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Monthly Archives: July 2013

S04E08

*SPLAT*
Only think, my son: the gods have chosen you to receive this divine message. Perhaps this bird brings tidings of great joy — or of a future love! Perhaps you have been singled out for greatness…!
Or perhaps the gods want us to stop standing under trees full of doves!
*SPLAT*
Yeah, could be that too…

Ever wonder what might have been had the show skipped over all those carefully-considered creative strides toward cross-demographic subtlety and just upgraded Series One to PG-13 instead? Well…

In this episode:

Song: Luddites! — Proletariat punk rockers Jim, Mat, Simon and Larry channel the original rage against the machine.

Recurring sketches:

Wonders of the Viking Universe — “What we Vikings don’t know about the universe isn’t worth knowing! …And we also know that it rests in the branches of an enormous tree called Yggdrasil! Amazing!” “Brian… stick to the script, yeah?”

Historical Dating Service — Viking warrior seeks a wife… and may have found one right there in the office. (“Now, how much will your father want for you?” “Oh, Sally’s cheap as chips. In fact, for two bags of chips, you could probably marry Sal and her sister!” “Hum. Nice deal. Well, I must go and fetch the goat…”)

Computer Game: Scorpus Chariot Racer! — “Yeah, green’s good… although red doesn’t show up your opponents’ blood so much!”

Stupid Deaths — Richard the Lionheart (Hit with a child defender’s arrow while distracted by the grownups’ comic efforts at defense, and… “Wait, you went into battle without wearing armour?” “Oh, totes! It’s how I roll!”)

Historical Apprentice — crop-rotation pioneer Viscount ‘Turnip’ Townshend and his Team Whig -vs- the random peasants on Team Go Wurzel (“I’m a Georgian gent, I never get my hands dirty. I’m more the ‘ideas’ person.” “Yeh, and I’m the ‘do the actual work’ person!”)

Shouty Man — New! Ancient Greek Tattoo Messenger (“Simply shave the head of your most trusted slave, then tattoo the message directly onto his skull… wait for his hair to grow back, and voila! The messaging system that’s ‘hair’ today, but not gone tomorrow! …or something.”)

Historical Dentist — Tudor (“You’re not going to put that poo into my mouth?!” “Don’t be ridiculous! In order to be effective, it must be your own poo. Ah, I don’t suppose you feel like –” “Not a chance, mate.”)

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Disastrous Relief — After the Great Fire of Rome, Emperor Nero tours the devastation… which goes about as well as you’d expect. (“But Emperor, our lives have been destroyed! You have to do something for us!” “And so I shall! I promise you that I will not rest, until there is a thirty-five-foot bronze statue of me just — there! How do you think I should pose? Grapes, or no grapes?”)

Nasty Knights

Here There Be Monsters — A Crusader prepares the new recruits for the exotic fauna they might encounter in the Holy Land and OHAI MP’S ‘SELF-DEFENSE AGAINST FRESH FRUIT’ SKETCH DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE. (“What about the one-legged Cyclops?! What’ll you do then, hey?! — Too slow!! You think that slow, and he will dance on your grave — “ “Hop.” “Hop on your grave!!!”)

New! Mellified Man — A mummy in honey that’s yummy! “Want a great way to start their day? Give them the finest delicacy of modern Arabia! Chunks of real honey-soaked hundred-year-old dead person!”

Groovy Greeks

Winged Messengers — One thing about birds as divine symbols, they’re not subtle. At all. “Look, a dove! Tell us Aphrodite’s bidding, O White-Winged One!” *SPLAT!* “A blessing!” “Easy for you to say, you don’t have poo on your shoulder!”

Terrible Tudors

HHTV News: Behind the Throne — Profiling Sir Thomas Heneage, Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool. Let’s just say, when historians speak of the position’s unprecedented access to the King, they were so not exaggerating.

Field Notes:

  • Right, so it turns out the Samuel L. Jackson pastiche was merely the beginning of the gleeful grossology update; in other words, it was already clear that the HH crew are past caring about any Carthaginian demographic barriers, and this is where we find out just how far. Spoiler: somewhere just barely south of the post-10PM programming watershed.
  • Which I… did not strictly consider necessary to my viewing happiness, but can sympathise. It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when a children’s edutainment series has patiently worked its way to grownup creative respectability, the creators thereof are entitled to have a bit of fun. At least, this is what I keep telling myself. Along with the occasional “well, at least they’re not actually sitting on the toilet this time… much…”
  • So what the hey, let’s patch together a half-hour kiddy gigglefest out of — among other things — Henry VIII’s bowel movements, mummies for breakfast, Historical Dentists with S&M fetishes and finding out exactly how desperate the Historical Dating Service tarts are! Oh, and of course a Sex Pistols-inspired song. Because education, or whatever it is that makes the BBC feel better about lyrics like “smash my switch up!”
  • It really is educational, though… the song, that is. (We’ll get to the mummies later.) Also, a job lot of satisfyingly clever fun. It’s so fundamentally logical, and universal, a subject/genre parody mashup that this team basically could not possibly screw it up, either production or performance. Once the connection was made, the only thing left to do was get out of the way and let the gang have at it…
  • …possibly after purchasing some additional insurance on ersatz Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, there. Giving Jim and Mat full licence to lose all inhibitions is not only as brilliantly, authentically entertaining as you’d expect, but also as you’d expect comes with bonus hilarity in the form of Jim’s subsequent Twitter account of having ‘nearly killed Mat and a crewmember’ with that staff.
  • Mind you, it’s not all about the rowdy stuff. There is still Historical Apprentice, once again starring Chris Addison and what I think we can safely now dub his thing for flouncy wigs. At any rate, as the wigs have gotten bigger — and, OK, his time spent hanging out-on set presumably increased — his confidence has noticeably expanded, to the point where he’s a genuine addition to the HH house style. (Check out the grin on ‘I’m a gent’, especially.) It’s a real shame it turns out to be one of those classic ‘finally gets it just as he has to go’ moments.
  • As a sendoff, though, it definitely makes the most of the trip. Leave it to HH to turn a sketch literally all about crop rotation into one of the flat-out funniest, most engaging of the series — largely because the slightness of the subject serves to allow Larry, Mat and Greg J. all to demonstrate just how adept they’ve become at filling in the odd comedy corners. The first two are of course old hands at the hilarious idiot game, but you especially have to love Greg, totally unable to keep his own intelligent interest from shining through the mute pitchfork-toting peasant.
  • Meantime Jim is still doing a great job of being Donald Trump Except Non-Ironically Entertaining — seriously, if the real-life Lord Sugar also does things like insist the Queen produce her birth certificate to prove she’s not one of the Lizard People, I don’t want to know, OK? The guy’s really starting to grow on me. As is his assistant Martha.
  • His assistant Lawry, on the other hand, is really starting to make me want a shower. And then I got to the Historical Dentist bit, and… well, look, let me stress the good news: as Not Brian Cox, he now has the wide-eyed idiot child of the universe thing about nailed, which makes me very happy — despite a severely ironic lack of fact-checking (see below). That said, there is not enough brain bleach in the whole amazingly vast universe to make me comfortable with inviting him into my imagination to explore feces-related fun and games.
  • I am less viscerally panicked by Sarah frolicking merrily amid the sadistic undercurrents, because for better or worse my brain accepts and even respects this as the natural level-up of her S1 persona… but I still had to construct an entire little fantasy around Civilian Simon and his de-fluffed hair, and how it clearly responds to his moods, to feel properly clean again. To top it all off, incipient obsession with this or no, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the patient would more naturally have been Ben.
  • I’m better with Simon driving the chariot; that sketch could use a dash of unexpected fun, given that it’s otherwise expecting to earn same from pretty much your average PlayStation experience (and, OK, ‘Dobbinus’. Heh…). Granted this isn’t going to hurt its coolness factor any with small audiences — and at this point, it’s almost reassuring to have evidence that we’re still thinking about the small audiences — but mere random brutish violence, in the gaming world, does not a viable parody make.
  • It does however make a dependably great Viking parody, which just about manages to save me from questioning why the HDating Service exists in the first place. Along with my other theory, which involves the producers creating a sort of playroom for the HH cast’s domestic whims — a chance to hang out with Mat’s adorable baby, for Martha and Dominique to whoop it up, for Simon to pillage stuff, whatever. It’s all very ‘women’s programming’, only in this case the man is literally a big dumb insensitive brute with only one thing on his mind.
  • This would be an excellent time for my usual rant re: Scandinavian accents, except that it’s also time to kick off the short-but-fabulously memorable career of our final major royal character, Richard I Lionheart, and in-between the mad snickering it occurs to me that I am a total linguistic hypocrite. Because reality dictates that the uber-English legend of countless Robin Hood movies is here played by Mat in full mock-Gallic magnificence…
  • …also an arrow stuck under his armpit, kind of embarrassing that. Even with their full rich schedule of simulating fresh scalp tattoos, you’d think the f/x crew could’ve glued a suction tip on the fly.
  • Nevertheless, Richard’s Stupid Death manages for once to upstage Death’s surreal antics (although the random mummy-motivating campaign sure doesn’t hurt). The really impressive part, in fact, is the unexpected coda, and more specifically Death demonstrating he knows when to turn it off. Right in the middle of all the enthusiastic ickiness, the perfectly-judged comic maturity here might be one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen on the show — and it says something about their newfound confidence that they’d even try.
  • Shouty Man with new! bonus afro and tiara, on the other hand, slightly less with the endearing. I like Shouty a lot, but this does not mean I was prepared for a glimpse into what happens when Jim not only gets bored, but apparently starts reading TMZ.
  • I am more solidly enchanted with his product concept. I don’t care how formulaic the gags for your history lesson are, if the formula was first concocted for the Flintstones — and is currently being executed by Mat and his grasp of the ridiculous — you’re pretty well covered in the random hilarity department. Kind of a shame they missed their chance at the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (or possibly Waterworld) gags, though.
  • Speaking of unsettling Howick-ness… Jim’s Nero has officially joined Ben’s Henry VIII in the Could Pass in a Serious Drama stakes. I am still giggling every second the vile sociopath’s onscreen, and still hating myself for it in the morning — even the ‘Hail me!’ bit, which I think itself actually dates back to the Roman era. Clearly I have no shame… albeit in my defense, Jim is trying on the aristocratic lisp that Caligula’s been modelling for awhile now, except working off Mat’s version rather than Simon’s, and so ends up declaiming that “I will not rust…!”
  • Another way you can tell this is a straight S1 update: Python influence bunged in wholesale. Seriously, the MP influence hasn’t been this obvious for awhile… luckily the the producers’ taste in inspirational sketches is as, well, inspired as ever, and so is Jalaal’s and Larry’s timing. Jim, meanwhile, is making about as impressive a Drill Sergeant Nasty as you’d expect… which actually works well as an oddball stand-in for Cleese’s full-on insane, under the circs. Like heading around in the opposite direction to achieve the same comic results.
  • There’s more exquisitely Pythonic goodness in the ‘Winged Messengers’ bit. Easily one of the slightest excuses for a sketch in the entire canon, but so worth it just to see Simon and Mat’s respective interpretations of ‘beatific’. Again, sort of disappointed they didn’t go for Ben here — since part of me can’t help but envision a smartly wicked riff on ‘Baybond’ — but I’ll take what I can get, especially when it’s “Maybe the gods want us to stand over there…?”
  • We do eventually get mondo Benjamin in the Henry VIII sketch, which is nice. So is Jim’s chipper devoted act, which really sells the outrageous premise, and Sarah, doing the best she can as Alice’s replacement brunette newsbimbo despite not having much indignation to stand on after that HDentist bit. Otherwise… yeah, again, the toilet sketches aren’t my thing, and so a tactful veil will be drawn over further comment. Except, maybe, to offer a hug to poor dear Jim. It’s a hell of a way to win comedy awards, isn’t it?

95% Accu-rat:

  • I did get a little distracted by the unusually blatant goofs in the Viking Universe sketch — blatant enough, in fact, that I gather they may have been fixed on the DVD. In the original broadcast (of which I have the iPlayer recording), the Gorgeous Viking Scientist accidentally makes himself look not only mad, but frankly like he bought his diploma from a random guy — or possibly a talking rat — wearing a horned helmet at ComicCon. Protip: Loki is Odin’s son only in the Marvel Asgard, kids. And the ‘six-legged’ horse he gave birth to… well, why don’t we have Wiki explain it all:
  • In Norse mythology, Loki, Loptr, or Hveðrungr is a god or jötunn (or both). Loki is the son of Fárbauti and Laufey, and the brother of Helblindi and Býleistr. By the jötunn Angrboða, Loki is the father of Hel, the wolf Fenrir, and the world serpent Jörmungandr. By his wife Sigyn, Loki is the father of Narfi and/or Nari. And by the stallion Svaðilfari, Loki is the mother—giving birth in the form of a mare—to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir. In addition, Loki is referred to as the father of Váli in the Prose Edda.
  • …Amazing, isn’t it?
  • So of course is the Mellified Man, and not only because it stuns the rat into complete disgust only an episode or two after confessing to adore ‘rotten seafood sick’… and no, I don’t plan on letting that go anytime soon. Anyway, I’m sure we’ll all be most pleased — and not a bit surprised — to learn that ‘honey-soaked dead guy’ as medical aid may not have been an actual thing.
  • While honey’s uniquely limitless shelf-life could theoretically make it happen (still-edible traces of the sweet goop have been found all over the ancient world, including in some coffins) there’s very little hard evidence that it actually did, in medieval Arabia. The concept was recorded as a secondhand rumour by a 16th century Chinese pharmacologist, who noted that it even if true, it was considered a rare and exotic, uh, delicacy.
  • But wait, there’s more! The really fun part is, in the course of researching, I noticed the Wiki article has a section on ‘Similar Medical Practices’. To wit:
  • …the medicinal use of mummies, and the sale of fake ones, is “well documented” in chemistry books of 16th to 18th centuries in Europe, “but nowhere outside Arabia were the corpses volunteers”. Mummies were a common ingredient in the Middle Ages until at least the eighteenth century, and not only as medicine, but as fertilizers and even as paint. The use of corpses and body parts as medicine goes far back—in the Roman Empire the blood of dead gladiators was used as treatment for epilepsy.
  • Yep, the afterlife really could be only the beginning of your great adventure… only quite possibly not the one you were expecting. Makes the whole rest of the business with the poo and mouse parts and whatnot seem almost quaintly charming, doesn’t it?
  • Meantime, I am deeply saddened to report that tattooing random slaves did not, in fact, catch on as the text-messaging equivalent of ancient Greece. The good news is, though, that the facts as recorded here are still substantially correct. According to contemporary historian Herodotus, the whole thing was a sort of last-ditch inspiration by ancient POW Histiaeus of Miletus, who had to convince the slave in question that it would ‘help his failing eyesight’ in order to get him to submit to the procedure.
  • At any rate, the whole thing worked like a charm, the rebellion was a success and Histiaeus was freed. History doesn’t actually record what happened re: the slave’s eyesight, but I like to think he got many free rounds out of the story anyway, down at the Grecian equivalent of the pub.
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Posted by on July 30, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E07

Napoleon HATED losing… which is a shame, ‘cos he was really rather good at it.

A deeply pleasing romp that meshes the new sophistication with all the surefire classics: decadence, corruption, incompetence, famine and slaughter…with just a dash of desperately adorable.

In this episode:

Song: The Blue-Blooded Blues — Stuart monarchs Robert III [Ben], James VI/I [Mat] and Mary, Queen of Scots [Martha] lament their legendarily ill-fated dynasty.

Recurring sketches:

HHTV Sport — Live from Napoleon’s match against chess-playing automaton the ‘Mechanical Turk’, Vienna, 1809 (“The mechanical Turk’s face is giving nothing away! …Largely because it doesn’t move!”)

Dodgy Inventions — No.84: The Bessemer Anti-Seasickness Ship (That moment you realise you’ve spent so much time stabilizing your passenger liner that you forgot to upgrade the steering… that moment in this case being about two seconds off the Calais pier)

Shouty Man — New! Always-Current Emperor Statue (“Warrior Emperor replaced by a bookworm? No problem! Just replace his spear-holding hand with a book-holding one! Whoa! He looks more cleverer already!!”)

Historical Dating Service — James Hamilton, Earl Arran, Regent for the infant Mary Queen of Scots, seeks a replacement groom for Edward VI of England… yep, son of Henry VIII. Who isn’t taking it well. (“Right! We can do this the easy way, or the hard way! *praying* Pleeeeeease say the hard way, oh please please please…”)

Historical Masterchef —  WWII Berlin (“This competition is going to be waaaaaarrrrrr!” “…No offense to anyone who’s been in an actual war.”)

Stupid Deaths — Richard the Raker (Gong farmer drowns in it…on his day off… in his own outhouse. “And I don’t even have a mop… *eyes dark-haired skeleton speculatively* “…listen, you wouldn’t mind if I flipped you upside-down, and used you, would you — Oh! After all I’ve done for you, too!”)

One-offs:

Gorgeous Georgians

Le Survival Guide — Live… as much as they ever are, in these things… from Napoleon’s disastrous campaign into Moscow. “One quarter of all casualties in ze French army are shot by zere own side! Not Cool!”

Napoleon’s Final Battle (movie trailer) — In which the Emperor’s own personal Waterloo prevents him from getting on his horse just before… the actual Waterloo. Awkward. (“But sir, wizhout your tactical genius we will be defeated! Ze Prussians are attacking our rear!” “Would you please not mention rear!“)

Vile Victorians

Fashion Follies — Victorian England: redefining unnecessary and impractical as the height of civilization since 1837.

Rotten Romans

Hail Emperor… Hoo-ever — The Praetorian Guard, elite Imperial bodyguard, turn out to be much better at saluting than actual bodyguarding… and let’s just say they’re not very good at saluting. (“Shouldn’t we be off avenging Emperor Galba’s death?” “Well, not so much, it was us Praetorians what killed him, bit embarrassing I know, but let’s move on…”)

Woeful Second World War

MI5: Whatever It Takes — “You’re not seriously suggesting that a dead tramp could do a better job than me, sir?!” “Well, he is very good at keeping secrets… and look at that stiff upper lip!” “That’s rigor mortis!”

Measly Middle Ages

An Execution in Winter — No, not an angsty Swedish metaphor, an actual execution in medieval Yorkshire. And if you’re wondering where the winter comes in, you’ve really not been paying enough attention. “When you’re done, can we borrow your head for our snowman?” “Ah — yeah, sure, why not. I won’t be using it…”

Field Notes:

  • Hello and welcome to Part II of the Lure ‘Em in With Funny, Finish ‘Em off With Cute strategy the show has adopted as (I’m assuming) a fun diversion on its way to conquering the universe, or at least making Mathew Baynton a breakout comedy star.
  • This is why I tend not to worry much over ‘Not enough Mat in S5!’: As you may have noticed by now, S4 could’ve been subtitled The Baynton Experience with no fear of overkill. It tapers off over the second half (to make room largely for Farnaby’s Great Adventures in Leading Manhood), but not before those cunning shameless bastards went so far, for the new Historical Dating bit, as to dress Mat up in Stuart-era velvets, give him a Scots accent, and then plonk his son onto his lap.
  • Oh sure, they gave it the fig leaf of a legitimate sketch, including Martha and Dominique having a ball as the office tarts, and even some Surprise!Henry VIII… all of which barely interrupts Baby Baynton’s full rich program of sucking his bonnet strings and having closeups. (Clearly, equanimity in the face of surreal silliness is hereditary). He and Daddy have come to find a date and launch Adorageddon, and the whole point of the sketch is that the date isn’t happening.
  • This particular Very Special Guest was not broadcast abroad beforehand, but confirmed in a prideful tweet from Dad after airing; sweet but wholly un-necessary, because mini-Mat — properly Bo — also has his father’s eyes. Yep, the same enormous, expressive peepers teenage girls routinely giggle about eating, on account of they look like glossy dark chocolates. This, on a six-months-or-so baby. Not even potty-trained and already he’s won the genetic lottery.
  • Of course, he’s also wearing a tiara. However the potential scars inflicted by beautiful women calling him ‘clever little Queenie’ are still years in the future, and meanwhile there are YouTube squeals to be harvested, damnit. Being a childless critic with an Anne Geddes allergy, I hauled in Mum to confirm the effectiveness of this ploy, which she happily did. Albeit she seemed even more interested in how Scots Mat ‘sounds kind of like George Harrison’. Make of it what you will.
  • This all happens somewhere in the middle of an already unusually lively episode, under the new ‘Shocking Scotland’ banner — which somehow wasn’t a thing until after Simon in tights, but OK. At least finally they’ve gotten around seriously to Mary Queen of Scots… sort of. Ambitions being what they are this series, we’re treated to the bluesy woes of not one Stuart monarch, but the whole damn dysfunctional dynasty, as retold by three of its most famously inept members making like Soul Train while wearing the very pinnacle of poufy royal robes.
  • This is… kind of endearingly critic-proof, honestly. Watching episodes for review often means I accidentally pause on some truly great, goofy bits of business and/or expressions… let’s just say that the ones I got on this video, and consistently, convinced me that what we have here is the ‘Evil Emperors’ of S4.
  • Even Ben — already smartly coping with a rare vocal lead by stripping the homicidal glee off his William Wallace — can’t really screw up choreography that amounts to ‘act really foolish’… much, anyway. Mind you, Mat and Martha don’t exactly get away with it either — and on the evidence, no-one really expected to. (Except possibly the songwriters, who do throw in a few great authentic lines, up to and including ‘Left with a limp/And limp was what they called ma rule!”)
  • On the opposite end of the sophistication scale, as ever, we find HMasterchef: Aaaand the reality-TV parody darts get ever-sharper. (“What’s duck normally made from?” being a bullseye, double if you count Ben giving him That Look.) Besides which the writers evidently took valuable notes from Martha’s segment last series, esp her interaction with Ben, and the result is very similarly engaging. Seems like because they don’t really have a flamboyant character type for her to be, they default to giving her the fascinating factoids instead. I approve of this, on all the levels.
  • I have no firm sociological basis for enjoying Greg randomly flirting with a bewildered Saxon Larry in the background, but schwing. This is something they’ve been building up some while now, likely since the director noticed Jim being bored just on the margins of his viewfinder, and wisely went for the ‘Is he really…?!” payoff…
  • …sort of the same way Death in the flowered apron pays off. Let me just repeat that: Death, who’s been dancing on the verge of fussy bourgeois delirium since S2, is now having a full-blown existential crisis in a flowered apron and ‘Alpine Meadow’ house spray. As motivated by Larry making his annual debut as a poopsicle. Frankly, I’m not sure how they found a point in going on with the SDs after this (although it does neatly serve as the saving inspiration for the Halloween special). All I know is that upon first viewing I had the urge simply to go lay down with a beatific smile on my face, as of a comedy fan utterly completed…
  • But not for long!… heh, *ahem*. Unconsciousness would interfere with full appreciation of my New Official Favourite HH Sketch Ever, No Really I Mean It This Time, the perfectly-executed Manly-Man’s pep-talk parody that is the ‘Praetorian Bodyguards’ bit. Although I have a feeling that the overall oddball glory that is Simon — here seen just beginning to realise the full possibilities of his expanded onscreen time — might in fact be capable of rousing people out of comas.
  • Certainly the timing he shares with Jalaal has edge enough to poke them with. Unexpected bonus consequence of the ‘weirdly missing Willbond’ saga: I think Farnaby might have found a real friend for crazytimes at last. Or maybe it’s just that Jalaal’s not as used to ducking out of ol’Dandelion Head’s way as the regular troupe is. Either way, I’m impressed.
  • None of the above, mind, is to suggest the chemistry Farnaby and Willbond share is any less special… in fact, hey, two classic Ben/Simon bits in one series?! And in this one Ben is doing full-on James Bond suave, with a pipe and everything? Show, I… I don’t know what to say. I am the honestly grateful recipient of your No Cynic Left Behind initiative, and succumb happily to the adorableness without a backward glance.
  • These two continue to serve as proof that the HH writer’s room is prey to those urges to be the next Noel Coward that come over all of us scribblers occasionally. Only in their case they have real-world access to their daydream perfect cast. Ben particularly is absolutely revelling in the chance at a literal MI5 agent… substitute cigarettes for the pipe and he makes a good case for his Bondian dreams, honestly. Only a comedian in a thousand could’ve resisted the urge to overplay that ‘stiff upper lip!’ crack.
  • Right, so the only way poor Jim’s going to get a look-in at all these shenanigans and goings-on is to, I don’t know, play Napoleon or something!… OK, you try coming up with witty segues on a regular basis, O Clever Reader.
  • At any rate, yes, between Mary QofC and Le Petit Caporal this turns out to be a pretty big episode for catching up with obviously Horrible types we should’ve heard from long since… oh wait, we already heard from Napoleon in S1, didn’t we? Come to consider it, Larry even made a cute cameo there, too, and… right, it’s probably not a co-incidence that in his cute cameo here, Larry barely speaks at all.
  • However. This is the new and exciting HH era of comic maturity… you can tell, because whereas civilian Larry used to be stuck in the HHospital, he’s now a chess grandmaster, erm, stuck in an automaton. (The whole episode is a throwback to the early days of random Rickardian cameos, wherein he merely lurked about being redheaded and having possibilities. Decent nostalgia value.)
  • So what with that, and Jim having thankfully dialed back the ridiculous Eye-talian — besides Mat taking his Gallic ever further in the opposite direction — all the French sketches still turn out to be totally predictable, but a fair amount of fun regardless. Or in other words, yes, we’ve reached the point in HH history where they’re covering the horrific details of a Russian winter campaign that brutally killed one in five poor unprepared schmucks, and I’m all “What, AGAIN?… OK, as long as there’s properly cute accents!”
  • I do enjoy how they turned the short jokes into a teachable moment, though. And it’s a nice chance to show off the new and gorgeous production values, esp the mechanical Turk — albeit hopefully they stuffed that dead-eyed homunculus back into the creepy cobweb-laden closet from which I’m assuming he was found, before people start falling to suitably ironic historical punishments or some…
  • …Whoops, sorry, phobia getting the best of me there. *ahem* The elaborately gilded titles do however come off here as genuinely witty… and all those fully functional battlefield extras for the one short bit! We are living the high life.
  • …Erm, and so quite possibly is Shouty Man, if the drift is clear. Sure, in reality it’s only that Jim’s gotten a bit bored with the standard intro… and/or it might’ve been just a tad bit too long since that same lad had some nice juicy Roman decadence to chew on. Thing is — specially right after listening to the Praetorian Guard run down their win-loss record —  the product itself seems no more than an eminently sensible and practical idea, so the New! Extra Crazy Eyes schtick still comes off as if Shouty’s on the BC equivalent of crystal meth.
  • We close with one last look at the many uniquely engaging facets of Mathew Baynton… well, one-and-a-half if you count how he goes from unrepentant deserter in one French sketch to Imperial aide in the next. The melodramatic scaffold stuff in the ‘Execution in Winter’ bit is awfully hard to top, though — no really, that’s an impressive bit of real acting he’s doing there, and frankly it deserved real snowballs… wait, that doesn’t sound right. It does seem like actual snowballs would’ve been a bit less painful — gotta love the way these fakes audibly *clonk* off the performers, though. It only adds to the tiny perfect surreal vibe.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, so the short version of Mary QofS‘ turbulent toddlerhood, or the long version of why she really should have a heavy French accent, not Scottish…
  • As per the song, it turns out Charles II’s ancestors were not precisely native-born party people. (He seems to have picked that up during his long exile in France.) The prior Stuarts, definitely including Mary, seem to have been prone to what we’d likely consider a form of bipolar disorder… as per Mary’s dad, James V, who upon his defeat at Solway Moss quite literally lay down and died. Even the news of his daughter’s birth couldn’t penetrate his fatal cloud of doom: “Ach, it [the Stuart dynasty] came with a lass, it will go out with a lass,” he muttered.
  • Things didn’t get a whole whackload better once the Regency kicked in; by delightful coincidence, he subdued manner Bo’s dad adopts here to avoid startling him actually fits the character of Mary’s cousin James Hamilton perfectly. In contrast to the legendarily tough Scots nobles around him, Earl Arran was renowned as a weak, emotionally unstable man, who was in reality opposed to the English match mostly because he was at this point pushing for a betrothal between Mary and his son — who later went actually mad.
  • Of course, the whole thing with the Scots nobles not wanting to be mere vassals of their hated enemies, that happened too. They decided (well, Arran ‘decided’ at the point of a sword, but close enough) they’d far rather throw in with their ancient — and comfortably Catholic — allies, the French. Which as you can imagine is what really cheesed Henry VIII off. In response to the Scots moving their little queen to a heavily-fortified castle, Henry launched his promised invasion, which he’d dubbed “The Rough Wooing”… then no doubt spent a solid week forcing every courtier in bellowing range to compliment him on his wit.
  • Luckily, Mary’s mom — who now took over the Scots regency — was Marie de Guise, and her French noble family was as famous for not putting up with any of this kind of crap as the Stuarts and Henry both were for dishing it out. Long story short, when it became clear the invasion was about to succeed she pulled some strings back home. The French King Henry II not only graciously agreed to a betrothal between little Mary — by now age five — and the equally tiny Dauphin Francis, he invited Mary to be raised within the French royal household. For the next thirteen years.
  • …So yes, the adult Mary Queen of Scots in real life was strikingly tall — about five-foot-eleven — fair, beautiful, notoriously charming if not actually seductive… and spoke with a strong French accent. Her native language was something she had to painstakingly relearn upon her return.
  • Oh, and again with the ‘Liz is a Tudor, so she must automatically want to chop heads!’ stuff… *sigh* — the real Mary’d be much more concerned that Liz was a Protestant, on account of it was all the plotting with disaffected Catholics that ultimately led to Mary’s beheading.
  • I had thought there was another small pronunciation kerfuffle in the Praetorian Guards bit, given the emperor in question spelled it Otho, not Otto. And am still a little sceptical of Simon’s unfettered flights of linguistic fancy, but according to Greg J. it apparently is pronounced to sound like ‘Otto’, thus I must invoke the cardinal rule around here: don’t argue with the man who reads history books for a living.
  • Vive l’Empereur! Napoleon is 100% accu-rat — he was in reality fairly average physically. He also did suffer painful piles — although it’s debateable just how much they had to do with his downfall; at any rate, there were a lot of other French things wrong at Waterloo.
  • His Majesty’s imposing presence came mainly from his obvious genius as a military leader and tactician; it was said that his troops went into battle already believing they’d won, and mostly they did. Also excepting the whole Moscow thing of course; you’ll be amazed to learn they actually made it into the Russian capital, six agonizing months later… only to discover that the Russians had long since already evacuated the city, and frankly Napoleon had to hustle his sore butt back to Paris ASAP to make sure he wasn’t deposed or invaded himself over it all.
  • Incidentally, the sketch somehow manages to leave out the extraordinary initial rationale for this whole fiasco: to compel Tsar Alexander I to remain in the ‘Continental Blockade’, ie. Napoleon’s grand plan for forcing the UK and Ireland to their knees. So basically you lot have been frustrating the empire-building plans of megalomaniacal dictators for fully two hundred years now, and frankly I’m impressed.
 
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Posted by on July 19, 2013 in Series Four

 

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Meta-stuff: So long, and thanks for all the… historical fish?

So I was paging through this blog last night, trying to figure out how I could possibly say thanks and goodbye…

And then it occurred to me: I write a damn Horrible Histories review blog. Episode by episode, for nearly a year now.

Believe me, I’ve asked myself why many times. And the reason always comes back: because this is one small corner of the media universe that works the way it’s supposed to.

The Horrible Histories production team, crew and cast have managed for five years now to make a children’s edutainment series that adults can not only enjoy but respect. It’s so obvious a received truth by now that it’s easy to overlook what a really extraordinary achievement that is. Not only how much talent, wit and cleverness but utter decency and generosity it involves.

This is media experience as proposed by Wodehouse, or maybe Thurber. There isn’t anything quite like it, and there probably never will be again. And so it’s right to be sad that it’s ending. But it’s even more right to be glad that it happened, and that in some very important respects it’s merely going forward to new heights.

Caroline, Greg, Simon, Ben, Jim, Mat, Larry, Martha and the rest — yep, even Lawry!— thanks, from my heart, for all you’ve done and will do. As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, it was appreciated.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2013 in Meta-stuff

 

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S04E06

They beat [Becket] to death on the altar of Canterbury Cathedral! The holiest place in the whole of England!
I said I’m sorry…
Are we gonna do this now, Reg?
Yes, but I —
NO. Shush.

That moment at the midpoint of every HH series, in which, having conquered the heights of audacity, the show takes the opportunity to thoroughly enjoy the view…

In this episode:

Song: Victoria & Albert: A Love Ballad — Martha and Jim as the nineteenth-century’s ultimate celebrity couple.

Recurring sketches:

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Leif Ericsson Project (“Are you saying you discovered America before Christopher Columbus?” “Is this a fantasy film?” “Ooh! Are you Conan the Barbarian?!”)

HHTV News: Royalty Today — Live from Henry II’s pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, 1174 (“Is this some sort of initiative to make the Royal Family seem more down-to-earth? If so, I think you may have taken it a bit too far…!” “It’s penance. For I have done a terrible thing — well, if you include the terrible thing I did on the road near Gillingham, two terrible things…”)

Court of Historical Law — Tsar(evich) Peter III -vs- the rat who nibbled his toy soldiers (“… assuming you are a rat, and zat is not an elaborate disguise!” “Er… sorry, what would disguise itself as a rat?” “A mouse! With delusions of grandeur!” “…Good point.”)

Stupid Deaths — Hannah Twynnoy, Georgian barmaid (Thought it would be hilarious to repeatedly poke a menagerie tiger with a stick, thus becoming the first person in Britain to be killed by one. “Ooh, hey — Stupid Deaths are grrrrrr-eat! You know, like the tiger does in the advert?… *to mummy* Whaddaya mean, that joke’s a bit dated? Look who’s talking!”)

One-offs:

Potty Pioneers

Columbus (sic) Finds India (sic) — “Can’t you just admit for once that you’re wrong!?” “NEVER! I am Captain Christopher Columbus, the finest sailor and navigator on the planet, and if I go looking for India, India is what I find! Good day! “ “…Door’s over there.” “I know that. It’s my cabin.”

Measly Middle Ages

Cash My Sin — “Call 0-800-I’VE-BEEN-NAUGHTY now! It’s easy! It’s great value! And what’s more it means you won’t burn in the fires of hell for all eternity! It’s got to be worth it!”

Rotten Romans

Salted Payments — A Roman legionary is dismayed to discover that he’s on the wrong end of the controversy surrounding the origins of the word ‘salary’… also, that he’s in a live-action Asterix comic. (“Join the Roman army, they said… It’s a great career, they said… Get paid in salt, they forgot to mention!…”)

Just Deserter — “Ah, y’know what, I’d like nothing better than to spend the next ten years fighting in some God-forsaken corner of the Roman Empire — but unfortunately, look: no thumbs!” “I see… Well, you’re not going to believe this, but this is the third time this has happened today…”

God Compare — Gaulish warriors have difficulty deciding which of their pantheon to sacrifice a prisoner to, so… uh… something. Really, folks, if you haven’t already, you need to see this one for yourselves.

Savage Stone Age

The Early Show: Domesticating a Wolf — “What exactly is the point…?” “Well… they’ll be useful in hunting, they can warn you of danger… Oh, and if you throw a stick, they’ll fetch it and bring it back to you!” “But if you wanted a stick, why would you throw it away in the first place?” “…I don’t know.”)

The Not-So-Great Mammoth Hunt (animated) — So there’s these two cavemen, and they’re congratulating each other on the new hunting technique of driving a mammoth off a cliff, while standing right under a cliff… yeah.

Vile Victorians

Victoria and the Great Exhibition — “The problem with building our Crystal Palace in a park is that the local sparrows have taken to sheltering in the roof, which has caused a few issues, such as noise and –” *SPLAT* “EEEK!” “…I probably don’t have to finish that sentence.”

Field Notes:

  • So here we are at the half-way point already, and boy howdy it’s been quite a series thus far. Demographic shifts and legendary guest stars and ever-more-elaborate reality-TV parodies and… whatever that Snakes on a Plane thing was. Even the slow moments have been filled with impressive arabesques of monologue, also Spartans.
  • But for all that it’s been just a trifle difficult to locate…I dunno, the essential HH-ness. I miss the slight but singularly quirky, audaciously charming house comedy style I myself fell in love with, away back in Series Two (right around S02E10, to be exact). Back when they were still basically a little kiddy comedy taking big chances, y’know?
  • Until I get to this episode, and I realise all that is very much still there. For all the show-offy sophistication, at heart these are the same people who decided at the time that pinching matches and pistol-packing Reverends were the way forward to maturity… and are now further demonstrating their creative confidence by setting Jim and Martha (and their ridiculously potent couple-chemistry) up with a soft-focus love duet. Because catering to your core female demographic is nice, but frankly messing with their minds is fun.
  • Hence, the Victoria & Albert song, which if you listen closely is actually intended as a satire of your standard sugary-sweet pop duet. This alone would’ve been a fine rebuttal to The Young Victoria et al., had they not gotten a wee bit over-confident and attempted to also cram in celebrity cynicism *and* a parody of BBC costume dramas *and* oh yeah, the historical detail, all at the same time.
  • It’s all fairly clever, in the usual style (I specially enjoy Victoria’s pointed little ‘Called us Alboria, but I preferred Vicbert!”) but it never really gels, so eventually you just give up and go with the pretty soft-focus twirliness…
  • ….which turns out to be EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED YOU TO DO MUAH-HA-HAHHH WHO’S SOBBING HELPLESSLY NOW, CYNICAL CRITIC PERSON?… No, I’m not really, but damned if they didn`t expertly manipulate me right out to the edge. Despite, mind, my having just been sniggering happily at the Crystal Palace sketch… only breaking off to wonder at the sheer, erm, volume of the gag; to paraphrase Bill Bryson, that must’ve been one sick sparrow.
  • Even after all that (and Lawry), Martha still absolutely earns her poignant ending; everything that the Queen was mourning for all those years is all there in her face at the fadeout, even under all those prosthetics. Remarkable. *snif snif*
  • *ahem* Right! Resuming the zippy snarkitude now. In case you needed any further proof that the producers know their fandom entirely too well, I give you the Leif Ericsson sketch: three solid minutes of Larry Rickard standing there in full Tumblr fetish gear… and still basing his Scandinavian accent off the PA system at Ikea, but, y’know, details. Clearly the producers knew they’d face complaints re: the LoG bits, and scheduled accordingly. “Irrelevant? Annoying? Just WAIT UNTIL WE UNLEASH NORDIC LARRY MUAH-HA-HAHHH.”
  • Quite seriously, it cannot be a co-incidence that for once the LoG`s banter is noticeably downplayed in favour of petitioner closeups. I think I was probably the only fan — female or otherwise — for whom the ensemble comedy was still the main event. Just FYI, it was still pretty decent, and that`s even besides the gloriously broken American-ese. The reunion portion of this experiment, at least, is an unqualified success.
  • “But,” you have been impatiently waiting to protest, “where is Baynton in all this discussion of deliberate demographic-mind-messing? He must be included, but after the guyliner became an international sensation, what could they possibly have left for him to truly impress us with?”
  • Glad you asked. For starters, that would be our Mathew in the ‘Historical Law’ bit wearing a blond wig and speaking in a Russian accent. Shortly after which, he implied in an interview that he didn’t actually consider Peter III the ‘silliest and biggest characterization’ he’s ever done. Meaning that between this claim and the potential return of God Compare Guy I spent the rest of the series on full Threat Alert mode.
  • Truly though, if there’s a must-see performance in S4, this is definitely it. It had been far too long since Mat had been allowed to thus fully unleash his inner aristocratic whackazoid (scientific term), and the sketch is designed brilliantly around that opportunity. Including but by no means limited to Ben, who was quite literally born to play the Tsarevich’s foil… also, as it turns out, his accent coach.
  • Yep, I almost hate to spoil the magical mystery that is ‘How the hell did Mat learn to not sound like the low-rent gigolo stereotype in a bad Agatha Christie adaptation?’, but turns out Willbond once studied in Russia. So that when Mat hauls out the teeny little gallows, I’m assuming our Benjamin’s stunned expression is actually the result of the weirdest life-goal-reassessment angst ever.
  • Oh, and worth noting as well that Rattus is finally moved once again to protest the treatment of his brethren, and is still fully adorable in the process. Albeit somewhere the ghost of that skewered rat from S3 HMasterchef is probably now laughing hollowly and checking his haunting calendar for the first free Saturday.
  • Moving on from the ridiculous to the sublime, we find Cash My Sin, which is essentially the direct descendant of the ‘Roman Gods Direct’ bit from S1, only given all the creative and budgetary advantages Great-Grandpa Sketch never had. Mat blithely rechannels the camp into a sort of hyper-sincerity; just authentic enough to be absurd, and just absurd enough to neatly avoid stepping on his audience’s spiritual toes.
  • The only thing off… ish… is, once again, Ben’s place in all this. I’m willing to admit that he’s showing up a lot more than my memory initially suggested, but — I dunno, it’s as though they’ve swopped roles within the troupe. So that Ben’s now the spot performer, while Simon’s picked up the Impressive Leading Man ball… and neither quite seems like it was their idea.
  • As for instance, Simon as the theoretically-suave HHTV News reporter, basically reconfirming — in combination with the more characteristically wonderful military conscription bit — that he’s much better left alone to create a wholly unique character, rather than a specific parody like this. (The making Jim look like a doll of himself by contrast, not really optimal either.) I was squirming uneasily, right up until I realised that a) hey, at least Simon’s hair is making the most of the chance and b) he wouldn’t actually be replacing Mike P. but Alice’s newsbimbo, right? Never mind, forget I said anything, carry on.
  • So they did, and it is frankly wonderful. Mat, Ben and Larry, each playing their own precious version of the guy who got into knighthood mostly because of the cool uniform — how perfect a microcosm of the HH Experience is that? Specially Mat ‘eating’ the mic. Well-played, show, well played indeed… at least, right up to the contrived ‘rid me of this troublesome reporter!’ bit, which is where I started to suspect that Henry really knows exactly what he’s doing and just keeps the idiot knights around for plausible deniability.
  • Meantime, despite the Columbus sketch having rather obviously been written with Mat in mind — and the f/x team also having gone above and beyond — the real star, nay quite possibly hero, of that sketch is Jim. While Mat’s off discovering new and innovative heights of strung, Howick is by contrast clamping both hands firmly onto his big chance to be the voice of reason, not only off the coast of not-India but as Henry II and the Roman military recruiter, and stubbornly refusing ever to let it go…
  • …and still managing to get himself stomped all over, because c’mon, it’s Jim (and Mat, and Simon). Regardless, though, that exquisitely exasperated disbelief stuff, we can haz moar pls? Absolutely priceless.
  • What? No, of course I haven’t forgotten the God Compare bit. It’s only… I only…Yes, of course I giggled helplessly like everyone else when it first aired, but… Look, I even went back to the original parody subject to confirm, and it didn’t help either. The universe in which this concept can — or should — be coherently assessed is clearly at least a few down from the one I inhabit. So I mostly just spend subsequent viewings marvelling that they even got it filmed in the first place. Full-on obsessive desperation on Mat & Ben’s part, is my guess.
  • Come to think of it, I would not be surprised if the universe in question was Death’s, and on account of sheer surreal awesomeness overload is starting to leak. You can tell about the awesomeness thing because his sidekicks now have their own little spinoff psychodramas, complete with skeleton-on-mummy hand-holding. (Which, I like to imagine, in this universe represents a shockingly controversial inter-monster romance.) It was inevitable, really.
  • Meantime Martha gives an unexpectedly game, lively performance as the barmaid — to the point where you’re really disappointed (but still impressed) when she turns out to be easily the most stupid human being ever featured on the show. Sorry, the italics just pop out no matter how rationally I try to discuss this woman. Ginger really suits Martha, though, gotta give her that.
  • And on the further subject of unexpected yet hilariously effective characterizations… yeah, it’s kind of a niche topic, everywhere but where this troupe is concerned… Fine, Larry, you win. Or rather, Asterix for the win, always and forever. They just basically dropped a stack of the comics in front of you and Willbond and told you to have at it, didn’t they? And now I have to spend the rest of my life wondering wistfully what an entire live-action Asterix saga featuring the troupe would look like, don’t I? …yeah, you-all are just really lucky Ben looks that distractingly fetching in big-dumb-lug mode.
  • I’d been wondering where Larry’d got to during the God Compare bit, come to that… then realised he’d probably been a bit busy, what with the being chased by slavering prehistoric wolves and all. (Although as filmed it’s pretty obvious that those are actually trained dogs, ‘attacking’ on a command hidden by the jump cut.)
  • At any rate, I award him the Willbond Memorial Star of Merit for going above and beyond in a most excellent satirical cause, and Simon a cupcake for turning out to be a very quick study, where this suave host parody stuff is concerned. Everyone else, your gold stars are in the mail — plus extra sprinkles for whomever came up with the concept, because somehow it just makes me deeply, deeply happy.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes,the show is not exaggerating either the cashing in one’s sins, or the utter cynicism of the process. Although it might just be pointed out that it wasn’t really supposed to be that way. In Catholic theology, the idea of paying to escape punishment for sin, usually meaning shorten your time in purgatory — either for yourself, or, not mentioned here, any newly-deceased you might care about enough — is formally called an ‘indulgence’, and technically exists to this day.
  • Of course, technically it is, and was, supposed to take the form of so many dutiful recitations of a particular prayer, or maybe a nice sincere pilgrimage to the Vatican, or something noticeably non-profit like that. At the very least, the medieval Church formally insisted, any monies were to be accepted on the understanding that they only represented a short period of reprieve, and were furthermore to be used strictly for good — building cathedrals, organizing Crusades, like that.
  • Those paying attention over the last few episodes will not be surprised to learn that many lesser medieval spiritual authorities (or, eventually, anybody with writing skills and a suitably devout expression) got really bored with all this altruism real quick and cut straight to the chase. Hence literal little Get Into Heaven Free slips, duly authenticated by the Pope — proof? How dare you question a man of God! — good for centuries’ worth of reprieve, yet still available for just a trifling donation…
  • …the trick being, of course, that there was a built-in repeat market. All a monk looking to replenish the monastery’s cellars had to do was go forth and paint lurid pictures of poor departed loved ones, suffering miserably as they awaited their fate. Who wouldn’t willingly fork over to speed Mom on her way to celestial bliss? A monster who’d better break the piggy bank himself just in case, that’s who.
  • Eventually things got so bad that they inspired Martin Luther’s righteous — and famously public — indignation as nailed to that church door, and with the advent of the Protestant Reformation the Church realised it had better regain the moral high ground. In 1562, the Council of Trent finally clamped down for real.
  • There would be no such reprieve for Karl Peter Ulrich, son of a minor duke and eventually Peter III, Tsar of All the Russias. Yep, as it turns out he was actually German — merely a nephew of the formidable Russian Empress Elizabeth — and, whoopsie, had only been educated up to what everyone thought would be a purely ceremonial existence as King of Sweden. Hence the fascination with the trappings of military pomp and circs, with none whatsoever of the practical experience. He was overall probably what we would call developmentally-delayed, although whether this is a matter of nature-or-nurture is hotly debated.
  • At any rate, when he finally made the throne, his subjects got a serious taste of the obsessiveness displayed here. He not only passed a whopping 220 new statutes in the first few weeks — mostly about trifling stuff that made Oliver Cromwell look like, well, Charles II — but started in enthusiastically hero-worshipping the hated Prussians: Historians mark Peter III’s actions as disordered and unreasonable, and had no support in wider Russian society… His personality and policies were so bizarre that no one could guess what his next move would be. 
  • It wasn’t long before the only military supporters Peter had were three inches high. The inevitable coup attempts had the full support of Peter’s wife (and second cousin), Sophia Augusta Frederica, Princesse de Anhalt-Zerbst… better known by her Russian name, Catherine II, ie. the Great. As you can imagine she was not the type to put up with a mate who preferred his toys to her, let alone at bedtime. By skilfully positioning herself as a dignified (and very lovely) martyr to the disaffected generals, she easily earned their sympathy — and then loyalty. Exeunt Peter, exiled and probably assassinated shortly thereafter.
 
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Posted by on July 14, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E05

You know, that’s actually quite offensive. Neolithic man was nearly as evolved as you are now, so our language was actually quite sophisticated.
Right, sorry. I wasn’t… you know… Lots of my friends are cavemen!
…Just try to ignore him, Nug. I do.

Let us now take a moment to celebrate the HH troupe’s ability to reel off massively factoid-laden monologues. Actually, several moments… OK, would you believe an entire episode?

In this episode:

Song: Mary Seacole — Dominique as the other selfless, courageous, innovative (but not, it must be admitted, pie-chart-inventing) nursing pioneer of the Crimean War. (Parody of: Beyonce, Single Ladies)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Masterchef — Stone Age (“People make food, and we eat the food!” “That is the format as I understand it!“)

Bob Hale — The Renaissance Report (“[Da Vinci] comes up with designs for the calculator! Solar power! Military tanks! And helicopters!… Though, obviously, not helicopters. But then — hm? Oh… apparently he did come up with helicopters. Knew that one’d come back to bite me one day…”)

Oh Yea! Magazine — Royal Rage Special (“Buy it now, while necks last!”)

One-offs:

Savage Stone Age

How Cities Were Invented — Neolithic man takes his first whack at planning a civilization without actually whacking anyone… cue subsequent invention of despotic dictatorship in three, two… (“What if you’re good at everything?” “I don’t think you need to worry about that, Craig.”)

Wild Warriors

Snakes on a Ship (movie trailer) — Hissstory has never been more terrifying… Yep, ancient General Hannibal has about had it with these Carthaginian Romans on this Carthaginian ship, so he fires snakes at them. While speaking in what I have a terrible suspicion is Jim’s interpretation of Ebonics. Best if we all just go with it, he also has the…

Elephants on a Plain — Under a ten-ton elephant, no-one can hear you scream. “I’m gonna take the elephants over the mountains and crush the Romans on the plain! I mean, literally crush them! When I fight, I fight Carthaginian dirty, y’all!”

Radical Renaissance

The Da Vinci Problem — In which the great man’s omnidisciplinary genius pushes Mona Lisa right out to the limits of her enigmatic. (“Can we finish this argument tomorrow? I have a very important mathematical problem I need to solve…” “Tomorrow, tomorrow! You’re a procrastinator!” “Maybe I do something about being a procrastinator tomorrow!”)

Awful Egyptians

Egyptian Make Show — Today we’re going to learn how to create great works of art, still revered by the foremost museums of the world to this… oh, who am I kidding? Time to learn how to make a mummy, kids. Again. (“First off, we’re going to need a dead body. Here’s one that died earlier!”)

Mummification! The Ancient Egyptian Board Game — Yes, fellow Gen-Xers, this is Operation! with bandages… which actually looks like a really good idea, come to think of it.

Terrible Tudors

Words at Ten Paces — William Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language, Prologue: enabling him to win a battle of wits without even once mentioning yo’ mamma… should really have looked out for that tavern wench, though.

Vile Victorians

Plotting a Disaster (imagine spot) — The military leaders responsible for the Charge of the Light Brigade revel in their incompetence, stupidity, and really shiny buttons, roughly in that order. (“You see, these are all the advantages of having the Army commanded by a small group of upper-class twits!”)

Field Notes:

  • So yes, this episode’s theme can be succinctly summed up as ‘long lists and even longer monologues’. And let us all just take a moment to appreciate the special hell that must’ve been those rehearsals, not to mention multiple takes… also, to feel frankly disappointed that some low-level studio functionary hasn’t gotten on the ball and covertly recorded them for posterity, a la the Star Trek blooper reels.
  • Admittedly teaching of this type is exactly what a children’s show should be doing, and something the cast has proven they can (eventually) do with real style, from a long while back — see S01E08, ‘Causes of WWI’. An occupational hazard I suppose of no longer having surefire historical one-liners to fall back on (save, apparently, “Elizabeth I had a temper! Har! …*sigh*). So hang on, everyone, it’s about to get… educational. Carthaginian educational.
  • Because the show has also decided, in the midst of all this elaborate explanatory stuff, to bung in a two-part movie-trailer parody of Snakes on a Plane. More specifically, the only things anybody ever remembers about that movie, ie. that there were snakes and Samuel L. Jackson was Carthaginian annoyed about it. That’s it, nothing more to see here, the pinnacle has been reached and the only thing left to do with HH is to put it in adult prime-time.
  • OK, look, seriously. I want to love this idea, so badly. I want to just sit here and tell it how hilariously, adorably audacious it is basically forever, if for no other reason than so that the troupe having live freaking pythons thrown among them might not be in vain. Also: the ‘under a ten-ton elephant…’ tagline — and the fact that the entire ‘Roman Army’ can fit under said ‘elephant’, so that for once problems with the f/x budget work to enhance the comedy. They’re obviously going for a straight re-creation of the original’s knowing camp…
  • …except, and this is the key bit that cannot be stressed enough, in the original that was handled by Samuel L. Jackson, exuding badassery. While here we’re featuring Jim Howick, inadvertently inducing Deliverance flashbacks. Kids, don’t ask your parents. What I am basically saying is that, much as I love Jim, every time they cut back to him trying to make his Colonel Sanders impersonation from S2 sound all tuff — menacing, even — it’s just so, so completely not happening.
  • Especially since elsewhere, the show is so effortlessly demonstrating how you do it right. Really, I can’t say enough about Dominque’s debut musical performance — except that damn, show, what the Carthaginian hell have you been thinking up to now? Maybe I’m just particularly cranky at the moment thanks to one too many Desperately Ethnic Willbonds, but honestly. All this time spent even animating that damn pyramid, you could’ve been simply devising new and exciting ways to use all that voice, wit, presence — in short, cool
  • At least they make full use of it all here, and give it a convincing Jamaican accent to boot (“and I t’ink it my destiny, child / to be a war medic!” — cute touch that). Seeing as I’ve stepped into it this far, it’s only fair to note that musical inspiration, HH-style, means Mary Seacole gets to skip right over the pedestal-heavy preachiness and expand her story with all the sass and spirit of simply knowing it’s deserved… yep, right down to the constipation treatments… while simoultaneously taking the mickey not only out of Beyonce but the skewed idol-making system that spawned her.
  • By contrast — on several levels — how completely forgettable was the first series’ music? Say hello to the mummy-making process all over again, kids. In fact, I think Jim may even be wearing the same makeup. As noted — and as Ben is demonstrating with distressing thoroughness — this is kind of a bad time to expect the (adult, at least) audience to laugh off the goofy ‘ethnic’ f/x, there, show. While I can see why they wanted a Willbond particularly in the part, ultimately it’s not worth it… mind you, Jim trying desperately to keep a straight face at his efforts, that might be worth it.
  • It’s especially… odd… given that Historical Masterchef has evidently decided to apologise for four series’ worth of ugga-bugga caveman cliches all at once, and this after a similarly conscientious update on Neanderthal brain size just last ep. Wonder what inspired this particular sudden attack of conscience? There can’t be much of a Stone Age anti-discrimination lobby, unless I suppose you count those Geico caveman adverts.
  • But I kid the earnest children’s edutainment series. Nug the not-so-primitive chef is likely merely about playing with expectations — shades of Simon the Hippie Pirate from last series. Y’know, the most interesting thing about these reality-TV parodies is how intelligently the HH writers can now integrate the history. Blending surreal with factual on their own unique terms has quietly become an absolutely seamless process, to the point where you can forget what a real challenge to their skill it actually was, and one they’ve risen to magnificently…
  • …”My favourite dish is rotten seafood sick!” … OK, so ‘magnificently’ in HH terms is relative. And often involves a sewer rat. Oddly though, other than that notably TMI moment, Our Bewhiskered Host has been pretty sedate this series… ever since he’s had that portrait of Gram and Gramps staring down at him, come to think of it. It probably came with a teeny little lecture re: exactly when he’s going to do something with his life. “Why can’t you be more like that nice Remy, he won an Oscar and everything!”
  • The incidental host comedy this series mostly comes from the cartoon intro characters, thanks apparently to the cast getting bored again. Seriously though, by now they’ve developed their own little personalities and catchphrases and everything, and it really is very cute.
  • As you can tell by my viewing notes for the Shakespeare verbal duel bit — yes, the one that features Mat effortlessly pulling off every high school senior’s ultimate nightmare English assignment, which somehow still didn’t win him the BAFTA, but I digress. Anyway, my notes here read in their entirety, verbatim: “Awww, little Tudor lady, you’re the bestest! Awww, drunk fluffy-haired pretty-costume-wearing Jim, you’re the second-bestest!”
  • That reminds me ….guys, just how long have you been at this ‘Terrible Tudor’ thing now? Setting aside the fact that even by your own notoriously repetitious standards Liz’ temper isn’t exactly news, c’mon now. When Shakespeare wins an insult battle it’s completely awesome, gets the full-tilt Beauty and the Beast-esque staging and cheering extras and everything, but when Liz uses (probably some of the same) words in the exact same way, it’s a shrewish spectacle worthy of endless mockery?
  • Right, where was I? Oh yes, elegantly complex comedy… *sigh* Fine, show, you put magenta undies on the statues in the Renaissance Report instead of the standard white ones, your cooky’s in the mail.
  • Maybe I’m better off just concentrating on the explanatory stuff after all. Especially since it appears Bobsy’s new meds have merely rechanneled his ambitions, so that he’s gone from manic to epic. The impressiveness of which is clearly to be tacitly understood as constituting the full entertainment value for this Report, and I am frankly impressed enough to be OK with this. Even if an entire world-defining, century-spanning cultural concept is a long, long way to go, just for one helicopter joke. You can definitely discern both the interest and the intimidation behind the writing, on this one.
  • And just incidentally, if you’re me — or maybe just a North American of the right age — you can also, during the ‘perspective’ bit particularly, have deeply pleasing flashbacks to Sesame Street’s iconic demo on Near and Far. I rather suspect ‘loveable, furry ol’Grover’ and Bob H. would have a lot to talk about generally, did they ever end up hanging out somewhere in Children’s TV Heaven…
  • Right, OK, so elegant explanatory cleverness, I know I left it around here somewhere… oh, yes, here we are: the ‘Stone Age City Planning’ bit. Wherein the surreal/factual fusion works so smoothly that it becomes the closest thing we’ll ever get — ‘family’ DVDs being what they are — to the guys just sitting around on set, randomly being endearing. While wearing caveman costumes. It’s just possible I may have overthought this, but at any rate don’t spoil it for me, ‘k?
  • Especially given that it’s getting distinctly difficult not to notice how sweet quiet dream-to-work-with Mat’s somehow also always the one everyone’s on eggshells around in these ensemble things, complete with sotto voce murmurs of rebellion. Taking into account optional accessories including but not limited to boredom, access to costumes and just how hard and fast the early-start caffeine must hit that spindly frame, you have a very nice do-it-yourself mental DVD extra kit, right there.
  • Which brings us round nicely to the absolute rightness of his turn as Da Vinci… not surprisingly, this closely resembles his turn as Darwin, except with new! bonus stupid accent. I’m just as happy that they didn’t try for anything more authentic; it would’ve wrecked the sweetly surreal vibe entirely. As it is, they’ve got waaaaay too much invested in the Mona-Lisa as complete shrew gag — see, she doesn’t have eyebrows, just like the painting! Huh? Hey? Hmmm? — but Mat’s delicately endearing counterpoint, along with the lovely set (borrowed from concurrent CBBC series Leonardo, perhaps?), manages to save at least some of the transcendent charm of the original.
  • A lack of saving genius is on prominent display in the ‘Light Brigade’ sketch; I say, even with Simon the Military Chucklehead in the highly capable lead this is a bit heavy on the point, what? Somebody was massively motivated by the sheer injustice of this one — understandably, but as frequently happens, self-righteousness tends to get in the way of the clever comedy. Although in a weird way the sheer effective adorableness of the troupe doing elderly grumps works to salvage things a bit — you’re so absorbed in the ‘Awwww…” that remembering what it led to hits with that much more of a sickening thud.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, so as I recall from the discussion around this ep on first airing, apparently the show is having some serious issues with the pronunciation of ‘Skara Brae’. Which discussion is also the reason why I’m frankly way too intimidated to attempt to correct it here. I can however report that the show’s newly-discovered fascination with its strikingly-advanced Stone Age inhabitants is mostly authentic, save for this amusingly awkward bit:
  • Huge quantities of limpet shells were found, but these may not have been a staple part of the Skara Brae diet. Through the centuries, limpets were generally regarded as an “emergency” food in Orkney, used only when there was nothing else available. Instead, they were harvested for bait, something that probably explains the quantities found in Skara Brae. The tanks within the houses could have been used to soak the limpets, softening them up before being used.
  • If anyone even so much as asks if the real Mona Lisa really didn’t have eyebrows, be it known right now that I am going to punch them SO HARD. (Besides, as several culture nerds pointed out at the time, the portrait does, in fact, have eyebrows. They’re just really faint now against the darkening tint of her skin.) In reality, Lisa del Giocondo — aka Lisa Gherardini, Lisa di Antonio Maria (or Antonmaria) Gherardini and, eventually, Mona Lisa, established definitively in 2005 as the subject of the portrait, seems to have been essentially pretty boringly bourgeois, pace Wiki: Little is known about Lisa’s life. Born in Florence and married in her teens to a cloth and silk merchant who later became a local official, she was mother to five children and led what is thought to have been a comfortable and ordinary middle-class life. Lisa outlived her husband, who was considerably her senior.
  • As for her portrait itself, yes, it did take around three years to finish (from 1503 to roughly 1506), went through several revisions, and is thought by some to be incomplete even now. This article gives some fascinating background on the artistic process and significance of the work, including a glimpse at what the painting would have looked like before the varnish started to go all enigmatically yellow.
  • I said above that the Mary Seacole song gives her a praiseworthy chance to tell her story accurately and unadorned from the ground up, not from atop a pedestal, and I’m sticking to that down here… except that the one point where they do dip slightly into monument-raising illustrates the dangers of same nicely.
  • Without getting into the finer points of why Florence Nightingale and supporters actually turned her down — those I covered in her first appearance, in S02E06 — the question of her racial self-identification is in reality a complex, and rather interesting one, shedding some valuable light on the likewise fraught nature of nineteenth-century social attitudes. From Wikipedia’s highly-recommended article:
  • Seacole… called herself a Creole, a term that was commonly used in a racially neutral sense or to refer to the children of white settlers. In her autobiography… she records her bloodline thus: “I am a Creole, and have good Scots blood coursing through my veins. My father was a soldier of an old Scottish family.” Legally, she was classified as a mulatto, a multiracial person with limited political rights… Seacole emphasises her personal vigour in her autobiography, distancing herself from the contemporary stereotype of the “lazy Creole”. She was proud of her black ancestry, writing, “I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related—and I am proud of the relationship—to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns.”
  • Yes, OK, Good Queen Bess in reality had a ferocious temper. All the Tudors did — even Henry’s ‘little Eddie’, briefly Edward VI, is on record as in a fit of frustration tearing a hunting falcon apart in front of his startled courtiers, saying as he did so to his governors that he likened himself to the falcon, whom everyone plucked; but that he would pluck them too, thereafter, and tear them in four parts. Of course, this is coming from the Imperial Ambassador, who was relaying court gossip to his master, so stands a good chance of not having actually happened. History… gotta love it.
 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E04

My home was in Plymouth, let’s call this New Plymouth!
I got an ideer, let’s call this New Hampshire!
I’m from Newcastle, can we call this New Newcastle?!
…Nahhhhh.

In a bit of have-to-believe-it’s-intentional irony, wanna-be Americans reach their new world just as the show settles comfily into mining their backlog of surefire funny…

In this episode:

Song: It’s a New World — Mat, Martha, Larry aka William Mullins and Ben (in decreasing order of credibility) reveal the Pilgrim Fathers as hardcore, man. (Parody of: Empire State of Mind, Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys)

Recurring sketches:

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From the Norman siege of Palermo, 1064 (“This looks like a disaster, Sir Robert! Most of your men have been bitten by spiders!” “Well, no, I haven’t — I just like dancing!”)

Stupid Deaths — King Harold’s Brothers (“So let me get this straight: The Normans were losing, until you two ran down a hill… causing the end of your brother King Harold, the end of Saxon rule in England, and in fact, the end of the Saxon era altogether?!” “Yeah, in a nutshell…”)

Words We Get From the — Normans

Dodgy War Inventions — No.81: The German U-Boat (“It was the perfectly designed fighting machine…” including a sleek, modern, and — as it turned out — rather over-complex toilet: “It’s supposed to be a white flag, only… ja, long story, sorry…”)

Historical Apprentice — Team Neanderthal -vs- Team Homo Sapiens (“I’ve had some primitive types around the table over the years, but you lot take the flamin’ biscuit! Two words: Beard. Trimmers.”)

DI Bones: Historical Crime Squad — The Victorians and Something Funny in the Water (“Ah, yeh, that’ll probably be the cholera.” “Note to self… get a desk job.”)

One-offs:

Groovy Greeks

The (Theoretically) Fighting Spartans — Despite their leader’s best attempt at Gerald Butler’s hair, the legendarily dedicated warriors notice a weak spot in their awesomely unified battle front.

Pausanius: A True Story (movie trailer) — The epic story of how a great Spartan general managed to severely underestimate the shrewdness and cunning of his own people… who were freaking Spartans, did we mention that? (“How dare they accuse me of siding with the Persians! Just for that… I’m gonna side with the Persians!”)

Awesome USA

Colonisation, Colonisation, Colonisation — “This is such a lovely spot! I wonder why the native Indians don’t live here!” “Well, it could be something to do with the swamp… Could be to do with the lack of drinkable water… Or it could be the *slap* mosquitoes…” “Yes, well, at least none of us have caught any nasty diseases!” “Erk…”)

Woeful Second World War

Don’t Wake the Fuehrer — Detailing how the German reaction to D-Day was delayed thanks to his guards’ reluctance to disturb ‘Mr. Grumpy Pants’ at his nap. (“But if we wake ze Fuhrer, he will… why, he will… get in such a paddy!” “Ooh, such a paddy he will get in!”)

Vile Victorians

I Scream — Back by probably-not-very-popular demand, the show’s fascination with Horrible things that happened to milk pre-pasteurization! Now with bonus cute innocent child!

Field Notes:

  • So yeah, we appear to have reached the point in Series Four where the remarkable is starting to show a distinct resemblance to remarkableness past. Which, as demonstrated last episode, is not by any means a bad thing; not only because it’s one way at least to ensure both audiences old and new will be equally delighted… but because when they do decide to get all innovative and clever, the results tend to involve things like Larry as a hip-hop Pilgrim with a shoe fetish.
  • Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that concept didn’t delight many, many people. What I am possibly saying is that these are the many of the same people who openly declare they have crushes on Bob Hale, so you can consider yourself fairly warned. Friends don’t let friends wander into an HH rap parody alone, y’know?
  • Actually, thanks to the smouldering he can fake the angsty posturing fairly acceptably, I’ll give him that at least — right up until he unfortunately abandons it at a key moment in favour of his inevitable Plan B: straight over the top and hope for the best. Yeah, so that doesn’t really work when living up to Jay-Z, Rickard… as you can tell when Ben’s calling you out. What the hell, was Jim off sick that day? (Paper-cut tongue from licking wedding invitations, maybe?)
  • The whole thing is an unusually un-self-confident mismash of satirical stylings — as if even up to the moment of filming they couldn’t decide whether to play it silly or straight, so just left it up to each individual performer, who in turn picked a really bad time (quite possibly out of embarrassment) to for once not tune into the others. Luckily for a genuinely decent concept, it’s eventually held together by Mat and Martha being brilliant along much more standard lines (and can we just take a moment to marvel once again at Mathew Baynton, ‘quality rapper’) besides some passably clever wordplay and Ben… wearing one of those wigs with the curls clustering round his face. Which definitely helps.
  • This apparently being official Let’s Mess With Willbond Day, musically speaking, we also get Mike Peabody learning that even the natural world is out to get him. Dear, dear Ben… quite honestly, I think this is about as far out of his comfort zone as HH has ever chucked him, and that would include both the time they required him to cope with a full-grown python round his neck and the one where he was forced to bathe in the North Atlantic in mid-October for a two-second throwaway bit.
  • Really you have to wonder if the producers don’t see pushing Benjamin’s buttons as sort of light entertainment… which sounds like an awesome idea, actually. I’d buy tickets. Still can’t help but feel a bit bad for him here, though. At least snake-wrangling makes for a decent story at the pub afterwards, and doesn’t involve getting shamelessly upstaged by a Farnaby to boot.
  • Dear, dear Simon. Also seen here overseeing easily the most epic SD ever — big week for epic military disasters altogether, come to that. Much love for how Death just lets these two stand there and dig themselves in deeper. Of course, on the evidence, this may be because the writers were suffering from punner’s block that week — no, the punny songwriters are different people, although I will concede Larry’s creativity works in mysterious ways. Generally speaking, though, when you have to resort to visual aids to get the wordplay across, you’re working too hard.
  • (Incidentally, I’ve been putting this off, but… does anyone else think the opening/closing SD titles could stand an upgrade? Not the song of course, but the visuals are starting to look decidedly… I dunno, early-series-ish.)
  • On the further subject of Simon’s adorableness… OK, so you remember how back last series they had the other Location, Location Location takeoff, and I was all “gee, too bad they didn’t take it any further, this would’ve been a great parody vehicle for settlers vs. Native Americans”? Yeah, so can we all just focus on the bit where I’m really prescient, there? Thanks.
  • Because, no kidding, I totally was.The Native POV is noticeably absent, but the Jamestown sketch gets the point across anyway — proof that valuable lessons have been learned from the Mesoamerican experiment. It’s as purely fun a romp as the series has ever produced, the result of a bunch of seasoned performers just having a great time with a series of surefire running gags — the signpost with the crossed-out ‘pop.’ is especially fun — as led by positive oodles of classic Proper Upper-Class Farnaby. The phrase ‘what’s not to love?’ was totally invented for this point in the show’s evolution. I am only disappointed that they didn’t give them actual arrows, albeit I can see where they’d have reason to worry about Ben’s aim.
  • Unlike, for instance, the Historical Apprentice writers, who have settled to their reality-TV-trashing task in much the familiar manner — which I picture as the writers sitting round a dartboard with the current parody target’s logo on it and assigning the quips based on where the darts land. (“Why not fire Grunt? He already dead!” being an example of a treble-twenty.)
  • The fact that the target for once seems reasonably shrewd, if not actually clever, himself — or at least, that the concept is based off that illusion — seems, interestingly, only to have roused team HH further to the challenge. And it has thus far paid off handsomely. The whole sketch resonates with the joy of  writers released back on familiar ground and loving every minute of it…
  • …plus, did I mention there was moar Simon? And that he has a shrew? And that Smug Caveman Ben inquiring “Sorry, what is wheel?” is well up the running for Most Incredibly Adorable HH Moment Ever? Oh, and while I’m on… erm, look, I know I don’t have a ton of credibility here, but is Lawry’s character supposed to be coming off as faintly sticky-palmed, or…? ‘Cos frankly he’s creeping me right the hell out — yes, even more than usual. I think it’s the glasses.
  • OK! In case you were wondering about the rest of the Most Adorable Moment finalists, there are, like, at least another two dozen here in my New Most Favourite HH Sketch Ever: Mat and Jim playing SS guards with much the same sweetly campy abandon as they play the Historical Paramedics. The little ‘ADOLF’S ROOM’ plaque on the door behind them is totally making the MAME shortlist.
  • Seriously, if you haven’t seen this thing, your ability to experience joy is woefully incomplete, even if you’ve already seen all the HParamedic bits. This one goes above and beyond, starting with Mat getting a chance to let his face run riot — no, new-and-enlarged audience, that’s not Silly Putty, that’s his actual face. Elsewhere… erm, if I say Larry makes a surprisingly competent hardcore SS officer — accent and all — does that count as a compliment?
  • Oh, and howdy Jalaal Hartley, sorry I’ve missed you up til now.  Jalaal, folks, will be the most prominent of this series’ new set of Random Character Guys, the result of the expanding number of roles for same I mentioned last review. Evidently the producers were concerned at the lack of ridiculously attractive brunet types. I can sympathise.
  • On that note, welcome back DI Bones, with bells on. The writers’ love affair with the relentlessly dour DI is back in full swing, and this time it comes along with their other love affair for Victorian poverty, with just a dash of their enthusiasm for Mat falling over. (The unexpectedly dissolving into doe eyes at key moments, however, that’s pure instinct. On the off-chance you haven’t seen the highwayman song vid before now, new and by now probably totally bemused audience, this sketch provides a handy microcosm of The Baynton Experience.)
  • Personally, the whole thing intersects my favourite media to the extent that I desperately wish DI Bones would appear more often. Like maybe in his own spinoff series. With Larry playing a different hapless bozo nemesis each week… although not Liverpudlian ones. Seriously, how does a man go from a note-perfect ripoff of Ringo Starr to whatever he fondly thinks that accent is? And we’re not even going to get into Martha’s attempts. I think they encourage each other.
  • Which brings us well enough around to the Pausanius bit. Inspired officially by the Stupid Death from S01E12 (which reminds me, I never did get the ‘Viking bitten by the severed head of his enemy’ opus, also based on an S1 SD. *tiny sigh*). Unofficially, by the show’s ongoing insistence that Mat somehow remotely resembles a ferocious warrior battle-hardened from birth. And no, show, the improved makeup budget doesn’t help your credibility any. ‘Fess up now, you just fell in love with the idea of that cliched ‘golden’ lighting washing across all the heroically-furred chin thrusting, didn’t you?
  • Hey, y’know, also very impressively masculine — dare I say 300-esque — facial hair on Spartan General Jim there! Also, nice use of camera angles to disguise the physical discrepancies with the original! Could it possibly be that the show has finally learned its lesson about… *checks Jim in next episode’s sketches*… nahhhh. I do anyway enjoy how they cut from his inspiring speech to the standard, like, eight warriors, indicating that they may at least be developing a sense of humour about their lack of an extras budget. It all adds a bit of interest to what’s otherwise, yeah, Lawry being Lawry, whatever. Can we just have a sketch where he murders something soon please?
  • Finally, random bit of trivia that may amuse only me: this is the second time in as many series that a rampaging Larry’s been soothed by seafood. I have… no idea whatsoever what this means honestly, but fanfic authors may have it for free.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So the spider-bite dance turns out to be the tarantella — yep, that fun’n’snappy Italian folk dance. Something to ponder, next time you’re considering the practical value of dance lessons: About the mid-fifteenth century, the people of Taranto, Italy, decided (…somehow) that dancing really really fast was the cure for the bite of the local species of wolf spider. Which they had previously dubbed the ‘tarantula’. Special bonus lesson for the day, kids: when once medieval Italians got hold of a good name for something, they didn’t fool around.
  • No, of course it didn’t actually work. But it was a lot more fun than anything else you might be doing to deal with the “swelling, mild pain and itching” that actually results when the local ‘tarantula’ takes a fancy to your ankles. (To be fair to Robert and crew, it’s suggested they possibly ran into a more virulent variant.) However the bit here seems to be conflating the much later, more serious tarantella craze with the biohazard during the siege, that in reality were usually treated much more boringly by ‘hot compresses’.
  • Poor William Mullins, shoemaker: forever enshrined in HH lore as the vain, impractical, over-civilized Mayflower colonist who brought along nothing but 126 pairs of his product… plus 13 pairs of boots, thank you Bobsy… to a rough and ready new American colony that wound up struggling just to survive. Hah! Typical Euro-hubris, amirite? What a maroon!
  • …Except not really. Yes of course, as the song says, ‘a fishing rod, a plough, a pig or a cow would’ve been a much better idea,’ but just a few seconds’ further reflection (perhaps aided by this admirably sensible blog post) will attest that in a situation like this — notably devoid, as the song itself goes on to emphasise, of any type of manufacturing infrastructure let alone knowledge — lots of nice sturdy shoes, also boots wouldn’t exactly be hay either. So to speak.
  • As a bonus, under eighteenth century conditions, they’d also be much easier and more reliable to transport. Remember, these were people who could barely get themselves across the ocean in one piece; frankly I’d rather trust the guy who didn’t think bringing in the leather on the hoof was the better idea.
  • In essence, Mullins was no more shortsighted than anyone else on the Mayflower, and quite possibly a lot less so than most. Basically just a reasonably shrewd businessman who saw the whole thing not as an adventure but as a sales opportunity; his way of recouping some of his original investment in the venture. And he ended up giving his life for it, that first winter in Plymouth colony. In his will — which is how we know about the footwear in the first place — he requests that they be sold to the colony for the then-astronomical sum of forty pounds total. Snigger all you like, but that there is dedication.
 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E03

Well, I’ve eaten a goose filled with the Holy Spirit, and now a goat filled with the Holy Spirit… I must be morbidly obese with divine wisdom!

Having firmly established to their new and age-improved audience that the hype was deserved, the show takes a moment to let the familiar take centre stage…

In this episode:

Song: Hey, Hey, We’re the Thinkers — Socrates [Ben], Plato [Jim], Diogenes [Larry] and Aristotle [Mat] warble witty and wise (Parody of: The Monkees, feat. Theme and The Beatles, feat. Help!… with a bit of assistance from MP’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year”)

Recurring sketches:

Dominic Duckworth: HHTV Investigates — Religious Relics (“For a small donation, I’ll let you rub one of Saint Appolonia’s teeth — as knocked out by the Romans, before they burnt ‘er alive!” “That’s an awful lot of teeth…Are you sure they’re all hers?!” “Oh yeah, ‘course. She had a big gob on ‘er.”)

Historical Dentist — Saxon (“I have been trained… We’ll just put this boiled holly leaf into the saucer — now, if you could just yawn for me?” “…were you trained by Dr. Saxon, by any chance?”)

Historical Masterchef — Saxon (“Five munuts!” “Eleven minutes!!” “…You literally never learn, do you?”)

Shouty Man — New! Great Western Railway — “The Victorian Transportation Revolution!” (“It”s not great!” “It is great. Ignore him.” “It isn’t!” “Yes it is.”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The King Canute Project (“King Dumb and Queen Dumber! It’s a sequel!”)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

The Crusade is Thataway — Wannabe subject of heroic ballads Emicho of the Rhineland sets out to conquer the Holy Land! and bring back Jerusalem as a prize for his fair lady!… all without a map. And for some reason the Holy Spirit-imbued livestock are no help either. (“Well, I never thought I’d become part of a walking metaphor, but that really was a wild goose chase…”)

Groovy Greeks

The Rescue of Socrates… Why? — “But I don’t want to be rescued!” “Why?” “Oh, don’t you start…!” “Look, no real philosopher fears death. If you rescue me, people will still find me really annoying, and I’ll end up in prison again.”

Terrible Tudors

Elizabeth I Online — In which good Queen Bess follows in her dad’s footsteps… to the dating services, if not necessarily the actual dating. (“The truth is, I am already married…” “Oh yes, your Majesty?” “…To England.” “Ah. Well-said, m’um…. *clik* Yep, she’s really lost it.” “I’M STILL HERE, CECIL!”)

Vile Victorians

Great Victorian Institutions: The Postal Service — Y’know, as much as we modern types complain how slow and inefficient the mails are, I’m not sure we’d’ve been able to handle the Victorian solution… (“Why won’t you leave me alone?!” “Well, that’s the joy of [it], madam. Up to twelve deliveries a day, come rain or shine, and all at a reasonable charge!”)

Vicious Vikings

New Home Abroad — In which Chipper Host Mat’s efforts to relocate a Nordic couple to English climes are hampered by even more than a ridiculous feathered ‘do… yes, even more than the bright red puffer jacket, sorry, forgot to mention that one. (“Whoa whoa whoa, guys! Don’t kill them!” “You are right. Perhaps we have been a little hasty… After all, we’re going to need a couple of slaves!”)

Field Notes:

  • Every now and again, when I’m at a bit of a loss re: the current review, I go back and reread the previous ones for inspiration. Then I decide to do a bit of editing ‘as long as I’m here’, and the next thing I know it’s several hours later and deadline’s looming so I just bung whatever down and hope for the best. Which thus will still, eventually, need editing. So it’s kind of a vicious cycle really.
  • Until today, when I realised that hey, I’ve pretty much done all the editing, on account of I’ve been at this for forty reviews now. Which led to the real epiphany: it is past time simply to pause and realise just how far the show had come in four series. I mean, I’m perusing S01E05, wherein I was totally all ‘ooh, great episode!’ and it didn’t even have a song. It did have Caligula, also auto-squealing pork insulting Simon Cowell… but seriously now.
  • So this right here is what ‘ooh, great episode!’ looks like in Series Four: all the way from live-action kiddy book cartoon to clever, complex — adult, basically — exploration of the possibilities. As you can tell from the above, I had a real struggle with this one not to just quote the whole thing and call it a week.
  • I only regret to report there is no Simon Cowell… oh, who am I kidding? Never understood that one. Not that I understand the obsessive need to take shots at the Masterchef hosts that well either, but as per last ep’s review I do not care, just as long as it inspires the writers to these heights of intricate hilarity.
  • Of course, if your sketch stars Ben and Jim together, you’re half-way there already. Also, the playing-with-food shtick has literally been around since Episode One, albeit back then called Ready Steady Feast, so by now, you’ve got the possibilities down. And as the cherry on top, if you like, you have Larry, who here gets to show off a rather startlingly effective noir side that usually gets lost amid the random goofiness. The generally snide vibe of the HM bit has been very good to him generally.
  • So has the Viking getup, for which our blue-eyed boy discovered an affinity in S2 and never has looked back. Unfortunately he also discovered an affinity for dopey accents around the same time, which he has since tried to explain as a deliberate effort to invoke the ‘when in doubt, go over-the-top’ principle of comedy. All I know is, here it comes off as his having maybe once spent a weekend in Minnesota. Possibly with Martha. Which sort of simoultaneously enhances the jokes and distracts from the… other stuff. I do unreservedly enjoy the mad gleam in Ms. Howe-Douglas’ eye upon realising she’s gonna need some slaves, though.
  • In a similar vein, the ring of triumph in Shouty Man’s voice signifies his return to the Victorian era, scene of his S1/S2 glory days. He’s never more at home than when gleefully exposing the discomforting realities under the veneer of civilization, and the mock-travelogue is an inspired, ah, vehicle, with Ben once again his natural foil. This sketch is fully Shouty Classic… including, I notice, full (if rear) views of the outdoor gents, which I guess counts as a daring adult update of that squirting coffin doll last series.
  • Speaking of daring, so there’s lots of modern civilian Mat in this one… no, that’s not the daring bit. At this point it’s the equivalent of giving the audience an extra helping of dessert before they’ve asked. Which yes, means that feathery ‘do represents the icky cheap frosting on the cake. Also, the daring bit, because frankly I have a feeling that if anything could make a man reconsider starring in a wildly popular TV series, looking in the mirror after that particular styling session would be it.
  • The Historical Dentist, meanwhile, is unreservedly great, albeit not for cosmetic reasons (a pink pullover automatically disqualifies on those grounds). I know describing anything about this show as ‘subtle’ is just inviting snickers, but seriously, imagine a HH writer trying to capitalise on his dentist phobia in S1… wait, you don’t have to, they already covered the ‘stuff in half a dead mouse in loving close-up’ five short eps in.
  • Since then, they’ve learned the value of leaving things to the audience’s imagination. Sure, it helps a lot that they’d previously learned their audience isn’t exclusively eight, but still, nicely handled all ’round. Especially by Sarah, who more than anyone can appreciate the difference. Even Mat and Simon have learned when to dial back the loopiness… sort of… hence the lovely little ‘silent scream’ bit.
  • Which brings us round to Emicho of the Rhineland, who stars in what’s occasionally my favourite HH sketch ever. It’s basically what became inevitable once the writers got a good look at the ‘Nasty Knights’ sketch from last series, and Mat clearly didn’t need much convincing to help them up the stakes. Damn but he enjoys these mock-chivalric posturings… which would, come to think of it, be kind of an interestingly effective way to deal with self-image issues, when you look like a fairy-tale character to begin with.
  • At any rate, everyone else somehow manages to match him with appropriately profound gravitas, so that the sheer ludicrousness can be savoured as it gradually builds. That there is serious comic skill, folks. (Excepting the ‘morbidly obese’ crack, which is more just the natural result of these people having been hanging around each other far too long.) Also, serious animal-wrangling skill, especially on Simon there. Trust me, fluffy feathers or no, hanging onto a goose is never going to be the best part of your day.
  • No, I haven’t forgotten the song. Nooooooo. The song is central to my thesis; you’ll recall that while S01E05 doesn’t have a song, S01E12 most definitely does… yeah, OK, you’re excused for not remembering it. The Greek thinkers’ song that doesn’t merge the iconoclasts of ancient times with their equally iconic modern counterparts in a way that actually makes the irreverence feel fresh and the respect sincere.
  • Aka the one in which Aristotle isn’t totally on speed, and also doesn’t have a beard, which may or may not be related. While I can appreciate excitement making it difficult to fine-tune his face — that must be a chore on the best of days — Mat isn’t so much communicating ‘endearingly kooky’ here as he is ‘climactic freakout of the After-School Special’. Then again, it’s the 60’s, this isn’t exactly unrealistic (or un-educational, come to that). Also he’s onscreen a lot with Jim, so, y’know, precedent.
  • More seriously, like all the most engaging HH musical productions, the seeming effortlessness of this one actually rests on a delicate balance of perfect understanding… you can tell, because this is also the song in which Our Larry the Perpetually Accent-Challenged somehow pulls out a note-perfect takeoff on Ringo. Also Ben contrives to genuinely get in the groove for the first time since that one S2 song with the monks, and this time in full daylight. So I am inclined generally to assume that whatever was in the ether that day, it was good, man.
  • This extends to the intro sketch to the above. Only Willbond’s smug could be simoultaneously annoying enough that people would fully support his execution and yet charming enough that this sketch is a classic… albeit I must admit that Mat and Simon’s frustration looks pretty damn realistic. The result of several run-throughs too many, perhaps? (In other news, there’s something about adorable weasely little Jim beneath that huge helmet plume that tells me the plushie just picked up another accessory.)
  • Hey, speaking of whom, Dom Duckworth! Who is actually starting to really grow on me. Between having stumbled on an excellent subject for this sort of sketch — and a nice complement/followup to the Dissolution last sketch to boot — for once Dom’s on a roll. Which makes the ‘state of the streets’ running gag a really clever idea, because, not to put too fine a point on it, otherwise Jim as hard-nosed reporter would become less and less convincing.
  • Ah, Lawry, every once in awhile I realise why they keep you around… because you can snivel really really convincingly, is what I’m thinking here, so this may not actually be a compliment, sorry. Meantime, Simon’s native ability to slide into that hard, grasping Northern stereotype (shades of Palin and Swamp Castle) has evidently been well under-used up to now.
  • The Elizabeth I Online bit, on the other hand, makes full use of previous funny, so that all the little seemingly throwaway gags in her dad’s original tech foray reappear. It’s just incredibly endearing to me that they’re not only keeping continuity with these details, but expanded on them, so you’ve got this whole totally coherent parody narrative that opens with ‘Mullions XP’ and winds up with Elizabeth changing her relationship status to ‘married… to England’ while Cecil fails utterly to understand the ‘mute’ button.
  • The show has now basically created an entire sitcom around Tudor marital troubles as filtered through modern social media, and frankly, why the hell not? Despite some serious messing with the actual timeline (see below) I am still fully onboard with the sheer on-point cleverness of it all. The individual characterizations are great… much love esp. for Martha, who gives what may be her finest prose performance of the series, esp. when reacting to Amy Dudley’s death.
  • And thus we swing back around to the present, and the LoG… and my ongoing delight. Sorry, kids, I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I really am trying my best; I know they’re increasingly alien to the HH milieu, I know (now) that the concept’s a shameless ripoff — but somehow, the fundamental humour centres of my brain just refuse to be irritated.
  • Really. Confronted full-on with the realisation that that Reece there on the end would ordinarily have us planning to throttle him right through the screen by now, the humour centres just sort of went ‘Ehhhh…’ and gave me an apologetic shrug. Then they pointed out that these bits enable us to fully appreciate Vaguely Swishy Barbarian Jim without actually having to watch the ‘Danke Magazine’ sketch, and what could I do but give in?

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, according to YouTube, the current segment of the Icelandic population with too much time on their hands would like a few words with this episode’s producers re: the characterization of their homeland. Starting with the animated-map-makers who heard ‘Viking’ and went ‘Norway!’ and now will never hear the end of it, ever.
  • On the other hand, Emicho of the Rhineland (more formally Count Emicho of Flonheim, “sometimes incorrectly known as Emicho of Leiningen”, because apparently there was a difference): In this case the Net fully agrees with Rattus, this was one bad dude. Basically he seems to have gotten jealous of the popular Crusade movements of the day — ie., 1096 — and decided to announce that Christ had not only appeared to him in a vision, but offered to make him Emperor of the World and everything once everyone was converted, so there nyah.
  • This being the Dark Ages, this managed to impress some few thousand people (including the ones who worshipped the Spirit-stuffed goose and goat) who promptly marched up and down the Rhine in his name forcibly converting Jews. Or, more often, simply murdering them upon refusal and confiscating their valuables, because apparently Christ had left the question of financing the Second Coming a bit vague, and Emicho was just that kind of go-getter.
  • Right! *cracks knuckles* As noted above, there’s some serious temporal tinkering happening within the Elizabeth I sketch. The actual timeline of major events mentioned (which should give an even better idea of how intricate the sketch itself is) goes like this:
  • 1558: Twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth ascends to the throne, appoints ‘special friend’ Robert Dudley her new Master of Horse (with the right to ride next to her at all times, wink-wink-say-no-more) and immediately starts taking grief from Cecil and her Privy Council — aided and abetted by Parliament — about the whole marriage-and-heirs thing. This is seen as a religious as well as a political duty, and divinely appointed ruler or no, no 16th-century male is about to trust a woman with her own reproductive powers.
  • Elizabeth, in response, immediately starts dangling her eligibility in front of the other great powers of Europe… playing them off one another… spinning out prospective courtships as long as she can… gaining all the favours and concessions that implies. This will eventually evolve into history’s only full-fledged foreign policy based almost entirely around a womb, and will net her even Cecil’s grudging respect, if not approval.
  • 1560: Amy Dudley, wife of Robert, dies under suspicious circs, having been found at the foot of a staircase at her home just hours after insisting all her servants leave her to attend a local fair. Elizabeth acts with characteristic decisive ruthlessness to avoid scandal and preserve her throne, ordering a full inquiry and banishing Dudley from court for the duration.
  • It’s eventually decided that brittle bones caused by advanced breast cancer was enough reason for her to have fallen and broken her own neck — also, the whole ‘advanced cancer’ thing meant there was no real reason to kill her in the first place — but by then Robert Dudley will have already acquired the faintly sinister rep that will follow him throughout history.
  • 1578: Having finally realised that Elizabeth really really meant that whole ‘I will never marry’ thing she first threw at him when they were, like, five, Dudley — now Earl of Leicester — defiantly hooks up with her cousin Lettice Knollys instead. Liz is furious, but just can’t quit her Robert, so takes revenge by banishing Lettice from court while requiring her man there constantly.
  • 1584: Leicester’s stepson, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, comes to court under stepdad’s sponsorship (in much the same way William Cecil is concurrently grooming young son Robert to take his place). By now Liz is of course well past marrying age, but still, evidently, highly susceptible to handsome young silver-tongued courtiers.
  • 1588: Leicester dies. A grieving Queen takes further steps to set Essex up in his place, naming him the new Master of Horse and granting him his stepdad’s lucrative patents, as well as sending him out on military expeditions, notably to Ireland. That the vain, arrogant, rash youth deserves none of it will take a few more years yet to sink in.
  • 1591: Sir Walter Raleigh does not, in fact, ask the Queen before he marries Bess Throckmorton, hence spends his honeymoon  in the Tower. It’s generally conceded that this likely had a personal component.
  • 1601: Essex, having arrogantly, rashly etc. made a hash of his Irish assignment and further disobeyed orders not to return until it was fully straightened out, is deprived of his privileges and patents. Desperate, he decides to foment rebellion against the evil advisors he’s certain must be poisoning the Queen’s mind against him. This largely consists of Essex wandering the streets yelling ‘To arms! To arms!” and then being all kinds of surprised when exactly nobody flocks to his banner. He’s eventually arrested and executed.
  • 1603: Elizabeth dies age 70, by all accounts still a virgin. It was one hell of a ride.
 
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Posted by on July 1, 2013 in Series Four

 

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