Bill review

The Horrible Histories team tackle the early life of William Shakespeare. A funny family treat is the end result.

“Half as good as Shakespeare In Love”, is what Bill’s co-creator, Laurence Rickard, says they were aiming to create.

This whimsical imagining of William Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ certainly pays one or two playful homages to that other less-than-accurate biopic, but its real heritage can be traced to Monty Python and Blackadder. In the fashion of the former, the sextet of main actors, already known for their ensemble work on CBBC’s Horrible Histories and Sky’s Yonderland, share the majority of the roles between them. Each has a main role, and Mathew Baynton proves a lovably optimistic Shakespeare at the heart of it all. Yet it is the minor characters – ‘the body collector’ and ‘sausage guy’ being particular favourites – who bring this world to life.

Fans of the team’s previous work will not be disappointed here. Their speciality lies in combining the grandeur of the historical or the fantastical with pure silliness, creating a bathos which is amplified in Bill by the cinematic ambition of the project. Ben Willbond, Rickard’s co-writer, notes the improbability of the plan when they set out. An average period drama, he says, will cost at least £10 million to make, when they were hoping to achieve it for just under £4 million. With some help from the BFI and BBC Films, however, the dream became a reality. Despite cutting corners by recreating Elizabethan London inside a ruined castle, the tight budget is hardly noticeable in the production value. Only the Spanish palace disappoints, and at this point the audience is too fixated on Willbond as a show-stealing King Philip II to care.

Most importantly, though, it is funny. The humour of the main storyline is interspersed with yet more gags; sometimes the same cast member will make you laugh three times as three different characters in the space of a few minutes. These smaller skits hark back to the sketch-writing days of Horrible Histories, but the feature-length format allows for the repetition of jokes in such a short space of time that they gain a momentum which would be beyond a TV series. It is wide-ranging too, with jokes for kids (and big kids), jokes for Shakespeare aficionados, and jokes for grown-ups all packed in together.

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But Bill is also tightly plotted. Willbond says it took them a year to get the story right before they wrote the first draft, and the precision of planning shows. Recent comedy films like The Inbetweeners Movie and now The Bad Education Movie have led us to accept ‘they go on holiday’ as a suitable storyline, but Bill carefully intertwines the development of a young artist and his rocky marital life with Elizabethan court politics and a treasonous plot.

Rickard and Willbond went through several drafts, seeking the input of the other four from their team (Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick and Simon Farnaby) as well as BBC Films. The longer process polished the film, avoiding the hit-and-miss awkwardness of which Horrible Histories is sometimes guilty.

In addition to the core six performers, comic actors Justin Edwards and Rufus Jones drop in as courtiers, and Helen McRory plays a grumpy old Queen Elizabeth I – an almost direct answer to Miranda Richardson’s childish portrayal in Blackadder II. Her husband Damian Lewis also guest-stars in the first scene, but is woefully underused as a captive Sir John Hawkins, who seems forgotten not only by King Philip but also by the writers for most of the film.

Yet in amongst the supporting characters, the multi-layered plot and the bum jokes, there is a real emotional core to Bill. The audience remains engaged the whole way through, never bored, responding to each scene in turn. We become invested in the relationship between Bill and Anne (Howe-Douglas). The film doesn’t just make you laugh; it evokes sympathy, builds tension, and finally leaves you with a warm satisfaction. This is no small part due to the closeness and dedication of the group of people who made it.

Enthusiasts for Bill include families, film buffs, teenage girls and one or two notable comedians – Chris Addison has already tweeted that the film is “proper funny”. It is a testament to this team’s ability to make comedy without boundaries. Those who are unaware of their previous work will find just as much to enjoy in this iconoclastic approach to the bard as the most dedicated fans. No matter what your age or fan-status may be, it is simply a joy to watch.

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4 out of 5