A beloved, if juvenile, TV series stumbles in its transition to the big screen
Dir. Dominic Brigstocke. UK. 2019. 93 mins
The British are revolting, in every sense of the word. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with ’Horrible Histories’. The books and the television series, preoccupied with gross out grotesque, toilet humour and the grubby little secrets of the past, would hardly pass up on a chance to explore the more unsavoury details of British history, circa 54 AD. But a formula which was complemented by the skit-based format of the TV show sits less comfortably within the more linear, extended narrative structure of the film. There’s a more fundamental problem however: the film’s humour crosses the line from mischievous to puerile, the gag rate is sparse and the songs are instruments of historical torture.
An awkwardly judged transition from small screen to cinema
Irreverent, ribald and cheerfully committed to rummaging around in the latrines of the past for strange but true nuggets of information, the ’Horrible Histories’ books by Terry Deary translated into a highly enjoyable television show. Such is the enduring popularity of this factual but toilet humour-obsessed property that the film should figure prominently on the summer holiday to do lists of parents of primary school age kids. But despite the involvement of many of the core behind the camera team of the TV series (writers/producers Caroline Norris and Giles Pilbrow, director Dominic Brigstocke), the film lacks much of the anarchic appeal of its television incarnation. It may struggle to earn audiences outside of its existing fan base.
The film focuses on a single period which takes in the death of the emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi reprises the role he first played in the prestigous BBC series in 1976), the tussle for power between Nero (Craig Roberts) and his mother Agrippina (Kim Cattrall) and, over in Britain, the uprising of Iceni tribe led by Boudicca (Kate Nash). But the core characters are fictitious. Atti (Sebastian Croft) is a Roman teenager with a sharp strategic mind. Unfortunately, after he sells fake gladiator sweat (actually horse wee) which ends up all over the Emperor Nero, Atti finds himself facing the worst punishment imaginable: exile to the dampest, furthest reaches of the empire, to Britain.
Meanwhile, over in Britain, the Celts are restive. And none more so than Orla (Emilia Jones), the feisty daughter of an overprotective Celtic chieftain (Nick Frost) who is firm in his belief that she is far too young to have a sword, not to mention to deploy it in battle against the Romans. Orla rather forces the issue when she turns up at the family hut with a prisoner in tow – a young Roman centurion named Atti. Somewhat predictably, the two youngsters from opposite sides of the conflict reach a mutual respect and understanding. The horrible historical aspects feel a little sidelined by a bland fictional story.
It’s an awkwardly judged transition from small screen to cinema. Gone is the conversational element – the fourth-wall breaking bantering rat is relegated to bookending sections at the opening and close. The onscreen text boxes are also retired in favour of a more conventional approach to storytelling. But there’s nothing notably cinematic added into the mix. The slightly ropey musical numbers remain; the film still has the look of a mid-budget kids’ television show. Ultimately, this picture is an inglorious footnote in the history of one of the most deservedly successful factual children’s properties of recent years.
Production company: Altitude Films, Citrus Films, Stavingoh Films
International sales: Altitude Film Sales firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Will Clarke, Caroline Norris
Screenplay: Caroline Norris, Giles Pilbrow, Jessica Swale
Cinematography: John Sorapure
Editor: Nigel Williams
Production design: Heather Gibson
Main cast: Emilia Jones, Craig Roberts, Sebastian Croft, Kate Nash, Kim Cattrall, Nick Frost, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Lee Mack, Alex Mcqueen, Alexander Armstrong, Warwick Davis, Rupert Graves