History tells us that William Shakespeare was a prolific writer of plays that caught the mood of his age. But what if he was actually a frustrated musician whose uselessness with the lute prompted him to seek his fortune elsewhere?
And what if he somehow found himself embroiled in a plot to kill good Queen Bess? And what if King Philip of Spain led his personal team of assassins to London to carry out the dastardly deed?
This, then, is the wild and woolly world of Bill – an eye-rolling, thigh-slapping, moustache-twiddling version of Shakespeare’s life that is not history as we know it but perhaps should have been.
“There’s this famous missing period in Shakespeare’s life when no one knows what happened,” says actor/writer Ben Willbond, who plays King Philip like a South American drug dealer. “So it was a really inviting little black hole in history where you think, ‘You can put anything in there’. So we put anything in there.”
An extension of TV’s Horrible Histories written and acted by the same team, it also links back to the surreality of Monty Python and boasts that ensemble’s assiduous approach to moulding comedy from a winning blend of fact and fiction. The writer/performer team behind Bill – Willbond, Laurence Rickard, Mathew Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas, Simon Farnaby and Jim Howick – embrace the comparisons.
“We’re always flattered by that comparison and I always feel slightly shaky talking about it because Python for us are demi-gods of comedy,” comments Baynton.
“The Python stuff comes up because we play all the characters. Moving into a film and taking a narrative form and using it to hang sketch-like things off was done by them so well that we would always be compared to it.”
Adds Willbond: “Python is one of the 15 or 20 things that we love and which influence our comedy – everyone from Eric Morecambe to Harold Lloyd. There’s a huge number of influences in there. We get as much from Python as we do from Star Wars.”
Perhaps the biggest success in Bill is not so much writing comedy for young people but making it equally accessible for adults. “We don’t write comedy for kids, we just write comedy,” says Rickard, who enjoys himself as British spy Walsingham and a staring-eyed Spanish assassin. “There’s certain things that you shouldn’t say in front of your children – or any children – so we avoid that. If you try and second-guess what other people find funny, then you’ll just fail. So we try and do things that we find funny.”
“Luckily we’ve got the sense of humour of eight-year-olds so that does help,” adds Willbond.
Coming out of the BBC, Horrible Histories benefits from a hands-off approach that the team found refreshingly freeing. Bill received the same treatment.
“They were nothing but supportive. They really liked the tone of the script and wanted us to make sure that we delivered that tone,” says Baynton.
One line involved the use of a medieval torture device and its target area. “I was convinced that the line ‘in your bum’ would get cut,” recalls Rickard. “It’s extraordinary the things you can do as opposed to the things you can’t do. You can be incredibly violent, for example, but you can’t use bad words. There’s something slightly skewed about that in my opinion. But we get away with everything we possibly can.”
• Bill (PG) is on nationwide release.