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)
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!”)
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.”
Incan ShamPee — “Available in all full bladders. Bucket not included.”
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…)
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.
Sat Rav — Quoth the navigational device: Nevermore! (Yes, I have been saving that one. Shut up.)
- 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.
- 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…