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.
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!”)
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!“)
Fashion Follies — Victorian England: redefining unnecessary and impractical as the height of civilization since 1837.
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…”
- 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.
- 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.