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)
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!”)
Witchfinders Direct — Your Stuart-era tax dollars at work: “Do you have a cat?” “Yes…?” “Then thou art a witch!”
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.
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.
Race to the South Pole — Lowlights from the “We will conquer Nature with our superior Britishness!” era of exploration.
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.
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.
- 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!”)
- 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.)