I doubt that when the team that created the TV version of Horrible Histories were putting the show together they thought that what they were making would not only became one of the most popular children’s series in the UK, but would also have massive crossover appeal, with adults tuning in for the educational silliness. The same team then went on to create the puppety fantasy of Yonderland, and have now gone cinematic with Bill.
While Horrible Histories was careful to stick close enough to the truth of the past to ensure it could teach youngsters a few things, Bill features plenty of real historical figures but takes far more liberties with the truth.
Bill Shakespeare (Matthew Baynton) wants to make something of his life, but his wife isn’t sure whether he’s got what it takes. He decides that he’s going to be a writer and so heads for London to make his name. Once there he accidentally gets caught up in a massive conspiracy.
The Earl Of Croydon (Simon Farnaby) has unintentionally agreed to write a play to mark the visit of Philip II Of Spain, Elizabeth I’s great enemy who she is hoping to please so that he will release one of her favoured subjects. However, Philip has plans of his own, as he sees the trip to England as a chance to kill the protestant English queen. Phillip’s plotting brings him to the rather dim Croydon’s door, with the result that Shakespeare inadvertently ends up in the middle of a plan for regicide.
While I said this isn’t based on the truth, the inspiration for the movie is real. No one really knows what William Shakespeare did between being a young, married man in Statford Upon Avon, and when he emerged as one of the best known writers and actors of his age. These ‘lost years’ give Bill its starting point and then allows it to spin an ever more complicated romp around it, featuring a large array of Elizabethan figures – from Christopher Marlowe to Sir Francis Walsingham – with the adventure helping turn Bill from a man with dreams to a man of literary destiny.
As you would expect, it’s all very silly and historical purists will have an apoplectic fit watching it. Thankfully it’s also surprisingly funny and moves at such a pace that there’s never time to get bored – although having said that, it sometimes moves so fast you may slightly lose track of what’s going on and who’s plotting against whom.
The Horrible Histories gang have always used a sort of cartoon-ish, broad comedy of a type that’s largely fallen out of favour elsewhere. What they’ve successfully shown is that the reason it’s not that popular isn’t because it can’t be good, but because most of the offerings we’ve had in recent years have been lazy and simply not funny.
Given to a group of writers and performers with good comic instincts and who take this type of comedy seriously, it can still be a lot of fun – as it is here. Indeed, unlike most attempts at a similar style of comedy, what stands out is the effort that’s gone into it. Admittedly you do have to be the sort of person who enjoys things that are gleefully daft but good-natured, as If you do you’ll find there’s plenty to make you giggle whether you’re a kid or not. Hopefully this won’t be the last film the team makes.
Overall Verdict: Bill is complete nonsense – but it’s extremely entertaining and often pretty fun nonsense, which certainly gives a different take on Elizabethan England than we’re used to.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac