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Monthly Archives: December 2012

S01E04

I liked that arm! That was my favourite!

So there’s this sketch where Ben sniffs Mat’s hair, and some other stuff… helicopters.

In this episode:

Song: We’re Tudors (Martha as Elizabeth I, Ben as Henry VIII)

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast – Dr. William Buckland: Famed eater of weird things

Stupid Deaths – Matthew Webb (tried to swim the rapids under Niagara Falls)

Dodgy War Inventions – No.16: Zeppelin Airships

Historical Hospital – Hippocrates, Father of Medicine

Bob Hale – The Roman Report

Oh Yea! Magazine – Tudor execution special

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

Saxon Family Feud – “Like Eastenders, but with lots more blood!”… so apparently Eastenders makes a regular thing out of Saxon kings running around in poofy robes ineffectually demanding weregeld? I may need to start watching again.

Anglo-Saxon Ghost Hunt —  Essentially, if you’re in pre-Norman Britain, you’re living the Blair Witch Project 24/7. Except with Vikings.

Frightful First World War

TNT Hair Dye – Yep, how to become a literal blonde bombshell…

Groovy Greeks

Alexandria – In which Alexander the Great’s advisor Hephaestion learns that challenging the ego of a world-conquering tyrant and keeping your dignity is a distinctly either/or proposition.

Rotten Romans

Caligula’s Speechwriter – “So you’re saying, lose the whole chopping-necks thing completely…?” “I wouldn’t start with it.”

Terrible Tudors

Elizabeth the Nicknamer — Yeah, you know that one really, really non-PC co-worker who insists you’re all one big family and so keeps demanding $10 for random baby showers? Bess here was the royal equivalent.

Field Notes:

  • Aaaaaand welcome to the episode that launched a thousand fanfics — also, to be fair, quite a few other essential components of HH canon, including Bob Hale, Caligula and Elizabeth the First, albeit surprisingly petite-nosed compared to later appearances. Moot point now of course, but somebody may just want to explain to the makeup dept, the notion of people’s noses growing longer as they get older? Not really a thing.
  • Oh, and Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild, known with varying degrees of fondness in HH lore as The Guy Who Drove Zebras Through London, Har Har Har. That is, I’m not particularly fond of him, and I haven’t really met anyone else who counts him as integral to their fandom, but damned if the producers aren`t head-over-heels for this mildly eccentric aristocratic zoologist. Or possibly just don`t keep track of the random mentions. I’ve counted four separate ones, which frankly would be about three past interesting even if they didn`t all reiterate the exact same details. (Along the same lines, get real used to Caligula’s story about killing the priest instead of the sacrificial beast…)
  • Speaking of benign eccentricity… time to meet Bob Hale, HHTV Special Correspondent and Larry Rickard`s very own shining comic achievement. Confined to a bad suit in front of what I think was originally supposed to be the weatherman’s map, forced to cover all the boring details the other sketches skip over, Bob`s legend will nevertheless grow into a wonderful Wonka-esque medley of catchphrases (“BUT NOT FOR LONG!”), whimsical asides, clever cartoons, Thing-O-Meters and of course helicopters. His enthusiastic cluelessness reaches Bob & Ray levels of endearing… yes, I know, but trust me, I’m paying Larry a huge compliment.
  • So… really expecting the kiddies to get the Eastenders reference, were we, children’s show?… Actually, y’know what, never mind, after last episode I’m thinking you might. Except that later on, Liz’s French suitor, the Duc d’Alencon, is fudged into a `friend’. So now I’m just totally confused.
  • Wildly inappropriate implications aside (most of them, according to himself, contributed on-the-spot by one B.Willbond) the Alexandria sketch is well-put-together, and — even given the need to accept Ben as ‘barely twenty-six’ — our lush leads a whole whackload more plausible than Colin Farrell. I especially like that the armour Alex is wearing ends up being the same Caligula digs up a few sketches later. All hail continuity!
  • I think my own fan instincts must be a bit cracked, because honestly my major Ben feels here come from the Ghost Hunt sketch. “The spirits like to have a little natter…” I dunno, I just love the way he says that. Really, rewound it a few times. If I ever had a chance to have him repeat a line just for me, that’d be the one.
  • Much love also for the Saxon Family Feud, the niftiest outcropping to date of the sophistication discussed last entry; the funny has an unusually complex internal logic, almost like a mini-sitcom episode. (”You’re, like, so much sweatier in person!” “Well, I’ve just run up a hill, haven’t I?”). I’ve never understood why it doesn’t get more appreciation among the fandom; containing as it does, besides Mat & Jim being Mat & Jim, the same sweetly ineffectual Ben from the Ghost Hunt. Not an archetype he pulls out very often, and again, call me daffy, but I like it better than Alexander. (Now, Hephaestion, we can discuss).
  • OK, held off the negative as long as I can, but… The Tudors song. Yes, fine, it’s catchy (despite some annoyingly juvenile and/or forced rhymes), the details are mostly accurate, Martha does a decent vocal job, and some of the staging is interesting. Still, the overall tone — if you need a refresher on my sensitivity where the Tudor clan is concerned, you may want to head back to S01E02 & mentally add ‘but even more so’ at the end of each sentence. Otherwise… *deep breath* NO THE HISTORY BOOKS DID NOT REVIEW THEM AS ‘ROTTERS AND BIG BRUISERS’! THIS SORT OF CARTOONISH PANDERING TO IDIOTIC SOAP OPERA STEREOTYPES IS COMPLETELY…
  • …*takes several more deep breaths*…
  • …OK, better now. Will air out my similar frustrations with the ‘Oh Yea!’ bit in the historical notes below. But really — I don’t even get the fig leaf of a charming Henry VIII in this song, on account of it’s all but been specifically designed to expose Ben’s vocal limitations (I’m assuming it was written prior to his, or at least Henry’s, being cast). There is nothing at all engaging about watching an actor you respect being hung out to dry in living colour. I haven’t done this much wincing since Mom brought home those Best of the Dean Martin Show DVDs.
  • Right, back to the positives…for instance, erm, Caligula. Whether or not ‘Little Bootikins’ (no really, look it up) was in reality all that bad is debatable, but in Simon’s hands he’s the definition of utterly random hilarity, less a characterisation than an outlet. Seriously, I’m willing to let a lot pass just because without something this juicy to play with, I’m not sure we’d still have a Farnaby round to enjoy, lo these several series later. Keeping that kind of crazy bottled up would’ve done some serious damage.

95% Accu-rat:

  • As a takeoff on the tabloid tendency to unfairly exaggerate details out of context, the “Oh Yea!” Tudor piece is fabulous. As a vehicle for getting the actual facts across… well. Yes, Elizabeth signed the death warrant for her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. What’s not mentioned is that i) Mary had become not only a focus for disaffected Catholics, but a willing and eager participant in their schemes; and ii) despite all of which, Elizabeth agonised over signing that warrant, and eventually did so only because her closest advisors insisted. Not so much out of family feeling — they’d never actually met, after all — as deep-seated qualms, both ethical and practical, about executing royalty. After all, if the ‘divine right to rule’ could be breached in one case, what about all the others? Especially *ahem* the arguably-illegitimate daughter of a Protestant king whose marital history was murky at best…?
  • One other probably-just-me thing that’s always irked re: the song: yes, Liz adored her father — and she also cared deeply for her brother. They were more or less raised together, studied together, and were told of their father’s death at the same time, whereupon they sobbed inconsolably together. Even when I’m determined to get into the spirit of the thing, hearing this version of Elizabeth dismissively refer to ‘sickly little Eddie’ just bounces me right back out.
  • After all of which it’s only fair to note that the ‘Nicknamer’ sketch gets a lot of the small stuff exactly right. The Duc did in fact demand a nickname, albeit mostly because he was actually there to convince our Bess to marry him. Unavoidable casting limitations (ie, not hiring disabled people solely to snigger at them) prevent an accurate visual of ‘Pygmy’, but Robert Cecil — son and carefully-groomed successor to Sir William — did in reality fit the bill: “A slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature, but with a face not irregular in feature, and thoughtful and subtle in expression, with reddish hair, a thin tawny beard, and large, pathetic, greenish-coloured eyes…”
  • So… Caligula. Right. As noted above, I’m a bit more forgiving here; frankly it’d be downright cruel to insist the show wholly overlook the motherlode of historical horror. Still, as one unusually sensible YouTube commenter put it, fair compromise with fact would merit at least a disclaimer from Rattus, re: the really outre stuff being based largely on one or two hostile sources with an axe to grind. (Luckily, there’s no way in even Viking hell most of that same stuff is usable for a family audience). The Wikipedia page does a good job of summarizing specific controversies.
  • OK, you’ve probably already looked this one up, but in the interests of promoting fanfic accuracy it’s worth reiterating: yes, Alexander and Hephaestion were very likely lovers, but in a very different context from the modern, arising naturally out of their lifelong friendship.
  • Meanwhile — he’s not nearly as adorable granted, but Dr. William Buckland: genuinely quite a guy. Absolutely willing to chow down on the heart of a king, too… albeit sources are a little unclear whether it actually was or not, which spoils the effect a little. I do strongly recommend looking him up, though; the full bat urine story alone is worth it.
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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Series One

 

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S01E03

She’s old and warty and looks a bit evil, don’t you think?

In which the show finally and completely abandons all pretense of having been designed for children… that, or the producers out themselves as sadistic bastards willing to ride the nightmares of innocents for ratings, whichever.

In this episode:

Song: How to Make a Mummy (Jim as Random Embalmer)

Recurring sketches:

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Frog Prince, the Stuart version (turning a frog into a person must = witchcraft!)

Historical Wife Swap — Cavaliers vs. Puritans (“Restoration’s here! Party on!” “Fun is sinful!”)

Shouty Man — All-Purpose Ancient Egyptian Mummy (“And it won’t cost you an arm and a leg!”)

One-offs:

Wicked Witches

Witchfinders Direct — Your Stuart-era tax dollars at work: “Do you have a cat?” “Yes…?” “Then thou art a witch!”

Slimy Stuarts

HHTV News Live: Charles I Gets the Chop — But (fear not, Baynton fans!) not before fathering an uncannily look-a-like son…

Measly Middle Ages

Middle Ages (Witch)Craft Show — The nerdy kid gets revenge, with help from Witchfinders Even-More-Direct. Because they didn’t have IBM to grow up to become head of back then.

Vicious Vikings

Top Three Weird Viking Beliefs (animated) — In which we learn that ancient Norse religious tradition, like most others, wasn’t very fond of giants… but was surprisingly enlightened re: cross-dressing.

Viking Names: Eric Blood-axe vs. Ascot the Clumsy — I’m not entirely sure of that last one; I just like the mental image of a Nordic warrior in a little bowtie.

Viking Heaven & Hell — Yes, they really do call it ‘hell’ (complete with just the cutest little Up/Down infographics…). In case you’ve ever wondered what horrified a people whose idea of heaven was an eternal barroom brawl.

Potty Pioneers

Race to the South Pole — Lowlights from the “We will conquer Nature with our superior Britishness!” era of exploration.

Awful Egyptians

The Model of a Modern Mummy — Turns out it took awhile to come up with the classic B-movie monster archetype. Because they didn’t have Brendan Fraser to menace back then.

Rotten Romans

Christians by Candlelight — No clever way to put this, kids: Occasionally, Nero tied Christians to posts, doused them in tar and set them alight. Sweet dreams!

Man vs. Lion (imagine spot) — Let’s face it, gung-ho sports reporters… if you held post-savaging interviews with Christians in the arena, they’d sound exactly like this.

Field Notes:

  • Seriously, this is easily the darkest episode ever. There are individual sketches upcoming that might cause significant shivers (hint: Nazism hasn’t shown up yet) but here the nightmare-fuelled bases are covered with a thoroughness that strongly suggests it was the point. Witches and mummies and beheadings and burning alive and lion attacks and doomed explorers and serpents dripping poison and freezing in Hell while drinking goat’s urine… do they even have ‘child development research’ in the UK, or is it just about finding ever-more efficient ways to winnow out the wimpy ones?
  • OK, admitted, all of it is expertly done, in the actual great — if much more adult — UK tradition of history as savage self-deprecation. And thus for the most part is honestly funny, especially the over-the-top hubris of Scott and crew (‘Agonizingly hard boots?’ “Just put them on, sir! I’ve got blisters already!’ — the chipper little thumbs-up slays me every time). Still, by the time we get to Nero’s ‘Roman candles’ even Rattus looks as authentically shellshocked as is possible for a fuzzy puppet, which turns out to be quite a bit.
  • It doesn’t help that His Imperial Majesty is for the first and last time a platinum blond, kicking off a carousel of imperial hair colour changes and thus, in hindsight, adding a creepily banal touch to the evil. “Notes for party — 1. Find some helpless innocents to torture — unique’n’fun centerpieces! 2. Get roots touched up.”
  • Speaking of grooming: Egyptian Matron Sarah turns out to look a lot like the display-mannequin ditto in the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), where I spent a ton of my formative free time. This poses some obstacles to my full enjoyment of the sketch; despite an intriguing premise and a great turn from Javone as the mummy salesman (insofar as he had time to develop a signature schtick, this was it), my inner child keeps bouncing around going ‘Ooh, can we hit the gift shop after?”
  • Re: that last bit of Viking hellishness…why goats, particularly? Reindeer urine, say, would be A-OK? Their own effluent, they could handle? I’m willing to take the show’s word for it (read: not willing to have it in my search history), just seems a bit random is all.
  • Also incidentally, this won’t be the last time in the series that wannabe manly men are insulted as ‘big girls‘. I’m assuming this is mostly just offhand for ‘sissies’, but even then… a rather incongruous note in a series that celebrates the likes of Elizabeth I and (later) Boadicea, eh what, chaps?
  • Thank goodness there’s a song!… I think there was a song… [glances up at notes]… Oh, right, forgot there for awhile: The first series contains music largely because (as per the now-inevitable onscreen lyrics) it’s what conscientious edutainment shows do, no matter how many rhymes they have to force in the process. And good ol’ Whatever It’s Called here is Exhibit A. Despite Jim’s utter inability to perform anything without suffusing it with charm and humour, it’s so nondescript that the whole process of mummy-making will be covered again from scratch in a later series sketch.
  • OK then, thank goodness for the Restoration! There’s no room for blame and lots to praise in the show’s ongoing fascination with the English Civil War (especially as an alternative to more goat’s urine); it’s the comparatively simple, colourful, relateable-for-all-ages conflict that will just keep on giving, and it kicks off here in really fine and clever style, with Simon especially contributing a robust turn as the uber-Cavalier.
  • Come to that, there’s a satirical shrewdness starting to make itself felt through all the sketches, regardless of tone. Besides being, y’know, British, the writers are clearly becoming more comfortable with using the historical fact as a springboard for the funny, rather than as an end in itself. This intuitive shift in focus from the Horribleness to the human flaws behind it will eventually become the difference between the book and TV universes, and the key to unlocking all-ages credibility.
  • As the next overt salvo, we’re introduced to HHTV, the sleek modern news crew doing their damnedest to reduce messy past-time traumas to soundbites, and providing multiple satisfying satirical outlets in the process; here in particular, the concept of live beheadings (“…and let’s hope for a nice clean cut…”). Also the Shouty Man lets his initial success go to his head — see notes re: Jim’s endless charm, above — and just flat-out loses whatever cares he had to give in the first place. And it is awesome.
  • One especially nice facet of this new sophistication is the ability to smoothly shift emotional gears. They may not be interested in toning the horrible stuff down, but to their enormous credit they can and do acknowledge its impact — and they have the perfect archetype of reluctant-yet-fuzzily-reassuring humanity to filter it through to the audience: Rattus. Really, you know you’re doing black comedy right when the puppet mascot has launched his own mini-character arc by the third episode: “Well, whaddaya expect? It is ‘Horrible’ Histories!” (Or, more commonly: “It’s horrible, but it’s true!”)

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, so the Puritans really weren’t all that bad. The dour, divinely-named killjoys portrayed here were pretty much the radical minority, as is common in most religious traditions today — and even then, they weren’t totally against fun; they turn out to have had a pretty relaxed view of the marital bed, for example. And as the show itself will admit later, they also didn’t wear those hats as a regular thing.
  • Along the same lines, while the Stuart-era hunt for witches was indeed deadly serious business, actual burnings were rare (some argue nonexistent) in England and/or the Americas — it was more a Continental thing apparently, especially in Germany. Which will come as exactly no surprise to anyone who’s ever read the Brothers Grimm.
  • The market for mummies was very real, and not something you want to read about if you’re a) an archaeology major and/or b) would like to preserve an image of exotic royal remnants lovingly protected by individual curses. In fact, the hapless modern Egyptians were snowed under not only with mummified peasants but cats, birds and various other things that had obviously gone to whatever after-life long since, so why not make a buck off them in this one? The trade led to such odd offshoots as truckloads of mummified cats being plowed up for fertilizer, and a few industrial urban legends revolving around smallpox caught from reused wrappings.
  • It seems a bit nitpicky to complain about sparse execution attendance on a BBC costuming budget, but really, back then even the hanging of your average Joe Pickpocket drew huge unruly crowds, so you can imagine the utter chaos that would’ve been Charles I’s actual death scene. Also in real life, Charlie Senior was as unlike his son as it’s possible to be — a probably-overcompensating shortish stutterer who went to the scaffold fully nurturing one of history’s most infuriating stubborn streaks. (pace TVTropes: Charles made a difficult situation worse by… refusing to accept the inevitable in the face of defeat, or compromise to head off trouble down the road. Like his father, he was an instinctive autocrat who had no intention of surrendering any of his power. Unlike his father, he had no understanding of how power actually worked, seemingly sincerely believing that the English people were required to succumb to his will.)
 
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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Series One

 

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S01E02

So… Squadron Leader Higgins… ve meet again!
I’m sorry, have we actually…?
Nein, nein… I just like ze vay I sound vhen I say zat.

The show wastes exactly no time in getting down to the business of being the rudest, rowdiest, most in-your-face children’s edutainment ever — and they do mean business, if the drift is clear. If not, the endless parade of dead bodies may help it sink in…

In this episode:

Song: The Wives of Henry VIII (Ben as Henry VIII)

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — Pee-Sil Laundry Detergent (“Wee! And the dirt is gone!”)

Historical Hospital — Stone Age Medicine Man

Caveman Art Show — How to Preserve the Head of a Dead Relative

Stupid Deaths — Francis Bacon (caught pneumonia whilst experimenting with frozen chickens)

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Princess and the Pea, the Ancient Egyptian version (yay, she’s a princess! Time to die as a threat to the ruling Pharaoh!)

This is Your Reign — Henry VIII

One-offs:

Rotten Romans:

Urine Real Trouble Now (animated) — The cartoon centurion from the titles pops into the Shouty Man’s sketch to mention that Romans used pee as mouthwash. Everyone is so horrified that (in my imagination) they banish the animated characters from the live-action forever.

Measly Middle Ages

Mediaeval Loo Management — Possibly unsurprisingly, keeping the flame of humanity alive through the Dark Ages turns out to involve figuring out how to stop people pooping on passersby…

Woeful Second World War

Mary the Heroic Homing Pigeon (animated) — Forget the Polish and Czechs; some of the bravest RAF fliers weren’t even human.

Prisoners of War — In which we learn that Hogan’s Heroes may actually have been a documentary.

Slimy Stuarts

My Stuart Family: Keeping Up With the Joneses — Which apparently wasn’t any easier back when it involved non-microprocessor-intensive fruit.

Awful Egyptians

King Pepi’s Super-Sticky Anti-Fly Honey Slave — The good news for the Pharaoh’s house slaves: they didn’t have to build the Pyramids. The bad news? Well…

Pyramid Scheme — Being Pharaoh means never having to say you’re sorry for demanding that the Seventh Wonder of the World be your monument.

Terrible Tudors

Henry VIII in the Market Again (animated) — A succinct demonstration of the female reaction after one Tudor divorce too many.

Field Notes:

  • One of the main criticisms of the show is that it does a disservice to complex historical realities by isolating the ridiculous out of context. To which I would ordinarily respond, hello, requirements of an edutainment series =/= a textbook’s. The comedy’s intended to pique kiddy interest in the serious nuances, which is what matters.
  • But…I’m also a huge Tudor nerd. And when I see HH over the first few eps shamelessly playing up to the hoary (if admittedly far more media-friendly) legend, I can concede that, at the least, it took awhile for the bugs to be worked out of the process. While the books might be able to get away with cartoonishly evil caricatures, it’s rather more problematic on the level of sophistication the TV show was struggling for…
  • …and yes, I do realise I’m saying that about a show that also just based an entire sketch around two men being pooped on. (Note though how elegantly the blocking prevents anything from hitting their faces until the final embrace… really, a triumph of excrement wrangling.) A sketch consisting entirely of hauling out more and more of the Tudor executed still irks, because it’s just so damn pointless on any level, historical or comedic. (Generally speaking bodies are not funny until re-animated, hopefully in a shopping mall.)
  • All that said, the song is a fun and frankly impressive compression of Henry VIII’s convoluted marital history, and ol’Bluff King Hal himself would deservedly become one of the show’s iconic characters — extra-portrait-perfect here, before the makeup/costuming was simplified for routine use. Ben as noted almost can’t help but spring him to life; with not much work he could pass in a straight drama. If nothing else, his muttered asides (“Ha! The old Wolster!”) are just begging for a more deserving setting.
  • Several other best-beloved icons also debut here, to the point where this ep feels more like a pilot than the real one. Just a few minutes spent with Death and the Shouty Man (dibs on the New Wave band name!) and I’m willing to forgive anything… um, except possibly the return of the goofy live-action/animation interaction …oh, and [RANDOM EDUCATIONAL EARNESTNESS ALERT] the song lyrics. As in, on-screen. Which sort of makes me snicker unkindly, given Ben is speak-singing this thing with enunciation that would make Rex Harrison genuflect.
  • Come to consider it, they may have simplified future-Henry’s makeup to buy more time to buff up Death’s. The original look is weirdly minimalist, featuring large random patches of obviously live flesh, so the effect’s not so much Guardian of the Afterlife as Pretentious Student Film Extra, stuck alone and glowering behind a wretched cardboard check-in desk in exactly the manner of a cheap Bergman knockoff. I spend a lot of time, while rewatching Series One, regretting that they used up all the really good stupid deaths (like this one) before they upgraded.
  • Caveman Art Show… ‘now here’s a skull I prepared earlier!’…ARRGGHHHH I FRELLING LOVE THIS CONCEPT SO MUCH. (Love also for Mat & Jim onscreen together generally — the closest the show ever comes to that Pythonesque anticipation of intelligent anarchy). I was severely annoyed that they only made a couple of these bits, until I realised, y’know, cavemen, not exactly a wide selection of creative techniques available to demo in the first place. Still, you’d think they could’ve at least taken a break from the hunter-gathering long enough to master pastels or something.
  • Speaking of Mat, while the Modern Stuart Family is cute (“Yoo-hoo! Having lots of banana fun over here!”) what really impresses me about that sketch is him taking a full, unedited bite of an unpeeled banana. Let no one question this man’s dedication to his craft… on the other hand, questioning a craft that involves eating banana peels, sure, go nuts.
  • The modern Historical Hospital’s bizarre deference to Dr. Ugg notwithstanding —  Simon’s ooga-booga act is so unbelievably corny it’s possible the staff think they’re on Candid Camera — I am fascinated by the idea of tattooing treatments. Also with the, ah, high-pitched yelp our Benjamin lets out at the idea. If he ever achieves his dream of being cast as Bond he’d do well to have that footage burned, I’m thinking.
  • Undauntedly cheeky POW Squadron Leader Higgins, on the other hand, is much more like it (despite clearly being a lousy escape artist). Really, for Ben this ep is just one massive born-to-play-fest. Apparent inspiration Hogan’s Heroes, Teh Google informs perpetually-overestimating-the-good-taste-of-the-British me, did in fact make it overseas *muttermutter probably aired right after the Addams Family muttermutter* So hey, rock on ‘Commandant Klintzmann’, your hair has already won all the wars.
  • Ohhhhh, Larry. Had recalled it as being several more eps before he really brought the weird, but obviously I malign our resident redhead. Not so much that he (I’m assuming) conceived the idea of Pharaoh Pepi II Neferkare as an American infomercial pitchman — Ancient Egypt, Texas, same difference, right? You got your heat, your dust, your wealthy megalomaniacs with comical facial hair. What really impresses me is that he nails it. Absolutely. And in a later series it turns out that he’s also somehow absorbed arena rock ballads. Basically, Larry is a redneck, is what I’m saying. Only of course with way better beer.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, the show’s take on cavemen… everybody realises they most likely didn’t actually speak artfully-broken English and/or hop around like demented orang-utans being poked by Discovery Channel directors, right? You in the back?… OK, just checking.
  • Rattus gets a lot of comedy mileage out of Stone Age ‘trepanning’ here, as have many, many before him… but as he admits in a later ep, the newest research indicates a lot of cave-patients actually did survive having holes drilled in their heads (presumably being frankly too backward to realise they should be keeling over). You know, Reality, you are one hell of a buzzkill.
  • One more (small) reason for me to be cranky over the parade of Tudor bodies: one of King Henry’s eviscerated ‘advisors’, Thomas Culpeper, actually wasn’t. He was merely a favourite courtier, apparently because the King saw a great deal of his own younger self in the handsome, sporty young buck… which became severely ironic when Culpeper was discovered to have been bonking Queen Katharine Howard. It’s generally important, when reviewing Tudor history, to remember that while Harry and clan were undoubtedly (to various degrees) despotic tyrants, they were also extremely intelligent, complex people, and shrewd politicians besides. There was a reason behind every execution… just not always a good reason.
  • Although, the little animated bookend showing contestants running screaming from “Who Wants to Be Henry VIII’s New Queen?” auditions (not actually the plot of the sketch, although now that I think of it…) — anyhoo, that bit is 110% accu-rat. Around about wife hunt #4, it was getting very hard indeed to spin Henry as ideal marriage material, even in that notoriously pragmatic age. Christina Duchesse of Milan is reported to have quipped that if she had two heads, one of them would certainly be at the King’s service; while Marie de Guise (eventual mother of Mary Queen of Scots), suggested as worthy of the King’s stature, retorted that while she might be a big woman, “she had but a little neck.”
  • As per above, the song’s neat retelling of this convoluted marital history makes it a favourite of mine… with the tiny little proviso that Katharine Howard (the second ‘beheaded’) probably wasn’t nineteen. She was the eighth or so of ten children born to an obscure second son, and nobody bothered to record her birthdate for posterity — sources I’ve seen place her as anything from fifteen to twenty-four when she first came to court.
  • Meanwhile… I’ve spent quite some time on Google Images, staring earnestly at the homely alabaster visage of Pharaoh Pepi II, and have seen nothing to indicate that this was a man who liked to flounce around in a platinum wig with dryer lint glued to his chest. (Nor, I am truly sad to report, is this au courant among the Texas elite). On the other hand, you know that rule I imposed last entry, about not arguing with the history guru? That, plus new, similar rule about not messing with the makeup team. Their wound-simulation skills scare me.
 
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Posted by on December 21, 2012 in Series One

 

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S01E01

Me, I would`ve been more at home in a zoo…

The pilot is launched… and lands not only in the lap of a delighted juvenile nation but straight between the eyes of their parents. Four King Georges sing, pirates pontificate, good-looking men cavort at funerals, and a valuable lesson is learned about the perils of basing opening credits on Windows95 screensavers.

In this episode:

Song: Born 2 Rule (The 4 Georges: I [Ben], II [Mat], III [Simon], & IV [Jim])

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast —  WWI Shortages & Substitutions

Computer Game: Warrior! — Vikings vs. Monks

Historical Hairdressers — Viking Ear Spoons

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Three Little Pigs, the Georgian version (the brick house walls were blanked to avoid the window tax, so the third little piggy never saw his brothers coming…)

One-offs:

Rotten Romans:

Funeral Fight Club — How the Romans elevated tacky graveside behavior to a legendary sport.

High School Confrontational — What if “The Gladiators” weren’t just the mascots? The first of several imagine spots courtesy Rattus, complete with wavy dissolve cut and “Oooh, I’m imaginin’ it… I’m imaginin’ it!”

Frightful First World War:

Lice Warfare — Life in the trenches was so gross it requires a closeup of Jim’s cartoon-vermin-ridden stomach to explore fully.

Putrid Pirates:

The Black Spot(s) —  No, really, apparently this was an actual thing. Because obviously if you’re just gonna show up and put a knife into someone, then what’s the point of being a pirate?

The Pirate Rulebook — Arrrr, maties, now this is more like it!… sort of. The dreaded Captain Black Bart abruptly drops the timber-shivering to explain that on his ship, there’s no fighting, everyone has a vote and bedtime’s at 8pm sharp.

Savage Stone Age:

Sharp Stone, Blunt Stone — Now you too can own the (literal) cutting-edge cave tech! …Relentlessly adorable pitchman not included.

Stone-Age Burial — We know not with what rites the cavemen buried their dead, but we’re pretty sure it… didn’t go anything close to like this. (“And a little extra something to confuse the archaeologists who dig him up in years to come…”)

Gorgeous Georgians:

Window Tax — A short explanatory bit carrying on from the fairy tale, featuring the cartoon noblewoman from the title card and more live-action/animation interaction (thankfully no longer involving Jim’s stomach).

How to Vote in a Georgian Election — In which same is dissected with frank and funny (if mildly inadequate) outrage.

Field Notes:

  • Seriously, those opening titles are so eye-sporkingly not working as intended, which out of charity I will assume was to evoke the bright, cartoony feel of the book layouts. I do have an alternate and I think plausible theory involving quietly moving some extra $$ into the costume budget by outsourcing the F/X to somebody’s nephew who ‘fools around with that Photoshop thingy all the time’.
  • The theme tune, on the other hand, kicks all kinds of inappropriate-for-minors butt, basically turning a list of book titles into simoultaneous raw anticipation for the kiddies and mounting horror for their parents.
  • The general idea was clearly to impress a much older audience; except the ‘Ready Steady Feast’ skit of course, which was purely and patently designed to send same — including me! — running to the loo, thereby cementing it in children’s minds as THE MOST AWESOME TV SHOW EVER. Or whatever kids are using to mean ‘awesome’ these days, it suddenly occurs to me I don’t know. Have I mentioned I’m forty? At any rate, whatever it is, that’s what they were calling it.
  • For a pilot, though, generally the sophistication is impressive. Front-loading the first ep of a new series with the critical bait would actually become something of a tradition, and in keeping, this one resembles a later ep much more than anything to come in the first series, right down to the proto-music video. The few overtly kiddie/educational elements — the random animation segues and strict “era sketch-quiz-sketch” structure — were the only ones later abandoned.
  • In related news, for some reason cartoon German lice are red, thus ruining a perfectly good Communist lice joke opportunity for future WWII sketches.
  • Fun with media realities: In the press release for the series debut, none of the eventual main cast are mentioned. In the actual series debut, the Two Really Hot Ones are blatantly front-and-centre in nearly every sketch, with able support from… whatever wildly-inappropriate thing Jim’s doing in the ‘Sharp Stone’ sketch. (My viewing notes at that point read “relentlessly eye#@!-ing the camera?!”, and frankly I can’t find a better way to put it.)
  • Funny all round, how many of their signature schticks arrived fully-formed — Ben even gets to exclaim “Oh look! Sausages!” in a campy German accent. Besides which I do love me some Incongruous Yuppie Ben… also Pirate Mat, despite some very questionable facial hair.
  • Meanwhile, Larry’s off enjoying a rare lead role in a sketch. You can already tell he doesn’t expect this front-of-the-camera gig to amount to much, because his gladiator school instructor is simply Cleese’s drill sergeant in “Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit,” with the serial numbers just barely filed off.
  • Somehow, Mat in a WWI trench sketch always makes me really uneasy, in a sort of “things must be massively bad if they let HIM past the physical” way. I spend the whole sketch — even the ones where he’s not actually dying of exposure — imagining him dying of exposure ten minutes later.
  • Something else that always startles me a little in this ep is the flat-out political ranting, Gleefully exposing stupidity will of course become a hallmark in future but I don’t ever recall it being this specifically angry.
  • “Born 2 Rule” got a lot of attention for its audacity and attention to detail (specially Mat’s), and deservedly so. But in retrospect, it’s clear the music took centre stage because of it, not before. The set is minimal, the choreography is offhand at best (compare the snappy, complex moves in “The Few”, three series later), and, well, Ben and Simon are singing lead. Frankly we’re all really lucky they didn’t put up the bouncing-ball lyrics (again, look critics, sophistication, always sophistication!)
  • Still, it’s taken on a whole new level of loveliness, watching the four of them together and realising it’s just the first step of the journey. And what a long, strange trip it would be…

95% Accu-rat:

  • The obvious bloopers in the song — ie., ’twas George II actually died on the loo, and George III was in reality his grandson — are legendary by now. All the props to the producers, though, for very publicly correcting themselves in the Prom Special.
  • There was a [REDACTED] paragraph in here complaining about the Black Spot being an entirely fictional concept, prior to the show’s historical consultant informing me personally that it’s been ‘attested to prior to [Robert Louis] Stevenson’. Not that I could find, but will be shutting up now in keeping with my new policy: Don’t Argue With the Man Who Reads History Books for a Living.
  • On the other hand, the ‘Pirate Rulebook’ is a deservedly classic example of sorting the stranger truth from the fiction — although the ‘8pm bedtime’ rule apparently in reality went “The lights and candles should be put out at eight at night, and if any of the crew desire to drink after that hour they shall sit upon the open deck without lights“. This distinction became very important one morning when Captain Bartholomew Roberts’ crew were still too drunk from a victory celebration the night before to repel an enemy boarding party… exit Black Bart, unceremoniously.
  • Somehow, everyone manages to work their panties into an unprecedented bunch over Georgian elections without (audibly) mentioning the most egregiously corrupt aspect of the whole thing — the ‘rotten borough‘, basically an electoral district with few-to-no actual inhabitants, controlled as shown by the nearest aristocratic family. The hapless sole landowner in the sketch would in reality have long since realised his vote was the merest formality.
 
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Posted by on December 16, 2012 in Series One

 

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The cast, themselves

In the case of Horrible Histories — which you’ll recall from the previous entry as the children’s TV show making a bold bid for adult credibility — casting must’ve looked damn near impossible. Or, as they put it in press release-speak, “we spent some time finding just the right people to take on this unique challenge.”

Yeah, no kidding. The corner they had backed themselves into looked something like this:

Wanted: Character comedians sophisticated enough to pull off sketch comedy at a Python-esque level, yet willing enough to do so in the service of a children’s series. Must be charismatic enough to convincingly play historical heroes (and distract mums from the bodily fluids), yet amenable to having same routinely doused under beards, scars, dirt and of course fluids… frequently while singing and dancing…. Oh, did we mention the musical talent?

What eventually sealed the show’s credibility with any and all demographics was the discovery that, yes, such people exist — at least, around a dozen of them (plus a few more who took a flier along the way).

It would of course be asking far too much of the artistic fates for fully six of that dozen — one of whom wasn’t even originally hired as a performer — to naturally form a note-perfect comedy troupe… which may be one reason why they weren`t immediately acknowledged as such. That collectively they didn’t have enough name recognition to front a Wonder Bread commercial may also have factored in. At any rate, like everything else about the first series, casting became a matter of sorting the show everyone wanted to make from… well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

Eventually — ie., like everything else about the second series — they’d figured out what worked, and since then all things officially HH have starred that same sextet. In alphabetical order:

Mathew (Mat) Baynton — The skinny dark one with the gorgeous great eyes… yes, Dick Turpin, that one. Also, Charles II. The youngest member of the troupe, he has somehow contrived to be a strikingly beautiful, talented, Continentally-trained clown and indie-folk musician whilst remaining likeably funny and engaging throughout, which must be at least one definition of genius. At any rate, when added to an uncanny knack for genre mimicry, it qualifies him as the natural star of both the show’s music videos and its various fan-fictional spinoffs. More recently, it also merited a children’s BAFTA nom for Best Performer.

Simon Farnaby — The tall, squinty-eyed older one with the vaguely enigmatic air and yellow curls. (Not that this last is usually obvious, as it turns out very few historical figures had dandelion-fluff heads… their loss, frankly.)  Imported, apparently much to his vaguely enigmatic bemusement, from The Mighty Boosh troupe; spends most of his HH screentime investing irredeemably dark and/or eccentric characters — Death, Caligula, that sort of thing — with the same combination of absolute commitment to the crazy and childish glee in its possibilities.

Martha Howe-Douglas —  The beautiful blonde one with the great singing voice and a decided flair for WWII fashion. Also a highly capable comedienne, with a persona generic enough to be versatile yet strong enough to be memorable — as tends to be required on a show  that mainly compensates for charting the White Man’s Route to Western Civilization by spotlighting the fiercest icons of herstory (Elizabeth I, Boudicca, Cleopatra, Victoria). At any rate, it was enough to score her the second of the show’s Best Performer BAFTA noms.

Jim Howick — The short, plump, deceptively cuddly-looking one, next-to-youngest and probably the most impressive all-round talent the show can boast. Certainly the only one to date to actually win that Best Performer BAFTA…. by virtue of his range and skill as a vocalist (fine enough to make even George IV’s fits of self-pity touching), celebrity impersonator (up to and including Rodrigo Borgia as the papal Godfather) and all-round nailer of even the most vile villains, whiny royals and bombastic hucksters with zero loss of viewer desire to own the fuzzy plushie version.*

Laurence (Larry) Rickard — The redheaded** one with the striking bright bIue eyes, deep voice and general air of off-the-wall quirkiness; largely due to his actually being hired as a writer, only to be summarily promoted from back of the camera to front in the first series after creating Bob Hale, ‘News at When’ special correspondent, and his extended monologues. Having thus proven his natural knack for the ridiculous, and with nothing else particularly to lose, he simply carried on filling odd comedic corners as needed and before long was established as the go-to ‘character actor’.

Ben Willbond — The very British one, with the looks of the dashing-yet-wholesome hero of a between-wars dime novel — “just six feet in his socks”, “boyish grin and honest blue eyes”, all that sort of thing — and the manner of the same hero’s particularly upright, uptight Civil Service foil. Somewhere in the middle is a sophisticated comedian self-aware enough to use each to play up the absurdity of the other — much to the benefit of both HH’s larger-than-life swashbucklers (Henry VIII, Sir Francis Drake) and awkward wannabes (war correspondent Mike Peabody).

The other half-dozen:

Lawry Lewin — The seventh member of the starring troupe in all but actual billing. Bears an uncanny resemblance to a stick insect, assuming said insect to be the star of a cheap-but-earnest educational cartoon (probably called “Scotty the Stick Insect Learns to Just Be Himself”)***. Proved his comedic worth as Simon’s understudy in Series Two and is since routinely brought on when what’s needed is neurotic/vulnerable rather than outright crazy. Along those lines, also does a killer takeoff of pop-science presenter Brian Cox.

Sarah Hadland — The petite, older, very Northern original female lead and approximately seven-tenths of its star power to begin with, she left the show after the first series and returned as ‘Also Starring’ in the fourth. Funny but dependent on a jarringly shrill schtick that can get wearing after awhile — and which became awkward in another way when she was paired with our overtly boyish leads.

Dominique Moore, Alice Lowe, Katy Wix — The remainder of the main female support, all strong solo comediennes in their own right, who pop in-and-out as their schedules permit. Moore, who is black, fills in most of the diversity requirement and possesses a killer singing voice; Lowe can also sing and is particularly brought on when a part requires overt delicacy and/or femininity (ie. Marie Antoinette).

Javone Prince — The other notable regular of colour, apparently shaping up as a member of the starring troupe before disappearing without trace after Series One. A great and game performer, but hamstrung as a perpetually rather obvious potential victim of “What`s the Black Guy Doing in Sherwood Forest?” Syndrome, so confined mostly to the Ancient Egyptian sketches.****

And finally, what kiddie series would be complete without a loveable anthropomorphic mascot? Meet “your host, a talking rat”:

Rattus Rattus (puppeteer John Eccleston) — Named for his species (ie., the black rat), as a riff on a similarly anonymous rat character from the books and a pleasingly historical-sounding reference into the bargain. Lives in a tastefully-appointed hole down the Time Sewers and  — with the aid of a nifty line in teeny temporal accessories — appears in short bridging segments between sketches, explaining and clarifying the factual backdrop… in his own inimitable fashion (on the Black Death: “So that’s Rats 1, Humans 0.”).

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*This extends to freakin’ Nero.

**OK, yes, actually chestnut-which-has-some-red-in-it. Semantics nerds, you may want to abandon hope here and save time before entering the reviews.

***Possibly the companion to this.

****There have been no Hispanic or Arabic regulars to date; those parts are usually handled by the white leads wearing fake tans, which of course doesn’t carry near the Unfortunate Implications it would this side of the pond (and thus is reason #98,453 why this show will likely never make it to America, even late-night PBS).

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2012 in The background

 

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