“It is 1593, a time of War and plague, but mostly War. Queen Elizabeth I’s Army and the weather have seen off King Philip II of Spain’s Armarda, but mostly it was the weather.”
Bill’s opening credits immediately sets the tone. Meanwhile Queen Elizabeth is arranging to divest King Philip II of his treasures and who better to do this on her behalf than a man who knows how to make an entrance?
The guard are watchful until they’re not, taken out by a skilful swordsman. He is past them and scampers across the floor like the Pink Panther. He spreads his cloak in the manner of Batman or perhaps Professor Snape and faces another guard who cannot get his weapon out to defend himself in time. The Queen’s most loyal takes pity on the useless guard and head-butts him into unconsciousness. In Horrible Histories fashion, you hear the thud of the heads. Nevertheless the Valiant and Bold and not a little sexy Sir Richard Hawkins leaves the guard prone on the floor and continues on his quest. Through a doorway and now the jewels are in his sight and seconds later in his grasp.
Out of the shadows comes “Phil?” King Philip II is less than impressed at being addressed by his enemy as ‘Phil’. He is even less impressed that his presence does not inspire fear in Sir Richard Hawkins, but pure cheek. They have a chat as heroes and villains are want to do when discussing the villain’s dastardly plans. King Philip calls Sir Richard “a pain in the bum hole”. Sir Richard having had enough of their conversation decides it is time to leave and is about to supplement showing us how to make a good entrance by showing us how to make a good exit. King Philip II asks him “Have you forgotten the first rule of espionage?” Sir Richard replies “No. Always hide in plain sight.” He trails off having just realised. Unfortunately it seems that Sir Richard has on this occasion been too cocky. King Philip II had one of his men hidden in plain sight within the room (disguised as a statue) and as Sir Richard turns around in time to see a weapon about so smash into his forehead all we hear is “bugger”. Sir Richard is now a hostage to be used to force the Queen’s hand and is imprisoned.
The Queen is bathing when she is told of Sir Richard’s capture. She is more impatient with the problems this will cause her than any pain he may be suffering. A humorous discussion takes place between her party about diplomacy with the Spanish in order to get Sir Richard back. The women discuss hunky Spanish men and the sole man in the room enlightens the Queen by telling her what her father would say (that’s King Henry VIII for the record) and mentions “he also said lots of things about women that I didn’t really understand”.
It is then decided that a play would be held and King Philip II of Spain would be invited. The Queen will use this to try and negotiate the release of Sir Richard.
The wheels have been set in motion, a course charted for our hero even though he doesn’t know it yet. Welcome, everyone, to Stratford upon Avon, birth place and home of Bill Shakespeare and family. Bill seems a merry chap who is about to play on stage with the band he is part of, “Mortal Coil”. They are quite good and have the place rocking until Bill decides to pay homage to Marty McFly in Back to the Future with a fabulous but over the top and needless solo.
“It’s not you” one member of the band tries to console Bill as they have the ‘end of relationship’ conversation, while one of the others just tells it straight, “it is you”. The three of them are happy simply being decent together therefore Bill is out and Mortal Coil head off on their great adventure leaving a despondent Bill behind.
Anne nags Bill about getting a real job to support her and the kids and he says he has…he’s now a writer. Anne is not impressed and lists writing along with all the other professions he had taken up and finished with just as quickly. She has no confidence in him and they argue about going to London. Bill wants to go, but Anne is adamant that she and the children will not be going to “that London”. As Anne storms way from him, Bill shouts that “People will still remember the name Shakespeare in 20 years’ time”.
King Philip II fancies himself as much as any female watching will and as we re-join him, he is delighted to receive his invitation to England from the Queen as it means she “has taken the bait”. He plans to use the play as a cover to assassinate the Queen and his dastardly plan is set in motion.
The audience is kept amused as ‘Bill’ weaves the various threads together. Bill (the man himself) arrives in London and is promptly robbed (he doesn’t realise it), misses someone being stabbed and gets a talking to from Christopher Marlowe. Bill is enthusiastic to discover that Marlowe is a writer, but Christopher initially does his best to quash that enthusiasm. They discuss what the other writes about and Christopher needs Bill to explain to him what comedy is. Bill then treats us to some examples of your mother/sister jokes which Christopher does not understand and fails miserably at making these jokes to others. Making it clear to Bill that there is no work for a writer in London, he offers him a job “as an actor”. We next see Bill dressed as a tomato trying to hand out leaflets about fruit.
The King and his cohorts in disguise (I use the term loosely) sail to England early in order to hide themselves and implement their plot against the Queen. The intention is to arrive without the English knowing he is here early. However, upon arrival on the beach, King Philip II finds himself being greeted by ‘customs’. The Customs officers are duly silenced and the King and his men make their way in to London to meet with a secret confident who will provide them with a place to hide. This place happens to be in plain sight and as the confident notes the last place you would look for a catholic…inside a Protestant Church.
Meanwhile, Bill has written to Anne exaggerating how well he is doing in London. Believing the best Anne decides to take the children to see their father. Arriving in London Anne of course discovers the truth as they bump in to Bill immediately as he walks about dressed as a tomato. Anne is disappointed and angry at being deceived. She allows Bill to see the children, but she tells him to bring them to her later and leaves. She gets lost and runs right into trouble. The trouble I refer to is of course the Earl and not the two men he stopped from killing her. The Earl of Crawley, sorry Croyden, whom no one takes the slightest bit seriously has managed to get himself in to a bit of a sticky situation when he pretended to be a writer. The Queen heard him and put him in charge of writing the play.
Not being able to write the play is only half Croyden’s problems as King Philip II arrives on his doorstep and manipulates the Earl into his plot. The King’s joy is short lived as he discovers that Croyden hasn’t even finished the play yet and what he does have is nonsense. Anne of course mentions Bill when she returns to the room. I think a ‘dun, dun, dun’ is in order.
Bill, with the help of the King’s men puts on his play for the King and Croyden, but neither is impressed and do not appreciate ‘a series of funny misunderstandings’. Christopher Marlowe helps Bill write a new play, but does not like to see Bill taken advantage of and demands that if Croyden wants the newly written play, he must pay Bill 50 English notes for it.
Now comes the bit we have all been waiting for, the tale of betrayal as Christopher betrays Bill in order to pay off a debt. Sir Francis Walsingham believed to be dead makes several funny appearances throughout trying to sniff out a catholic plot. He converses with Christopher a couple of times. His explanation of despise (that’s disguise, spies and pies) is particularly hilarious. Christopher, now desperate, approaches Walsingham and tells him that Bill is a catholic plotter and he will find proof if he searches where Bill is staying. We see Bill entering his room to find a framed photo of the Pope, signed from the Pope to him, crucifixes and candles all over the place. Marlowe has left Bill a note saying he’s sorry, but he had no choice. Bill just manages to escape from his room through the window as Walsingham is coming through the door.
In dramatic and symbolic fashion, Christopher Marlowe pays for his betrayal with his life as Croyden does not come alone to pick up the play. He comes with King Philip II who sees no reason to pay 50 notes when the cheaper option is to kill Marlowe for free.
We are delightfully treated to a ‘heart-breaking’ death scene. Marlowe manages to stumble outside just as Bill arrives telling him “I’m going to kill you.” Marlowe collapses in Bill’s arms already dying. He manages to warn Bill that King Philip II is going to use his play somehow to kill the Queen and tells him the code to use to get a message to Walsingham. He also tries to tell him something else, but the words are lost as he dies.
The King and Croyden discover that Marlowe did not actually give them the play and they now have to find Bill who is still running from Walsingham. The King and Croyden manage to get to him first and demand the play, but Bill doesn’t have it. They insist that he writes another. Bill says that he can’t without Marlowe. The King suggests that he find a way and reveals that Anne is also a hostage.
Alone in his prison, Bill is suffering a crisis of confidence and is afraid for what will happen to Anne when he can’t produce another play. The ghost of Marlowe appears to him and inspires Bill to write again. With the play finished, the King proceeds with his plan and his men manage to get into the Theatre posing as the actors in the play. Bill, despite being gagged manages to shout out the code that will warn Walsingham of a plot.
Inside the theatre King Philip and the Queen meet in preparation for the beginning of the play, while backstage the King’s men set up the barrels of gun powder in order to kill the Queen.
Word reaches Walsingham of a plot, but he mistakenly still believes Bill to be involved.
The first of the King’s men to play his part in the play or as he says “I have lady parts, no?” is magnificent and seeks praise for his performance as a woman, but receives none except from Bill. As the play goes on and the plot looks like succeeding he has a change of heart and frees Bill, allowing Bill to make an attempt to stop the plot. Walsingham’s timing is exceptional as he turns up at this point decrying Bill and fighting with him. Again, the King’s man who Bill was repeatedly nice to comes to Bill’s aid admitting it was them and not Bill. The sword fight continues in the Queen’s presence. Meanwhile, King Philip is trying to sneak out. Backstage, the King’s assassin with the job of setting off the gun powder is about to do it when Bill decides a change in dialogue is needed. This confuses and prevents the assassin from setting off the barrels as he was supposed to wait for a particular bit of dialogue.
Here be the arrival of one William Shakespeare in the most dramatic of ways as he highlights the Earl of Croyden’s treason. The Queen is disappointed in Croyden’s treachery as she liked the play. Anne stands up and points out that the play is “Bill’s. That is William, your Majesty”. The Queen takes a liking to William Shakespeare and declares that he is to be provided for and she wishes to hear more from him. There is then a party which Mortal Coil are the band. You see William looking up towards the Queen and to her left, in a not so subtle nod to star wars, we see the ghost of Marlowe doing an Obi-Wan.
Bill is then seen getting ready for the opening night of his play and asks Anne. “Do you think the world is ready for William Shakespeare?
As the end Credits role, we see something that the Queen has inherited from daddy as Croyden is sent to the chopping block.
Bill is witty, and silly. It is all the more enjoyable if you recognise that you are not meant to take it seriously. It is a fantastic journey of how Bill, an ordinary failure of a man, becomes the William Shakespeare we all know and love. It provides hilarity and plenty of nods to situations we will all be familiar with in daily life. An interest in history is not required to thoroughly enjoy this film. There are also a few nods just for the adults. There were clearly a good few Homeland fans in the audience because we see Sir Richard twice after his capture (briefly both times). He is in his cell, a prisoner with matted hair and looking very gaunt, skinny and as a result very decidedly Nicholas Brodyish…