It was only a matter of time. The Horrible Histories bandwagon started with the books, moved onto TV, won BAFTAs, went on stage and now it brings its own version of history and humour to the big screen. That’s for the uninitiated – as is the essential detail that historical accuracy isn’t always its strong point. And it likes it that way.
If you’re a fan of the series, don’t expect much in the way of change in Horrible Histories:The Movie – Rotten Romans. Liberties are taken by the bucket load when it comes to most – but not all – of its historical facts, and with a child-like glee that’s infectious. The plot is more of a mechanic to set up the running gags, the topical comedy and a smattering of song and dance numbers. But, such as it is, it involves hapless young Roman Atti (Sebastian Croft) who falls foul of Nero (Craig Roberts) and is shipped off to Britain, a small stain in the corner of the map of the Roman Empire. He’s forcibly enlisted in the army but is kidnapped by Orla (Emilia Jones), a Celt with designs on being a warrior. To cut a meandering story short, after he helps her out in a battle against another tribe, he turns out to be even more useful when the Romans send in their crack legion – the X-Men (geddit?) – to wipe out Boudicca’s (Kate Nash) rebellion.
Transforming a much-loved TV series into a full-length feature can be a huge ask, especially when the run-time is extended three fold. In this instance, the sketch-based format of the original is a help and the film, sensibly, has decided to keep with that. It allows for lots of little side-plots, most of them short lived, and gives the film an energy that could have been diluted by a more linear approach. The downside is that it makes for an uneven film, with musical numbers that, despite being a regular feature of the TV series, feel like they’ve been added to pad things out. But it’s all done with such good humour, a knowing grin and a twinkle in the eye, you’re prepared to give the film its chance.
Merging a loose version of history with contemporary language, attitudes and targets for full throttle mockery results in humour that’s up and down as well. It doesn’t always hit the spot but, when it does, the required laugh out loud moments are there – for this writer, it passed the six laughs test. There’s more than a hint of Carry On, but with the sexual innuendo replaced by fart – and other bodily function – jokes. Plus there are gags that will ring a very loud bell for grown-ups of whatever age, from the inevitable Spartacus reference (farts come into that too – think about it!) to the even more inevitable “what did the Romans do?” Python nod. It’s just a shame that the more topical stuff tends to veer off course a lot of the time. There is, however, a joyous piece of casting in Derek Jacobi’s return visit to his most famous role, Emperor Claudius, and some giggle-worthy running gags, from a messenger who feels Nero’s wrath and spends the rest of the film trying to avoid more injury, to Orla’s kleptomaniac gran. While much of the humour is verbal, there’s more than enough of the physical variety to keep the children happy.
And that’s the film’s essential strength. It’s truly a family movie, not one that’s made for kids with some extras slapped on to stop the adults getting restless. This merges the two seamlessly so that grown-ups and children alike can laugh, smile and generally enjoy and experience the film together. Horrible Histories is a summer crowd pleaser. Undemanding, good humoured and spasmodically funny, it will appeal to just about anybody in the audience. There’s nothing sophisticated about it and it has no pretentions in that direction. You’ll enjoy it while it’s on the screen, you’ll come out with a smile on your face – and, when somebody asks you what happened, you’ll have to stop and think. Horrible? No. Rotten? It’s not that either. Just instant gratification.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Comedy, Family, History | Cert: PG | UK, 26 July (2019) | Altitude | Dir. Dominic Brigstocke | Sebastian Croft, Emilia Jones, Kim Cattrall, Nick Frost, Rupert Graves, Craig Roberts, Kate Nash and Derek Jacobi.