MATHEW Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Jim Howick, Martha Howe-Douglas, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond - also known as the gang behind Horrible Histories - have been delighting kids up and down the land with their comedic take on history, since the popular TV series started back in 2009.
Now they’re taking their talent to the big screen, and have set up camp at Selby Abbey in East Yorkshire, to make the most of the magnificent architecture for Bill - the story of Shakespeare’s lost years.
When I visit - at the tail end of winter 2014 - there’s a sea of activity on set, with cast and crew busy shooting a scene which involves Queen Elizabeth (played by Helen McCrory), her courtiers and, funnily enough, a tennis ball. (The ball will later be cleverly replaced with a sword in post-production; a much safer way of doing things than using actual weapons!)
The group may have generated plenty of giggles on the small screen, but crafting a movie comedy is a meticulous process.
Here, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond, also co-writers of Bill, reveal a few secrets about the project and life on set...
THE SERIOUS BUSINESS OF COMEDY
“From the start, we wanted it to be a caper, which is really good fun and really interesting comedically, but when you get to the third act, you have a thousand threads to tie-up, and we’re trying to do it one long extended scene,” notes Brighton-born Rickard, whose other writing credits include 2013 comedy series Yonderland.
“Hopefully it mimics and mirrors Shakespearean scenes,” adds Willbond.
“You know, the coming together in the final act and then the Queen arrives to sort everything out, so we’re hoping there’s shades of that.”
THE ART OF PUNCHING YOURSELF
There are six members of the Horrible Histories troupe, who play 40 roles in Bill, but while having a small group of actors playing multiple characters may save a fortune on wages, it can add a lot to the logistical challenges, and create some weird feelings for the stars.
“I’ve already had a shot where I’ve had to punch myself out,” says Rickard, smiling. “So you come in one day and you punch someone, and the next day you come in and get punched, and in the edit they splice it together. I’ve seen it and I totally buy that I punch myself. I felt quite angry at me about the whole thing...”
As anyone who has spent a few hours in Stratford-upon-Avon - Shakespeare’s birthplace - will know, the global passion for all things Shakespeare is insatiable, as tourists and theatre fans from all over the world flock in their thousands to soak up the famous bard’s legacy.
So does Willbond think the film will do well in the States?
“We hope so, yeah. My primary concern is that it plays well here obviously, because that’s where we’re trying to get our audience, but the whole North America question is really interesting,” he replies.
“My theory is that you come to a film without too much expectation and it’s a good family comedy. Everyone’s having a laugh, you’re having a laugh. Then yeah, why not? Why wouldn’t they like it?”
According to Rickard, one of the characters he plays, Sir Francis Walsingham, thinks he’s Batman.
“He’s not, he’s a big idiot and he spends the whole film quite purposefully chasing a red herring. But he does it with the force and verve of a superhero. And he’s a really bad one.”
The superhero-wannabe isn’t his favourite character, though - that honour goes to a gentleman with just six lines. “He’s new in court, he’s a bit overwhelmed by it all and he’s not really concentrating. He’s just a little bit off the beat with everything else that’s happening in the room and constantly apologising for himself. It’s really fun to play those little parts.”
THE FINAL CUT
Fast forward to September 2015, and watching the finished movie, which has been directed by Richard Bracewell, it’s remarkable to see the scenes which took hours to film but last just a few seconds on screen.
The thrown tennis ball is now a sword; the stage hand yelling ‘Bang!’ is replaced with a burst of pyrotechnics.
In short, as the great man once said himself, all’s well that ends well.
Bill is in cinemas now