…Like Marcus, my pet flea, is in ‘thrall’ to me. He does whatever I tell him — Marcus, stop that — Marcus! I’ll have a bath! I will!
In which the show hauls out their ultimate weapon against mid-series lull… no, not Nazis, Farnaby. And a wind machine. It may not sound like much now, but just wait…
In this episode:
Song:The Evil Emperors’ Song — Simon as Caligula, Mat as Elagabalus, Ben as Commodus and Jim as Nero. (Parody of: Michael Jackson, Bad)
Shouty Man — New! Ushabti Coffin Dolls (“These beautiful handcrafted figurines will magically turn into actual servants to look after your every need in the afterlife! And there’s hundreds of different ones to collect!”)
HHTV Sport: Twisting the Cow at the Highland Games — Wherein the Scots compete to, yes, be first to twist all four legs off a dead cow… and if you think that’s sick and disturbing, just wait ’till you hear the post-match puns.
Horrible Points of View — Stuart (“So next time you’re watching Hannah Montana, be thankful you’re not in the Stuart era, or she’d be played by a bloke!”)
Stupid Deaths — Moliere (Took a fatal coughing fit while performing in his own play: The Hypochondriac.”Hah! I might die laughing!… no, wait, I’m dead already, aren’t I?”)
Historical Wife Swap — Vikings (“ARRRR!” “Don’t growl, dear.”) vs. their Thralls (“EEEK!” “Don’t be alarmed, I’m just very ugly.”)
Bob Hale — The American Report (“Home of the brave and land of the free! And you know what else is free? Yes, it’s this fantastic Bob Hale action figure, which is FREE when you buy my incredible new Book of Interesting Facts!”)
The Secret of Tombs — Keeping the Pharaoh’s treasures safe for the next life eventually trumped the showy display of them in this… problem is, of course, the Pharaohs were still operating in this. (“OK, fine. Here’s your bonus.” “…There’s nothing there?” “Oh, but there is — you just can’t see it! Hah!”)
A Failure to Communicate — George I’s English is about as good as Robert Walpole’s German, which poses a serious problem when trying to run the country… or does it?
Paul Revere’s not in any way Effective All-American Toothpaste — The historic connection between sugar and tooth decay: clearly, not as incredibly obvious as you might think. (“Because teeth are over-rated!”)
Caligula is Grateful — Handy rule for dealing with mad emperors, No.326: Never, under any circs, assume they won’t take you literally. Especially when offering your life in exchange for theirs…
- So, you’re no doubt all breathlessly wondering when we get to the less interesting stuff, as mentioned in my S03E01 review — what? Oh. Well, shoot, then we’re all going to be disappointed. Or possibly not. Because to paraphrase the Mythbusters, I think there’s something a bit off about this boring stretch; I’m standing right in it, to the best of my recollection, and I’m not bored yet.
- Not that it hasn’t threatened lately — and if I do remember correctly, looms more ominously still just ahead. But it must be conceded that I’ve since become more realistic about the ability and/or responsibility of a children’s show to keep an adult interested… and noticed that despite which, every time adult ennui does loom, things abruptly veer off into adult-level quirky. Or, in the case of this episode, just cuts to Farnaby in (surprisingly attractive!) drag. Well played, show, very well played indeed.
- Not that this is by any means their only ol’Dandelion Head-related dodge. In what I can only suggest might have been a deliberate attempt to help mitigate the by-now-near-absence of Baynton, they’re also featuring crazy Scots Simon, Georgian Simon, of course Simon as Death… and, in a move that demonstrates just how serious they were about it all, Simon as Caligula: now with bonus song-and-dance action.
- This last was I suspect a fairly hefty factor in the decision to re-re-recap the evilness of Rome’s rulers, although I can’t totally discount the chance to finally exploit the fact that the “killed the priest instead of the beast” anecdote rhymes. Hey, they managed to find the one Caligula story that’s both mildly catchy and PG-rated, they’ve earned a little celebration. So yes, here it is in all its glory, folks! Revel in a lisping Farnaby boogeying down before purple curtains!
- No, seriously, he attacks his first big musical role with real aplomb. As of course do they all, even Ben, because it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself doing a takeoff on old-school King of Pop-style posturing. Which means the viewer feels like a right old grump for complaining not only about any staleness but the lyrical/scanning dodginess (“You only got the Emperor job cos you were chosen by your dad!” — well, yeah, isn’t that how it usually works?) I do though appreciate Elagabalus’ unexpectedly thoughtful admission that ‘Could argue I was sad’.
- In the end, despite all the eyerolling from my common sense, I fell in love with the evil emperors — at least on mp3…. and that was the day I learned that some earworms are more socially acceptable than others. Protip: absently humming “In a good mood today, so I won’t slit your throat!” will get you looked at funny in most places, but especially Sunday services.
- I am not quite as fond of the video. On rewatch, I can pick out lots of individual really funny moments, most involving Mat and either the wind machine or the chance to very obviously recreate his dorky teenage Saturday nights at the disco — at least, I hope those moves date from his teen years. There is also how they use Dutch angles to make Ben look like he’s delivering an authentic rap. But… somehow… they’re focussed in too hard on those individual scattershot bits. Sort of a creative missing the forest for the trees effect.
- On the other hand, I do really appreciate the chance to slow down, take a break from the warrior stereotypes and scan a few Viking… uh, peat bogs, or whatever that is ‘at the bottom of the garden’ that’s turned their servants into road-show Hobbits. Honestly I’m rather disappointed in the makeup team; as they’ve proven by now, they could’ve put a LOT more effort into making Jim & Katy really ugly. Didn’t want to scare the kiddies I guess, although it seems a weird time to start being concerned about that.
- Seriously though, this is an unexpectedly charming slice of Viking home life, and an encouraging sign that they’re aware of the dangers of stagnation on at least some level. (Except in re: the fainting thing, unless we want to call it an official running gag, which nnnghhh… not so much.) Just sharp, clever writing that actually uses the cliches as a springboard, rather than the point, and so feels genuinely fresh & funny. Basically, yet another indication of how far they’ve come in three series.
- Speaking of which, it’s also a nice unusual treat to see one of the other two Georges getting some play. And of course Ben — in that sweetly ineffectual mode that to my mind is criminally underused — getting another chance to show off his German, not to mention Simon proving that he can play restrained as effectively as he can do anything else. The net result is fragile, funny, and enormously charming; one of those lovely offbeat things that always seem to result when these two are paired (see also S1’s very similar-in-spirit ‘Viking Poetry’).
- Along those lines, it’s really odd that Larry’s quirky-but-impressive knack for mimicking American used-car salesmen hasn’t really been exploited since episode two… but then he opens his mouth, and you realise that Paul Revere wasn’t actually Texan, and you think maybe it all worked out for the best, pretty much. Great hair, though. And the smile, he’s got that right down, which does help quite a bit in a toothpaste ad. Maybe he just watches Mad Men for all the wrong reasons, this is my latest theory.
- The same rather clumsy grasp of Americana is reflected in his Bob Hale report. This is mildly disappointing, because I was really psyched to get the wry, incisively satirical British take on trans-Atlantic jingoism, and instead I got… the jingoism, more or less. It appears Bobsy was for once so tied up in self-promotion that, after the smallpox blankets, he just grabbed a few additional facts out of another interesting book without noticing it was published circa 1955.
- He does however get major unintentionally-amusing-foreshadowing points for scornfully hilighting that one Pilgrim who brought all those shoes instead of survival gear (oddly, 139 pairs here). “Now there are some very weird priorities!” Oh, do tell, Larry?
- Shouty Man, meanwhile, is in the midst of a fully hilarious creative comeback that of course involves showing up at a dying king’s bedside to enthusiastically hawk coffin dolls, including a butt-wiper that squirts… yeah, never gonna see the outtakes from that one in a million years, sadly enough. I’m also really enjoying this new angle where Shouty’s interactive with his customers, which seems to be what the writers are going with in order to keep the gag fresh. On account of, y’know, they were even then in the process of being nominated for a BAFTA. No, not specifically for the butt-wiper doll, but still.
- These are also the people, and no this cannot be emphasised enough, responsible for sticking Simon in front of a camera hefting a cow’s hindquarter and spouting completely indefensible puns. (In fact, it’s not at all unlikely it’s meant to be the same guy from S2’s ‘Scottish Wedding’ bit.) Although, weirdly, the makeup team again totally misses a prime opportunity to exercise their random-body-fluid-simulation skills. Pure and total essence de Farnaby, this one, regardless.
- As is of course the non-singy Caligula. Frankly I’d much rather they’d been obsessing over this whole sadistically hilarious ‘you offered your life for me, so pay up!’ business instead of the priest/beast, but I suppose it’d be a bit more difficult to condense into a snappy anecdote and/or rhyme. They do a pretty good job of it here, though, including the nice Blackadder-y touch implying his victims more or less deserved it. In fact these two are among the more entirely unpleasant HH characters ever — even Jim can’t save this guy.
- Elsewhere, though, Jim gets a chance to use a slightly modified — no, wait, this is pretty much exactly how George IV would’ve reacted to the invisible-tomb thing, if he were Egyptian. Which lends a nicely surreal note to an otherwise fairly routine sketch. Unfortunately nobody seems to have thought of thus rescuing the Stupid Death, which has an oddly rushed aspect to it, as of potential unfulfilled.
- On the subject of surreal — to the point of vaguely unsettling, really — we’re also treated to an ombudsman Mat whose quiet despair has been apparently augmented both by what sounds like a sinus infection and a fascination with Disney sitcom heroines. I’m sorry, I know it’s a kiddy comedy, but there are some things that a grown man references it’s just gonna get him glanced at askance, and Hannah Montana is one of them. Especially given the sketch ends really abruptly after that.
- Hey, a presenter role for Dominique that does not involve weirdly ruffled polyester. I am wholly onboard with this — with anything that gets me more Dominique on my screen, really. There’s something about the snarky smarts that always seem to be lurking just behind the perky cute that keeps me compulsively watching, and for that matter had me wondering first go-round if the show really understood what it had in her… which of course they did; like Giles Terera — but even more inexplicably — it just took four series to fully kick in.
- Although, it must be admitted: I actually kinda like the bagpipes. Yes, I’m aware this makes me weird. Used to it.
- So yes, the Scots Highland Games did apparently at one point include the cow-twisting business. The good news is it seems to have been discontinued long, long ago… at least, I think it’s good news. When various modern HG websites — remember, these are still people who proudly train for the title of ‘guy who can throw the telephone pole the farthest’ — use phrases like ‘Luckily for us’ and ‘Thankfully…’ in describing the demise of an event, you can’t help but be sort of simoultaneously glad and sorry it’s gone.
- Ah. OK, inspired by the comments below I’ve done a bit of poking into the story of would-be Jamestown colonist William ‘Original Shoe Fetish’ Mullins. Apparently the discrepancy between the two totals given by Bobsy and in the S4 New World song has to do with the fact that he also brought 13 pairs of boots to go with the 126 pairs of shoes. Larry’s obviously using the combined total. As for the rest of Mullins’ tragicomic story… well, hey, I have to save something for S4.
- Meanwhile, George I. Theoretically, at least, a fully-fledged ladies’ man and star of some fairly exciting scandals, which may indicate the German accent of the time was considerably sexier than the modern version. At any rate, as ‘Born 2 Rule’ notes, he quite literally only gained access to the throne of Great Britain in the first place on account of the fifty-six closer candidates all being Catholic.
- (In case you’re wondering, yes, they did make the attempt to ask at least several of them if they’d convert. They said no.)
- Having thus basically won the World Superpower Lottery, George… did not see why he should bother upping the formality (or sociability) level beyond his prior life as Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg. Which predictably earned him quite a few snickers among the British aristocracy, because, you know, those stupid Germans, with their crude manners and weird food and hefty women! Har! No wonder the poor guy spent about a fifth of his time back in his beloved Hanover.
- He did, however, apparently have much less difficulty making himself understood to his new underlings than this sketch indicates; remember, the common language of Europe’s glitterati at the time (ie. not only George but most of his ministers) was actually French, and by the time his reliance on Walpole had grown to the extent shown here — actually much later in his reign — George’s English had also become fairly decent.
- It must be conceded that the American Report did a pretty good job of covering the basics of the American revolution; it’s only that Bob had such a brilliant chance to introduce newer and more intriguing details. Just for starters, Columbus of course didn’t ‘discover’ anything, no more than did the approximately 54274 other nations/races who claim they got there first (including but not limited to the Vikings, Polynesians, Japanese, Egyptians, Irish and Chinese).
- What he and subsequent Western European would-be colonists really did was show up and announce to the current owners, “Nice place!… We’ll take it. On account of us being all superior and civilized and stuff. Har!” Right, so irony: not a huge feature of 17th century political thought. Although, how much of the Native decimation via disease was actively intentional is less obvious than indicated here. We do know the idea of Judas-gifting them smallpox-infested blankets was at least discussed, and from there it’s easy enough to imagine it being carried out, but to what extent is unclear.
- OK, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin aka Moliere, yes, he really did take his fatal coughing fit during a production of what would be more accurately translated as The Imaginary Invalid. However it might just be pointed out that this wasn’t quite the fully cosmic co-incidence the show is implying, given that the playwright already suffered — as was practically de rigueur for your seventeenth-century sensitive artiste — from pulmonary tuberculosis. The coughing fit actually caused a haemorrhage in his already frail lungs. Still, one suspects the comedian in him probably totally approved Fate’s choice of backdrop.