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Monthly Archives: January 2013

S01E10

He’s-a my brother, innit? I conquer ze country, I give-a him ze crown. I can’t buy him socks anymore — he’s got a wool allergy!

In which the show digs down deep… finds one last rich vein of historical comedy… and it’s in Sparta?

In this episode:

Song: The Plague Song (Ben as Corpse Collector, Mat, Sarah and Larry as Corpse Chorus)

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast — Tudor Diets: Peasant vs. Aristocratic

Historical Hairdressers — Tudor Beauty Treatments

Computer Game: Warrior! — Roman Legionary vs. Celtic Warrior

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Middle Ages version (See, they were in the middle of a plague epidemic, and rats carry plague…)

This is Your Reign — Napoleon Bonaparte

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — from the Battle of Thermopylae

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Sponge on a Stick (two parts) — On the bright side, we’ve moved up from animal to human toilet habits…

New! Viper Deodorant — “Do YOU smell like a barbarian died in your armpit?”

Vile Victorians

Genuine Victorian Slang — Surprisingly enough, not actually made up by Charles Dickens. (Bonus educational tip, kids: try listing this sketch in the bibliography of your next paper on Oliver Twist! Your teacher will love it!)

Great Victorian Inventions: The Car (animated) — True story: at one point engineers were seriously concerned that ‘horseless carriages’ would suffocate their riders, as the air was rushing by them too fast to breathe. That is, once they hit roughly around 30mph. Really.

Cut-Throat Celts

Better Homes & Severed Heads — You do have to admit, nuked-noggin decor probably cut way down on annoying Celtic telemarketers.

Groovy Greeks

This! Is… Wait! — Detailing how actual, normal humans would’ve reacted to being sent to Thermopylae… in other news, nobody ever accused Spartan warriors of being normal.

Field Notes:

  • Oh thank goodness, it was only temporary. Also, my profound thanks to Ben and Katy Wix, not forgetting Larry and Martha later at the Prom. The evolution of HH musical genius gets right back on track this ep, with what to this day is still one of the most offbeat, interesting musical things the show has to offer. So just imagine what it feels like when you’ve only been reviewing the first series for six weeks straight.
  • Seriously though, the Black Death as Danse Macabre…how awesome is that? Possibly not the most original staging idea ever, but — and this is very much the point — a brilliantly apt way to both be a historical comedy and avoid making light of 25 million agonizing deaths. (Also, to shoehorn zombies in there. I have a lot of fun imagining the potential outtakes from this one. “Brainnnnsss…”) In the annals of HH’s revelatory “Hey, we really could be a whole lot more than the source material!” moments, this one’s a doozy.
  • ‘Doozy’ is also a good way to describe Ben’s performance in the prep-for-Thermopylae sketch, although “I think I’ve figured out which script they used to get him to sign on” works too. Honestly, I’m not sure the man even realises he’s supposed to be giving a comedy performance here, or for that matter cares; he’s off in his own private 300, living the dream, rocking the Gerald Butler ‘do… except opposite Larry and Mat instead of comely servant wenches. Thus handily explaining why he also seems so convincingly ticked whenever they speak… or not, depending on just how deep into the Spartan experience he is.
  • It also helps the offbeat vibe to remember, when watching Mat’s final freakout, that as per what the show has just established ‘Mommy’ will be clocking him upside the ear and throwing him right back out into the battle. I would be making further snarky comments about how Mat’s continued failure to have been left out on a mountaintop at birth undermines everything the show is trying to establish about Spartans… but I’m too busy smiling at the aforementioned mental picture.
  • So yes, wow, Spartans, obviously still pretty darn cool in 2008-ish, when all of the writing would’ve started going down… shortly after which the writers, much like the rest of us, found the testosterone-crazed warriors increasingly hard to take seriously. By the time we arrive at Thermopylae, in company with ever-credulous Mike Peabody, they’re ready to have a whole lot of fun with the same phenomenon they straight-up celebrated just last ep. Watching Mike repeatedly being forced to assure Hellenic generals that their hair looks fine, this is another thing that makes my brain grin all over.
  • In this sketch even Mat’s unconvincing armour-wearing works in context — of course the pretty boy with the great hair is the king in this reality! And this reality is hilarious! So, hell, why not try the combo out in other realities too? In short, it’s taken awhile, but relentlessly earnest warrior-next-door Mat finally has a campy, adult archetype of his very own. This will become a trifle more obvious in the next series — as will a lot of other adult implications surrounding Mat — but for now, it’s just seriously funny.
  • Speaking of jacking up the adult content… erm… look, generally, I like the Historical Hairdressers sketches, I really do. Martha works the first of several feisty modern blue-collar gals with all the verve they demand (I gather her native accent is considered kind of annoying, but I rather like it). However… how do I put this… meth, is it a thing in the UK? At least, you do watch Breaking Bad? ‘Cos I’m looking at Shelly’s sore-covered face post-‘treatment’, and I’m not seeing ‘standard, if slightly gross, HH gag’, I’m seeing ‘convincingly authentic PSA’.
  • On the further subject of convincing… DAMMIT LARRY THAT IS THE MOST EMBARRASSING PSEUDO-IRISH THING I HAVE EVER SEEN SINCE THE TIME BOB THREW UP THE GREEN BEER AT THE GREEK RESTAURANT. Sorry, this one’s been building up through several viewings. I realise the man was likely excited at being upright onscreen for the first time in ages, but really, watching Lucky Charms commercials does not count as research. Mind, Jim and his Eye-talian accent aren’t far behind — you lot are just lucky the sketch itself is generally cute enough to dim the memory of Tudor Traitors on Parade. And that Rattus gets a darling little brocade armchair of his own. Squee!
  • I will refrain from commenting on the Roman toilet sketches, on account of I can figure out no way to do so without sounding like, well, a puritanical old poop. Just not my thing, kiddies, sorry. I’m a cranky grownup who takes much more glee in noting that the 2nd bit here was obviously meant to follow on from the main ‘communal toilet’ sketch — which doesn’t happen until epIsode 13.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, the naked Celtic warrior? Totally a thing. The reasons are disputed, and the frequency probably exaggerated by Romans interested in painting the enemy as wild irrational freaks in dire need of the civilizing Latin influence, but they did really charge into battle in the nude… so yeah, point goes to the Romans here, mostly.
  • Contrariwise I couldn’t find much info re: deadly snake as Roman man-grooming staple, but this recipe for a depilatory is intriguing: Resin, pitch, white vine or ivy gum extract, asses’ fat, she-goat’s gall, bat’s blood and powdered viper. Apparently the belief was that the viper, or asp, made its nest in lavender plants, which as a rationale for cosmetic ingredients is at least up there with “hey, this musk deer gland smells great!”
  • This isn’t a scientific forum I know — and very grateful I am for it usually — but the Plague Song lyrics always make me go ‘hmmmm?’ right around “Bites the rat and gives it germs…” In the interest of biological clarity, shouldn’t that be “bites the rat and picks up germs?” Otherwise, we’re missing a step in the transmission. I think. Yes, I’m a hopeless nerd.
  • According to most sources “half the people on the Earth/are simply blown away!” seems to be a rather massive exaggeration — although this was undoubtedly one incredibly, horrifically huge Very Bad Thing That Really Happened, so I doubt there’s much point in anyone being offended at a little post-millennial artistic license intended to get that across. The (impromptu?) revision to “Half the children...” in the Prom version probably helps though.
  • Speaking of exaggeration to make a point… the Tudor diet wasn’t actually that sharply divided along class lines, or at least not along the lines suggested here. A peasant diet would be much more veg-intensive, but the nobles did eagerly eat veggies too. In fact Henry VIII was known to have grown artichokes at Hampton Court palace. The real difference was that the upper-class had the ability (from which our modern notion of haute cuisine descends) to spend time and money on making food snazzy instead of merely sustaining. Hence more sophisticated preparations, like delicate salads and cabbage boiled with spices.
  • On the other hand, bunging random poisonous substances on your face (or, in the case of Victorian ladies and arsenic, in your face): totally the province of the rich, or at least those who wanted to appear so. The coveted clear, luminous pink-and-white complexion indicated not only aristocratic birth — ‘blue-blooded’ likely refers to the veins visible under a truly delicate skin — but innocence, femininity and purity: the historical Holy Grail of womanhood. (Olive skin was dismissed as ‘brown’ and thought of as a major defect — was one of the objections to Anne Boleyn, in fact.)
  • Right, not to put too fine a point on it, but: Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Aka the ‘Iron Duke’. Not a dude prone to breaking into jigs in public. (Although as the hero of all the papers after Waterloo he did star — along with his sons — in the Brontes’ earliest juvenile writings… which were more or less romantic fanfic. Seriously.)
  • That sketch’d overall be a lot more fun if they skipped the comic-opera accents and told the real story: according to my Treasury of Royal Scandals (don’t leave home without it!) the ‘Battling Bonapartes’ would, in fact, have made fabulous modern reality-show fodder. The only thing this clan could agree on is that their Nap was doing it wrong. Whatever it was. He thought he was running a realpolitik empire; they pictured it more as a sort of extra-glittery Mafia, in which everybody’s honour was being offended at once.
  • Oh, and Josephine — aka the ‘Great Whore’ — not impressed with her either. In fact, ‘strong-willed’ Meré Bonaparte and her daughters, in a move familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to plan a wedding reception, refused to attend the Imperial coronation over their fear of being one-upped by the scandalous (and middle-aged, yet!) Empress.
  • Everybody else spent Napoleon’s reign haughtily (and in at least one case, insanely) miffed that their baby bro was now treating them as mere puppets in his empirical schemes, to the point of wholesale refusal to take their advice, breaking up inconvenient marriages and/or abandoning them in the face of rebellious natives. Napoleon, on the other hand, was understandably ticked at what he saw as their ingratitude for his raising the whole dysfunctional, spendthrift, sexually irresponsible lot to the First Family of Europe. Something to remember, next time you start wishing you had a nice normal family like everyone else…
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Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E09

Why would I pray to the goddess of the sewers?
Soldiers get very nervous before a battle, General. If fifteen thousand men decide to go to the toilet at the same time, I’m not clearing it up.

Sports teams call it ‘playing out the string’ — the point in the season at which the outcome’s been decided, so might as well give whatever’s left a shot. Although there still may be individual bright lights…

In this episode:

Song: It’s Not True! (Mat as Random…Historical Cop?, Martha as Random Teacher)

Recurring sketches:

Fractured Fairy Tales — Thumbelina, the Tudor version (Wherein she takes a wrong turn into the city and drowns in a gutterfull of poop)

Shouty Man — New Victorian Child (“And you can really see it working!”)

Words We Get From the — Vikings (No, not called that yet, but close enough)

Historical Wife Swap — Athenians vs. Spartans (“Hi, I’m a playwright!” “I’M – A – WARRIOR!!”)

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From plague-riddled 1665 London

Ye Sun Magazine: Great Plague Special — “Read it before you die!”

Ready, Steady Feast — Thomas Farriner, the man who started the Great Fire of London

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

Tudor Forecast — Poo. Lots of it. Next!

Vile Victorians

Uncool School Punishments — Demonstrating why very few alumni showed up for the class reunions, in Dickensian London.

Rotten Romans

Roman Gods Direct — Because frankly if they can’t smite the guy why stole your lunch out of the office fridge, what good is a divine pantheon anyway?…

Gotta Hail ‘Em All — …Seriously though, you ever wonder if the ancients eventually started inventing petty deities just to mess with each other? I probably would’ve.

Vicious Vikings

No Horns Here (animated) — Because contrary to nerdlore, not everything ancient warriors did was based on how badass it looked.

Field Notes:

  • So yeah, now entering the phase in every HH series at which things start to feel something less than wholly inspired… the difference between this and later series being that, in the latter, said phase usually only lasts an ep or two. Given the additional lack of a song special (albeit if this ep has taught us anything, it’s that we need not waste time mourning that) Series One is effectively one episode longer. More space and much less memorably funny stuff to fill it: ladies and gentlemen, a situation in which six total minutes of blandly reiterating that ‘Medieval streets were awash in poo!’ is considered viable television.
  • Also: Simon dressed up as vaguely-possibly-sort-of Mercury, the hell? The whole ‘Roman Gods Direct’ sketch is a distressingly detailed example of the pitfalls awaiting even a decent — and surprisingly adult, even given what’s gone before — sketch idea when it comes time to commit to film. Should really have set this one aside for when the show’s comedic commitment and costuming budget kicked up a notch, and let the much more succinctly funny followup (have I mentioned how well Mat & Jim play off each other yet?) stand on its own.
  • Oh, and the song. Ordinarily when confronted with the memory of ‘It’s Not True!’ I quietly change the mental subject as soon as possible; being aware that there are HH fans who have never watched Barney, and thus do not twitch uneasily whenever chipper music starts up in a cheap schoolroom set. However, for this project I’m determined that everything should have a fair and objective watch. Therefore it is with newly empowered confidence that I now can say: boy, this musical sequence sucks. On toast.
  • Even making the standard allowances for creative bumbling, budget etc; it’s literally hard to believe that the same people behind the 4 Georges also greenlighted these desperate dance moves. Basically this, right here, is what HH would’ve looked like were it really ‘just a children’s series’, with expectations lowered accordingly from ‘challenging and creative’ to ‘bright and cheerful’…
  • …Sorry, I’ll work on the dosage. Meantime, have an unquestioned bright spot: introducing Mike Peabody, HHTV News’ Man on the Scene, and the perfect (not to say rather impressively sophisticated) face for their campaign to wring media cliche out of historical chaos. I like to think of Mike as a sort of expatriate grand-nephew of Bob & Ray’s Wally Ballou: outfitted with newer tech (and/or stylists) but likewise entirely sure only that he is a Journalist and his job is therefore to Get the Story. The stonefaced bemusement with which Ben greets every deviation from same is pure gold.
  • Elsewhere the Shouty Man’s most excellent mercenary adventures take a sinister turn, as he moves up from hawking dead bodies into more-or-less creating them, in a sharply improved second draft of the ‘Chimney Sweep’ sketch from a few eps ago. Rather sadly, this and the companion ‘Victorian Maid’ bit will represent Shouty’s apotheosis; not to say that it’s all downhill from here, since Jim’s adorable amorality is a wonder in-and-of-itself, but the sharp and multileveled satire will dissipate into more generic comedy.
  • The above stuns Rattus into genuine sympathy again. That little puppet can look more convincingly moved than most human actors. Besides which this ep marks the debut of his teeny little temporal accessories — all carefully and cleverly designed to seem jury-rigged from stuff he’s found down sewer. Clearly, someone in the props dept is as smitten by miniatures as is this reviewer, who is self-banned from a certain dollhouse store in Toronto for fear of impulsively buying all their stock at one go. I warn you now: there will be squee.
  • OK… I truly don’t want to keep harping on Mat’s physique, or lack thereof. Besides being boringly shallow, it has no bearing on his talent… except, oh shoot, he’s starring in a historical sketch show, and they keep casting him not only as a Roman general but as a Spartan warrior. Apparently merely to save a bit of money on the fake tan. Bless the man, he’s doing everything short of banging his head on the table to convey menacing toughness, but honestly. If he wasn’t left out for the birds at birth, then these Spartans were clearly just big softies at heart.
  • Great sketch, this Wife Swap, though. The feminist angle feels a bit too obviously shoehorned in — an early indication of how the producers intend to deal with the relative dearth of available herstory — but the fight/vote thing is a nice touch, and it’s nice to see Martha getting a chance at a really meaty comic role for the first time in awhile.
  • Oh, and a couple other *ahem* interesting notes: a few eps from now Athenians will claim in song that ‘[their] physiques were not weak”. The next ep will give us a Spartan warrior — played by guess who? — flatly refusing to fight. And at the end of this sketch, as is standard, we get a teaser… for the Restoration WS, which aired awaaayyy back in S01E03. Whoops.
  • Now I will make up for all the ragging by pointing out again that Mat is a great comic performer, and in this ep alone does a fantastic job both of rapidly disintegrating reverence and total charming-morning-show-host obliviousness to flaming carnage, which is not something even the finest comedians are routinely accused of (unless possibly they are already dead of massive drug overdoses).
  • Then, I will complain that he is also doing the least convincing ‘elderly man’ I have ever heard. This will improve rapidly of course (helloooo, Darwin), but for now, the ‘School Punishments’ sketch is mostly making me wince at what that voice must be doing to his throat. Also, giving some interested thought to Simon as Mark Twain impersonator, and wondering if there’s any correlation between Ben’s Russian studies and his ability to make ersatz-Wackford Squeers here so convincing… yeah, sometimes you just have to keep yourself entertained however you can.
  • Finally, for once, I must give props for a really clever use of the magazine format: that is one great  two-edged slogan that I can totally imagine real tabloids borrowing in like crisis. Also, hi Larry the perpetual patient — it’s almost over, dude. Really.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Another fun little bit of fridge brilliance from the Wife Swap sketch: Spartans really were renowned for their dry humour! In fact, the word ‘laconic’ is a direct homage to Laconia, the actual name of the city-state of which Sparta was the principal city. So there you go, the whole “You will be going to a funeral” exchange is more accurate than the retelling of the fairy tale.
  • Because, and yes I realise this isn’t actually historically controversial, unless we’re talking messing with my treasured childhood memories, which hey, it’s my blog — Thumbelina, the original, never tried to make it in the big city. That’s kind of the whole point, she hangs out with animals the whole time. Danish animals, that is, because she’s actually a Hans Christian Andersen creation. So there. Nyahhh.
  • Ooh look, an indication that science actually existed back in the (not-so-) Dark Ages times — well, OK, in the Renaissance (the microscope first appeared in the Netherlands, 1590) but still, good going, show! Further evidence that it wasn’t all filth-gathering and funky smells, from Cracked.com’s highly recommended (to grownups) article on medieval myths:
    The church… started establishing universities to foster the preservation of knowledge. You may have heard of a few of them: Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Paris (not to mention pretty much every other top school in Europe). The universities… translated into Latin guys like Aristotle and Plato, which effectively made the Renaissance possible.
    Around the same time… the Crusades were bringing Europeans into contact with advanced Muslim ideas of science and technology. Ideas like the compass and the astrolabe came to the West via Muslim Spain and came in handy during the later Age of Exploration.
  • I gather “No horned helmets” is sort of the “no wire hangers” of HH lore. Which is sort of understandable, given — as the sketch hints — the tradition requires believing that one of the most dedicated warrior races of all time really wore heavy, conveniently-graspable handles either side of their cranial region. One good enemy twist and yipes, suddenly we’re celebrating the not-so-glorious demise of Sweyn the Chicken-Necked. According to Wiki, the spiky imagery is all the fault of those derned Swedish Romanticists: The popular association probably arose in the 19th century… possibly by misattribution of Bronze Age images such as the Grevensvænge figurines. (Which, I’d like to suggest, also explain a lot that’s incomprehensible about Ikea textiles.)
 
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Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E08

Leader of the Gaulish hordes — so deadly, he could wear pigtails and still look hard!

The road to credibility goes back to being uneven, but the awesomeness of being children’s TV writers and performers with unbridled access to adult comedy inspiration remains…

In this episode:

Song: Caveman Love (Sarah as Random Lonely Cavegirl, Mat & Ben as Cave Backup Singers)

Recurring sketches:

Stupid Deaths — Edmund II (took a Viking dagger up the bum while squatting in a latrine pit)

Ready, Steady Feast — Stone Age Special

Historical Hairdressers — Saxon Hair Treatments

One-offs:

Vicious Vikings

Valhalla Tours — Burning and pillaging your way through Ancient Britain: because even if you’re a Viking, you’re sure as hell not going to come for the sun and sand.

Rotten Romans

Caesar vs. Vercingetorix — Proto-French barbarians give ‘fighting style’ a whole new meaning… also, possibly, “French accent”. (“Us Gauls don’t fight in ze rain! Ve’re orff!”)

Roman Decimation — OH HAI ‘BIGGUS DICKUS’ SCENE FROM LIFE OF BRIAN DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE.

Smashing Saxons

Have Yourself a Stinky Little Christmas — In which a few more painfully obvious gags get (literally) aired… on several demographic levels. (Kids: “Ha ha! They said ‘poo’!” Adults: “… still beats dealing with Aunt Millie’s candy-cane eggnog.”)

Gorgeous Georgians

This is Georgian Food — And perfume-style adverts don’t get any more comprehensible when they switch out Brad Pitt for maggots.

Georgian Dentistry — Ow. Also, ewwww. More entertainingly, also explaining the reason why George Washington is so tight-lipped in all those official portraits.

Frightful First World War

Causes of WWI — Had PG Wodehouse ever decided to write realistic drama (and, naturally, had a nervous breakdown in the attempt) it probably would’ve gone a little something like this…

Fly the Unfriendly Skies (animated) — Here’s the wannabe WWI Flying Ace trying out his new prototype planes… which, sadly, didn’t include a red doghouse.

Measly Middle Ages

Wat’s the Peasant’s Rebellion — Things were so desperate for serfs during the Dark Ages, their leaders had to resort to having really stupid names just to eke out a little comedy.

I’m Not a Knight After All — “The peasants are revolting!” “Yeah, pretty much…”

Field Notes:

  • Well, the revelatory excitement may have gpne off a bit… possibly a lot…  but this episode is good value anyway. By now, the only people still completely committed to HH the kiddy series are the editing team, who continue to randomly shuffle the animated segues around at a rate that strongly suggests the amphetamine dosage needed to at least be halved. Other stuff happens that I don’t think was ever repeated before or since; what works really works, and what doesn’t is still quirky fun. Even the little details, like Rattus vs. the invisible director and the Georgian dentist’s windowless office, are on point.
  • Also, more two-part tuneage. I can see where the song-sketch-song split appealed as a way to cram in more details without losing interest, but it’s a clunky one in a half-hour show and I’m not crushed it was dropped. (They have Bob Hale for that, after all.) Of course, what’s really becoming noticeable is that the problem of memorable music was solved in the very first episode, absolutely irrefutably nailed, and since then we’ve been watching the inevitable bumbling trial-and-error along the way back to that point.
  • This one’s about half-way along the timeline. We have achieved the idea of genre parody, but are not yet 100% sure what to do with it, nor even whether or not to care. Also: first-series budget. They’ve clearly just hauled everyone over as-is from the other Stone Age bits (Jim still in saucer-eyed “Sharp Stone” pitchman mode, explaining why for once he’s the boyfriend and Ben’s the backup). Thus if nothing else giving the whole a pleasingly offbeat ‘Hey guys, let’s put on a show!” vibe — Andy Hardy meets 10,000 BC. We’ve even got Mat (aka Grunt) winking again — don’t hear near as much about this wink, though. Can’t imagine why.
  • Something else they hadn’t quite thought through yet, priority-wise: messing with the male casts’ faces. Dirt, beards, scars etc can all be made to enhance fanservice under the right circs, but appliances… well, let us just say that, however historically accurate it may have been, Future Julius Caesar’s noble and much-blogged-about visage will be entirely missing the huge putty honker. (Doesn’t help that Ben’s using a remarkably non-nasal voice for someone theoretically carrying about five extra pounds on his face.)
  • In other ‘Hey we’re still wearing this stuff so what the hell’ action, great to see more of Steve Punt in the followup ‘Knights’ sketch — wish he’d stuck around generally, he bounces off the regular gang really well. Makes the throwaway sketch into almost more of a hilarious treat than the song. Good for Ben, too, getting a look-in in on the noble action; it just wouldn’t have been a properly sly subversion of romanticized machismo without him… uh, yeah, that’s supposed to be a compliment. Really.
  • The ‘Causes of WWI’ sketch… ohhhhh boy. The genuinely hilarious part is that it might actually be the most technically impressive sketch of the entire show — worth watching again just to appreciate how masterfully they keep it all straight while also keeping a straight face. Especially Ben (whose awe-ful knack for convolution will be further exploited later). It also gets some unexpected cred for — intentionally or not — referencing anime hit Axis Powers Hetalia, in which anthropomorphic amour between Austria and Germany is totally a thing. (So is Blenkinsop/Maltravers slashfic, despite strong evidence that neither would be able to manage even the basic act without a manual.)
  • Death continues to discover new and cruelly hilarious possibilities in his corpse parade — although this is a rare case in which the stupid totally wasn’t the dead man’s fault, poor — ooh, ooh! The poofy royal robes from the Saxon Family Feud sketch are back! Sorry, Edmund, at least you look so exactly as my inner child has always been convinced royalty should: fairytale luxury, as run past the Muppets, with just a dash of grandma’s La-Z-Boy recliner (mini-me always worried about how hard those thrones looked). Further happifying evidence that sometimes, budget limitations aren’t a bad thing.
  • This episode also treats us to the fabulous debut of Mat’s just-authentic-enough-to-be-hilariously-terrible French accent — later to be recycled as his equally baroque Spanish accent — which, along with his distinctively Mediterranean colouring, will ensure his future prominent presence in every Iberian Penisula-set sketch (not to mention nearly every Egyptian/Mesoamerican sketch). Hey, the French don’t get their own regular segment until Series Three, so this still counts as praiseworthy cultural restraint. Also, this particular Gallic sketch may have helped inspire the ‘Armada’ one in Series Four, which earns it all the bonus points.
  • The colouring thing may also help explain why the producers seem determined to stuff Mat into Roman armour, which it is past time to concede will never, ever look convincing. I do have to admit, though, he musters a very decent wooden-headed military haughtiness; of course, there’s not much excuse for any British comedian not to be able to channel the Life of Brian on command. It’s a bit too distractingly blatant a ripoff, honestly, but it’s a ripoff of the best, and Mat’s also got Jim around to ensure the mutual chemistry and timing does it justice. (“Troops! You will stay after battle every day this week!” “…That’s detention.”)
  • Also gotta admit, I really like the WWI plane prototype animated bit, specially since Ben’s narration sounds like he’d come straight from the ‘Causes’ sketch. There’s something about the combination of dashingly heroic and goofily whimsical that just works no matter what… as Charles Schulz discovered around fifty years ago. Given which, bit unsporting to throw in the ‘but you did just hit a dog!” gag, eh, old chaps? (Oh, also: lawn darts… FROM HELL!)
  • Ideas the HH Producers Fell in Love with Early On, Vol. 457: Marauding Vikings steamrolling over helpless English monks. This one will provide just endless opportunities for gore-intensive hilarity — which, as you may recognise by now, ranks in the HH Scale of Writer Gleefulness just below fart jokes — all on the helpfully obvious premise outlined here. I would complain about the repetition, but it will go on to spawn an all-time classic song, and rather surprisingly turns out to contain absolutely no mutilated genitalia references. Reviewing Horrible Histories: some days, all about deciding where to pick your battles.

95% Accu-rat:

  • One of the major reasons I can’t fault the ‘Causes of WWI’ sketch is that I myself got interested in the challenge of explaining it during HS history — rather as you would memorising pi to umpteen places — so I can both sympathise with the HH gang and verify that yes, that is not only the correct explanation but the most concise version of same you’re ever liable to hear. It helps to realise that at the time the entirety of Europe was more-or-less locked in a military-industrial game of chicken, just waiting for any excuse to rev up their shiny new war toys (what media romanticizations of the ‘Gilded Age’ tend to leave out is that an era of unparalleled possibilities & progress includes arms designers, too.) So… yeah, the adult version of schoolyard politics, pretty much.
  • As per previous notes, this week’s knightly sketch gets their actual attitude to chivalry across much more accurately — especially the part about it really only applying to fellow nobility. Frankly pausing to consider anything but their own bloodlust would be unusual for real medieval serf-oppressors, given that in the Dark Ages the sociology basically boiled down to ‘Yo, you’re a stinky vermin-ridden hellhole-dwelling starving serf ‘cos it’s God’s will, so anything I do to keep you there is totally your own fault.” (See also: The Crusades, rationale for.)
  • Neither actually invented the practice (as is shown here), but there’s much more evidence that ‘Decimation’ was revived in the ‘modern’ Roman era by General Crassus, not Pompey. Still, hey, they presumably all used it at some point, and a lot more people recognise the latter’s name (if only as way easier to make sound dirty in primary-grade history.) In real life, of course, they used a blind ballot (like blackballing) to get the thing done, and afterward everybody else got to sleep outside the encampment and eat nasty sour barley instead of wheat. Thus ensuring that if nothing else the troops would be more terrified of their own leaders than the opposition.
 
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Posted by on January 13, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E07

We hunt for deer and rabbits too — so long as they are slow!
…’cos otherwise, we can’t catch them…

In which writers and performers alike nail their ultimate Horrible ambitions to the mast, and thus the viewer is given a delicious glimpse of goodies both now and to come…

In this episode:

Song: I’m a Knight (Mat, Jim and writer Steve ‘Eric Idle’ Punt)

Recurring sketches:

Oh Yea! Magazine — Elizabeth I Exposed

Historical Hospital — Tudor physician

Fractured Fairy Tales — Cinderella, the WWII version (Even fairy godmothers got hit by clothes rationing. Also, the Blitz.)

One-offs:

Groovy Greeks

Helen of Troy – If Classics Illustrated were about x100 more honest. (“Listen up, yeah! I want all us Greek soldiers to march on Troy, you get me? We’re gonna tear that city UP! Kill dem all, izzit? Yeah, it is!”)

The Trojan Horse (imagine spot) – Even without badgers, still really a very silly idea. (“Either we assume this giant wooden horse is a trap, and burn it where it stands; or we say “Look, this is just a nice — if completely weird — present”, and drag it inside the city walls, leave it unguarded and go to bed.”)

Measly Middle Ages

That Was Entertainment!: Jousting on Ice – Bored British peasants take advantage of winter ice to invent a fast-paced, violent, stick-intensive sport… or as I like to think of it, ‘Canada: The Hockey-ening.’

Woeful Second World War

Gravy Stockings — “Look good enough to eat!”

Awful Egyptians

Resurrection Realtor (imagine spot) – …and that parody pyramid either could’ve used some granite countertops, or I’ve been watching way too much House Hunters lately.

Egyptian Gods (animated) — Aka Dogface, Birdbrain and Hippo-Bum the Devourer. Because some things HH will never change. (“Sorry. The wicked give me terrible wind.”)

Vile Victorians

There’s Something in the Water – As you may have guessed, it ain’t attar of roses.

Parliament and the Thames Problem – Solving the “Great Stink” of 1858: So many “which one smells worse” gags, so little time…

Field Notes:

  • Hmmmm. It all begins to fit together, the method in the producers’ seeming madness: “So, cleverly subversive satire, you OK with that, CBBC mums? Fine, now how about we layer on the relentless violence…? Right — but what happens if someone gets bored and decides to throw in overt homeroticism? Really? And jokes about religion to boot? Great! *calls offscreen* “Steve! Ready for the brazenly obvious Monty Python influence!”
  • Or maybe not. Given everything I’ve been told about UK broadcast standards I will concede that they may just’ve thought the Spamalot Jr. vibe would avert a mid-series lull. However it happened, this ep showcases the outer limits of the HH creative team’s ambition, and it is glorious. Not quite the definitive gearshift from kiddy edutainment with parental bonus, to all-ages historical sketch show with an educational hook – ie. it’s still the first series — but for awhile here, it’s Ghost of HH Future all the way. Even the fairy tale segment is kinda nifty.
  • Clearly, all this had a rather intoxicating effect on the editing team. Much as I’ve been complaining about a lack of musical excitement… when interim sketches, animated scene wipes and sign-bearing rats are suddenly all bunged into the singalong at once, I feel the need to register a mild protest. And when in the same ep we also get an entire elaborate medley of cartoonage schlepped in-and-around the live-action (in the ‘Vile Victorians’ segments), I am forced to unkind conclusions re: desperation to justify film-school loans to the parental units.
  • Especially since even without all the ‘help’ this lot are rather overselling the knowing silliness. The sudden, vividly daring rebuttal to generic-ness is hugely appreciated, guys, don’t get me wrong — thing is, we have the Internet now, and riffing on the Holy Grail just doesn’t make you clever enough to kiss anymore. Although it does neatly transform the over-earnest onscreen lyrics into authentically Pythonesque overkill… OK, maybe a little cheek peck.
  • Really, the song overall has the same effect on the critical psyche as trying to punish a kitten, you just cannot stop smiling long enough to protest. Besides which, that the historical comedy sketch show even has Eric Idle’s body double writing for them is clearly a sign from the entertainment gods that they were on the right and good track… yeah, including the Camelot-esque can-can. It’s a very Reform theology.
  • Speaking of adorable… ‘Bradley Huxtable’ is so going to be what I am calling the fuzzy Jim plushie that I have been designing since roughly the Shouty Man’s first appearance. Plushie Jim will be cuddly-soft just like one of those Hallmark teddy bears, except that instead of singing he will make snarky remarks when you press his paw, also occasionally giggle. Seriously, it’s rare he turns up thus in ‘normal’ mode — neither hopeless loser nor over-the-top huckster — and every time he does it’s a reminder for me to be amazed that he’s not starring in his own sitcom by now. He’s not that short, producers, get over it.
  • Whether more a sign of increasing commitment in the moment or a desire to still have viable grown-up careers afterward — my personal guess is a lot of a) tinged noticeably with b) — the whole cast effortlessly handle whatever level-up the writers throw at them, showing off precision skills and timing that haven’t had a whole lot of chance to shine until now. Especially where Mat and Larry are concerned (Ben and Simon having arrived with their comic cred already more-or-less fully developed, and Jim nearly there); the Trojan Horse sketch flat-out belongs to the fledgling clown & the unknown writer, helping make it one more thing I totally cherish.
  • Sarah also contributes a very capable comic turn — which is probably why she was cast as Helen; not saying she’s not qualified otherwise, exactly, only that whether Martha’s face might launch more ships is at least debatable (this same ep, after all, does find MHD convincingly playing Cinderella). While I’m at it, here’s a spare laurel for Terry Deary, who’s developing a really nice, original line in wise old patriarchs. Honestly, if he’d just skip the pontificating and stick to acting while he’s in the public eye, I’d like him a whole lot better.
  • Ooh hey, and Larry the Historical Hospital patient finally gets to talk back! Turns out it really ups the funny-making ante when you give the daffy doc something to bounce off. Here he and Ben use that dynamic to build a wonderfully classic screwball comedy scene. (That is, once you get past that unnervingly dull modern deference to the historical crazy characteristic of the ‘timeslip’ sketches. Personally, I figure that in this world the Time Sewers malfunction so often the modern folk have just given up and gone with it. Can never decide if that`s charming or disturbing.)
  • So we’re hip-deep in Ancient Greek goofiness again — albeit in keeping with the current mood they’ve abandoned the genital mutilation for something much lighter. The Helen of Troy sketch is deservedly a classic, and I really do try to get into it, because the concept — an early version of the ‘match the modern genre to the equally pretentious history’ formula so simple-yet-cool it was later adopted for the songs — is just that brilliant… but I keep getting distracted by the accents. Specifically, this ‘chav’ thing, does it really sound like that? I do understand they’re channeling the same vibe as Sasha Baron Cohen’s Ali G; I have the same credibility flakeout while listening to both. (I imagine it’s much the same thing you lot go through when dealing with depictions of the American inner city.)
  • Incidentally, on the subject of distracting uncertainty — never let it be said I don’t know how to segue — who is that playing the Pharoah in the ‘pyramid realty’ sketch? It’s not Ben, right? I mean, I’d recognise Ben, and that isn’t him. I don’t think. It just seems weird that they’d bring in Random Unknown Lead Actor just for this one sketch. What I am sure of is that they paid good money for that sheepskin KISS wig (from the Pharoah Phashion sketch), because by god they’re going to use it!
  • Seriously, the Jousting on Ice… I see no reason why Canucks’ primal instinct for ice hockey couldn’t have originated in idiot English peasant DNA; it took decades just to convince ice hockey goalies it wasn’t sissified to wear face masks. The sketch itself has some nice details — it actually doesn’t seem like a bad idea for a real-world TV series — but the jousting itself starts and suddenly I’m thinking: nobody tell Don Cherry about this, OK? Just trust me, don’t.
  • Right, so I don’t usually make this sort of recommendation… family show, family-friendly blog, is the way I look at it… but if you’re into hair porn at all, boy howdy do you want to cue up the ‘Parliament’ sketch behind closed doors. I’m picturing somebody on the makeup team, probably after one too many Red Bulls, deciding that by God she was gonna fulfill her dream romance novel cover image now or never. Otherwise the sketch is funny but a bit too noticeably lazy, to the point of repeating almost verbatim the ‘does it bother us? No? OK then!” punchline from a few eps ago. Simon does have a wonderful take on urbanely clueless authority, though.

95% Accu-rat:

  • The Oh Yea! bit about Elizabeth’s supposedly poor hygiene… sigh. Here, have this accurate and well-reasoned rebuttal. Short version: i) Elizabeth was actually unusually finicky for the time, which certainly did involve regular bathing (also, not mentioned in the link, daily changes of linen undergarments) and ii) Everybody had smallpox scars and (among the nobility) bad teeth, because hello, it was frelling 16th-century Europe, anything above ‘not actually being dead’ was considered a bonus! Seriously, guys, all this is one rather shaky step up from laughing at victims of malnutrition for being short.
  • On the other hand, the gravy stockings I do have to give you. I went into researching this one extremely skeptical about the smell being anything close to socially acceptable in human company let alone canine, but instead learned a(nother) valuable lesson in never, ever, underestimating British resourcefulness under fire, and a new definition of ‘suffering to be beautiful’ besides. This vintage fashion blogger gives an entertaining in-depth overview of the Great Stocking Crisis.
  • OK, so, the whole ‘chivalry’ concept… um, in theory at least a wonderful, noble expression of man’s higher ideals (neutral-to-a-fault Wikipedia waxes positively ethereal on the subject). Also, a pretty good early attempt at maintaining order in the chaos of war. In practice, however — well, we’ve all encountered actual humans at some point, yes? Particularly the ones that are young, male, and  bored out of their tiny little minds? I’m not going to link it directly here (again, family blog), but if you’re over 16 and have a minute, check out Cracked.com’s recent article on Ridiculous Middle Ages Myths Everyone Believes — including one more satisfying whack at the hygiene thing.
 
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Posted by on January 8, 2013 in Series One

 

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Meta-stuff: My credentials, aka a moment to humblebrag

So I’ve been at this for awhile now, and people are actually still reading — thank you from the bottom of my heart, seriously.

This combination has inspired me to start thinking about exactly why people should be paying attention to my ramblings. What qualifies me as a critic of last week’s lunch, let alone an award-winning comedy programme?

Well, since I’m Canadian, my first impulse is to apologise for not addressing this sooner. Sorry about that.

Next: William Shatner, Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd, Due South, Mike Myers, Kate Beaton, the Barenaked Ladies… no, the band…. SCTV. We are a naturally funny people, primarily because for much of the year we are a naturally freezing-bloody-cold people, so have gotten into the habit of making sure the people we’re cooped up indoors with have a reason not to kill us.

As for me specifically… besides occasionally over the years acting as beta-reader for a novelist friend, may I humbly direct you to this page, representing my contributions to a respected online ‘zine. I was taken on as a reviewer/blogger on the strength of this article, on legendary American comedy team Bob & Ray, which in 2010 became liner notes for this CD retrospective…

…which earned me unbelievably gracious and generous thank-you notes from Bob Elliott himself, and Ray Goulding’s widow. Both of which notes currently occupy pride of place near the desk I’m writing this on, for inspiration.

So yeah. I’m not saying I always know what I’m talking about. But the above should give a pretty good idea of my ability to appreciate Horrible Histories, and comedy in general.

Again, thanks so much for reading. Any and all feedback gratefully appreciated.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Meta-stuff

 

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S01E06

Now, remember what I told ya…
“Try not to die”?
Yeah, that’s the spirit!

A gently nondescript little midseason interlude… mostly.

In this episode:

Song: A Gorgeous Georgian Lady (Martha as Random Noblewoman)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Wife Swap — Georgian Noble vs. Peasant (“Hello, we’re very, very rich.” “Hello, we’re very, very, very hungry!”)

Stupid Deaths — Franz Reichert (personally tested ‘coat-parachute’ from the 1st level of the Eiffel Tower — “Well, at least the ‘coat’ part worked! Ha!”)

Dodgy War Inventions — No.7: The Roman ‘Onager’ Catapult

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, the WWI version (See, soldiers would wee on their boots to soften the leather, so…)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Flagellants — With Europe a mass of festering plague sores, a God who’d demand you whip yourself raw suddenly started making total sense…

The Made-Up Planet (animated) — You laugh, but frankly zoology was lots more fun before it started insisting on stuff like ‘eyewitness accounts’ and “reality”.

Vile Victorians

Victorian Claims Direct — Being a small, defenseless kid during the Industrial Revolution sucked. The end.

Chimney Sweepstakes — Because they had to get the inevitable “something stuck up the chimney, guv!” gags out of the way… and I honestly thought that was a joke, right up until Santa fell out of there.

Rotten Romans

Row, Row, Row Your Galley (Or We’ll Kill You) — Because they also urgently had to get shot of the ‘mess with the rowing rhythm’ gags. Trust me, we’ll all feel better later.

Frightful First World War

Good Luck Charms — You laugh, but they didn’t wear them to the recruiter’s office and just look what happened.(“…lucky penny… lucky rabbit’s foot…” “Where’d you get that?” “From the lucky regimental mascot. Got hit by a bomb.”)

Groovy Greeks

Greek Myth Talk: Cronus Eats His Own Children — The origin story of the Olympian pantheon. Remember that, next time someone claims the Greeks had all the really cool gods.

Field Notes:

  • Yeppers, just a quiet, peaceful little episode… not much to see here… right up until the unabashed infant cannibalism kicks in. Yes, I really should be used to this by now, but… but… everyone’s covered in mucus and/or has comically awful facial hair and/or sliced-off ‘dangly bits’… (Yet people still look at me funny when I tell them this show will never air in America.) Basically, the Cronus sketch is the last and most vivid reminder that at this point in the show’s history, devoting precious time and resources to the equivalent of the Brothers Grimm + genital mutilation + Jerry Springer seemed like a great idea.
  • To the point that this is the only “chat show” sketch to feature an actual studio audience, containing more members than were present for freaking Charles I’s execution a few eps ago. Granted, the former probably brought their own costumes, but still. It’s like looking at what would’ve happened had the show actually applied its growing cleverness to that juvenile grossout mentality they like to play up in the marketing — frankly unpleasant now to watch, and I don’t think would’ve earned them near the success. Of course, it should always be kept in mind that I’m not British, and neither am I an eight-year-old boy.
  • In happier news, the music’s back!… Sort of. At least I can usually remember this one, albeit largely because the score reminds me of the ‘Perfect Nanny’ number from Mary Poppins… assuming that movie to have been made on a BBC props budget recently gutted by mucus procurement. Seriously, they couldn’t even afford a painted backdrop? Basing historical comedy off fashion foibles anyway requires more delicate handling than the show is thus far capable of, even were they not still convinced that awkward makeup application = one-way ticket to Wackyland.
  • Ironically enough the song also unintentionally falls into the same trap as the scripted one Rattus elsewhere trips over, re: belief in medieval monsters vs. modern Loch Ness devotees. Similarly, leave it at “Har har! Mouse-skin eyebrows!” and the next thing you know some snotty Georgian is all snorting and going “Yeah, well you lot put metal spikes through your tongue!” (Granted, this tends to work out better when the potential snorter is long dead. Still, you get the drift.)
  • The Georgian Wife Swap installment teased at the end of the Restoration ditto also crops up here, and also is a distinct letdown, coming as it does right after sublime proof that the ‘reality show’ sketches work best when they involve clashes of culture and belief — below-surface stuff that really enables character comedy. Here, once they’ve established the ‘rich vs. hungry’ cliches, they’ve literally got nowhere else to go…
  • …save perhaps inspiring viewer sympathy for Jim, who is always being cast as the hopeless serf in these things (this is especially urgent, after hearing his pathetic screeches in the ‘Flagellants’ sketch). Oh, and to speculate re: just how Lord Posh managed to nab that wig second-hand from one Dr. Fuzzlepeck… You’re welcome, fanfic authors.
  • Ideas the HH Producers Fell in Love With Early On, vol.287: the horrors of Industrial Revolution-era child labour. This will eventually account for easily two-thirds of the Vile Victorian sketches (plus one actually lavishly produced song), most of which will work a whole lot better than this one. Yet another high-concept gag that goes not a whole lot of anywhere, along with the WWI good luck charms, and the Roman galley, and… yeah, worryingly big episode for those, come to think of it.
  • On the bright side, Simon having so recently, and firmly, established that anything is liable to happen when he’s onscreen — plus having a hugely charming native accent — helps greatly to rivet viewer attention. both as the aforementioned flagellant and the chimney sweep. (The latter of whom especially is forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting in his sketch, because protip: slapping flashing SANTA! signs on a gag older than Saint Nick himself does not, in fact, act as magical humour Febreze.) Even Death finally seems to be getting with the program, cheerfully twitting the Corpse du Jour in much the more familiar manner.
  • Minuses: weirdly miscast Mat as the butler. Dashing WWI officer Mat isn’t working either, somehow. Not just physically (they did at least give him a coat this time) — they’re trying to shoehorn him in as the stock effortlessly aristocratic type, and he’s not, exactly. None of the eventual core troupe is, although you give Ben a magnificent enough hairdressing job and he can fake it very acceptably. So I do have to give him that, also the ‘orchestra, play something sad’ bit, because he’s just having way too much fun with it at that point. And Jim… well, hey, Jim really does have a knack for those pathetic little woobie types, doesn’t he! Won him a BAFTA and everything. So, um, yeah, yay Jim.
  • Gotta hand it to the littlest cast members, too, and quite seriously. The show benefits greatly from an unusually solid core of child actors, able to switch convincingly from snark to pathos as needed — a skill never to be underestimated, in onscreen rugrats. To my shame I never have learned all their names; according to Twitter the blond one is Bertie Gilbert, who once almost made it into a Harry Potter movie, then eventually grew up to be a YouTube star. Thus becoming the only person ever named ‘Bertie’ to do that, so good for him.
  • Starting to feel like I should be saying something about the fairy tale bits, especially since from the debut press release forward, these were clearly intended as the crown jewel of recurring HH sketches. Death gets the cardboard desk, while Storytime Lady has a cozy chair and lavishly produced standalone tales to narrate, as a reminder that a) Meera Syal was a huge casting coup for the fledgling kiddy series and b) Shrek was still vaguely relevant in 2009.
  • The real trouble is it’s all basically the same tale, or at least the same punchline, and that of a kind the show was rapidly outgrowing even before these sketches first aired. They resemble nothing else about the finished series, or for that matter HH’s generally relentless insistence on the real story, so there was just nowhere for them to go. Ave aqua vale, Meera; you gave it your best shot in a situation where you really, really didn’t have to, and for that you have my respect. Just not my interest.

95% Accu-rat:

  • For all I rag on the animations — you must understand, I wasn’t raised on the HH books or anything — I do like the Medieval Bestiary very much, because, frankly, Dark Ages biology is just endlessly hilarious. As conclusive evidence I give you the beaver, pace Gerald of Wales: When he finds he cannot save himself from the pursuit of the dogs who follow him, that he may ransom his body by the sacrifice of a part, he throws away that, which by natural instinct he knows to be the object sought for, and in the sight of the hunter castrates himself, from which circumstance he has gained the name of Castor; and if by chance the dogs should chase an animal which had been previously castrated, he has the sagacity to run to an elevated spot, and there lifting up his leg, shews the hunter that the object of his pursuit is gone.
  • WHOA YOU GUYS, VIDEO OF FRANZ REICHELT’S FALL TOTALLY EXISTS. He invited the Press and everything. Now I feel even worse for the poor guy… although that’s still not very, because according to the full story this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment leap to glory; his friends spent quite some time begging him not to try it himself, and he just blew them all right off. If the Grim Reaper ever decides to hold a Stupid Deaths Masters or somesuch, Reichelt’s a shoo-in.
  • So… Cronus. On top of everything else, not actually a god: he was a Titan, and yes this is an important distinction, because… well… I’m pretty sure the paper I wrote in grade nine Ancient History explains it all, just as soon as I get around to digging it out of storage. He was for certain a pretty bad dude, anyway, having already castrated his dad Uranus at the behest of his mum Gaia (the Furies, Giants and some nymphs rose where Uranus’ blood hit the ground). Greek mythology… overall, I’m kinda glad HH quit while they were ahead.
 
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E05

It’s true! William the Conqueror really did explode at his own funeral… see if you can find that on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Having full-on stormed the boundaries of children’s media and come out the other side still on the air, the show takes a moment to relax and enjoy the view…

In this episode:

Song: Sorry, true believers, it’ll be awhile yet before the music becomes mandatory. In the meantime, have some gratuitous shots at Simon Cowell.

Recurring sketches:

Bob Hale — The Stone Age Report

Court of Historical Law — Anglo-Saxon Britain (Ethelred the Unready vs. a horse thief)

Fractured Fairy Tales — Goldilocks, the Saxon version (Wherein stealing gets you branded on the forehead & ears/hands cut off.)

Historical Hospital — Dr. Montague Fuzzlepeck: Master of Georgian medicaments

One-offs:

Awful Egyptians

Pharaoh Phashion Magazine — Playing it cool in the desert, from your hair down to your… erm… let’s just say the depilatories must’ve been really impressive.

Mouse Fresh Max Toothpaste —  No, of course they didn’t just stuff the mice in live! They cut them in half first! … Doesn’t really help, does it?

Ruthless Rulers

Louis XI and the Pig Piano (animated) — A bored French king demands a nifty new musical instrument, which turns out to be auto-squealing pork, which turns into the aforementioned Cowell riff.  (…”Though even I’m not that old.” *oink!* “I’m not!”)

Measly Middle Ages

HHTV News: The Domesday Book — The conquering Normans survey their new holdings… and if this sample is anything to go by, were severely disappointed.(“How many chickens do you have?” “Fifteen.” *squawk! thud!* “Fourteen.”)

William I: Hurry Up and Bury Him — Royal funerals were a bit… different before TV. But arguably a lot more entertaining.

Rotten Romans

Caligula vs. Poseidon — The definition of a big problem: being the Emperor of Rome’s generals the day he decides to go to war with a god. (“BIGGER THAN MEEEE?!!”)

Savage Stone Age

Modern Stone Age Family (imagine spot) — Why Emily Post suggests your dinner guests should always be at the same evolutionary stage. (“Please, take a seat…wait, what are you doing?” “Ugg take seat!”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Join the Georgian Navy — “Bravely defending Britain’s empire with some people we picked up off the floor in the local tavern.”

Field Notes:

  • Nope, no song — in case you were still wondering just how far they’d come in four series. At this point in the show’s evolution that particular lavish care was being expended instead on the animated bits. Not incomprehensible if you’ve ever seen the books — but clearly a decision made prior to (independently of?) taking a good look at the live cast, or for that matter, most of the live-action scripts.
  • Because otherwise this is such a lovely romp of an episode — well, the (unusual) insistence on the realistically bloody maiming of cute li’l Goldilocks is a bit much, but other than that, just pure good times. None of the sketches are exactly insta-classics, but they’re all frankly hilarious, suggesting that the writers were rapidly becoming very comfortable indeed not only with the material, but in adapting it from the source to fit their own notions of *ahem* family entertainment. Besides all of which I’m so very grateful for an episode that isn’t actively trying to give me or my inner history nerd nightmares.
  • Besides that… lots of Mat, and specifically, lots of Mat having a whole lot of fun, in a way that vividly illustrates why these people signed up for HH in the first place and have stayed all these years. Y’know, biases re: beauty aside, Mat’s not the best actor of the troupe per se — that would be Ben or Jim, depending on the requirements of the sketch — but as a clown he has something that were I a genre expert I suspect I’d be dubbing genius, and am certainly able to call intensely watchable.
  • Rattus’ crack — the first of many similar — about Neanderthals being ‘your PE teacher’s relatives…’ I dunno. I mean, ragging on boring ol’school, integral part of the HH/Terry Deary/small children everywhere experience, I get it. That PE teachers are obviously far less respected and feared over there than here, a little odd (do you people not play dodgeball?), but OK. The thing is, though, as it turns out some of the cast actually are PE teacher relatives, or at least have relatives that are PE teachers. Do they have Thanksgiving in the UK? ‘Cos I’d imagine this is the sort of thing that’d make it weird.
  • Trivia time: if you guessed that the first HH actor to get a full-frontal scene (with the relevant bits tastefully obscured of course!) would be Javone… well, hey, you’re in luck. He’s got nothing to be ashamed of — unlike the rest of the sketch, which is doing that thing the show always does to demonstrate historical beauty choices, ie. applying them like a toddler raiding Mummy’s makeup bag. This has always struck me as vaguely unfair, besides leading to things like Return of Museum Matron Sarah and [actress name to be inserted here on receipt] making like a low-rent KISS groupie. Something else I thought they didn’t have in the UK.
  • Elsewhere, this episode features the debut of one Terry Deary, apparently just for a lark. I’m not the man’s biggest fan — there’s a point at which ‘loveable old curmudgeon’ becomes just plain ‘self-absorbed old crank’, and to my mind, if he hasn’t crossed it, he’s hovering dangerously on the verge — but hey, without him none of us would be here. And he gets all the respect besides for making himself actually useful and funny onscreen, not just standing around waiting for a medal.
  • Also debuting here: Cartoon Simon Cowell (complete with lovingly delineated moobs — nice one, animators!) and the show’s inexplicable need to get all up in his grill wherever possible. Not exactly complaining, you understand; just a trifle bemused by the specific importance of it all, especially since his relevance over here is long since done. Does one of the writers have an embarrassing Pop Idol audition buried in his past somewhere? Does this mean that with suitable stimulus — financial or otherwise — we could displace that rage onto, say, Chris Brown getting whomped by a megabear?
  • What a wonderful sketch Caligula vs. Poseidon is. Everything that inspires me to blog about HH, in one neat package. Whenever my warm fuzzy levels are off I watch it again, once for the pure funny — how did they all keep a straight face? — once to appreciate Simon’s advanced masterclass in comic crazy, and once to… well.. Mat. Um. Even if I’m pretty sure the Romans didn’t actually invent hairspray, and even if in terms of convincing armour-wearing he is still the charter founder of Skinnymandria. Shut up and watch he and Jim adorkably high-five each other, inner history nerd.
  • The Domesday Book is another guaranteed gigglefest. Not so much in and of itself — although the gags are solid and expertly played — as for the implications in odd corners. I love that Martha gets a rare non-gender-specific role (and/or one in which she’s not stuck wearing hideous blouses — sorry, Sam). Then there’s Jim cutting up in the background — not saying he’s trying to mess with Mat, but it’s the perfect opportunity, and another fuzzy-inducing indication of how much fun they were having putting this thing together, even at that early date. (Is there a blooper reel attached to Series One? My *ahem* online copy doesn’t include one.)
  • They’re also starting to get a more nuanced understanding of their leads’ strengths, as demonstrated by the Stone Age Family sketch — or, more accurately, by an expertly-cast Ben, Mat and Sarah fully rescuing same from what could’ve been a dreadful morass of overplayed cliches. And while I’m handing out individual laurels, let’s hear it for Larry the perpetual — and perpetually anonymous — patient in the Historical Hospital sketches, demonstrating his willingness to put up with anything for an onscreen laugh. Nice knowing now that he’ll be rewarded for it.
  • You can tell this is very early days for the Bob Hale Report, as not only is ol’Bobsy still blond — incidentally, this side of the pond, that floppy ‘do is mostly associated with aging surfers in particular and males who’ve been refusing to grow up since 1995 in general, leading to delightful speculations on B.Hale: the College Years — but his catchphrases go by with barely a pause. Also, the fadeout isn’t to Sam but to Rattus, in what I think is the only direct interaction to date between he and the HHTV crew. When someone decides to work out the timey-wimey stuff of the HH universe — and yes, it’s the internet, of course someone will — I fully expect this to be a major plot point.
  • In a similar vein, the actor ‘playing’ William I’s corpse doesn’t bear much resemblance to Simon’s later live-action take. Still, all hail Whatshisname and his amazing ability to remain dead throughout what’s essentially the Worst Extra Job Ever, including highly convincing-looking flames (and while I’m at it, huzzah to whomever convinced the owners of that gorgeous Great Hall to let it be set it on fire). Must make for quite the memorable resume in both cases.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Not really a historical note per se, but I do love the mental image of baffled parents attempting to explain the ‘hair of the hound that first bit him’ to their wide-eyed darlings. Good one, show.
  • OK, so, Egyptian hairdressing turns out to be a bit too ridiculous to be true. The provenance for those wax cones is limited to paintings — contemporary wigs don’t show a lot of residue — but it’s thought the idea if any was to melt perfume over your ‘do (picture a cross between hot oil treatments and aromatherapy), not just prance round with the cone stuck up there. In a desert-dwelling aristocracy, where, as the sketch does accurately indicate, the higher you climbed the more clothes you required, not smelling like old socks was a valued sign of status.
  • The mouse-paste, however… sorry, animal lovers, that one’s golden: The mouse, which was considered to be protected by the sun and capable of fending off death, was often used by individuals with a toothache…applying half of the body of a dead mouse to the aching tooth while the body was still warm. (So why, I’d like to know, does Rattus not throw a tantrum as he will over later sketches featuring rats being threatened? Evidence of teeny little rodent apartheid?)
  • Ordeal by cake, meanwhile, also totally a thing. In Anglo-Saxon, corsned: literally (and even more delightfully), the ‘bread and cheese’ ordeal. In real life, of course, since God was doing the judging they had to make sure this lump of dough was untainted by yeasty evil, so an exorcism was conducted… ie. totally featured a priest going all William Peter Blatty over, basically, kindergarten snack time. You may now close your eyes and appreciate that scene to the fullest.
  • Back? Great. Just in time for a long and involved discussion in the YouTube comments on the genealogical controversies inherent in… WAIT NO STOP PUT DOWN THAT EYE-GOUGER. Seriously, no, even I’m not going back in there. Non-mouth-foam-intensive version: ‘Unready’ really refers not to poor old Aethelred, but to his advisers, pace Wiki: (“Unready” is a mistranslation of Old English unræd (meaning bad-counsel) —a twist on his name “Æthelred” (meaning noble-counsel). A better translation would be “ill-advised”. Also, there seems to be some problem with calling his uncle ‘Earl Harold Godwin’, whether he even was his uncle in the first place, and even more with his actually having taken the corsned. Horrible Histories: proudly reminding me that people really do care deeply about this stuff since 2009.
  • Animal instruments along the lines shown here have a long and storied history, albeit mostly as novelty items — you ever spare a thought for the poor servant forced to clean that piggy piano, five minutes later? My personal favourite is the Katzenklavier (‘cat organ’), which if it existed would’ve been much the same thing, but it didn’t exist, because, hello, cats having their tails pulled, nobody wanted to get in front of that. Still: The instrument was recreated using squeaky toys… for a garden party held… in 2010 by Prince Charles [for charity].The tune Over the Rainbow was played and caused great amusement. To paraphrase Death: I love the British so much, sometimes. I do. I really do.
  • Guess what: Caligula really did take on Poseidon, the Greek god, not Neptune, the Roman one. If he actually did take one a god at all, of course. Like all things Little Bootikins (check back to S01E04 for details), sources naturally differ widely on whether he fully believed in his divine war, or if it was merely a legend grown up around the symbolic gesture of marching to the sea (the details of the ‘battle’ will be covered in another sketch). But whatever it was, it was apparently happening against the Hellenic deity.
  • Finally (boy this episode just keeps on giving, doesn’t it?)… Neanderthals: As it turns out, not really all that stupid. Not Rhodes Scholars or anything, but pretty darn good at being cavepeople, ie. able to independently evolve tools. It’s currently suspected that they may actually be an obsolete subspecies of Homo Sapiens… meaning Bored Yuppie Ben is probably sitting there chatting to his embarrassing cousins that nobody in the family really likes to talk about. Makes the sketch that much better, doesn’t it?
 
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Series One

 

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