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S04E13: Savage Songs

08 Sep

Meanwhile, down in the Time Sewers: Rattus has agreed to babysit his feisty, googly-eyed and generally-all-too-reminiscent-of-a-certain-troublemaking-Great-Dane-puppy nephew, ah, Scrappus. Luckily, Uncle Rattus has the perfect way to keep the teeny terror entertained and out of trouble… well, that and the cage.

In this episode:

Hey, Hey, We’re the Thinkers (from S04E03)

“Not everyone loved smarties though, even Socrates had his foe
When tried for treason he simply said “Why?
They sentenced him to drink hemlock
He said “You know, if I take stock
I
am annoying, I’ll take that and die…”

Where I’d rank it: 3rd

Here’s one of a rather disappointingly few genuine attempts to build on the smartly witty S3 musical vibe. Like the sketches, the S4 musical parody concepts, while almost uniformly brilliant, tended to the less surefire and more subtly esoteric in the comic details. Unlike the sketches, this meant the actual songwriting slid a bit sideways amid the general rush to upgrade everything else — and very nearly gets upstaged by a thimble-sized snip of fur in its own showcase.

(Although my inner severely conscientious critic person does think you could’ve bunged the Borgia Family or Georgian Navy in there instead of the rat-com stuff without loss of credibility, show… *watches teeny Scrappus bounce gleefully about a teeny wingback armchair*…not that you have to listen to it or anything.)

Anyway, as noted, this is an exception and then some — ‘some’ here referring mostly to Larry’s unexpectedly Ringo-riffic tones. The generally intelligent — not to say obsessive — attention to the finer details of both subject and satire (and facial hair!) may well explain why everyone looks so incredibly up for performing what must in UK terms be Oh God, Not Yet Another Beatles Takeoff. Although, when you think about it, at this point a children’s series is already the perfect venue to recapture the freshness of the original irreverence. I mean, look at Mat — it’s either that or high-test amphetamines.

Bloody Mary I (from S04E10)

Mary the First, that’s me
Called the ‘Bloody Queen of England’
Not what I intended, tried to be

Good, you see
But history only remembers, I was a catastrophe…”

Where I’d rank it: 6th

No, I’m not just rewarding them for finally getting it more-or-less right after ragging on their Tudor coverage for the last three series. They already got their cooky back in the original review, and that’s as much as they deserve for that. Besides, I’m still a trifle off-put at the total lack of rich sartorial bling, which back in the day actually had meaningful implications. Basically they’ve dressed Mary as a pointedly demure Protestant maiden to have her make the crazy eyes over executing same. The irony, it, uh, burns.

However they also had the great wit and sensitivity to match Mary’s uber-angsty adventures to Kate Bush, making it uniquely thoughtful among HH tuneage even as same also now includes classical philosophy. Thus compelling not only my great respect as a Tudor nerd, but the wholesale putting aside of my deep and ongoing issues with Sarah Hadland’s shrill little voice in order to keep this on my iPod playlist. Which frankly more than anything else convinces me they’re onto something here.

William Shakespeare (from S04E11)

I was the greatest, I was ace
To find a better writer, that’s a ‘wild goose chase’
I was truly brilliant, which is why I sing
‘You can’t have too much of a good thing’–
‘If music be the food of love, play on’…”

Where I’d rank it: 7th

I said I’d forgiven this song for grating, on my hyper-sensitive genre expectations, like the aural equivalent of a lovely summer drive taken over a pothole-filled road… and I have. Really. Hence the ranking here. I mean, besides everything else (ie., Mat, also Ben doing that finger-snapping thing in the background), it continues this series’ endearingly meta-quirky musical celebration of the power of knowledge. So what if today’s particular lesson is in how to tell when the universe hates you, personally?

OK, maybe there’s a bit of lingering bitterness. Besides, the cheekily made-up rhymes thingy, the composers keep doing that this series, and I do not think it means what they think it means (ie. a clever shortcut for days when you just don’t feel like being an innovative genius songwriter). But fear not, kiddies: Every now and again, the universe relents and throws you a shred of light and hope… ie., the ‘if music be the food of love’ bit. For just a moment there, Mat is back in his element, and all is once again well with the world.

It’s a New World (from S04E04)

Couldn’t land on the sand
A month later, though
We made it. New Plymouth, man, we claimed it
The natives said not
But ran when we shot…”

Where I’d rank it: 9th

Because it represents the widest possible gap between having a great concept and … well, someone then had to have thought “Sticking Willbond with making sure the verse about the Pilgrim hats has real street cred, that’ll totally keep our Jay-Z takeoff fresh,” and I can’t decide whether that’s more frustrating as a conscious decision or the result of sheer comedic hubris. “Look, we’re Horrible Histories, are we not? We have Larry punning, do we not? Slap some pretty video filters on, and there’s no way this can fail!”

Yeah… no. Still, there is some inherent wit — at least, while Mat and Martha are performing it — in using lazily glossy pop/rock to retell the standard American origin story, given that as usual that translates to ‘skimming over all the really interesting details’. Or at any rate it does over here. The “Cowboy Song” interlude does suggest the novelty value still covers this sort of thing across the pond. And hey, while we’re resolutely finding the positives, Larry didn’t actually get a fart solo…

Luddites! (from S04E08)

Machines meant the workforce shrunk
You think you’d see us settle?!
When bosses said, Let’s junk each punk
And replace you… with heavy metal?!”

Where I’d rank it: 4th

Ironically enough, the very definition of solid rather than spectacular entertainment. Sure, a kiddy show riffing off the Sex Pistols is theoretically wildly outrageous, but this is HH, and… well, it’s organic outrageous. Unlike, say, forcing Jim to play badass action hero, the cross-generational audacity here is so profoundly logical, and so predictably well and/or enthusiastically executed from there, I literally can’t do anything constructive but enjoy it. When I caught myself going ‘awwww!’ at Jim-as-Johnny-Rotten, I knew it was time to throw in the critical towel entirely.

So have some fun tangentially-related facteage instead: some of the Luddites’ most violent, desperate rioting fell within Patrick Bronte’s parish — well prior to his becoming patriarch of the most famously moor-laden literary family in history, but recalled to them vividly enough that Charlotte’s Shirley uses it as the central conflict. As for Dad, for the rest of his life he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow, prudently discharging the unused shell out his window every morning. Pretty much all the HH version is missing, really.

Victoria & Albert: A Love Ballad (from S04E06)

“The press watched every smile and flirt
Called us Alboria, but I preferred Vicbert!
Or you can call me Al…”

Where I’d rank it: 8th

… Y’know, I hadn’t even noticed the Paul Simon reference in there. I am now working on the theory that this song was written explicitly to see how many separate layers of pop-cultural satire could be crammed into three minutes. Why this was undertaken I would not like to speculate, especially in re: people apparently convinced that a spoof of The Young Victoria could be improved with Paul Simon references, but do feel that a mild psychotic break after being handed the blues take on the Stuart dynasty cannot be ruled out.

TL/DR: It’s a really, really good thing that Jim and Martha are as good at leveraging their adorable as they are, because it just saved them one spot at least in my rankings (yes, I’m sure they’re thrilled). Oh sure, there’s also the ‘both enormously musically talented’ thing, but spending an entire kiddy-show video in schmaltzy soft focus and still making you feel enough to sniffle at the end — not to mention, be reasonably fine with the fact that Jim didn’t get a solo this series — is another level of chemistry entirely.

Mary Seacole (from S04E05)

Me name Mary Seacole, famous nurse
To de Crimean boys
No, me not Florence Nightingale!
Dat mix-up, me annoys…”

Where I’d rank it: 5th

More things that make a HH reviewer go ‘hmmmm’: weighing the relative merits of a note-perfect Jamaican accent vs. apt Clash references. In the end, the latter won out by the barest smidge (’twas “We fought the law/and the law won!” that finally did it) but credit must be given to the songwriters here too. You can just imagine how good pulling off “I t’ink it my destiny, child/to be a war medic!” must’ve felt, under this series’ musical circs. “See, that Plantagenet thing wasn’t a fluke! So there! *sob* ” (This mood may also explain the frankly weird dancing-wounded chorus, come to think of it.)

Fundamentally, though, this is a solo triumph, resting on the sheer verve, wit and style that is Dominique seizing her day at long last. As she’s made clear in past series and will demonstrate even more awesomely in the next, our Miss Moore has no interest whatsoever in being merely a tick in the diversity box. The hell with academic debate, Mary Seacole’s got business to take care of, and that business is quite possibly curing constipation. Both ladies — and the entire HH production team — deserve all the honour for it.

Natural Selection (from S04E02)

Every species’ new mutation
Had a perfect explanation
It seemed the world’s inception
Must predate common perception…”

Where I’d rank it: 1st

On the Origin of Species, reinterpreted in the classic British children’s book tradition. Complete with eccentric old bewhiskered professor type, faithful right down to the debatably-mad gleam in his eye… all set to an uncannily elegant David Bowie parody, with his loveably goofy gorilla sidekick on drums. If you haven’t been inspired to rush right out and find the video by the end of that description, I’m not sure what else to tell you, other than maybe that your ability to experience pure delight is past due for a tuneup.

…Or, OK, you’re a biology major. That last verse especially may have outsmarted itself just a tad, even with older viewers. In the end, though, thanks to Mat’s intuitive understanding, picking up details can at any age willingly be excused as secondary to how effectively the whole production conveys the sheer tumultuous epic-ness of intellectual discovery. You too could change the world, kiddies, starting from only a stuffed finch. Sure, maybe you won’t find a drumming gorilla pal in the process…. maybe you will, is the point.

The Few (WWII RAF Pilots) (from S04E02)

We flew in tough conditions
Lucky to survive five missions;
Not that I’m complaining
But I’ve had just ten hours training…'”

Where I’d rank it: 2nd

It’s all about the impact — not quite enough to bump it above the sheer intelligent creativity (and facial hair) that is Darwin, but otherwise unassailable. After all the breathless anticipatory buildup to the new series of Horrible Histories, aka The One With the Boyband Spoof and Wasn’t That Clever, the show debuts with: Another Boyband Spoof, only IN A PLANE! And everyone has UNIFORMS! And there are DANCE MOVES! All in the service of a shameless celebration of one of the most unabashedly glorious moments in the nation’s history, complete with CHURCHILL QUOTE!

‘Take that, Hitler!’, indeed. This is a display of ante-upping not seen since pretty much the actual war, when it involved Pearl Harbor. Never mind that it’s such a determined satire of boy-band shallowness that it starts producing actual winces of annoyance; if you accept all the OTT flourishes as the point — which over several viewings I have, mostly — it does it brilliantly from start to finish. Concentrating on the fun little authenticities happening in odd corners helps quite a lot, I find… OK, also Ben in uniform. Far too little of that, lately.

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Posted by on September 8, 2013 in Series Four

 

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