UK Release Date: 18th September 2015
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Richard Bracewell
Writer: Laurence Rickard, Ben Willbond
Starring: Mathew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Simon Farnaby, Helen McCrory, Damian Lewis
Synopsis: Untalented lute player Bill Shakespeare makes his way to London in order to seek his fortune as a playwright.
The success of the Horrible Histories comedy troupe in Britain has been nothing short of remarkable. In 2010, the show became the first children’s programme to win a British Comedy Award, beating the likes of The Armstrong & Miller Show and Harry & Paul to the sketch show gong. The team behind that show have now made their way to the big screen, with the delightfully British comedy Bill – based on a fictional imagining of Shakespeare’s lost years.
Bill Shakespeare (Mathew Baynton) decides to pursue fame and leave behind his wife Anne (Martha Howe-Douglas) to travel to London. There, he meets Christopher Marlowe (Jim Howick), who shows him the ropes and helps him to adjust to life in the capital, Meanwhile, King Philip II of Spain (Ben Willbond) enlists the treacherous Earl of Croydon (Simon Farnaby) to help him assassinate Queen Elizabeth II (Helen McCrory) during the maiden performance of a play in her honour.
The first thing to note about Bill is that it maintains the anarchic spirit of the TV show in abundance. There’s a sense of real collaboration to the film, with silly gags ricocheting around the walls of the script. Fortunately for the film, most of these jokes work, whether they’re grounded in snappy wordplay, scatological simplicity or the really quite terrific slapstick prowess of Ben Willbond’s Spanish king.
| "Saying things in a short snappy way instead of a long drawn-out way is the soul of wit."
Willbond is by far the film’s standout, affecting a foreign dialect of Pythonesque absurdity as the Machiavellian Philip. His pratfalls and plotting are the dark heart of Bill and prove to be a far more compelling story thread than the travails of Shakespeare himself. Although the Bard is played amiably enough by Mathew Baynton, he simply isn’t given much in the way of real character and Martha Howe-Douglas is woefully underwritten as Anne.
Outside of the central roster of characters, and the gleefully over-the-top Helen McCrory as Queen Liz, the sheer oddity of Bill is sometimes a problem. Co-writer Laurence Rickard’s spymaster Walsingham is a deeply bizarre character, with Rickard on far better form here when in the guise of supporting roles. The same is true of Howick, who is on surer footing as Willbond’s flamboyant right-hand man Gabriel than he is as Marlowe.
The fact that this troupe are accustomed to short-form television is inescapable in Bill, which often feels artificially stretched to fit the needs of the feature format. There just isn’t enough comedic steam to keep the film’s madcap train running all the way to the station and it runs out of steam a long time before the credits roll, turning in a blandly action-packed final third.
| "They plan to use the play to kill the Queen."
There’s a lot to enjoy in Bill, which bravely wears its British zaniness on its sleeve. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but there’s enough silly charm to the writing that the missteps are forgivable. On top of that, anything that stands a chance of getting kids interested in Shakespeare deserves praise, particularly when it involves him wandering around London dressed as a tomato.
Pop or Poop?
The Horrible Histories team have made a successful cinematic jaunt with Bill, which channels their anarchic charm into a charming, funny take on the lost years of William Shakespeare.
The performances are somewhat variable and there are peaks and troughs in the narrative momentum, but there’s so much to enjoy in Bill that it feels wrong to dwell on its drawbacks.
Ben Willbond’s Spanish accent alone is worth the price of admission.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.