The making of Bill: “wrestling an octopus into a carrier bag”

Ahead of the brilliant Bill screening on BBC Two, a look at how the film itself got made...

Here’s something rather exciting. Writer/actor Laurence Rickard of Horrible Histories, Yonderland and now Shakespeare comedy Bill has written a guest article for us, all about the making of the film. And here is it…

“They won’t just say ‘that sounds great, let’s do it.'”

It was April 6th 2011 – my first day in what I shall call ‘the movie business’ (because I can’t think of a less knobby term) – and those were the words of Tony Bracewell, producer of Bill… That afternoon we went in to see the lovely people at BBC Films, who said ‘that sounds great, let’s do it’. It remains the only time Tony’s been wrong, so I like to remind him about it. A LOT.

Of course, his note of caution was utterly justified. As I’ve since learnt, making a film is like trying to wrestle an octopus into a carrier bag. There’s a lot of different arms involved and it could all split apart at any moment. As such, no one enters into making a movie lightly, so Tony was quite right to prepare us for responses on the prudent spectrum, somewhere between ‘we’ll be in touch’ and ‘get out, you charlatans!’.

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We were, after all, new to all this. Ben Willbond and I, working with director Richard Bracewell, had spent several months working up story that condensed Shakespeare’s missing years into three ludicrous weeks, but this was our first day telling that story to studios. Thankfully, BBC Films totally got what we were trying to do and commissioned us to write a script. They really are the best arm you could ask for on any octopus.


We wrote the first draft in a small office above the Wetherspoon’s in Croydon, because it was equidistant between my home and Ben’s. Croydon that is, not the Wetherspoon’s. We don’t live on either side of the same pub… though there might be a sitcom in that? (makes note).

Anyway, it was an inauspicious first day. Ben called me when I was on the train back to Brighton to check that I was OK. Apparently Croydon was on fire. It was the first day of the now eponymous riots. But we went back the next day and found locals banding together to clean up the debris. Croydon had spirit. We named a character after it – gave it an Earl. ‘The Earl of Croydon’… Admittedly he’s a villain, but he does have incredible hair.

Image: Simon Farnaby as The Earl of Croydon.

I won’t take you through the entire writing process, because, as we found while scripting a film about Shakespeare, writing sequences are not terribly exciting (don’t worry, Bill only has one, and it’s VERY funny). Instead let’s fast-forward through two and half years of re-writes and octopus-wrangling to North Yorkshire in January 2014.

The Paris Of The North

The fact we were in York speaks volumes about the precarious nature of film-making. The original plan was to shoot six months earlier, south-west of Paris. But the octopus wriggled and Yorkshire in Winter became the new France in Summer. I’m not going to lie to you – it was a slightly colder. But it absolutely made the film. York Minster, Selby Abbey, Skipton Castle – every Tudorish location we required, Yorkshire provided in spades.

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Image: Filming at The Treasurer’s House, Yorkshire.

However, it also provided something else in spades. Or, rather, buckets… Rain. Remember that winter where Britain got so wet that it basically became an archipelago? Yeah – that one. In fact, most of the rain had stopped by the time we started shooting, but the River Ouse had already burst its banks.

Image: The River Ouse, York.

The water was so deep that bankside bollards and benches had become submerged obstacles, meaning all boats were banned from the using the river. And that included our boat. The one we needed for our river sequence. The one with the big stunt in.

Image: A cold idiot, York. 

The Castle Of Requirement

‘We’ll do it in Bolton’ became our go-to mantra when the going got tough. It made sense. Bolton Castle, on the edge of the dales, was our last major location in Yorkshire. So, as dropped shots were reinserted into the schedule, putting them at the end was logical. But it meant that this 14th century castle had to become a one-stop, multi-function open air ‘studio’ that could pass for numerous bits of 16th century England… And what a job it did!

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Image: Castle Bolton.

The Bull Inn, The Queen’s chamber, Shakespeare’s bedroom, The Russian hideout (if any of this list doesn’t make sense to you, you really should see the film – it’s very funny), Philip’s cells, The Quill and Rapier, Croydon’s dueling ground – all of them were built into different parts of the castle. But it was outside that it really came into its own…

Tudor London isn’t there any more. Apparently there was some sort of fire. Anyway, that’s a bit of problem when you’ve written a film that’s set there. On an endless budget, you just build a new one. But we weren’t a Hollywood production. And if you build a small set, you’re always in danger of seeing off the edge of it – passing cars, and electricity pylons and what not.

So Simon Scullion, our designer, hit upon an idea. What if you build Tudor London INSIDE the castle ward. A large enough space to accommodate a London marketplace, complete with side-streets, snickets and archways, but surrounded on all sides by authentic ancient ‘city’ walls. So that’s what we did – rebuilt London inside a castle.

From above, in common with most movie sets, it appears to be just a tangle of scaffold and plywood. But, on camera, the effect is uncanny. 

Image: ‘Tudor London’ from above.

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Image: ‘Tudor London’ as seen on-screen.

But I could go on forever – tales of hanging in a cage in a field in Buckinghamshire; the bombed-out chapel in Peckham; filming at The Globe, Ben and the orange gun. Suffice to say that it was seven unforgettable weeks out of five unforgettable years. And the octopus made it into cinemas with the bag intact.

Image: Our final slate, at The Globe.

Bill is on BBC Two tonight, at 6pm.