On 15 March 2020, David Mitchell took a bow following what he reckoned was the best performance yet of The Upstart Crow, the West End version of Ben Elton’s sitcom about William Shakespeare. The next day the country went into lockdown.
“I found the pandemic pretty bleak, really”, says the comedian and panel show host. “Mainly, if I’m honest, because The Upstart Crow was going very well. It was running like a well oiled machine and it just had to stop. My wife was saying, ‘We have all this time, the sun is shining, we can walk through the deserted streets of London. It’s a moment of peace, we should savour it’. I understood that intellectually but what I was feeling was quite upset.”
Being “quite upset” about the pandemic is very on-brand for Mitchell, a master of the understatement whose patchwork of comic roles – from Mark Corrigan in Peep Show to appearances on Have I Got News For You – have made him a kind of figurehead for sensible centrism, a dogged defender of procedure and protocol, a conservative with the smallest possible “c”.
He’s speaking to me from a hotel room in Halifax, where he’s performing “a little tour” with Lee Mack and Rob Brydon called Town to Town. We had planned to connect over Zoom but Mitchell switched it to a phone call at the eleventh hour, which feels appropriate for a man who once said the internet was a more dangerous than the nuclear bomb.
“Zoom means people can see you, which adds a whole level of stress,” he says. “You have to think ‘What’s my face doing, what’s behind me,’ and that’s not conducive to a good conversation.” I ask him what I’m missing out on in the background: “Just adverts for the Yorkshire Dales”.
In The Upstart Crow Mitchell plays the Bard himself – he says he did “absolutely no research” – reprising his role from the BBC 2 series that first aired in 2016. A strange blend of sitcom and theatre, it presents Shakespeare as a put-upon, rather hackish chap, leaning into Elton’s knack for smuggling subversive humour into mainstream comedy.
But a lot has changed in the two years since the curtain came crashing down on The Upstart Crow – not least the ramping up of the so-called ‘culture wars’, which have dragged down some of Mitchell’s peers on the comedy circuit including Jimmy Carr.
Mitchell – a man who’s fairly close to the back of the queue when it comes to people likely to be cancelled – says there is “no doubt that we live in more judgemental times,” and admits this has an impact on comedy writing.
“I accept that you shouldn’t be able to say whatever you like without people being able to reply but sometimes the consequences for people not liking a joke are disproportionate to the joke.”
The problem is, he says, that for some people taking offence has become a recreational activity – “they want the feeling of righteous anger thrilling through them because that’s going to somehow lighten their morning.”
I wonder if he thinks Shakespeare would risk being cancelled today. “No, I think Shakespeare would find evading cancel culture a piece of cake compared to trying to write interesting, challenging plays during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He would probably be a lot better at coping with a repressive environment than we are. We talk about the effects of the internet but that’s nothing compared to the almost totalitarian repression of the Elizabethan state, where they had the Tower of London and people being executed.”
Anyway, he says, being cancelled is a more two sided affair than we give it credit for. “There’s a lot of talk about people being cancelled but then they just carry on doing what they’re doing. A key way of not being cancelled is to go ‘I’m not cancelled’. In order to be cancelled you have to join in.”
This would explain why some of the people who seem to be the most likely candidates for cancellation – the current Prime Minister and the former President of the United States, for instance – remain staunchly uncancelled.
“Figures like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are essentially refusing to engage with cancel culture and just carrying on. The way the internet condemns people relies on those people caring that they have been condemned. There’s an aspect of bullying to it – the people who get jumped on are the people who will mind it most, not the people who are the most at fault. That’s why the left turns on itself – they aren’t going to bother having a go at Boris Johnson because they know he won’t give a damn.
“With Trump, political orthodoxy would suggest the things he’s done wrong should have ended his career. The list got so long that people got bored. This man could be discovered with a dead body and the bloody knife in his hand and he’d just go, ‘Yeah, I killed the guy, he was rude to me’ and people would say, ‘Go Trump! He killed the guy who was rude to him!’ It doesn’t reflect very well on humanity.”
At the heart of this problem, as with so many things in life, lies the internet, which Mitchell says has “been hugely negative in huge areas”, from the spread of conspiracy theories to the effect of social media on mental health to the impact on public discourse to the fallout of internet retail on the high street. I wonder if he had a big red button that would just delete the whole thing, would he press it?
“Well, you’d have to look at the impact on life support machines and things like that but in principle, if we had to still get our news from television and newspapers and we had to still get our provisions from shops and we had to talk to people on the phone, I think we’d be in a better place.”
While most public figures are wary of getting into the weeds when it comes to politics, this is where Mitchell seems most in his element. He even has his own manifesto, which includes the introduction of proportional representation, banning MPs from having second careers, and introducing carbon taxes. Back in 2019 he reflected on half a decade of relative decline and predicted things would get even worse. Little did he know…
Now he says people just feel overwhelmed. “There’s a lot of cynicism and cynicism leads to apathy. People are tired after the pandemic and the war in Ukraine and they don’t really believe in positive change in their hearts, and I totally understand.
“With all this going on it’s difficult to focus on local election results – it just all seems so dry and old and boring and irrelevant. It isn’t, of course, this is where political change comes from and it has to be dry but it’s a difficult time to get people engaged with that.”
Does he think Keir Starmer is the man to change that? “I think Starmer is a good, honourable, intelligent figure but I don’t think he’s made a huge impact. But then there hasn’t been a general election – if you’re an Olympian you build up to the Olympics. I hope the Labour party will put together a clear campaign to punch through the government bluster but I don’t know if that will happen. I also thought there was a huge amount of merit to the Lib Dems but as a political movement they are completely lost.”
For a good 15 minutes Mitchell merrily puts the world to rights, touching on subjects including Brexit, the “miracle” of the Covid vaccination, and Nick Clegg, all delivered in his trademark style that somehow manages to be weary, furious and upbeat all at the same time. “It’s been a rough decade,” he concludes with what I imagine is a wry smile.
Despite all this, he says he’s excited about the future and desperate to get back into rehearsals. “I crave to be back to where we were: for me the 23rd September 2022 [the night The Upstart Crow resumes] follows directly after the 15th March 2020.”
• The Upstart Crow at London’s Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue from 23 September to 3 December. Tickets available from UpstartCrowTheComedy.com