24 Mar

So one Incan generation would tell it to the next, who would tell it to the next, who would tell it to the next. Just like I’m telling it to you right now — but without the rather fetching tie.

That point in all the best HH series when you realise you now recognise nearly every scene in the opening credits… and are made melancholy at the implications.

In this episode:

Song: Real Live Cowboys — Ben, Larry and Nathaniel Martello-White, ridin’ the range

Recurring sketches:

Historical Hospital — Stuart physician (“Now, let’s get those pigeons in here — come on, let’s encourage them! coo! coo! … they’ll be here soon!”)

HHTV Sport: Viking Family Feud — Which turns out to have been conducted along the standard Hatfields -vs- McCoys model, except with fewer star-crossed lovers and way more berserkers. ie., exactly as it should be.

Stupid Deaths — WWII Businessman (On the train home in a blackout, got off at the wrong stop… over a railway trestle! “Ohhhh, I see! … or rather I don’t! Hah! Keep up guys, keep up!”)

Bob Hale — The Incan Report

Victorian EastEnders — The Cost of Penny School (“Right! Chastity! We’d like to talk to you about your school attendance!” “Yes, Dad?” “It seems you’ve been going!”)


Slimy Stuarts

Tea for New — Well, somebody’s clearly seen Bob Newhart’s ‘Raleigh introduces tobacco‘ routine…

Vicious Vikings

Savage Sendoff — “And the ceremony would not be complete without a moving Viking poem: Ragnar the Brave/Has lost his head/We Vikings aren’t sad/We party instead!”

Woeful Second World War

Anderson Home Bomb Shelter — Getting weirdly cozy with infomercial pitchmen: only one of the many perils to be guarded against during the Blitz…

The Farm — … Like being evacuated to the country, for instance. “There’s nothing to be scared of, Charley. They’re just farm animals.” “AAAAAAHHHHHH…!!!”

Incredible Incas

Incan Telephone Messaging — Which was even more confusing prior to the invention of the actual telephone.

Vile Victorians

The Welsh Not — OK, so sure, you’ve been forcibly deprived of your native language and humiliated in front of your peers. But at least they’re not telling the sheep jokes yet!… I don’t think.

Awesome USA

New! Multi-Purpose Bandanna — Probably the least Horrible excuse for a sketch in the entire canon… unless they’re thinking ahead to it being co-opted by hefty bikers for sweat shields, in which case, carry right on!

Field Notes:

  • You know how, when you go to watch a rerun of a series, it’s always one or two particular episodes? Well, these next two episodes of HH are what I saw every time… and for a year or so there S1-S2 was running on an infinite loop, several times a week, so I saw them a lot. Familiarity, as it turns out, is not quite the helpful spur to commentary that you’d think: every time I try to start having deep meaningful insights, my critical faculty just goes “It’s Horrible Histories! Duh!”
  • ..And then it gets to the cowboy stuff, and it shorts right out. Seriously, I feel like there’s no way for me to comment thoughtfully on this, ‘cos I’ve no way of knowing just how far tongue is supposed to be into cheek in the first place. The media cliches being referenced here were on this side of the pond last unconditionally bought into — even by children — in about the ’60’s at the latest. By now our deconstruction process has become so routine it’s spawning things like Cowboys and Aliens, which frankly didn’t do all that well.
  • Given that the song expects kidlets to get a reference to John Wayne, I will assume the mythbusting is meant to be at least partially serious, even if they are trying to position Ben (and Martello-White, come to that) as the explicitly scrawny, nondescript ‘real live cowboys’ in question. Unless that idea is supposed to be conveyed through Ben’s singing and dancing, in which case, definite result. Yes, they’ve simplified the choreography as far as possible, but even so this is a man clearly concentrating hard on not looking at his feet.
  • At any rate, silly little throwback to S1 or no, the song is mostly accurate (albeit somehow leaves out most of the really interesting details) and the Wild Western fantasy is one of those things that it’s impossible not to smile when grown men indulge… albeit here, again, it really would’ve been helpful if they hadn’t actually attempted the accent. I would much rather have been asked to buy British riders on the range than drawls that have all the hallmarks of someone having taken not only The Duke but The Dukes of Hazzard seriously.
  • At least, most of the drawls. Where Larry’s coming from I as usual can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure it’s something unhealthy involving Pat Buttram. Mat, meanwhile, is working off… maybe the Toy Story movies? Seriously, while he’s physically the most convincing of the lot, this bandanna-wearing business could not be more clearly missing from his childhood-fantasy repertoire. (Oh, and guys? ‘Oven glove’ = ‘oven mitt’ in American.)
  • Ben, on the other hand, is just totally living all the dreams. Besides Wayne — with possibly a touch of Rhett Butler mixed in — he gets to be a Viking warrior and spank Alice Lowe…what? Oh, sure, they’re just handing the fanfic scenarios up as a hobby by now. Do not wish to smirk unduly re: who was responsible for this one, but Willbond (and Baynton) do still appear in the writing credits for this series.
  • Ben also gets to play his usual briskly hysterical Historical Hospital doctor, which prospect always seems to cheer the performer involved up no end, as an unlimited license to camp. Meantime, it sets me to wondering why nobody ever asks before tasting things in this universe. Seriously, it’s really starting to interfere with my enjoyment of the joke. There’s no way that by now it wouldn’t be a reflex.
  • The Viking bit, by contrast, is played with puzzling comedic sedateness — yep, we’ve reached the point in HH history where a funeral involving immolating a slave girl, followed by poetry and then a free-for-all-brawl, can be considered ho-hum. The ‘Sigurd the Bitter’ touch only confirms that the rest was written on autopilot… which in this case likely means “If we don’t give Willbond a chance to cosplay an unironic warrior on a regular basis we’ll never get him into that sweater-vest again.”
  • In other linguistics-related news, the voices for the little cartoon intro characters (which are mostly done by the cast) have suddenly been messed with, for whatever not-very-compelling reason — sheer boredom comes to mind. The major difference is a weirdly downwardly-mobile accent for Cartoon WWII Officer Guy, who now sounds like one of his own cartoon grunts. Somehow I keep picturing MP’s Colonel writing a stern letter to the BBC about this.
  • The Bob Hale reports have officially entered their iconic heyday — you can tell, because the animations are little mini-treats all on their own. Also because, besides debuting an admirably succinct yet child-friendly approach to incest (“Ew”), Bobsy totally throws up the rock’n’roll devil horns. Confirmation of my previous theories re: what Bob had to do to get his historical expertise, and Larry his hair-metal ditto, all aside… I feel like this might be a good time to mention that ‘Rickards’ brand beer is a thing in Canada.
  • And speaking of ‘ew’, I think Jim in the sport sketch may have accidentally invented Bieber hair. Thanks a lot, Howick. Also, as noted, someone — quite possibly someone cleaning out the closet after their knitting auntie left after Christmas — felt the need to revisit the Ben-in-dorky-sweater-vest gag (and even provide a mini-me version in the farm sketch!), which proves, erm, much less plausible when the character isn’t supposed to be fully socially inept.
  • Oh, and that reminds me, Mat as the salesman in the same bomb-shelter bit… so I’m really hoping the vaguely creepy is just me having been thinking about this stuff way too long. Because it’s a bit hard to concentrate on historical funny when all you’re really anxious to learn is whether that poor couple asked for his ID.
  • On the other hand, Mat doing a Cockney accent is made of pure awwwww. Homaging his forebears no doubt (and even sneaking a bit of mime in there). No wonder that for the first time Death seems sincerely pleased with the corpse —  a curiously touching, and realistic, bit of bonding over the black humour of it all. It isn’t a turn I’d ever like to see these sketches take permanently, and indeed it’s never repeated to the extent it is here, but as a one-off it works.
  • While the pastel shirts in the sport sketch continue to be hilariously appropriate, I do wish they’d ramp it up a bit — add proper HHTV Sport blazers with the logo on the lapel, and maybe a few Olympic pins. Otherwise, this sketch is all that comedy-loving heart could wish, a perfect marriage of subject and parody. They can even get away with the uber-goofy ‘watching a monitor as the action plays out two feet behind them’, just because the dichotomy between actual and imagined media importance continues to be so expertly played.
  • Unnerving shared taste in knitwear aside, that no-one ever thought (that I can recall) of casting Ben and young Bertie Gilbert as father and son seems like a definite missed opportunity… oh right, sorry, let me start again: OMIGAWD IT’S BERTIE!!! Or something. I’m just going by Twitter here, I haven’t actually seen his podcast thingy yet. But he’s a cute kid, and has been at least sensible enough to realise that his acting career probably wouldn’t have outgrown his cuteness. Excellent set of lungs he has, too.
  • Meantime, the casting in the tea sketch is… interestingly atypical. I’m not sure who it should be exactly; only that it probably shouldn’t be Simon and/or Jim. Or at least it probably shouldn’t be Jim sounding like the chance to impress his friends with leaves is the only thing standing between him and leaping off Tower Bridge.
  • The whole sketch has that sort of un-thought-through air — like they just listened to the Newhart bit, went ‘We can so use that!’ and then never got around to an actual script. This apparently results in Simon deciding to ad-lib, which I have a feeling could’ve led to a much better — if less historically conscientious — sketch.
  • I really enjoy the ‘Victorian EastEnders’ bits. An unusually fine, and plausible, mix of fact and funny — and, in keeping with the theme, entirely convincingly-accented turns from both Jim and Martha. If it weren’t for the geography, I’d swear they were parodying Catharine Cookson, which is quite the ambitious goal for a single-joke throwaway bit to pull off. While, it must be noted, pulling off a niftier-than-usual little parental bonus… at least for parents that are secretly twelve-year-old-boys (hee hee! The sixteenth daughter is named ‘Chastity’!).
  • We haven’t seen the Incas in awhile, so let’s head over to the local quarry… um, South American mountain plain, right. The sketch itself isn’t helping any, although I’ll admit the ‘telephone’ game was never my favourite to begin with. Your average grade-school kidlet probably chortled happily throughout. Still, glad Rattus mentioned the really intriguing knotted rope communications system… he’s being unusually helpful and interesting generally this ep, come to think of it.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So again, I have no idea of knowing how serious you lot are about the cowboy cliches, or for that matter how invested you are in them — and this frankly kind of goofily highbrow dissection of the ‘international mythology’ isn’t really helping me much. (Except to give me a queasy glimpse of what I might sound like when I start dissecting your cultural concepts…)
  • Anyway, yeah, cowboys. Of course, the basic ‘guy who works with cattle’ thing has been with us since someone first looked at said enormous hunk of tasty on hooves and decided they could put up with it being really stupid. The specific cow-icon being dissected here (the one with the hat, boots and inexplicably embroidered shirts) was brought to North America by the Spanish, who introduced the vaquero into Mexico apparently mostly to care for the herds kept at various missions. Which explains the shirts, sort of. Also the stringed instruments.
  • Like much of the real American West — of the real America, come to that — the guiding power principle wasn’t freedom, but politics and commerce. As the West was won, and subsequently linked to major commercial centres back East via railroads, it was swiftly realised that the combination was perfect for providing the red meat needs of a nation. The product would even walk itself to the processing plants — the only thing was to keep them all walking in the same direction at more-or-less the same time.
  • Thus from about 1860-1880 (after which the ‘open range’ was finally too fenced in to move through profitably), the great cattle drives pulled in… well, basically, whoever they could find that could ride a horse. The romantically lawless cliches were limited to Arizona Territory, specifically in and around  (surprise!) Tombstone. Everywhere else the roster was much more practically- than criminally-minded about the job, as witness it including Indians, newly-freed slaves, and just generally everybody but the Marlboro Man.
  • See — as the show points out lyrically, if not visually — being on a horse literally all day, days at a time, spang in the middle of several thousand mooing slabs of total unconcern for your welfare, hurts. Both you and the horse. You needed to be small, light and dextrous to have any chance of making it a career — think Mat, only a lot shorter, on account of probably being a malnourished orphan. And generally way too busy dealing with acres of moronic manure-spouts to stare flinty-eyed off into the distance.
  • The Stuart writing-on-the-thumbs cure sounded intriguingly reminiscent of those Stone Age medicinal tattoos from S1, and thus I am kind of crushed that I couldn’t find more info. Historians — at least online ones — seem to be totally obsessed instead with this ‘Black Death’ or something, I dunno. Also, Google kept insisting I must mean ‘BlackBerry Thumb’ (which, FYI, apparently you treat with ice and rest).
  • Mind you, this doesn’t mean that Stuart medicine generally wasn’t a prime source of hilarity. Until the Historical Paramedics return to demonstrate, have this interesting general overview of the subject. Also, this genuinely disgusting overview of how leeches and maggots are making a spectacular comeback in the modern world of medical care.
  • Similarly, about all I could find on the subject of bananas and tea was that they were first introduced in Stuart times. No record of how they were received (or whether they actually pronounced it ‘ba-NA-na’), except that the whole thing was part of the general Age of Exploration, so yeah, exciting culinary times, at least if you were wealthy enough to enjoy them. In fact, tea particularly was popularised by Queen Catherine of Braganza, possibly as a way to salvage her self-worth while husband Charles II was off banging everything else in skirts.
  • Incidentally, turns out Charlie himself wouldn’t be anywhere near as at home in a Starbucks: By 1675, there were over 3,000 coffee houses in England. Merchants and professional men met in the new coffee houses, to read newspapers, talk politics, do business and gossip… Charles II later tried to suppress the London coffee houses as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”, but people flocked to them.
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Posted by on March 24, 2013 in Series Two


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