Well, do tuck in, Mr. Ambassador!
Aren’t you going to say grace first?
Oh — yes. *folds hands reverently* Party. On.
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)
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!”)
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.”)
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.
Charles II at Home — Which at mealtimes he just happens to share with an entire gallery-full of his closest random subjects…
- 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.
- 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.