You’re not going to bite my neck and suck the blood out, are you?
Ha ha! No, I am not vampire.
You’re not some crazed killer! Heh heh…
Mmm… well, I’m not vampire, anyway.
Wherein we settle into as close to the mainstream as this series will ever get with the solid help of some old friends… and one unexpected, completely effervescent arabesque of musical excellence.
In this episode:
Song: Charles Dickens — Mat as the great man of English literature relates the tumultuous relationship between his real life and fiction in the equally tumultuous style of the Smiths — complete with swinging gladioli. Also, the help of Jim and Larry plus special guest Al Murray.
I [Heart] Cats Magazine — Everything the Egyptian cat lover needs to know! …And some things they probably didn’t. (“I can haz mummification?”)
Horrible Movie Pitch — The Robert the Bruce Project (“Nay, the spider thing never happened! It’s just a story people tell to explain why I never gave up…” “What if he got bitten by the spider, and turned into a superhero?” “Spider-Guy~!” “Spider-Guy II!” “Now we’re getting somewhere!”)
Come Dine With Me — Greek thinkers (Of course, including Diogenes… and Aristotle, serving up a “duck, a goose, an octopus and a swan!” “Sounds delicious…” “Oh, I’m not serving them, I’m just chopping them into bits to see how their bodies work. Hummus?”)
Bob Hale — The Mary, Queen of Scots Report (“Whoops, Darnley’s dead too–killed in a very weird explosion. The kind of “weird explosion” that also strangles you and dumps your body in the garden. Which, if we look at the Suspicious-Death-O-Meter–yup, highly suspicious.”)
Gross Designs — Vlad the Impaler (You know what the Ottomans will say when they see the bodies of 20,000 of my own people spiked on the border?” “You’re insane!” “Exactly!”)
Stupid Deaths — Ivan the Terrible (The most flamboyantly fearsome of all the great Russian emperors died… while playing chess. “Alright, laugh it up, Skeletor…” “So who won? Or was it a dead heat? Ha!” “…I once killed my jester, remember?”)
The Purr-fect Weapon — Persian general Cambyses uses the Egyptians’ feline fetish as inspiration for a clever, not to mention cuter, variant on a human shield… now he just has to convince his troops. (“Warriors! I present our ultimate weapon!” *meow* “…Does it explode?”)
A Bonnie Escape — Poor Prince Charlie: he may not have won Culloden, but a resourceful peasant woman is ready to ensure that his flight into exile will be truly fabulous. (“Can you imagine anything more humiliating, a man of royal blood having to skulk around the moors like… Right, apparently you can.”)
Savage Stone Age
Stone Age Invention No.28: Wearing Clothes (animated) — Amid the wails of disappointed fangirls, strictly cartoon cavemen explore the profits and perils of wearing furs.
Historical Top Gear — Next up on the parade of small innovations with world-changing consequences: the bit and bridle. “And next week, we’re going to have a look at how the boffins are getting on inventing the wheel… Well, that’s not gonna work, I mean, how are they going to fit it on the horses’ legs?”
Victorian Word Battles — Or, ‘Words We Get From the…’ goes way upscale: Charles Dickens -vs- Lewis Carroll to see who can make the most quixotic contributions to the English language.
New! Francis Walsingham’s Royal Postal Service — Absolutely, positively, 100% not having your mail read by government spies since 1569. Really. (“Hold on, by denying we’re using spies, it’s pretty clear that we are using spies, isn’t it…”)
- So there’s an important corollary to the series progression thesis I elaborated upon last week… no, not that I’ve got far too much time on my hands, we’ve established that long since. To paraphrase Death, keep up mate, keep up.
- The corollary I had in mind was the one where the music inevitably is one level of creative badassery up on everything else in its respective series. Essentially, they figured it out in the very first episode, and if the bulk of Series One was spent bumbling back along to that point, the subsequent series picked up the ball and never looked back. The sketches were all “Yay! Possibilities! Let’s see how this works, or maybe this!”; meanwhile the music videos are like “Yeah. Charles II as Eminem. Any questions?”
- Which is why it was a bit of a disappointment to me that S4’s music actually slid sideways a bit. By then they knew what to do just a bit too well, if that makes any sense; found solidly amazing parody mashup concepts and then just… sort of… did a solidly amazing job with them. Some vital spark of gleeful innovation, the kind that had produced both George IV and Pachacuti, was missing…
- …and then in S5 the sparks suddenly exploded all over the damn place. I’m not saying the results were uniformly wonderful, but they were all intensely watchable, if only to see what firework might go off next. It’s the closest I will ever come to mourning what might have been in S6.
- This episode’s example in particular… right, what else is there to say after it got picked up by the Washington Post’s online Slate magazine, the LA Times and was retweeted by not only the usual scholarly types but American actor/musician Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Clearly, a universal chord of comedic imagination had been struck.
- And at the centre of it is easily the finest thing Mat’s ever done for the show — the absolutely logical followup to Charles II and Darwin, combining the former’s exquisitely cheeky charm with the latter’s playful erudition… and, let us not forget, those gladioli. Neither Dickens or Smiths parodies are anything novel in and of themselves, so it’s entirely to the show’s credit that this piece fully sails above the standard to become… well, whatever it is Mat’s been becoming since he started this whole adventure in combining children’s comedy with adult clowning. Yes, up to and including the Muppet voice. And it is glorious.
- Meanwhile, the rest of the production matches him note for sweetly smart note, building on what they learned with the Natural Selection video about showcasing the central Victorian jewel in an expertly flattering setting. Including, of all people, the guy whom Wiki tells me is best known for a game show called Compete for the Meat. I don’t know much about Al Murray, honestly, but hey, he’s clearly having a ball and he fits into the mutton-chop-intensive mileu perfectly. Besides, I like meat. Welcome aboard, Al.
- So… yeah, there was also an episode, which will hereinafter be enshrined in HH lore as The One With the Cats. Specifically, they’re the best part of an altogether rather odd remake of the S3 ‘Nasty Knights’ sketch. Presumably the idea was that the itteh bitteh warrior kittehs would act as adorableness-themed wallpaper over the mismatched comedic seams.
- This… well, I’m not saying it wasn’t a fairly productive strategy (having them be all black was a particularly nice touch). It’s just not quite enough to prevent me from noticing that basically all involved in this elite army–all, like, four of them–have kicked on the autopilot and taken a little vacation from being shrewd comedy veterans. Thus explaining the failure to realise that the whole ‘stick the skinny guy in armour and hope it’s funny when he yells’ thing in particular was never all that showstopping to begin with. I am also a trifle dubious about the armour itself, which looks a lot more like Calvin Klein’s fall collection with the belts swopped out.
- In the end, all I can say is… thank heavens for good ol’ Rattus and the ‘moment to think about all those dead cats’! …No, really. I’d seriously been starting to worry he was losing his edge, especially after the J.K Rowling crack. We can get back to the awful puns anytime now, fuzzy little pal.
- Luckily, everyone gets back on the comedy-veteran job ASAP, all nice and rested and with a pretty decent tan. Especially is this noticeable–both metaphorically and literally, come to think of it–in the Come Dine With Me bit, which this series has been shrewdly retooled to focus back on the foibles of the diners rather than their food, and thus become the ideal vehicle to reintroduce great characters from series past. The relief at–nay, sheer joy in–having such surefire stuff to put onscreen is palpable. I give them special props for recognizing that Pythagoras and his non-sequitur spirituality still had much comedy goodness left to give.
- Also, Larry seems to have located his perfect Ringo impersonation again. Also also, Mat’s still got the beard and the vaguely unsettling air of having just blown in from a PSA on the dangers of speed. Somehow the fact that whatever Aristotle’s cutting up bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of the animals the narrator mentions just makes me very happy. On the other hand, I think we can all agree that we have definitively wrung every last, erm, drop of comic potential from Diogenes’ austerity philosophy now, kthx. Yes, even for the twelve-year-old demographic. Sheez.
- In other surefire recurring entertainment news: Yay, Bob Hale has finally sorted his meds and is back to his… well, at least mildly-manic self! (By contrast, Sam’s blouse… man, those ruffles just get more and more implausible, don’t they?) Really, a fully splendid recovery from last year’s tendency to rest on his catchphrase-laden laurels–not one catchphrase of which is uttered here, interestingly enough. I dunno where Larry went to get re-inspired, but it was a good place. You can tell right off, because the old-age makeup has gotten much less existentially terrifying. I suppose it was either that or equip the poor guy with a wheelchair and laser pointer, which– *aaaaghh* Bad brain! Stop that!
- …Sorry, rapid-aging phobia kicked in there for a sec. But man, yes, time to admit I spent the off-season uneasily anticipating the Rickardian interpretation of senility as goofy comedy. Instead, we get a classically bright, clever, notably accurate and and just generally one of the all-time great Bob Reports, wherein the inspired running gag is seamlessly kicked up notch-by-notch into an actual meta-satirical comment on the entire show’s attitude to history, and by extension, the entire discipline’s methods. Well done Bobsy, and even better done his creator.
- Over at Stupid Deaths, by contrast, it’s becoming unfortunately clear that the re-inspiration wad may well have been shot with the ‘Boring Deaths’ business. Hang on, let me just go back and check… yep, that would in fact be ol’ Ivan the T’s signature among Death’s pre-existing collection of autographs from great villains of history, all the way back in S2’s Draco sketch… and yes, the fact that I not only remembered that but spent some time being miffed over having my newfound SD continuity summarily destroyed only an episode later is only the latest indication that I may need a vacation myself.
- Still, it really is an awful shame that the potential for the callback wasn’t picked up. Just imagine how the fearsome Tartar Emperor, as envisioned by a production team who clearly needs to back off the Game of Thrones Netflix bingeing, would’ve reacted to that fluffy pink pen? Which is in fact rather inexplicably visible throughout this sketch? By contrast, the angle they did go with is so clunky that the whole thing winds up only being novel inasmuch as it proves that it is, in fact, possible for comic surrealism to not take flight in the vicinity of Farnaby’s performance tics.
- Not that there aren’t still rewards inherent in Ben’s big chance to show off his Russian. I would be saying this anyway, out of sympathy for what appears to have been six hours straight in the makeup chair, but it is so regardless. Albeit it takes a couple viewings to appreciate, or frankly even realise there’s a Willbond in there, under those eyebrows. (Seriously. The “Uhhh… that is him, right?” reaction online when this bit first aired was priceless.) One of those creative decisions you feel like watching film of them being made–or, for that matter, executed–would be far more entertaining than the results.
- On the other hand: Benjamin, you totally ad-libbed that ‘Skeletor’ line, didn’t you? If so, it’s the closest I may ever get to wanting to give you a great big hug.
- Simon gets far better served on the nostalgia front in the Movie Pitch sketch–even if it does involve cheerfully tossing William Wallace the hard-rocking rebel legend under a bus without, apparently, much in the way of second thoughts at all. Interesting bit of insight into the show’s dedication to the facts, that.
- Anyway, I have long been anxious to see how Farnaby’s full-on crazy bounces off the LoG’s be-suited smarminess … wonderfully as ever, as it turns out. It’s been far too long since he’s had the chance to thus let loose, also since the trio had a really worthy opponent, and the results are fully classic all the way ’round. Meantime, I continue to enjoy how the same trio are developing their own little world of Hollywood cluelessness; it still doesn’t have much to do with HH, but it’s a joy to watch regardless. Like, right in the middle of the historical stuff, the kiddies are being treated to an extra-credit clinic in comedy development. Complete with the face paint.
- On the further subject of fascinating makeup decisions: For the first time, based solely on Mat’s look as host of the new ‘Gross Designs’ bit, I was motivated to look up the source material. And I was mightily pleased… well, not so much in that direction, although it’s a decent bonus, as that it’s a nice clever idea for a recurring concept with lots of potential. Sort of a more sophisticated take on the old ‘Location Location Location’ bits, which I also always liked.
- OK, so it turns out to be kind of unnecessarily goofy in the execution. Simon’s evident idea of Eastern Europeans goes a long way towards explaining his later decision to sign on as presenter of Man Vs. Weird. (It’s more fun listening to him provide the mundane explanation of ‘Dracula’ in that pantomime accent than in the whole of his SD performance, though, must admit that.) Not to mention that the ‘impala’/’Impaler’ thing is officially the furthest the show’s ever reached for a joke, and this is a show that contains Death’s puns on a regular basis. But Mat’s comparatively subtle symphony of growing unease just about makes up for everything.
- Except maybe why he’s not playing Bonnie Prince Charlie, thus breaking his frankly magnificent streak of sassy royal Stuart portrayals. I mean, if we’re going to play around with casting, why couldn’t that have been Lawry instead of Mat as the kitty-obsessed Persian general… no, wait, that actually wouldn’t’ve worked any better, would it… OK, how about Mat here, Ben as Cambyses over there and Lawry as the guy with the derpy sneeze? But that leaves Simon… ah, geez, now I’m all confused up in here.
- Of course, the ridiculous over-the-top squeeky stuff at the beginning of his bit does suggest the doomed-but-Bonnie Prince was specially written with the whinge specialist in mind. I’ll also grant there’s a certain wit in using that same guy in a sketch that’s all about underlining the ultimate futility of Charlie’s regal ambitions; in particular, he plays the quoted line really well. Otherwise, this little interlude is notable mostly for underlining how good Martha really does look in blue… which you can tell, because it distracts from her Scots accent.
- I am by contrast not at all sure how well the Historical Top Gear spoof was thought through, beyond the writers’ understandable need to change their pop-culture dartboard picture every now and then. Masterchef has run its course, and the Apprentice while loaded with other possibilities isn’t nearly as satisfying a mickey-taking outlet, so it’s obviously time to move on to… ‘Jeremy Clarkstone’ and ‘James Clay’? Ah, guys? Exactly when did this turn into the Flintstones?
- …Fine, ‘Stone Age Stig’, that’s mildly amusing. Points also for the business at the end with the wheel, and indeed for James Clay’s asides throughout, primarily because ‘sophisticated’ Cave-Willbond being baffled by basic technology can never not be hilariously endearing.
- But really guys, this experimental thing is getting a little out of hand. Mind, I do not wish to seem like I’m ready to jump on every role Lewin gets this series; I am just saying that after being confronted with this one I felt it necessary to immediately study pictures of the real-life Jeremy Clarkson with great care, not to say concern. And while I gather he’s something of a noted curmudgeon, there’s no indication whatsoever he’s an eldritch abomination drawing on the dark hearts of those 90’s troll dolls to return specifically to eat children’s souls. Somebody seriously needs to cut the makeup team’s Red Bull supply.
- But not before I congratulate them on managing to make Mat look more like Dickens than anyone approximately thirty years younger has a right to. The ‘Word Battle’ thing with Ben as Lewis Carroll is another weirdly underthought sketch idea, but I do not care, because awwww. Somebody clearly just wanted to reignite the competitive spark in these two after the Greatest Composer thing at the Proms, and how do you argue with that?
- Besides, they did a brilliant job of following through, or at least the performers did. The chemistry inherent in the creative tension–ie. Dickens’ obsessive need for moral justice and order vs. Carroll’s overt refusal to give a damn about anything but being clever–is even better matched than the original, and handled with subtly elegant intelligence by both men (never mind that in real life, the ebullient, verbose Dickens would’ve totally overwhelmed the shy, gauche, introverted Dodgson).
- Honestly, Ben should by all rights not be this convincing as Carroll, but he is. Largely by focussing in on what popular imagination thinks the author of Jabberwocky must have been–edge of inspired lunacy and everything. Shades of what I’ve been complaining about missing from his signature characters lately, come to think of it. At any rate, “Personal recitation of Carroll’s poetry” just got added to my list of weirdly off-brand Willbond fantasies.
- Jim meanwhile is a bit out of things in this episode full of magnificently outsized characters; he’s here only to be upstaged by a magnificently indifferent feline and to all-too-briefly recreate Francis Walsingham, one of his most intriguing roles exactly because one of the few–possibly only, come to think of it–that’s not the universe’s go-to chew toy. Unfortunately this latter is stuck in another one of those little scraps of anecdote that never quite gets around to an actual punchline, or anything, but the sheer novelty of seeing Howick play so against type–and his almost offhanded skill in the execution regardless–makes it worth a watch anyway.
- Completely self-indulgent feline footnote and incidental proof that I do have a life, since I’m also in the middle of polishing up the domestic cat breed articles on Wiki… wait, that didn’t come out quite as intended… Anyway, that’s a very lovely blue-point Siamese being used in the magazine sketch. Which breed is a) not even close to originating in Egypt (as the name indicates, it’s native to Siam, ie. modern Thailand) and b) ironically enough is among the few breeds of cat that can be taught to fetch. Given enough owner patience, anyway.
- I said above that this Bob Report is notably accurate, and I stand by that down here — because I’m exploiting a loophole that says the background goofiness doesn’t really count. Still, in this case it would’ve been nice had they got the right French King Francis; the animation here is clearly based off the famous portrait of Francis I, actually a contemporary of her Great-Uncle Henry VIII’s (devoted HH fans will remember him from S02E12 as the guy who tripped Henry up at the Field of Cloth of Gold).
- Sadly, Mary’s Francis bore very little–make that ‘no’, actually–resemblance to his virile, handsome, cultured predecessor. The son of Henry II by Catherine de’Medici, Francis II, who ascended the throne at age fifteen after a freak jousting accident took out Dad, was a sickly,stunted kid who didn’t even have time to begin growing facial hair before dying ignominously of an ear infection at age sixteen… and let’s just say there were some seriously conflicting reports re: his potential for virility, too. It’s been suggested that this unsatisfactory early experience of marriage played a role in Mary’s later eagerness to get unwisely involved with unsuitable, but very virile, noblemen as Queen.
- All of which ultimately led to the creation of Francis Walsingham’s postal service, ie. at least one cute little throwaway sketch that just got a whole lot more topical — though to be fair, Walsingham had a job lot more specific reasons for concern than the NSA. As Bobsy notes, the whole post office ruse was initially set up explicitly to foil Mary’s many attempts at rebellion by correspondence with the disaffected Catholics of the realm… and man, did it work brilliantly. Per Wiki:
- Walsingham arranged a… covert means for Mary’s letters to be smuggled in and out of Chartley [the castle in which she was being held] in a beer keg. Mary was misled into thinking these secret letters were secure, while in reality they were deciphered and read by Walsingham’s agents.
- Meantime, over in Wallachia, or what would later become Romania with some of Hungary thrown in… meet Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad III Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. Not actually a monarch, but a Voivode, a sort of chief prince of the realm appointed by the boyars, or noble families. Although Vlad frankly despised his boyars (*tch* these nobles, always behaving like you owe them your throne or something) and by all accounts had a nastily fatal habit of letting them know it, he actually served three terms as Voivode; the sketch is set during the second, spanning approx. 1456-72.
- Yep, turns out that even while his Turkish, German and Russian enemies were (understandably) busy spreading propaganda about his methods, in his own country Vlad was being, and thereafter continued to be, hailed as a conquering hero for holding them off — a dauntless David facing down the Goliath-esque Ottoman Empire.
- If the assertions by Romanian historians found not only in this short but memorable overview of his career (warning! probably not safe to read while eating) but elsewhere are correct, Dracula is to this day revered in his homeland as a law-and-order legend, a man of the people whose knack of dealing, erm, sternly not only with outside threats but with corrupt nobles and criminals in his own realm is considered positively noble. All those stories of his wildly inventive cruelty, his fans insist, were exaggerated by his enemies. And–historical reality being the total buzzkill that it is–it’s probable they’re at least partly correct.
- Because I know at least some of you are dying of curiosity: Ivan the Terrible, indeed the owner of some fairly impressive eyebrows, and an even more legendary temper. Like Vlad, though, he had a softer side; he was a talented muscian and patron of the arts, has been described as ‘devout’, and just generally might’ve been remembered mainly as a shrewd and effective politician save for that whole thing with the flying into rages and beating people… but still, there’s a small-but-vocal campaign out there to have him canonised as a saint.