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Stars: Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Damien Lewis, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Ben Willbond, Rufus Jones, John Henry Falle, Jamie Demetriou, Richard Atwill

Director: Richard Bracewell

It’s hard to believe it but, for once, our BBC licence fee and Lottery cash (courtesy of the British Film Institute) has been well spent on this lively loony send-up of history by the BAFTA-winning stars of TV’s Horrible Histories.

I’ve always believed 1066 and All That - where Joan of Arc was held to be the daughter of Noah and, appropriate to this zany riff on Shakespeare and the Virgin Queen, it noted that “One of the most romantic aspects of the Elizabethan age was the wave of beards which suddenly swept across History and settled upon all the great men of the period”.

Which certainly applies here, since most of the actors on screen boast beards, beginning with dashing English daredevil Sir Richard Hawkins – played with relish by Damien Lewis – who is taken hostage by the King of Spain who has a nefarious murder scheme in mind.

The next beard up turns up in Stratford-Upon-Avon and belongs to Matthew Baynton, memorably funny as the eponymous Bill who, of course, is the (soon to be?) great Bard. Here, however, he is merely an aspirant playwright who plays lute in the Elizabethan pop group ‘Mortal Coil’. Then, when his colleagues abruptly dump him, Baynton, telling everyone that “I’ve written a great play for the stage”, leaves his wife and family and heads for London to achieve his ambition to become a playwright.

I hope I’m not giving away a vital plot point by revealing that he finally succeeds.

But not before we are treated to a splendid serving of high and low humour, lively lunacy and crazy comic adventures as Bill eventually foils the Spanish villains’ evil scheme to murder the Virgin Queen, played by Helen McCrory (hostage Lewis’s real-life wife) in yet another terrific comic turn.

The actors have taken Shakespeare’s comment “one man in his time plays many parts“ to heart, doubling up on roles to good effect while director Richard Bracewell makes the most of a daffy screenplay contrived by Laurence Richard and Ben Willbond (the latter doubling on screen as the King of Spain).

Crazy comic invention rarely flags in a fun film that for me was far more amusing than the “Look at Me!” antics of Blackadder.

Best of all (although there are a couple of low jokes kids might feel they have to explain to their parents) it’s a really fun family film, one that happily erases memories of all those kidflicks which have served to make the lives of accompanying adults so frequently hellish.

Alan Frank

UK/USA/Iceland 2015. UK Distributor: Vertigo Films. Colour.
94 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: PG.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 1.

Review date: 17 Sep 2015