As the surrealist comedy group Monty Python took to the stage last summer, it sparked a debate; are they still funny? Is this irreverent, outlandish style of comedy still as hilarious as it once was? Well a good indication as to whether or not they are still relevant, is the Horrible Histories collective – the hugely popular children’s TV series that ridicules and satirises the past. The principal alumni now present their debut cinematic endeavour Bill, and to say Monty Python is an influence would be something of an understatement. So while this hilarious new feature provokes laughter from both adults and children alike, it suggests that yes, Monty Python can still be relevant – and what’s even more impressive, is that Bill has earned the right to even be mentioned in the same breath.
From the creative minds of Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond, Bill tells the untold story of William Shakespeare’s lost years. Matthew Baynton plays the Bard, as he progresses from being a hapless flute player, to the renowned wordsmith we know him as today. To pursue his dreams, he leaves behind his wife Anne Hathaway (Martha Howe-Douglas) and sets off for London, only to unwittingly become embroiled in a plot to blow up Queen Elizabeth I (Helen McCrory).
While director Richard Bracewell may be new to this madcap world, Bill welcomes back performers from Horrible Histories, such as the hilarious Simon Farnaby and Jim Howick, and in true Monty Python fashion, the six key members of the troupe take on 40 roles between them. There’s a distinctively droll wit to this piece, as Rickard and Willbond normalise the past in such a nonchalant manner, giving regular dialogue to pre-eminent, distinguishable figures. It’s a tried and tested technique in British comedy, as not only does The Life of Brian do much of the same thing, but sitcom Blackadder survives off that very notion.
Where Bill triumphs is in its accessibility, particularly for the younger members of the audience. Not only in this picture entertaining, but educational too – and though the story is fictional, it remains an insight into this world and the acclaimed characters that inhabited it. The fact the story is entirely made-up does allow the filmmakers a degree of freedom, and the licence to be as creative and off-the-wall as they wish. The extravagant, eccentric performances are all grounded too by the nuances and subtleties of each role, as this talented group of performers impress in such a variety of parts.
Bill is effectively one joke stretched out, and though it is undoubtedly a funny one, as we reach the latter stages of the production, tedium does kick in. So while there is certainly a lot to be admired about this piece of cinema, whether it quite has the legs to succeed in this medium remains to be seen, as you wonder whether this may have found a more fitting home on the smaller screen, perhaps working better in bite sized, half an hour portions rather than a full, feature length movie.