Continuing its reign after a decade-long broadcast on CBBC, the BBC’s flagship children’s channel, comes Horrible Histories: Rotten Romans, the movie.
In 2009, Producer Richard Bradley adapted the popular book series, written by Terry Dear and Peter Hepplewhite for television and became a landmark success in the history of children’s ‘edutainment’.
With its original and inimitable cast from Matthew Baynton and Simon Farnaby to Jim Howick and Martha-Howe Douglas, the series remains a mini institution in the hall of British television that welcomes all ages.
Although ‘Horrible Histories: Rotten Romans’ doesn’t see the original cast, it introduces fresh faces and invites an unlikely but worthy ensemble.
Set in 54AD, Sir Derek Jacobi reprises his role as Emperor Claudius, if only for a scintilla as he is about to be dethroned by Nero (Craig Roberts) to continue the Roman conquest. Unbeknownst to Emperor Nero, Boudica (Kate Nash) is to rally her tribes across Britain to start an uprising against Rome.
It’s rotten Romans vs. cutthroat Celts.
After an MGM logo inspired squeak from Rattus Rattus, which is all we see of our reliable rodent, the film introduces us to the palatial paradise of Claudius’ family, including wife Aggripina played by Kim Cattrall. After Claudius’ assassination, Nero opposes his mother’s wisdom to manage the conquest himself, with zero tact.
In the town, Romans are roaming and a mother admonishes his son for reading too much into headlines and threatens to limit his ‘scroll time’, smooth. The townspeople are shopping for the latest cosmetics and Atti, a lovable teen, played by Sebastian Croft, who tries to earn a couple of denarius, gets embroiled in a plot that sends him on a soldier’s march to battle it out with Britain as punishment.
Ever the evolved, the refined Romans traverse the terrains until they arrive at the ‘the stain’ that is Britain, to teach them some civility. While Arghus, played by Nick Frost, seems indifferent, the only one in their tribe eager to join Boudicca in the revolt is his swashbuckling daughter, Orla, played by Emilia Jones.
With their thatched roofs and manure-made huts, the tribe, fatefully ‘twinned with Rome’ try to navigate their new life threatening routine but Arghus wants nothing more than his daughter to withdraw. After all, Orla is all he’s got. And when his mum coughs to interject, Arghus turns around irked to say ‘stop coughing’. Typical Brit wit.
Boudica promulgates her revolt like a pop-star politician, from one town to the next and it isn’t until she arrives in Colchester (then Camulodunum), her ‘follower count’ pops up in the corner of the screen, whether the numbers are accurate or not, she’s gaining popularity across the country and she’s gaining it fast. When Nero learns Boudica has burned down the Roman Britain Capital, he literally shoots the messenger with his own arrow.
True to the TV series, it’s studded with educational and earworm songs sang by key members of the cast and sets in motion a series of verbal and non-verbal sparring between the Boudica’s British barbarians and some really rotten Romans.
Though Rattus Rattus doesn’t pop up to ratify the facts, the film makes way for a cheesy but cute teen relationship drama between Atti and Orla, as the pair establishes an unlikely connection through a string of events. From being held hostage to saving each other’s lives to imparting knowledge, for instance, how to tell the time through a sandy sundial demonstration, these moments are made for the kids, so at times, a little excessive.
What isn’t excessive, however, is the military captain’s melancholic monologue, played by Lee Mack, who indiscreetly begrudges his duties as he yearns for the ‘Mediterranean climate’ of Rome, among many other tourism particulars, but soldiers on in the cold and rainy Britain, to proudly serve his Emperor, obviously.
If you didn’t pay attention at school during history lessons, then let director Dominic Brigstocke, teach you about the Boudican revolt as he rehashes the moments at the Battle of Watling Street, led by and vaguely wrapped up Roman missionary, Paulinus, in order that his Emperor Nero may revel in victory and augment his hand in the arts.
The film is rife with ridicule; it would go down in history as horrible, if it were not. From Nero bemoaning his attention hoarding mum’s showcase of travel memories on a tablet: “Nobody cares about your holiday carvings, mother”, to a messenger failing to deliver a missive to Nero at his abode, depositing instead a ‘sorry we missed you’ note, the comedy remains as wry as ever.
While the original cast are a force not to be reckoned with, the screenplay still packs a punch with its clever quips and never falls short of its delicately derisive dialogue, solid sets and captivating costumes that transports you to a rather rotten time in history.