OXFORD has a castle problem – at least, that’s the view of comedian David Mitchell.

The star of Peep Show, Would I lie to You and Upstart Crow pulls no punches when it comes to the shortcomings of our city – and top of his list of gripes is our fortress, which he dismisses as.... well, a bit rubbish.

The celebrated comic genius took to the stage of the New Theatre last week to talk about his new book, Unruly – a refreshingly accessible but endlessly informative history of the kings and queens of England. And asking him questions was one of the great interviewers of our time – sometime South Oxfordshire resident Jeremy Paxman.

David was also on home turf, having spent part of his childhood in Headington, where his parents taught at the then polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes). That gives him the right, he insists, to be as rude as he likes about his old hometown. And he channels most of his ire at the castle, which he insists is unworthy of its colourful history as the haunt of King Stephen and Queen Matilda – and fails to measure up to the standard of its broadly scenic home.

“Castles are the most tangible pieces of history,” he says, explaining his childhood fascination with other citadels around the country. But Oxford’s is cr*p... it’s just a grassy mound.”

Oxford Mail: David Mitchell - Unruly

He is even more critical of its neighbouring buildings – laying into the twee fake crenellations of the 19th century County Hall and the county council’s hideous concrete eyesores.

Even stranger, he says is that until the ‘90s it was still being used “for castle things” as the County Gaol and then HM Prison Oxford.

The city’s trashing of its past is a source of regret. Depressingly, he points out, what should be the most historic part of the city, is now “that wasteland” near the ice rink.

Despite growing up in Oxford – educated at New College School and Abingdon School – he went to university in Cambridge – having been turned down here by Merton. It was at ‘the other place’ that he launched himself into its enviably rich comedy scene, becoming president of the Footlights.

But this night was not about his love of comedy but of history.

Oxford Mail: File photo dated 22/06/16 of Jeremy Paxman before the start of the Channel 4 EU referendum debate. Jeremy Paxman has revealed he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Issue date: Friday May 21, 2021..Jeremy Paxman

Despite the size of the venue, this was an intimate, captivating and frequently hilarious evening. That was in no small part down to Paxman, who verbally prodded, poked and dismissed David’s book with jibes, putdowns and lashings of that trademark air of contempt.

The faux scorn was theatrical of course, but the bluff provocation forced David to justify his endeavours – such why he only covers the monarchs of England (leaving most affairs north of the border well alone) and ends his saga with the reign of Elizabeth I – after which, he argues, the royals lost much of their omnipotence and things just got a bit bonkers.

Jeremy dismisses the book as a work of fiction – citing the inclusion of the legendary King Arthur. Yet, David relishes in debunking monarchical myths – from King Arthur (he didn’t exist, he says with disappointment) to lurid tales of Edward II’s death by red hot poker (an allegorical homophobic lie, he argues).

It is no love letter to the royals. He points out that while some were dreadful and some were good, the majority were just about adequate.

Oxford Mail: Oxford Castle MoundOxford Castle Mound. Picture by Ed Nix

Richard III gets a rough ride – and while he invites Ricardians in the audience to identify themselves and stick up for the maligned Plantagenet, the auditorium remains silent. It would, after all, take a very brave admirer of the last king of England to die in battle, to lock horns with Mitchell’s prodigious intellect and incontestable logic.

He is scornful of Henry VIII, though admits the younger king would have been great company for a pint.

And he admits to still rooting for the homegrown Harold against William the Conqueror, adding sadly: “Spoiler alert... Harold keeps losing”.

The second part of the show saw David fielding interesting and at terms quirky questions from the captivated audience.

So what does it tell us about the present and even future of the monarchy?

Well, our benign constitutional monarchy, he concludes, is not a bad system and better than most alternatives – though he argues the House of Lords should be replaced by an upper chamber elected by proportional representation.

Oxford Mail: Oxford Christmas lights - projections at Oxford CastlePicture by Ed Nix

He also points out that the notion of an all-powerful landed gentry has been knocked sideways, by the emergence of the non-aristocratic super rich. This, he says, is partly a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The prospect of a rival system which notionally, at least, eschewed the acquisition of wealth had kept western greed in check, its demise leading to increasing concentration of prosperity.

Pacey, witty and informative, this was a wonderful night which not only enlightened us to a great deal about our history but also provided an insight into the mind of one of our best comedians.

We came out cheerier but also a little more clever at the hands of a brilliant comic and, yes, teacher.

Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens by David Mitchell, is published by Michael Joseph