Sunday, January 14, 2024

Screening Britannia: Horrible Histories: The Movie - Rotten Romans

Four Roman officers, of various levels of seniority, around a map table, in front of a large white tent.
Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans
. UK. Directed by Dominic Brigstocke. Screenplay by Jessica Swale with Giles Pilbrow and Caroline Norris. Starring Emilia Jones, Sebastian Croft, Nick Frost, Craig Roberts, Kate Nash, Rupert Graves, Alex Macqueen, Lee Mack, Warwick Davis, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Alexander Armstrong, Chris Addison, Derek Jacobi, Kim Cattrall, and Rattus Rattus. Amazon, Ingenious, Silver Reel, BBC Films, Attitude Film Entertainment, Citrus Films, Scholastic Entertainment Inc., Lion Television. 2019.

I showed this to my Roman Britain students at the end of 2022, and again at the end of last year. The first time, they had asked for The Eagle, but I could find neither my own copy not that of the university library (both have since turned up). They nevertheless enjoyed this replacement, as did I. 

Horrible Histories, for those who don’t know, originated as a series of humour books detailing the funnier and grosser elements of history for an audience of children. It became a successful television comedy series for children, and then in 2019 a movie. Interestingly, the movie relies less on the regular TV cast, who are mostly in background roles, if there at all; instead, it turns more to stars who have been brought in for this occasion – the biggest coup is Hollywood's Kim Cattrall, but there's also Lee Mack, Rupert Graves, etc. (And even, in a small role, Ncuti Gatwa; truth be told, he’s a bit anonymous in his role as a legionary, but in the behind-the-scenes feature, star quality pours out of him.)

The topic chosen for this movie is Roman Britain, specifically the revolt of Boudica in 60/61 CE. It’s quite a bold move to treat the Boudica story as a comedy. Unless one is to count a brief mention of her in Carry on Cleo, the only other all-out comedic treatment I am aware of is an episode of the TV Horrible Histories called ‘Bolshy Boudica’ (2015), where the Iceni Queen is played by Lorna Watson (the one of Watson and Oliver who didn’t get to be on Doctor Who), from which this naturally recycles some material, but surprisingly little (and which I really need to watch again). Other than that, the most light-hearted portrayal is in an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess (‘The Deliverer’, one of the grimmer Xena eps).[1]  Other versions tend to be extremely bloody and violent, and wallow in the nastier elements of the story. 

As a consequence of being a comedy, and even more as a consequence of being made for children, albeit for children expected to revel in the grosser parts of history, some of the more horrific moments in the story are toned down here. There’s no room for the rape of Boudica’s daughters, nor is the battle of Watling Street the bloodbath that Tacitus describes, though, from a distance, we do see lots of dead bodies lying about. Rather than dying in battle (the common cinematic outcome) or taking her own life (Tacitus’ account), Kate Nash’s Boudica quietly slips away when it’s obvious that the battle is lost. There is then a reconciliation song-and-dance number between Britons and Romans. (Oh yes, this is a musical, drawing upon styles as diverse as modern rap and Celtic folk.)

Elsewhere, the violence of the revolt is touched upon, but skirted around. Colchester is seen in flames, as is London (from a distance), whilst the destruction of St Albans is merely mentioned. None of the violence in the narratives of the ancient sources is depicted; you don't see any civilians being slaughtered. Nor is there the common link into the English folk horror tradition that Boudican stories often have, because the role of the Druids is very much reduced here. They are present, fought by Rupert Graves’ Suetonius Paulinus, and all looking like refugees from an Eisteddford (though fighting like ninjas). But they are only seen at Anglesey. There are no Druids around the court of Boudica herself, as there often are in movie versions (see, for example, 1927’s Boadicea, 1967’s The Viking Queen, and 2002’s Boudica). 

Other than that, a lot of standard elements of the Boudica story do make their way in. It is the avarice of Catus Decianus (Alexander Armstrong) that provokes the revolt. A common issue in these productions is the fact that, even in these post-imperial days, a British audience wants to identify both with Boudica, as a British heroine and proto-Elizabeth I, and with the Romans, since there’s a long tradition of the Britons seeing themselves as heirs of the Romans. It is common to negotiate this divide through the provision of bad Romans, who provoke the revolt, and much more sympathetic good Romans, who try to avoid conflict, and only very reluctantly take part in the battle. Here, the good Roman is Attilius Minus, known as Atti, played by Sebastian Croft in a performance that owes more than a little to that of Tom Rosenthal in Plebs. The bad Romans are Decianus, Nero (Craig Roberts), and Agrippina the Younger (Kim Catrall, relishing the opportunity to do some serious scenery-chewing). 

Another standard device is to have a romance that crosses the divide between Roman and Briton; Boadicea and The Viking Queen both do this, and so does Horrible Histories, with Atti falling for precocious villager Orla (Emilia Jones); the difference here being that Atti and Orla’s romance has a happy outcome, culminating in the big song-and-dance number that unites Britons and Romans. Also, because the characters are young adults, the romance never gets much beyond them being BFFs. (A thing I have recently come to notice in screen stories of Roman Britain is the preponderance of child or young adult protagonists; fully understandable here, but also to be found in Britannia and other productions aimed at a more adult audience.) 

Like most comedies set in the ancient world, a lot of the jokes rely on the placing of modern stereotypes and situations into ancient dress. So, for instance, the build up to the Battle of Watling Street is presented as if it were a modern sporting event, whilst there are also ancient traffic reports by Chris Addison, where the eye-in-the-sky is merely up a tree. But there are a surprising number of gags that seem aimed at an older audience. Rupert Graves’ Suetonius Paulinus talks about himself in the third person, much as Julius Caesar does in his Commentaries. There’s a marvellous moment in which it becomes obvious that the person impersonating Derek Jacobi’s classic turn as Claudius is in fact Jacobi himself. Lee Mack's character, Decimus Maximus (albeit that his full name is, I think, never stated on screen, only in the behind-the-scenes feature), is surely meant to recall Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator. I also suspect that the sequence where Atti is in search of gladiator’s sweat, whilst being one of the ‘weird but true’ facts on which Horrible Histories prides itself, perhaps also owes something to the mare’s sweat running gag in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. And there is more than one call back to Life of Brian. All of this raises the question that Movies We Dig brings up in their episode devoted to this movie; who is it actually for, given not everything is aimed at children?

There are also some of the standard jokes about the remoteness of Britain. Nero initially thinks that the outline of Britain on the map was actually a weird stain, and refers to Britain as ‘the stain’ for the rest of the movie. And of course some soldiers form the testudo, because they always have to in Roman movies.

I like the movie much more than Movies We Dig do, but they do raise some legitimate issues. They make the interesting point that the movie has difficulty negotiating the transition from a sketch show to a longer narrative. The selling point of Horrible Histories was the weird bits of real history displayed in a funny fashion, and the educational element of the show was always underlined by telling the audience which bits were true. There’s hardly any of that commentary here, just a couple of brief segments at the end where the sources for Boudica's death are mentioned, and some stuff about Agrippina and Nero. A lot of other examples, such as Sycophantus (Alex MacQueen) explaining to Nero that one cannot crucify Roman citizens, and that sewing someone in a sack with a snake, a dog, a rooster, and a monkey and throwing them in the Tiber is the punishment for killing one’s own father, are only really noticeable if you're attuned to Horrible Histories' way of presenting this sort of material. (It’s perhaps also worth noting Horrible Histories can be a bit imprecise when it comes to the things that are true. For instance, there is a reference to dogs licking wounds being a recognised medical technique, which it was, but as far as I can find out this was the case in the Greek and Roman worlds, whereas here it is attributed to the Celts.) 

Another point Movies We Dig make is how traditional this all is. The final song is essentially all about how, in the end, the Roman occupation of Britain is a good thing, because of all the benefits it brings, even if some concessions to the essential brutality of Roman rule are made. This is very much the mid-twentieth century picture of Romanisation. Equally traditionally, the Britons are universally referred to as Celts, a term that has rather gone out of fashion amongst archaeologists, though popular television programmes still use it. But, as Gideon Nisbet said a long time ago, popular culture remains very firmly rooted in ideas that most academics abandoned a long time ago.

Nevertheless, I still like this movie, and would recommend to to anyone.

If you’re interested in learning more about Roman Britain on screen, I’m running a course from mid-January. 

[1] About which I have a chapter coming out this year.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Obituary for John M. Burns.

A page of John M. Burns comics, for The Bionic Woman.
There's a new post by me (with a little help from Will Morgan) on FA-The Comiczine: An obituary for John M. Burns.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

My Spring 2024 MANCENT teaching

A group of Roman legionaries determinedly marching up a hill, led by Lee Mack as a centurion. The Fifteenth Doctor is somewhere at the back.
I'm repeating my Mancent online course on Screening Britannia from this January. Anybody who fancies joining, you can sign up through Eventbrite. Anyone who pays the full course fee will get the recordings. Alternatively, you can book for individual sessions here

I'm also doing a London mythology walk for MANCENT, going down Pall Mall and towards Victoria. 

And finally, another walk I'm doing for MANCENT is a visit to Roman Colchester

 MANCENT's full Spring 2024 prospectus can be found here.

New post on FA-The Comiczine: An obituary for Ian Gibson


There's a new post by me on FA-The Comiczine: An obituary for Ian Gibson