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)
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
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.
My Stuart Family: Keeping Up With the Joneses — Which apparently wasn’t any easier back when it involved non-microprocessor-intensive fruit.
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.
Henry VIII in the Market Again (animated) — A succinct demonstration of the female reaction after one Tudor divorce too many.
- 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.
- 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.