Years ago Terry Deary said that Horrible Histories was not so much a history book for children as a ‘historical joke book’. The gags in the books are immature school-boy humour. That is a fact. The TV series knew that when they took on the mantle, and this is exactly why it worked. This is Horrible Histories: The Movies’s greatest issue. There are moments that hit the pitch perfect balance between parody and comedy. Such as Derek Jacobi reprising his iconic role of Emperor Claudius. Yet also moments were it takes itself entirely too seriously when it attempts to transpose teenage rebellion into the conflict between the Romans and the Celts.
The core story follows Orla, a young Celt who wants nothing more than to prove herself in battle, and her counterpart, Atti, a young Roman sent to Britain, ‘the stain’ of the Roman Empire as a punishment for ruining the Emperor’s birthday. This PG star-crossed friendship is set against the backdrop of the power struggle between a teenage Emperor Nero (played with great comedic flair by Craig Roberts) and his ‘mummy’ (Kim Cattarall). Boudica’s rebellion serves as another backdrop, with a not-so-comfortable Kate Nash as she unites the Celtic tribes in their fight against the Romans. Yes, there is a lot going on.
The sketch format of the CBBC show allowed for multiple story lines that packed quite a punch, both in terms of comedy and educational value. But this appears to be a heavy burden for the film as it attempts to balance the epic story of Boudica versus Nero with the ground level story of Orla and Atti. Perhaps it is the direction, or the young actors, but the one note, one-dimensional performances make it impossible to really invest in their story. Without the grounding of this story thread the Nero and Boudicca plot tips over from comic into just plain ridiculous.
It is clear that Kate Nash struggles with the role. She lacks the conviction of Martha Howe-Douglas, even when screaming out Boudica’s awful anthem (which is the third song about her from Horrible Histories and is pushed on the audience at every opportunity). Furthermore, the characters are fully aware of the musical interludes which further confuses where the film is situating itself in terms of genre. One is never sure whether we are meant to play along or laugh. It doesn’t help that the sound mix sounds quite flat and sterile in a film which is shot almost entirely outside.
One redeeming factor of the film is the choice to cast Roberts as Nero. Anyone familiar with Roberts’ career will know he is often typecast as the socially inept teen. It plays heavily on the audience knowing a thing or two about the exploits of the infamous Emperor, but the gamble is rewarded as Roberts plays the idiot in power with enthusiasm and flair. The same can be said for Rupert Graves in his role of Paulinus, hero of Rome and Governor of Britain. His absurdist, pantomime performance is perfect for the Monty Python-esque world of Horrible Histories.
The film is funny at moments, boring at times, and always cringe-worthy. Yet it lacks the same comedy and talent which made the TV series work so well. Horrible Histories falls into the category of weird British humour, standing with the likes of Monty Python, Wallace and Gromit, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the delightfully off-kilter heroes of British absurdist comedy. Sadly, this film didn’t fully embrace the magic and the end product is rather disappointing from the perspective of someone who grew up with the show and books. The plot is too complicated for a young child and an adult can see through the cracks in the film’s facade. Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans is a fair attempt to reimagine the format for the big screen but, despite some excellent performances, doesn’t quite hit the mark.
by Mia Garfield
Mia Garfield has just finished a degree in Film at Falmouth University. She has just finished her first short ‘Sonder’, keep an eye out for it at festivals in the UK. A big lover of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mythology, her taste is varied. Her favourite films include Howl’s Moving Castle, Memoirs of A Geisha, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6. You can find her @miajulianna2864