11 October 2015

CapX Reviews: Bill


Horrible Histories, the children’s books and TV programmes, have arguably created Britain’s most historically literate generation. British children no longer learn the order of England’s kings and queens by reciting “Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste…” Rather, they chant the Chas-and-Dave style number from the show: “I’m William the Conqueror, my enemies stood no chance…”

Cleopatra’s murderous rise, the mediocrity of the Georgian kings, Rosa Parks’s protest – these are, for our children, what Alfred and his cakes or Drake and his bowls were for our grandparents: common reference points. Kids pick them up even if they haven’t watched the show; just as our grandparents picked up their equivalents even if they hadn’t read “Our Island Story”, the 1905 classic that made them common currency.

There are not many TV shows that kids enjoy to the same degree as their parents – especially when those parents have history degrees and keep butting in with related anecdotes. But I was as heartbroken as my girls when the last episode was aired.
Now – calloo, callay! – the geniuses behind Horrible Histories have taken to the big screen. “Bill” purports to tell the story of Shakespeare’s lost years – though, unlike the television series, it makes no attempt at accuracy.

If there’s one thing that I’m more liable to bore my kids about than history, it’s Shakespeare. But I’ve never cared for dramas that imagine the man. Even Tom Stoppard, our greatest living playwright, couldn’t pull it off: the only really good lines in “Shakespeare in Love”, the 1998 comedy film he co-wrote, are those lifted or adapted from the canon.

But “Bill” doesn’t try to be clever. It makes few literary allusions. It certainly makes no attempt to be plausible. Released from the requirement of truth, the authors have allowed their conceits to wander.

The fantastical plot involves Philip of Spain making a state visit to London, and a young Shakespeare, newly arrived from Stratford, having to write a play for the occasion. Except that Philip is really planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, and Bill gets dragged into the action. But the storyline is really just a backdrop for the deadpan humour of the Horrible Histories cast.

If you enjoyed the TV show, you’ll enjoy this even more. And so will pretty much anyone over the age of nine. I rarely laugh aloud at films, but I snorted and pant-hooted like a chimpanzee through this one, as did my daughters.

Did they learn anything new about Shakespeare? Meh. Are they now pestering me to take them to watch his plays more often? Old fond eyes, beweep this cause – no. Still there are few more pleasant ways of bonding with your progeny than being convulsed with hilarity at the same thing.

What is love? ’Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter.

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament.