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Monthly Archives: June 2013

S04E02

Well, do tuck in, Mr. Ambassador!
Aren’t you going to say grace first?
Oh — yes. *folds hands reverently* Party. On.
Ah…amen?
Big time.

A followup that takes skilful advantage of both familiarity and famous names to keep the event-TV ball rolling… and oh yeah, tosses out another sublimely sparkling musical gem in the process.

In this episode:

Song: Natural Selection — Mat as Charles Darwin, with Jim (and, apparently, ‘Stuart from Production’) as The Gorilla. (Parody of: David Bowie, Changes)

Recurring sketches:

Bob Hale — The Human Report

Historical Apprentice — Team Pirate vs. Team Merchant (“So… who was your project manager?” “Arrrr! I prefers the term ‘Cap’n’!” “Yeah, well, I prefer the term ‘King’, but I’ve got to do with plain old ‘Lord’, haven’t I?”)

Oh Yea! Magazine — Nell Gwyn special: Superstars of the Stuart stage — female for the first time!… possibly not coincidentally, during Charles II’s rule. (“What can I say? I’m a lady magnet!”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

Victoria & Albert: The Photo Love Story — …but frankly, I’m more interested in the revelation that the Queen had a really snarky proto-Bachelorette-host butler. (“With all due respect, Ma’am, he’s totally fit.”)

Terrible Tudors

Martin Luther at Home — Or, more specifically, in one room of his home. The smallest room.. which he’s redone into the largest. The father of the Protestant Reformation had an unhealthy fixation on the health of his fecal matter, is what I’m trying to get across here. (“So now, I can do my business, while I do my business! Ha-ha! I make ze joke…”)

Cash in the Abbey — Henry VIII runs the dissolution of the ecclesiastical properties of England pretty much the way you’d expect… ie. the only reason I’m not making a steamroller joke here is because they hadn’t been invented yet. (“Yes, well, they shouldn’t have done all those terrible things that we said they did!”)

Hide and Priest — Religious intolerance helps to provide antique manor hidey-holes enough to delight an entire future generation of Agatha Christie fans. “The game that brings Protestants and Catholics together… only not in a good way.”

Woeful Second World War

Station Identification — Larry’s first-ever HH sketch, used as Mat’s first audition, finally sees the light of day: a carriage-full of wartime railway passengers and their conductor try with ever-decreasing success to maintain security and their sanity at the same time.

Gas Bag Blues (animated) — Finding a way around petrol rationing strains the limits of even British ingenuity… and dinner on the unlit gas fire once they got home couldn’t have been much compensation, either.

Slimy Stuarts

Charles II at Home — Which at mealtimes he just happens to share with an entire gallery-full of his closest random subjects…

Field Notes:

  • Let us now consider the curious phenomenon that TVTropes has dubbed Sesame Street Cred: the enormous cachet celebrities gain by making an appearance on the Street (or, by now, nearby programming suburbs) as driven by the mutual realisation that few things are as appealing to parents as attractive, talented adults voluntarily taking time out to hang with little kids.
  • I mention it because, well, it got a little lost in all the LoG hype, but somewhere in the off-season — in much the more traditional manner of these things — currently-hot stand-up comic/Willbond’s Thick of It co-star Chris Addison also revealed himself and family as big fans, and could he please come over and play sometime? Not, nota bene, get the Big Name treatment, or even his own segment, or anything; just maybe hang out with the HH troupe for awhile.
  • In other words it was, even more than the opportunity to host Mark Gatiss’ class reunion, validation that the HH crew had attained to SSCred on their own merits — their own creative merits. The kid’s show had hit another small but significant milestone on the road to grownup credibility: they had evolved into not only a place where adult celebrities wanted to be, but where they wanted to interact on the show’s own terms. A mutually-beneficial enhancement of talent, not just image.
  • As if to demonstrate exactly how that happened, our song this week is the first HH tuneage to be based entirely around the triumph of intellectual discovery, rather than the more conveniently relateable personal or moral conquest. And somehow young Mathew gets that, on a visceral level that makes this easily his best performance, musical or otherwise, of the show to even date.
  • (Also weirdly — and amusingly — reminiscent of another. As portrayed on HH, Darwin’s closest cousin may be Robert Knox, the unwitting conspirator of Burke & Hare.)
  • Sure, it helps that this time they gave him a note-perfect Bowie pastiche, but honestly, even then, this could’ve been so stupidly goofy, and instead — lo these many months later — I am still cranky about it not winning Baynton that Best Actor BAFTA. Picture, say,  Bill Nye… except as translated through a Victorian gentleman in his eighties. In which case picture all that same charm and enthusiasm, only confined mostly to those uncannily expressive eyes, glittering with all the reminiscent awe of ch-ch-changing our fundamental relationship to the universe…
  • Also, OK, there’s a drumming gorilla. Regardless of which the staging matches the performance note-for-sweetly-erudite-note; fully managing to be silly while refusing to compromise the sophistication. It all represents possibly the most intelligent series of artistic choices the show ever made. Just edging out Richard III’s song by a stuffed finch.
  • Speaking of intelligent choices, the accompanying Bob Hale report… Oookay, I can now officially show you one whacky daring CBBC children’s comedy that’s going to have to be heavily edited — again — before it hits American screens. Seriously, I’m pretty sure the American heartland would let the ‘brownface’ skate by well before they’d sign off on the ape in the ‘I’m Evolving’ tee, however adorable — and so is ‘Handy Man’, incidentally. (Albeit fudged a bit re: racial characteristics, for obvious reasons. Imagine being the little kid of colour on the playground the day after the cool TV show implied your ancestors were monkeys?)
  • Less appealing is Bob’s decision to physically slow the showmanship down just as his material’s gotten way more ambitious. Understandable, mind, but also massively un-nerving — and not just because of the relentlessly ongoing aging thing illustrating human mortality way beyond what was intended.
  • It’s just… all so responsible, and stuff. Yes, I know — I started out totally aghast at the lack of child development cues in HH, and now they’ve finally given in three series later, even this little teeny bit, I’m going on like a teenage slacker upon learning her friends have gone out and gotten a job. But — Bobsy, man! They got to Bobsy! *snif*
  • What? Oh yes, our guest star, thanks for the reminder. Erm… so yay, more spot-on savaging of random British reality types I don’t know who they are! Mind, we of course have The Apprentice over here too, so we’re roughly on the same satirical-potential page here. It’s just weird, when it gets this specific.
  • Everybody’s all ‘Yeah, that’s him! That’s so totally him!” and I’m here realising that a) I’m gonna have to do some in-depth research and b) based on what I’m seeing I obviously don’t want to research at all. So I just sit there frantically trying to glean between the lines. Regular readers especially can imagine how well this has worked out thus far. “But… but… he has decent hair, and everything! What are you people even complaining about?!” *sob*
  • So eventually I just give up and give in to the sheer glee inherent in Jim’s mimicry. It hasn’t let me down yet, and it doesn’t look like it will here. Anyway, all of it would be hilarious all on its own regardless, because pirates -vs- merchants as reality competition is as close to a no-fail concept as the writers have ever been confronted with.
  • Which means we’ve finally gotten around to Chris Addison!… no, him, the guy on the far right of Team Merchant. The one in the really goofy wig…? Yeah, I’m not sure either. I mean, what I said above is great and all, but you do go in assuming they’d at least give him a customised feature role, a la Alexi Sayle as the Muslim healer — OK, yeah, but surely baby-facedness is an equally heroic handicap, under the right circs? I mean, think of all those American mobsters who had to go around killing people, just to get some respect.
  • *ahem* So basically, what we ended up with is a rather oddly formal Portrait of a Comedian Trying Just a Trifle Too Hard to Fit In, and who thus ends up getting thoroughly upstaged not only by Lord Jim, Pirate Mat and Merchant Larry, but very nearly by a totally mute Greg J., here seen making something of a career out of adorably devoted seconds-in-command.
  • On the other hand, this stern critic person’s inner child fully recognises that it would be well-nigh impossible to show up to the HH set and not immediately demand the part involving just the flounciest wig going. She is furthermore sort of impressed that they did manage to work the cute naiive-looking thing into the point of the skit, however offhandedly.
  • Our Chris also gets some bonus points for noticing (on Twitter) that the new credit sequence references Jim as Martin Luther on the toilet over ‘horrors that defy description’. We get the actual sketch here, and I’m pleased to report that those rumours are a trifle exaggerated. Although I may just be less easy to impress since the one elder in my congregation started thinking of his bowel cleanses as chipper post-service conversation. (I do love Jim’s completely anachronistic but somehow utterly appropriate Muppet voice, though. Especially when I picture it coming out of the real Luther. You’re welcome.)
  • The most interesting part of this sketch is who’s coming up the stairs to be shocked by all this. Of course it should be Ben… except it’s actually Simon. Get real used to the resulting bemusement, because this is the first tentative sign of S4’s final and in some ways most offbeat off-stage wrinkle. Not the part where Farnaby becomes near-ubiquitous; this is the natural consequence of more complex sketches, that there will simply be more Generic Guy roles… and this is HH, he’s about as generic as it gets, given that Larry’s weird became an official plot point as of the Aztec song.
  • No, the really odd bit is the noticeable effacement of Willbond for much of this series, without explanation, even in places where he should logically be. And (spoiler alert) in S5, the same bizarre dynamic seems to be happening with Lawry/Mat. Not that any of it exactly disrupts anything critically — more like a really low-level disturbance in the creative Force. Picture… I dunno, the Dead Parrot suddenly being Slovakian Purple instead of Norwegian Blue. It doesn’t change anything, but it totally does.
  • Speaking of which, starting to realise why they brought Sarah H. back. Like Lawry — and, by this point, the whole Stuart novelty-foods schtick — she fills a niche so well that I can value having it around. I certainly can’t imagine anyone else making such a good job of Nell Gwyn, nor in turn any character more suited to the gossip-rag parody format. The little surrounding bits, with Charles II and Ben the theatre manager, likewise deftly hysterical.
  • Of course we’ll never lose Ben entirely, not as long as Henry VIII’s around (and has apparently borrowed Richard III’s fur robes this year! That’s… a bit creepy, actually, given their history.) The advent of subtlety has nicely co-incided with the running out of marriage gags, so we’ve moved on to the Dissolution as ‘Cash in the Attic’-style game show.
  • This is a brilliant idea, if still too dedicated to the notion of Henry as brutal bully (see below). Ben’s gotten just a bit too comfy in the part, I think;  he’s missing the edge of intellectual deception that was the original’s trademark. I’m a bit disappointed really that Ben doesn’t rise to the challenge, he could’ve made something really interesting of it.
  • The rising-to-the-challenge stuff is all Larry’s, this time — the hiding behind more openly ruthless lackies also being a Tudor specialty. Barring that the original was quite a bit heftier and much less primly hypocritical (see below), he pulls out a very nice dourly contemptuous Cromwell… especially so given that, while Larry’s skillset involves many unexpected things, ‘dour’ is about the last I would’ve assigned him before now.
  • Oh, and welcome back Mat the cheerily amoral reality-show host. The experiment last series has become the fixture in this… prep for which must involve quite a lot of watching really tacky TV, for this he has my sympathies. I of course can’t comment on how fine or not each specific parody is, but I do like the attention he pays to the little details, like the hands in his pockets here.
  • I also really like the performance he gives as the harassed railway conductor in Larry’s first-ever sketch. Clearly, the audition gods were smiling on him that day; this is funny, sweetly clever stuff all but specially designed to show off his strengths. So of course is Charles II… even so his creakily predictable bit should not be hitting me as this unbearably hilarious, but there it is. Enjoy the compliment to your comic timing, guys.
  • One more new addition to meet this ep: the Young Victoria, of whose impersonation Martha makes a remarkably nice job (Katy Wix might make even a better one, but the female cast seems to have been entirely rejiggered this year around other commitments). Nice understated bit of BBC cozy-corner parody this… possibly a bit too understated, in Jim’s case, or more specifically, Jim’s on-and-off-again German accent… yeah, well, I suppose Ben would be fudging reality a bit too far.
  • Anyway, it’s Jim and Martha who have the couple-chemistry, and I continue to admire the show’s persistence in finding ways to use it. Ooh, and hey, Lawry being all Alfred-style-snarky! Y”know, I could actually get used to this… mostly because it gives me hope that eventually he’s going to snap and interrupt all the billing-and-cooing with a machete, but still.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, do I even have to say it? That’s not quite how the Dissolution went. Sure, the sketch gets the royal motives right, and Thomas Cromwell — the self-made son of a blacksmith — really was that perpetually grumpy and/or ruthless, which might have something to do with the fact that nobody at court ever let him forget the blacksmith thing. (They were also no help when he finangled Henry a Protestant bride; to be fair though, she turned out to be Anne of Cleves, nothing was gonna help him with that one.)
  • The kicker was that — as the show has admitted in the past and will admit again as early as next episode (thank you, D.Duckworth) quite often the monasteries actually, um, did do all those things Henry and co. said they did. Refer back to S02E11 for the full story of how the only lifestyle difference being  a man or woman of God had for centuries basically meant was that now you were cooped up with a whole lot more available persons of the opposite sex. And they were probably also bored out of their frequently-tiny minds. You get the idea.
  • That said, there were inevitably also a whole lot of sincere, honest religious types who were deeply affected by the whole thing — mostly the lower ranks, so with very little if any influence on the larger project. The result was an irreparable rip in the basic fabric of English life. Not only were the spiritual houses that had acted as a sort of social assistance net, sheltering and feeding the poor as needed, now closed for good… but the priests etc doing the housing now found themselves thrown on the mercy of now-nonexistent resources. Let’s just say there was something of an explosion in the transient/beggar population, in the later years of Henry’s reign.
  • So no, it wasn’t entirely Charles Darwin’s reflection that led to natural selection… and no, I’m not doing the entire entry like that. Contrary to appearances, I do have a life, you know. Anyway, Darwin was pretty well puttering along towards the whole Unified Theory of Everything World-Changing when a guy named Alfred Russell Wallace sent him an essay on whaddaya know, the exact same subject, only with a few holes filled in. (As Darwin frankly acknowledged, there were a couple of other sciencey types kicking similar ideas around as well, but they didn’t get as far as publishing papers, so, y’know, sucked to be them.)
  • Otherwise this is a reasonably neat layman’s summary of the concept that eventually came to solely bear Darwin’s name — largely ‘cos Wallace turned out to be something of a professional embarrassment, what with the fervent belief in Spiritualism and holding seances and whatnot. More serious students may find themselves twitching a bit (as per the exhaustive, and fascinating, first comment below).
  • It did manage to find its way across sciencey-type Twitter accounts with relatively few bumps, save the one line that obviously sacrifices accuracy for a neat rhyme — fairly understandably, unless you’re an evolutionary biologist. Protip, next time you meet one at a party: do NOT make the jokes about how we evolved from chimps. (According to current theory we came up along parallel tracks.)
  • Oh, and QI aside, YouTube commenters: yes indeed, the Church of England was formally outraged even if many of its members (and interestingly, those of other denominations), weren’t much at all — hence the formal, if rather crankily reluctant, apology 126 years later.
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Posted by on June 30, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E01

 Take that, Hitler!

The first episode of HH the Bonafide Award-Winning Phenomenon debuts amid relentless hype, clashing expectations and creative dilemmas… if it were any other show, this is where I’d advise you start worrying. As it is, all you’ve got to be concerned with is an all-out charm assault…

In this episode:

Song: The Few (WWII RAF Pilots) — Jim as Douglas Bader; Mat, Larry, Ben and Simon as Stinky, Squiffy, Frantisek and Stanislav, respectively (Parody of: Take That, feat. Relight My Fire)

Recurring sketches:

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Dick Whittington Project (“So, who do you see playing the talking cat?” “Right, the cat thing again… This is a true story of my life. A political drama.” “Oh yeah sure sure, a political drama.” “With a talking cat.” “For kids!” “I love it.”)

Stupid Deaths — Tudor Archers (As should not actually be news, archery and stupidity don’t mix well… “So I leaned over to see what’s going on there with the bow, and…” “Yeeeessss?” “…twang. Right in me ‘ead.”)

Wonders of the Egyptian Universe —  “Before us Egyptians, no-one had any idea that the sun travelled across the sky by being rolled by a giant vast dung beetle!” “Alright, reality check, Brian: if this dung beetle is so massive, why can’t we see it?” “…a giant vast invisible dung beetle!”

Computer Game: Duat! Egyptian Journey Through the Underworld — “Look out, giant man-eating beetle! I’m packing a scroll!”

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

Wee For Victory — War with Scotland required a very personal sacrifice of the nation’s women… no, even more personal than that. “The makers of gunpowder for our troops are desperate… as, hopefully, are some of you…”

Warts and All — “Truly, Lady Fortune smiles on me this day! Finally, I get to paint Mr. Cromwell himself!” “…yeah, good luck with that.”

Terrible Tudors

The Spanish Armada: Judgement Year (movie trailer) — “So, to cut a long story short… no corks, no Armada.” “I’ll be back!” “Oooh, good catchphrase!” “Thanks.” “De nada.”

The Spanish Armada II: This Time It’s Really Judgement Year — “Are my ships ready?” “They are, sire.” “Do my barrels have corks?” “They do, sire!”
…”Bad news, sire! We have lost more than feefty sheeeps!” “…and the good news?” “Uhm… there’s venison for supper?”

The Spanish Armada III: This Time It Must Be Judgement Year — “What news of my Armada? Has it at last been successful?” “It has caused minor damage to Mousehole! An inconsequential village in Cornwall! Yay!” “I’ll be back!…maybe. It might take awhile.”

(Pause for Stupid Deaths sketch above, then…)

The Spanish Armada IV: Maybe This is Judgement Year — “I don’t care what happens, so long as my fleet of 140 galleons wasn’t wrecked by storms off the English coast!” “It wasn’t! … it never got that far. It was wrecked by storms off the Spanish coast.”

The Spanish Armada V: Let’s Face It, It’s Not Gonna Be Judgement Year — “Storms again?… yeah, I won’t be back. Forget it.”

Gorgeous Georgians

(Fees for) Safety First — In which seventeenth-century fire insurance is handled with all the empathic finesse of a… modern health insurance debate, come to think of it. “What happened to ‘No blaze too big, no fire too small’?!” “If you’re not insured, we won’t help at all!” “Well, can I at least borrow a bucket?” “NO.”

Toilet in the Court — You know how you never see aristocratic people going to the loo in those swank historical dramas? This right here is why.

Savage Stone Age

World of Stone — “We’ve got all the furniture new to the Neolithic era! Beds! Cupboards! Shelves! Dressers! Chairs! Even limpet tanks! Buy now, don’t pay until the Bronze Age*!” (*Delivery times may vary a lot. For henges please allow thirty years.)

Early News: End of an Era? — Guess what, people who stand in line for days to pick up the latest Apple gadget: you were out-tooled — literally — about four thousand years ago.  (“Ooh, look, they’re so shiny an’ all!” “Ehh, I reckon this whole Bronze Age thing is just a fad. I’m gonna wait for the Iron Age to come along.”)

Woeful Second World War

First, We Hit the Gift Shop — “German High Command wants us to bomb any city with three stars in the Baedeker guide.” “Do they have fudge? I luff fudge!”

Field Notes:

  • Well, this is exciting. Where I came in, you might say. Those familiar with my S2 reviews — and if you haven’t been printing them out and memorising key passages, why not, may I ask? — at any rate, those willing to put up with me to this point may recall that it was round about the Stonewall Jackson sketch in S02E11 that I finally decided to ask Google if it was just me.
  • What I found first was the Prom, which had just happened. So… clearly not just me then. The next thing I found was a comment thread re: the minor post-Prom debacle in which the cast was prevented from coming out to meet their fans, to which both Mat and Jim had apparently responded. This in turn led to an impulse to match the names I’d found to the faces… which in turn led to the discovery that holy crap there was an entire fandom out there. An over-12 fandom. (Good thing I picked up on that latter tidbit before I discovered the fanfiction, or things might’ve gotten really weird.)
  • There was also somewhere in there Stephen Fry, besides a boatload of awards, up to and including the British Comedy Award for Best Sketch Comedy. You’ll note the lack of “children’s” in that sentence; the People Who Notice These Things, UK division, certainly did. When they weren’t too busy swooning over the highwayman and snickering at the audacity of a platinum-blond Death. Clearly a delighted BBC had found itself driving a bonafide bandwagon: the kiddy educomedy it was cool for adults to love, too.
  • It was all just ridiculously, hilariously adorable… which made it unique among my experiences at the time. Clearly the only thing to do — and you might just keep this in mind, kids, next time someone tells you that escapism is harmless — was write a lengthy article for the semiprestigious online pop-culture ‘zine I was blogging for at the time, explaining in excruciating detail what a cultural phenomenon this children’s series had become…
  • …on which note I would just like to thank the entire Horrible Histories team for subsequently making me look awesomely sophisticated, instead of really, really stupid. I can tell, because as the hype for Series Four commenced, it became clear that the UK comedy community was backing me up. The show that had once pinned all its hopes for notice on Meera Syal reading fairy tales now found itself fielding requests from some of the hottest names in the business.
  • Most notably, the one from genre wunderkind Mark Gatiss and his buddies from the League of Gentlemen troupe, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, that the show host their reunion. The HH team, quite understandably, fell all over their hero-worship in their rush to say yes. Given that the LoG had produced some of the most famously dark, quirky, critically-acclaimed comedy of the last decade, this was already a much better idea than the fairy tales (or, for that matter, the Scary Stories). The really remarkable thing, though, was that the world’s most famously cynical media also thought it was a fine idea…
  • …right about the time that, as was starting to be evident towards the latter end of S3 and will become much clearer from here on in, the nature of the show’s material had undergone a sea change. Albeit not exactly in the way that’s popularly supposed. Human nature dictates that the well of Horrible historical moments will never run dry. From a creative standpoint, though, there’s a significant difference between a moment surefire enough to sum up in a cartoon and one that — while not necessarily less subtle — does require more delicate handling to extract the edutainment. Let alone what is at least nominally children’s edutainment.
  • And the HH crew had not so much run out of the former as run them into the ground. I have a mental image of writers scanning the books ever more frantically as they realise they’ve been hoist by their own ambition. After a moment of tense silence, one speaks: “… I suppose there’s always the Baron Rothschild and his –” “NO.”
  • In effect, they found themselves almost entirely thrown back on their own imaginative resources just as they were being forced to prove them. Full-blown comic maturity, a praiseworthy novelty up til now, had suddenly become a requirement on several levels… while still officially not happening at all. Because on top of everything else, thanks to revised regulations, they were now solely confined to the CBBC channel.
  • Enter the really nifty thing about all of the hype: it had been fairly earned — not just by the awards, but by the entire series of shrewd creative choices that underpinned them, both on and off camera. Shrewd, and frankly anarchistic. A team that had spent years juggling education with Python were not people who were about to be unnerved by abruptly skyrocketing expectations, however sophisticated.
  • As if to prove it, S4 kicks off with a bit of ecclesiastical exquisiteness that not only showcases the latest budget upgrades, but is the visually lavish equivalent of anything in any adult BBC historical costume epic… riiight up until you realise that what the unctuous clergyman is piously intoning is an urgent request for ladies’ pee. As in chamber pots now available under the pews. Welcome to Horrible Histories, everybody.
  • Which triumph they then follow up with an odd little interlude focussing on Oliver Cromwell’s ‘warts and all’ —  that’s literally the entire point, that warts are somehow grotesque abominations — that comes across as a script abandoned half-way through but filmed anyway because… well, hell if I know. Maybe the f/x crew spent all off-season perfecting Cromwell’s new makeup and nobody had the heart to tell them? They’d heard the fandom rumours about Lawry leaving the show and wanted to have a bit of fun off the top?
  • Alright, so subtle doesn’t always mesh well with shrewd. But by the time you get to a fourth series, sometimes, as per the above bit, endearing works nearly as well… yeah, I think I did just call Lawry endearing. Something about the way he skates right out to the edge of petulant whining trying to find a reason to still be onscreen is triggering my affectionate-nostalgia reflexes.
  • A much more effective combination of experience and intuition and endearing happens in the Armada sketch(es)… another personal set of Sketches That Make My Brain Never Stop Grinning Like a Loon, as you’ll have noticed from the fact that I’ve transcribed them nearly in full above. Thing is, in the course of which I realised that, frankly, the writing here is nearly as slight as in the Cromwell bit (although here at least they progressed as far as looking up everyone’s correct titles).
  • Then I read through them again, only in Mat and Larry’s voices to get the full effect, and I realised I’d actually just fully and totally proven… whatever it is I’ve been rambling about up to now. The whole wonderful thing is based on intimate knowledge of who the cast are and what they can do, as anchored to a perfectly adapted concept — equating Philip II’s attempts to a series of steadily diminishing movie sequels is just awesome.
  • And again, awesomely adult… on a few separate levels, as evidenced that Ben-as-Drake got his own notice in the reviews, and rightfully so. They really don’t give him enough chances to play with that suave… the smug is good, but it’s just not the same. Meanwhile, back in the foreground, Larry and Mat play off each other with the inspired — and, not incidentally, unselfish — brilliance of comedians who by now trust each other even unto stupid accents. Pace Carl Reiner, they “don’t know what’s going to come out — but they know that something is!”
  • Speaking of which: Kind of a shame that all the ‘Gift Shop Bombers’ bit is remembered for is the fudge; that’s probably the least remarkable aspect of the enchantingly unique comic chemistry that happens whenever Ben and Simon’s veteran understanding of ridiculousness is deliberately paired. Seriously, this is now officially not a co-incidence. Not sure whether it’s the result of the writers getting excited at that prospect or production carefully selecting the assignment, but they’re inevitably among the best-written sketches of their series, and this here is probably the best of that lot. Just fabulously witty stuff — I honestly had to restrain myself from transcribing it in full.
  • Great ensemble stuff also from Martha and the competing fire brigades, esp. Ben, who is clearly now allowed to amuse himself on-set however he wants. They all really do turn this very slight sketch into something close to a classic. In the process, quite seriously, demonstrating how much individual leeway they’ve been given by now within the format — to become a troupe, in fact. The evolution of Yonderland etc starts right here, kids.
  • Oh, and “Ding-a-ling-a-ling!” Simon and the marshmallows… nope, he hasn’t let me down yet. Not even once. And certainly not while being the go-to caveperson. In related news, it’s kind of interesting, as always, what media concepts — like annoying furniture ads — turn out to be cross-cultural… it’s somehow always not the ones I would’ve imagined.
  • We’re actually reintroduced to Death in the middle of playing rock-paper-scissors with the skeletons, which I like to think of as my own particular little cosmic present for being a really good fan. Aside from which — and the total lack of explanation for the new mummy sidekick, which acts as the pink bow on top — his contribution to the new creative subtlety this season will involve more patiently letting the corpses… ah, hang themselves, so to speak, with their own stories. Or, in this case, accents. Larry’s is the better anecdote, but Mat’s — by a hair — is the better-told.
  • By now, of course, you’re wondering how the music fits into all this… well, if you’re not, rest assured that the prospective new S4 audience certainly was, with bells on. Having as usual already surmounted the challenges the prose sketches were facing — up to and including ‘dazzlingly subtle maturity’ — this series’ musical efforts will focus increasingly on finding clever genre matches as a sort of quick shortcut to maintaining that impressiveness, or at least, quite a lot of impressed new fans.
  • Whether the actual songwriting itself rose to the occasion, as it did so amazingly last series… well, that’s to be seen. For now, it’s altogether irrelevant. The point of this series’ debut number is merely “Yeah, you remember that boy-band thing you all drooled over? So check this — now we have DANCE MOVES!” Well, sort of. Kiddy-show-level expectations do have their uses, not least when trying to pass off Willbond needing to not only stay in step but hold a note. Also, Larry doing that… whatever he does, when there’s music. Expecting it is not quite the same thing as being prepared for it.
  • OK, I know, details. In all seriousness this thing is a positive arabesque of engaging… IN A PLANE!… that somehow works as an affectionate takeoff of both real and Hollywood-style wartime heroics — while still providing fully *ahem* believably dashing eye candy. I’m literally only just now realising how horribly tacky topping things off with a Churchill quote could’ve come across under the circs, that’s the level of goodwill this show had built up to this point. As far as I know, there wasn’t even a perturbed letter written to the Daily Mail.
  • I personally tend to focus more on the goofy stuff mostly because my distaste for the genre target is such that the accuracy would otherwise really start to get in the way of my enjoyment after awhile. (You ever try to clear mouth foam off a keyboard?) So it falls to the guys to cheer me up, and as usual they don’t disappoint.
  • Especially not Mat, who’s throwing himself full-tilt into this whole derring-do-doing bit despite wearing a uniform that — as per usual in these things — is easily two sizes too big. Granted they’ve done a very decent job of tucking the extra in round the belt; still, being the one member of the squadron with both a lead vocal and a noticeably nipped-in waist cannot have been a major confidence-booster either. (I also wouldn’t have minded being in Jim’s head when they told him about having to fake prosthetic legs.)
  • So having gone on at length about subtlety and complexity, I must now concede that it’s time to introduce the League of Gentlemen into the conversation. Personally I could sum the whole thing up as ‘I don’t care if the HH stuff is nothing more than a showcase for their reunion, it’s all just completely freakin’ hilarious,’ but given that this is clearly the minority POV…
  • The trick is remembering that it is the LoG’s reunion. Everything I said in S02E03 about giving the Big Name(s) a safe place to play within an established, stylised concept applies here as well, except with extra chocolate on top in the form of what I said earlier in this review about it being an honour. No offense to the uber-dependable David Baddiel, but his presence didn’t rate a full-colour spread in the Radio Times. (Although it can be argued that the fez deserved one.)
  • In that context, perhaps it’s worth reconsidering the fact that two parties nevertheless came up with a durable, dependably funny and fascinating concept — one that meshes the worlds of celebrity and historical satire in a way that’s relevant to both, leaving the LoG free rein to do their preternaturally quick, clever thing and the show to provide interesting historical insights at the same time. Come to think of it, in most important respects it’s quite like Stupid Deaths.
  • This one in particular, I can’t understand what’s not to love. There’s just something about the way they bounce the over-the-top cynicism off Mat’s primly sweet earnestness — the talking cat -vs- “I created the first public toilets in London!” — that means I can’t stop giggling, no matter how often I watch it. (“How do you feel about Keira Knightley playing you?” Oh, god…) Also, as a footnote, nifty bit of accent misdirection on Gatiss there at the beginning. No idea why he decided to try the American, but I salute a decent attempt. The whole corporate stuffed-shirt thing really suits him, weirdly enough.
  • “Hi, I’m a hot Egyptian scientist…” Oh, very subtle, there, show. In not-entirely-unrelated news, the other major creative development this series will be a sharp uptick in the recognizable parodies. Despite the challenges any pop-culture takeoff faces re: aging well — and, as I can testify, exporting well — this is basically good news. Both as a way to be very-but-not-really adult, and to take advantage of some hitherto criminally unappreciated mimicry skills among the troupe.
  • Having now seen the original, I can appreciate that ‘Lewin!’ would’ve popped into the producer’s heads almost immediately… and frankly agree with them. It’s a shade too excitable for strict accuracy — as far as I can gather, Prof. Cox is more about the angsty “I am but a dust mote in the Great Cosmic Reality” understatement — but having once been handed this assignment, it’s easy to understand our Lawry jumping at it full-tilt. Yep, he’s won my heart… for those three minutes, anyway.
  • Ooh, and while we’re on about impressively heart-winning angst, check Ben in Val Kilmer’s wig from The Saint!… right, so there’s a joke exactly three people will get. Of whom apparently at least two are on the HH makeup team.
  • Speaking of which, it’s past time to pay tribute to this series’ f/x upgrades, including as noted impressively updated makeup jobs on Cromwell and Elizabeth I, a quick cut-n-style for Death, vastly improved computer-game graphics that allow for true, and truly hilarious, player interaction… and a squeefully tasteful teeny portrait of Gran and Grandpa Rattus, indicating that fame may have gone slightly to the head of our host rodent. (My theory is that, instead of a badger they eventually gave him a teeny raise to handle ‘the sad bits’).
  • O and hai, Also Starring Sarah H.! Can’t say I’m wildly excited to have you and your shrill little voice back, but hey, you’re an integral part of the HH lore, so… on the other hand, so is Lawry. Watch it, lady.
  • ‘Vanessa Stonebottom’? ‘Trevor Geek’? Yeah, some things HH will never change… no matter how much they should. Despite which the Bronze Age report is a fun little expansion on the Internet sketches (and incidentally a nice complement to the ‘aBook’ bit from S03E01). Much love for Mat the cave-hipster; I will not suggest he’s basically playing himself, because that would be evil, and… uh… oh, look, they even managed to work in some Ben-annoyed-with-Jim stuff! Awesome! *runs away*

95% Accu-rat:

  • Congratulations on making it all the way down here! Your reward is learning that Oliver Cromwell really should’ve been referred to as ‘Lord Protector’ (or more formally, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland), not ‘Mr’. He wasn’t any fonder of pointlessly fancypants titles than he was of formal portraits — and of course calling him ‘Your Highness’ was just totally defeating the point — but they had to put something on the official flowcharts, so this was the compromise.
  • Yep, Philip II really did not take his rejection by then-Princess Elizabeth at all well. It pleased Liz to claim in later years that his obsession with retaking England was all about thwarted love for her, and that in fact she could have him back merely by ‘crooking her little finger’. She of course refused to think of it out of love for her stalwart subjects, but still.
  • In reality, of course, it had much more to do with the fact that on her accession Liz has definitively tipped the national religious scales to Protestant, and as you may recall from previous entries, Philip was a confirmed fanatical Catholic. Not that this alone exactly justified wasting the equivalent of billions in national resources or anything… only that it really helps your lust for conquest when it’s sanctioned by the Pope, and back then His Holiness could totally do that.
  • Elizabeth was after all not only a ‘weak and feeble woman’, but one that the Vatican still officially considered illegitimate. By their lights, given that Mary Queen of Scots was still a toddler at this point, Philip was about as close to a Divinely-sanctioned legitimate claimant to the English throne  as was going. So you can just about imagine how wrecked his day was when God apparently sided with the heretic five times running.
  • Incidentally, the ‘minor damage to Mousehole’ is more formally known as the Mounts Bay Raid, or as Wiki seems to be alone in calling it, the Battle of Cornwall. On the international scale it was indeed a pretty inconsequential affair, although to the locals the whole ‘overpowering the local militia and setting fire to the town’ thingy must’ve been pretty damn inconvenient at least. Sir Walter Raleigh apparently wasn’t best pleased about having to bustle down to what he evidently considered the back end of civilization and train the remaining defenders, either.
  • So the Egyptian Book of the Dead: actually a personalised document commissioned for each individual mummy, of which several still exist to this day. They do indeed contain all sorts of spells and other stuff to impress and amaze your friends… a lot of stuff. This is afterlife as extended D&D session, and it’s hard not to imagine that a lot of it was designed to serve mostly the same purpose. Real life probably got really really boring at times, out there in the desert hauling stones around.
  • The sketch here actually starts a little late in the process; you’re a mummy, remember, so your first priority would be making sure all that disembowelling wouldn’t hurt your chances. During embalming there would be chants performed to preserve your body (‘jewelled heart scarabs’ available for a small fee in case of damage to the real thing), and later on food and incense offerings designed to satisfy your ka, or life-force, which was a bit peckish after all that reassembly.
  • Finally, the appropriate spells would then transmute you into a sort of soul-shadow, suitable for negotiating the Byzantine corridors of the afterlife — many, many more than could be comfortably fitted into one short sketch. If you were lucky — or at least had friends with a lot of time on their hands — and completed all the steps above, you became an akh, and earned the right to travel with Ra himself in his golden barge; if not, you remained a ba, a bird-headed being that had to maneuvre under its own, um, wing-power. Either way, I can’t help thinking it would’ve improved the sketch immensely…
 
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Posted by on June 23, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S03E13: Savage Songs

Gotta request coming in right here! It says “Please shut up and play the next song!”
… oh.

The series is over and the music’s had a massive awesomeness upgrade, so Rattus likewise busts out the turntables and the ‘tude — sort of — for a truly Horrible (also, once again chronological) farewell bash…

In this episode:

The Ages of Stone (from S03E11)

“Then Neanderthals were wiped out by the Ice Age horrific —
After which the Neolithic Age was terrific!”

Where I’d rank it: 8th

One of the most under-rated tunes in the show’s history — except by the show itself, which keeps bunging it onto these best-ofs and into the Prom and whatnot in the obvious hope that someone will appreciate it as the minor artistic triumph that it is…. or at least as remarkable for something other than “is he or isn’t he wearing anything under that tunic?!”

Yes, it could well be argued that in that case they shouldn’t’ve made that the single most compelling visual marker in the entire production. Given however that both jazz/swing and Flintstones reruns were ubiquitous throughout my childhood — and thus I can uniquely understand how difficult the former was to get right and appreciate that the latter was avoided — I’m feeling generous. Go forth and be appreciated, show. You may just want to lose the dancing cave paintings before you nominate it for a Grammy, though.

Ra Ra Cleopatra (from S03E05)

“For I am Cleopatra, Egypt’s royalty —
The ruling Pharaoh, don’t you dare-o mess with me
My poker face smiles only when I see
A man who takes my fancy like — Ooh! Marc Anthony!”

Where I’d rank it: 4th

Here’s a fun fact I totally forgot to include in my E05 notes: Cleopatra VII Philopator, not actually all that physically attractive. Other contemporary media confirms the Queen of the Nile as a short, rather stocky figure with a plain face and a nose that was legendary, all right, but not for the reasons popularly supposed. (Oh, and as the last of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs, she didn’t speak Egyptian, either, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

Yep, not to put too fine a point on it, but the satirical parallels between Lady Gaga and the Lady of the Two Kingdoms just took a major level in hilarious accuracy. The CBBC lesson for today is that pure charismatic showmanship can take you a long, long way, kiddies. Especially when it’s allied to unusually slick visuals and nigh-impossibly catchy pop-rock — and since this is HH, you don’t have to hate yourself for being manipulated by any of it in the morning.

Celtic Boast Battle (from S03E12)

“Yeah you got a brain but you just got one
I got five on my belt from the battles I’ve won
In a rage, on a rampage
I’ve killed more men than old age…”

Where I’d rank it: 7th

Damn, but the pure songwriting was brilliant in S3. At any rate, here’s No.7 on my list, the throwaway flourish tacked onto the last episode, and… well, last year’s equivalent was Do the Pachacuti. You take my point. Richie Webb and Dave Cohen — whose musical genius I have celebrated for forty-odd reviews now without once, to my shame, mentioning your name — please accept this ranking, and indeed large chunks of this blog, as tribute.

Visually, on the other hand… not much has changed re: either musical production or my affection for the culprits here. Such is the failsafe nature of the HH cast’s chemistry at this point that the pitch meeting for this one likely went simply ‘OK, so we’re thinking Mat with sweet facial hair, and Jim painted blue, and hands up who wants to see the result?’ Thus a classic of HH adorableness was born… also of course Larry, by now that’s classic too.

William Wallace: Scottish Rebel (from S03E03)

“Celebrated Stirling Bridge, another Scottish win
By decorating my sword with the English general’s skin!”

Where I’d rank it: 6th

So as discussed at the time and confirmed via many listens since, Ben somehow rips off the authentic equivalent of any hard-rock vocal I’ve ever heard… while still visually coming across the equivalent of any Canadian beer commercial I’ve ever seen. Really, it’s uncanny. He’s howling his undying defiance at the heavens (probably the ones he just sent all those Englishmen to, right after somebody explained the theological mix-up) and I’m all, “Yeah, that Leafs/Bruins finale, I hear you, brother.”

Mind you, I do not wish to dash our Benjamin’s fond action-hero dreams outright. First of all, did I mention there was beer? Secondly, and more important, a moment to consider the alternatives. See, I was last deep into hard rock circa around 1985. As hard as I was on the video, and the ranking here does reflect that, I will concede that ratty plaid flannel is an acceptable alternative to being reminded that I used to be impressed by ripped zebra-print tank tops.

Oh, and two-word bonus: Mountie uniform. You’re welcome.

Aztec Priests’ Song (Ain’t Stayin’ Alive) (from S03E09)

“We do this if you haven’t guessed
By getting something off your chest
Your heart would probably be best
Or else your head…”

Where I’d rank it: 5th

Because this is about as close as we’re ever going to get to HH: the fully adult version. Not so much because of the content itself, but that somebody just went “OK, we said they’re gonna sing full-on Studio 54-style disco and by God that’s what’s gonna happen. WITH SPRINKLES.” And that happened. It may-or-may not be a coincidence that Rickard was in the vicinity at the time, but I like to imagine a further conversation that went “We’re giving Larry the lead in this song because…” “I LIKE SPRINKLES.”

Right, I may be subtly hinting that illegal pharmaceuticals were involved in the making of this video. But I would totally be kidding my favourite children’s series, because I have been up close and personal with it now for nearly a year, and in that time I have learned that if they had simply decided to give their comedic inhibitions the day off, this is exactly what it would look like. Except maybe the tooth-licking. I think we’re all better off not thinking too closely about that one.

The Truth About Richard III (from S03E06)

“Thomas More wrote a history, said I murdered Edward’s boys
Shakespeare said their death was an evil ploy
But I say those two are historical vandals!
They’ve ruined my image — I mean, what a scandal!”

Where I’d rank it: 3rd

You think maybe somebody noticed the George IV success story from last series? And that they might have had OCD? At the least, clearly the producers understand to a scarily-fine degree of precision what they’ve got in Howick, and planned each detail accordingly. I sometimes wonder what it must feel like to encounter this video not knowing that. “Why is the little man on the YouTube dressed as Winnie-the-Pooh and holding children’s drawings giving me wildly inappropriate feelings?”

…Anyway, this is very likely the most perfect piece of musical comedy HH has ever produced. You can tell, because as mentioned in the original review, it took finding the actual king under a frickle-fracking parking lot somewhere in Random Part of England That Isn’t London (actual North American terminology) to put scuff marks on it enough to rank it below infinity. Yes, Richard, yes, the universe does in fact have it in for you. If it’s any consolation — and I like to think it would be — it makes for some truly amazing telly.

Dick Turpin, Highwayman (from S03E01)

“You think life is one big antic
My profession is romantic
Hate to be pedantic
But it ain’t…”

Where I’d rank it: 2nd

Just for fun I decided to take another shot at what I chickened out on in the S03E01 review, ie. concentrating on all the other stuff going on in this video besides That Performance:

The setting is gorgeous, a perfect complement to the expertly swirling camerawork. The troupe does a very nice job of the melodramatic, scowly menace; either deliberately or as a result of the realisation — achieved probably just after Mat stepped out of makeup — that they’re stuck in those tight pants and/or corsets and nobody’s ever gonna care, I’m not here to judge. (I do particularly like how Martha’s full-on Boudicca bitchface is accented by that little mandolin dealie.) Postie Ben triumphantly savouring his moment, also good value…

…yeah, OK, and there’s also this incredibly magnetic, playfully erotic, perfectly inspired takeoff of Adam Ant happening somewhere in there. All done on what looks rather like an offhand whim. I can’t help imagining the mixed feelings this must perpetually evoke in Mat: very few of us get to have our prime of youth and vitality thus recorded for millions to fawn over… and even fewer do so wearing Michael Jackson’s hair and eyeliner.

Work, Terrible Work! (from S03E04)

“We try not to get caught in spokes
Or trap our hands in gauges —
To stop machines and get you out
Will cost you a week’s wages!”

Where I’d rank it: 10th

Did I mention I don’t like peppy Broadway numbers? Check that: I don’t mind peppy Broadway numbers when they’re absolutely the only thing on offer. Like, it’s really late at night and I can’t sleep and I desperately need something to snark on (snark cravings, much like leftover-curry ditto, tend to strike often in the wee hours) and, I don’t know, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the red-eye special on AMC…

…We conclude this episode of Too Much Information Theatre with the footnote that I am obviously an evil flint-hearted joy-despising critic person who — for instance — spends the entire video wondering why this lot of pathetic pint-size belters doesn’t just walk out and form a music-hall act already. (I bet Capitalist Villain Mat is secretly just dying to manage them.) So you should absolutely feel free to enjoy the living daylights out of this beautifully and authentically produced number… but just in case, can I also recommend the guys’ sideburns as a fantastic distraction in a pinch?

The Suffragettes’ Song (from S03E08)

…threw myself under a horse
To try and make our case
Became a famous martyr, how did men react?
‘We can’t give women votes if they’re so stupid they’ll do
that!‘”

Where I’d rank it: 9th

Sorry, kids, I’ve had another few listens, and I’m still not convinced. Then again, I was never particularly convinced by, say, ABBA either, and you lot seem to take that whole thing pretty seriously, so as noted in the original review, quite possibly this is more about cultures clashing anything else. When people self-identify as ‘fierce’ over this side of the pond, it’s not so much a sign of their undying support for basic human rights as that they’re about to show you their navel piercing.

The one thing that prevented it from coming in dead last — and incidentally spared you lot my ramble about how despite their song being a sloppy mess the Evil Emperors at least conveyed real passion and commitment — were Alice’s solo bits, particularly the one quoted above. The blunt effectiveness of the male responses aside, if there’s one thing Series Three has taught us, it’s that we really don’t want to get Alice angry.

The English Kings and Queens (from S03E02)

“William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John — Oi!
Henry, Ed, Ed, Ed, Rich II, then three more Henrys join our song
Edward, Edward, Rich the Third,
Henry, Henry, Ed again
Mary I, Good Queen Bess, Jimmy, Charles, then Charles again —
Jim, Will, Mary, Anna Gloria,
George, George, George, George, Will, Victoria!
Edward, George, Edward, George VI —
And Queen Liz II completes our list!”

Where I’d rank it: 1st

‘That show with the song about all the kings and queens’, that’s basically what HH is going to be fondly referred to in the years to come. Because sometimes, it’s worth reminding myself every now and again, it’s not about how cool it is to the adults. Although, in this case, it still is very cool, round-robin chorus and all. In fact, despite the blatant reuse of stock footage and costuming, it’s the one thing that keeps me from snickering when the producers start in on how seriously they take their educational mandate.

I believe them because, despite it all, I remember how ridiculously amazing it felt, as a little kid watching Sesame Street — the pre-Elmo edition of which is the closest American TV will ever come to recreating the HH vibe — that these grownups were so invested in doing this for me, that they’d put this much effort and interest and excitement into firing my imagination while still respecting my intelligence. Showing me what knowledge could be if I only cared enough. The gang making HH does care — and thanks to this song, now so do thousands of other little kids. Respect, guys. Totally.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2013 in Series Three

 

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S03E12

I go berserk and my eyes go glazy,
I get so mad I could stab a daisy!
(But I won’t, cos that’d be… stupid.)

The interlude series says farewell with a sweet-natured microcosm of everything that always makes the show watchable… Party on, Horrible Histories, party on.

In this episode:

Song: Celtic Boast Battle — Mat and Jim as the quick-witted combatants, with Ben on beatbox and Larry on general inappropriateness.

Recurring sketches:

Historical Pet Shop — Greek

HHTV News: Isthmian Games — “Well, the bad news is, your prize is just a celery hat.” “So what’s the good news? “The good news is, I bought this delicious Greek dip. Mmmm… now that is rich.”

Cliff Whiteley — Stonehenge… But Why? (“Love the place. Favourite ‘henge, hands down. Got a piccy on the wall and everything.”)

Horrible Points of View — Stuart

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Medieval Job Security — In the plague-riddled Dark Ages, a serf’s mere pustule-free existence was his ticket to better things… in the plague-riddled Dark Ages. Either way, this wasn’t gonna end well.

Dance Fever — A combination of spiritual stress and corporeal futility (and did we mention the plague thing?) somehow becomes the Ecstasy equivalent of medieval Germany.

Groovy Greeks

Festival News: Thesmophoria — Exploring the sacred mysteries of the feminine by… well, look, so we’ve all seen Clueless, right? Yeah, picture that, only with quite a bit more sitting in dead rotten pig to make crops abundant.

Cut-Throat Celts

Poetry in Motion — So there was this ancient Irish king who was so annoyed by his court poets he had anyone who dared to rhyme words banished… and if you can’t figure out how it goes from there, you may want to go lie down for a little bit yourself.

Savage Stone Age

Stonehenge vs. the Pyramids (animated) — Yep, they’re contemporaries. Thus explaining why the Egyptian native bearers didn’t exactly freak out with awe when the European archaeologists showed up to excavate their tombs.

Angry Aztecs

Aztec Hi-Tec All-In-One Cactus — It’s a sewing kit, it’s a meal kit, it’s a roof-mending kit, it’s even a winemaking kit! “There’s nothing you can’t do with a cactus — apart from use it as a seat…”

Chuckle Resin — “Tree, seriously, you’re making me eat tree?!” Calm down, Ben, in all cultures including your own chewing gum’s been derived from tree resin since ancient times… the crushed insects are new, though, I grant you. “Oh, that’s OK then! I love crushed insects!”

Slimy Stuarts

The Man Who Stole the Crown Jewels — Charles II, aka The Man Who Spent His Youth Hiding in Oak Trees, grants an audience to the one man in England who has an even more implausible tale to tell. Loveable roguishness proceeds to abound. (“You must come ’round to the palace for tea! You can regale us with your funny stories!” “I’ve got a fabulous one about the time I was plotting to kill you!”)

Field Notes:

  • So here we are at the end of Series Three: the distilled and collected Essence de HH, in one convenient thirteen-episode package. If not a wildly fascinating innovative romp from the reviewer’s POV, still the perfect backdrop against which to have swept their first BAFTAs and held a wildly successful Prom and just generally firmly cemented their status as a modern classic of (technically at least) children’s TV.
  • That they were working basically laterally, from a creative standpoint, is still interesting inasmuch as it becomes a process of refining what was working from previous series and throwing out what wasn’t… well, mostly; see the Return of the Mesoamerican Pyramid Beam-In below, also the Scary Stories from previous weeks. On the other hand: Historical Masterchef, the HParamedics, the return of George IV & Charles II, and did I mention the music? Because it really was incredibly awesome.
  • In fact, this is how I now think of S3 after this in-depth closeup: several very cool sketches and some incredibly awesome music. Which, yeah, is sort of exactly how I thought of it before. But now I have reasons.
  • Including, definitely, this week’s tune. By way of leaving viewers once again with a don’t-forget-to-miss-us flourish, we are presented with Jim and Mat — the same guys who last ep were babbling happily about top hats — for aaaallll the fearsomeness. And the hell of it is, it works! Really. With the help of songwriting that demonstrates just how neatly and completely expert that process has become, the Boast Battle somehow manages to be a comprehensive lesson in gangsta styling while still being cuddly enough not to give the gradeschoolers any ideas.
  • Had Disney decided to produce The Story of Gang Warfare circa roughly 1956, this is exactly what it would’ve looked like, is what I am trying to say here. Right down to the Mutt-and-Jeff thing with one tall bearded guy and one pudgy little guy painted blue (in not-entirely-unrelated news, my Howick plushie will now be coming with fabric paint and a washable surface).
  • The rest of the f/x, on the other hand… yeah, they were doing surprisingly really well with the stabbing, right up until that cut back to Jim apparently trying not to lose a file folder under his arm as he beats feet. Also, according to Jim’s dance moves, frogs are reptiles now. And Larry… oh, Larry. What can you say at this point? I am thinking that it’s fundamentally a sort of a Pavlov’s dog thing. Start up the music and watch his inhibitions vanish.
  • Oh, so the Historical Pet Shop wasn’t going away just yet, sorry. Soon though, right? Athough, frankly, I must admit that if they all had involved Jim and Martha thus together I might’ve been inclined to be sorry they’re gone, especially in combination with the thought experiment explained via squeaky toy. There’s a weirdly irrelevant performer intimacy going on here — culminating in Martha clearly just barely holding it together at the sight of Jim in a toga. Sort of torn re: whether I want to know or not, really.
  • “I’ll be up in a minute!” — yeah, and three segments later I’m increasingly convinced that our Historical POV host has Ma Bates up there waiting. Come to think on it, this whole setup looks rather alarmingly like the glimpse we get of Death’s home life in the Halloween special, complete with wildly unnecessary middle-class fussiness. They were really building something intriguing here re: Horrible entertainment choices, and I’m really sad that I’ll never get to find out just what the deal is with that floral arrangement, at least.
  • Anyway, this is easily the best of the three POV pieces we do get… except, hang on, didn’t he handle complaints from the Stuart Era just last segment? Just how much do they have to dose the poor guy with to keep him going, anyway? Enough that he hears taxidermied people calling him upstairs? (In reality, of course, they’ve just aired the two segments out of production order. One benefit of technically being kiddy TV: v.short viewer attention spans, either real or conveniently attributable.)
  • Wow, genuinely lush-looking robes on Simon in the plague sketch there… actually, rather lush-looking and -sounding Simon all over, come to rewind that a few times. This wouldn’t be a huge selling point for me usually, but there’s literally nothing else on offer here but ridiculously engaging and attractive people, so hey, bring on the closeups. By now — speaking of refining what works — the troupe can in fact rescue a formulaic sketch merely by existing. Even so, in this case they had to haul in Farnaby and Baynton to make it work.
  • Which is actually kind of cool, inasmuch as it finally gives Mat a plausible venue towards combining his clownishly funny with his disturbingly vulnerable: the reliable ol’ poor-schmuck-convinced-against-his-will schtick, first seen in the earlier ‘sausage smuggler’ bit and refined here to the extent that the result is almost preternaturally adorable, not to say a perfect foil for Simon’s florid obtuseness.
  • While I’m on about Mat and perfect foils, I must give props to the silky-voiced and supremely funny — two things not often found combined — Rhashan Stone, HHTV Sport announcer and sometime Egyptian architect among other things. He’s done yeoman’s service this series especially, and I’ve not mentioned it once, totally my bad. I love him in the Isthmian Games sketch not only for the ‘now that is rich’ bit but for being a perfect backdrop to Mat getting a rare chance this series to let his face run completely riot
  • Check that: there was also Charles II, and Mat (along with the writer, clearly) is still in complete excited-puppy mode over this. Possibly because this is Charlie’s big chance to think with his actual brain, rather than… well, you get the idea. Helping him along is Simon, and at one point Ben in jester’s bells, and it is all just this impossible swirl of sweetly charming that defies any rational attempt to pin down what makes it work. I’ve watched it like, ten times now at least, and still no luck. I do however seem to have a permanent goofy grin plastered across my face.
  • Oh and hey, dig Dominique in that groovy ‘fro! Also, welcome to the first HH sketch to feature exactly none of the male cast, and perhaps not coincidentally a lot of excited squealing. Seriously though, I’m not gonna complain too much; it’s not my thing, but it is a well-put-together mashup of offbeat subject and familiar stereotype, and actresses wise enough to go for the affectionate rather than shrill parody add a few redeeming layers of smart and clever.
  • I have sometimes wondered why the show doesn’t cover more Irish history… and having now had a chance to listen closely to the Irish poetry sketch I’ll be considering that one answered, thank you. Seriously, Rickard, those little groans you’re hearing aren’t your juvenile audience, they’re leprechauns. And they are currently wondering why, in a country that frowns on Lucky Charms cereal for being offensively stereotypical, they still have to listen to your brogue.
  • Watched on the firm assumption that it’s a one-off, though, there’re still rewards to be had. Like for instance Jim all-but-warming up for Hippie Viking Paul Simon, which makes Mat’s sceptical reaction to him absolutely freaking hilarious in hindsight. Also Ben gets a chance to haul out his clueless blustering monarch stuff, which never fails to raise a smile — especially when said stuff is correctly accented, which in this case may actually have raised a tear of gratitude.
  • So of all the recurring characters to revive for no apparent reason, they go with Cliff ‘Whallop!’ Whiteley. Great. I could be watching a Caveman Art Show segment right now, show, but noooooooo, I have to sit through your apparently endless supply of ‘early man’ gags.
  • That said, the overall premise of this CW bit is genuinely witty, and handled with a gently appealing good humour, esp. as a followup to the fun but rather bluntly factual animation. It’s overall a fascinating and important enough subject that I’d rather have seen it all treated as standalone live-action, but am still not complaining. Encouraging kids to think outside their national, cultural and racial boxes: teaching history, ur doin it rite.
  • On the subject of more inexplicable decisions in that arena, as noted, we’re suddenly back to treating the Mesoamericans as some sort of outlandish artifact being beamed in from a David Icke daydream. Because the song clearly wasn’t enough evidence that this is an unusually exotic culture. A desert-oriented people somehow making use of cactus is just way too weird, man.
  • This is all especially irritating because so unnecessary; the sketches themselves are already everything that is quintessentially HH, silly and funny and fascinating all at once, not to say featuring cactus pulp that looks interestingly like leftover Flubber. One would think that the principle ‘you have Ben and Larry trying desperately not to laugh at each other, you already have everything you need for supreme viewer happiness’ would be a major guiding production lodestone at this point.
  • The Dance Fever sketch. Yes. Whoa. OK, Mat, I’ve been putting this off, on the assumption that your on-camera dance moves are something learned in clown class (How to Come as Close as You Can to a Seizure Without Actually Attracting Paramedics 101, was my specific guess) but I’m starting to consider the possibility that this might be your usual music-moving MO in actual and possibly mixed company, and, uh, yeah. Whoo-boy. I think you may be the first human being ever to have figured out how to look exactly like a Guitar Hero avatar of yourself, if that’s any consolation.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, yeah, dancing mania. A fascinating phenomenon, and not just confined to Strasbourg. In fact the earliest recorded outbreak happened in 1374, and the last somewhere in the 17th century… and still nobody knows what happened. I mean, given that everyone’s pretty certain Grimm’s tales weren’t actually a documentary. Thing is, though, you’ve got apparently-entranced people prancing around 24/7, yelling, sobbing and singing, sometimes naked, sometimes making rude gestures, and — why not? — sometimes becoming violent at the sight of the colour red… you do start to wonder
  • Personally, as mentioned above, I’m all for the ‘it was the freaking Dark Ages, this made as much sense as anything else’ school of thought, but must admit some of the other explanations are a lot more morbidly spectacular, including mass ergotism (remember Larry twitching uncontrollably last series? I mean, as a result of ergotism particularly?), mass encephalitis, mass epilepsy, mass spider bite (hence the ‘tarantella’, a dance originally thought to cure this specific manifestation)…. Mass demon possession, that was of course a big one.
  • From the yep-they-weren’t-making-this-up files, vol 347: The Festival of Thesmophoria. Actually a sort of religious cult of the type that often cropped up around specific ancient god/esses, in this case Demeter, goddess of the earth and hence the harvests thereon. Those of you currently nodding thoughtfully and thinking ‘boy, I bet there’s a lot went on there even HH couldn’t show,’ you may now give yourselves a cooky. Or a ‘male genital organ made of dough’ and decorated with a pine branch, as you like — although I might just mention it’s been in that pit for three months along with the dead piglet.
  • Details are a bit fuzzy — Greek women weren’t commonly taught to write, remember? — but essentially, what you had here was a sort of classical version of Sex and the City, in which women could let their hair down and get in touch with their inner inappropriately sassy babe: The remains [of the piglet] were thought to have magic properties and, if mixed with cereal seeds and sown in the fields, to ensure a good crop. These procedures brought the women into contact with death and decay: this was the subterranean element in the cult. But it also brought them into contact with fertility and the erotic, via the dough models.
  • …oh, and the pig thing? When Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the ‘swine of the pigman Eubulis’ somehow disappeared into the earth with her. Because ancient Greece. The more you know.
  • Incidentally, about Stonehenge: the official website would like you to be aware that it — or actually they, what you’re looking at is actually three of them, built over a millennia on the same site — was actually pretty damn impressive, thank you very much. Thirty million man-hours’ worth of construction is not hay. The website is surprisingly tactful on the subject of its purpose, but it’s generally believed to have involved some sort of monumental or religious significance, because duh.
 
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Posted by on June 10, 2013 in Series Three

 

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