Anything that can render history and literature accessible to the masses plus get children excited about learning is a winner in my book. Combine that with cameo appearances by Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory and what you’ve got is a must-see treat.
The comedy, Bill, put together by the folks who do the BBC series Horrible Histories, comes to screens today, September 18, in the UK. The film imagines what may have happened during William Shakespeare’s “Lost Years”, the time during which he transformed from a married father of three in bucolic Stratford to the greatest dramatist of all time in London.
Here’s the gist of the story, gleaned from the preview for Bill: King Philip II of Spain wants to revert England away from the Church of England and back to Catholicism. Queen Elizabeth I will have none of it. (Afterall, Lizzie is daughter of Henry VIII, the founding Supreme Head of the Church of England, and, while she may have existed as a daughter of Henry and Anne, she certainly would not have existed as Queen had England remained Catholic.) A bloke in Liz’s court, Earl of Croydon, decides to join forces with Philip to oust the Queen. He plans to do this by writing a play. Because Croydon is a “skill-less idiot”, he needs someone else to actually do the writing for him. Enter the hapless Bill Shakespeare. Thus Bill is ensnared in a plan to overthrow the Queen.
The tale is entirely fictional, but, not to give anything away, I foresee a twist leading to a happy ending for all! Spoiler (don’t tell the kids!): The Queen in historical fact becomes Bill’s greatest fan, his patron and supporter, facilitating his rise to be the greatest playwright ever.
Damian Lewis plays swashbuckler Sir Richard Hawkins, rogue and plunderer, defender against pirates and the Spanish armada and unapologetic thief of stuff already stolen by Spain from the New World. Richard Hawkins was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and that’s about the only thing historically accurate about his fun tale.
So where in the film do we get to see Damian as Richard Hawkins? Well, our dashing fighter of buccaneers is seen stealing (and scene-stealing!) from the coffers of King Phil-ip, of course. A necessarily over-the-top theatrical confrontation ensues. Capes billow, swords are drawn, coy smiles and smirky winks fly amidst pointy Elizabethan beards. Eventhough Phil ultimately gets one over on Richard in the clip, the audience will surely be awarded with the last laugh.
Fun fact for the history nerds and otherwise curious: Richard’s father, John Hawkins, was the one who was actually a contemporary of Philip II and Elizabeth I. Since Elizabeth was in her 60’s by the time Shakespeare came of age, I guess the folks behind this story and film had to flex some space-time to make all the characters, real and imagined, fit the conceit. And a fine job they did too.
The silliness of it all certainly appealed to Damian. In a super fun interview in Metro tweeted yesterday by its writer, Damian said “I love the idea that William Shakespeare somehow gets himself caught up in the Catholic invasion and he’s instrumental for bringing down the Armada. It made me laugh.”
Both Damian and Helen have said that their appearance in this comedy has elevated their status as actors in the eyes of their children. The Telegraph reported Damian saying “his cameo appearance has won the seal of approval of his two children, who are usually “remarkably unimpressed” with their parents’ work.” In the Metro interview, when asked whether his children have seen Bill and how they enjoyed King Philip II of Spain calling him a ‘bumhole’, Damian, ever the proud dad, said “Yes, they all tittered behind their hands: “Rude word!”
It’s a well-known fact that the laughter of children is one of the best if not the best sound in the world. Seems Dad Damian and Mom Helen are willing to do whatever it takes to hear that sound from their kids. And it sounds like we have the Lewis-McCrory children to thank for their skill in keeping this star couple grounded.
Apparently, this isn’t the Lewis-McCrory kids’ first go at Shakespeare. When asked if he ever recites Shakespeare to them, Damian adorably confesses “Sometime I tell Shakespeare stories to them as bedtime stories… I started off with Romeo and Juliet, because I thought that’s quite a sweet love story between two young children. By the end, they were both in floods of tears. I should have considered a more child-friendly ending. Instead, they now know – and hate – Romeo and Juliet. Well done me.”
Romeo and Juliet, a sweet love story between two young children? Hilarious!
Damian has said that he’d gladly do other projects with the guys behind Bill. It is indeed a fun experience to be able to watch and enjoy something with the kids, and I plan to do just that when Bill hits screens here where I sit across the pond.
Oh, and how’s this for a silly (and eery) juxtaposition. Husband and wife in the roles of father and daughter: