Written by: Larry Rickard & Ben Willbond
In which the adventure begins…
Written by: Larry Rickard & Ben Willbond
In which the adventure begins…
When you review it nonstop for five series, one thing becomes very, very obvious: Besides all the professional accolades, the adoration from children and adults alike, the chances to not only meet but share a stage with comedy legends and the occasional prancing around the Royal Albert Hall dressed in Viking armour… being the starring cast behind Horrible Histories was above all just a whole lot of fun.
…well, barring the possibility of accidentally stumbling on certain fanfics. OK, also the filming in scanty costumes in the late English autumn, that seems to come up a lot in interviews. (Mostly from B. Willbond, in whose memoirs the chapter dealing with this show–hopefully titled Pushing Benjamin’s Buttons–is clearly going to be a corker.)
Still it was all mitigated by the fact that “Mat, Simon, Martha, Jim, Larry and Ben” had in the process rather miraculously become, not only as tight and balanced a bonafide comedy troupe as one could hope from people routinely playing cavemen, but the best of friends behind the scenes–or the playground, as they put it. Real, non-scripted friends, the kind who work on each other’s random vanity projects and chatter together on Twitter and then happily go out and get drunk together despite the heightened potential for career-destroying Twitter pics.
Granted, a certain amount of mutual goodwill might’ve been expected to emanate from people guileless and generous-hearted enough to devote five prime years of their lives to making intelligent children’s comedy. On the other hand, the bit where, when their playground was pulled out from under, their first concern was not to desert the ship but to find another one they could all steer together… not quite so common, that. Especially not in comedy, wherein success is predicated on who can garner the most attention to themselves. Founding uber-inspirations Monty Python barely made it through three initial series intact, if Michael Palin’s diaries are to be believed. How much more so the stars of a kiddy series, who might safely be assumed to be chomping at the bit to resume their ‘real’ grownup careers?
Which, in fact, they hadn’t been neglecting in the interim. Simon ended up in both the Boosh movie and as a pet-turtle-owning neighbor in the sitcom version of The Midnight Beast, whilst somehow simoultaneously developing into a plausible documentary presenter. Ben maintained a less eccentric albeit equally full guest-starring schedule, including a recurring role on The Thick of It, while nurturing his short film Tooty’s Wedding around the festival circuit. Jim supplemented his quasi-regular status on Peep Show with a kind-to-his-pocket(-if-not-his-dignity…) stint as an O2-shilling faun. Larry kept up his freelance writing with partner George Sawyer. Martha joined friends for various Edinburgh Festival shows. And Mat, alongside the co-starring role in Darren Boyd’s Spy, had juggled being James Corden’s personal friend during the latter’s public nadir deftly enough to become the co-creator and -star of Corden’s wildly successful 2013 TV comeback, sitcom/action-film spoof The Wrong Mans.
…Thing is, somewhere in there, they’d all also really gotten into using the restrictions of tots’ TV as a spur to pure creativity. In particular, Mat and Ben had been kicking around a film idea based on their mutual love for, of all things, ’80s fantasy movies. Yes, that unique period in children’s cinema history during which Hollywood’s conviction that ‘fuzzy puppet’ must automatically = ‘family-friendly’ reached its most memorably mistaken zenith. This, CGI-jaded readers, would be why your parents still will not shut up about The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth, Return to Oz and all the other “lo-fi” variants on the tale of an ordinary kid forced into a quest through some bizarre magical otherworld, during which s/he learns Valuable Life Lessons up to and including avoidance of David Bowie’s crotch at all costs. (Hey, I said the characters learned lessons, not the audiences.)
Leaving the crotch thing out of it for now–although [spoiler alert] trust me, we’ll be getting back to it soon–those so impressed clearly included our newly formed troupe, who pounced on the idea of a Hensonian odyssey as on manna to their purpose-starved souls. You can practically hear the pieces clicking into place, like creative dominoes: The fantasy setting meant they could maintain the familiar, child-friendly costume-and-character-driven comedy style (or as Willbond put it, “continue to raid the dress-up box and speak in silly voices”) and the cross-demographic nostalgia for same meant they could still mess about with adult parody in the process. The newcomer-on-a-quest format naturally lent itself to self-contained vignettes within a larger plot. Said lone newcomer would of course be played by the lone female of the troupe, while the five very different males could equally obviously tackle the many different–and decidedly loopy–characters she would be expected to meet along the way.
It would be called Yonderland, and it would be all theirs, unfettered by anyone else’s thematic or stylistic quirks. They would create the world, write the stories, and–most importantly, it must be assumed, after a half-decade of never knowing when you’d be playing the guy covered in poop–design the characters. They could play anybody. Almost. Anybody they couldn’t play, but could still imagine, could be those (quite possibly literally) damned puppets. Because Henson’s associates Baker Coogan were still out there, and still dedicated to embodying the daffily weird in felt. The only thing truly missing was Bowie’s magnificent package… then again, they were British, there were workarounds for that.
It was, in sum, the single most elaborate plan to avoid breaking up The Group ever envisioned. Now, all they had to do was get somebody to pay for it.
Which is where fantasy series make a hard right at reality: they are, especially ones predicated on the extensive use of lovingly-crafted, man-hour-intensive niche artistry, about the furthest thing TV knows from cheap. This is presumably why seemingly natural allies the BBC weren’t even mentioned as potential sponsors for this one. Nor were any of the other mainstream UK channels (all, like, four of them). Clearly, this was a job for cable… yes, ‘cable’ means something slightly different in the UK than the US. Slightly. Keep those workarounds in mind, is all I’m saying.
Enter SkyOne, an offshoot of the Murdoch empire best-known for endlessly running American imports and (understandably, esp. if you’ve seen the last couple Simpsons seasons) lately very eager to get on with making their original mark. So eager, in fact, that for the first last and I’m guessing only time in TV history, when six Twitter buddies showed up in a boardroom and pitched the perfect Sunday evening family viewing as “The new 80’s-influenced comedy project from the adult cast of an historical kiddie edutainment, except totally not historical, unless maybe you count the puppets”, many perfectly sober executives immediately began laying plans for the moss-and-Mojo-themed premiere venue.
And–as you may be suspecting by now–they weren’t disappointed. As it turned out, this crew still had a lot of joyously guileless lunacy to give. Which they did, eight nonstop episodes’ woth, with all the verve required of a troupe that an adoring cadre of TV critics (who clearly also weren’t disappointed) had already dubbed a latter-day Python for the pint-sized set… even as the same troupe continued to insist that they saw no particular distinction between adult and children’s programming. As ever, they were making Yonderland for no particular demographic but themselves.
And it was… well, it was at least worth individual episode recaps. So I’ve done some, beginning in the new year. More standard formatting this time, as more standard episode structure involved, but pretty much the same… um, whatever it is I’ve applied to the HH episodes. Sort of funny, sort of serious, and always in search of fresh synonyms for ‘sophisticated’.*
*No, really, I’m getting a bit desperate over here. Please send thesaurus.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a popular and beloved children’s TV series is, at some point, going to spawn offshoots. Since the universe inexplicably continues to fail at taking up my idea of a DI Bones spinoff–just like Elmo’s World, except with Larry in place of that stupid bowtie dude!–for Horrible Histories this largely took the form of holiday/event specials.
The catch was that these were full-length episodes that had to somehow be squeezed into a production schedule already padded out to the edge of impossible. Thus the reasons why I’m not treating them as individual episode reviews: a) they’re largely composed of recycled material and b) most bear unmistakeable hallmarks of having been shoved out the door on a shoestring.
(If you do have a need for the sketch-by-sketch rundown, no worries; the List of HH Episodes Wikipage has your oddly specific-yet-adorable OCD covered.)
All of which does not, however, mean that they’re not decent value, and in a few cases much more…
2010: Horrible Christmas
The ‘Christmas special’ is a bit more elaborate a concept in the UK than in countries whose TV seasons consist of more than six-eight episodes per. Under those circs, being handed an entire bonus full-length episode is considered both an honour for the creators and a real treat for their audience. Thus, HH’s only holiday special to consist near-entirely of new and elaborately produced material.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that, as Britons, they had access to several centuries’ worth of snarkily hilarious dichotomy between the spiritual nature of this particular holiday and the earthy traditions arising therefrom. Nor that this exploration happened right around S2, the point at which creative confidence had hit its first and arguably most audacious peak.
The resulting hilights include several traditional carols rewritten from a more, ah, realistic POV (the truth behind not-so-Good ‘King’ Wenceslas is not to be missed) and a recreation of the last moments of the famous WWI Christmas Truce football match; powerfully moving if only because this silly children’s comedy series is trying so hard to do it justice. There is also a much more typical interlude featuring a jester named Roland the Farter, a fun riff on weird holiday cards, that one regular-series bit where Oliver Cromwell has his relatives arrested for daring to wish him the compliments of the season, and–a personal favourite–a proto-HMasterchef segment in which Our Bemused Hosts learn that Tudor palace cooks routinely worked in the nude (to cope with the heat of huge open fires)…
…Oh, and a Victorian prison celebration that includes the jailer telling Mat, “I think I can speak for all the lads when I say that you’re our favourite prisoner!” Because yes, they totally saved the blatant nudity and sodomy jokes for the Christmas special. Happy Holidays, kiddies! Be sure to revive your parents in time for turkey!
2011: Horrible Histories’ Big Prom Party
The next creative peak: “Music from Horrible Histories” being chosen as the theme for the summer 2011 children’s ‘Prom’ concert at the world-renowned Royal Albert Hall. (Non-UK types: you can tell this was a big honking honour, because it more usually goes to Doctor Who.)
Now, first things first, non-attendees–there are recordings of the original BBC Radio Three broadcast out there, which you need to hear at some point, and preferably before you see this special. If you can’t find the audio download, I’ll happily Dropbox you a copy. Those wondering what I’m on about: this unedited version includes among many other things a rendition of the Plague Song led by Larry and Martha. Yes. Also, bonus Mat as George II.
…Right, that’s all set? Good. So eventually the BBC got round to repurposing that ninety-ish-minute concert as an hourlong special, largely by cutting out all the classical interludes (along with most of the in-character badinage surrounding them) and substituting specially-shot inset sketches in their place. Because this was immediately post-S3 and everything was running just that smoothly, all of these sketches are authentically clever and funny, especially Mike Peabody’s excruciatingly typical efforts to turn this into a News Event and Shouty Man hawking the RAH for your all-purpose concert needs. Even a slight surfeit of Georges III and IV is mitigated by the sheer joy of having Simon back where he belongs.
Still… the downside of hearing the audio first is how very annoyed you’re going to be at the video editors, upon realising just how much they left out. But it will not matter in the end, because it is all equally brilliant. All the musical favourites through S3 are here, save Dick Turpin–given the extended yelp that accompanies Mat’s signature wink in “Born 2 Rule”, this is perhaps not surprising–and all are done full justice…
…Almost. Clearly the the (otherwise splendid) Aurora Orchestra never quite figured out how to transpose “King of Bling” and compensate by speeding it up slightly, leaving poor Mat audibly losing the race in bizarrely insult-to-injury-adding company with generic Solid Gold-esque dancers. Thus handily demonstrating just how far you can climb up the cultural ladder in the UK before nobody’s heard of Eminem.
July 2012: Sport Special
Return with me now to those halcyon days of Summer 2012, when London hosted the Olympìcs, magenta was suddenly the colour of the moment and the world was equally delighted by awesome sporting feats and the sight of the British–owners of a dazzlingly implausible number of those feats–for once in their collective lives unabashedly, unashamedly, almost deliriously happy and proud. While surrounded by magenta, did I mention that?
Something of that sweet giddiness is captured in the HH Sport Special, aired as part of the runup to the Big Event. It’s a kaleidoscopic mix of old and new, demonstrating clearly that creative coherence had become a luxury the specials couldn’t afford. Still, the old sketches are cleverly chosen–the Cow’s Hindquarter Twist from the medieval Highland Games and the Roman funeral fight sketch, in particular–and the new are, if not quite as thoughtful as of old, still very engaging. (Also interestingly, because so flamboyantly, willing to ignore timelines; there is a casual reference to a marathon cheating scandal from 1999.) The special Olympic edition of the Movie Pitch featuring the Baron de Coubertin, ie. Ben in Poirot moustaches with appropriate accent, is worth the watch all by itself. Almost unbearably precious.
Besides which there is the really delirious new music video, “Flame (It’s Gonna Burn Forever)”–ie. the reason why I’m so cranky, in later episode reviews, that they stuck Giles “Jesse Owens” Terera back behind that stupid bare HHTV Sport desk afterwards. (Although it should be noted that he does a fine job in the anchorman role here, hosting the programme alongside Rattus.) The song itself is not an overt masterpiece but the video is just relentlessly freaking hilarious, showcasing everything they’d learned about non-sequitur silliness to that point… which turns out to be more than even diehard fans would’ve suspected.
October 2012: Scary [Halloween] Special
Right, so they were actually two full-length specials produced alongside S4, and… erm… well, let us just say that it is deeply ironic that of the two—or of any, come to that — this is the only one currently available on DVD.
Of course it stars Simon’s Grim Reaper, and yes, he pulls out all the preternaturally charming stops for a countdown of his top twelve(?) all-time scariest things. That’s where the problems start, because the list has so clearly just been hastily Frankensteined together out of whatever came to hand. There are only two new pieces included, and one of those is a Scary Story. The few genuinely intense prose moments in show history (Nero and his Christian ‘candles’, for instance) are entirely, and revealingly, missing.
Oh, and there’s a new song, “Death’s Favourite Things”, which is marginally watchable thanks to a Thriller-esque zombie chorus… also the revelation that Sound of Music parodies aren’t yet self-recursive in the UK. In-between times—as evidently inspired by the random bourgeois vibe that ran through S4’s Stupid Deaths–we get a look at the Reaper’s home life; turns out he really is just a suburban slacker, still living with his mom and taking scythe deliveries from the British equivalent of FedEx! Har har!
Yeah… so at least the kiddies will get a comprehensive lesson in how much better it can be to leave things to the imagination. The patented HH wit does shines through on occasion—as per the inclusion of the Disco Aztecs, and Ma Death as a chintz-intensive riff on Mrs. Bates—but by and large it’s a half-hour’s struggle to recapture what any SD segment pulls off effortlessly in three minutes. And those are available on YouTube for free.
February 2014: Valentine’s Day Special: Rotten Romance
There were also two specials commissioned alongside S5, and this is also pretty clearly not the one anybody considered top priority. On the plus side, though, lessons have been learned; the laboured framing devices have been replaced by simple-but-surefire interludes with Rattus, a la the Savage Songs episodes. Here he’s preparing for a romantic dinner with his new girlfriend Ratalie (which name amuses me far more than it deserves, esp. considering she’s the exact same rat puppet in earrings).
Also, there’s obviously a bit more care been put into the sketch selection; in particular, any excuse to revisit the Countess Nithsdale’s Great Escape plot is welcome, also both Victorian bits from S03E01. On the other hand, I really could’ve done without the arch hint that Elizabeth I’s temper was the reason why she never married. The couple of new segments are likewise higher quality, starting with an *ahem* reframing of the Anne of Cleves/Henry VIII debacle as a dating-themed game show. Henry’s still deep in generic-doofus mode, but at least, y’know, Anne of Cleves! I’d been hoping to see her on the show for ages.
The only letdown—for me anyway–is the new song: the Cure’s Love Cats reimagined as “Love Rats”, featuring a handful of the usual suspects recounting their notably rocky love lives, plus Mat as equally rock-headed romantic Edward VIII. It’s a cute parody idea, and well-executed–save of course the parts that are Ben attempting smooth jazz. It’s just that it’s largely the same old characters recounting the same old information we literally just saw in the same old sketches. At this point, it all can’t help but be something of a buzzkill. Ah well; at least we’ll always have Rattus. “You’re never alone with a thousand lice”, indeed.
August 2014: Frightful First World War Anniversary Special
…So that’s where it all went.
Longer version: It’s not actually required that you be deep into review-blogging Series 5 to fully appreciate this special 45-minute commemoration of the anniversary of WWI’s kickoff… but as it turns out, it sure doesn’t hurt. Specifically, it definitively explains where all the really elegant, subtle, generally adult-level sophisticated comedy vibes went after S4–both in terms of choosing and executing the material–and thus also why so much of mainstream S5 feels so offhand. For once, obviously, everyone’s attention was focussed on the special instead.
This is not actually surprising. For starters, it had been given a slot on the BBC’s daylong WWI retrospective schedule, and as you can imagine, this was not an atmosphere in which the audience would be in the mood to forgive ill-timed fart jokes. Especially not after the Diamond Jubilee debacle, as part of which BBC coverage the troupe was pegged to perform a few sketches on Tower Bridge. Due officially to time constraints, the only one actually to air, stripped of any context, was Bob Hale’s Thames Report… yeah. Cue quite a lot of post-event crankiness to the editors about the random babbling idiot in inexplicable old-age makeup.
There were no such complaints after this tribute to the Great War aired, even though the framing device consists almost entirely–and inspired-ly–of an extended Bob Report, as he gives a year-by-year overview of the war’s progress with Rattus chiming in on specifics. Nobody objected to any of the considerable amount of new material, nor of the choice of the old (in very likely related news, none of the latter involved plastic nose icicles). There was more than one comment from reviewers that the entire thing conveyed the Great War’s mix of black comedy and bleaker tragedy better than any adult program of the day.
All of which a roundabout way of saying, folks, this thing is brilliant. In many ways it’s more of an appropriate finale than the actual final episode, the absolutely triumphant culmination of everything anyone ever loved about this version of Horrible Histories, and you should go and watch it RIGHT NOW. Whether you’ve already seen it or not. It opens with the sublimely silly ‘Causes of WWI’ sketch, ends by shamelessly ripping the viewer’s heart out (yes, that involves Mat too, like I always knew it would), and in-between treads that razor-fine line with all the practiced grace of a ballet dancer… or of a children’s comedy show that’s been practicing ever since they featured Adolf Hitler in S1.
Seriously, this is pretty much HH’s Carnegie Hall. You can tell, because Bob and Shouty Man and HMasterchef and Girl Guide spies and Charleston-happy Tsars manage to co-exist right alongside the Christmas Truce sketch, the desperation behind letting children and women into the ranks and a blunt summary of the Somme disaster (Bobsy: “The funny thing about that is… nope, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”) Somewhere in the middle there is Simon as a note-perfect Red Baron and plucky Private Larry trapped in a wardrobe with Germans outside. There is also the Suffragettes’ Song, but even that benefits from the extra context, and is anyway basically just tacked on at the end, probably to pad out the timing, so is very easily ignored.
In an attempt to write a heartfelt finale song of his own, Rattus seeks inspiration from one last selection of sublime (and, as always, chronologically sorted) videos from the previous series. Which lead him merely–and inevitably–to the conclusion that there’s nothing he can sing that the HH crew hasn’t pulled heartstrings with already…
In this episode:
Alexander the Great (from S05E06)
“Alexander is my name, Macedonia’s most famous
Commander, history calls The Great but I prefer The Greatest
A king aged only twenty when my dad assassinated
Advisers called for calm but frankly peace is over-rated…”
Where I’d rank it: 6th
One of the nicer little subplots of the HHTV Experience is the fact that fully half of the core sextet have small offsprings of their own, thus the upcoming chance to introduce their works to same. While Simon and Mat will likely have some serious ‘splainin to do in order to achieve unbridled inter-generational admiration (especially given that, if Family Ties has taught us anything, it’s that Bo Baynton is inevitably due to grow up into the next Alex P. Keaton) all Ben has to do is cue up the ol’.vob file of this song and turn to his son with an air of quiet triumph…
…at which point, yes, Willbond Jr will most likely barely lift his eyes from the latest CGI-intensive blockbuster and snort “Geez, Dad, you guys used to, like, use actual makeup to look younger?” But once he ‘accidentally’ destroys the kid’s Xbox, Ben will have a clear shot at Coolest Parent Ever, is the important point here.
It’s important because, alas, I don’t see this becoming one of the all-time HH music video classics otherwise, clever arena-rock satire or no. One has to be intimately familiar with Willbond’s usual HH personae to appreciate what an amazing piece of work it really is. And it doesn’t help that instead of swirly-cape-intensive romanticks, Benjamin’s big Highwayman Moment, so to speak, is all-too-thoroughly muffled under relentlessly dry exposition and those dubious blond curls. Also, there’s the bit where his best friend is now Jim in that beard. Still, though, definitely worth as many viewings as it takes to get past it all…
Crassus: Minted (from S05E04)
“Smashed the slaves, it got real gory
But then Pompey stole my glory
To show it was me that crushed the horde
Nailed up the slaves like on a billboard!”
Where I’d rank it: 5th
Someone on YouTube pointed out that this is easily the most expensive-looking music video HH ever produced. While I remain sceptical re: actual $$ involved–to me, those effects look very much like the ones Sesame Street used to seem hip’n’happening on a public broadcasting budget back in the mid-Seventies–I will concede that they were put to excellent use boosting Farnaby’s shot at musical-comedy immortality. Like Ben… except, y’know, sort of crossed with Larry the lead Aztec priest… anyway, in full keeping with the what-the-hell spirit of S5–Simon gets handed a non-sequitur showcase and told to go nuts.
Whereupon, being Farnaby, he quite literally does. And it’s a magnificent thing. Never mind if you love or loathe hip-hop; so generously, hilariously authentic is Farnaby’s unexpected emergence as Grime God that–in a manner interestingly reminiscent of Charles II–you’re swept along regardless on a wave of purely joyful noise. It doesn’t hurt that the producers had the wit to schedule same immediately after the delicately erudite masterpiece that is Dickens/Morrissey, thus achieving a sort of afterparty-at-the-Animal House effect for the under-twelve set. Not the kind of treat your average SS episode can provide.
Vikings and Garfunkel (from S05E02)
“Think we’re scary? No, don’t flee
Conquered Saxons would find we
Settled and lived in harmony…”
Where I’d rank it: 4th
Apparently this particular bit of sublime musical silliness was the net result of Jim and Mat, the show’s self-proclaimed enfants terrible, relentlessly begging for a Simon & Garfunkel-themed spoof (because when you’re trying to terrorise the producers of a children’s show who hand you the Sex Pistols parodies as a matter of course, you have to get creative). Y’know, in case you were wondering where to send the therapy bills for those wigs–or, for that matter, the petal-strewing Rickards.
It’s this emphasis on frolicsomeness–both follicular and literal–that got it bumped down a notch in these rankings. (Well, that and the possibly-not-unrelated fact that up closer it’s lyrically one of the weaker songs of the series.) I have no brief against unbridled joy, but I do also adore S&G past all reason, and thus every time I hear those uncannily faithful harmonies start up I cannot quite get past the realisation that conditions were perfect for a much more sharply-focussed satire.
Instead, we got the HH crew merely out lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy, and just to repeat, I am not at all complaining about it. I’m not even sure how one would go about complaining, because every time I try to figure it out a petal-strewing Rickard dances in from stage left. I am merely saying, I had one chance in my whole entire lifetime of ever hearing anyone redo The Sounds of Silence with Valhalla references, and it’s gone.*tiny, wistful sigh*
Joan of Arc (from S05E05)
“So I did it like a dude, cut my hair
Gave up wearing dresses, bought a pair
Said I wanna fight Angleterre!”
Where I’d rank it: 8th
Yeah, so in the original review I said I was willing to forgive the fluffy affectations as a means to get Saint Joan across effectively to a younger audience, and I stand by that here… but man, the subsequent listens are making it harder. Not so much Martha’s performance, that holds up unsurprisingly well; albeit so does my reservations re: costuming. Accurate or no, damn it’s hard to keep up with the fine details of Joan’s military prowess when you’re baffled by fleur-de-lys-covered pantaloons. That Ms. Howe-Douglas even makes it possible easily keeps this video out of last place.
What lands it in next-to-last place is–well, look, I can appreciate a song that’s solely about the catchy hook as well as the next Eighties kid. But ye gods, kiddies, in my day the hook at least involved Ghostbusters. The only creative upside to the current vapid frothiness, or frothy vapidness, or whatever, is that it fully manages to give the trial sequence the weight it deserves by comparison. For a lovely moment, it all springs to real, appealing life… and then Bishop Mat starts dancing along, and I conclude once again that I would be the single worst person to watch Eurovision with, like, ever.
Henry VII: The Original Tu-Tu-Tudor (from S05E09)
“I didn’t agree with King Richard III
So I fought him at Bosworth Field and won
How cool does it sound, that I’m the king who found
Richard’s crown in a hedge on the winning battleground?”
Where I’d rank it: 7th
What strikes me most on rewatching this one is how much sheer fun everyone’s clearly having filming it–no, more than usual. A lot more, actually. More as in they appear to be still playing the half-schnockered party animals from the Crassus video, except I think here they may actually be half-schnockered. As Exhibit A I present the huge beaming isn’t-this-just-the-best-thing-EVER grin on Jim. Apparently even playing Richard III pales in comparison with the chance to back Henry VII, to the point where it starts seeming vaguely treasonous.
The good news is, every bit of all this unbridled joy is justified… save perhaps the far end of Larry’s, but we should all be used to that by now. This is altogether the most charming of S5’s second-tier musical experiments, coming in below Alexander’s here only because Willbond is playing so much more against type than Mat.
But in all other ways, the comedic logic that starts with giving dour Henry VII a glam-rock makeover and ends up with Baynton kicking ass and taking names on both counts–in falsetto!–is seamlessly and unassailably smile-worthy, in an un-self-conscious manner that recalls the very best of S2. Come to think of it, everybody looked idiotically happy to be celebrating Pachacuti, too…
Transportation (from S05E08)
“We were creative, inventive
Progress our incentive
Always searching for a solution
We took some steel and a wheel
Made a plane, car and train and created a revolution!”
Where I’d rank it: 9th
OK, two things: a) Yes, of course this should be the Owain Glyndwr song. I have no idea why it isn’t, save perhaps the desire to avoid further irritating the Welsh grammar police. On the other hand, in this song there is b) Benjamin T. Willbond, attempting to sing, keep up with doo-wop choreography, maintain an American accent and wear a nineteenth-century suit, all at the same time. Given the gushing I’m about to do in the next couple entries, I feel I should note here that comedic achievement comes in many and diverse forms.
Really, as noted in the original review this is no more than the boys’ charisma having a grand day out, and as such would be impossible to dislike even if it didn’t give me the odd feeling–also noted in the original, and reiterated here to indicate that I am totally not kidding–that I’ve suddenly just got home from grade school and turned on American PBS. There’s something about the the combination of a guileless salute to the iconic transportation pioneers and a Greased Lightnin’ parody that once again just screams Sesame Workshop… And no, I still haven’t worked out if that’s a compliment or not.
Charles Dickens (from S04E03)
“In my life, felt shamed by poverty in childhood.
Wrote about sadness, suffering and fears
Also wrote about people with funny names
Bumble, Smallweed, Scrooge, Uriah Heep
And Wackford Squeers…”
Where I’d rank it: 2nd
Because duh. Sorry once again, poor dear Richard III, but the title of ‘most perfect piece of musical comedy HH has ever produced’, bestowed on your showcase video in the S3 edition of this article, must formally be slipped to a new and more virally successful candidate. You’ll always have the children’s drawings, but Dickens-via-Morrissey here has the swinging gladioli. Q.E.D.
Honestly, the subject/parody fusion this time is so ridiculously, brilliantly perfect down to the smallest sparkling facet–not forgetting the wonderful backup shrewdness from Jim, Larry and even Al “Mutton-Chops” Murray–there’s literally nothing left to say. So you’ll excuse me if I take the opportunity instead to do something I generally try to avoid, on account of not trusting my own objectivity.
But here we are at the very last, I’ve got Slate magazine on my side, and so for once I’m going to flat-out fawn over Mathew Baynton’s onscreen charisma when filtered through his obviously heartfelt ease within music. If not actually genius, the boy’s gift for genre mimicry does a damn good impression of it; at their best, his HH musical turns are delicately, authentically sophisticated in a way that provokes unusually sharp disbelief that they’re part of a children’s show. Thus, Robert Knox, the King of Bling, Dick Turpin, Charles Darwin, Henry VII, and now Dickens, among many others: Take a bow, indeed.
Rosa Parks: I Sat on a Bus (from S05E01)
“What act of mine caused havoc to ensue
How come I caused such fuss?
What shocking behaviour did I do?
I sat on a bus.”
Where I’d rank it: 3rd
And then there is Dominique… well, I’ve already gushed about that, and indeed this song, at full length in the relevant episode review, and can only add here that both become more so with each repeat viewing. Short version: the decision to lead off the last-ever series premiere with this video, regardless of Dickens and the Hippie Vikings also on tap, is entirely understandable.
…Also, I have the nagging feeling I should be saying something profound about diversity and the show finally breaking out of the Dominant White Male ideology with a vengeance and all that. I dunno. What I feel needs to be celebrated above all, on that score, is how effectively the HH format breaks down any ideology to its component humanity–exposing same as flawed and foible-ridden, yes, sometimes disturbingly so, but as a corollary making the moments when it rises above stand out as that much more precious.
Thus no-one has ever been placed on a pedestal while the show demanded they be admired solely because they happen to fit the latest politically correct fashion in whatever form; they’ve simply presented human beings worthy of real, relateable consideration, whether that leads to contempt or admiration. Trust me, folks, this is something to be cherished. Don’t ever, ever discount it.
We’re History (Finale) (from S05E12)
“Together, we made the world
A little bit grim
Could be fairly… dim.'”
Where I’d rank it: 1st
Yeah… so… yeah… this… um…
…Y’know what, I think I’m just gonna let the tears raised in my eyes at the sheer sweet rightness of it all–even after two years and approx. thirty-seven thousand viewings later–stand as my last tribute to this video, and to all of Horrible Histories. Thank you once again, all of you. It’s been one hell of a ride.
P.S. — To the ‘new team’ behind what now appears certain to be a sixth series–which, from patching together hints on social media, does not involve Caroline Norris, Greg Jenner or any of the core cast, but does for some reason involve Lawry (there’s an AfterM*A*S*H joke in there somewhere, if I could only figure out how to make it)–anyway, I wish you nothing but free and open goodwill.
P.P.S.– But if you screw with this finale song in any way, shape or form, I will [insert Liam Neeson’s Taken speech here]. Yes, I know I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. Trust me, I’ll figure it out.
In fact, only twelve people have set foot on the moon, and no-one has been there at all since 1972; a tragic oversight that I’m going to rectify right now. Yes, it’s time to take one small step for Bob Hale, one giant leap for the good people at Bob Hale Space Rocket Industries. Good-bye Sam, I’ve always loved you… will you wait for me?
Well, I’m not going then! Fine! *storms off*
So yeah, we’ve finally reached the very last regular-issue Horrible Histories episode ever, and and a bunch more iconic recurring characters and/or sketches say farewell, and there’s a Big Damn Finale Song, and … erm… ah… *snif*…
…Right, this isn’t going to go very well at all, is it?
In this episode:
Song: We’re History (Finale) — In which the entire troupe plus most of the supporting add-ons revisit every major era the show ever featured, via stock footage from across all five series… featuring cameos from pretty nearly every beloved character the show ever created, right down to Mat’s little pathetic medieval peasant… oh, god… *snifsnif* *sob!*
Good Day Magazine — Profiling “Little Giant” Isambard Kingdom Brunel (“Oi! Not so much with the little! I’m six foot if you include the ‘at!”)
Words We Get From the — Greeks
Wonders of the Greek Universe — (“It was us that worked out that the rainbow is a natural phenomenon, and not the work of the gods! They’re not made of magic, they’re natural! Like waterfalls, and hamsters!” “Well… fine then, thanks Brian!” “Ooh, and I almost forgot–we also believed that the planet Earth is floating in water! “…Right, lads, you know what to do.”)
Horrible Movie Pitch — The Rameses II Project (“So is ‘King Tut’ just a nickname, or…?” “No! I ruled Egypt for sixty-six years! King Tutankhamun died when he was only eighteen!” “A boy Pharaoh–I like it! We could give him a pet, like a talking Sphynx…” “Is Robin Williams available?”)
Bob Hale — The Space Race Report (“And just one year later, America is ready to do what mankind has always dreamt of: Teaching a pig to tapdance!… Hrm? Oh, right, the moon landing. Yeah, that makes more sense, what with all this other stuff…”)
Stupid Deaths — John of Bohemia (Surnamed ‘the Blind’… which unfortunately didn’t stop him tying himself to his bodyguard’s horses and charging full-tilt into the heat of combat. “Ooh–‘sorry I’m late for the battle, I got a bit tied up!’ Hah! You know, cos you, and the reins, and…” “Ah… we weren’t late?” “Whatever!“)
She (Doesn’t) Sell Seashells — Pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning discovers that it’s actually pretty handy, when dealing with patronizing male colleagues, to have a lot of sharp objects collected by the seashore…
Labour Issues — A prospective pyramid-builder is dismayed to learn Pharaonic architecture wasn’t all about raising majestic monuments… (“Horse toilets!?” “Yeah, it’s where horses go to the–” “I know what it is, mate!”)
Measly Middle Ages
Making It in the Middle Ages — “An’ showin’ us how it’s done is my main man, all the way from Italy, Bernard de Trevisio! Bernie, tell us about yourself, man?” “Well, I’ve travelled ze vorld, and spent my entire fortune, studying ze ancient art of alchemy.” “So whazzat, some kinda hocus-pocussy–” “It’s a Middle Ages science.” “OK, we cool, bro…!”
Woeful Second World War
Staying Dry For Your Country (animated) — How total was Britain’s war effort? It even managed to cut into pool time at the Carlton Ladies Club.
Homefront Gardening — Expert landscaper Alan Smallbog attempts to demonstrate some further typical wartime sacrifices, while evading the wrath of the typical wartime housewife… (“You can’t plant carrots and turnips in my ornamental flowerbed!” “You’re not wrong, Margery. Best just dig them all up…” “But that’ll look horrible~!” “That’s as may be, but the country needs food, and you can’t eat chrysanthemums…” “Are you sure? Cos you’re going to eat these!”)
Poland! Perfect… we’ll agree to protect them, and maybe they’ll repay us in the future with reasonably-priced builders…
For one last time, the show bounces back with the traditional series-ending leave-’em-wanting-more episode… or in this case, leaving the viewer terribly grateful it’s going away soon before it has a chance to spoil. Yep, still trying to tell myself that, and sometimes it even works.
In this episode:
Song: Australia — Martha recounts the famously Horrible antedecents of everyone’s favourite sunshine-intensive barbie-shrimp-slippers, with help from Simon and Ben… but not, surprisingly enough, from the wildlife. (Parody of: Kylie Minogue, feat Can’t Get You Out of My Head and I Should Be So Lucky)
DI Sergeant Bones: Historical Crime Road Traffic Accident Squad — The Bikers and the Baffling Velocipede (“You mean to tell me you ride around on this thing with four wheels, two seats, a drawing board and a sunshade, but no brakes?!” “Why, yes!” “…Note to self: I. Quit. That’s it. I’m gonna write that novel.”)
Stupid Deaths — Pliny the Elder (Was trapped in a toxic gas cloud while trying to rescue a friend from Vesuvius’ eruption… “Hah, ‘fortune favours the brave’! Volcanoes favour the cowardly, mate! Ooh, I am on fire today! Erm, no offense…”)
Historical Apprentice — Team Maximus and Team Minimus vie to create and exploit a celebrity gladiator in some very creative ways… and discover that where gladiators are concerned, it’s possible to get a bit too creative. (“Can I just say, ‘man -vs- beast’ was actually his idea?” “Yeah, well, I didn’t mean a tiger, did I? I meant like a badger or something!”)
DVD set — Winston Churchill: Britain’s Wittiest Man (Britain’s wartime genius is also a comedy genius. Yes, really! “A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you–fails–and then asks you not to kill him!”)
New! My Little Pit Pony — Less with the sparky rainbow friendships, more with the grinding labour and choking toxic dust… and it fits perfectly in its special Coal Mine playset! (“Careful, Lily dear, you don’t want your My Little Pit Pony to get hurt in a rockfall, or an explosion in the mine!” “Don’t be silly, Mummy! …That’s just what happens to pit ponies!”)
Don’t Tell the Corpse — Even before they got to the Land of the Dead, Egyptian funeral planning involved approximately fifty-seven zillion small details. (“At the top end, you can have the deceased’s intestines removed by a professional embalmer; and at the bottom end–so to speak–we can have his guts dissolved with the injection of cedar oil. You know, right up the–” “Yeah, thank you…”)
Hieroglabble — It’s the word-based board game that’s fun for the whole literate priesthood only! Warning: Hieroglyph combinations may take years to learn. “And coming soon, new Advanced Hieroglabble, with all the glyphs from the later Greco-Roman period–meaning you can play with up to 5,000 tiles!” “We’re gonna need a bigger board…!”
Pity Port Jackson — The arrival of a British relief fleet on the shores of the first Australian colony only complicates the question of who’s meant to be relieving who. (“Well, we’ve got to sort this out, man! Without food supplies, more people are going to die!” “*erghkkk* *thud*” “My point exactly!”)
Woeful Second World War
Neville Chamberlain Online — The Historical Desktop sketches literally go out with a bang, as the beleaguered architect of ‘peace for our time’ (#humblebrag) logs on to discover just how temporary it’s going to be… (“What’s this, then? ‘InvasionAdviser.com review of Czechoslovakia by AHITLER33’… OK, no need to panic, Neville; a lot of these invasion reviews are fake…”)
Measly Middle Ages
Great Historical Country Walks — The Norman conquerors’ subsequent ‘harrowing’ of the Northern countryside wasn’t nearly as pleasant as it sounds… unless you’re really, really into homonym-type puns. And even then, sort of disturbing. (“OK, so York is over there, by that massive bonfire… wait a minute, I think York is that massive bonfire…!”)
Sophisticated As — In which the new post-1066 fad for French words elevates dinner-party small talk into entirely new realms of awkward. (“Is there any more pig?” “Oh, really, Laurence! Zut alors!”)