Incredibly clever, yet incredibly simple. aBook is the new book that rewrites the book on… writing books.
The show kicks off its first wholly self-referential series with an episode that showcases the outer limits of the possibilities: the f/x budget lavish enough to accommodate real imagination, the credibility to blatantly mimic mainstream adult comedy and the veteran troupe proven not only able but willing to handle all of it…
…short version: this is the one with the erotic singing highwayman. Regardless of demographics, when you’re a hit TV show, life is good.
In this episode:
Song: Dick Turpin, Highwayman — Mat as Adam… uh, Turpin, Larry, Jim, Simon and Martha as the ‘notorious gang of Gregory’ aka chorus, Ben as the postman. (Parody of: Adam and the Ants, Stand and Deliver)
Historical Masterchef — Aztec (“We are looking for an exceptional cook, who does exceptional cooking, exceptionally.” “I’M SHOUTING FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER!”)
Words We Get From the — Vikings
Historical Paramedics — Vikings (“He urgently needs soup!” “No, he needs hospital!” “Will you stop making words up and just listen to me?!… Now, let us carve runic symbols into a whalebone, to ensure this young man’s good health.”)
A Triumph of Bureaucracy — When you award victory parades based on a specific number of enemy dead, the sketches starring little accountant types standing by the battlefield basically write themselves. (“Yes… I’ll give you that one. He’s moving, but realistically he’s not going anywhere without his head.”)
Introducing aBook — What ‘thinking different’ looked like in the 1st century AD. “With the new aBook, you simply turn the page, using the unique turnable pages to reveal new information.”
You’ve Been Artois’d! — In the best argument yet against messing with temporal reality, medieval prankmaster Robert of Artois tries to construct a reality show out of random MTV cliches. “‘Top of the pops, bay-bee! I know these words, you see? I am ‘street’, yes? Whoo-OOOO!…” …Seriously, we need to show this to NASA.
In the Gong Family Business — Following your heart (or nose): not a major theme in medieval career counselling.
Royal Progress to the Loo — An Elizabethan nobleman learns that he will be hosting her Majesty as part of her annual tour, thus enriching the national treasury and ensuring his country remains strong and free. Also, that Tudor Blackadder was pretty much a documentary.
Howl to Get Yourself Killed (animated) — Howler monkeys mull over how the Aztec hunters always seem to find them even in the densest jungle. YEP, IT’S A MYSTERY ALL RIGHT!
Newgate Prison — Bribe your way to good food, clean sheets and decent service whilst incarcerated in a tiny bare room… I’m sorry, was this meant to be a parody of a modern hotel advert?
Politeness is No Picnic — The dashing hero of carefree alfresco romance discovers too late that he’s actually wandered into a sociological Whack-a-Mole game.
New! Victorian Floral Messaging Service — Say whatever you like with flowers… just be careful of the ones that have thorns. (“Do you by any chance have one that means ‘I love someone else?’ And another that means ‘And it’s your best friend?'”)
Frightful First World War
Battle of the Somme — “So at this rate, we should be in Berlin by… ah, don’t tell me… four hundred ninety, divide by the two… add the five… carry over the doo-dah, then the whats-a-me-face…” “It’s over a hundred years, sir.” “Oh! Well… we won’t be alive by then, will we?” “Not with you in charge, sir.”
Fabulous Fat King’s Fat Factory — And if you need any more explanation than that forget it, ‘cos my stomach has to run and catch the nearest porcelain bus.
- This is the show they wanted to make. Or rather — since that much has been obvious since Day One — this is the apotheosis of that show. If Series Two’s hallmark was giddy excitement at being allowed to make certain creative choices, Series Three radiates the self-confidence of those same choices validated, in – well, almost every way possible. They hadn’t actually started winning awards yet.
- Still, stratospheric ratings and burgeoning critical acclaim – especially for the music — had clearly done what it usually does. Except that in this case it did it to a children’s series, which makes it far more interesting, given that the result could still only be about creativity. (You can tell: while Robert Artois openly sniggers about sending jets of water up ladies’ skirts, the next shot shows the jet actually going off in Martha’s face. There is something strangely reassuring about this, for all demographics.)
- Still, even within those bounds, the show clearly no longer feels the need to even bother to distinguish the house style from the comedy mainstream. Historical edutainment is now definitively the show’s hook, not its purpose; and it all is propelled by a bonafide comedy troupe, whose personal styles are integral to the funny. More than ever, this is a show not for children, nor adults, but for its creators.
- For the viewer, this means basically… more of the same, only much more so, and with the few remaining ragged edges filed off. Rather like the progress of a long-term relationship; the wildly innovative bit is over – at least for the moment – but the good stuff still grows… spiked, hopefully at least, with enough unpredictability to keep things interesting. Granted much of that last is, as I recall, concentrated in this one spot (this being one of the few S3 eps I’ve seen more than once); there’s more than enough for me to give the whole the benefit of the doubt.
- Particularly in regards to the f/x. Series Three is gorgeous… yes, yes, I know, sexy Dick Turpin song, getting to that in a sec. It’s more generally cool that this means that for the first time the visuals can also be an integral part of the satirical process. (The simplified costuming on Liz I’s a bit disappointingly cheap-looking, though – like a drugstore Halloween costume of itself.) My favourite result — besides the aBook sketch, which is, like Mary Poppins, uniquely Practically Perfect in Every Way — is actually in the Victorian sketches, which get more subtle effects that nevertheless reward the literate viewer enormously.
- If you don’t mind humouring me for a minute longer, I’d like just to run a quick compare-and-contrast on the show’s handling of the Angry Aztecs, which unlike the Incan ditto contains not a speck of awkwardness. Perhaps the lack of llamas meant the writers had to work harder regardless. At any rate, while they did have pyramids, the Aztecs instead simply show up as part of a brilliant sketch, accurate and interesting. Clearly, the Mesoamericans are now just part of the humanly flawed gang. This, also, is reassuring.
- Although, the subsequent howler monkey cartoon… yeah, I don’t think the gag was quite that clever, guys. And has the animation gone downhill a bit, or is it just me?
- Also, they then attempt to bung some extra diversity in there by casting a black actor as… a venal, amoral prison inmate. He does a really decent job, but, yeah, another one of those fun little total differences in cultural sensitivity, I’m thinking.
- Right, moving on to the stuff we all can understand: Damn, that Dick Turpin sure is sexy, isn’t he? Of all things HH, the music stood to benefit the most from the new confidence, given that it was already a fully developed and nurtured idea that only required that financial and artistic boost to send it over the top – and, spoiler except totally not, that’s exactly what happened. With a few notable exceptions, the seamless awesomeness of S2’s musical best becomes the norm here.
- Really, there’s not a lot of justification for this one, otherwise. Sure, it’s fairly Horrible that a vicious thug like Turpin should be romanticized, but honestly, how often does that happen? And if there isn’t already a fandom calling themselves ‘Turpintines’ and dotting their undying Twitter fealty with little hearts, did anybody really think dolling Charles II up in cape and eyeliner was going to prevent their formation? (Personally, I’d never heard of Turpin before this, and now I’m completely intrigued by the possibilities. I always did have a soft spot for guys in capes.)
- Nope, clearly what we have to blame here is an old-skool New Wave fan with a sense of humour, a fairly decent CD collection, and a gig writing music for HH, roughly in that order — and the rest of the creative team knew exactly what to do from there. Just for fun, I was going to go all raging iconoclast and declare that video didn’t do a thing for me, but I totally cannot do it. Mat’s performance is easily the most adult thing ever committed to children’s media. The hell of it is, I don’t think it was – entirely — intentional. It cannot at least have been his fervent desire to create a legion of tweens disappointed that he doesn’t actually wear Michael Jackson’s hair.
- If you look closely through the makeup and posturing to Mat’s actual performance, and are familiar enough with what’s driving it, then it is actually possible to laugh at it — because it’s actually a note-perfect parody, taken just far enough over the top to be frankly ridiculous, but not enough to be unkindly obvious, and thus spoil the fun entirely. That, plus some of the best pure songwriting – probably, again, because some of the closest to the source material – ever done for the show, turns the whole into a genuine work of art.
- Interestingly enough, given the obvious frontloading-the-debut-for-the-critics going on here, this episode also rather obviously collects the hilights of Mat’s S3 tour. He will spend part of this series away filming Spy, meaning HH will basically devolve into the Ben and Jim Show for several eps… which I seem to recall as having something to do with the lack of future excitement. No, not so much because of missing the minstrel eyes — I swear! — as that they’re usually found in the vicinity of something intriguingly offbeat.
- Mind, the others get new and frequently novel showcases too – besides the Masterchef hosts and Artois, I specially like Ben’s ‘kindly peasant dad’ schtick and the return of Politely Unstable Simon from (of all things) last series’ teatime sketch. The latter then turns out to segue very nicely into Simon the Proper Military Chucklehead. Also, all the welcome-back hugs for Other Little Guy Who’s a Much Better Actor Than Bertie, Though Not as Blond. Really must get his name, someday.
- It’s sort of the same issue as I had with the lack of Farnaby, last series, except in this case (thank god) they didn’t attempt to bring on a random attractive goofball to help out… although come to think of it, Jalaal Hartley from S4 might’ve worked… look, for the moment let’s just be grateful a) that Larry’s a permanent fixture by now and b) Mat made it into enough good stuff to be going on with.
- Like, for instance, the return of the Historical Paramedics — my favourite one, yet. I won’t attempt to critique it, because all it would be is incoherent cooing with ‘squee!’ where the punctuation should be, but seriously, damn I am glad that someone recognized the potential and ran with it (literally, in the case of the tagline). It just captures the hilarious essence of Jim & Mat together – perfectly structured, while still allowing for whatever random Pythoning to happen. Y’know, in case you’d forgotten that under the weird Larry’s also a hugely talented screenwriter.
- So is whoever wrote the aBook sketch, showing off a nice satirical judgement which Mat then carries through to perfection. To the point where it serves as a sort of found proof of the newfound priorities; kind of hard still to be just a silly kiddy show when this bit routinely gets passed round as Twitter humour by adult tech writers. All the points to Baynton besides for attempting a notoriously tricky accent… although it occasionally sounds more like a Californian attempting a Scots accent, which is a trifle distracting.
- Speaking of accurate takeoffs – also, goofy accents — I gather Ben and Jim are considered to do devastating spoofs of the real Masterchef hosts. Which is cool, but honestly, these bits are so wonderfully done they work even if you’ve never seen the source material — in fact, they might work better, as unfamiliarity amplifies the surreal funny. As a long-time fan of competitive cooking generally, I do totally appreciate the advanced cleverness of the parody whole; even if the weird-food stuff hasn’t gotten any more exciting since the old ‘Ready Steady Feast’ bits (you really do have to be twelve to appreciate ‘gross’ properly as a comedy concept).
- Especially since elsewhere Jim’s forays into crazy are… well, much less successful for the character, but for the rest of us, schwing. The You’ve Been Artois’d! sketch has, let’s face it, no real justification either as a history lesson or parody; it’s carried almost entirely on familiarity with the performers’ styles – ie., basically, Jim being Jim after somebody got his hopes up way too far — and it is one of the funniest damned things I have seen ever, in any comic media.
- The really hilarious part… OK, besides Larry’s flouncy little scream… is that, complete and uncompromising tool that Artois is, you actually do feel a wee bit sorry for him at the end. Honestly, our Howick is brilliant at what he does in a way that I still remain baffled he isn’t an indispensable star of the British comedy scene yet. If you lot aren’t going to use him, can we have him? We’ve been at loose ends a bit since Corner Gas was cancelled.
- So the Fabulous French aren’t introduced by name until the third series; this still counts as praiseworthy cultural restraint. Well done, show — ooh, and bonus Gallic Mat voice on the cartoon intro guy! Kind of disappointing though that they just reused the same medieval peasant model… they could’ve at least slapped a moustache or baguette or something on him.
- Ohai Tudor obsession!… well, it’s a decent Blackadder pastiche, if another one of those ‘yeah, so?’ bits historically. Lovely to look at, too — albeit noticeably missing the approximately 32,785 servants that would in reality be flitting through the scene; even luxe budgets can only stretch so far, evidently. I’m also not entirely sure why Mat is playing the Earl as actually mentally challenged, but whatever gets you through a long day’s filming, I guess. (This would also handily explain how much Martha seems to be enjoying the chance to smack him, not to mention why her own face screws up well prior to the ‘surprise’ pie hitting it.)
- Oh, and while we’re on about the ‘manners’ sketch: “So I just left the pheasant where it was, and shot Mr. Darlington instead!”… I do love you so much, show.
- I also love you (especially Rattus) for the ‘floral messaging’ bit. Kind of missing Mat’s Cockney accent here, though, you’d think it’d be a great opportunity for some real Artful Dodger stuff. I think he’s going for a swishy florist instead… but it’s a bit too subtle, so ends up just making me wonder if he and the flowers need some *ahem* alone time. Finally… Simon, can I just thank you again for not being whisked off to fame and fortune via your movie? I know it’s selfish of me, but it’s sincere. Really.
- The Roman Triumph: technically, at least, supposed to be an exercise in self-effacement. Per Wiki: Republican morality required that despite these extraordinary honours, the triumphator conduct himself with dignified humility, as a mortal citizen who triumphed on behalf of Rome’s Senate, people and gods. Of course, the article then goes on to totally horselaugh at itself; these are Romans we’re discussing here, Republican period or not. Despite attempts by conscientious contemporary historians to draw the moral lesson, the triumph laid the foundation, if not the actual blueprint, for all noble processionals thereafter.
- While I’m being unnecessarily pedantic: the term ‘book’ actually technically applies to any medium for recording information. The Rosetta Stone is a book, and so are scrolls. What Stevius Jobius here is hawking, and what we now think of at the standard, is actually a specific form of book called a codex — albeit again, these days mostly only by those really desperate to compensate for that copy of Fifty Shades of Grey lurking under their thesis notes. This refreshingly-pedant-free ‘Enyclopedia Romana’ article gives a more in-depth compare-and-contrast on the two recording methods.
- Couple of realities require ignoring if the Tudor toilet sketch is to be enjoyed fully… no no, please don’t thank me for now describing them in excruciating detail, it’s what I live for. So yeah, the ‘strew rushes on the floor to (hopefully) absorb (most of) the gunge’ method of hygiene practiced back then did require the monarch — especially one as notoriously fastidious about foul smells as Queen Elizabeth I — to move on approximately every few months or so. However, this wasn’t what led her to impose on her aristocracy; after all, she had a lot of palaces at her disposal.
- What’s happening here was actually called a royal progress, or trip round different parts of the kingdom, which for obvious reasons usually happened in the warmer months. Officially it was a way for Her Majesty to show herself off to her subjects, and for them in turn to have the honour of hosting their monarch; in reality, it was all about saving the royal treasury household expenses.
- Which the nobles in fact gladly did — you couldn’t pay TV fees to view royalty back then, so they were totally free to instead break themselves providing lavish banquets, entertainments etc etc. The most famously elaborate of these visits is the one paid to Kenilworth Castle — at the time home to Liz’ main-maybe-squeeze, Robert Earl of Leicester — but the pattern was pretty much the same everywhere. In reality the Earl here wouldn’t need to move out to the garden, because he’d’ve likely already built an entire mini-manor there just on the off chance she might show up.
- On the other hand, a fragile flower in need of perpetual cossetting our Bess emphatically was not. Like the dad she idolised, she was in reality a tough, shrewd type who carefully cultivated her down-to-earth Englishness, and so wasn’t at all above quaffing a few ales and sharing earthy jokes with her mostly-male court — so long as she was the one who made them, of course. A typically cheerful sally, after the Earl of Oxford returned to court after years of self-exile for breaking wind in the royal presence: “My lord, I had forgot the fart.”
- Frankly, nobody in the Victorian picnic sketch earns a whole lot of sympathy from me. The male half ought to have known he was in for trouble as soon as she consented to be alone with him without a chaperone (that she is makes complete nonsense of her pique re: his sitting too close to her — she’s already irretrievably compromised herself anyway). I mean, look at her, she’s totally dressed for the late Georgian period! Clearly a nefarious time traveller with an agenda of her own. (Probably in league with whomever gave Robert Artois access to cable.)
- More plausibly, she could’ve been hoping to beat him into a ‘breach of promise suit’. This was the Victorian etiquette equivalent of losing that last boss battle: if you promised marriage — or, as in this case, made it impossible for society to infer otherwise — only to later come down with a bad case of commitment phobia, the lady’s family could retrieve her value on the knot-tying market by hauling your honour-free butt into court,where you would be forced to publicly take the blame and thus re-certify her as sound. This legal concept totally still exists, by the way.