Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans, review: Children’s series makes a charming transition to the big screen

Dir: Dominic Brigstocke. Starring: Emilia Jones, Sebastian Croft, Nick Frost, Kim Cattrall, Derek Jacobi, and Craig Roberts. PG cert, 92 mins

From humble beginnings, the Horrible Histories series has grown into something of a minor British institution. The books, created by Terry Deary, have sold over 25 million copies, while also inspiring numerous toys, magazines, and video games. They offered some small escape for those children stifled by the UK’s stale history curriculum; it could sell itself on rude jokes and gory, bloody facts, but it also walked children through all the major periods, from the Smashing Saxons to the Vile Victorians, and refused to whitewash its darker moments – the crimes of the British Empire, for example. In 2009, CBBC debuted a sketch show based on the franchise, which was later revived in 2015 and continues to this day.

The franchise now reaches its natural culmination: the motion picture. Thankfully, it’s lost little of its puerile charm and historical insight along the way and, as revoltingly corporate as the word “edutainment” may be, it hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing how Horrible Histories offers hard facts with a spoonful of fart-joke sugar. The film focuses on Boudicca (Kate Nash)’s uprising in Britain during the reign of Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts), as seen through the eyes of two plucky teens on either side of the fray: Atti (Sebastian Croft), a Roman banished to Britain after displeasing Nero, since its a “punishment worse than death”, and Orla (Emilia Jones), who’s desperate to join Boudicca and defend the Celtic tribes.

Many of the creative team from the TV series have returned here (director Dominic Brigstocke, for example, alongside writers Giles Pilbrow and Caroline Norris), while the cast is made up of a host of familiar faces, including Nick Frost, Kim Cattrall, Lee Mack, Rupert Graves, Warwick Davis, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Derek Jacobi. Yet, most importantly, Horribles Histories hasn’t tried to rid itself of the scrappy, underdog humour that made the TV series so instantly loveable, in a way that’s just enough of a nod to the legacies of Monty Python and Blackadder. Puns and visual jokes run rampant here. Take, for example, the plays on Roman numerals: a high five is actually “a high V”, while an elite unit of men are named the “(I)X-men”. There are also a few jokes about modern technology – Atti is told by his parents that he needs to limit his “scroll time” – and some good old-fashioned self-deprecation, as Nero realises Britain’s a real place and not just a random stain on his map of the empire.

Horrible Histories has zero interest in trying to be bigger or flashier than the TV series, just longer. Its biggest struggle, in fact, is the need to translate what was largely a sketch-based format into a sustained narrative – it tends to jump around in a way that suggests the filmmakers would have been far more comfortable if they didn’t have to connect the dots between scenes. Much like the show, there are frequent musical numbers. They’re fun, if not particularly memorable. Nash revels in the opportunity to play Boudicca like she’s a touring pop star, burning down Roman settlements as much as she’s belting out crowd-pleasers, while Roberts’s petulant Nero is one of the film’s highlights, thanks partially to a rock anthem in which he details his plans to murder his own mother, Agrippina.

As the historical accounts tell us, she survived multiple attempts on her life, as orchestrated by Nero, after the two became engaged in an intense power struggle. In this film, as played by Cattrall, she’s delightfully smug about her own son’s ineptitude and always seems to have the upper hand, as she shows up to the palace, very much not dead, and with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. It’s a perfect piece of casting. Elsewhere, the film’s not short on gross-out moments, since Roman history was rich with them. Dinner parties feature both vomiting and urinating at the table, while a trip to the latrine introduces us to the infamous sponge-on-a-stick.

The show’s mascot, Rattus Rattus (a British equivalent to The Muppets’s Rizzo the Rat), helpfully crops up over the film’s credits to point out what parts of the film are based on real facts. But, most crucially, Horrible Histories stays true to the franchise’s tradition of finding greater themes in its historical narratives. Boudicca’s uprising, after all, was an early lesson on colonisation as a destructive force, where oppressors come under the guise of “civilising” indigenous populations, only to rob them of their basic rights. The film even ends on a more celebratory note, with a musical number about the joys of multiculturalism, as Celts and Romans put aside their differences – even the kids watching are unlikely to miss the parallels to Brexit here. Because, as light and silly as Horrible Histories can be, there’s a subversive quality to it, too. It’s a reminder to audiences of all ages that, when it comes to shaping our present, it’s essential that we understand our past.

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans is released in UK cinemas on 26 July