S03E13: Savage Songs

16 Jun

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

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.


Posted by on June 16, 2013 in Series Three


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6 responses to “S03E13: Savage Songs

  1. Traxy

    June 17, 2013 at 8:02 am

    “William, Richard, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John — Oi!” Wait a minute … The first Richard should be a William. (WWHSHRJ) … Unless you did that totally deliberately just to see who’s paying attention. 😉

    Anyhoo, s3 has some standout songs, that’s for sure. S4 isn’t so bad. So far with s5, it feels a bit hit and miss. Some I freakin’ LOVE, others are just … utterly meh.

    Have you heard anything about s5 supposedly being the final series? I read “5th and final series” when checking something on Wikipedia, but I haven’t seen anything to confirm or deny that statement. Well, except for perhaps “Will” and the Sky comedy show. They should at least do a 6th series as well … because two series’ worth of songs tend to fit nicely on one CD. *cough*

    • Miss Amanda

      June 17, 2013 at 10:05 am

      Agreed on S5’s songs…out of seven so far, I only wanted to listen to two of them again. Might just be me. Hoping the musical numbers of S5 get better…

      An August 2012 article on the British Comedy Guide stated that HH had been commissioned for a 6th series (while the 5th was in production). Rumours about the 5th series being the last one have been circulating on Twitter for months too.

      Was glad to hear that the core troupe will be working on future projects (Yonderland/Bill) together, though 🙂

      • Shoebox

        June 17, 2013 at 11:43 am

        “William, Richard, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John — Oi!” Wait a minute … The first Richard should be a William. (WWHSHRJ) … Unless you did that totally deliberately just to see who’s paying attention.”

        Erm… yes. Let’s go with that. And now that you’ve noticed, I guess I have no choice but to fix it. *ahem*.

        I truly hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it was confirmed by producer and cast at the BFI premiere that Series Five will in fact be the last, excepting a couple specials next year. The BBC has very likely offered them as many series as they want, but they feel like they’re running out of usable historical anecdotes — and have always maintained that the idea was to go out while the show was still popular. (And, I suspect, before the troupe became too busy and/or expensive to keep together.)

        That said, they do still very much think of themselves as a troupe — in Mat’s words, “We couldn’t bear the idea of not working together anymore” — hence “Yonderland” and the Shakespeare movie. So the future still looks very bright, if not precisely musical. 🙂

        As for the Series 5 songs… the first draft of this piece actually included a line about how starting in S4 it became much more about cleverly matching the genre, rather than the actual songwriting, and I think that trend has only intensified in S5. They’re wonderful little YouTube setpieces, absolutely dazzlingly creative… but save for Rosa Parks, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out the mp3s anywhere near as eagerly.

      • Kate

        June 17, 2013 at 7:52 pm

        Out of seven so far, I only wanted to listen to two of them again.

        Me too. In my case, it was Owain Glendwr and the Crassus Rap.
        I could listen to Jim being Tom Jones for ages and the rap is a lot of fun but none of the others really caught my attention.
        The Rosa Parks song is good technically but I just don’t happen to really like that genre of music and everything else so far has been too bland.

        Series three and four were the peak for songs and probably for the series in general (come to think of it, Harry Potter peaked with books three and four as well). I’m enjoying series five but I don’t think anything in it is going to bump any of my current favourites down the list.

  2. Miss Amanda

    June 17, 2013 at 9:39 am

    For a while, Series Three has been my favourite of all the series of Horrible Histories, and I think it may have had a lot to do with the musical numbers (and the Aztec sketches…)

    The Kings and Queens song will always be amazing. And it’s so darned catchy, it’ll probably stick with me for years.

    I like most of the songs from series 3, with the exception of the Stone Age song (I hate scat jazz, no matter how good Mat is at performing this genre), and Work, Terrible Work! (the most musically exciting bit for me here was when Mat and Larry sang harmonies at the start). I wish Evil Emperors had been in this compilation special…

    • Shoebox

      June 17, 2013 at 11:49 am

      I wish the Evil Emperors had been there too. Granted, by all the more important sociological markers the song selection here was impeccable… but they were so much *fun*, and much more effective in getting that point across than a few of their more earnest contemporaries. 🙂


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