Horrible Histories: Sensational Shakespeare
is landmark children's television; introducing kids to history through comedic impersonation of historical figures, songs, an ingenious twists on events through modern tropes; what better way to explain how to spot a witch than through a shouty man television commercial or recount the many wives of Henry VIII through rap? Horrible Histories has entertained and taught kids - and it is pretty entertaining for adults too. Now the show is back for a one off CBBC special to celebrate the life of William Shakespeare 400 years after his death. The cast and crew of Horrible Histories had already tackled Shakespeare in the wonderful film Bill last year, but this goes back to the show's classic format.
And to review Horrible Histories: Sensational Shakespeare, I've brought my two kids in to review the special too, because after all they're the experts and this is all for them (okay, perhaps me too). So I'll quickly introduce them; Ben is a 10 year Doctor Who fan and aspiring writer and Aricia an eight-year old girl with a love of music, baking and kittens. Oh, and they're huge fans of Horrible Histories. Now on to the review...
The Oh Yea magazine - spoofing of course magazines like Hello and OK was a very fun way to kick off the show - offering tidbits about Shakespeare's early life (what little we know of it). The fact that his father made gloves and he had a loyal wife Anne do not make for fascinating insights into history and the spoof clearly makes fund of this; saucy secrets about Shakespeare's past these are not. This fun continues with a spoof E Entertainment style countdown of top three most amazing things ever in the period. Shakespeare's plays fill slots two and three but fail to take the top spot; Jackanapes - If you ever wanted to learn about a monkey on a horse being chased by a dog, then this is your chance.
But of course the highlight of the episode had the be the hilarious and disgusting 'Singing In The [Urine]' song and dance number which poked fun at the fact that people would dispose of their bodily excrement from chamber pots onto the street below. The sight of Francis dancing through the street while his poor love (and intended bride) Catherine looked on in horror was undeniably funny and certainly appealed to my kids love of toilet humour (pun intended)
Ben: My favourite bit was 'singing in Urine' because the guy gets covered in wee. It was very funny as it took the mickey out the song Singing In The Rain. Oh and the bridal shower at the end was hilarious!
Aricia: My favourite bit was also 'singing in Urine' for the same reasons as Ben. I wish it would happen to my parents too!
Yes, thanks for that Aricia. Throughout the episode Tom Stourton played William Shakespeare, trying to get the respect of his contemporaries (the drunken, rapping Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser), become a successful playwright, appeal to the demands of his fans (including King James I in a brilliant Skype sequence) and appease his wife Anne who certainly didn't buy into his dream of becoming a playwright.
In fact playwrights Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and actor Edmund Spenser provide a great comic support to Stourton's very serious Shakespeare and their songs were a highlight for my kids too - complete with a rapping cameo from Elizabeth I. Starting off strong, the episode did lose its pace a little somewhat but these musical numbers kept it going to end end, finishing off with a final quasi-rock number with Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
Aricia: The end song was fun and I heard all the plays written by William Shakespeare. I also liked the gardening bit because they threw toads everywhere and put dead horse heads down and even got slaves and cut their heads off. It was really funny but I mainly like it because I like gardening and it was interesting to see what they did in Tudor times.
It wasn't all about Shakespeare but the period in general. As Aricia noted we got a very fun sequence with an Alan Titchmarsh-style presenter taking the audience through the gardens of Elizabethan England and onto the Ottoman Empire. Throwing toads to stop toads and gardeners doubling as executioners showed the extremes of two different cultures in the thought-provoking, spoofing way that only Horrible Histories can do well.
Ben: I liked the none of the day scene because it taught people not to eat fruit and eat rotten meat instead! I also loved the bits with the actor who has to clean dog poo, didn't want to be a woman and was then chased by a bear.
As Ben noted, there was a great recurring gag where an aspiring actor trying to make it big on Shakespeare's stage was forced to clean up bear poo after the infamous fights that took place in theatres during that period, dress up as a woman, because of course women were not allowed to act on stage and then - in a wonderfully OTT moment, dress up as Antigonus to deliver the stage direction Exit, pursued by a bear from The Winter's Tale, complete with real bear and a real offstage death! It was a great moment for the kids and a great moment for Shakespeare fans as the episode addressed one of the most famous Shakespearean stage directions.
Horrible Histories: Sensational Shakespeare wasn't the strongest episode of Horrible Histories and a number of the show's original cast who brought us Bill were absent, much to my kid's disappointment. But as a way of teaching kids about Shakespeare, his life and career, it was absolutely a success. Plenty of music, comedy sketches and toilet humour, the magic of the show was undeniably there. But course, it's what my kids thought that really matters. Here are their reviews...
Ben: I think it was really good because they brought Horrible Histories back to TV, it was really funny and I learned about William Shakespeare. I don't get why the old actors weren't in it though. I would give the episode 8 out of 10 because it's not a bad episode but it's not the best one either.
Aricia: I really liked this episode of Horrible Histories because it was quite interesting and I loved the songs. I would give it 10 out of 10!