If you’ve followed the wildly successful and subliminally educational Horrible Histories franchise, from book series to children’s TV comedy series, you’ll have a fair idea of the approach to historical drama found here. Bill isn’t taken from the Terrible Tudors book, but does use the writing staff and troupe of actors assembled for the BBC kids’ TV series (mostly in multiple roles). It also offers the same genial, low-rent historical settings (just like Doctor Who episode The Shakespeare Code, it takes advantage of the fact that someone built a perfect working replica of the Globe Theatre and will let you film there if you get in and out before the show starts), and amusing if pantomimish takes on familiar personages from the Elizabethan era.
Shakespeare (Mathew Baynton) is shown at the beginning of his writing career as a Stratford loser whose improvisational lute antics get him kicked out of a folk band, leading to him taking up the quill partly as a way of avoiding his disapproving wife, Anne (Martha Howe-Douglas). He picks up some skills from hanging out in pubs with Christopher Marlowe, though he is mildly perturbed to learn that the most successful playwright of the age is behind on his mortgage payments and constantly on the scrounge. There’s a wildly silly plot about a plot, with the boo-hiss moustache-twirler King Phillip II of Spain (Ben Willbond) co-opting an English social climber into hosting a masque suitable for staging an assassination and involving a troupe of Spanish killers disguised as Cockney players.
It delivers snook-cocking humour with factual footnotes (Helen McCrory’s bald Queen Elizabeth is one of the more grotesque film depictions of the character), but this genial, earthy picture probably has a better grip on its lead character than Anonymous. Nothing is taken seriously, and there’s a nice mix of old groaner jokes delivered with a visible wince and genuine, sneakily erudite wit. Being — you know — for kids, it’s mucky in the sense of featuring a lot of mud and filth, but only smuggles in a few more adult gags.