Written by and starring the cast of “Yonderland”, “Bill” sees them returning to their “Horrible Histories” roots and exploring a ‘lost’ era of Shakespeare’s life, finally revealing the true story behind his rise to fame and fortune as England’s most celebrated playwright.
When the Earl of Croydon unwittingly overcommits himself in the presence of Queen Elizabeth, he accidentally sets himself on the path to becoming embroiled in a Catholic plot to murder the sovereign at the command of King Phillip II of Spain. Meanwhile, Bill Shakespeare has travelled to London to seek his fortune and may be the very patsy that Croydon and King Phillip need.
There’s a rich heritage of British comedy on display in “Bill” with both “Monty Python” and “Blackadder II” providing influences and inspiration but the script, by Laurence Rickard (Sir Francis Walsingham, mainly) and Ben Willbond (King Phillip II of Spain, mostly) is bright and sparky enough to find its own feet rather than aping its predecessors. Indeed, it’s far less acerbic than “Blackadder” and a good deal less silly than “Monty Python” or indeed their “Horrible Histories” output as they moderate the gags and absurdity in order to deliver a cohesive plot.
These guys, of course, are veterans at bringing historical figures to life and many of them pick up the roles again from previous turns during “Horrible Histories” although this time, faintly disappointingly, Martha Howe-Douglas doesn’t reprise her Queen Elizabeth I, ceding that duty to Helen McCrory, who has a lot of fun with it. Baynton is a wonderfully vulnerable and plucky leading man and its fun to see his interplay with Jim Howick’s Obi-Wan Kenobi-like Christopher Marlowe in one of the film’s (surprisingly numerous) “Star Wars” references. Ben Willbond’s swarthily macho turn as King Phillip is sure to get the mums in the audience hot under the ruffles while Simon Farnaby shoulders much of the comic buffoonery as the vainglorious and cowardly Croydon. It’s Laurence Rickard’s fantastic Sir Francis Walsingham, though, who gets my pick as MVP and if “Bill” is as successful as it deserves to be, I’d love to see this Walsingham spun off into an Elizabethan version of “Spooks”.
Well stuffed with jokes for young and old, this hits the same sweet spot for family viewing that “Horrible Histories” did but with the added benefit of a stronger narrative to move things along. The production values and cinematography make the most of its modest budget and there’s great entertainment value in trying to spot the cast filling out various minor roles too. There’s a gentle, innocent fun to “Bill” that’s in short supply these days (although it’s not shy about throwing in some bawdy lines for the grown-ups to chuckle at over the kids’ heads) as well as providing some interesting conversation starters about a fascinating period of British history. In a tide of blockbuster spectacles and lacklustre animated cash grabs, films like this are a real treat and should be savoured.