In a TV comedy landscape that’s hardly flush with sketch shows, Horrible Histories has won the hearts of both its young target audience and older viewers, too. While there are format changes and rodent puppet Rattus Rattus (John Eccleston) is the only member of the cast to make the jump to the big screen, Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans provides more of the same historical chortles and it’s an absolute blast.
You know you’re in safe hands with a family film that starts with a joke about how many studio logos your kids have to sit through and then immediately leads into Derek Jacobi having a lovely time reprising the role of Roman emperor Claudius. It’s 54AD, and there’s a very abrupt takeover of the Roman empire by Claudius’ wife Agrippina (Kim Cattrall) and her son Nero, (Craig Roberts) who bristles at his supreme power being curbed by his mam’s influence.
Elsewhere, in a far-off map stain called Britain, Boudicca (Kate Nash) has had quite enough of the Romans doing whatever they want, and young Celt Orla (Emilia Jones) feels much the same. Despite the protests of her exasperated dad (Nick Frost), she wants to help fight off the invading Romans and even captures one of their soldiers, the brainy but weedy Atti (Sebastian Croft), for the glory of her tribe. But as the Battle of Watling Street approaches, the two youngsters find they’ve got more in common than expected.
Terry Deary’s acclaimed books have had various screen incarnations, from CITV’s time-travelling animated series to the British Comedy Award-winning CBBC sketch show which ran from 2009 to 2013. The six-person crew behind the latter series – Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Lawrence Rickard, and Ben Willbond – went on to make the brilliant big-screen Shakespeare biopic, Bill, in 2015.
Around the same time, CBBC brought the show back for a series of specials that had more celebrity guest appearances, which seems to be the template for this feature film outing. As in the series, there’s an educational focus, backed up by character sketches and parody songs, but it’s all backed by a single narrative this time. Where Bill felt more like a Life Of Brian or a Blackadder for kids, this one is (in the best way possible) like a funnier, more high-brow Carry On movie.
In the vein of something like Carry On Cleo, which took advantage of the lavish sets from 1963’s Cleopatra being available to make a better-looking entry than usual, this one offers a rich cast of British comedy actors while making the most of the production value wherever they can. With sterling work by the art department and director Dominic Brigstocke, it plays more like an expensive version of the TV show than a low-budget British comedy.
While it’s a more straightforward, by-the-numbers story as a result, writers Jessica Swale, Giles Pilbrow and Caroline Norris keep up a relentless gag rate and the performers rise to it admirably. As likeable leads, Jones is great as the all-singing, all-dancing, all-fighting chief’s daughter and Croft’s performance style echoes Jim Dale’s Carry On turns from certain angles, but they’re also absolutely surrounded by the cream of this country’s comedic character actors.
Especially commendable are Frost, who is truly growing into his dad phase between his roles in this and Fighting With My Family; Roberts, whose incongruously Welsh-accented Nero makes a hissable baddy; and Lee Mack, whose one-joke Roman commander’s running gag gets funnier and funnier every single time he does it.
Any narrative shortcomings elsewhere can easily be forgiven for just how funny it is. While it’s also highly informative and entertaining for younger kids, it does occasionally seem a bit too preoccupied with exploring the toilet arrangements of Rome, in repeated jokes that keep taking you out of the film. Frantic as it is, the film is never slower than when it does the Austin Powers pee gag at a dinner party.
But given how they keep threatening to revive the Carry On franchise, Rotten Romans makes Horrible Histories into its more logical successor. It’s hard to countenance a revival like that attracting the stars that this one has, or having a gag rate as high. It does feel like a bumper-length edition of the TV show, but the prospect of enjoying it with a family audience more than justifies the trip to the cinema.