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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Interlude: Historical edutainment, American-style

Given that one of the major themes of this project has become the different ways British and American media approach children’s TV, I thought it’d be entertaining, if not actually instructive, to take a look at the latter’s most notable attempt to bring history lessons to the smaller set: Histeria!

It all started in 1996, when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally put their foot down and announced “no really, you guys, we’re serious!” about the Children’s Television Act of 1990. Notably, the clause providing that broadcast stations must set aside three hours each week for children’s programs that have educational content.

Around the same time, Warner Bros. Animation was having a mini-renaissance, overseen by one Steven Spielberg along with veteran kiddy-show writer Tom Ruegger. Thus far the combo had produced the likes of Animaniacs!, Freakazoid, Pinky & the Brain and Tiny Toon Adventures. Not sure how far these penetrated across the pond, but over here their ubiquitousness was such that when Spielberg & co. announced that their idea of fulfilling the new educational-content mandate was a similarly outrageous slapstick take on history, the response from fledgling The WB network was “Sure! Have lots of money and resources!”

The result was the 1998 debut of Histeria!, and it really was quite a show. Featuring a troupe of offbeat types including Father Time, Loud Kiddington and Miss Information (as voiced by a much more respectable cast than their names deserved) and taking full advantage of the fact that nobody was really expecting the creators of Slappy Squirrel to earnestly mould young minds, the show instead scampered cheerfully through ‘fact-based’ skits and songs in very much the same manner as its predecessors, except namechecking historical icons instead of current celebrities.

In fact, it looks familiar on several levels: the relentless barrage of pop-culture references, the song spoofs (notably ‘Trustbuster’ Teddy Roosevelt taking on literal greedy capitalist pigs to the tune of Ghostbusters), the jokes blatantly designed to sail over the younger set’s heads. They refused — in an American context, at least — to be sanitized, and even managed to push boundaries. Including the first last and only sanctioned swearing under the PG-Y rating — because “War is heck!” and “Darn the torpedoes…!” sounded too stupid even for the FCC.

In more direct comparison to Horrible Histories, it was wildly unfocussed, frenetic and unsubtle; the British idea of history as self-deprecating satire just doesn’t have an equivalent in the American psyche, and so the latter never did bother to master the next step, essential to HH’s growing sophistication, of recognizing the funny inherent within the facts themselves. But for all that Histeria! did manage to be decently faithful to its premise, and chuckle-worthy with it…

…so naturally, nobody watched. Also, budget overruns, to the tune of $10 million. Planned for the usual 65 episodes, it eventually only ran for 52, and was essentially given up by its parent network — which really could’ve used a flagship hit right about then. Instead, they quietly let the show languish until 2000, and didn’t bother even to re-run it much past that. Its one unique angle may have proved too awkward to promote to its native audience either as education or entertainment, and it lacked any other established reason to exist (a la the HH books). Shortly thereafter, the whole slate of WB-style silliness would be swamped by the rising new trend of imported anime hits.

Still, Histeria! has a ferociously loyal cult following to this day. As proof I offer the show’s TVTropes page, which you’ll note lists fanfic recommendations. Again, for a series featuring something called The Big Fat Baby. Enter at your own risk.

Or, more reasonably, have this YouTube playlist, which as far as I can tell contains the hilights. Bonus: this odd little mashup that *ahem* marries Henry VIII’s HH song with the Histeria! visuals, with very cute results.

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Posted by on February 28, 2013 in The background

 

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S02E04

“Stay calmer when you want to harm a llama — call a llama farmer!”

Poking about in the more diverse corners of their mandate, the show turns up a wealth of good fun… also, seriously, more than you ever wanted to hear about llamas.

In this episode:

Song: We’re the WWII Girls (Original Girl Power) — Alice as a factory worker, Martha as an ‘Air Force miss’ and Katy as a Land Girl.

Recurring sketches:

Historical Hospital — Islamic healer vs. European ‘doctor’: who’s the dangerous alien now? (Hint: probably the one calling the other “You crazy Arabian hippie!”)

Stupid Deaths — Humphrey de Bohun (took a pike up the bum while fighting his way through the Battle of Boroughbridge)

Scary Stories — The Cabinet of Mystery (“I don’t want to do a show called ‘Boring Stories’. I did that last year for the other channel, and frankly it sank like a stone.”)

Historical Shopping Channel: Inca Hour (“And remember, these drums are made from real human skin — so you can go on beating your enemy all day long!”)

HHTV News — Jack Sheppard, Escapologist Extraordinaire: Will He Cheat the Gallows Again? Spoiler: No.

HHTV Sport — Trojan War Special: Hector vs. Achilles, literally for all the marbles. (“And who’d’ve thought that Achilles’ Achilles’ heel would be his Achilles’ heel?”)

Dodgy War Machines (animated) — No.14: Greek War Elephants

One-offs:

Gorgeous Georgians

The Legendary Lord Nelson — Luckily, when you have big honking cannons, being personally imposing is optional… and no, that’s not a euphemism. (“How did you lose your legs, sir? They seem to be cut off at the knee…?” “Psst, no he really is that short…”)

Incredible Incas

Llama Sacrifice-a-rama-lama-ding-dong – Of the livestock, the viewer’s sanity, whichever.

Vile Victorians

Tapeworm Trap — “I once caught a tapeworm this long!”

New! Victorian Beer — Tastes better than the water! Less likely to fill you with loathsome diseases! There’s just one itty-bitty problem…

Woeful Second World War

Churchill Plans D-Day – All you really need to know about this take on the Great Bulldog’s workaholic tendencies: “…So we can continue this meeting in our jim-jams!”

Field Notes:

  • Great rejoicing in camp: The show has finally come flat out and acknowledged the existence of Horrible Herstories — well, the process really started last episode, with Pearl Hart, but it reaches full flower here. And speaking as a fully representative female, let me tell you, it is about damn time. Just a marvellously catchy, upbeat, accurate song, neither too strident nor too apologetic, beautifully performed in honour of entirely deserving subjects.
  • Now, I ordinarily don’t like to get too excited about deep cultural significance in goofy comedy. Esp since there is maybe a fraction too much emphasis here on how icky hard and uncomfortable it all was — “manual labour hurts!” is uneasily reminiscent of that ‘Math is hard!’ Barbie of the ’90’s. But I still can’t help it, it’s just that amazing to think of little girls being taught to consider these women as cool – as their role models even – as opposed to… right, yes, that’s another blog entirely.
  • Interestingly, this same episode also hauls in British comedy’s incomparable Vaguely Ethnic Middle-Aged Guy, Alexi Sayle, to play the, well, middle-aged ethnic guy. This is a vast improvement on the usual, and not only because you just know option B was Mat in a turban. As the Arab healer in a sketch whose strident — if fully justified — political correctness is the point, Sayle gracefully transcends same to create a character I’m genuinely sorry to leave. It’s a wonderfully innovative use of the Big Name, and I find myself desperately wishing they’d explored the possibilities further. Surely Lenny Henry, say, would be open to persuasion?
  • As a side note, Lawry as a helplessly cranky patient has finally found a role I can totally believe him in. One who even has the good sense to object to amputation — not to the extent of getting up off the bed and running for his life, or anything, but then Mat’s French accent is hypnotic like that.
  • Meanwhile, David Baddiel is still gamely making it work. This is probably the definitive Scary Story, both in terms of actual content and auxiliary hissy-fits (bonus: now with 75% more awkward f/x!). Did it end right here I’d be complimenting the writers on another fun and effective use of the Big Name and moving on. As it stands, however… I’ll probably just be moving on. Except in re: chronicling the various snipes at his ‘producers’, as per above, that will never not be mildly amusing. (‘Other channel’ — wonder who that’s directed at?)
  • Elsewhere in the Great Ethnographic Adventure: the Incan sketches, maybe a bit too blandly authentic, and cliched, for their own good. Albeit again, probably much less so to a European audience which hasn’t also assimilated, say, Handy Manny. To me it just all comes across a trifle… unimpressive, let’s say, alongside the fierce and nuanced celebrations of diversity going on elsewhere. Ben especially could not be less convincingly Hispanic if he’d actually attended Oxford and played cricket and — oh, wait. Yeah, this is clearly another cultural discrepancy I need to get used to.
  • Mind you, where the makeup’s concerned bland represents a massive step forward for international goodwill all by itself (stupid and unfortunately permanent Lego-block hairdo on Martha notwithstanding). All the bonus points besides for bunging real live llamas in there — that’s appreciated more than I can say, given my near-total certainty that none of the cast or crew has experience as a South American camelid wrangler. (I have learned to assume nothing where Simon is concerned.)
  • I can also acknowledge that, once having come up with the ‘stay calmer if you want to harm a llama’ slogan, the only way short of exorcism to remove it from the writer’s head would’ve been this sketch. And even then, the poor man, having to write it…! (I picture him eventually grabbing producer lapels and whispering, Alien-style, “Help me… oh God get it oooout…”) More seriously, it’s a nice offbeat note in what’s increasingly becoming the homogenous in-house comedy style. Especially the lovingly detailed bouncy cartoon llama, which is just begging for accessory status in an HH toyline.
  • Oh, and speaking of which… OK, I guess the idiot-chav thing has a continuity excuse this time (albeit if so, what happened to all the blonde curls? Was the pinnacle of Greco-Roman civilization really the discovery of L’Oreal?) Everybody appears to be enjoying themselves so much in the latest Illiad takeoff, in fact, that the viewer can’t help but do the same. It works really well as a sports segment, too; with Larry around, the offbeat always has context.
  • Also: extensive bonus material for non-UK viewers, who get to envision street toughs calling each other “You flannel!” with apparent deep sincerity; in fact entirely as though they have, sometime in the recent past, been totally disrespected by plaid pyjamas. Trust me, this is appreciated even more than the llamas.
  • And oh, speaking of animal adventures, also my general policy of saying something nice about the animations whenever I can, even if I’m not totally proud of myself for admitting it: the image of flaming charging pigs is about 1000x funnier than it has any right to be. Come to that, why pigs, specifically? First time I’ve ever heard of elephants being particularly spooked by pork. I suppose mice wouldn’t last nearly as – oh God, I’ve been spending far too much time with these people, so sorry, really…
  • Larry generally continues to solidify his position as star player in the Non-Sequitur Theatre that clearly is his imagination (seriously, if you’ve not subscribed to his Twitter feed yet, now’s the time.) In this latest installment, he unveils a note-perfect drunk act, which is never quite as easy to make funny as you’d think… although [insert joke about it likely being easier for British comedians here]. Fully three of the six-member HH troupe have now demonstrated remarkable proficiency at it, is all I’m gonna say. Meanwhile, Ben plays a perfect counterpoint: a veritable masterclass in how desperately trying to keep a straight face can usefully pass on-camera as real discomfort.
  • Elsewhere, Mat’s boyish cute and Ben’s unctuous streak both get a good workout in the otherwise rather disappointingly pointless Nelson sketch (see below). And Jim… doesn’t  look or sound like Winston Churchill at all, really, but is somehow still so utterly convincing that the equally dubious ‘workaholic’ sketch — seriously, the toothpick business is lifted straight from 1940’s cartoons — is raised to positively classic heights. (Apropos of which, have I also mentioned how much I love Ben in WWII uniform? “That’s not funny, sir. There is a war on!”)
  • Oh, and yay! brief glimpse of classic crazy Simon! (“You sir [Mat]! You look like you have a tapeworm!” — oh, hardy-har-har). Come to that, pretty sure there’s a brief glimpse of Sarah as well. Possibly to make up for the tapeworm crack, Mat also gets a lovely gurgly death scene that’s sure to delight the kiddies no end… although the brighter of them may wonder along with their parents why nobody — up to and most definitely including Death Scene Guy — doesn’t just pull the trap out via the damn string still dangling from his mouth.
  • Still, it’s amusing to see how comfily the show’s settling into the groove where Mat is concerned. The Jack Sheppard bit is a nice parody matchup once again, effectively recreating the seventeenth-century equivalent of tween Twitter accounts even without access to emoticons. On the other hand: “Thousands of people have turned out for [his execution]”?! Jessica, love, there aren’t enough trick camera angles in this life or next to make that happen.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Wow, turns out there were actually a lot of Humphrey de Bohuns running around out there in the Middle Ages, just generally being all heroic and knightly and stuff. Only one seems to have got it up the bum, though. Our Humphrey is actually the IV on the list, and so should probably be pronouncing it ‘Boon’ (although Ben’s version here is an acceptable later variant). At any rate, yeah, on the scale of Romantic Knighthood, if not actually seated at the Round Table, still fairly well up there. His Wiki article, which includes a graphic description of the fatal ambush, is worth scanning in full — including the usual notation that said Stupid Death may-or-may-not have actually happened. Medieval historians: sucking the fun out of grade-school history since basically forever.
  • Medieval Islamic medical practices: like most of their scholarly knowledge a firm corrective to stereotype both then and now. Although the full story inevitably involves a lot more intercultural exchange and subsequent advancements in learning on both sides, Arab physicians seem to have been much more effectively able to sort the spiritual out of of the physical than their Western contemporaries. Thus they not only were free to apply basic common sense, but were able to experiment in directions that the latter held as taboo. (‘Anatomizing’ corpses, for instance, which up to the nineteenth century the Western world saw largely as horrific desecration, to the extent that it helped spawn Burke & Hare.) The resulting classic Muslim medical texts thus read as strikingly modern to our ears.
  • What’s specifically retold here — albeit with a much more upbeat ending than the original — is a famous anecdote from an Arabic healer describing his visit to a Christian European hospital. Which after much searching I regret I’m unable to find online, but check your appropriate HH book, I’m sure it’s in there somewhere. Meantime, have this similarly charming scoff from one of Dr Ossmer’s contemporaries: It is a foolish custom to have blood let out of the body when it is not needed… The expert physician has no need to choose times for blood-letting. To test this with horoscopes is a vain idea.
  • HH’s ability to highlight amazing achievements that would otherwise remain obscure is one of the most endearing aspects of the concept. Exhibit A: Dr. John Snow — and even more so when you realise he jammed all that pioneering work in hygiene and epidemiology into only a couple short decades, dying a true sciencey-type hero at the tender age of 45. Not from cholera; he pointedly boiled and drank the local water to the end of his life. Although he did eventually relax his temperance stance after some years to the extent of taking meat and wine for his health.
  • Meanwhile, as Wiki points out, the wholesale consumption of ale didn’t actually result in an entire nation of dipsomaniacs, albeit… [insert joke about possible ancestry of English football fans here]. Although the hard stuff certainly existed, what’s described here was basically the forerunner of Bud Light, brewed with other considerations in mind entirely: Ale, along with bread, was an important source of nutrition… particularly small beer, also known as table beer or mild beer, which was highly nutritious, contained just enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and provided hydration without intoxicating effects.
  • Small side addendum: The favourite tipple of your average slum drunk, which Ms. Guttersnipe’s clearly supposed to be representing here, would be gin, not Guinness. Much less expensive to produce and hence to purchase; important considerations because, y’know, Victorian slums. The denizens therein weren’t picky about how they escaped from it, just as long as it was fast and cheap.
  • Besides the Nelson sketch’s highly questionable premise, especially for this particular ep (wow, a legendary naval hero’s taken some damage from all the important battles he’s fought, how whacky! /sarcasm) I’ve never been quite sure where Mat is supposed to fit into the naval scheme of things as it existed at the time. He’s a bit old to be a rookie midshipman (the standard entry-level position), and even if he is, if he’s meeting the great Nelson on his first day he should definitely have a much posher accent.
  • On the other hand, there’s no question Jack Sheppard was as real, and as entertaining, a phenomenon as you like — well, the entertainment value might vary a bit depending on your stance re: the human tendency to idolize unworthy celebrities, but at the very least he gave more value for glitter than, say, your average Kardashian. This lovely page has lots of pictures testifying to the enormous hold he had on the popular imagination. (Oh, and it also mentions the 200,000 people that turned out for his final execution attempt. I’m thinking HH might just want to leave actual figures out of their execution-scene scripts from now on.)
 
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Posted by on February 24, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E03

Man-child! Do you want to be a gallant hero?!
*nods warily*
Then you must wee on that man’s head!

The revolution hits its stride… which, as is becoming traditional, involves disgustingly decadent Emperor Nero, vicious religious persecution, and happily blatant homoeroticism… all in different skits. Apparently I’m finally getting used to it, because it’s also all freakin’ hilarious.

In this episode:

Song: Spartan School Musical — Mat, Jim and Larry as Spartan High students; Ben as their teacher. (Parody of: Disney’s High School Musical franchise)

Recurring sketches:

Ave! Magazine — Profiling Spiculus, most famous gladiator in all of Rome

Historical Paramedics — Middle Ages (“Nigel, treacle!” “Yes, honey?” “No, no, get the treacle!”)

Scary Stories — The Children of Woolpit (“I grew a goatee for this!”)

Stupid Deaths — Tudor entertainer (The Great Stab-Proof Man… who one day forgot to rig up his stab-proofing)

Cliff Whiteley, Historical PR Agent — Billy the Kid & Wyatt Earp meet Pearl Hart… let the celebratory gunfire commence. (“Right, I’m gonna start chargin’ for that ceiling.”)

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

I’m a Christian, Get Me Out of Here! – Y’know that one Star Trek: TOS episode where the Romans had TV? That, reality-show division.

Love You to Death (movie trailer) – Nero’s love life: so not covered by Hallmark. “I need a sign! Something to show that you love me now, and not her!” “Right!… uh, something more than grapes? Because I’ve got loads of grapes!”

Groovy Greeks

Athenian Student — Who would later grow up to write plays and participate in ‘Wife Swap’, apparently.

Terrible Tudors

Surely, You Jester – OK, so How They Broke the News of Queen Katharine’s Adultery didn’t really go anything like this. But dammit, it should have.

Savage Stone Age

Coming of Stone Age – In which the prospective glory of hunting megabears and sabretooths becomes the key moment in… the discovery that turtle soup is delicious.

The Caveman Workout — “Stay in shape — and you too could live to the ripe old age of thirty!”

Awesome USA

Pony Express to Nowhere – The riders of the Old West are literally replaced by machines… provided they survived that long.

Field Notes:

  • So yes, in a surprise move, I will not be making much of the blatant adult-ness of this episode’s content, since every time I do work up a good North American-style “won’t someone think of the children?!” a helpful British reader pops up to assure me that it’s really no big deal at all over there. To the extent that I’m starting to get really interested in what would be considered the difference between adult & children’s comedy in the UK. Best I can figure is 1. Don’t swear (a lot) and 2. Don’t actually show the genitalia. That’s about it.
  • Meaning I will be entirely ignoring the Fisher-Price ‘My First Village People’ set that is the Spartan School Musical. It is, after all, the show’s mission to present accurate and/or educational satire; therefore not a peep shall I utter, despite severe reservations that the real Spartan cult of male love involved quite so much giggling, flirting, posing (with-or-without bullwhip) and Mat… uh… existing. I may have given a few especially disbelieving snorts when presented with Larry’s proto-jheri-curls, but that need not concern us here.
  • Anyway, for all that – and in several cases, because of all that – I still like it enormously. Even if the specific reference is a bit past sell-by at this point, the squeaky American accents will always most excellently make the point, and the few odd Britishisms (“lashings of good fun”?) in no way detract from its overall snarkiness.
  • Besides, the Christians-being-tortured sketch? Was all set to work up some prime aghast re: that one — had the thesaurus out and everything — until I realized that this is what many modern faithful think is happening every time someone tells them ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. Given the choice between the two forms of bad taste, I think I’ll go with the one that’s intentionally shooting for black comedy.
  • It helps that Jim’s hosting; not that he doesn’t continue to develop a nice line in cheerily amoral reality-show hosts, but c’mon, it’s Jim. You just sort of subconsciously assume there’s a mattress under that torture tree he’s describing.
  • Albeit Mat & Lawry are both too realistically vulnerable for comedic comfort. Apropos of which, fully not buying Lawry as a champion gladiator, either. At least Mat usually contrives to sound dangerous.
  • Jim also effectively works the awww-give-Uncle-Slimy-Sociopath-a-hug on (newly brunet) Emperor Nero, and I wish I could decide if I approved or not. Seriously, every time I watch this sketch, I giggle like a complete maniac from beginning to end, then hate myself in the morning. On this last run-through, however, I have about concluded it’s worth it. Because grapes. (Also, Alice doing a satisfyingly tempestuous temptress.)
  • Speaking of — AAAHHHH THE HISTORICAL PARAMEDICS! TOO MUCH SQUEE BRAIN ALL SPLODY… erm, translation: I’d forgotten that Geoff & Nigel’s manic multi-era medical adventures would be showing up this early, and they just make my sense of humour happy all over, inasmuch as they contain the distilled and combined essence of Mat, Jim and Larry (their author) at their most engaging. Meaning they may be the closest the show has ever come to intelligent comic anarchy without actually ripping Python scenes off wholesale; at least they merge historical fact with funny more deftly than most any other sketch.
  • Oh, and can’t forget kudos for the ‘patient’, remaining heroically unconscious through all that, uh, stuff. Not real, no — but imagination can be a powerful thing, when your eyes are closed…
  • … or sometimes even when they’re not, as the not-so-glorious-except-where-the-funny’s-concerned Stone Age hunt demonstrates. The deliberate application of modern disbelief to nostalgic past-time glamour is something the show will play with more and more as they gain comedic confidence (and concurrently care less and less about being earnestly educational), and as comedy it will never not work beautifully.
  • On the other side of the ‘will it work’ thing… the (not-so) Scary Stories. Hrm. Well. The milieu evokes rampant affectionate tolerance in this reviewer, due to its resemblance to a beloved sketch comedy of her youth, the Hilarious House of Frightenstein, which featured a very similar concept (using nursery rhymes, if she remembers correctly). But she is fully aware this is a minority POV.
  • Truth is, it’s always hard to integrate Big Names into an established sketch show in general, and the heavily stylized, character-driven HH format in particular. Hence, usually, these self-contained ‘presenter’ roles wherein the BNs can safely do what made them famous. And David Baddiel, bless him, is already working it like there’s no tomorrow.
  • Which there really isn’t — because there’s literally nowhere for him to go within the concept, save to storm off the set for good, and it’s odd that the veteran HH writers didn’t realise it. For now, though, Vincenzo Larfoff and his power fez merely represent some of the more sophisticated character comedy in the show’s history. Besides which his delusional pretensions will shortly hack off his f/x crew, so that’ll be good for a further couple segments’ worth.
  • Stupid Deaths, on the other hand, is the crowd-pleasing satire that just keeps on giving – especially to producer Caroline Norris, whom (I forgot to mention earlier) gets a cameo as the sooty-faced woman in the expanded titles. We’re also treated here to one of Death’s most endearing traits: his ability to appreciate real cleverness on the corpses’ part. It’s not personal, or anything; just cosmic business. To paraphrase the Reaper himself, I do love that level of detail, I really do.
  • Related question: given that the skeletons were clearly a last-minute add-on, does that mean Simon’s interactions with them – and, it follows, potentially everyone else — are ad-lib? At any rate, yes, the bony sidekicks are back, albeit their wigs keep switching and changing colour. No idea where that’s coming from, unless they’re supposed to be rotating guest judges…
  • …did I just try to explain why the skeletons’ wigs aren’t consistent? I may have been at this too long.
  • On the other hand, the historical patchwork underlying the Will Somers sketch, (see below), is very much worthy of comment; one of the few times the show outright works facts into a fictional frame. Reality may well be stranger, etc., but it’s never quite this pat to the purpose. Great, great sketch, though — like Nero’s probably one of the best of the series, and well-matched with it. “Skilful use of the tension inherent in a comedian working to get a laugh to illuminate the insecurity of the ruled under the ruler, as expressed in fart noises”; if I ever write a masters’ thesis, that is so the first header.
  • ’Awesome USA’, huh? Right, while I’d advise not encouraging them too far, it does fit the rhyming scheme, so still not complaining… except that I think we’ve discovered Willbond the accent ‘spert’s Kryptonite, and it is wearing a cowboy hat. And we won’t even discuss the effect on Jim and Mar… oh, screw it, they’re having entirely too much fun to stop now, and so am I to care what they sound like. Ben does make a surprisingly convincing Billy the Kid otherwise.
  • Cliff Whiteley is an interesting concept, albeit a tad over-produced for the value. It also has a built-in credibility problem, given the need to position Cliff as an experienced, streetwise historical shyster whose actual knowledge of history would nevertheless be dubious on a primary-grade level — swallowing Wild Western myth-building whole, for instance, or (in an unaired segment) unaware that the Royal Family has German roots. Especially is all this worrisome since — as a later segment will indicate — Horrible Histories, the TV show, very much exists in the Whiteleyverse.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, so, seriously, Spartan love. The song fudges a little (about the only part of the production that does); what was ‘banned until you’re thirty’ was marriage, as in to the opposite sex, to provide children to keep the State strong and thriving. Until then… well, they spent their entire adolescence through young manhood cooped up in close proximity with other young men they were taught to rely upon absolutely as comrades-in-arms; you do the math.
  • Much has been written regarding the general Greek attitude to homosexuality, and in particular pederasty (and thanks to the Alexandria sketch much has likely been looked up prior to this), so I’ll just say here that the Greeks regarded love of all kinds much as they did anything else: as not so much a question of morality as artistic expression. Also, that actual sex didn’t necessarily have anything to do with it.
  • On the subject of the Tudors, as ever, I can provide details. Let’s break this down: a) Yes, Henry VIII had a famous jester named Will Sommers (or ‘Somers’), who could get away with an awful lot in the royal presence — although he once nearly lost his head at the royal hand for daring to be rude about Anne Boleyn. b) Yes, Queen Katharine — the otherwise wholly unremarkable, giggly young result of Henry’s midlife crisis — did sleep around, although apparently with only the one man after her marriage. c) Yes, life was a job lot simpler for everyone nearby when Henry was in a good mood.
  • And d) this is the important bit — no, a) didn’t break the news of b) to c). What actually did happen was Archbishop Cranmer (a prominent Protestant in opposition to Katharine’s powerfully Catholic Howard family) wrote a letter, and placed it where Henry would find it after evening prayers. Whereupon Henry did call for Katharine’s execution; that is, understandably humiliated and furious with it, he burst into tears and started yelling for an axe. They finally calmed him down enough to let it go through proper investigative channels, but he never did see her again.
  • That crazy Wyatt Earp, always playing fast and loose with the truth — possibly including, as it happens, when telling Cliff Whiteley what ‘really’ took place at the OK Corral. The details of that day, from the motives of the participants up to and including who had guns when, are still very much in dispute, and even scholars of the period agree the real story will never be known. (I’d *ahem* suggest the really excellent The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn to those interested in an in-depth overview of the Earp clan in general and their antics at Tombstone in particular.)
  • Oh, and Pearl Hart: also absolutely worth reading up in detail. Not just because — as I just discovered myself — she was Canadian-born, only a couple hours down the road from where I’m typing this (actually, the next village over from my hometown). Quite the fierce and resourceful participant in not only the Wild West but the general female mythos of her time, was our Pearl.
  • On the other hand, yes, the Pony Express, in reality much more evanescent than the romantic ideal — a characteristic it shared with pretty much all the ‘wildness’ associated with the western USA in the 1880’s, wherein the guiding principles weren’t the romantic notions of personal freedom, but the prosaic realities of money and political power.
  • Meaning this particular aspect of it wasn’t particularly mourned at the time, either, because frankly, as shown here, you couldn’t come up with a less efficient postal system if you’d actually set out to make all the lousy-service cliches come true in one stroke. As per Mystery Science Theatre 3000: “The Pony Express: When it absolutely, positively has to be there in… three-four months or so.”
  • The Nero sketch is accurate as far as it goes… which is to say, just a little bit too far for most viewers’ stomach contents. Although, interestingly, one contemporary historian suggests Poppaea Sabina was really a rather nice, thoughtful lady, who urged her Imperial husband to show mercy to the Christians.
  • But hey, it’s Emperor Nero. You just know he’s not going to delegate a detail like kicking his wife to death (and why would you specify ‘kicking’ to your hitman anyway?); he’s going to do it himself. In the stomach. While she’s pregnant. Usual disclaimers about sourcing apply, especially to whether it was intentional and/or how remorseful Nero actually was… none of which make it a pleasant story by anyone’s account.
 
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Posted by on February 24, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E02

*phew-ee!* Who’re you?
Heraclitus… ancient Greek philosopher?!
Oh, what, “I stink, therefore I am?”

In which the show carries on romping happily through all their new possibilities… and in the process offhandedly spits out a fully-faceted diamond.

In this episode:

Song: Charles II: King of Bling — Mat as the King who brought back partying! With Jim, Ben, Larry and Lawry as courtiers and Martha as current mistress Hortense Mancini. (Parody of: Eminem, Real Slim Shady)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Hospital — One-Eyed Ned: Pirate carpenter extraordinaire (the real doctor having died at sea…)

Stupid Deaths — Heraclitus of Ephesus (Overheated while trying to cure his dropsy… by burying himself neck-deep in a dungpile)

HHTV Sport — Georgian Boxing Revolution (“Nobody’s ever tried to get out of the way before~!”)

One-offs:

Putrid Pirates

Captain Hood and the Puking Cow Heist — Not really a fabulous children’s adventure book title, is it?

Woeful Second World War

WWII Art Show — Jasper Maskelyne psyches out the Nazis with the sheer kickassedness of his name… OK, also some balsawood planes, rubber blow-up tanks and cardboard gun emplacements. But mostly the name thing.

Rationing Goes Postal — Keeping the kiddies warm leads to one too many brown paper packages tied up with string… “At least I marked him ‘Fragile!”

Groovy Greeks

Evil-Spirit-Preventing-Door-Frame-Tar — “It does exactly what it says on the jar!”

The Oracle of Delphi — So apparently the ancient Greeks also invented the psychic hotline scam. And prior to the invention of late-night Lifetime movies, they had to keep their customers mesmerised somehow…

Slimy Stuarts

Cromwell Bans Everything — Seriously. If Charles Dickens had been around in the seventeenth century, A Christmas Carol would’ve been about this guy.

Awful Egyptians

Cleopatra@Egypt.com (imagine spot) — If Mark Antony were the type to hang out on dating sites… which, y’know, not out of the realm of plausibility. “You are literally the worst girlfriend I’ve ever had!”

Gorgeous Georgians

Boarding School Daze — “Oh, discipline is very important to this school — we really wish we had some!”

Field Notes:

  • Well, he always did like to be fashionably late. Introducing Charles II, last of the iconic HH characters to not only take the stage but walk away with it, whistling. It’s an interesting contrast with Ben’s equally brilliant Henry VIII; while he connects via uncanny faithfulness to the reality, Charlie’s synthesized from the real man’s legend.
  • There’s a lot of legend to work with: thanks to his spectacularly unstable upbringing (including a stint at the French court, wherein he clearly learned to appreciate the finer distractions in life) the Merry Monarch has been idealised as basically the dashing romance-novel version of British royalty — but was in reality quite a lot smarter than he ever let on. In other words, Mat’s performance skillset distilled, then not incidentally all dolled up in silver satin and magnificently rolling eyes.
  • And wow, what a stage he’s been given to show all this off. The ‘match the historical legend to the musical pretensions’ formula reaches apotheosis on only its third try. Most HH song videos have tens of thousands of YouTube views at most; this one has over 1.8 million. Granted that approximately .8 million are solely Mat’s tween fanbase refreshing madly, this is all still entirely deserved.
  • It all fits together so perfectly that you can’t even find the seams to analyze it. Just a gloriously apt parody, which means a genuinely witty song, which in turn mandates an exquisite production (turns out the keepers of Hampton Court palace have a sense of humour, who knew?). All bound up in an astonishingly faithful performance on all the comic, historical and musical levels. (My most cherished HH critique, from a random American tweeter: “Y’know, Mat Baynton is actually a quality rapper.”) Not excluding the supporting cast, either; check out Ben’s mad juggling skillz!
  • All that said, though… Mat, seriously, man, the Northern accent thing — or whatever that was — we need to talk. Or rather you need to not talk. I mean, you can do this not-so-swashbuckling pirate thing all day long (and twice on Talk Like a Pirate Day) as far as I’m concerned — the delightfully random puking-cows bit is a must-see for me despite a violent aversion to the sight/smell of vomit — just pick another accent to do it in, kthx.
  • Come to that, yes, we get it already, you can mimic Saturday night at your local teenage hangout really really well. Not to say that the idiot-chav thing isn’t an impressive spoof (because how would I know otherwise?), more that it’s dangerously close to being considered funny just for existing, which… no. That’s the problem with a too-accurate impression of stupid; without context, after awhile it just starts sounding, well, stupid.
  • Elsewhere, Larry is rewarded for all his magnificent carpe diem-ing last ep by… being stuck back in the Historical Hospital, and this time not even at the mercy of a theoretical doctor. He does look rather fetching in the football getup, if it’s any consolation. (As does Jim, borrowing Mat’s coat from the Rulebook sketch).
  • There’s another bit of good news for HHospital reality: with Sarah H. gone the sketch brings Dominique Moore onboard as the new young nurse, whose chores as the current major source of cast diversity will still leave plenty of time to react as a normal 21st century human (ie “The hell?!”) to the ongoing past-time medical mess. She will largely fail of course, but as a running gag it’s a definite addition for the better.
  • In other new casting news, Lawry continues to, y’know, not be Simon. Mind you, as himself he manages to score a very plausible recurring character in only his second episode, so good on him. Like I said, sometimes that goofy-neurotic thing works. Here it perfectly captures the ‘glum, proud’ and just generally proto-Republican-presidential-candidate moral pettiness Cromwell’s become famous for (even if it did sometimes have a point; see below). We may have a ‘crusty reviewer has her heart slowly melted story’ here after all…
  • …or possibly not. His first obviously-a-fill-in role also happens in this ep, as the stuffy General in the ‘WWII Art Show’ sketch — another one of those clever little mini-sitcom eps, wherein the funny adds up via giving each character their own particular logic. Lawry’s involves being a straight version of MPython’s ‘Colonel’ character — or at least that’s how he plays it — and as a debut, it’s… a bit weird, inasmuch as I can’t nohow imagine Lawry either as leading troops or as Graham Chapman.
  • On the other hand, when I go to suggest that he and Ben should’ve switched parts, I find myself strangely reluctant to be deprived of Willbond going full nerd. This is a character concept that could’ve gone places, honestly. Preferably in a different hideous sweater-vest each time — seriously, I know it’s the point, but that sucker is mesmerizing.
  • So is Martha’s look as Parcel Kid’s mom. I know the popular between-wars suburban stereotype involves tea sets and cardigans in roughly that order, but did people really base the latter directly off the former? Because this one looks a lot like a cross between ‘French Perle’ and that one ‘cheerful florale’ Sears bedding set I wanted as a kid.
  • Along the same lines, Aeschylus has clearly discovered eyebrow pencil between seasons… not to mention rouge, and what looks like bizarrely mismatched foundation, if not actual bronzer. If all this was meant as some sort of subtle homage to his profession, it’s not working, especially not the ‘subtle’ part.
  • Still, despite some clunky comedy mechanics, you do have to appreciate that sketch just for Martha being willing to sacrifice her vocal chords like that. I mean, I seriously have to appreciate it, because I’m now terrified of what she’ll do to me otherwise. Not that I have any reason to think being cast in the Wizard of Oz a lifelong dream of hers or anything, but lemme tell you, Margaret Hamilton would be so proud.
  • So I think would Jasper Maskelyne, played by Jim here as a sort of extra-fabulous Shouty Man with all the irresistible giggle-inducing that implies. It’s clear that the writing staff has been inspired by his demo-duo chemistry with Ben, a development also reflected — along with an equally fun twist on the Mike Peabody template — in their HHTV Sport play-by-play team. Aka a hilariously unexpected opportunity for international bonding. If we can’t agree on how football should be played, we certainly can on the commentators’ pastel sport shirts.
  • Speaking of small tweaks, besides whatever spare cares he still had left to give, Death has also abruptly lost the skeleton sidekicks. The new format evidently took some on-the-spot adjustment (since the SD sketches are traditionally filmed all at once). Just as a suggestion, the creative process that culminated in ‘Gee, what could we possibly do for other judges… Hey, gimme that wig~!” would be ideal DVD-bonus material.
  • There’s also a new and wonderful format for the imagine spots. Honestly, the rate generally at which this outfit continues to churn out clever, durable, workable-for-all-demographics satirical concepts would astonish most grown-up comedy series producers. The online parodies will become some of the best-beloved sketches in all of HH, and while this one is missing some of the finer funny details, it’s already clear that the format will exponentially keep on giving. The hell with ‘awww lookit the children’s show winning the grown-up award’; they earned it. End of story.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Yes, kids, Heraclitus really did bury himself in dung — albeit some sources claim it was more of a ‘slather it on’ thing. rather than a full-on frolic in the manure pile. In his further defense, dropsy (the accumulation of fluid in the tissues, causing if unchecked by treatment — so, until comparatively recently, always — painful full-body bloating) is a genuinely awful thing. Also, usually a symptom of either kidney or congestive heart failure, so by that time the poor guy had not much left to lose anyhow.
  • Yes, that was actually how the Oracle at Delphi worked, and yes, even discounting the probability of discreet post-event tweaking by her ‘translators’, she had a rather creepy reputation for accuracy. This most excellently detailed history suggests that it all might have been the result of really good ‘shrooms: Analysis of the hydrocarbon gases in the spring water near the temple are shown to contain ethylene which is sweet smelling and if rising into an enclosed chamber would have been potent enough to cause a trance state (Roach).
  • Introducing the real Oliver Cromwell: an annoyingly smug killjoy yes, but also one who rather engagingly insisted that history remember him ‘warts and all’. The song is still remarkably accurate; just — understandably — biased.
  • Like most idealists, Ollie did to put it mildly lack the common touch. On the other hand, dealing with the equally dour, stubborn Charles I was reason enough for any man to assume the high ground was his, if not actually God’s blessing. And given the acknowledged level of debauchery then surrounding Christmas and other public pleasures — and that public morality, in this era, was still well within the political wheelhouse — his subsequent career as a one-man banhammer wasn’t entirely unjustified
  • At any rate what finally spurred the Restoration wasn’t so much dance deprivation as the fact that Son and Heir Richard Cromwell, aka ‘Tumbledown Dick’, was so entirely useless. Once freed of Dad’s cult of personality the revolution had a huge gaping hole where the point should be, and the office of Protectorate had entirely imploded within a year of his death. Meanwhile the proposed Charles II was not only more than available, but representative of the comparatively stable monarchy.
  • He was also, as the song suggests, a personally charming, down-to-earth and witty figure, whose popularity-to-actual-accomplishment ratio is regarded by historians with something approaching awe. His major importance to the English, at that point, was as a breath of fresh air after the previous two repressive regimes — although he had enough native shrewdness to largely avoid his father’s mistakes re: Parliament, and to become a positive hero over the Great Fire.
  • Also, nobody can dispute that he had excellent taste in women, presumably honed during his French exile. Of course, he tended to pick them more for beauty than mental stability; the ensuing soap opera kept the country entertained for years. Meet Hortense Mancini, duchesse de Mazarin. and fully renowned (if bisexual) beauty. Also, Barbara (Villiers) Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland; Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwynn; and Mary ‘Moll’ Davis.
  • The invention of ‘getting out of the way’ must’ve been a catnip-laden concept for the HH writers, and I can’t blame them for milking it for all it was worth (except the announcer’s stupid joke at the end, that’s indefensible — hence probably Larry’s, come to think of it). Really now, though. The ‘sweet science’ had been around since ancient times; I don’t have to patiently explain that boxers would’ve seen and employed the advantages of ducking long since, do I?
  • What Bill Richmond (wonderfully, if not for a children’s show, dubbed ‘The Black Terror’) actually did was develop a distinctive style of ducking in response to the distinctive pile-driving style of Georgian boxing. Despite which, in the match that inspired the one shown here, his opponent’s superior weight and power inevitably wore Richmond down. Because it was the 60th round. Because the Marquess of Queensbury, who really did invent modern boxing, wouldn’t do so for another seventy-five years or so.
  • Note how often the Cleopatra sketch carefully emphasises that she’s ‘dating’ Caesar — in fact, the entire sketch concept seems like it might well have originated as a way to correct their erroneous implication that she actually married him from last series. Which, hey, only adds to the general awesomeness. Except that ‘Smiley hieroglyphic’ should really be ‘hieroglyph’… but then, that’ll be corrected later too.
 
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Posted by on February 17, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E01

General, I said a weapon like a pike! I didn’t literally mean a pike, ‘pike’ was just an example! Honestly, if I told you to go and jump off a cliff, would you?!

…he’s gone to jump off a cliff.

Newly professional-looking credit sequence, newly sharp and sophisticated writing, makeup and costuming budgets obviously increased, camerawork much more assured, parodies much more pointed, Stupid Deaths upgraded, the Incredible Incas introduced, Larry and Martha now part of the leading troupe, Rattus’ hole gets a makeover… as, of course, does the music. Even the gross has been bumped up to Shakespearian heights.

Welcome to Horrible Histories.

In this episode:

Song: The Viking Song (Literally) — The ancestors of Spinal Tap: Mat (lead vocals), Ben (lead axe), Larry (bass axe) and Jim (drums)

Recurring sketches:

Come Dine With Me — Roman Emperor Elagabalus (“Huhuhuhuhuh! I’m so random!”)

Shouty Man — New! Incan Hole Childcare System (“With the unique dig-anywhere design, you can take your hole wherever you go!”)

Stupid Deaths — Bobby Leach (fearless daredevil who.. slipped on a bit of orange peel on a New Zealand sidewalk & died of gangrene)

Historical Mastermind — William Shakespeare (Great. No, really. Future argumentative revisionist: “How could a mere uneducated peasant write works of such timeless genius?” Future me: “Knock-knock!”)

Computer Game — Operation Defend Britain!… somehow. (“And just what do you think you’re doing? I’m a real nun!”)

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

Portrait of a Furious Queen — Being a raving beauty was way easier back when “PR firm” meant “guy with a paintbrush who doesn’t breathe unless I say so.”

Incredible Incas

Incan ShamPee — “Available in all full bladders. Bucket not included.”

Vile Victorians

Welcome to Badminton House — Or as I like to think of it, Inexplicable Moments in Mild Victorian Eccentricity, Vol.3…

Great Eccentrics of the Victorian Era: The 2nd Baron Rothschild (animated) — …Vol.4… (Also vols.1, 5, 6…)

Slimy Stuarts

Fawkes’ 13 (movie trailer) — “Because you’re a Catholic, and I’m a Catholic, and the King hates Catholics! He seems to think we’re always plotting something.”

The Irony is Deafening — Royal press restrictions: one giant step backward for freedom of expression, but apparently one giant step forward for screwball comedy.

Woeful Second World War

Arming the Home Guard — Awwww, they should’ve let them keep the pikes. The grandkids would’ve paid a lot more attention to the stories later, believe you me. Especially if they also involved accidentally sticking them into nuns.

Durham Accident Book — The local (and obviously pike-free) HG division can’t even save themselves from splinters. Bonus: attempts at the accent almost as painful-sounding as the actual injuries.

Vicious Vikings

Sat Rav — Quoth the navigational device: Nevermore! (Yes, I have been saving that one. Shut up.)

Field Notes:

  • Right, the whole figuring out what worked thing, apparently it went pretty well; inasmuch as it seems to have consisted more-or-less entirely of ‘They not only bought it, they gave us more money for it! FREEEEEDOMMMMM!!” Followed by several minutes’ Dance of Joy around the boardroom, or wherever it is the creative types are given their mandates.Which is to say, the HH we all know and love — ie. a slightly more conscientious Blackadder — makes a remarkably complete and self-assured debut, to the point where said debut seriously does exude an air of almost giddy relief.
  • Thus it’s fitting that it all leads off with our first look at Mat Baynton 2.0: alternately mad, bad, and… well, not ‘dangerous’ exactly. Only that his day job just couldn’t continue to ignore the fey ambiguity behind the boyish charm. Esp. given he was just coming off a supporting stint on the notorious Horne & Corden (as literally the only aspect of it I could find described anywhere as ‘funny’) So… they decided to exploit it, instead. Then, presumably, sat back with champagne to watch as their cross-demographic horizons abruptly exploded.
  • In possibly related news, to kick off this bright new era in HH musical credibility, Mat and Larry have written… a note-perfect 80’s hair metal power ballad. The mind boggles to consider how this cross-cultural intimacy might’ve come about. The traditional way involves hanging out in a pickup truck in a Midwestern mall parking lot, drinking Old Milwaukee and playing air guitar so that it shows off your tattoos to best advantage (in case any actual girls should wander by, natch). I would scoff at this explanation, except that I have seen an actual pic of youthful Larry. Also, adult Mat’s patent inability to keep a straight face past the second chorus.
  • It may also be a factor that our Laurence just happens to have colouring very reminiscent of an *ahem* authentic ancient Norse warrior. Including unusually bright blue, deep-set eyes that, if other self-posted pics are any indication, he has long since decided are his best feature. He may be correct, at that. At any rate he is now entirely redefining ‘make the most of your chances’ even by his standards (as set during the earlier “sowsages” scene in the Elagabalus sketch). At one point during the choruses even Jim ‘Sharp Stone’ Howick is glancing over at him like “Whoa, man, family show!”
  • All snark aside, it’s just amazingly nice to have the music back. Yeah, it was mostly a no-brainer once the media picked up “Born 2 Rule” and ran with it as the cool, innovative bit; but if Series One has any meaningful legacy at all, let it be the demonstration not only that the media was exactly right, but what the alternative would be. Going forward, not all of the parody songs will be as good (and even fewer will be as sophisticated) as this one – but they will all be songs, as supervised by adults with an understanding of both music and comedy, as opposed to merely an earnest desire to entertain children.
  • It’s the most prominent of generally reassuring signs re: straight priorities. At least, this is how I reassure myself that I’m not entirely nuts to keep going with this project: the show is also actually invested in making me almost embarrassingly glad to see a time-travelling conman with no indoor voice and a Grim Reaper who’s patterning his mid-afterlife crisis as a perpetual X-Factor audition, just because he can.
  • Yes, they’re brilliant satirical concepts and all, but there’s something more intangibly satisfying happening here. When asked about the inspiration for the similarly beloved-by-all-ages Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones once said “We didn’t make them for children, and we didn’t make them for adults. We made them for ourselves.” There is a perpetual feeling, when watching HH from this point onwards, that both writers and performers are doing exactly the same thing.
  • While I’m on, yay! for the return not only of Ben the goofy military gallant — he can wear a uniform, and a uniformed character, in much the same way Larry wears Viking getup — but also the gaming hero. I have always found the show’s retro take on video games highly amusing, inept graphics and all — esp. given the real possibility, based on the behind-the-scenes vid, that Ben at least may not quite realise it is retro. I particularly like the little “ow – ow – ow…”
  • Meanwhile, Martha is likewise making the most of her promotion. New!Liz I is a bit stereotypically broad for my tastes (although Jim’s Walsingham is surprisingly effective; see below). I do however enjoy watching her showing off all her considerable poise, charm and comic timing — and couple-chemistry with Jim — in the otherwise fully pointless badminton sketch. OK, that and awwww Jim having so much fun punting into the breakables! My Howick plushie may need to come with kung-fu kick action.
  • Simon, on the other hand, was off working on the Boosh quasi-spinoff movie Bunny and the Bull for much of this series’ filming, so now’s the time to get used to his understudy, Lawry Lewin: aka the world’s only bipedal stick insect. As you can imagine, the transition will be a little fraught. Now’s also the time to confess it, I suppose: what with missing ol’ Dandelion Head badly, and constantly being mildly irritated by his replacement’s take – ie., just as neurotic but not nearly as happy about it — I never did warm to our Lawry.
  • This is not to say there aren’t times when that same style actually works on its own (as per the effete and earless Stuart author here, for instance). I honestly admire him besides for being the definition of a dependable supporting player; he’s more than earned his current position as unofficial seventh member of the starring troupe. But anything that requires more active interest in the man will always be beyond my ken. Sorry in advance, surprisingly vocal Lewin fanbase.
  • Still on the subject of tact… or not… look, show, I do understand that you’re British, also a silly comedy. The horrific minefield of racial sensitivities I’m anticipating, re: your decision to populate Mesoamerica with (very) white guys in fake tans, just isn’t there from your core viewers’ POV. I get it. But oooh, trust me, the Shouty Man’s look here is awkward — even if you ignore the entire sociopolitical argument and just go with “Have your makeup staff ever even seen a Hispanic person?”
  • It’s a double shame since otherwise the upmarket f/x debut is triumphant. Most notably, we’ve switched out Elizabeth I for the more traditional Scary Old Clown Makeup Lady, in order that she might display her truly legendary vanity — by describing an ideal self (“Petite-nosed…” etc) that sounds very much like her Series One incarnation. Yeah, should’ve taken that up with your agent, your Majesty.
  • Elsewhere, we’ve established that Mat should not attempt a Northern accent ever again, and that Jim should… well, look, I’m not going to start handing out accent advice to somebody who can switch at will between saucer-eyed adorable and freakin’ Winston Churchill, because I do not wish to mess with anyone who clearly has the power to take over the universe with sheer awesome anytime he wants. Also, the ‘S’okay, it’s just a MASSIVE SPLINTER’ thing was hysterical.
  • Boy it didn’t take long to call for a redo of the Fawkes story, did it? As previously noted, I am totally onboard with a second draft, especially one that makes so much the better use of the material’s huge potential both artistically and – we don’t have Fireworks Night over here, remember — educationally. (Plus giving Larry a chance to demonstrate he can actually settle down and act when required.) Mild weirdness alert when Ben ‘the brains’ gets all of one word to demonstrate it, but hey.
  •  Also raising the ‘intelligent comedy’ bar — well, once you get past the wholly inexplicable part where neither of them visually recognise the problem, ie. the other’s very clearly severed ears — no, really, get past that part. Forcibly if necessary. It pays off in a genuinely hilarious screwball scene which acts as further evidence that somebody in the writing staff also grew up with Abbott & Costello movies… or whatever the British Sunday-morning-TV-filler equivalent was. At any rate, it’s appreciated.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So… Emperor Elagabalus (or, more formally, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus). Easily the most un-nervingly edgy of all HH icons; fear of what happens when sweet young fangirls go to look him up has kept me out of the fanfic archives for some time now. Because in real life (although as usual the sourcing’s a bit sketchy), the ‘random’ teen dude with the charmingly dopey giggle was — if not actually a transgender who offered a reward to any surgeon who could give him a sex change — at least a desperately sexually confused mope who married as many as five times, lavished favors on male courtiers popularly thought to have been his lovers, employed a prototype of whoopie cushions at dinner parties, [don’t ask me how HH missed that one, I’ve no idea] and was reported to have prostituted himself in the imperial palace.
  • On the (faintly) bright side, history agrees that if it existed, the famous powder-room lion was probably old and mostly toothless — remember that they had to get him into the palace in the first place, not to say keep him there, and cattle prods weren’t exactly a thing back then.
  • Another way you can tell this is a whole new series: I’m about to say something nice re: the show’s Tudor fixation. The gratuitously well-researched appearance of Elizabeth I’s security adviser, Francis Walsingham, is actually one of the things that initially piqued my interest in the show beyond ‘Oh, look, they made a cute series out of those snarky books…’ Cos he really was a dour, humourless, all-black-wearing Puritan sort (yes, basically an early version of Oliver Cromwell) who was renowned for being the one courtier who always told our Liz how it was, no more nor less. Which in real life earned him her tremendous respect, but never mind.
  • So yes, Elizabeth, famously vain over her appearance. What the show doesn’t mention is that she also considered her pretty, slender hands one of her best features, hence that weirdly stiff arms-in-front pose in all of the official portraits. On the plus side, she was also the Tudor most willing to get out there and show her actual self to her subjects; her amazing knack with the common people was obviously inherited from similarly-but-more-inexplicably-beloved dad Henry, and one of their firm proofs that she was in fact his daughter.
  • Yes, OK, show, the Baron Rothschild did actually have all those fun animal pets, and I can fully see where they’d amuse the kiddies no end. Still, as Victorian eccentrics go, he wasn’t really even in the top ten. Besides the good Dr. Buckland, eater of royal hearts, check out Friar Park, built by Sir Frank Crisp (and later lovingly restored by some musician guy named George Harrison.)
  • From the Department of Whoa, People Really Do Care About This Stuff! (vol. 324 in a continuing series) comes the guy who created a FAQ section on the show’s Internet Movie Database page for the apparent sole purpose of typing a massive wall o’ text rebuttal to their take on the Home Guard. One can only hope his relatives have managed to keep him from watching Dad’s Army. The truth, as always, seems to have fallen somewhere between the two extremes. Honestly I had a feeling, inasmuch as there’s no way any reasonably healthy males given the chance to play war would be that un-creative re: the homemade weapons. Or maybe we should just be grateful they didn’t have the Internet to search, yet…
 
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Posted by on February 17, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S01E13

A badger, a badger! My kingdom for a badger! I need to use it to go and see the Duke of Somerset’s grave, who died ages ago, when I was three, so there’s no way I could’ve possibly stabbed him to death!

This is the way the series ends… not by any means with a bang, but not quite with a whimper, either.

In this episode:

Song:  Burke & Hare (Mat as Dr. Robert Knox, Simon as William Burke & Jim as William Hare)

Recurring sketches:

This is Your Reign — Cleopatra VII, last Pharoah of Ancient Egypt

Bob Hale — The Viking Report

Stupid Deaths — Sigurd the Mighty (infected when the teeth of the severed head of his sworn enemy brushed against his leg on the ride home… ie. bitten to death by a severed head!)

HHTV Sport — Georgian Lice Races

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Roman Kitchen Nightmares — Chef Gordinicus Ramsaius roams Celtic kitchens armed with a cast-iron saucepan, which he actually gets to whack chefs over the head with. Immediately, the real Chef Ramsey starts work on a time machine.

Communal Toilets — It should be no surprise by now that the Romans defined ‘shameless’ a little more broadly than, say, every other civilization in recorded history.

Vile Victorians

Welcome to the Crimea, Miss Nightingale — Where the floors may have been beyond filthy, but the floor show was apparently fabulous.

Awful Egyptians

Hatshepsut: First Female Pharaoh (movie trailer) – “You were murdered. Probably by your stepson. He was a little annoyed about the whole throne-stealing incident.”

Terrible Tudors

Globe-al Grief (animated) — The travails of the storied but perpetually shaky theatre take on a life of their own… presumably thanks to whomever once called the animators ‘Gilliam-esque’ in college.

The Truth About Richard III: Prologue – The ghost of the massively maligned monarch makes his first, and considerably more badger-intensive, attempt to set the record straight.

Gorgeous Georgians

The Earl of Sandwich — Hint: he did not invent the toad-in-a-hole.

Field Notes:

  • Well, here we are… thirteen episodes, eight weeks and a whole lot of crazy later. In a way, a closer look at Series One was the impetus for this project in the first place, and having completed same feels like… well, like having had fun, mostly. I know I’ve done a lot of ragging, but honestly, I was prepared to do a whole lot more.
  • Turns out there’s a lot that’s characteristically HH to love about this series, all stemming from the fact that everyone clearly bought into it as Actual Legitimate Comedy from day one. Thus the veteran comedians in the cast all delivered more than fairly, and the big gambles (ie., Mat and Larry), paid off likewise. The writers latch onto the possibilities quickly enough that their experiments are almost uniformly fun to watch; out of all the many recurring characters and concepts introduced, 99% will return, and those mostly untouched.
  • Basically, the HH crew knew what they wanted all along — it was just a matter of checking to make sure they could have it within the dual constraints of historical accuracy and children’s telly. The “figuring out what worked and what didn’t” they cite in later interviews will mostly boil down to sanding off the too-roughly childish and/or earnest edges… oh, and receiving a massive budget increase, can’t forget that. At any rate, I look hugely forward to Series Two both as a reward, and with genuine interest to see what comes next.
  • In no small part because hey! We’ve finally arrived back around at the musical beginning! Although “Burke & Hare” isn’t often mentioned in discussions of memorable HH music; as a song its significance is overshadowed by the 4 Georges, and as a performance by… well, pretty much everything musical Mat will go on to do, for obvious reasons. But it’s easily up there with his best — perhaps even more so than Dick Turpin, given that here he’s working totally against his natural strengths. Really, give it a listen sans visual if necessary — I can about guarantee you’ll be as pleasantly startled as I was.
  • Just a great song all round…sort of delightfully creepy, in the same, erm, vein as the Plague Song. If ‘Born 2 Rule’ pointed the way conceptually for HH musical glory, these two demonstrated the format: self-contained, lavishly produced, and performed as per the conventions of the adult music video, not the local cable preschool channel. Meaning, not to put too fine a point on it, Mat — ably supported by Jim and Martha — taking the lead. All three will get a whole new, endlessly rewarding outlet next series, and it will not have onscreen lyrics. Save when they can be followed by little bouncy skulls. Which says it all, really.
  • While we’re on the subject of Mat’s soon-to-be-explored depths… let me just stipulate here that he is to all appearances a very sweet, grounded young man whose co-stars unanimously insist he’s a dream to work with… and I imply otherwise only because it’ll become significant later… but damned if he doesn’t also wear ‘bitchy, self-absorbed diva’ like a second skin. It pops out as a throwaway in the Roman toilet sketch, and after weeks of watching the earnest warrior-next-door, it’s frankly hilarious.
  • He also gets to show off his falling skills — and yes, I took drama in senior year, that there is a genuine skill. It’ll in fact become something of a running gag… and if it was between that and the mime, may I just add now, thank you producers. Albeit in this particular sketch it’s undercut by his bouncing up clean and bright three times from what’s explicitly supposed to be a filthy bodily-waste-encrusted floor (see historical notes below). Yep, second-series budget increases, gotta love ’em already.
  • Really, now I’m thinking about it, this episode is pretty much all about previewing Mat 2.0. He likewise slips effortlessly into Will Shakespeare, springing him from cliche to life in much the same manner as Ben did for Henry VIII. Jim doesn’t get the chance to do the same with poor old Richard III, who — besides the odd badger fixation — is much more proactively angry (and Northern) than his later incarnation. Being informed of your hideous reputation immediately upon revival will do that to you, I suppose.
  • Oh, and: BEST. STUPID DEATH. EVER. That is all.
  • Elsewhere, we get a look at what was evidently the pilot for the Bob Hale Reports, and it’s interesting — not because it’s particularly good, but because it’s actually set up very like a weather forecast, complete with ‘and stay indoors…’ -type recommendations at the end. Combined with Bobsy’s (highly) uncharacteristic subdued deference to his big map, I’m guessing a sort of meteorological theme was the original concept, prior to Larry’s advanced instincts for weird kicking in and creating the legend. So yeah, dodged a bullet there… *thinks back to other HH weather-forecast spoofs*… a very BIG bullet. .50 calibre, at least.
  • Also making her welcome debut this ep: Martha’s sassy, sultry legend-just-ask-her Cleopatra, complete with perpetual backup chorus Caesar and Mark Antony already in tow (and sharing a cute little fist bump that indicates entire OK-ness with the implications raised the last time Ben & Mat played military cohorts). Cleo’s makeup would be refined a bit from here, but the costume and attitude is entirely familiar, and entertaining.
  • Then there’s the nameless HHTV Sport announcer played by Giles Terera, a remarkably talented and versatile musical-theatre veteran whom the show will largely, and inexplicably, leave behind that desk for the next three series, and him just blatantly oozing personality the entire while.
  • Sadly, though, it’s goodbye and good luck to Javone, hopefully for greener (or at least less racially complicated) pastures. Also farewell, albeit slightly less lamented, to Meera Syal; and, at least until Series Four, Sarah Hadland. The starring troupe is set, and — as long as we’re shamelessly cribbing from movie trailers — the real adventure is just beginning…

95% Accu-rat:

  • Given the complexities involved in the Cleopatra sketch, it’s actually pretty darn impressive that they got away with only one inaccuracy… unfortunately, it’s the only one that’s easy to follow: she was never actually married to Julius Caesar. She thought she was, mind, but Roman law didn’t recognise marriages unless your fiancee was a fellow citizen, besides which there was the little matter of Caesar’s existing wife. Thus Cleo’s dreams of becoming Empress of (not to mention mother of the heir to) the known universe stalled out, leading to years of messy internecine warfare, all ending in Mark Antony and the asp… thus making the original distinction re: marital status kind of a huge deal. And much to their ongoing credit, the show will later correct the error in both sketch and song.
  • I do hate to spoil such a great musical finale, but chances are pretty good William Burke’s corpse didn’t actually end up with Dr. Knox. At least, I couldn’t find any evidence of same, and you’d think that’d be a majorly Internet-friendly fact. Although he insisted (and Burke actually swore) that he was guilty of nothing more than a weirdly convenient lack of curiosity, Knox was understandably in deep disgrace with the public. So, to an extent, was the entire medical profession, ensuring that nobody therein would’ve been much in the mood for grimly hilarious irony. Although being Scots, they apparently couldn’t resist one last flourish: according to Wikipedia (citing a 2009 book on the murders) …During the dissection, which lasted for two hours, Professor Alexander Monro dipped his quill pen into Burke’s blood and wrote “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head.”
  • Speaking of medical missteps… I’ve done a lot of reading on Florence Nightingale’s adventures in the Crimea, and the relatively quiet, clean and uncrowded hospital ward shown here doesn’t quite measure up to the scale of the problem facing the Lamp Lady on arrival. Think Gone With the Wind‘s hospital scenes after the Battle of Atlanta (fought only a few years later) for a much more accurate idea. Granted, MGM’s blood-guts-and-groans budget was just slightly bigger, but it’s a bit of a disappointment anyway; next-season’s revisionist take notwithstanding, our Flo was one amazing pioneer, and deserved a much more impressive chance to demonstrate it.
  • The whole badger business in the Richard III sketch took me a few minutes (and the commentary of other, equally bemused netizens) to work out. Apparently he’s saying that there weren’t any wild horses roaming the countryside back then, such as might helpfully wander into the path of a distressed king in the middle of a battlefield. It’s still kinda odd, because, y’know, battlefield. Wouldn’t there already have been horses running around?
  • The sandwich sketch is about as slight and goofy as they come, but what humour it has depends totally on how posh the Earl is… meaning the cook somehow hovering just outside the door is a major, major gaffe. In reality, it would’ve been ‘Footman! Go find someone to tell the cook…”
  • And finally: no, kids, Lord Turkey of Twizzler… just no. Past time altogether to move on to the next series, I think.
 
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Posted by on February 3, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E12

Yes, join the Hitler Youth — and if you’re lucky, we’ll run so short of troops that we’ll send you off to fight and get killed for ze Vaterland!
But I’m only ten…
Talk to ze hand, cos ze face ain’t listening.

We interrupt this quiet, relatively painless winding-down to bring you: NAZIS! Which is either the most awkward or the most clever application of Godwin’s Law ever, I haven’t decided yet. Quite possibly, both.

In this episode:

Song: We are Greek (Mat as Aristotle, Jim as Archimedes)

Recurring sketches:

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Ugly Duckling, the Middle Ages version (Yeah, so swan pie, very big back then…)

Stupid Deaths — Aeschylus (conked on the head by a tortoise dropped by an eagle who thought his bald spot was a rock…the playwright’s, that is, not the eagle’s.)

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

Monastic Sign Language — Peaceful, orderly English abbeys vs. mercilessly chaotic Vikings, round one of many. Though they never would quite top “the gorillas are ringing the bells…?” ever again.

The Monk Art Show: Write Like a Monk — Not to be confused with ‘drunk like a monk’, that’s for a later ep. But, arguably, still the same monastery…

Vile Victorians

Genuine Victorian Names — And the really scary part is, now all also freely available to newly-minted post-millennial parental units. (“Ooh, rough. Your parents must’ve been hippies, then?” “History majors, actually.”)

QVP Presents: The Queen Victoria Workout — Because, as small and dumpy as she may have become in later life, nobody ever called this woman soft.

Rotten Romans

Gladiator vs. Nature — In which the latter disappears via the former faster than Mat’s snaggletoothed look was dropped after this sketch. I like to extend it a few lines out: “In our defense, Your Imperial Majesty, that was NO ORDINARY GERBIL!!”

Execution Animals ‘R’ Us — “Oh dear. Do you have any other winged insect that can sting a man to death who’s covered in honey?” “Not really… a bee could do it on a good day, but there’s no guarantee...

Measly Middle Ages

Fine Fiddly Feast — The boorish Earl of Warwick checks on banquet preparations and still manages to come off as more sympathetic than most modern kitchen managers.

Groovy Greeks

The First Play Ever (movie trailer) — “I know it sounds boring, but remember… there’s literally nothing else on.”

Woeful Second World War

Evacuees With Dirty Faces – Anybody who thinks that the little slum kids are as angelic as they look is in for a shock, har har!… no, really, that’s the entire joke. Yes, it’s almost over.

Join the Hitler Youth… or Else — “Just like ze Scouts… only EVIL!”

Top Three Strangest Hitler Survival Rumours (animated) — Presumably the one where he moved to a North Minehead rest home and changed his name to ‘Hilter’ was thought to be pushing it a bit.

Field Notes:

  • Yeah, so, the Hitler Youth, quite a sketch. A sort of sideways outcropping of the “British Things” –type impulse from last episode; much more necessary, but also much more complicated, emotionally if not factually. It gets all the points first for attempting and then for actually balancing along a razor-fine line of sensitivity even adult comics would fear to tread (helped by Ben’s entirely too open and wholesome-looking Fuehrer, in the same way Nero benefits from Jim’s overwhelming cuddliness). It’s honestly an excellent demonstration of how deftly the writers had learned to use history against its subjects. But still…
  • I was going to suggest that possibly it was cut from S01E03 (aka The One That Still Haunts My Nightmares) for time constraints, but it wouldn’t really have fit there — except maybe as an intriguing riff on why the ‘comedy = tragedy + time’ formula exists. Possibly it was banished to this far episodic outpost of irrelevance on the understanding that it wouldn’t really fit anywhere. There is a reason why ‘full-on whacky Nazis’ is still the universally accepted comedy compromise — as the show itself acknowledges immediately afterwards, and as late as Series Four.
  • Right, back to your regularly-scheduled lighthearted irrelevance… oh look, it’s the Greek thinkers’ song that isn’t a brilliantly-honed pastiche of great satirists past! Seriously, not much you can say about this one – save that whoa, apparently Aristotle here got deep into the man-grooming between now and Series Four. Still, yay! performer continuity, also makeup budget increases.
  • Otherwise… mmph. It’s not even a song really, just a long string of (mostly) rhyming couplets with no real visual theme to tie them together (compare the effort put into the very similar ‘Victorian Inventions’ next season). They don’t even bother making Mat’s piano-playing mime look convincing. About halfway through, in fact, he quite visibly decides to privately entertain himself however he can. Meanwhile Jim gamely struggles on to the end… and is rewarded by being forced to declaim that ‘our physiques were not weak’, a mere couple eps past playing a totally effete Athenian. That Wife Swap sketch is just doing no-one any favours, is it?
  • Jim gets much better served in ‘Write Like a Monk’ — albeit not by the makeup team. Those wound-simulation skills I mentioned, away back? I’d like to introduce you to Exhibit A: Still Life of Miserable Monk with Wasp Stings. How do you even learn to simulate wasp stings? Is there a textbook? Do they sell tickets to the final exams, and if so where can I buy several?
  • Honestly, though, that bit is a whole lot funnier than it has any right to be. Ben and Jim are the total Abbott and Costello of ‘demonstration’ sketches, somehow the concept just brings out the funniest and most watchable in both of them. Luckily, someone on the production side took this down for future reference.
  • There’s only one really glaring cosmetic misstep here… OK, two if we’re counting those tonsure wigs. But only one involves Mat’s face, so is destined to be mocked by bored Tumblr-GIF-makers for a very long time to come. I do have a certain amount of respect for Mat re: the attempt, having gathered elsewhere that those snaggle-mouth appliances are desperately uncomfortable (as anything bunged into your mouth without warning must be)… but yeah. Exeunt male-cast-face-distorting experiments, not lamented.
  • Still though, itty-bitty gerbil! And Rattus’ teeny baked-bean-can shield! And – don’t believe I’m saying this, but ‘tis so — Terry Deary as an uncannily adorable Roman Emperor! Squeeee!… right, look, I’ve been at this for twelve episodes now, OK? Cut me some slack.
  • Speaking of Mat and experiments (also, probably, entertaining himself), the otherwise-unremarkable sign-language sketch is his big chance to break out his inner mime – and this man was trained in a Parisian clown school, you know that sucker had to have been knocking hard. At any rate, he makes the most of it here, in what might best be described as an, ah, uniquely rewarding mileu. The ‘spilling guts’ maneuver especially is not to be missed; I bet it was the hit of the college pubs (cafes?) for miles around.
  • Oh, and kudos to whomever folded all those dozens of origami swans just for a frankly mediocre medieval kitchen sketch. I’m picturing a revelatory career insight such as frequently crops up mid-experiment on Mythbusters: “I just had one of those what-the-hell-are-we-doing moments…” (And this sketch gets one other distinction, as one of the very rare – and in this case, rather cleverly done – times Rattus interacts directly with the players.)
  • I’m honestly torn by the Queen Victoria Workout. On the one hand, it’s a hilariously creative way to get the lady’s legendary toughness across; on the other… was it honestly necessary to keep harping on her figure not being perfect, as though it was some sort of massive defect on the scale of the villainy and stupidity presented elsewhere in the same ep? One last little reminder that the HH comedy model only works properly if the ‘horror’ in question is genuinely the result of a flaw in human nature, not physical.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, so any attempt to attribute inventions to a particular ethnic group means willingly striding into a sociopolitical minefield, and honestly, my tolerance for foaming-mouthed nationalism is low at the best of times. Suffice it to say that what we like to think of as a sudden, shining, cue-the-inspiring-music ‘Eureka!’ moment in actuality involves a frankly boring series of small auxiliary discoveries, usually built upon by many people at once, so that the credit for the finished Iconic Piece of Civilization frequently depends literally on who got to the patent office first. Or was the most inclined to brag, or frankly was just the more popular when the textbooks were being written. Both the histories of the telephone and television provide instructive glimpses into this crediting process; you can imagine how convoluted it becomes prior to the invention of reliable record-keeping.
  • Also, yeah, see, about Queen Victoria’s weight issues… funny how sixty-four years including nine pregnancies will do that to an already petite, plump figure. You wouldn’t like me — you really wouldn’t like me — when I get started on distorted female media representation and the effects on vulnerable young girls, so let’s just all acknowledge you had a notably insensitive moment here and move on, kthx show?
  • Besides, y’know what? Hitler probably wasn’t actually a vegetarian, either. At least not a strict one. Much as I hate to lose any opportunity to mock PETA, while he surely liked animals, there’s good evidence that he also appreciated his schnitzel from time-to-time. Overall, as this Psychology Today article demonstrates, the Nazi attitude to animal cruelty is a complex and fascinating thing worthy of more thoughtful debate.
  • Oh, and the First Play Ever?… apparently only this boring if you discount the elaborate costumes, lively conversation, oodles of enthusiastic battle and other action, fifty-person chorus backing our two protagonists up (the original ‘Greek chorus’) and the fact that it wasn’t one four-hour-long production but four shorter ones, one of which was specifically a comedy to lighten the mood after all that heavy stuff.  About the only part of this little interlude that could be safely harvested for exam answers is the bit about two people having a conversation with each other for the first time… previously, they’d only been allowed to talk to the chorus. I mean — as the show is in fact in the process of stressing right at that moment — these were ancient peoples, not unimaginative ones.
  • It’s not all bad news, though; that bit about Royal swan ownership turns out to be totally 110% accu-rat, right down to the Orkney Islands exemption. This article goes into more bureaucratic detail, including the purely wonderful existence of a ‘Swan Master’, and, surprisingly, various legal challenges to her Majesty’s claim down the years. Apparently you lot are deeply ticked about losing your swan pie… which having had a close encounter with the nasty buggers at age nine I don’t blame you one bit. Did you know that, when they stretch up, swans are taller than your average cute little innocent just-strolling-by-the-river nine-year-old? And that they hiss?
  • Also… because I just knew you’d be interested… gerbils, totally native to Northern Africa! Nice going, show, I knew you’d never let me down in the end. Here, have some gratuitously adorable evidence of the species in their native habitat.
 
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Posted by on February 3, 2013 in Series One

 

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