20 Jan

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


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…

Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Series One


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 responses to “S01E10

  1. Kate

    February 23, 2013 at 8:21 am

    You know, it occurred to me that as this song features a group of dancing zombies, if it had come later in the series, it would most probably have been done as a homage to Thriller with the corpse collector as Jackson.

    • Shoebox

      February 24, 2013 at 4:23 pm

      Probably, yeah — along the lines of the brief homage in the Halloween Special. I’d be sorry to lose the Plague Song as-is, but the possibilities are definitely intriguing.

  2. Grace Garner

    March 17, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    Meth is a thing we are aware of over here, although it isn’t such a cultural touchstone as it seems to be for Americans, but – and this may come as a surprise after everything else – I wouldn’t think of hard drugs as something children would be aware of or appropriate to be referenced in a show aimed at them!

    • Shoebox

      March 17, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      Pleased to hear it, on both counts. 🙂

      • Buzz

        November 25, 2013 at 8:34 pm

        I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog and hope there is more to come. 🙂 Sorry for how long this turned out but you seem to be interested enough by the other posts on the subject of cultural differences that I hope you’ll enjoy reading it anyway…

        Just from observation, the rule here seems to be that – aside from the risk of seriously upsetting or frightening children – if it’s realistic a child would be made more likely to try a harmful behaviour at some point, then it’s not appropriate for children, hence the absence of recreational drug references amongst a sea of cartoonish violence. For another example, there’s a formal ban on showing suicide in children’s broadcasts, which of course many children and teenagers do toy with and even complete. I believe it was Caroline Norris who explained that Boudicca’s suicide was one of the issues they carefully considered referencing at all. At first I thought this was strange, as most of the violence depicted on the show is far worse than suicide, but that’s where my theory comes in: Brits don’t tend to believe that seeing cartoonish depictions of violence, or hearing about unrealistic forms of violence – like making someone a human candle – makes children more violent.

        I don’t think we’d be as comfortable seeing more minor forms of violence, like fighting, potentially dangerous pranks or unprovoked common assaults (especially in the childhood bullying context), being depicted without due care for the tone and narrative resolution, because it seems more realistic that certain children might copy that, even if just while playing a game and not meaning to hurt anyone. Violence in childhood is typically attributed to other causes. I think we all know homoeroticism might be experimented with or wondered about more as a result of being made aware of it, but few people here are bothered at that slight increased chance, as the homophobes we have – whose personality and demographic distribution is probably quite different to yours, as they’re less often religiously motivated and more often suffer a lack of critical analysis of their parents’ or peers’ attitudes, gender normativity or squeamishness – would generally see it as very unlikely that *their* children would try it anyway, are not as often the type who can be bothered to make formal complaints or be political or to watch such a programme anyway, and due to the lack of religiosity (belief the devil can make it happen to anyone, etc.) among most of them, are not quite as anxious about the possibility as their North American counterparts seem to be.

        What would be interesting to know is whether North Americans simply *do* believe that the kind of violence in Horrible Histories makes children more likely to be violent or desensitised to real violence (personally I have more sympathy for the desensitisation theory than most people here), if they believe children to be more emotionally sensitive to that sort of thing than we do, or if it’s due to a more general belief – expressed by some here, too – that every depiction of or reference to violence must come with (IMO patronising & unnecessary) messages that it’s wrong, because if you don’t “instill” what is of course natural born compassion into an instinctively compassionate species, they will never “learn” the compassion (i.e. morality) that they were of course born with if not carrying enough sociopath genes to make them neurologically incapable. While we too believe that *bigotry* (selective non-compassion) is dependent on social conditioning, and therefore must not be present on children’s TV programming, I personally hope that not as many of us as in some other countries support the belief that human beings are born without the capacity to translate empathy into compassion into the desire to protect for anyone in the first place, and must be brainwashed into doing so by both parents and television. That might not be the case at all, I have no idea, but it’s one more possibility for speculation.

        Thanks again, will try to keep it brief next time 🙂

  3. Shoebox

    November 30, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Buzz — I did enjoy it, enormously, and thank you. As I should’ve mentioned immediately it was posted. A more thoughtful response (along with new blog entries) will have to wait just a bit longer, but I did just want to acknowledge your effort, and say thanks again for compliments both outright and implied. 🙂


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