Homework for Dominic Brigstocke, the director of “Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans,” included watching Monty Python and speaking to “Blackadder” co-creator Richard Curtis as he and the team went about taking a hit kids’ show from the small to big screen.
“There’s a great tradition of the British making fun of their history,” Brigstocke said. “We looked at various other comedy version of history, including ‘Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.’ It was some of the scenes out of that that helped us realize how you can adapt sketch comedy to [film] and tell jokes about history.”
Brigstocke noted a number of nods to Python in his film, which comes 50 years after the famous comedy troupe was formed and premieres in the U.K. on Thursday. “The stoning in ‘Life of Brian’ was one of the inspiring scenes where you learned quite a lot about Roman history –that women weren’t allowed to watch, that the punishment for blasphemy was death,” Brigstocke said. “Pontius Pilate’s speech impediment was not taken from history, but other aspects of the character were.”
The director also had Rowan Atkinson’s classic historical comedy “Blackadder” in mind and called Curtis, who co-created the show before going on to making such hit movies as “Love Actually.” “He told me about how proud they had been to get all the facts from the Ladybird book” – a children’s primer – “into their first series about Queen Elizabeth.”
“Horrible Histories” is played for laughs but imparts historical facts and figures. Originally a book series from Terry Deary, with sales topping 30 million, the “Horrible Histories” TV series has meshed comedy and history over eight seasons on the BBC’s CBBC channel, winning BAFTA and Emmy Awards along the way. Brigstocke was involved in the first five TV seasons and said the idea of a feature film dated back to 2011.
The backdrop to the movie is Roman Emperor Nero’s attempt to crush the rebellion in England led by the warrior-queen Boudicca. It focuses on a Roman teen, Atti, played by Sebastian Croft (“Game of Thrones”), who is forced to join the army and is sent to Britain. He stars opposite a Celtic girl Orla played by Emilia Jones.
“With Nero and Boudicca there is a fabulous power struggle between two egos – the rampant queen from Norwich and the crazy emperor from Rome,” Brigstocke said. “It’s such a good story. It’s a really good narrative from her rebellion to her defeat.”
The ensemble cast includes Kate Nash, Nick Frost, Kim Cattrall and Derek Jacobi, as well as various stars from the original TV series. Talent was attracted by the script by Olivier Award-winning playwright Jessica Swale, according to Brigstocke, who added that it also helped if actors had kids who knew the show. “Rupert Graves’ kids don’t see ‘Sherlock.’ Here he is in something they can watch,” he said. “I don’t know why Kim Cattrall got involved! She must know people who said it’s quite cool.”
The series and books are an enduring success, and with franchise potential in mind, there are already thoughts of more movies. “Ancient Greece is very appealing; the Spartans and Athenians are a crazy bunch,” Brigstocke said. “My personal favorite is the Restoration and the 1660s: the plague, the Great Fire [of London], Newton, Charles II. The Victorians are always popular – there were five assassination attempts on Queen Victoria and that’s an area we are keen to investigate further.”
Production, sales and distribution outfit Altitude produced the feature with Citrus Films. Altitude is handling U.K. distribution. The film had a screening, Thursday, at the Loco London Comedy Film Festival, which runs until July 14. It is released in the U.K. and Ireland on July 26 and Amazon has streaming rights in the U.K. and a handful of European territories.