Can you imagine it, I’m the last Plantagenet…
The show takes a midseason break from being clever and innovative, but still comes up with a plausibly charming episode. Of course, it helps a lot if you’ve got Richard III in reserve…
In this episode:
Song: The Truth About Richard III — Jim as the much-maligned monarch, Lawry as Thomas More & Mat as Shakespeare
Historical Paramedics — Tudors (“Geoff! I forgot to feed the spiders!” “Are you insane in ye brain? We can’t feed her dead buttered spiders, that’s just crazy!”)
Horrible Points of View — Celtic (“So let’s just see what’s in the bulging mailbAUGGHHH it’s a severed Roman head!... Why would you do that?!”)
Historical Pet Shop — Celtic (“No, no, dogs don’t talk, luv! …But if you kill ’em, an’ eat their flesh, they will talk to you in a vision…” “OK, go on then, out you go! Walkies!”)
Bob Hale — War of the Roses Report (“Luckily, the Archbishop of Canterbury steps in and sorts the whole thing out by inventing Love Day: when the Lancastrians and the Yorkists march through the High Street holding hands. And I’m not even making that bit up.”)
Come Dine With Me — Aztec Days of Maize and Beans (“…where we just eat… maize and beans. For nineteen days. It’s to celebrate the end of the dry season.” “Yeah, and the beginning of the windy one!”)
Shouty Man — New! Multi-Purpose String (“Why not use it to make a string bag? It’s up to 50% better at carrying stuff than your bare hands!”)
Stupid Deaths — Maria, Countess of Coventry (covered her acne with a white lead foundation, which led to more blemishes, which required slathering more toxic stuff on her face… “You’re as thick as your makeup! Ooh, if looks could kill — and they did!”)
Henry VIII’s Tudor Diet Plan — “Just seven hours of feasting a day, and you too could have a body to die for!”
Savage Stone Age
When Farming Was Invented — You know that one famous Calvin & Hobbes strip on how milk was discovered? This right here would be the live-action sequel. “…I quite like the sound of being a faaahhma, with a hooom…”
The Death of Nelson — “It’s just that if he was saying that this was his destiny, and you do kiss him… then forevermore, people will think that Britain’s greatest naval hero on his deathbed asked his right-hand man for a bit of a snog.”
So We Pickled ‘im — “What did you do with Nelson’s body, by the way?” “Oh, we wanted to make sure it was preserved… so we put it in the barrel of brandy.” “Pphlbbbt!”
- Of course, it would have to happen to Richard III, of all HH characters. Only Jim could give a performance as a pathetic victim of fate so completely amazing that fate had to resort to bunging one of the most important historical discoveries of the 21st century to date under a random car park, just to regain the upper hand.
- And even then, it didn’t succeed entirely — or even really seriously. Despite giving some of the most elegant songwriting in HH musical history a few scuff marks (dealt with in detail below), this remains a tiny perfect musical comedy masterpiece, a transcendent triumph of… well, yeah, Howick-ness, really. Aided and abetted by the happiest combination of lush production values and cleverly snarky staging since the King of Bling hip-hopped his way through Hampton Court.
- (In particular, whomever came up with those little kindergarten drawings under ‘Good With Kids’– do you by any chance have a Kickstarter? Cos if so, I just became your biggest backer. For whatever, I don’t care.)
- It joins a remarkable series of definitive musical performances that have thus far included Dick Turpin, William Wallace and Cleopatra (…and will, probably, include an Aztec priest). Just how precisely Jim can manipulate sentiment, especially in song, isn’t exactly a deep secret at this point — although it’s worth noting that in terms of creating plausible, nuanced characters, starting from pure adorableness is even more challenging than from George IV’s whining. And more interesting, in a way, because the implications run much deeper.
- Thus, this version of Richard III is teddy-bear cuddly — the actual fur cloak is another brilliant touch — and sympathetic, largely because he’s evidently found a decent anger-management therapist or at least ditched the badger fixation. But because it’s Jim, there’s always a hint of self-interest lurking around the edges; the possibility that he’s at best exaggerating, or at worst cynically manipulating the facts in his favour. So, y’know, if you still want to enjoy the song totally as-is, that works too… just not in the way you may have intended.
- So yeah, the show obviously now knows its strengths intimately enough to basically take an episode off from being innovative and/or whacky and still be… oh, wait, hold the whackiness train, I forgot there was a Historical Paramedics bit. Aka, at this point, the youngest troupe members’ personal comedy jungle gym (“It sounds like she’s suffering from… SICKNESS!” “I concur!”). Which is… sort of disappointing, in a way.
- They’ve clearly by now been fully convinced of their own preciousness — probably couldn’t help it really; if the trick to keeping a straight face is biting the inside of your cheek the entire crew on these must’ve terrified their dentists. While it’s never a bad thing that Jim and Mat are enjoying themselves, the demented drollery of the HP sketches particularly depends on how perfectly — Pythonically? — a deadpan they can achieve.
- On the other hand, they don’t take the farming sketch seriously at all — well, Mat seems to be pretty into the spear thing, also his Ali G-except-white schtick, but that’s about it — and it’s one of the most engagingly funny non-HP things they’ve ever done together. The anarchic innocence of Calvin & Hobbes being, now that I come to think of it, a perfect metaphor for their professional relationship, up to and including the drawing rude stuff on Martha’s scripts. Besides, Mat and mouthfuls of strange foods is becoming almost as amusing a minor fetish as Larry being covered in ick.
- *ahem* As I was saying, this ep is mostly about the more gentle — oh, sorry, sorry, I forgot, there was also Henry VIII. Although they did manage to hold off on the fat jokes for a full two-and-a-half series, gotta give them that. Ironically enough, though, what Harry’s actually describing here is his original middle-aged S1 incarnation. While I’m not going to deny that those fetching strawberry-blond curls are an improvement in some important respects, it’s at the expense of reality.
- So anyway, this ep more-or-less covers the gentle charms of the familiar… oh, right, and Historical Points of View. Ehhhh… close enough, inasmuch as ‘familiar’ in this show totally covers ‘hot guy compulsively chatting to severed heads whilst taking Simon Cowell-related potshots’. The overstuffed parlour effect complete with floral arrangement over the mantel is a bit unusual, though — sort of weirdly over-precious… wait, this is Baynton, that was probably the point. Which would also handily explain the chatting-to-severed-heads thingy.
- More seriously, this is my favourite of the new (non-Masterchef) S3 recurring bits, which isn’t saying a whole lot, but does take in how nicely Mat manages to capture the parody subject. I have no idea what that is in particular, but anyone who’s ever dealt with public broadcasting anywhere recognizes the validity of Ombudsman on the Verge as a comedy concept. That expression on ‘poetry’ perfectly captures it — and incidentally provides some insight into how hard our Mathew must otherwise have to work to keep his face in ‘blandly nice young man’ mode.
- Oh, and bonus lesson in how to tell your reviewer is Canadian: I’m looking at Larry the Celtic Poet, squatting by his fireside, imbued with all the dignity of his tradition, and I’m thinking “that is totally Red Green’s ancient ancestor!”… Yeah, you may just want to go with that one.
- Come to think of it, between this sketch and the HPet Shop, I think I might be starting to see a pattern — maybe these quietly desperate types are the only ones who can see the historical intrusions into their world, or just attract them somehow, thus driving them to the levels of eccentricity we heartlessly chuckle at here? Boy, are you lot lucky I’m too busy to write fanfic on that theme.
- While I’m on, must remember this time to give props to the ever-sadistically-creative makeup team. I’m almost more impressed with their making Martha look that frumpy than I am the wasp stings.
- There is a slight improvement in the Pet Shop giggle quotient here, partly because the historical narrative is becoming more coherent, but mostly cos I do love me some big stupid Celtic Ben — here with bonus new and ridiculous accent, yet…. uh, with apologies to anyone whose accent it may actually be. That’s the lovely thing about Ben’s roles: even though I may have little-to-no idea what the voice he’s using is or why, I can always be sure it’s accurate. Does wonders for cross-cultural understanding.
- OK, fine, so most of the gently charming stuff is provided by the longtime regulars. Speaking of both that and coherent narratives, I must give all props to Bobsy Hale. Though for once too busy explaining the mass of shifting and conflicting loyalties that is the English Civil War to bother with the usual outlandish distractions, he still manages to deftly extract the funny, while also still being approximately 237 years old. That scenario right there is about as close as I will ever come to understanding where the I *HEART* HALE crowd is coming from.
- Death is also deep into the amusingly predictable, exchanging beauty tips with skeletons to no-one’s surprise but quite a lot of enjoyment. You can just see him with a copy of Cosmopolitan open on that desk, can’t you? Meantime, Shouty Man hawks string, of all the oddly innocuous things, and thanks to a Simon in full sweetly earnest straight man mode (having to my relief put the brakes on the manic hopping and grunting from his last caveman act), does a hilariously thorough job of it.
- Ohai Aztecs!…Wait, isn’t that the Inca cartoon intro lady? Awww, show, and you were doing so well, too. Ah well, still nice to see them integrated into mainstream sketches — here primarily because the writers always tend to interpret ‘kid-friendly content’ as ‘providing as many fart jokes as possible’, but hey, they’ve got the real CDWM narrator in to make it bearable to the grownups, and well done him for taking it on. Just personally, though, I’d like to hear more about that prehistoric super-whitening laundry detergent the Aztecs evidently had access to…
- There’s more gentle goodness in the Death of Nelson, another little mini-sitcom which I’m assuming was intended as a satire on all those stalwartly romantic Patrick O’Brien-esque things where Russell Crowe’s the captain and the music is sweeping and whatnot. Even if it wasn’t intentional, it works so perfectly — and the gags are otherwise so pointless — I’m going to assume it was anyway.
- Despite a certain rather conspicuously missing eyepatch, everybody makes a lovely authentic job of blending into the milieu. Especially Mat, whose character clearly benefits from all that practice he’s been getting lately at being, well, normal.
- Also, Rattus’ teeny, inexplicably clean hankie… squeee! Also also, the fainting fit after ‘coming over all brainy’… yeah, you know the drill. Quoting the rat extensively is a bit beyond my purview here (there aren’t so many ways for an adult reviewing a children’s show to maintain dignity that I can afford to ignore any) but rest assured he’s being very quotable indeed lately. Evidently the puppeteers were given the same freedom to please themselves in S3 as the rest of the team.
- Right, so as the entire world and its uncle is aware by now, the real Richard III has been found where he was hastily buried: under a random car park in Leicester — well, it probably wasn’t one back then, but you get the idea. Thus filling in one of the most important gaps in English royal history and, according to the otherwise excellent (largely because Farnaby-anchored) documentary King in the Car Park, making grown women cry. And probably go home to write passionate fanfiction. I foresee several new additions to the time-travelling romance genre in the near future.
- Anyway, the day the discovery was confirmed, the question on everyone else’s lips was of course ‘Hey, wait, does this mean Horrible Histories lied to us?’ Because the media, paragon of journalistic subtlety that it totally isn’t, was reporting gleefully that he was hunchbacked after all! This is because the media is composed of the same average laypeople who don’t realise that hunchback is a distinct spinal condition, and besides spending a few moments Googling would’ve severely cut into their poignant-quote-composing time.
- So yes, hunchback, or kyphosis, is in fact a distinct spinal condition, and not in fact the one Richard had. Forensic scientists studying the bones describe him instead as suffering from the much more common scoliosis, in which the spine is twisted S-fashion, not hunched. Meaning that no, Richard didn’t actually walk his full height, and probably would also have had had at least a slight limp, as the condition commonly hitches one hip higher than the other. It also correspondingly hitches one shoulder higher than the other, which it’s easy to imagine opportunistic enemies exaggerating into a monstrous hump.
- Mind you, this was an era in which any physical deformity was of course a mark of God’s displeasure, if not actually a sign that the Devil had got there first (as late as the nineteenth century, forensic researchers would be clinging to the theory that outward appearance can indicate personality traits). So, a little exaggeration here and there… throw in a withered arm just to make it clear that this was a man in whom the milk of human kindness had literally dried up… and hey presto! A propaganda monster for the ages.
- Lost in all of this, of course, is the question of whether our Richard actually did anything monstrous. Even granted that he wasn’t actually the medieval equivalent of Lex Luthor, the mystery of the princes still features him as a deservedly prime suspect — although an even better case can be made for the incoming Tudor King, Henry VII. (The standard one features as the plot of Josephine Tey’s brilliant, if retroactively flawed, Daughter of Time.) Put very simply, Henry undoubtedly had a lot more to fear from a pair of Lancastrian spawn running around loose.
- Most likely, Richard really was a nice guy… but as the HH version admits himself a pragmatic one, in pragmatic times. Based on what I’ve read, probably overall a bit more difficult to cast as a romantic hero than his ardent supporters would like to admit.
- For a full discussion of the realities of the Tudor diet, see under S01E10. As a preview: Henry (whose weight gain in later life was exacerbated by injury-induced immobility) actually ate quite a few vegetables — and was known to have grown artichokes in the Hampton Court gardens. The show itself seems to have felt the over-the-top ‘VEGETABLES ARE FOR POOR PEOPLE!’ schtick needed some apologia; Rattus more accurately refers to the issue as involving uncooked veggies — or even more accurately, with veggies prepared without spices or other condiments.
- In a former life as a book reviewer yours truly had the opportunity to become intimately familiar with the Tudor diet, including the sugar work — the same discipline that the Food Network has discovered makes for such daring and dazzling TV, and back then the one area in which English cooks seriously impressed their Continental counterparts. Overall, the reality of Tudor cuisine was much more imntriguing than the ‘random hunks of meat’ cliches, and I still highly recommend Peter Brears’ book.
- Tudor medicine, on the other hand… yeah, I guess we’re still talking intriguing, as long as we’re also not eating at the time. As this hilariously candid children’s museum notes, spiders (or ‘young frogs’) were indeed used back then as a cure for asthma — the butter was to help them slip down easier, natch.
- The same page describes a whole lot of wildly entertaining stuff the HP sketch inexplicably missed, including the cures for gout (“boil a red-haired dog in oil, add worms and the marrow from pig bones. Rub the mixture in”) and my favourite, liver complaint (“drink a pint of ale every morning for a week – with nine head-lice drowned in it”)
- OK, yes, Nelson in all probability did ask Hardy to kiss him; according to this rather delightful online Phrase Finder, there are fully three eyewitness accounts testifying not only that he said it but that Hardy did in fact give him a little peck on the cheek, no doubt nobly hiding his heartbreak behind his brass buttons the while, sweeping music swelling in the background.
- More seriously, the same site notes that …The later story, that Nelson’s last words were “Kismet [fate] Hardy”, aren’t supported by any contemporary evidence. In fact, ‘kismet’ isn’t recorded as being in use in English to mean fate until as late as 1830, a quarter of a century after Nelson died. Essentially, later historians totally made the whole thing up because ewwww, guys kissing! Yes, apparently later historians had roughly the same ability to handle homoeroticism as Lucy did Snoopy’s dog germs.
- Actually, of course, same-sex smooching was one of the mundane realities of the 18th centuries, an era during which even the most platonic friendships reached a pitch that routinely gets perfectly innocent period authors — like Jane Austen — accused of lavishly erotic innuendo on the modern Internet. It’s all rather silly, really.