RSS

Monthly Archives: August 2013

S04E12

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.

Recurring sketches:

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.”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

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..”

Rotten Romans

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!”)

Terrible Tudors

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?

Smashing Saxons

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…”

Groovy Greeks

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…”)

Field Notes:

  • 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.

95% Accu-rat:

  • 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.
Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 26, 2013 in Series Four

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

S04E11

Normally, I’d say you’re through over my dead body. But for fear that you might slice the bottom off my dead body and then eat it, we are saying you’re through to the next round. Or rather, Roland is…
*squibbbbrgugurk* *urrrghhh*
…Congratulations.

The quest for all-ages appeal nears its logical conclusion, featuring some old standby concepts reinterpreted with a newly assured comedic edge…

In this episode:

Song: William Shakespeare — Mat as a smoothly soulful Bard sings about his influence on the English language; with Ben, Jim, Martha and Larry as his one-night only backup, The Quills.

Recurring sketches:

Historical Masterchef — Crusader Knight and his Old Crone (“I have literally – no – idea – what – I’m – talking – about!” “I – enjoy – eating – beef!“)

Historical Dentist — Ancient Egypt (“Must be something to do with the worms…” “What worms?!” “Oh, we Egyptians believe that mouth-worms are the cause of dental decay. Anyway, open up and say ‘Ra!”‘)

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

Raven (Mad) Observation — Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed’s lofty scientific ambitions are being frustrated by some very mundane realities, and anything-but-mundane Charles II isn’t… exactly… helping. (“I’ll build you a new observatory at Greenwich.” “Oh, thank you, your Majesty! You are truly dedicated to science and the pursuit of knowledge!” “Big time. And it’s a great excuse for a massive opening party!”)

Dr.Culpeper’s Health Spa — For treatment that is truly bizarre! “We’re equipped to deal with any number of health problems. From coughs, chronic indigestion and stomach worms to a splitting headache! Whatever the ailment, an intensive course of smoking tobacco will really do the trick!”

Nasty Knights

My Husband Went to the Crusades… — …and all he brought me back was a daffy lot of spices, perfumes, fruit, home furnishings, shawls and just generally everything but gold. Oh, and a weird fixation on something he calls ‘juggling’.

Terrible Tudors

The News in Tudor Criminal Slang — All who suspected it’d sound even more convoluted and nonsensical than the Victorian version, raise your hands… Great, you’re already doing better than the onscreen translator. (“And now over to Carl, our Soothsayer, with the headlines in groundless superstition.” “Auuuggghhh! We’re doomed! Doooomed!” “Thanks for that, Carl.”)

Spelling Bee — Non-standardised spelling in the Middle Ages means we’re really lucky even to be able to read Shakespeare’s plays… said no modern student, ever.

Measly Middle Ages

King John Online — How the most inept autocrat in English royal history single-handedly brought the concept of absolute monarchy to its knees, as retold via modern social media. Complete with Mullions XP, MaceBook, Twaddler… and of course woodcut LOLcats. “I can haz roast swan?”

Awful Egyptians

New! Egypt 2000 BC Hair Dye — Is he or isn’t he? Only his hairdresser knows… besides anybody within a ten-kilometre radius possessing a functional sense of smell. Now with a special ingredient: putrid donkey liver!

Vile Victorians

A Manner of Life or Death — A suitor’s efforts to save his beloved’s dear papa risk mortally offending him anyway. (“Well, you certainly have a cheek!” “So do you, sir, and it is on fire!“)

House (sic) Hunting — The good news: we’ve finally moved on from Victorian child labour. The bad news: we’ve now become fixated on Victorian slum conditions. Of course, for the shabby-genteel poor of the time, it was no joke at all…

Field Notes:

  • Right, despite everything (and, OK, the kitchen sink) technically this is still a children’s series. By now, I’m feeling the need to mention that as a sort of public service announcement, for I am confronted here with a really breathtaking display of ‘all-ages comedy’, an episode in which the kiddy-centric silliness is actually almost entirely — and clearly very deliberately — composed of all the adult inflections children wouldn’t possibly be able to grasp.
  • Of course, on most levels this is great. It’s this series’ ambitions fulfilled, a uniquely remarkable cross-demographic fusion achieved, and not incidentally this project validated for another series’ worth of reviews. Thing is, I’m also a bit discombobulated by the fact that slack still needs to be cut for less mature sensibilities… or does it? When confronted with evidence of CBBC viewer-level expectations, do I complain about the lack of artistic merit, or should I be frankly grateful we haven’t gotten around to actually butchering dead bodies on camera yet?
  • Look, why don’t we just sort of ease in slowly, with the miracle of mildly inappropriate hilarity that was my first encounter with ‘described audio’. See, I didn’t realise that was the version I’d downloaded until I had happily flipped to the song first thing… only to be confronted with Random Disembodied Soothing Voice: “He steps onto the stage.” *song* “He steps off the stage.” Even once I peeled myself off the ceiling, this did not strike me as all that helpful, somehow.
  • Ooh, and hey, did you know Ben can juggle? Because he so can. Yeppers, Benjamin Willbond’s mad juggling skillz, everybody! I know, I’m far too easily amused by the juxtaposition of uber- British-ness and non-sequitur party tricks. But that this combo should turn up twice in the same episode… *snerk*… Strangely, however, there is no audio description in either case. Someone at the BBC is slacking. (“He picks up the potatoes.” “He moves the potatoes around his head in a controlled motion.”)
  • *ahem* Back to stuff actually designed for my enjoyment. Like, for instance, cliched Shakespeare quotes reinterpreted as big-band standard tuneage. This is so much my idea of pop-cultural mashup bliss that my first thought on hearing of it was: ‘Oh shoot, Mat has to sing that, doesn’t he?’ Sure enough, he doesn’t *quite* have what it takes to run with the Rat Pack, and there evidently proved to be no way to mash up what he does have with Jim’s voice, so it’s the first time I can hear Baynton consciously imitating, rather than simply inhabiting, a genre.
  • Mind you, I also have the genre-sensitive ears of someone with a babysitting auntie who figured, if she had to listen to Sesame Street for hours at a time, we had to demonstrate like reverence for her Sinatra collection. Once I consciously re-calibrated critical expectations using S3’s Stone Age jazz, ‘William Shakey’ proves worth the listen. He’s having a great time with a concept that he could’ve sung off-key from start to finish and still hardly have screwed it up, and he’s by no means screwing it up. The quiet bits in fact are genuinely lovely.
  • I say ‘listen’ instead of ‘viewing’ because nothing’s going to get my instincts around how no-one else — least of all the Quills — even bothers to try for the stylish, snappy unison you’d think would be fundamental to the parody. As mentioned, sort of a bad time to beg sympathy for childishness, there, show. Although, again, I’m not quite sure what I’d suggest doing about it, since I’d likewise hate to lose their respective interpretations — esp the way our Benny there continues to prove to me that it’s possible to love cricket and have soul at the same time. Just full of surprises, that man.
  • (Larry, contrariwise, seems content merely to provide eye candy, which in this context at least is a trifle disappointing. Possibly the BBC censors had a little talk with him re: the Boast Battle business?)
  • It should come as no surprise whatsoever by now, in any HH milestone of edge-sharpening, to discover a perfectly-coiffed Baynton right at the heart of it all — you can tell they’ve really upped the ante this time, because he’s also wearing a beauty-spot. Thus this episode of HMasterchef turns out to be easily the most memorable of them all, featuring Mat the diva-esque knight finally taken to his disturbingly logical extreme. Yeah, boyo, you work that hair… and that, uh, tongue, and… oh, right, the dysentery, I’d hate to deprive you of your big showstopping party piece. Although not for the first time I am left wondering what it’s like, having a career in which you melodramatically suffer violent gastrointestinal upset and the audience is going “What, *again*?”
  • The really amazing bit is that this all isn’t just a performance, it’s a theme. Sort of what’d happen if they did one of those things where other artists interpreted HH their own way, and Masterchef wound up in the hands of, ooooh, say, Adam Lambert. The gentle foodie satire somehow now features croquettes de corpses’ bottom, and from there devolves into Ben discussing his own bottom being sliced and served, all the while never changing his usual expression. All amid the suddenly-blatant sexual harassment of Saxon Larry. My newly savvy British media sense would suggest the whole thing as the inevitable next level for the reality-show sketches, except my North American instincts are too busy blinking.
  • Mat’s ability to keep a straight face in the midst of all the coif-centric vamping just about holds out through the later Egyptian hair dye advert, so the really unsettled viewer is free to assume this is all a Zoolander-esque fantasy happening in some dim model’s head backstage at the fashion show… or, y’know, whatever location suits your settling needs. Me, I’m kind of vamped out at this point and would rather dwell on Charles II.
  • Who’s seen here at his most absolutely, infuriatingly charming… possibly because this is the first time Mat’s been given a chance to perform him opposite Jim. The sketch itself is based on no more than a whimsical little legend (see below), but I can see why it’d be far too good to pass up — even besides the poo jokes. Uniquely lively, intelligent stuff, in much the same key as the earlier Columbus sketch, and a minor triumph of the writers’ ability not only to work the troupe’s chemistry but keep it fresh.
  • Totally apropos of which, when Mat’s long-awaited Biggest Silliest Character Moment Ever finally does arrive, it amusingly finds him partnered with Larry expanding the straight and subdued act. In fact, that our Laurence makes such a convincingly sweet, dignified old-timey suitor turns out to be much the more satisfying suprise characterisation…
  • …. since when his biggest, etc. moment does arrive, Mat looks (and sounds) disconcertingly not so much like he’s performing anything as that he’s having a sort of grand mal seizure. Clearly, he and I had been operating on slightly different definitions of ‘biggest and silliest’, here. At any rate, I’m still more impressed by Tsar Peter, not to mention most everything else he’s played this series.
  • The same sketch is also trying to pass off Martha as Mat’s daughter, which I’d suggest is taking the whacky casting hijinks just a tad too far (*tsk*, typical, just when you want Simon, he’s nowhere to be found). Despite it all, though, I’m glad they finally found a nifty way to get across this uber-obvious but tricky material. That they’ve worked their way up from trying to be subtle about in-your-face gross stuff to being totally in-your-face about repression, I find sort of adorable all by itself.
  • And with Larry around, it’s not like there’s ever going to be a shortage of authentic over-the-top silliness. Dr. Culpeper’s skit rests solely on the Rickardian weird, and… man, I’d forgotten exactly how seriously he takes that kind of challenge. Revenge re: being stuck in that HHospital bed for two series might have something to do with it too, come to think of it. At any rate, he fully succeeds in single-handedly making this routine medical sketch into the natural followup to …whatever’s going on with HMasterchef. Featuring forlornly logical Jim as the perfect foil in both cases: “We could just open a window…?”
  • Both the medical malevolence — psycho Larry, now with bonus access to drills! — and the factual repurposing from S1 continue into the HDentist installment. Thus I must conclude that the writers are just that desperate either to avoid losing their tooth-phobic psychodrama or the chance to put the male cast in civilian dress.Or both. Watching Sarah hotfoot after that mouse while Civilian Jim desperately negotiates with a guy wearing Tutankhamen’s hat, I am… less inclined to blame them for any of this than I was last week.
  • Jim’s really big moment this episode is of course the latest Net sketch… well, not all that big a moment technically, since as per usual these bits have opened the floodgates of writerly snarkiness. In between the above-noted plus Macrosoft Tax Raiser, “Ooh, that is a lot of capital letters, he is not a happy man…” and (especially) the Magna Carta as the ultimate in ‘oh, nobody reads the terms and conditions’, all Jim really has to do is hang on for the ridiculously engaging ride.
  • Mind, he does get another crack at the Hey Nonny Nonny a Family Member’s Dead schtick, which is by definition never a bad thing. The whole thing is basically a clinic in how to do adult-level Information Age comedy without actually resorting to ‘adult’ online references. Not forgetting of course Simon, Mat and Larry all having an absolutely wonderful time entertaining themselves on the margins… the kind of stuff that makes you more impatient for Yonderland than all the special f/x going.
  • Speaking of margins, the little throwaway bits here do a lot to keep the anticipation going too, also. Esp. Martha in the other Crusader bit, making the most of her big chance to get in on the ‘long list’ act. None of it’s incredibly original, but really well written and executed, and a nice way to get the point across re: how quickly the exotic becomes mundane… not forgetting Ben’s *snerk* *snicker*  juggling.
  • OK, so the ‘Tudor Criminal Slang’ bit is basically a massively pointless overworking of a joke that was only mildly amusing to begin with… but I do like how solemnly Simon takes his job, complete with the formal little gestures… and Carl is just all kinds of awesome. If we really had to revisit this format, how come we couldn’t’ve just redone the ‘Forecast via Superstitions’ bit, that was genuinely fresh, amusing and interesting?
  • The other Victorian bit… I’m not sure how to take it, honestly. Part of me enjoys the familiar huckster schtick, realises anew how the sheer earnestness of Ben’s attempts to play a common type makes them that much more watchably endearing, and revels in  the chance to see Dominique again…
  • …,and the other part always insists on constructing an elaborate backstory wherein these two’ve been thrown out of their just-barely-respectable homes when he got a black girl pregnant and she decided to stay with him, and now they have to go live in their own filth, and as you can imagine this all provides a rather harsh reminder that enjoying adult implications comes at a price. So, uh, mission accomplished I guess?

95% Accu-rat:

  • I am pleased to report that Dr. Nicholas Culpeper — despite being descended from the family that also included Thomas, famed Tudor bonker of Queen Catharine Howard — was not, in fact, the seventeenth-century’s version of Dr. Doom. In fact, he seems more to have been the equivalent of that one self-described ‘holistic naturopath’ at the health food shop who stocks Deepak Chopra and otherwise spends most days lecturing customers on how ‘Big Pharma’s just in it for the money, man, they don’t care about the people…’ As you can imagine, this all has gone over very well with like-minded folks to this day. Including evidently the editors of his Wiki page, which formally describes him as a ‘botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer’.
  • Mind you, back in his day he had a much better point, given that the contemporary equivalent of Big Pharma involved charging fat fees and quoting extensively in Latin for things like blood-letting and having their patients send random urine samples in to be examined in their stead.  Essentially Culpeper was fascinated with natural cures — eventually compiling an exhaustive herbal — and notably vocal about their benefits as a means of actually helping the patients, as opposed to making their prescribers wealthy. All of which noble motive, as the sketch notes and a quick skim of the chapter on ‘English Tobacco’ confirms, should be held distinct from the accuracy of his conclusions. Especially the part about the ‘integration of astrological principles’.
  • I often feel like a total killjoy in these notes, and never more than now, but yeah, the thing with Charles II and the ravens, most likely an apocryphal legend (one that occasionally features His Merry Majesty as the one peeved at the droppings, and Flamsteed as the one urging him not to banish the ravens because “if you do that, you will lose your kingdom, having only just got it back!”). A close examination of the records indicates that the first evidence of captive ravens showed up in the mid-nineteenth century, possibly propagated by a noble family with a thing for ancient raven gods… and you thought Wikipedia was boring!
  • Which is not to say the current UK powers that be — the same people, you’ll recall, who consider a Swan Master essential to the national well-being — aren’t right on this whole preventing-the-kingdom-from-falling thing. To this day, there’s a nice healthy raven population (six adults plus spare, plus fledglings on their way up) kept constantly at the Tower, under the… wait for it… Raven Master. Who has to work for his beer and skittles, don’t think he doesn’t. You ever spend time with a raven? They’re big. And mean. And smart. I am not of course suggesting this whole gig sounds exactly like something they’d’ve come up with to prank the pink hairless apes… I am just suggesting.
  • I’m pretty sure the whole saga of the Magna Carta (Latin for ‘Great Charter’) is on the finals in most UK history classrooms, so won’t get into the details here except to confirm that the sketch manages to bung in quite an impressive number of them, in the right order more or less, and as an excuse to provide the link to this lovely interactive British Library guide that allows the visitor actually to read the original document.
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 19, 2013 in Series Four

 

Tags: , , , ,

S04E10

So the Normans built a huge wooden tower for a witch to curse the Saxons, and show them her bottom. The Saxons got revenge by burning the tower down… hence the old saying: Red sky at night, witches’ bottom alight!

The annual late-series lull is enlivened by long-overdue time spent with some of the show’s most memorably enigmatic characters… just not necessarily quality time.

In this episode:

Song: Bloody Mary — Sarah solo as that most angsty of anomalies: a pathetic Tudor princess. (Parody of: Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights)

Recurring sketches:

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From just off the coast of the Isle of Ely, last Anglo-Saxon stronghold, 1071 (“So I presume there’s a Plan B, Your Majesty?” “Yes, of course there’s a Plan B!” “Which is?” “Right. But I think one witch ought to do it, don’t you?”)

Stupid Deaths — Pythagoras (Killed when his religious beliefs prevented him from escaping assassins through a beanfield… no, really. “Well, you’ve been stupid… or, rather, you’ve bean stupid! Hah!”)

Historical Wife Swap — Victorian Britain: The Tombleby-Pumblechooks of Mayfair (“Oh, dash it all, Parkins! We have guests, and there’s a crease in the newspaper!“) -vs- the Smikes of the London slums (“An’ if we kick the dead body out of the way, we’ll have somewhere for you to kip for the night!”)

Historical Dating Service — Saxon (“Can I ask a personal question?” “Sagittarius.” “Noooo, not that one. Do Saxons ever… bathe… at all?”)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Normanopoly — “The board game that lets you invade England alongside William the Conqueror!… and the great thing is, you can just make up the rules as you go along!” (“Well, I better build another church, I’m about to do something… reeeeeeaaaaallly bad! Heh heh heh…” “…You need to work on your evil laugh, boss.”)

Groovy Greeks

Diogenes and Me — In which the most famously crusty of ancient thinkers reveals the extreme unlikelihood of his philosophy of honesty and simplicity ever hitting the best-seller lists… (“Hey! Whaddaya think you’re doing?” “Oh, sorry, mate, I had no idea there was a naked man in that barrel… wait, why is there a naked man in that barrel?!”)

Smashing Saxons

Don’t Go Into the Woods — “OK, then… we must journey through the rocks!” “Are you insane? We can’t go through the rocks! Giants live in the rocks!” “Have you seen one?” “No… but I’ve seen things they built! Big, huge things!” “What, you mean the… rocks?” “Speak not of them!

Putrid Pirates

New! Keelhauling: The Ultimate Exfoliating Experience — The pirate skin care revolution!... Sharp barnacle-studded ship keel not included… but the introductory lashing is free!

HHTV Cribs: Inside Blackbeard — The legendary badass of the seven seas somehow decides to celebrate this by appearing on an MTV parody more frequently associated with the likes of Justin Timberlake. Truly, the Time Sewers work in mysterious ways.

Terrible Tudors

Whipping Boy — How do his teachers punish a Prince when they’re all commoners? Why, find a commoner to punish instead, of course.

Field Notes:

  • So here we are once again at that inevitable little valley in every HH series, into which the producers basically dump off all the stuff that just was never going to make the BAFTA hilight reel. By now it’s practically become a tradition in and of itself — and it can be equally interesting, in its own way.
  • Especially so in this series full of elaborate experiments, wherein creative failure translates mostly to the pieces that rely too much on the tried-and-true schticks. Which obviously isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Most everything here would’ve quite possibly been the hilight of, say, mid-Series Three — but now, when the standard is soaring to new heights, they fall with a clunk… one not un-reminiscent of a fake snowball, in fact.
  • Thus it’s kind of ironic that ‘Bloody’ Mary I as interpreted by Kate Bush, ie. the ultimate in potential misfires, is the one thing in the episode that not only works but succeeds amazingly well. Both in style and substance — features some of the best pure songwriting of the series, in fact. And a great performance from Sarah… no, really. As it is the flailing gets a bit tiresome toward the end, imagine what could’ve been had she not thrown herself into it and made it work.
  • The execution is nice, too. Kind of a shame Alice couldn’t have had a crack at the vocal though, since real-life Mary had a much deeper, almost gruff voice. She was also renowned for her love of rich fabrics and bling; granted they’d be much harder to flail in, but it still would’ve made a nice accurate textural wrinkle, so to speak, and…
  • OK, fine, mostly what we’ve learned here is that I’m never going to be happy. But the more I listen, the more I’m convinced by the pure visceral rightness of the creative response at least. They’ve finally developed some real, delicate sensitivity where the Tudors are concerned. Not only limiting themselves to only the one brief maniacal smile re: the burnings, actually giving Mary a chance to hint at the moral complexity behind them! Good show! Have a cooky.
  • Giving William I depth and nuance, on the other hand, not so much on the agenda. Understandably, since having Farnaby’s grasp of non-sequitur loopiness around means you always want to get your money’s worth… and boy howdy, do they get it here. Even though I kind of miss the original magnificently elaborate costuming, not to mention Greg the loyal squire.
  • Anyway, sticking Gallic Simon front and centre has in turn has resulted in Ben having all kinds of trouble keeping a straight face, to the extent that it rather spoils the Peabody effect. Can’t blame him much for that, I’m sitting here tickled all over myself. And he does contrive eventually to get himself trapped in a burning tower with a witch showing her bottom, thus neatly and completely fulfilling all my MP needs for oh, say, ever.
  • It’s the sketch that has everything, in fact, except any real creative stretching. Besides which, it could plausibly be argued, a lot of potential for wild, dark, spooky weirdness in the atmosphere is going to waste. But again, an executive decision has been taken in favour of adorable quirkiness… and I still can’t complain. Esp. not about Martha in the pointy hat being all awkward at the camera. Damn but this troupe is good. Or charming. Or good at being charming.
  • Even were I inclined to grumble, the Normanopoly bit is up next, and it features Simon just full-on channelling Dr. Evil while Larry critiques, so. It’s the one sketch here that really deserved a showcase shot, being one of those lovely little clever cockle-warmers that result when the team — in this case most definitely including the f/x team — knows they’re onto a can’t-miss parody idea. As always in the case of the board-game spoofs, in several directions at once. (“How come I always have to be the wild pig?”)
  • The Victorian Wife Swap does dive full-tilt into the melodramatic atmosphere. It’s essentially a redo of the Georgian version as augmented by the producers’ enduring love for Victorian detail, as expressed via their much more detail-worthy budget — on three whole sets, yet! Throw in Martha’s beautiful water-blue costume and what we have here is at least a very acceptable Anne Perry-style pastiche. They even (finally) feature Ben as a butler, and Lawry coming perilously close to showstopping as a Devil’s Acre scrapper — what I was saying about road-show Dickens, last ep? Pretty sure I got your Ben Sikes right here, folks. Might have to feed him up a bit, but still.
  • All meaning that it’s a genuine shame that the Georgian WS was based around a wholly one-note concept that there’s no way even their new sophistication can upgrade. Mind, re: the Horrible effects of class division, they’ve definitely upped the ante; in fact, it could be very plausibly argued that this is what the S1 concept should’ve been, had not — I’m imagining — ‘ironing the newspapers’ lost out to ‘private orchestra’ in a very close vote, back in the original writer’s room.
  • Alas, past that you run into sociopolitical and/or philosophical territory that’s impossibly far out of the series’ scope, and the net result here is a historical edutainment getting all dressed up to deliberately run itself into a brick wall. I would suggest, from the comedy perspective, that when “Ewww, a poor person has touched this!” is still your surefire go-to punchline on the subject after four series, it just may be time to assume that you’ve done all you can and move on.
  • …Which of course the rat then basically does. Ohai Rattus, glad to have your snarky self back. I was starting to worry a little there… and am now just a teeny bit melancholy, instead. You know we’re coming to the natural end of the HH concept when Ol’ Excited Paws here feels confident enough to mock his own tact — and even more so when the audience is sitting there fully expecting him to do it.
  • Welp, that’s about it for the really bold experiments… oh, sure, there’s also Larry naked and pooping in a barrel, but it could be plausibly argued that’s just Larry in his element. Albeit with slightly improved accent I will admit. Anyway, my enjoyment here is in a great bit of verbal jousting between two guys not only obviously enjoying the chance to come out of the, uh, box for a bit, but the chance to do so with each other. Like the Armada bit, only, as Shouty would put it, slightly more cleverer.
  • Speaking of which, the Stupid Death meantime is featuring a dose of classic Willbondian complacent prissiness with a few extra sprinkles of random, which is cool… but is also the only redeeming thing about it. Much as with Bobsy Hale last ep, the show’s outsmarted itself with this segment to the point where the standard death-embarrassment-pun routine just isn’t cutting it for me anymore. Yeah, I know, it isn’t actually called ‘Fun With the Grim Reaper’, but really now. With the flowered apron, a standard has been irrevocably set.
  • By the way, hope you enjoyed that last bit of Jim being peed on, because the rest of the episode — save the ‘keelhauling’ interlude, which appears merely to result from somebody hastily grabbing off the Standard Sketch Ideas pile to meet Friday deadline — is dedicated to discovering just how long Howick can monologue in weaselly mode, before even his most devoted fans start wondering uneasily if they couldn’t maybe cut this review viewing short for once…
  • Look, it’s Jim. Of all the troupe, I can totally understand the producers over-relying on this sure thing, and for said sure thing to willingly co-operate with the compliment… except for the part where the ‘sure’ refers to ‘basically whinged his way to a BAFTA’. You want to make sure you have a smart, snappy context for something that’s otherwise going to remind you of that kid in third grade with the perpetual snot drip hanging off his nose, is basically what I am trying to get across here.
  • So the ‘Saxon fears’ business is overlong, equally over-stuffed with esoteric facts and comedy cliches, and over-reliant on things it shouldn’t be… considering all of which, for an impressively long time it also manages to be very funny. Thus incidentally demonstrating why I’m hugely excited about the troupe’s new projects: they aren’t typecast yet, exactly, but it’s definitely far past time they had the chance to see what they can do unfettered by heavily stylised expectations.
  • Like, for instance, Historical Dates. Which is somehow still a thing, despite the writers evidently — if completely inexplicably — having run out of fascinating historically romantic hijinks within only two segments, which is a record even the HPet Shop can’t touch. But boy howdy, folks, can those office tarts file… yes, both their nails and their folders, thanks for asking. OK, show, ‘fess up now, who’s been watching the Lifetime Original movies?
  • So it’s once again up to Jim as our latest hapless historical bozo on the make, who can’t even impress the lady who was all set to snog a Viking last time. Because, see, Vikings take baths once a week, whereas in Western Europe around the same time people didn’t, so much. You thought I was exaggerating, about the relying too much on the weasiliness to make a point? Hah. Also, feh.
  • Although, I suppose it’s nice to have a reminder that our Howick can play several different kinds of hopeless loser. Horrible Histories: the only children’s TV show wherein throwing a bit of sleaze into the mix represents positive character development.
  • Throwing a bit of random MTV-ness, however… Well, it’s likewise encouraging for both Jim and his audience to revisit his one major badass character in the midst of all this showcase snivelling. Under any normal circs, the swashbuckling-pirate-goes-Totally Radical schtick would be amusingly apt; however this is HH, and we’ve already seen Blackbeard the viciously menacing light-opera fan — also, the ‘You’ve Been Artois’d!’ sketch.  Another vaguely melancholy realisation of creative end times approaching: the inability to compete with your own past inspiration.
  • Mind, I was cheered up not a little by the sign reading ‘Booty Room’ —  also, by the much more characteristically engaging little ‘ow!’. Wonder if that was ad-libbed?

95% Accu-rat:

  • Devoted readers — and by this point I am fully defining ‘devoted’ as ‘willing to put up with my ongoing Tudor obsession’ —  will recall, or at least be willing to go back to check, that the actually sad, rather poignantly strange career of Bloody Mary I has been covered herein on-and-off throughout the Series Three reviews, most specifically in S03E02, 03 & 12. There’s an awful lot of Horribleness within the poor girl’s career, basically.
  • It wasn’t always thus. Back when Henry VIII was still hopeful of giving her a few brothers by her mother Catherine of Aragon, pretty, dainty, precocious little Princess Mary was his avowed ‘chieftest jewel’. By which he mostly meant ‘marital bargaining chip’ — she was betrothed within both the French and Spanish royal families before she was ten.
  • Queen Catherine, meanwhile, took a more personal approach, seeing to it that her daughter was educated according to the very latest — and surprisingly enlightened — theories, commissioning curricula from the likes of Vives and Erasmus. Always meanwhile ensuring that Mary also grew up a good daughter of the Catholic aka ‘True’ Church — which back then of course wasn’t a problem, given that her dad was busy earning the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ from the same source.
  • Aaaaaand then he met Anne Boleyn, and the Happy Families thing just went all to hell in a handbasket. This is where the over-the-top angstiness of Kate Bush becomes an inspired stroke, because for Mary, emo was about to become a full-blown lifestyle. By then in her teens, she staunchly supported Mum during the famously messy divorce proceedings. For which dear old Dad — never more creatively tyrannical than when avenging what he saw as betrayal — had her declared illegitimate, stripped her of her household, downgraded her to ‘Lady’ Mary, and forced her not only to take La Boleyn’s vicious insults (including death threats) but actually to serve as lady-in-waiting to her infant sister Elizabeth.
  • This went on for some few years, during which Mary the promisingly vivacious marital prospect faded into a sickly, sad, frustrated woman whose sole comfort was her faith. As mentioned in the song, she did indeed try to be good; it was rumoured that she was actually entirely innocent. (There’s a story of her father — after she’d been restored to court thanks to the good offices of Queen Jane Seymour — sending a courtier over to whisper naughties in her ear to test this theory, and hugely enjoying her subsequent panicked blushes.)
  • Trouble with all this was, as the song also effectively conveys, she also entirely lacked the instinctive knack for reapolitik that characterised her clan. Again relying on Mum’s example, she preferred to be guided by her conscience, which was in turn influenced by the conviction that God had kept her alive solely that she might someday bring England back to the True Church.
  • Which subsequently, as you might imagine, helped seal the fate of the around 300 Protestant ‘rebels’ who burned at the stake during her eventual reign. Back then, far from being a sign of homicidal mania, this was considered fully compatible with a pious, even generous conscience. See, the poor deluded wretches were headed to eternal burning anyway, so facing them with the prospect was considered a kind warning — or, if they stubbornly persisted on their way, a warning signpost for others.
  • Pythagoras and beans, on the other hand, probably a sign of mental instability… although with your brilliant mathematician types, you can never tell. The details are fuzzy, but he did set himself up as the leader of what was imaginatively known as ‘Pythagoreanism’ — cult-founding being considered something of a fashionable hobby, in ancient Athens — and its commandments did indeed include being extra-finicky about the Fabaceae. Although his actual death by legume avoidance isn’t anywhere close to authenticated, not least because it sounds more like it was grabbed off the reject pile of O.Henry-style irony.
  • The really fun part is looking this all up and discovering that modern scholars are fully locked in a hot dispute over why, exactly, the lien on lentils. Seriously. Their papers include lines like this: In a recent scholium Professors Robert Brumbaugh and Jessica Schwartz argue that the Pythagorean prohibition of beans is best understood as a commonsense injunction aimed at preventing acute hemolytic anemia in individuals with a hereditary deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase in their red blood cells. 
  • Given all of which, I’m pleased to report that the consensus among cooler heads is pretty much what you were thinking: beans are kind of… incompatible… with keeping your mind on noble motive and higher thought. Y’know, the musical fruit gets a bit distracting. It’s even been proposed that the Pythagoreans feared that they might, uh, expel their souls with the rest of the gas, so to speak.
  • Blackbeard, also covered in previous installments, ie. S02E06. I did just think to check on something the skipping of which has been bugging me since then: but I regret to report I can confirm only ‘three brace’, or six total, pistols of the twelve, and then only in times of battle. As consolation I offer this delightful little tome by Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, from Their first Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence, to the present Time [ie., 1724]. Blackbeard is chapter III. The facing illustration is not to be missed.
  • Edward VI’s whipping boy (formally ‘proxy for the correction of the prince’) was in reality Barnaby Fitzpatrick, son of the Irish Baron of Upper Ossory. As shown, they were good enough buddies that the threat of proxy whippings actually worked on Edward. Barnaby was a sunny-natured type who held no grudges, and in fact seems to have been a nice balance for the priggishly pedantic prince in more ways than one. A charming fragment of their correspondence survives, with Edward writing:
  • “Shortly we will prove howe ye have profited in the french tongue, for we will write to you in french. For women, as far as ye may, avoid their company. Yet, if the French King command you, you may sometimes dance. Else apply yourself to riding, shooting or tennis, with such honest games, not forgetting sometimes your learning, chiefly reading of the Scripture…”
  • To which Barnaby replied: “Ye make me think the care ye take for me is more fatherly than friendly…” Yep, there’s a total Tudor buddy movie in here somewhere.
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 11, 2013 in Series Four

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

S04E09

Shut up! Just shut up SO MUCH!!

Some unusually dark, ominous corners of history — and the apparently equally pressing question of shifting wig fashions — are explored in the course of conducting an episode-length experiment in style over substance…

In this episode:

Song: The Borgia Family — Jim [Rodrigo], Ben [Giovanni], Mat [Cesare] and Martha [Lucrezia] as the creepy, kooky, altogether ooky Renaissance clan. [Parody of: The Addams Family (TV Theme)]

Recurring sketches:

The Real Victorian Hustle — Road-show Fagin and the Artful Dodger’s demos notwithstanding, actual Victorian juvenile delinquency tended to involve more merciless exploitation and (much) less multi-part harmony.

Bob Hale — The Roman Britain Report (“Well, it’s around 100 years BC, and that right there, unless I’m very much mistaken, is my Britain-shaped birthmark! And so — oh, er, no, that’s actually Britain…”)

Historical Dentist — Georgian (“Not to worry; we are very advanced in this area. False teeth, fillings, the ill effects of too much sugar, all these things are known to us…” “Well, that’s very reassuring –” “…as is the use of sticks, wee and gunpowder in cleaning teeth!”)

Words We Get From the — Greeks: Medical

Dominic Duckworth: HHTV Investigates — Aesclepian Doctor-Priests, Dedicated Healers or Daring Frauds? (“If anyone does die while they’re in the temple, we have to dump their bodies in the nearby woods… Actually, there’s a huge pile of rotting dead corpses in a fetid rancid heap! I could show you if you like?” “…No, you’re alright, mate.”)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

A Royal (Pain in the) Wedding — Wherein we learn why, when planning your perfect fairy-tale nuptials, it’s important to confirm with your venue booking months in advance… even if you actually are the King… and even if you’re pretty sure it’ll have a roof.

Agincourt (movie trailer) — Coming soon to a field in Northern France… the most memorable battle of the age... Maybe even more so for the French, as it turns out. “Okay… heavy armour, too many knights, too little room, lots of arrows and lots of mud…” “We probably should have thought this through a little better…”

Vile Victorians

Criminal Slang — …Yep, still not just made up by Dickens. Which is still frankly surprising. “Do you want the raw lobsters on our tail?!” “Sorry… are you afraid we’ll be pursued by uncooked seafood?”

Rotten Romans

Julius Caesar’s New! Romeover — Maintaining a truly Imperial presence took some creative hairstyling… also, some strategic laurel wreaths… and, of course, being Emperor in the first place. (“Warning: the Romeover only works with people too scared to tell you the truth. And is not designed to work in a strong wind.”)

Radical Renaissance

Borgia Family Business — Patriarch Rodrigo, aka Pope Alexander VI, makes a disapproving Church emissary an offer he can’t refuse. (“Family? Bribery? Corruption? Everything I head about you was true! It is disgusting! Is there anything you wish to add to your list of crimes against this most holy of offices before I tell the world?!” “Yeah… Sometimes I arrange the murder of men who stir up trouble for me.”)

Gorgeous Georgians

To Wig or Not to Wig — Seventeenth-century mean girls give the geeky one a schooling in fashion faux pas… for men. Because they’re male. This isn’t so much a sketch as a sop to the fanfic authors, is what I am saying here. (“Yes, well, I’m a bigwig, and I like to look like one by having a big wig! Heh…?” “Hum, yes, but it’s soooo last reign, isn’t it?”)

Field Notes:

  • Yep, we’re back on the sophistication train once again… sort of. Herein at any rate are collected some of the show’s more elaborately flashy efforts to cope with the shortage of easy punchlines by dazzling with… well, it’s not by any means a science, but it’s definitely something.
  • It also means we’re back to featuring people and things we really should’ve heard from long since, but haven’t essentially because their particular Horribleness wasn’t snappy-bodily-fluid-gag related. Horrible Histories: the only children’s edutainment show ever wherein an increasingly subtle grasp of evil counts as positive creative development…
  • …Primarily because they’re also the only children’s show ever that would attempt to present the Borgias as an Addams Family parody, only with Renaissance costuming in place of cobwebs. Thus hitting a level of hilariously logical musical inspiration that even for this series I didn’t think was possible. In any sense. In fact, I can about guarantee that the best way to watch this video is as a BBC-costume-drama-loving North American who had absolutely no idea that the Addamses were even a thing in the UK.
  • Viewed thus, it reaches heights of novelty such that it takes upwards of two-three viewings to notice that, in the actual execution, the troupe — with the interesting exception, for a rose-snipping moment, of Martha — are being effortlessly upstaged by the anonymous kid just sitting there playing Gioffre/Wednesday. (Well, it’s either a great performance or he’s bored out of his mind, a bit hard to tell. About halfway through you start getting the urge to poke him with something, to find out.)
  • Evidently the grownups decided maintaining the sublime hauteur of either original wasn’t worth totally freaking out their younger viewers… and also would’ve involved upgrading their Italian accents from ‘cut-rate Pizza Hut mascot’, so. Which is not to wholly discount Mat’s shameless plotty-fingers mugging, because after all Mat. Not to mention the sort of ” *sigh* Little brothers…”  thing Ben does at him when he suggests murdering Lucretia’s husband — and, I can’t help thinking, re: the shameless mugging as well.
  • There’s also Jim as Rodrigo… and the reason I didn’t bother wondering how the show could possibly ever top the song concept: because he, and they, already had, definitively in the Borgia sketch just prior. In fact, weirdly enough under the circs, the two versions of the character switch tones completely — so that we literally go from the sublime to the ridiculous.
  • It’s not so much that the idea of Alexander VI as papal Godfather is a major flight of inspiration; in fact, if it wasn’t the first thing that popped to mind when deciding how to handle him, I’d be demanding a look at the writers’ comedy credentials. It’s not even Jim pulling off, at the least, a far better Brando than a children’s series deserves… although, if he really wanted to put that on his tombstone, I wouldn’t have the heart to object.
  • It’s the absolute rightness of the whole that pushes it over the top into Frequently My Most Favourite HH Sketch Ever territory. This is every element of everything the show has learned to do, basking in the glow of having just won the creative lottery. Writing is perfect, casting is perfect, visuals are amazing, Mat’s prissily-offended-naivety schtick is almost unbearably precious. Every detail is exquisitely faithful — and all without ever going over the top. Which is really saying something, on both ends of the parody.
  • The only minor off note is the insistence on fudging ‘mistress’ into ‘girlfriend’. Honestly, the things this show balks at sometimes. It’s nice of you to want to spare the parents from having to define the adult concepts, guys, but a bit late in the day, no?
  • At any rate, it all can’t help but make the rest of the episode seem a little anti-climactic. Although the Agincourt sketch does manage to provide Ben and Larry on (truly gorgeous) horseback — or more accurately, their characters on horseback, while Ben and Larry are more ‘sitting very still and hoping their noble steeds don’t get any ideas or anything’.
  • For this dichotomy I am deeply grateful. Especially inasmuch as it meshes neatly with Simon and Jalaal on the other side, by now not so much having comic chemistry as operating out of the same comic brain, facing their dramatically shifting fortunes with engagingly Python-esque equanimity. Quite a lot of genuine comedic sophistication went into this whole thing, really… you can tell, because Larry’s little ‘um, giddyup horsey?’ thing there at the end. Kills me every time.
  • This brings us round to Mat’s creepily legitimate Fagin, and a rather relieving demonstration that he can underplay cartoonish menace even more effectively. This, along with the ever-sturdy contribution from Little Guy Who Isn’t Bertie, is the main reason why I’m not ragging this sketch for undermining its subject matter by being a total Oliver! ripoff…. uh, much, anyway. Between this and the ‘Work!’ song last series, I would just point out that somebody’s reliance on their high school English medal is starting to show.
  • For the York Minster bit, the f/x team has set up a likewise very appealing — not least because a welcome diversion from all this noir menace — pseudo-Perrault fairytale vibe. Not much to do here other than appreciate the clever completeness of it all, from Ben and Katherine Jakeways (last seen providing much the same Rackham-esque elegance in the Emicho sketch) dolled up in classic Disney-style bling, right down to Jim and Larry filling in for the helpful idiot peasants.
  • So yes, we’ve got Willbond back in most of his natural haunts… and we’ve also got him for some completely inexplicable reason bunged into the latest Criminal Slang sketch. Not that I am complaining exactly, only that I’ve discovered a corollary to the general rule that Ben’s characters work much better when they’ve attended at least one public school: they really do need to stick to being the anxious potential victims of crime, not the perpetrators thereof.
  • Larry and Mat, on the other hand, are really laying on the authentic menace — a dark and intriguingly legitimate variant on their usual unpredictable chemistry. Also, this is one of those Lawry roles where what he does well is exactly what’s needed, and in this case very well done indeed. Probably the most impressed I’ve ever been with him, honestly, up to and including the side-whiskers. All told, then, it’s another strikingly effective staging experiment.
  • Not least because elsewhere, Larry is having some uncharacteristically serious problems with finding the intriguing. Evidently finding himself a bit short of new and fascinating Report material, Bob Hale has instead taken to reading his own press releases, and thus is starting to un-nerve me in entirely new yet unexciting ways.
  • It all starts promisingly, with the birthmark business, and ends satisfyingly enough, but in between… mmph. Enthusiastic but totally clueless Bobsy = genuine comic creation; subdued Bobsy standing there deliberately trading on his catchphrases = …well, Larry’s obviously pretty good at being Bob by now regardless, but it’s not anywhere near as endearing, nor ultimately memorable.
  • I don’t think anyone’s going to be excitedly discussing the HDentist years from now, either; having already exhausted the topic back when it was set in the HHospital, which itself has long since been eclipsed by the HParamedics. By now the whacky medical hijinks are just barely holding their own against this episode’s ‘Words We Get From the’ (Larry’s face on “autopsy… Sympathy.” alone being worth the entire Hale report besides).
  • That said, the fan willing to exert some imagination here will be rewarded with a fairly Farnabond-worthy ‘desperate patient vs. psychotic doctor’ comic scenario; Ben always did make a very decent HHospital doctor, come to think of it. Not only does it all provoke pleasant conundrums re: the S1 bit that actually already featured Simon as a Georgian dentist with Ben as his patient, but Simon’s desperate voice turns out to sound interestingly like his Caligula voice.
  • Speaking of interesting, Jim, I have to give it to you: Dom Duckworth gets more entertainingly plausible every segment. Either that, or I’m being blinded by the ever-more authentic Crusading News Personality hair. At any rate, that I managed even to notice Dom in a sketch that contains…
  • …um, Mat? The temple priest there, still not the ‘silliest and biggest characterization’ you’ve ever done, huh? Right, just checking… *sets Baynton Performance Alert to Code Red*…
  • …*ahem*, so yeah, Dom’s doing really well regardless, one of the few later-series recurring bits to fully sustain both the hilarity and the historical relevance. Besides which I’m appreciative that Lawry’s carved a niche as the hapless stooge in these things. As long as they’re busy finding him stuff he’s perfectly suited for, he’s not going to be messing up my appreciation of anything else.
  • This is how happy I am to have Ben back properly: I can’t bring myself to be cranky over a sketch whose entire point is literally male-pattern baldness. And I wanted to, believe me. But it turns out it’s just the gang having a ball with some admittedly surefire stuff… maybe too surefire, come to that. As per previous notes re: Henry VIII, Willbond’s definitely been taking the easy way out with the dictatorial-doofus stuff lately, especially for a Thick of It alumnus.
  • Meanwhile I’m being proactive and not even bothering with the Georgian wig fashion bit, because clearly there’s no way that it has a point other than everyone, up to and including the producers, wanted to see Mat, Ben and Jim faff about in those costumes. Fine, I agree, that was a pretty good point. If I try in any way to go further with the sophisticated analysis here, I’m going to look even more in need of a life than usual.
  • So I’ll just mention what really amused me: Ben’s idea of flouncing aristocratic fabulousness clearly hasn’t advanced any since S1. It’s an archetype, something obviously foreign he deliberately puts on. Whereas Mat, on the other hand, is supremely, actually rather terrifyingly in his element. I… am not entirely certain where this leaves us, only that it’s really past time to re-evaluate whom we should be directing the ‘posh’ jokes at here.
  • …And just for the record, I also think they’re saying what everyone thinks they’re saying at the end there. Even given the most objective possible listen, “Wig-gy!” should not be coming out sounding like “Wr-gy! Wr-gy!”

95% Accu-rat:

  • Not really a historical note per se, but I am right there with you on the swan PSA, Rattus. Truth to the, uh, feathers. Except that you missed the bit about the hissing (‘mute’ swans, my left foot!), which I assume has to do with your PTSD, but is the vital component of the nightmare fuel. Who needs Lovecraft, when you’re nine, when a great white beast exactly your height is racing toward you, wings outstretched, making noises more usually reserved for Freddy Krueger movies?
  • So, the Borgias. In real life, definitely creepy, debatably ooky… but not so much with the kooky. As has been documented pretty extensively in other media, when your Wiki article starts out like this, you know you’re not exactly ideal whacky sitcom material:
  • Especially during the reign of Alexander VI, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, simony [ie. forcing the faithful to pay to receive the sacrament], theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). Because of their grasping for power, they made enemies of the Medici, the Sforza, and the Dominican friar Savonarola, among others… Today they are remembered for their corrupt rule, and the name has become a synonym for libertinism, nepotism, treachery and poisoners.
  • The actually funny part is, when you dig a little deeper, the curdled clan — especially Lucrezia, who seems to have been guilty of not much more than extreme familial loyalty — weren’t really all that bad. Apologies to the Assassin’s Creed devotees, but historians will insist on trying to sort out truth from smear campaign, and in this case it reveals quite a different (and fairly routine, for the time) story. Corrupt, venal and mostly amoral, sure, but depraved monsters, no…
  • OK, except maybe for Cesare. He really was a charming-but-vicious SOB on a hair-trigger, who had originally been groomed to follow in Dad’s Popey footsteps. He made it as far as cardinal before Dad, ever the opportunist, decided to make him a prince of some locally disputed territories instead. The subsequent charming, scheming, and mercenary-ing campaign through southern Europe did impress Machiavelli greatly, but only two direct anecdotes from Cesare’s career were used in The Prince — “as an example to elucidate the dangers of acquiring a principality by virtue of another.”
  • Oh, and you know how Ben as the eldest brother, Giovanni, just sort of stands there looking nobly lost? This is because Giovanni’s equally if not more promising religiopolitical career was brutally cut short by his murder at the age of twenty-two. Quite possibly by jealous Cesare, who saw him as a rival for power… or maybe by Gioffre, with whose wife big brother was apparently having an affair. Yeah, kind of puts a whole new spin on that kid’s bland expression, doesn’t it?
  • Given their obsession with dentistry in general and Georgian in particular, I have never understood why the show never featured perhaps the most famous victim/patient of same: George Washington, acclaimed Father of his country, conquering General of the Revolution, and man with some serious dental hygiene issues. By the time he’d hit heights requiring he be featured on the dollar bill, he only had one real tooth left, extensive experience with the more inept denture options of his day, and — not incidentally — a soon-to-be-immortal habit of smiling (grimacing, really) with his lips firmly closed.
  • According to the delightful link above, courtesy his Mount Vernon estate, once Washington was inaugurated: Dr. John Greenwood—a New York dentist…—fashioned a technologically advanced set of dentures carved out of hippopotamus ivory and employing gold wire springs and brass screws holding human teeth. Yep, life was good, when you were the first President. Or at least, enabled you to avoid the gunpowder, wee and hot wires.
  • So yeah, Julius Caesar does seem to have been sensitive enough about his regal presence to have popularised the combover/laurel wreath combo. However he was not responsible for the salad (invented by New York chef Caesar Cardini in 1924), nor was he the first beneficiary of the Caesarian section operation (which prior to comparatively recent times was a near-guaranteed death sentence for the mother).
  • The latter more likely has to do with the Latin caedere, to cut… which was in turn claimed by Pliny the Elder as the origin of ‘Caesar’, the name, after one of Julius’ ancestors who was in fact ab utero caeso, or ‘cut from the womb’. Historical etymology: an entire Horrible morass in itself.
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 11, 2013 in Series Four

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,