.The Apparel Proclaims the Man


It’s the one where… Greene attempts to make a fool of Shakespeare, when he convinces him to wear stupid puffling pants to Lord Southampton’s Saucy Prancings.

Did you know? This was the first ever episode to be recorded. That might be the reason why Kate wears a slightly different costume.

What Makes it great? Based around the story of Twelfth Night, the plot of this episode involves a send up of the rather daft plot line from the play, which featured Malvolio being tricked into wearing really silly yellow pants and cross garters. Here it’s Shakespeare who is gulled with Green’s ‘double bluffles’.

We also get an explanation about the origins of the title ‘Upstart Crow’. So it’s an episode of firsts despite being an episode of thirds (if you get what I mean). It includes one of my favourite Upstart Crow’isms’ ‘God’s Conkers here’s a minty fix!’ And Will’s musings on Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn ‘A romance so spiritually true, pure, and divine it went from rumpy-pumpy lovely-dovey to choppy-whoopy heady-deady in three years.’

Jokes aside, there’s a nice bit of advice for taking a criticism and bad reviews on the chin from Bottom. ‘Don’t let ’em live in your head rent free. Who cares what he thinks?’ he says, referring to Greene’s bad review that’s eating away at Shakespeare. Amen to that one, Bottom!

Number 9 is a tie! Yes, we couldn’t separate them! They both had the same number of points, and the same amount of appearances in top 6 lists! So, we’re looking at two episodes:

9.Love Is Not Love

Upstart Crow

It’s the one where… Shakespeare has written a series of love sonnets for his twin muses, the dark lady and the fair youth much to the displeasure of Anne.

Did you know? John Sessions makes a cameo in this episode as the high inquisitor.

What Makes it great? As with all the episodes, there’s a lot of truth to this one. Shakespeare really did write and dedicate 154 sonnets to his two muses. The identity of the ‘dark lady’ was thought to be Emilia Lanier, and the fair youth, that of The Earl of Southampton.

Shakespeare’s initial excitement at publishing them (‘they make the epic verse cycle look so last century.’) turns sour when the subject of Shakespeare’s sexuality is comically called into question (and ultimately gets him sent to the dungeons).

Anne is heartbroken when she discovers whom the poems were intended for, in a scene that shows how brilliantly Liza Tarbuck and David Mitchell play off each other.

Particular highlights of this episode include the brilliance of Shakespeare’s sonnet’s real text being used to comic effect – such as when Will delivers one of them to Emilia, who reads it aloud –  ‘The breath of my mistress reeks. Were you happy with this as well Mr Shakespeare?’

But overall who could deny an episode a spot in the top 10 which featured Will declaring ‘Who da bard? Me da Bard! Iambic pentameter is my bitch!’

9. The Quality Of Mercy

The Quality Of Mercy

It’s the one where… Shakespeare finds out that his dad has spent the family’s entire life savings. He is forced to borrow money from Greene to invest in the theatre, but when he can’t pay up Greene wants his pound of flesh.

Did You Know? Bob, from Blackadder makes a comeback in this episode. She reprises her role roughly 30 years after the first time she played Bob in Blackadder II.

What Makes it great? The series finale of the first series, The Quality of Mercy pulls out all the stops. Based on The Merchant of Venice and featuring a special guest star in the shape of Bob, thus proving that Upstart Crow is a part of the expanded Blackadder universe (that’s right, we’re calling that a thing now).

My favourite exchange is between John Shakespeare and Will when he has just been discovered to have spent his son’s life savings:

‘What about all the bankers and traders who’ve tempted thousands to lose everything in a fruitless search for mythical El Dorados? They’re the real criminals!’

‘Yes. If by ‘the real’ you mean also.’

But, the main focus of the episode is Kate trying to pass herself off as a man, which largely involves her shouting obscenities. She fails, as does Bob, when she reveals herself to be a salad eater, in the brilliant final scene – as everyone knows, a man would favour the diced fried tuber baton.

8. I Know Thee Not Old Man

I Know Thee Not

It’s the one where… Shakespeare’s old teacher, Simon Hunt comes to stay. As he’s a practicing Catholic, and the faith was forbidden in Shakespeare’s time, Will and the family are desperate for him to leave. Unfortunately, Kit (who is busy hunting Jesuits) wants to stay at the same time.

Did you know? Shakespeare really did have a teacher called Simon Hunt, who in 1575 left the school to become a Catholic priest, eventually fleeing England for Rome.

What Makes It Great? A brilliant episode in the style of a very traditional Shakespearean farce, which put me in mind of  The Merry Wives of Windsor, although technically Henry IV is the play this episode is based around.

‘I Know Thee Not Old Man’ is in my opinion one of Upstart Crow’s strongest episodes. It sails pretty close to wind considering the original BBC2 8:30pm time slot, with jokes about Hunt’s name and erm…visiting prostitutes. It packs so much into half an hour, with some of the best jokes of the series. Such as Will’s constant procrastinating, which involves him reciting a soliloquy every time he makes a weak attempt to get rid of Hunt.

‘Will, This is no time for obscure blank verse.’

‘How can you say that? There is always time for obscure blank verse. or my whole life has been a lie!’

Geoffrey Whitehead guest stars as Hunt, a particularly fascinating character, as I’m sure most people watching were unaware that he was based on a real man (I know I was). He has one of the best lines of the episode when he is finally captured –  ‘As a Christian, I can think of nothing more glorious than to be tortured and killed by other Christians over minor details in the church service.’

A classic episode!

7.If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?

If You Prick Us

It’s the one where… Burbage’s acting troupe hire new actor, Wolf Hall, who goes down a storm with everyone who sees him perform, there’s just one problem though… he doesn’t think that Shakespeare wrote any of his plays.

Did you know? This episode hit the headlines when Mark Rylance objected to his Caricature Wolf Hall.

What Makes it great?

Based around the aforementioned Mark Rylance, Wolf Hall (named the famous book, then later TV series that Mark Rylance starred in), is portrayed brilliantly by Ben Miller. Rylance was parodied mainly for his belief that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, or as Wolf Hall puts it – ‘I was only expressing reasonable doubt.’

Despite Rylance’s objections, this episode is big hearted. It’s an episode that once again explores the themes of The Merchant Of Venice. There are some great laughs around Will coming up with the concept, with the gang picking holes in the story.

‘He hides his permission in one of three boxes – a gold box, a silver box, and a lead box, now here’s the stunner, the permission in contained within…’

‘the lead box.’

‘How did you know that?!’

‘Because it’s obvious.’

But jokes aside, the overall message is one of inclusiveness, with a touching finale – a well-deserved 7th place on the list.

6. Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be!

Lord What Fools

It’s the one where… Will’s play about fairies meddling in matters of the heart raises a few eyebrows, which causes Will to reminisce about the time he met Puck.

Did You Know? Ken Nwosu (who plays Puck) is a ‘real’ Shakespearean actor. This is also the only episode not to end with a Will and Anne fireside chat.

What Makes it great?

Starting with Will’s ‘tsunami of oversharing’ and the very obvious problems with a Midsummer Night’s Dream to modern ears, as Kate asks ‘The lovers eventual devotions are dictated by the administering of a magic potion. Mr Shakespeare, is your play suggesting that a drugged person is capable of giving consent?!’

The highlight for me is Will’s flashback to the time he met Puck – If only for the wig alone. The general surrealness put me in mind of the classic ‘green clarinet’ Mitchell and Webb sketch, and also had a touch of The Young Ones about it, which is unsurprising as Nigel Planner guest stars in this episode, as the deeply unpleasant Lord Egeus, who likes horses just a little bit too much. The farce at the end (all done in one take) was the crowning glory to make this a classic episode.

5. I Did Adore A Twinkling Star

I Did Adore a Twinkling Star

It’s the one where… Kit and Kate embark on a romance, after they bond over Italian lessons for Kit’s spying mission to Verona. Shakespeare however isn’t convinced that they’re right for each other.

Did You Know? This episode marks the debut of the catchphrase ‘Hang the futtock on’

What Makes It Great? The brilliant Kit takes centre stage in this episode channeling a bit of the old Flashheart spirit (‘so damn saucy it makes me call for a more copious codpiece’) in an episode taking on The Two Gentleman of Verona. But, there’s still plenty of time for Will’s classic transport rants, and his ideas to get Susanna to woo a potential suitor by dressing up as a boy. To which John remarks:

‘Funny how many of your ideas involve girls dressing up as boys. I think it’s a pattern.’

‘It is not a pattern.’

‘It looks like a pattern…’

Will’s under the cosh to write a comedy that’s set in an exotic location, after his plans for Titus Andronicus are rejected as Will declares ‘I’m planning a cheeky little roman number in which 14 characters are brutally murdered and a mother is forced to eat her own children baked in a pie.’ (Yes, that’s really what happens in Titus Andronicus).

My favourite of Will’s desperate suggestions for a new play is probably this one –

‘Henry VI Pt 4. Henry meets Joan of Ark at her trial and instead of burning her, takes her for a naughty weekend at Lyme Regis’

In the end, Kate obliterates Will’s quite sexist dreams of a romantic ending for ‘The Two Gentleman of Verona’ by punching Marlowe out, but Will still decides to write it up with his ending anyway. ‘They’ll all get married obviously.’

4. What Bloody Man Is That?

What Bloody Man Is That

It’s the one where? Will, Kit and Kate stumble across three witches who promise Will great things, including the second biggest house in Stratford, which is currently owned by Will’s neighbour, McBuff. Will then plots to murder him in his dream with, not a dagger, but a milk jug.

Did you Know? Mina Anwar (who previously starred in a previous Ben Elton sitcom – The Thin Blue Line) makes a cameo in this episode as one of the three witches.

What Makes It Great? Taking the number 4 position on our list is a full blown Macbeth themed episode, and as it happens Macbeth turned out to be perfect material for a parody. From Will’s worry that Anne has gone mad washing her hands in the night to which she replies:

‘Don’t you wash your hands after using the privy?’

To Duncan McBuff’s exchanges with Will over the battle of Scottish independence –

‘We pulverised you at Bannockburn!’

‘Absolutely, because I am three-hundred-years-old and was there.’

There’s so much great stuff in this episode, I could go on and on. The whole milk jug speech in particular is beautifully done. Upstart Crow has a knack of slipping into real Shakespearean dialogue, and adding an extra element to make it funny, but still getting the weight of the text across. And even though we’re talking about a milk jug here, the delivery is better than a lot of ‘Is this a dagger’ speeches from real Macbeth adaptations!

I’m a particular fan of the line when the gang find out that McBuff wasn’t actually poisoned.

‘Mr McBuff! You’re alive!’

‘Of course I’m alive. I’m Scottish.’

3. A Christmas Crow

A Christmas Crow

It’s the one where… Will has been commissioned to write a play for the queen and must appear before her at Christmas with a present. But he hasn’t banked Greene stealing it at the eleventh hour.

Did You Know? There was a slight error in this episode. Queen Elizabeth I sits in front of a crest with both the Lion and the Unicorn, however, the unicorn symbolises Scotland, which (as Duncun McBuff would tell you) was still a separate nation at this time.

What Makes It Great? Upstart Crow’s first feature length Christmas outing takes the number 3 spot. I remember David Mitchell once saying that the very look and feel of Upstart Crow naturally lends itself to Christmas, so it follows that the show is in its element with this Christmas Special.

Emma Thompson guest stars as Queen Elizabeth I. She’s pitched much older here than she was in Blackadder II, but it’s still believable that she could be the same character matured. Particularly when she threatens Will with a beheading. Will’s scepticism in The Queen amused me –

‘She works bloody hard!’ Anne tells him

‘On being a tyrannical despot?!’ Will replies.

Ben Elton really knows how to get the most out of his special guest star’s relatively short cameos. Elizabeth I’s speech was brilliantly poignant. I really liked the way that both angles of scepticism in royalty, but also sympathy with the undeniable reality that, as Elizabeth I puts it – ‘Though all the nation be my spouse, I am ever the loneliest person in the realm.’ were explored here. It’s brilliant. Now who wants a game of snaffle the Apple?

2. A Christmas Crow Carol

A Crow Christmas Carol

It’s the one where… Will is visited by a strange apparition who tells him an amazing and timeless Christmas story.

Did You Know? Kenneth Branagh’s appearance in this episode preceded the emotional movie he went on to make about Shakespeare with Ben Elton – All Is True

What Makes It Great? With the previous episode ending on such a tragic note, it was hard to see how a Christmas Special would be able to pick up from that. Enter Kenneth Branagh! As the mysterious stranger, who appears to Will as we finally join him on one of his trademark bad journeys. Kenneth Branagh’s scene with Shakespeare is so beautifully done, with just a hint of Peep Show style interior monologuing and humour, before turning suddenly serious, it’s a joy to behold.

But this is actually very much Mark Heap’s episode. Taking centre stage, as the Scrooge of the piece. It feels like he was born to play the role of Scrooge, delivering Dickens’ lines so perfectly ‘If they’d rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’

My favourite moment from Greene in this episode was his reaction to finally seeing his ‘beloved’ Bessie again at Fezzi-bezzi-tezzi-wezzy-wig’s party. It’s a brilliant parody of the scene where Scrooge is devastated to see his long lost love again. Greene however, has a more realistic point of view:

‘No, I honestly think splitting up was the right thing. I mean we could have gone on torturing each other for a year or two, but it was never going to work long term.’

It’s the tiny touches that make this episode. It’s funny, but full of gentle pathos. Will’s nod to Kenneth Branagh’s mysterious stranger at the end is something truly special. Mixing heart and humour is Upstart Crow’s strong point, and it works brilliantly here. Will’s final conclusions on ‘A Christmas Carol’ round the whole thing off nicely, ‘I don’t think I’ll write this story. Not enough baffling minor characters and bewildering sub plots for my taste. And frankly, I find the complete absence of any cross-dressing very disappointing’.

1. Go On and I Will Follow

Go On and I Will Follow

It’s the one where… Will is excited when the London theatre awards are announced and he is a shoo-in to scoop all the top prizes, however, the date clashes with Hamnet’s confirmation.

Did you know? The stars aligned to create Upstart Crow’sBlackadder moment’. Almost 10 years ago on That Mitchell and Webb Look, David And Robert joked that David wanted to be in a Blackadder type show in one of the show’s trademark tongue-in-cheek ‘backstage’ moments. They even based the entire penultimate episode on creating a ‘Blackadder moment’ which ended up being quite daft, and then took everyone by surprise when they really did create a sad ending, with a touching Holmes and Watson sketch for the final episode.

As well as that, Go On and I Will Follow not only had the same co-writer as ‘Goodbyeewith Ben Elton, but also the same director – Richard Boden.

What Makes it great? There was no surprise with this result, just as there wasn’t when the classic Blackadder episode ‘Goodbyeee’ topped the Blackadder poll that we looked at a few weeks ago. ‘Go on and I Will Follow’ is Upstart Crow’s ‘Goodbyee’ but it’s certainly not Just going through the motions to try and recapture a past glory.

Like ‘Goodbyee’ and most things in Upstart Crow this episode was based on a real event. Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died aged eleven, we don’t know the cause, but here it is imagined to be the plague. But before the sadness, there are some great moments. Poking fun at the Baftas, and the return to Will’s infatuation with Emilia Lanier, Will is actually at his most devious in this episode, essentially cheating on Anne by going to the Awards with another woman, only to have it blow up in his face.

And then, when Will gets home, he comes back to the shocking news that Hamnet has passed. But what sets this tragic death apart from really most on TV is that it’s not the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that is focused on, but the ‘where’.

The whole episode is framed neatly around faith. In the opening scenes, Will boasts confidently in his atheism. Before he lies to Anne at the end in his attempts to comfort her in her despair. Eventually, Susanna asks if he truly believes? To which he says

‘No daughter, I don’t. But your mother does, and for all that she says that I’m the clever one, she’s right about most things.’

It’s done with such a lightness of touch. A fantastic and impartial musing on faith that hits so hard. But in the short half an hour there’s also time for jokes. Shakespeare would be proud.

And that’s it! The right result I think! You can watch everyone of these fantastic episodes on the iplayer! Thanks to everyone that sent in their lists!