William Shakespeare: The Lost Years
Suffice to say, this is not another Bad Education Movie-style television to big screen disappointment of an adaptation. The team behind Horrible Histories have succeeded in translating their unique combination of historical-informed humour and slapstick. In fact Bill, along with Horrible Histories and their fantastical series Yonderland, has secured their place as natural successors to Monty Python and Blackadder.
Bill Shakespeare (Matthew Baynton) is a family man. He lives with his wife, Anne Hathaway (Martha Howe-Douglas), and their three children. Bill plays lute in a band called ‘Mortal Coil’, but after one concert where he tries to steal the spotlight he is told to ‘shuffle on’. It’s not us it’s you, they tell him. So Bill moves onto his next dream, being a playwright. As Stratford-Upon-Avon doesn’t actually have any theatres, he leaves his family to go and achieve his dream. In the process he befriends Christopher Marlowe and becomes embroiled in King Phillip II of Spain’s devious plot to murder Queen Elizabeth at a theatre production she is hosting.
The results are properly hilarious. The gag rate is so high, with most of it landing, that whilst laughing at one joke you may end up missing the next. Of all the genres it is arguably comedy that is the hardest to do well. Aim too broad and you please no-one, aim too niche and you end up pleasing a minimal market. This irreverent biopic carefully, and to great effect, utilises modern references and a panto-esque tone to keep the audience tittering from start to finish. There are a few that are groan-worthy gags, a couple which are smirk-creating, many that are chuckle-inducing and a good handful of proper belly laughs. The team are not limited by their obligation to educate, as they were with the excellent Horrible Histories, and use that freedom to great effect. Considering we do not know what actually happened to Bill during the years between his abandoning his family in Stratford and emerging as royal playwright William Shakespeare, the events of this film are entirely plausible… well unlikely but possible.
One can only hope that situations such as Shakespeare educating Christopher Marlowe in ‘your mum’ jokes did in fact occur. If only because it leads to an immensely funny recurring gag within the film, that is seconded only by a henchman’s inability to understand the concept of a Trojan Horse. Other highlights include Helen McCory’s toothy and worn portrayal of Queen Elizabeth, some lovely throwaways about funding of the arts and a hilarious reference to ‘clunky exposition’. Baynton is excellent and rather endearing as an idealist and optimistic Shakespeare, as is Howe-Douglas as his under-appreciated wife.
Bill has a relatively taunt and witty script that has a joke for everyone. As expected the chemistry between the cast is electric, the gags reliably brilliant and the timing of them is spot-on. Well worth a watch.