Ooh, goody! Amateur scientists are so much more fun than professional ones…
As has become the usual, the series wraps up with a funny and full reminder of exactly how much there will be to miss… perhaps a leetle too full a reminder, by now.
In this episode:
Song: (We’re the) Georgian Navy — Jim returns as ultimate All-England manager Admiral Horatio Nelson to oversee a motley team of enthusiastic new recruits, including Ben, Mat, Larry, Simon and Jalaal.
Stupid Deaths — Robert Cocking, ‘professional watercolour artist and amateur scientist’ (Sought a better parachute, carefully taking into consideration all variables… except the weight of the parachute itself. Oops. “Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to test it with a dummy first? Ooh, wait, you already did, didn’t you! Hah!”)
Historical Dentist — Ancient Roman (“Now, we need the blood of a man who’s been killed in a violent way, and I think we’re all out. Do you mind fetching me some, Mandy?” *AUUUGHH! EEEEK!* “… they never outrun Mandy…”)
Historical Masterchef — Tudor (“I’m – looking – thoughtful.” “I’m – SHOUTING!”)
Horrible Movie Pitch — The Alfred the Great Project (“I don’t want to be remembered for a cake story that never happened! This could be a great movie!” “Yeah, you’re right. And guess what? It’s called Alfred the Cake. Somebody get me Ashton Kutcher on the phone, we got a hit…!” “Ooh, look, Cake Guy’s getting upset!”)
Words We Get From the — Greeks: Scholarly
Historical Mastermind — Ancient Greek scholar
Bob Hale — The Napoleon Report (“… as he helps to overthrow the monarchy and protect the new people’s government. An act that wins him fame, wealth, influence and helicopters — though probably not that last one.”)
Necropolis Railway — “When you run out of room to bury people in the city it does make sense to put your cemeteries further out — and you do get a lovely day in the countryside!” “Ooh, yes, it’s very convenient. And my husband does love trains!… or, well, he did..”
Tarpeian Rocks — In which we discover the characteristically elegant-yet-ruthless Roman solution to ensuring people thrown to their deaths off cliffs actually die… well, having the ensurers stand directly below, that maybe needed work. (“Now, always stay tight to the cliff, because… *thud* *urghh* …hmmm, should’ve started with that one first, shouldn’t I? My bad!”)
The Prince of Paranoia — Towards the end of his life Henry VIII developed a real fear that his enemies — up to and including Death — were out to get him, and took (some very odd) measures accordingly. I’ve no idea why he’d think something so outlandish, do you?
New! Saxon Bank — “Literally a bank of earth! Interest rates are at an all-time low, so your secret stash of treasure will attract zero interest (from Vikings)!… Just don’t forget where you buried it all…”
The Gordian Knot — Unravel it, the prophecy said, and all of Asia is yours. Luckily, when not ominously sniffing subordinates, Alexander the Great liked to spend time literally cutting to the chase. (“Now, where’s my Asia?!” “Uh… over… there, sort of…”)
So now would probably be a good time to admit it: Series Four is far and away my favourite patch of HH goodness. As chronicled therein I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Series Two, of course; but not long into my first viewing of S4 I began to suspect that the one was merely the natural extension of my affectionate nostalgia for the other. The even-numbered HH series represent the leaps forward into what we think of as classic HH style, while the odd-numbered… well, consolidate those gains, let’s say.
This review project has confirmed that theory, in spades, with several cherries on top. If S2 was a joyous, anarchistic, ambitiously creative rollercoaster ride, S4 is that same rollercoaster made bigger, more elaborately engineered and accordingly that much more exhilarating. (Again, as me and my fear of heights are assuming. We do have a small nephew who studies these things in-depth.) And it concludes here, even more so than most series-ending episodes, with a shot of essential, endearing familiarity.
The flipside — and in some ways the spice — to all this being I likewise already knew Series Five wasn’t going to offer anything more. That the cast would have a chance to play on the same field as established here was tremendously exciting… but just a trifle poignant, as well. The producers had always been adamant that the show would go out ‘while it was still popular’, and as the creative completeness of S4 became obvious, this provoked a sort of low-level uneasiness re: just how much longer it could be justified under those circs.
Thus the sort of rose-coloured sentimentality that makes one actually appreciate a sketch whose entire point is transporting bodies to a cemetery. Because in S2, it would’ve been a fun but forgettable throwaway (possibly still involving random limbs flopping out). But two series and one massive evolutionary shift in creative purpose later, it’s just all kinds of surefire, hilariously morbid stuff, performed with the snappy ease of chemistry enhanced by genuine affection.
- Speaking of which, only between a man and — to all appearances — his coffins: Never change, Laurence Carl Rickard. Never, ever change.
- Especially, never change the sheer enthusiasm that has me much less worried for Bobsy Hale going forward, now that you have demonstrated that you quite literally can’t help it, and helicopters to boot. (I was going to complain about your blatantly reusing the ‘give the Bonaparte brothers countries instead of socks’ gag, but then realised I was probably the only one who noticed.. until now, of course. Oops.)
Much the same nostalgic overcoming effect is strong with the Tarpeian Rocks sketch. Technically it all goes on much too long for the slender point — especially since the same point was already made, with little plastic wings on, in S3’s ‘Angel of Death’ bit — but in practice, by now, there is no limit on how much classic loopy Farnaby is enough, nor Worried Mat as his foil. In the case of Jim’s little wavering offscreen pleas from the falling criminals, this holds true regardless of how long you’ve been watching.
- In fact, I am so on the Hallmark-card verge here that I am perilously close to deciding to settle for what I can get, re: Ben and Henry VIII. Because while some real hints of complex menace would be nice, the childish-idiot-ness has here at least acquired some very acceptable Blackadder-y edges. Up to and including Jim’s relentless devotion so neatly paying off as a sort of pop-up target.
- It’s all going a bit too brilliantly apparently; you can almost see the seam where inspiration becomes over-excitement, and on the other side is the *sigh* more usual cliche of Henry as endlessly beef-gnawing glutton. Really not at all sure why the show stubbornly refuses to clue into the fact that the actual major difficulty in getting him up the stairs were his horrendously ulcerated legs (as per below), the sores by all accounts were wonderfully oozy, smelly and putrid…
- …Erm, *ahem*, terribly painful I mean of course. There is apparently also a slight downside to hanging out with this outfit so long… or possibly just with the rat and his shamelessly teeny-excited-paw-laden snarkiness leading me into temptation. Albeit he’s grown up a little bit too, this series; clearly the increasing contrast between demographic ambitions and puppet-intensive comedy has led to a compromise. I would complain about the concurrent lack of squee-worthy teeny accessories, except that (spoiler alert) I have also seen the next episode.
- At any rate, even when Alexander the Great encounters the, uh, other sketch-worthy moment of his career, Ben still isn’t helping with the cliches nearly as much as I suspect he could. (Given the way they play this scenario up, though, I am guessing this must be kind of annoying for the writers, the otherwise deeply, boringly efficient way Alex went about being Horrible.)
- So no, there’s no sniffing. There is, however, a lot of hissing. This… Oh, what the hell, I can make the nostalgia value stretch just that much further, why not. If I remain convinced that Willbond has been something less than fully inspired this series, it here at least makes an excellent foil for Larry and Simon’s more-than-usually nuanced goofballery.
- …Also, there was the juggling. Oh, and the Asterix impression, that makes up for a lot too.
- The unexpected — and/or inexplicable — return of Historical Mastermind, on the other hand, acts merely as an object lesson in how the writers taking an obvious snit against a parody target does not automatically result in oodles of inspired hijinx. At all. ‘Nikos Ancientgreekios’?! Really, show? Really? Not to say that watching Ben’s smug coping with yo-yo trivia isn’t mildly amusing, but you didn’t figure the whole skit being a nakedly blatant lift of an entire previous song would distract just a smidge?
- Mind you, again, the repurposing the S1 stuff generally, probably less of a problem given CBBC viewers’ attention spans than a cranky adult critic person (currently obsessively reviewing every episode) has been willing to concede up to now. Even if it is merely about running out of surefire factoids faster than sketch ideas, it can still work on the grownup level when writerly experience (and, apparently, whacking great doses of childhood trauma) is applied properly.
- Or, y’know, with total self-indulgent abandon. What I am getting at here is that, despite my open scepticism of their motives up to now, the Historical Dentist team has decided to treat me to a denouement beyond my wildest Horrible Points of View-influenced daydreams. Featuring a blood-streaked Sarah loyally backing up Very Civilized Roman Mat — who, from the hairstyle, got into dentistry after pounding criminals to death on the Tarpeian Rocks proved strangely unfulfilling — and Civilian Larry as the patient bemusedly watching all this.
- Now, I do feel it incumbent on me, as also a (marginally) responsible adult critic person, just to mention that blatantly using the medical factoids to reach new heights of sophisticated black comedy is not precisely the Surgeon General’s approved method for moulding juvenile attitudes to health care. Not for the first time am I entertaining myself by adding to the mental list of therapy bills the show will likely find itself being served with in the next decade…
- …And trust me, I am grateful. Even more than I was to discover it’s Death’s deathday, and so the party-hat wearing skeletons and mummy have bought him a nice little cake from the grocery. Chocolate, mmm!… Sorry? Yes, of course there was a death, and it was very stupid. That special sort of HH stupid that comes with an actual little to-do list of stupid, which always makes my cockles auto-warm. Or it would, if I wasn’t already happily lost in Dr. Phil’s ideal of purgatory. “It’s a joke… Oh, you got it? Well, tell your face!”
- All this and we haven’t even gotten to the Masterchef segment yet! Which I am kind of OK with, because I had completely forgotten there even were five MC segments this series. That the fifth contestant is Lawry in full whinge mode, yeah, that’d partly explain it, but I’m at a bit of a loss to begin with as to how they so badly overshot the natural end of this bit.
- After blowing up the sexual harassment and hauling out the bottom-slicing you’d figure a team as sharp as they’ve demonstrated recently would’ve realised the novelty value was officially exhausted; but no, we’re stuck watching as what was once needle-fine satire devolves into helplessly-flailing schtick… well, yeah, there is that one little moment where Jim, told vegetables cause hair loss, goes to check his scalp. Otherwise, HMasterchef, I shall prefer to remember you in your prime.
- The LoG’s Movie Pitch bits, meanwhile, have much more smartly been saved as occasional treats, and are thus — as far as I’m concerned at least — still very much on the top of their game. Yep, sorry kids, still giggling helplessly… granted, assisted by their own growing glee in the part, and even more so Mat’s gloriously, hilariously, yet almost surreally convincing turn as Alfred ‘Don’t Call Me Cake Guy!’ the Great.
- Needlessly harping again I know, but frankly that bottom-burning business last ep is shaping up to be the absolute least of his performances this year. There are worse ways to sum S4 up than by noting that, while a strict count reveals Ben actually played the most roles — several more in fact than Mat — the refrain from viewers all series long (not to say mine here, earlier) was nearly equally divided between “Too much Baynton, nobody else can get a look in!” and “Not enough Willbond, where’s he got to?”
Finally, there is the song, or more accurately the anthem. “Playing with these balls can really do you harm…” oh, sure, why not? It’s about as close as this production gets to the authentic naval atmosphere. Seriously, I place it here because it is so obviously the final summing-up of all that joyous, endearing etc stuff I was babbling about — very much including one of the aforementioned rare moments Ben gets to shine through.
Strictly considered as a production it is an engaging mix of brightly enthusiastic and handsomely lavish, and the song is a right rousing example of its kind — a Gilbert & Sullivan version of Horatio Hornblower, substituting energetic clutter for the choreography and sporty posturing for the chest-pounding. Even if you’re not familiar with the parody source, it’s all endless amounts of good, verging on genuinely witty, fun. No surprise (esp. if you follow him on Twitter) to learn it was co-written by Greg Jenner…
…however I was a bit startled to discover the cute l’il mute peasant so far indulging his dark side as to force Jim to sing about how ‘the [Arsenal] Gunners are my team!’. American viewers: Jim is a diehard Tottenham Spurs supporter, making this the NFL equivalent of trapping a Chicago Bears fan into belting out ‘The Packers are my team!’ in front of many thousands. With a huge smile on his face. What the hell, Greg, did he steal your red stapler or something?
It’s all not quite enough to make it onto the list of true HH classics — although it should be noted in connection with same that I’m speaking from entirely outside the football ethos. Regardless, it does something that in the moment is even more precious: it captures the pure essence of the matter perfectly, all four ridiculously amazing years of it. Certainly, there is still Series Five to go… but for me at least, an oddly satisfying sort of closure had already been achieved.
- The really annoying thing about the insistence on the Greek inventions stuff (OK, besides Ben’s hair) is that, as noted back in S01E12, it’s based on a deeply shaky premise: that any one civilization, specially in an era prior to reliable recordkeeping, can claim the ultimate discovery of anything… and yeah, trust me, where national pride is concerned, even who gets to claim the yo-yo can become a YouTube battleground.
- Henry VIII’s weight, also a rather deceptively complex issue. Sure, he was a big eater of more or less all the wrong things, as was pretty much every other upper-class type at the time — the Renaissance had by then revealed many strange and wonderful things to the medieval European mind, but the existence of cholesterol was not one of them.
- First time I’ve heard the ‘vegetables carry disease’ thingy, though… not sure how they proved that one, given that logically the entire human population would’ve been long decimated by then, but moving on…
- The thing is, the Tudor royal diet wasn’t always the problem. Besides being well over six feet and strongly-built with it, in his youth Henry was actually quite the handsome strapping athletic type, renowned across the entire continent as the very model of princely perfection in both mind and body. (Think Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, only actually doing the accent.) Under these circs, the vast appetite was merely one facet of his enthusiastic efforts to live up to the part.
- It wasn’t until some years into the production, with age and accumulated injury — jousting alone was pretty much guaranteed to turn you into a modernist sculpture of yourself — that the more familiar image of ‘Bluff King Hal’ started to take shape. In particular, one fall from a horse had left him with severely ulcerated legs. Basically? Ugly, perpetually inflamed, incredibly painful running sores that due to their location (and the fact that the Renaissance hadn’t been much help with medical hygiene, either) refused to heal.
- So yeah, eventually his only princely consolation was sitting around having banquets, so there was less than nothing to stop all that athletic musculature from rapidly dissolving into slouchy fat. By the time he’d reached the point shown here — near his death, at only 55 — he wasn’t only being helped up stairs but winched onto his horse in armour with a 50-plus-inch waist. (Also, marrying wife No.6, Catherine Parr, almost solely for her manner beside the bed, not in it. If the drift is clear.)
- Finally, no. 31457 in the You Probably Weren’t Wondering But Too Bad, It’s Interesting files: how the approximately 25m/80ft (just low enough to warrant those executioners) Tarpeian Rock got its name. Turns out it was perfectly in keeping with the general pathetic-ness:
- According to early Roman histories, when the Sabine ruler Titus Tatius attacked Rome after the Rape of the Sabines (8th century BC), the Vestal Virgin Tarpeia, daugter of Spurius Tarpeius, governor of the citadel on the Capitoline Hill, betrayed the Romans by opening the city gates for the Sabines in return for ‘what they bore on their arms.’ She believed that she would receive their golden bracelets. Instead, the Sabines crushed her to death with their shields, and her body was buried in the rock that now bears her name.