WRITTEN REVIEW – Bill (2015)

Directed by: Richard Bracewell
Written by: Laurence Rickard & Ben Willbond
Starring: Matthew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Helen McCrory & Martha Howe-Douglas
Music: Andrew Hewitt
Certificate: PG
Release Date: September 18th

I love how “Horrible Histories” is still a thing.

I remember growing up with the superbly witty book series created by Terry Deary and Peter Hepplewhite (blimey, those are some British-sounding names) as well as the wonderfully memorable illustrations by Martin Brown, Philip Reeve and Mike Phillips. The books, aimed at children, were able to get across genuine historical knowledge by disguising them as comedy story-lines, as well as integrating humorous quizzes and endearing art-work.

Despite my love for the books, “Rotten Romans” being a particular favourite of mine, I never actually watched the 2009 TV series “Horrible Histories” created for CBBC. That iteration of the TV series ended in 2013 after 65 episodes, but has recently been revived in 2015 with an altered creative team. It’s that original 2009 series where this theatrical release comes from, as a final hurrah from that creative team. ‘Bill‘ is a historical revisionist comedy for children, but does it still manage to educate and entertain like the original books or should this format stick to television?
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Bill‘ takes place during playwright William Shakespeare’s “lost years” where Shakespeare left no historical traces of his life between the birth of his twin children in 1585 and 1592 where playwright Robert Greene called him an “upstart crow” on his deathbed (scathing?). We have a heavily fictionalised version of that seven-year window where Bill Shakespeare (Baynton) leaves his life behind in Stratford-upon-Avon to move to London to become a successful writer. There, he unwittingly gets embroiled in an assassination plot engineered by King Philip II of Spain (Willbond) where the Earl of Croydon…or Crawley (Farnaby) attempts to write a play for Queen Elizabeth I (McCrory) and hopes to use Bill’s play to disguise the attempt on her life (“The play’s the thing!”). Bill must find his creative voice while also attempting to stop the attack on the crown.

Despite my extensive research on those seven years (i.e. 20 minutes of Google searching), I couldn’t find any sort of record or sources suggesting that King Philip II of Spain attempted to kill Queen Elizabeth I during this time period, or even evidence of the capture of Sir Richard Hawkins which instigates the plot. Nor could I find any sort of involvement of the Earl of Croydon or the history behind the writing of the play “Macbeth”, which is the play Bill unwittingly writes near the end of the movie, which could have tied into these potential events. In fact, “Macbeth” was thought to be written more than a decade AFTER this movie is set, so just how these events tie into each other is anyone’s guess.
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Now, before you rant and rave, I know that ‘Bill‘ is meant to be a farcical historical revisionism movie for children and that using the “Lost Years” as a starting-point gives the creative team a lot of room to play around and experiment. But “Horrible Histories” (at least the books) were always able to make jokes and gags at the expense of real history and were able to entertain AND educate. ‘Bill‘, in its execution, seems to go against this mould which is very disappointing. So anyone wanting to get actual history, or tangential learning from this “Horrible Histories” movie may want to steer clear.

But as a family-friendly Monty Python-esque family-friendly comedy, ‘Bill‘ excels. In fact, it does a better job at being a Monty Python comedy than the ACTUAL Monty Python comedy from earlier this year. Whether it’s the cast members multi-roling (which I didn’t expect at first and found very jarring before getting used to it), an out-of-left-field musical number, puns and sight gags a-plenty etc., ‘Bill‘ is a fun, silly romp through history. Some of the word-play is gut-bustingly funny, the use of contemporary references in this setting usually get a good laugh (Bill starts the movie in a rock band named “Mortal Coil” and plays the Lute like Marty McFly plays the guitar at the end of ‘Back to the Future‘) and each scene usually ends on a strong comedic beat.
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It’s hard to review a comedy, because humour is incredibly subjective and sometimes the only way to analyse a joke would be to just explain the joke, but I don’t want to ruin some of the stand-out moments. But I will say that there was a completely random ‘Star Wars‘ reference that hardly anyone in my screening caught, but had me laughing hysterically. It’s mainly the running-gags that work, particularly King Philip II of Spain’s “disguise”, the two guards standing outside the castle and Francis Walsingham’s elaborate hiding-places. There’s also a ghost-sequence that was probably the stand-out of the entire movie, but mainly because Jim Howick as Shakespeare’s mentor Christopher Marlowe (he’s Obi-Wan to Shakespear’s Luke Skywalker, in a sense) is the unsung hero of the movie.

But going back to the multi-roling – fans of the TV series will probably expect this of the cast, but as a first-time viewer it did distract me for a few minutes, particularly when the Bill Shakespeare actor, Matthew Baynton, shows up in a scene set in Spain looking and sounding exactly like Spain despite playing a servant who wants to take food orders. I thought to myself “Why is Shakespeare in this scene despite the last scene showing him walking to London?”. However, a few scenes later, I was used to it and I adjusted to the style so I’m just warning you lovely folks now. It seems that Simon Farnaby gets the most roles, but it’s fun seeing just how many different characters these actors played when reading the credits at the end.
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The cast are uniformly strong with most of them coming from the TV series, as well as a few small cameos such as Helen McCrory who is a lot of fun as Queen Elizabeth I, Damian Lewis as Sir Richard Hawkins and Rufus Jones as Sir Walter Raleigh. The cast are clearly having a lot of fun which transcends onto the audience, with a lot of improvisation happening on-screen. You can almost imagine the writers Laurence Rickard & Ben Willbond just bouncing absurd ideas off each other during the writing process and that fun does show. Although at 94 minutes, ‘Bill‘ does feel a bit long-winded towards the end and the climax feels rather drawn-out. There’s only so long a movie of this limited scope can keep up its momentum and ‘Bill‘ does run out of steam in the last 10/15 minutes.
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While the scope of the movie is impressive, you can tell that ‘Bill‘ had quite a limited budget. The make-up effects aren’t particularly strong, the frequent sword-fights, while intentionally slapstick-centric, don’t impress and the direction in some scenes feels rather awkward, particularly when actors multi-roling are in the same scene as each other. The first scene between the Earl of Croydon and the King of Spain is a notable example as actor Simon Farnaby is playing both the Earl and one of the King’s hired assassins. It’s during scenes like this where you can see the limitations of the production, despite respecting the dedication of the team to commit to this multi-roling staple of Monty Python and the “Horrible Histories” TV series.

The use of Yorkshire location-work is personally endearing as I actually recognised a lot of the locations they went to and the team even shot a few scenes in the Globe Theatre. Though the use of sound-stages for the London streets is pretty obvious as we only see around 30 square-feet of the entire city. The score is pretty good with a lot of “oomph” to it despite the rest of the humble production values, the sets are dressed nicely and there’s even a really funny song sequence early on where Bill performs an early, musical rendition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which he calls “A Series of Funny Misunderstandings”. A very apt title.
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Bill‘ is light and endearing children’s entertainment despite its limited resources. It has a lot of belly laughs for both children and adults and it’s been made by a creative team who clearly have a lot of passion in what they do with the “Horrible Histories” label. Though the fact that their first big-screen outing is a work of completely incoherent historical revisionism seems to betray the foundations of the original books (I can’t attest to the quality of philosophy of the TV series). But the cast are a lot of fun, the wit of the source material is present, even if the history itself isn’t, and I can see this movie being on regular family-rotation once it hits DVD, where it will be an essential purchase.

I give ‘Bill‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.

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Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 26th Sep 15