How Bill puts a Monty Python twist on the story of Shakespeare

11 Sep 2015 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins
Still from Bill (2015) of Bill and Walsingham on stage
Still from Bill (2015) of Bill and Walsingham on stage

Bill is the hilarious new comedy from some of the team behind BBC's Horrible Histories series, all about a hopeless lute player who leaves his friends and family behind to follow his dreams in London. So far, so familiar - but this character just happens to be named Bill Shakespeare, and what follows is a rip-roaring adventure involving spies, lost loves, murderous kings and a plot to blow up Queen Elizabeth I.

This is a very funny take on the "lost years" of one of Britain's most important cultural figures, and a film very much in keeping with the tone of some of our most famous comedies.

History has always been a popular subject for comedy, with real events being recreated in classic television shows such as Blackadder and Doctor Who, but Bill may owe its biggest debt to the Monty Python team. Monty Python are an iconic group of comedians who made a series of hugely successful films set in biblical times and the Middle Ages.

Bill also has its roots in physical slapstick comedy, taking inspiration from famous silent comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, or more recently, characters such as Mr. Bean, or a film like The Artist. There are also influences from classic series like The Muppets, and Aardman Animations The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists too. Bill is definitely in some great comedic company, and as our behind the scenes reporters found out - slapstick comedy may look very silly, but its actually very difficult to produce.

Shakespeare on Film

There have been countless films based on Shakespeare's plays, but this isn't the first time William Shakespeare has appeared on screen as a character. There was the Oscar-winning romantic comedy Shakespeare In Love, which dealt with Will attempting to write Romeo & Juliet, whilst the 2011 film Anonymous cheekily suggested that it wasn't actually Shakespeare who wrote the famous plays at all. His most recent screen appearance was one of his most unusual yet, being seen as a yellow plastic figure in The LEGO Movie.

Films like Bill can bring history to life and allow us to visualise the past, rather than just imagining it in our heads. Sometimes it can even just be small aspects of a character, such as the fact that in this film, Bill is a lute player.

This was a popular instrument in Shakespeare's time, but is not so well known today. However, the film allows audiences to understand some of the kinds of music Elizabethan audiences would have enjoyed. Achieving this requires a great deal of care behind the scenes.

Recreating Tudor times

When our young reporters visited the set of Bill, they learnt all about how much thought went into the film particularly in getting the right Tudor costumes for the characters. For some, the costume designer was able to go to specialist costume houses, such as Cosprop, who have thousands of costumes, catering for every style of film or play you can imagine. But even they didn't have everything, and so the designers had to make some of the costumes themselves, before very carefully ageing them so that they looked used and authentic.

The film re-imagines some very famous historical events, such as The Spanish Armada, The Plague, and the closure of theatres in London, which meant people like Shakespeare were unable to have their work seen. Lots of important historical figures also pop up in Bill - keep an eye out for how many you can spot!

As part of the plot, some characters put on a play, which involves many of the men playing female roles. This is a reference to conventions in Elizabethan times, when women were banned from performing on stage and Shakespeare was forced to cast young boys in the roles of women. Lots of his plays also featured cross-dressing scenes, where male characters would dress up as women as part of the story, such as in Twelfth Night.

Thankfully, times have long since moved on, but cross-dressing remains a strong tradition in British comedy. Just watch any pantomime at Christmas to see! Two brilliant film examples of cross-dressing characters are the classic comedy Some Like It Hot, and Mrs. Doubtfire, featuring Robin Williams pretending to be a female nanny in order to see his children.

A flexible cast

Many of the actors in Bill also play multiple characters. Part of the fun is watching the film and trying to spot the points where an actor has quickly stuck on a fake moustache or wig and is now playing somebody with a completely different accent!

It is not uncommon for comedy films to involve actors playing lots of characters. The Monty Python team all played many roles in their films, perhaps due to their origins in sketch comedy on television, much like the cast of Bill, where audiences would be used to seeing the same person appearing in many guises.

Our Into Film reporters were lucky enough to be there for every step of the way while Bill was being made, right from the first reading of the script by the actors, to the recording of the musical score long after filming finished. The videos are a brilliant look into what goes on behind-the-scenes when making a film, covering all aspects of the filmmaking process, so be sure to watch them to find out how all of the magic was done.

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Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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