DVD reviews: Upstart Crow and Long Shadow: The Great War

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Anniversaries marking good and bad times in history are just two of the themes in new DVD releases now on sale, writes Tony Spittles.

The oldest of the celebrations puts fresh focus on the 400th birthday of the Bard of Stratford, William Shakespeare, whose literary output endures worldwide after four centuries.

Such longevity might also be the case for BBC2’s sitcom Upstart Crow (its title comes from the line “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers”, a critique of Shakespeare by his rival Robert Greene in his Groat’s-Worth of Wit), which proved a Monday night winner to diehard fans and casual viewers alike with its clever mix of language old and new during its recent six-week run.

Scripted by Ben Elton, this laugh-a-minute history lesson stars David Mitchell as the young Will at the start of his career, whose plays don’t always find favour with the London hoi-polloi or his friends and fellow actors.

Shakespeare’s use of the English language has stood the test of time, something that might also apply to Elton’s witty wordplay in this inventive and entertaining comedy which sees Will speaking cod-English as he moans and groans about the stagecoach service from London to home where his family - wife Anne Hathaway (Lisa Tarbuck) and parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox) - speak a more Brummie/Black Country take on the King’s English.

Intertwined amid all the banter and blather are seeds of many of Shakespeare’s classics, including the writing and staging of Romeo and Juliet and a sharp take on The Merchant of Venice as Will’s long-time adversary, the Master of the Revels (Mark Heap, from Lark Rise to Candleford and Green Wing, delighting with every thrill and shrill in his over-the-top performance), who finds his plan to extract his “pound of flesh” from Will comes unstuck in court.

This gag-packed journey into the past is now available to view on a 175-minute DVD on the BBC label, price £20.42. And for those who can’t wait to see how Will and company get on there’s a Christmas special on the cards ahead of a second series next year.

There’s a more sombre and serious note to the second release, the BBC documentary series Long Shadow: The Great War, which has added poignancy coming days after commemmorations at home and abroad to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

This started on July 1, 1916, (more than 19,000 British lives were lost on the first day) and lasted four months, during which time more than one million people had been killed or injured.

This carnage, the lead up to it and its lasting legacy, are skilfully presented in Long Shadow: The Great War, making its UK DVD debut on the Simply Media label, price £19.99.

Based on the prize-winning book by renowned British historian David Reynolds, Long Shadow explores the enduring impact of the Great War and the shadow it has cast over Europe since the last shots were finally fired.

In this powerful, three-part series, Reynolds aims to change the perceptions of the First World War from the usual mud, blood, Tommies and trenches to give a sense of the broader consequences of war and its effect over the whole of the 20th Century.

Travelling to locations across Europe - from Slovenia to the Sudentenland, Belfast to Berlin - he examines everything that World War I left in its wake, illuminating how the conflict unleashed forces that still resonate today.

This remarkable series also chronicles how the experience of war haunted the generation who lived through and the soldiers who survived it - dynamic characters such Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, former President of Ireland Eamon de Valera, Frenchman Philippe Petain, British statesman Ramsay MacDonald and Tomas Masaryk, who was chief founder and first president of Czechoslovakia.