Director: Richard Bracewell
Cast: Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond
Watch Bill the film online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / Amazon Prime / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
In 1998, Shakespeare In Love won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and, memorably, Best Actress for an especially emotional Gwyneth Paltrow. While the Bard’s works have been endlessly adapted for the screen over the last century, it’s inarguably the most garlanded film about the author himself. Still, it can no longer lay claim to being the most inaccurate film about William Shakespeare, thanks to the brilliant historical parody, Bill.
The cast behind CBBC’s Horrible Histories and Sky 1’s Yonderland are responsible for what amounts to a throwback to Monty Python’s big screen outings, complete with silly jokes and songs and a cast that essays multiple characters with gusto, but it’s pitched squarely at the family audience. In short, it’s an origin story for Bill (Mathew Baynton), a former lute player who makes his way to That London to make his name as a playwright.
When he gets there, he learns from tomato-clad wordsmith Chris Marlowe (Jim Howick) that work is scarce for a working writer. However, he’s soon unwittingly drawn into an elaborate plot by the fiendish Philip II of Spain (Ben Willbond), who has designs on assassinating Queen Elizabeth I (Helen McCrory) and taking England for himself. Under Marlowe’s tutelage, Bill has to find the story he needs to tell, while also trying to elude the dogged pursuits of the Queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Wolsingham (Laurence Rickard).
On Horrible Histories, Baynton, Rickard et al. were told that they were allowed to go off script and improvise, as long as they remained factually accurate. For Bill, that goes right out of the window and the result is an absolute riot, fit to burst with in-jokes and references to the Bard as we know him. For instance, Bill’s decision to become a playwright comes after his lute collective Mortal Coil decides to “shuffle off” without him.
Aside from Monty Python, there’s a healthy helping of Blackadder in the mix, with mind-boggling wordplay and comic overstatements filling just about every scene. Its influences are plain, but the overall feeling is definitely Horrible Histories’ own – a musical number called A Series Of Funny Misunderstandings squashes every Shakespearean plot device and trope into a two-minute song, which feels like it could be clipped from the movie and slotted seamlessly into the sketch show’s running order.
Star Wars is also referenced a lot, from the opening crawl to a couple of direct quotes. Other films might leave you rolling your eyes at such pop gimmicks, but here, it’s almost endearing that this crew turn to Star Wars as their guide on how to make a film. Richard Bracewell’s direction adds to the cinematic scope; most movies based on British TV wind up looking more like feature-length specials, but this has plenty of production value. Even excepting the obligatory trip to Sam Wanamaker’s replica of the Globe theatre when the opportunity arises, this exceeds Python by being able to afford horses.
It’s impossible to undervalue the ensemble, with each actor pulling their weight to bring the collective effort to life. Baynton makes for a lovable but reluctant hero, Farnaby has lost none of his riotous pomp and McCrory gnashes the scenery with maniacal fervour, paralleling, if not exceeding, Miranda Richardson’s definitive take on Queenie in Blackadder II.
But it’s Rickard, co-writer of the film, who steals the show at several junctures. He gets a lot of the best lines as the paranoid Wolsingham, pitched somewhere between Basil Fawlty and Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham, but he also pops up throughout as Spanish torturer Lope Lopez, the Baldrick-like Ian and a menacing chicken drumstick. He even manages to steal the establishing shots, as a guard who’s much too chatty to let the castle landscape do all the talking.
Bill is a real comedic treat, packed with wacky characters, outrageous punning and good old honest slapstick. If we could have something as daft and delightful as this pitched at the family audience every couple of years, we’d never be short of a laugh for all ages. In your face, Gwyneth.
Bill is available on BBC iPlayer until 16th May 2019. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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Photo: BBC Films