It is the late sixteenth century and Spain has been at war with England, with the former sending an armada to take down the latter's forces at sea and conquer the country, though thanks to the English being stronger than they expected and the particularly bad weather, the Spanish have been sent packing with the smell of failure in their nostrils. But King Philip II (Ben Willbond) will not be deterred, he means to take the throne of the northern nation and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, hence when the English Sir Richard Hawkins (Damian Lewis) is caught trying to pilfer some valuables from his palace, it provides the perfect excuse to travel to London and meet Queen Elizabeth (Helen McCroy) with a cunning plan...
Horrible Histories was a popular children's television series based on a series of books which took an irreverent yet factual look at days of yore played out by the same cast of talented comic actors every episode. Though Bill was not affiliated with that series officially, not based on the same source material, it was a BBC production made by the same team who adopted as their model the classic movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail thanks to its methods of generating hilarity and historical detail on a paltry budget. Whether this would go on to the success of the Pythons was debateable, doubtful even, but you could see the same irreverent humour was at play, if more toned down for family audiences.
Nevertheless, there was language and references that would not have gone down too well on the small screen for the kiddies, though nothing here that the younglings would not have heard their parents say once in a while. But who was Bill? He was William, William Shakespeare to be exact, the greatest playwright who ever lived (played by Matthew Baynton) whose so-called "lost years" had long been the subject of speculation: just how did he get from his relatively lowly beginnings to the success he became in the theatre? There are no records of those in between days, so your guess is as good as anybody's, and has been the cause of many a conspiracy theory that Shakespeare was not the author of the plays in the first place.
Some like to point the finger at his contemporary Christopher Marlowe as the originator, which was presumably why the script included him as a character, taking Bill under his wing to guide him through the finer aspects of play writing. That said, they did make it clear that once he had that grounding, Shakespeare was able to work on his own masterpieces solo, though there was a plot that saw his efforts attributed to a nobleman, here the Earl of Croydon, in a spoof of the Roland Emmerich historical supposition Anonymous where the Earl of Oxford was claimed to be the real genius. But this was more than a parody of existing material, for while the Oscar-winner Shakespeare in Love could have been regarded as beating this to the punch by over fifteen years, there was a particular sensibility here.
That was to be very silly, and in a way that was frequently laugh out loud funny with its references to other, more modern pop culture, characters having their own quirks that were more twenty-first century than Elizabethan, but were of a piece with the rest of the historical trappings, and a genuine wit in the dialogue that spoke to a real investment in making the past come alive, as even if it was making jokes it presented actual figures from the period who interacted in an absurd manner. But even if you hadn't brushed up your Shakespeare, you would still be laughing as much as somebody who had, it was that type of film, with a cast who obviously were very familiar with each other's strengths and a script by Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond that showed them off to their best advantage. Although they doubtless would have wanted more money, the low budget meant innovations and a true sense of an unglamorous yesteryear, and the ensemble who Python-style took many roles were pitch perfect in knowing where the humour lay. If its cinematic qualities were rather in doubt, it was well worth taking a chance on for comedy fans. Music by Andrew Hewitt.