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)
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!”)
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.”)
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!”
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!”)
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.
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.
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!”)
- 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.
- 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.