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S04E09

11 Aug

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.
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Posted by on August 11, 2013 in Series Four

 

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