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!
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.
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.”)
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?”)
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!”
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!”
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.
- 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?
- 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.