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)
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!”
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.”
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.”
(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!”
- 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*
- 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…