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…
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.
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!”‘)
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!”
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’.
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?”
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!
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…
- 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?
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.