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S02E06

10 Mar

As I was just saying to the Prussian Ambassador here..
That is a pot-plant, your Majesty.
Oh… so ’tis. Well, as I was just saying to this pot-plant here…

Part two of the chipper midseries skip through Georgian madness, pirate antics and American accents… now with 75% less oddball earnestness… not to mention 100% fewer llamas.

In this episode:

Song: Blackbeard’s Song — Jim as Captain Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach; Larry, Ben, Mat and Chorus as his crew

Recurring sketches:

Ready Steady Feast — George III and the Beef Tree

Stupid Deaths — Clement Vallandingham (Apparently ‘make sure the pistol is unloaded before conducting the demonstrations’ took awhile to make it onto the American legal curriculum…)

Dodgy War Tactics — No.23: The American Civil War Battle of the Crater (Apparently ‘setting off mines underground makes for a really big hole’ took awhile to make it onto the American military-school curriculum…)

Cliff Whiteley — Mary Seacole vs. Florence Nightingale: Both swept aside gender barriers, saved lives, and established an enduring legacy of selfless heroism; but only the white one… um, invented the pie chart. (“Shut it, Lampy Knickers!”)

One-offs:

Gorgeous Georgians

The Madness of King George’s Doctors — Eighteenth-century medicine: a genuine tossup between suffering the cure or enduring the disease… unless you’re too valuable to have the choice. (“STOP BEING MAD! GET BETTER!!” “STOP BEING WEIRD ALL THE TIME!!”)

Rotten Romans

Elagabalus’ Romo Lottery Millions — In which it is doubtful which suffered more under the rule of a teenage Emperor: the crowds who got serpents chucked among them… or the English language. (“Play my game, and you could be well minted!… but not as much as me.”)

Something’s Fishy in Capri — And if your guess was anything other than ‘The Emperor’s sanity’, you have so not been paying attention.

Smashing Saxons

Saxon Weather Forecast — “Good news up in Scotland however, where we’ve seen some red sky at night! So expect calm weather there… assuming it wasn’t actually a monastery on fire, after a Viking raid.”

Ghostbuster, Crop Duster — Burning all your fields to ward off ghosts: possibly the ultimate in ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ (“Well, at least when I die of starvation, I won’t be able to haunt anyone! Heh-heh…?”)

Anglo-Saxon Famine Solutions — Lose your will to live now, save serious time later. (“What’s in the stew?” “It’s a, uh… family recipe.”)

Savage Stone Age

Trepanadol — “Now, here’s the sciency bit: At the first sign of a headache, get a totally unqualified colleague to knock a small hole in your skull…”

Stone Age Family Fortunes — Hey, actual  fascinating non-llama-intensive comedy involving South America! Way to go, show!… um, wait, West Side Story really isn’t a great substitute, characterization-wise…

Vile Victorians

Repeat After Me — See, this was why Victorian schoolmasters had all those fearsome punishments. It was kind of a vicious circle, really.

Field Notes:

  • Well, somebody’s on a roll. Exactly one episode after creating the ultimate spineless ball of useless, Jim here makes such a cheerfully badass pirate captain that he elevates Blackbeard’s Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired song, as a creative decision, entirely past ‘duh!’ into something really delightful. Especially is this impressive since the makeup team weren’t nearly as inspired by the name — I suppose an authentically bushy beard would hamper his performance, but lemme personally assure you, guys, the reflexive viewer wincing when he sets those comparative wisps on fire isn’t helping any either.
  • Leaving out my particular neuroses, though, it’s a really nifty song, full of a gentle non-sequitur playfulness that marries the two comedy genres together beautifully. Much of which is provided by the rest of the troupe shamelessly hamming it up in the background… specifically, now that I think about it, Ben taking the brunt of Jim’s random whims yet again.
  • While elsewhere, we have Mat very deliberately intimidating Larry, likewise yet again. Anybody else noticing a curiously unnerving yet entertaining pattern here, or is it just me? (And that’s not even getting into the whole poor-man’s Nicholas Cage thing with Jim and bees.)
  • Speaking of which, also of delicious helpings of scenery: helloooo Mat, breaking out at his most brilliantly, charmingly disturbing…ly still unconcerned by what Elagabalus is potentially doing to preteen hormones with access to Wikipedia. More seriously, that turn as the Georgian doctor hilights the intense watchability inherent in the intersection of his refined physical and offbeat creative charisma. This angle is one of my favourites, a purely elegant psychosis — essence de Gorey illustration, if you like — that, just to emphasise the brilliance yet again, is capable of squelching Larry.
  • Nobody ever accused Lawry Lewin of elegance — least of all me — but I must concede that his twitchy squeaky take on George III is… well, not growing on me, exactly. More like being forced to hear somebody running nails down a chalkboard yet being irresistibly funny at the same time; not comfortable, but still worthy of credit. (Albeit at least some of that credit should go to the writers, who’ve scripted lines a block of wood couldn’t screw up.) Too, Lawry was probably much easier to convincingly wrestle into a chair than Simon… sorry, I’ll be quitting while I’m marginally ahead now.
  • After all, I get more than my fair share of hilariously Loopy!Farnaby — now with extra-wonderfully inexplicable Italian accent — in the ‘Titus on Capri’ sketch. It’s just lovely to have Simon and Mat reunited for one of these Roman bits, and while Jim is missed, Larry’s sort of meta-introduction as the new guy on the block is appreciated. (“Yeah, crazy emperors are crazy, you get used to it…”)
  • Oh, and interestingly… well, not really, I just wanted an excuse to mention it… anyway, Ben makes a much more convincing Italian peasant than he does Incan priest.
  • Which reminds me, y’know how I complained they’d used up all the really good stupid deaths in Series One? Well… not quite. Beautiful mock-nineteenth-century American oratory there from Ben, just beautiful — cut off a bit short, but great while it lasts. I think Simon is really, honestly laughing at this one, and I so can’t blame him.
  • On the further subject of nifty throwaway turns, Jim and Martha as a couple fully continue to deserve their own sitcom. Meantime Mat as the Saxon weatherman is an appealingly clever parody — again, seriously, I hope the writers at least got fresh muffins in the break room after this episode, with extra jam for the one who came up with the ‘unless you’re lazy and a nun’ bit.
  • Also, bonus offbeat Baynton in the form of that thing where his voice randomly jumps about six octaves every other word… which is sort of how I imagine perky friendliness coming across in a Batman comic.
  • I love Dominique, for all the considerable force of her charm, comic timing and honestly cool ability to pull off a Jamaican accent without sounding like she’s either a Marley groupie or overdue for bobsled practice. She brings the same welcome breath of bright normalcy to the Ready Steady Feast sketches as in the HHospital. All of which makes it extra-sad that she’s stuck in that tangerine blouse for the duration. Is there some rule that says the ruffle quotient of British female presenters’ wardrobes must be in direct proportion to their personal attractiveness?
  • While we’re discussing f/x… there are two unavoidable possibilities inherent in the Saxon ‘sell yourself to the Lord of the Manor’ bit: either those are Jim’s actual feet, with possibly a bit of *gag* suitable camera enhancement; or somebody in the makeup dept worked really really hard to bring that horror to fruition, as the obvious culmination of a lifelong fascination with… I don’t know, Lovecraft’s eldritch abominations come to mind as a suitable starting point. Either way, I will now be forgetting that this sketch ever existed, kthx — OH GOD THOSE MUMMIES CAN’T UNSEE AHHHHHHHH.
  • Ahem. Yeah, so, this Cliff Whiteley sketch, this is the level of intelligent controversy they all should’ve been about. Just all the different kinds of awesome. Not quite enough to make me fall in love with the concept all over again, mind, but — honestly, have I mentioned how much I love Simon? Enough to overcome the ridiculously annoying sound effects, is how much, which is a whole lot. Besides which Dominique’s habit of full-on attacking whenever she gets a shot at a really meaty character is impressing me even more than all that other stuff.
  • Oh, is that what Family Feud looked like in the UK? Neat. Well, as noted the ethnic awkwardness continues to be awkward, but I’m getting used to that. Rather surprisingly, Ben does a nice daytime-gameshow-hosty schtick — especially when accidentally dismembering Granny. Clearly I’m not the only one who appreciates a good Willbond -vs- rotting limbs gag.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Not a historical note per se, but just occasionally the show throws up an idea, like weather reporting via superstitions, that I can totally picture myself watching for real. The Newfoundland forecast alone would be worth it.
  • Arrrrrr! Because one can never have too many fun pirate factoids, matey, here’s some more fascinating detail about the man behind everybody’s favourite ebon whiskers. Which as it happens he never actually set alight — suicide being generally incompatible with swashbuckling — preferring instead to fake it with firecrackers etc. This wasn’t quite the comforting distinction you might think; as per the link: Before battle, he would dress all in black, strap several pistols to his chest and put on a large black captain’s hat. Then, he would put slow burning fuses in his hair and beard. The fuses constantly sputtered and gave off smoke, which wreathed him in a perpetual greasy fog. He looked like a devil who had stepped right out of hell and onto a pirate ship and most of his victims simply surrendered their cargo rather than fight him. 
  • Say, have you lot seen the Madness of King George, yet? I’d recommend it, great movie. Basically the film-length version of this ep’s take on poor George III, who ordinarily was really a decent if rather boringly prudish old stick, popular among his subjects for his unashamedly bourgeois tastes… which was why everyone was so completely freaked when he abruptly began jabbering himself hoarse, to literally anyone who’d listen.
  • This would go on until he was bright red and foaming, which sort of put a crimp in his chances with the Queen’s ladies even if he hadn’t also been randomly grabbing them and whispering lewd nothings (one of his victims, novelist Fanny Burney, later recorded his telling her — repeatedly — “They say I am mad, but I am not, I am nervous. If you must know what is wrong with me, I am nervous…”). At one point he flat-out threw the future George IV against a wall mid-argument, which might make their Prom relationship a bit more understandable.
  • The character Mat is supposed to be playing is the Rev. Dr. Francis Willis, not actually a court physician but the master of a Lincolnshire sanitorium of some renown. His theories did indeed involve uncompromisingly disciplining the madness into submission, hence the tactics shown here (albeit the mustard’s supposed to be in a plaster, ie. a sort of cloth pocket). Conversely, though, so long as the patient ‘behaved himself’ he was accordingly treated much more humanely than in your average asylum. At any rate, His Majesty did snap out of it at least for awhile, held no grudges, and Willis became one of the great physicians of the age.
  • Clement Vallandingham… quite a life, for all its awkward end. You have to realise, this was nineteenth-century America, men were bumbling around simultaneously being romantically dramatic and owning firearms more or less constantly. From his home state’s POV, he’s the heroic statesman who opposed the Civil War and eventually came to support abolition (if mostly for political reasons), all of which was tragically cut short by one weensy, understandable little lapse of concentration.
  • Although again, it’s one of the niftiest things about HH, that they can bring these types of hidden heroes to light — and  in this case, become their champion — the life and times of Mary Seacole are also a little murkier than the HH format allows. Although there very likely was a racial component (back then, even those sympathetic to ‘Negro’ rights could be absolutely horrified by the idea of one treating white soldiers), her rejection seems to have been as much a matter of her rather dodgy qualifications as anything else. Once she got out there and settled down to work, though, nobody of any shade or class was complaining…
  • …except, yep, ol’Lampy Knickers. Characteristically obsessed with raising the (incredibly poor) reputation of the nursing profession as much as healing the sick, Florence N. expressed her concern that Seacole ‘did much good for the poor soldiers’ primarily in the sense that she was running a sort of brothel, where she ‘made many drunk’. This wildly-unfair prejudice meant Nightingale did all she could to avoid anyone on her team being associated with her rival’s British Hotel — thus depriving history of one of its most spectacular potential mashups, and helping create a controversy that rages on to this day.
  • The Chico and the Man rejects featured on ‘Family Fortunes’ are supposed to be members of the Chinchorro tribe, fishermen who lived in and around what’s more recently the coastline of Chile and Peru, and they did indeed expend a lot of effort on reconstituting their dead as far as clay and sealskin would let them. This lovely article gives a much more rounded picture of a genuinely remarkable culture.
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Posted by on March 10, 2013 in Series Two

 

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