HORRIBLE HISTORIES: THE MOVIE / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: DOMINIC BRIGSTOCKE / SCREENPLAY: JESSICA SWALE / STARRING: NICK FROST, KIM CATTRALL, DEREK JACOBI, RUPERT GRAVES / RELEASE DATE: 26TH JULY
Horrible Histories is a behemoth of a franchise which has now far exceeded selling the odd book here and there. There are theatre shows, events and a videogame, and now this first film, a co-production between the BBC and various commercial investors including Amazon, is the latest bid to extend the franchise into a different format.
Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans, differs slightly from the TV series still showing on CBBC. Whereas that format is one of two-minute sketches and songs, the movie has adopted a more usual linear narrative structure. Much has been made of the legacy of Monty Python, who took a similar path when they moved from making TV series to their own movies. Indeed, there are moments here that are reminiscent of Python – and a mis-spelled sign mid-way through the movie will bring a wry smile to anyone with a memory that stretches back to the films of Cleese et al. There’s also a tendency for the characters to burst into song, and burst out of the world of the movie in so doing. To describe this as a musical would be to mislead, however - it really is a regular film, just with the occasional song thrown in to recapture any wandering concentrations in the intended audience demographic.
Sebastian Croft, who grew up watching the TV shows, stars here as Atti, a Roman citizen who falls foul of Craig Roberts’ petulant Emperor Nero and gets exiled to Britain to serve in the Roman army, a role he’s distinctly unhappy to fulfil. The usual troupe of British comedy actors has been fleshed out with appearances from Kim Cattrall as Agrippina and Derek Jacobi as Claudius. Jacobi’s role in the movie confirms that the spirit of the TV show remains very much present, as the first of a large number of bodily fluids are shown in close up when he survives an assassination attempt. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the comedic tone of the overall film, you’d wonder how on earth this received the certificate it has. There are a lot of deaths that go along with those bodily fluids – both shown and implied – and a fair amount of arson, as you might expect from a story which includes Boudica’s campaign to overthrow the Roman occupiers.
Were we to look carefully at the script, it would be possible to draw some parallels between the actions of the Romans and their conquering soldiers and the eventual acts of the British empire and its colonists – especially around how unwelcome the invaders were, and the fervent wish of the indigenous population that they’d just go away, no matter how ‘civilising’ the conquerors believe they are being. But that would be to take far too seriously a film which doesn’t take itself seriously at all.
Cannily released just in time for the long summer holidays, if you have children in your lives who fit the target age of the TV show’s audience then there are much worse ways to spend two hours of the seemingly neverending six weeks between now and September.