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Monthly Archives: May 2014

S05E03

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.

Recurring sketches:

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?”)

One-offs:

Awful Egyptians

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?”)

Shocking Scotland

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?”

Vile Victorians

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.

Terrible Tudors

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…”)

Field Notes:

  • 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.

95% Accu-rat:

  • 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.
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Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E02

We introduced some new words: husband, gasp, egg, awkward, nag, leg
More than fifty words to leave your lingo
To your liking, thank a Viking

The show settles down to establishing the parameters for the final series, and in the process we learn definitively that, in HH terms, closure’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

In this episode:

Song:  Vikingland (Vikings and Garfunkel) — Nordic invaders Jim and Mat explain how, on arrival in Britain, they gave up savagery for sweet harmony… and really stupid wigs.

Recurring sketches:

Dodgy War Inventions — No.92: The WWII Bat Bomb (Turns out attaching ordnance to something tiny with a tendency to escape into the hangar rafters is a bad idea, go figure.)

CD Set — Now That’s What They Called Greek Battle Music! (Beats to both unleash and strategically restrain your inner world-beater… “Buy now, while enemies last!”)

Historical Don’t Tell the Bride — Spartan (Transforming the bride into not only her husband’s dream but his double, for reasons… not more than demurely hinted at here. Which, given the existence of the Spartan School Musical, is hilarious all by itself.)

Stupid Deaths — Arthur John Priest (Actually escaped the Titanic… also, several other high-profile sinkings…. earning him the first ever one-way ticket back to the ‘long and boring’ Boring Deaths line. (“Listen mate, if you’ve only lost a couple of tootsies, you’re not going to impress anyone here, you follow?” *points to skeletons*)

Thou Hast Been Framed! — Botched Tudor execution special

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Mary Shelley Project (“Your story’s been made into a film already! There’s Frankenstein, Frankenstein, Frankenstein…” “…Young Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein…” “…Count Duckula…” “No, that’s the other guy.” “Oh, right.”)

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

The Happy Highwayman — Raffish rogue Claude Duval invents the inexplicable musical interlude a full two hundred years before Broadway. (“Stand and deliver!… by which I mean, stay seated and give me stuff.”)

Woeful Second World War

The Great Carrot Caper — The Allied cover story to hide their new radar systems translates to an unusual new diet for German pilots — and mealtime dismay for small children ever since.  (“Zhen zhere is only one thing for it: Ve must build a veapon to destroy ze vorld’s carrots!… and just to be safe, any other brightly-coloured root vegetable.”)

Troublesome Twentieth Century

A Titanic Disaster — The clueless crew of what’s about to become history’s  most famous marine tragedy gather for a cruelly revealing ‘safety check’.  (“Right then, I think I deserve a nightcap! Ooh, hey — anybody know where I can get some ice?”)

Vicious Vikings

Righteous Resolutions — Feuding warriors unveil their most fearsomely unexpected tactic ever: sober, reasoned… erm, negotiation? So being totally disappointed that it’s not  berserkers would make me a terrible person right about now? Right, figures.

Terrible Tudors

Ready for the Religious Switchover? — Henry VIII appoints himself Supreme Head of the Church: even more autocratic a monopoly than your cable company. Or at least, with more axes. “Just tick the box that says ‘I accept the supreme authority of the King’, and you’ll be able to carry on as normal. But if you refuse… then you can just talk to one of our special advisors about the other options available.”

Gorgeous Georgians

Twit Light — Brooding Lord Byron is forced to disillusion a breathless groupie: he’s not a vampire, merely an “incredibly pretentious poet”… so, basically, ye olde tyme teen girl’s  equivalent of a Stephanie Meyer vampire.

Field Notes: 

  • So I was re-reading my S4 reviews, just as a way of getting back into the groove, and was struck by the difference in tone between S04E01 and now. The different level of seriousness it demanded. Back then, and throughout that series as a whole, I was tossing around words like “elegant”, “subtle” and “complex” as if they were popcorn. By contrast, it’s only the second episode of S5, and I’m already writing things like “Texas Larry is channeling Mr T alongside Jim as a meditative Spartan in a Katy Perry wig”, then glancing into my lemonade with real concern. I mean, yes, I was the one last review fully applauding the decision to let the cast loose as a coping mechanism, but there are limits.
  • Clearly, there also needs to be a reassessment of my assumptions, last seen in S04E12, re: series progression. I had been under the impression that it was simple enough: even-numbered series were the creative leaps, after which the odd-numbered ones represented the perfectly stuck landings. So that S2 was a flat-out romp through possibilities unleashed, while S3 did in fact consolidate that. It solidified the show’s ambitions, and gave the creative team the ferocious confidence in their own sophistication that then, despite the rapidly encroaching issues with content, propelled S4 to new heights of purely elegant comedy…
  • …and now here we are in S5, and that sophistication train is still moving forward, but somewhere in the process (I would guess, right after they realised they’d be tossing out half their material even before production began) fluctuating confidence levels have turned it into a roller-coaster ride. Occasional positively  breathtaking arabesques of elegant complexity are underlaid by a sort of skittishness, as if all involved had only just looked down from the creative limb they’d crawled out on and realised the safety net–not only in terms of the books’ content, but equally surefire tone and delivery–was finally, irrevocably gone.
  • Meaning that the various attempts to deal with this on-the-fly identity crisis result in Series Five often coming across more as a replay of Series One. With a bigger budget, (much) better music and several more intriguing characters and concepts accumulated to experiment with… but also with the ever-present danger of Larry’s freeform redneck stylings.
  • Which is one of many reasons why it’s hilarious that Jim’s the one in the credits again under “horrors that defy description”… well, there is the Katy Perry wig, but oddly enough that’s not the clip in question. This one has somehow escaped my memory, despite the enormous top hat. I await developments with great interest.
  • Otherwise, the production upgrades have done that keep-up-with-the-budget-increase thing they do most excellently every year, to the point that by now there’s not a whole lot of interest here to note… except perhaps that Rattus has swopped out the homey portrait of the ‘rents for a more upscale Victorian ancestor complete with top hat. Which if you think too deeply about the circs under which that was painted you… have a pretty good idea for a children’s story, that I am now copyrighting, by the way.
  • Evidently the little guy has been seduced further (another teeny raise?) into semi-respectability this year, and has adjusted his demeanour accordingly. Understandable, but if he pulls out a teeny coffee mug at any point, I’m gonna be cranky.
  • Meanwhile, I am already deeply irked at the return of Henry VIII’s frankly stupid college-sweatshirt-and-strawberry-curls combo from S3. The sheer inexplicability of this outfit actually becomes something of an unintentionally hilarious punchline here, as Henry the Ratty-Ikea-Throw-Clad is required to hold up the famous portrait depicting what he really looked like at this point. Which is not nearly as fetching as strawberry-blond Willbond, I am willing to concede, but still. Geez, show, you go to the trouble of giving Cartoon Tudor Lady a whole new accent, but can’t give the King even a bit of bling?
  • (Along the same lines, we will not even get into how much that isn’t Sir Thomas More… and I’m not best pleased with Anne Boleyn, either, frankly. Warning: standard Tudor nerd rant oncoming below.)
  • Oh, and speaking of production peculiarities, there is also the debut of the Hadland in a Bald Cap saga: the single most surreally weird running gag in HH series history… and can I just mention one more time that the competition included Larry’s Texan accent? Thank you.
  • At that, it’s about the only possible thing Sarah H. could’ve done to have topped her run as Mandy the Historical Dental Assistant from last series, so, y’know, my respect for her dedication to the strange takes another significant step toward overcoming my disdain for her shrill little voice. I am fascinated by this particular manifestation because given the structure of the show’s production process, there is just no way that it wasn’t intentional.
  • It’s like it was one of those experiments I described above, where everybody sat down at a meeting and went “You know what would really help to distract from the ongoing slightness of our material? If we did this thing where the crazy-eyes lady constantly ends up bald.” That they were correct in no way distracts from the magnificent randomness of the thought process.
  • In this case, they may have been trying to distract from more than that. The convincingly rather sweet giggly little pre-wedding party vibe is cute and all, and bounces off the warrior stuff decently, but the really entertaining sketch possibilities are hidden in the more complex reasons behind the Spartan marriage customs. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your concept of parenthood) you’ll recall from the ‘love’s banned until you’re thirty’ fudge that even this production team occasionally develops cold feet… although the reference to “all me army buddies” does serve as a nicely subtle hint.
  • Another problem inherent in turning slight little footnotes into full-on what-the-hell hijinks: a tendency toward narrative overkill. Possibly I’ve been  reading too much Etiquette Hell, but frankly, guys, at least as you portray it: no,  the groom kidnapping the bride for some extra pre-wedding-night fun, not all that whacky.
  •  Of course, if there was ever an episode in which it’s possible to forgive the makeup team all the things (except maybe those wasp stings in S1) the one containing this song would be it. Mat and Jim as Hippie Viking Simon & Garfunkel is this season’s God Compare moment: it exists as its own, perfect quantum singularity of silly. Thus it’s frankly a good thing it’s not quite a perfect takeoff, or it would have torn a hole in the very fabric of creativity and we’d all have literally died laughing.
  • As it is, it comes dangerously close, thanks to HH’s most charmingly unpredictable comedy duo–and of course Larry their constant sidekick–doing it again. Technically, it’s a pure triumph; the vocals, esp the harmonies, soar beyond ‘loving tribute’ into the realm of the absolutely uncanny, and the little *trip* at the end is an almost achingly perfect act of mickey-taking. Plus, especially if you happen to have watched the Boast Battle just beforehand, Rickard’s enthusiastic petal-strewing is besides everything else the single funniest self-parody you will ever see.
  • All involved are, unsurprisingly, having just a tad too much fun to maintain S&G’s trademark  solemn, otherworldly intensity–albeit this may be unavoidably tied into sheer-wig-silliness levels, as Jim does the better job of it. Similarly, the focus on Richie Webb’s weaving in the musical cues is understandable given the new heights of brilliance achieved, but means the whole loses track of the contrast between the ethereally lovely melodies and sharp, often bleakly sarcastic lyrics that was the real heart of their style. A missed opportunity, really, given the subject matter…
  • …but by no means a fatal one. In fact, after several viewings’ practice at keeping a straight face, it’s possible to appreciate both song and preceding skit for the novelty interest alone. (Fun mirth-enhancing side project: imagine that’s the same thoroughly domesticated Wilbondian warrior from the Viking Wife Swap. For extra credit, go on to picture the whole thing as a Hanna-Barbera-esque anachronistic sitcom.) I’ve always enjoyed the show’s brief deviations into not-axe-intensive Viking culture… although, erm, about that whole thing with the feuding and the berserkers and whatnot in S2…? Wait, that actually ended with reasoned negotiation too, didn’t it. Shoot.
  • On the further subject of novelty and Willbond: Ben gets most of the credit for the latest oddball highwayman sketch, and rightly so, but for me there’s even more fun to be had in Simon the impatient holdup victim: he gets a rare (come to think of it, possibly unique) moment as the voice of reason, and they still manage to make it completely surreal.
  • Ben does make a ridiculously charming job of the kind of insouciance more usually reserved for Mat; it’s worth remembering he can do a killer French accent too… not to mention that sweetly low-key mode, a la George I. I’ll take any of that I can get, even an undertone. As usual, whenever he and Farnaby merge their comedic confidence–not forgetting Martha as their increasingly adept foil–the show gets effects that can legitimately be called enchanting.
  • No, I have absolutely no idea how everyone missed the carrot/radar business up to now either, but it”s easily one of the best obscure oddball nuggets the show ever turned up. The loopiness writes itself from there; all the performers have to do is take it even remotely seriously and they’re home free. Which… well, yeah, again, that’s the advantage of giving them free rein after all, they know how to maximise loopiness if nothing else. Thus the viewer need merely sit back and revel in both Ben and Larry’s particular uber-Teutonic stylings… and Mat’s epic melodramatic idiocy! Sheer comic luxury.
  • Interesting side effect of the new temporal format: the chance to finally dig into the between-wars stuff that’s technically always been within the show’s timeline but has fallen into a sort of semantic black hole before now. We really should’ve seen the Titanic in some context long since… albeit from a creative standpoint this particular context is so clunkily obvious that my first reaction on watching it was to snerk that maybe the guy who wrote the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ bit last series needs his Prozac dosage upped. As comes in handy on many media occasions, I blame James Cameron.
  • At any rate, my comeuppance came immediately upon watching–and I can tell the universe was homing in on me personally, because it’s Lawry who makes the surprisingly sane, decent, even touching straight man of the piece. Overall this is about as tactful and tasteful a take on comparatively recent tragedy as this show is capable of, even given Simon’s bizarrely no-holds-barred cross between a ship’s captain and a drunk suburban mall Santa Claus. It’s the latter who ends up selling the most excellent bit of slyly noir fun–the ‘ice for the nightcap’ business–thrown in at the end (a callback to real-life incidents that night).
  • I do keep forgetting that it’s ultimately about the kiddies, for whom obvious and laboured exposition in this case is most likely providing a real educational service. And meanwhile, any really bored adults can be staring at the snappy naval uniforms… not to mention Ben experimenting with a squeaky Cockney accent. They flipped the casting between him and Lewin deliberately just to see how Willbond would react, didn’t they?
  • Introducing one other intriguing minor side effect of the new 20th-century focus: a fascination with American achievements… and, inevitably, accents. Strap in, kids, it’s about to become a bumpy ride. Still, it’s good to have the Dodgy War Inventions back. Awwww, cute little bat bomb is…
  • <BOOM!>
  • …oh, damn you, producers. And your Russian anti-tank dogs, too.
  • Speaking of random animal-based factoids, I am entirely too entertained by the quiz preceding the Twilight parody sketch about Lord Byron’s exotic pets… yes, show, but did he have a team of zebras and dine with chimps, hmmm?
  • Otherwise, well, this particular parody certainly didn’t go the way I began  envisioning immediately it was announced early in the off-season. Let us just say my version involved considerably more Mat, a curling iron and red silk… also, sparkles. I can deal with the rest as a good joke on my own expectations, but I really do miss the sparkles.
  • Overall I am torn generally between being ready to applaud the show for managing to work the parody so cleverly and–in conjunction with the Avengers thing last episode–being uneasy about this budding willingness to pile on such obvious targets. Mind you, when I am watching it, the former mood always wins handily. Besides, they continue to have the wit to cast Sarah in the emo female parts, and juxtapose same with the bald-cap-wearing. So I guess we can call success, here.
  • *ahem* So anyway, it’s past time to check back in with Death and his ongoing bourgeois dream of purgatory. Though unsure as to why they’d spring it now instead of the finale, I thoroughly approve of the well-handled meta-plot twist. Not least because it proves that our Reaper did strike off to establish his own self-indulgent corner of the afterlife, exactly as suggested in S1. That the SD sketches have this level of detailed continuity makes me quite unreasonably happy.
  • Oh, speaking of which–except the happiness part–the mummy’s gone. Forced out unjustly after the afterlife equivalent of Perez Hilton broke the story of the affair with the skeleton, I will be assuming. Anyway, clever reverse-juxtaposition of the unusually upbeat SD with the earlier unusually bleak sketch — complete with nice (awesome, if intentional) creepy frisson in the form of Captain Smith having apparently seamlessly morphed into Death.
  • And awww, cute plucky working-class pajama-wearing Jim, squeeee! First item in my Howick plushie’s new optional wardrobe. Could’ve done without the overt ‘first time for everything’ bit, tho.
  • Hey, the Movie Pitch is back!… yaaaaayyyy. Right, for those of you just tuning in, yes I’m both an unabashed fan of these bits and well aware that that places me in the severe minority among the fandom. Still, I don’t see why both camps can’t appreciate how the LoG are making an unexpectedly nice smooth transition from brittle novelty to comfortably ongoing world-building. It’s clear they’re genuinely invested in making something three-dimensionally clever out of the kiddie series cameo, and I think that’s really damn cool of them. I think Martha’s affected aristocratic lisp is slightly less cool, but the sheer sympathy for her having to wear that costume more or less balances it out.
  • Anyhoo, you might as well settle in and enjoy, kiddies, because this and (spoiler alert) Historical Apprentice are about all that’s left of the richly detailed S3/4 reality-TV parody vibe. By contrast, you know how the tabloid parodies have always served as repositories for those little scraps of anecdote that won’t stretch as far as a full-length sketch? And how most of the time, that’s for a good reason? Welp, meet ‘Thou Hast Been Framed’, besides (spoiler alert) a boatload more tabloid parodies to come, because of course there’s a lot more of those anecdotal shreds floating around this series. Sigh.
  • Which doesn’t stop me from being rather unnecessarily pleased with myself over the bit with Margaret Pole’s execution, that I first mentioned as an intriguing story back in S02E11. Go me. Of course, they went for the “less well-documented” half of the anecdote, and thus transformed the whole thing with the “dignified and completely innocent elder stateswoman dies in a heartrendingly grotesque fashion on the whim of an increasingly paranoid despot” into an awful mini-mess of cheezy comedic desperation. Really, it…
  • *thinks back to Mat making saucer eyes under that Garfunkel wig while Larry prances in the background*…
  • …Ahhh, never mind, show, s’ok. I forgive you.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes, Spartan marriage customs, routinely popping up on lists of ‘Weirdest Wedding Rituals’ since pretty much ever. The thing is, the sketch here gets it right while somehow rearranging the details so as to avoid all the actual memorably awkward stuff. Which I can actually understand, because, according to contemporary historian Plutarch, the kidnapping bit in reality happened first, and then:
  • The so-called ‘bridesmaid’ took charge of the captured girl. She first shaved her head to the scalp, then dressed her in a man’s cloak and sandals, and laid her down alone on a mattress in the dark. The bridegroom – who was not drunk and thus not impotent, but was sober as always – first had dinner in the messes, then would slip in, undo her belt, lift her and carry her to the bed.
  • …OK, some backstory is in order. Spartans weren’t any more convinced of the inherent value of the female than any other Greek society; but–as addressed in that S1 Wife Swap–as long as the ladies held the keys to population growth, which in turn was the key to Spartan security, the state was sure as hell going to make sure they were capable of birthing and raising real warriors.
  • Thus, unlike any others in Greece, Spartan girls were educated, participated in sport and just generally hardened from early childhood right alongside the boys. There’s evidence that young women even trained in the nude, right alongside those same young men. (If you’ve ever wondered what would really shock an ancient Greek historian, well, there’s your answer.) Given all of which, marriage didn’t happen until they were eighteen or so–in contrast to the Athenian custom of equating marriage availability to a girl’s first period.
  • Meantime, the men had gone off to military training, as, erm, detailed in the S2 song. That is, they spent years in close companionship with other young males, whom they were taught to rely on absolutely as brothers-in-arms… but there was still that pesky question of ensuring State security, and that was the one thing his brothers just couldn’t help with.
  • So marriage was mandatory for all Spartan males at age thirty (although in practice the age limit was frequently handwaved, so long as nobody caught the underage groom slipping out of the barracks at night to visit his bride). And it’s not hugely surprising that, when convincing said adult male to voluntarily get it on with an (eeew!) girl, it was thought prudent to turn her into basically a facsimile of one of his ‘army buddies’, bung her into a dark room, and hope for the best. Interestingly, some scholars point out that this strictly regulatory attitude to procreation also acted as a curb on any heterosexual hormonal hooplah induced by the aforementioned co-ed nudity. Spartans: no matter how you slice it, still and always utterly unique.
  • Right-ho, past time for your scheduled Reasons Why the Show’s Handling of the Tudors Drives Me Nuts Rant, number… oh, gosh, must be a whole lot, because getting even the little details of Tudor history wrong is by now the historical-scholarship equivalent of misidentifying the occupant of Grant’s Tomb, and yet the show just keeps on doing it. Even when, once again, reality is much the more interesting. For starters, this is what Thomas More actually looked like at the time; an older, learned man, a statesman and one of Henry VIII’s best friends. Sort of what you’d expect to happen when an academic gets forced into public life. Even a bit naiively fanatical on the whole Catholic issue, maybe–but frail little blond wuss, he was emphatically not.
  • Second… even setting aside the fact that slight, naturally brunette Alice L. would’ve been much the better choice to embody her, the whole damn switchover from the Pope to Henry had Anne Boleyn’s enthusiastic approval, given that it was all about finally legalising the King’s divorce and making her Queen. In fact, her entire relationship with Henry was about her power over him; she knew he was a middle-aged, balding, tubby tyrant when she got into this mess, and she frankly did not care, because he was the King, and also did I mention he was working very very hard to make her Queen? It helps.
  • Speaking of revealing portraiture: Here’s Victorian artist William Powell Frith’s take on the highwayman sketch, or at least the anecdote that inspired it. You’ll notice quite a lot more cowering away from pistols and whatnot, but even so, a weirdly charming scene. Just generally, Claude Duvall (technically Du Vall, but really now) is a much more appealing candidate for inappropriate romanticisation than either Dick Turpin or James Hind. Certainly his legendary way with the ladies goes a long way towards explaining his popularity with Charles II in particular. And if Duvall’s epitaph is any indication at all, he kept it up to the very end:  Here lies Du Vall: Reader, if male thou art, Look to thy purse: if female to thy heart.
  • OK, I do know the misguided sensationalisation is part of the… fun… of the tabloid parodies. As a public service, though, I’d just like to point out that Mary QofS wasn’t actually a twelve-year-old waif at her execution — she was 45 (hence the wig, get it?), a middle-aged, corpulent figure wracked with rheumatism thanks to all those years shut up in Northern castles. Oh, and she went to the block wearing a bright red dress, as a final sign of Catholic defiance, and with her favourite little lapdog tucked somewhere among her voluminous skirts, because… damn it got dusty in here all of a sudden.
  • The Titanic sketch does as noted do a very nice job of getting the facts straight–as well it might, given that the disaster is rivalled only by the Tudors in exhaustive scholarly analysis. Yes, contrary to rather over-excited modern revisionists the ship was in fact touted as ‘unsinkable’ pre-maiden voyage, prompting impressive displays of passenger stiff-upper-lipped-ness that totally included guys wandering around with cocktails post-collision coolly snarking that they needed some ice, anyway.
  • All this confidence was fueled in part by the ship’s unique construction, featuring a specially-partitioned lower hull (the area our old pal Arthur Priest would’ve been working in) that was designed to prevent further flooding in the event one section of the hull was breached, rather like modern fire doors. Unfortunately, nobody pictured an impact that would rip open several sections all at once…
  • One other thing: Overconfident Captain Smith may have been, magnificently bearded he certainly was… but, by God, he went down with his ship just as the finest traditions of his day prescribed. (So, incidentally, did Lawry’s character, thus vaulting my usual sympathy for his pathetic types to heights I don’t think either of us ever considered possible.)
 
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Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E01

…Shouldn’t it be “one small step for a man, one giant step for mankind”?
Yeah, well, when you’re the first man to walk on the moon, maybe you can try that.

The final series serves defiant notice that, despite winding down on the back of ever-more obscure material, it has absolutely no intention of going out with a whimper… unless possibly you count its audience.

In this episode:

Song: Rosa Parks: I Sat on a Bus — Dominique radiates equal parts pure heart and soul as the lady whose refusal to concede her seat eventually forced an entire nation to stand and deliver.

Recurring sketches:

Historical Grimefighters: Stuart (“Yeah, Charles the II, hi. Normally I live down in London, but there’s this dreadful plague business ruining all my parties. C’mon in… loving the outfits, by the way…”)

Computer Game: City Defender! Brains -vs- Brawn — (“I’ve come up with a sort of huge crane device to deal with enemy ships. I don’t like to make a big deal about inventing it, so I’ve just called it the CLAW OF ARCHIMEDES! Hah!” *snort snort*)

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

Marvellous Films Presents: (Some of) the Weekdays… Assemble! — Apart, they were worshipped… together, they became legend. “...But what’re we meant to do, exactly?” “Nothing, really, just look butch for the posters.”

Field of Nightmares — Ancient ‘agricultural science’: wholly magic-charm-based, but still less of a hassle than putting up with your neighbor’s snarky remarks. “Well, y’know what they say, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence — unless you’re me, ‘cos that’s not!”

Groovy Greeks

Aesop’s Realities — Or, why sending a philosopher to distribute money is never a good idea. (“Have you ever heard the story about the fable writer and the cliff? It’s a story about a highly annoying fable writer who gets thrown off a cliff by an angry mob.” “Yeah, it’s a moral tale about not annoying an angry mob.”)

Vile Victorians

The Only Way is Hertfordshire — Looking cool in the Victorian era meant literally looking cool… preferably, just this side of dead.

Victorian Beach Watch — Nineteenth-century modesty in action: ensuring that not only will you probably drown long before you can be rescued, you’ll do so wearing a really, really dorky outfit.

Troublesome Twentieth Century

Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 Weight-Loss Program — It’s not rocket science! (Technically, it is.) “As the first person on the Moon, everyone will remember your name. Take this guy — he came out second, and his name is…” “Buzz Aldrin!” “Baz… Alldrains?”

Measly Middle Ages

A Kiss Too Far — “Rose… as a sign of my devotion to you I shall not open this eye which you have kissed until the battle is won!” “Oooh…!” *kisses other eye* “Right… you do understand this places me in a rather tricky situation…”

Richard the Noticeably Absent-Hearted — Explaining (sort of) just why His Majesty the noble icon of a hundred Robin Hood ballads left his dimwit family in charge of his, erm, beloved country in the first place.

Gorgeous Georgians

Hostile Environment Training: Noble Escort — Y’know all that irritation that builds up with Lord Posh every time you rewatch the Georgian Wife Swap sketch from S1? Welp, you’re in luck, because it’s time to escort him through a rioting populace!

The Adventure of the Thieving Thief-Taker — Jonathan Wild, vigilante extraordinaire, hits on a novel way of keeping himself in good (and cash) with the authorities… no, not by inventing Sherlock Holmes two hundred years early, that’s just garnish.

Field Notes:

  • And then there was one. At the formal HH Series Five preview, just prior to its onscreen debut, it was confirmed that this go-round would be the last. And going by the reaction this announcement generated, it would be about guaranteed that the show would, in fact, go out while it was still enormously popular.
  • It had already been a rather quiet off-season. After the blaze of hype and glory that had greeted S4, the subsequent awards circuit proved distinctly anti-climactic. They did come away with a third straight Best Comedy children’s BAFTA, but also lost Best Performer for the second year running (ie. Mat, thus proving that the committee, understandably, had not much idea of how else to level the field of seasoned adult talent vs. promising children.) The Best Sketch Comedy BCA, in the face of arguably their first real adult competition, likewise slid away.
  • Clearly, the novelty value of being the children’s edutainment series with the blatantly adult sensibilities had peaked. And as happy as they had been to capitalise on it, the BBC just wasn’t going to move the show permanently to prime-time. So there was anyway nowhere left for the HH creative team to go — and potentially a whole lot to lose. Not incidentally including the starring troupe. Beloved cross-demographic media phenomenon notwithstanding, five years was already a long time to ask adult creatives at their peak to devote to kiddy TV.
  • More immediately — as is obvious from this first ep, in fact — the shortage of surefire Horrible moments from history was rapidly becoming critical. Venturing up the calendar into the post-war 50’s and 60’s helped somewhat, but (at least on a children’s level) just couldn’t provide the sheer non-sequitur outlandishness of the pre-enlightenment eras that the franchise was built on.
  • The TV show hadn’t quite reached the point of begging on its own goodwill as yet. But it shortly would have, in any proposed Series Six, and even with this cast still intact the results wouldn’t’ve been at all attractive. They never are. Much better that HH be among the few sensible and sensitive pop-cult phenomena that had the courage to end it when they should — ie. for creative reasons, not financial or egotistical. Furthermore, thus being set free at the peak of their popularity and powers would allow the cast to seamlessly continue their growth as a hugely promising comedy troupe, without that sniff of desperation hanging off them…
  • …or at least all of the above is what I kept telling myself. And may have to reiterate on occasion through this final series of reviews. We’ll get through it together, OK? Excelsior!
  • …Or, y’know, Assemble! As it turned out, there was still one key bit of demographic wiggle room left to exploit: the media parodies. They’d been sharpened considerably during S4, but not focussed particularly to any great purpose. Now, however, with relevance on the line, it was time to kick it up a notch… more specifically, to hide the (latest) single least impressive excuse for a sketch ever under electric blue fonts and some serious posing.
  • No, of course it doesn’t take much imagination to rip off the latest self-important summer blockbuster. Yes, of course it’s fabulously entertaining anyway. Because from the start (actually, from about half-way through Series Four) it was clear that S5 would be watchable mostly inasmuch as it represents the ultimate payoff of the decision to enlist adult comedy veterans both behind and before the camera. Hence the sublimely perfect understanding on display here, of what to do when the comedy material’s rapidly drying up: shut up and film your cast’s realisation that they can play the Norse pantheon as meatheaded glory hounds, Archimedes as a 95-year-old gamer geek and Aesop as a blatant riff on Truman Capote, and NOBODY CAN DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT BECAUSE DID WE MENTION THE BELOVED PART HA HA HA.
  • So they do, and the cast does — aided and abetted, it must be noted, by writers who are clearly enjoying designing the playground as much as the performers are romping over it — and because, as always, everyone involved is so ridiculously likeable that the viewer can genuinely believe (at least in the moment) that this is all they ask out of performing life, it all works out rather splendidly. Complete in this case with the audacity to make meta-reference to how slight the material is a vital part of the parody. As an introduction to both the strengths and limitations of this series, it’s an expertly done defiant howl to the creative heavens.
  • In fact it makes me wonder why they haven’t taken advantage of the connection between Viking metaphysics and the Marvel universe long since. I mean. we’ve got Simon here earning the italics all by himself as quasi-Hawkeye… really would not have pegged him for the biggest comics fanboi of the troupe, but then again, this is the man who’d most recently landed a co-starring sitcom role alongside a parody boyband and a pet turtle, so any residual disbelief about anything Farnaby-related is clearly my problem only.
  • Jim, meantime, is more understandably in the mock-heroic groove, as the only one aware of the ‘mock’ part. “We just need to look butch for the posters…” Now, see, this is how you star him in an action parody. And, in a deeply appreciated level-up from their usual chirpy domestic bliss, how you star Martha alongside him. I had forgotten just how much I enjoy her in Boudicca mode. And there is also of course Larry, never to be forgotten in any discussion of Nordic, uh, enlightenment.
  • In fact you might as well get real used to this particular lineup now, folks, because it’s Baynton’s turn take over the “Where’d the hell he go?” ball from Ben. Thus, in sharp contrast to the previous series, our Mathew will spend about a third of S5 being subbed for by Lawry and a further third absent altogether. Apparently, having given comedy stardom via CBBC his best shot, he’d decided to up the ante slightly… well, no, not really, but still. Having your solo project with Britain’s reigning comedy superstar go into pre-production at the same time your children’s series is filming: at the very least, a nice shiny example of that ominous casting dilemma mentioned above.
  • So yup, basically we’re back to mid-Series Three. Except in the interim Series Four happened, thus much less crankiness in this reviewer as S5 dawns. If the producers failed to make Mat an actually award-winning household name by setting his bottom alight, they had at least made it clear they wouldn’t be resorting to the plastic nose icicles ever again. Instead… we have the snorting. Seriously, I dunno where his take on Archimedes came from exactly, but I approve so much.
  • I approve even more of the return of his Richard Coeur de Lion, as it turns out one of only two recurring characters to put in an appearance in the premiere. You know it’s been a good run for the historical comedy when watching Francophone Mat flounce about inspires chuckles of positively soothing nostalgia — also, the interesting discovery that if you let him go on with it long enough the accent devolves into something that might’ve been heard on a 70’s Aaron Spelling soap theoretically set in New Orleans. But mostly the nostalgia thing.
  • It also turns out to be pretty helpful for the historical comedy here in the present, as the sketch is otherwise badly undercut by a miscast Lawry being unable to provide the supreme gravitas of baffled convention that flighty Richard should be bouncing off — picture Simon in the role, basically. Lawry just falls back on his standard-issue whinging, which strongly suggests instead that His Majesty’s anxiety to be absent had a real point. (At that, it’s kind of amusing how readily the writers fall back on the standard national stereotypes, meaning the non-UK viewer will already be nodding thoughtfully. I’m surprised they didn’t have His Majesty make a crack about the dentistry while he was at it.)
  • Right, so in general, I find myself noticeably less OK with the mondo Lewin than usual. Partly because it’s the last series and I’m being forced to waste precious time with the stick-insect instead of, well, everybody else really; and in quite possibly related news, damn, during its relative hiatus in S4 I’d forgotten just how skin-crawlingly annoying that neurotic act can be. Even when it works, which I’ll concede it does most excellently here for the clueless Lord Posh.
  • Except (speaking of my offended nostalgia) that really should be Ben in the S1 marquise wig, show, and you know it. No, I do not care if letting Willbond play ex-SAS was the only way you were gonna get him into the ocean later… although I will concede it’s a pretty impressive argument. Talked you into the hair and everything, did he?
  • The baffled-authority thing gets a much more sophisticated airing in a Sherlock parody so intuitively, endearingly brilliant, white onscreen text and all, that it single-handedly flipped my stance on the show’s potentially heavy reliance on expiry-date-intensive satire. Y’know, the ‘Only Way…” bit is cute and expertly on-point and all (not to mention provided deeply disturbing yet strangely satisfying mental images of Ghost Snooki) but even so I was still sitting there uneasily wondering whether the short-term laughs would be worth potentially chipping away at their classic status…
  • …and then I realised Mat was going to be swirling around the room in a longcoat doing a sort of Cumberbatch/Downey fusion (ie. the white text combined with the enormous dark-chocolate eyes), and Larry was going to be playing his Watson figure, and suddenly my concern was all “yo brb, rotflol”.
  • Then… well…I would’ve sternly pursued the matter, but there was the whole thing with the “robbing someone in the street — or he will be in a moment… *perfectly-timed tiny scream*”, and the last vestiges of my concern just sort of receded gently on a wave of affection, snickering compulsively as it went. In fact, it all gave me another one of those ‘oh, yeah, this is why I write this blog’ moments. At this point the digging down past the surface trappings for the very human source of the funny is instinctive, and regardless of how ephemeral that surface, will never not be quality comedy.
  • All of which isn’t to say the excess of over-specific parodies isn’t going to be a potential problem chez HH Review Central, which as you may recall from previous moaning on this subject isn’t located in the UK. Thus, for anything I can tell, the whole point of the “Historical Grimefighters” bit is merely for them to be loudly and unsubtly annoyed at the ‘past-time hygiene was really icky’ thing. Mm-hmm. Even granted that there’s Charles II (and that he looks really good in maroon), have you not yet watched your own first series, show? Trust me, the existence of ick in the past, not a novelty anymore.
  • Although even then, there are always compensations. For instance, mutely pathetic sidekick Lawry, this I could get used to (insert “…specially the mute part” joke here). Love also for Mat by now completely unable to keep a straight face at Charlie’s insouciant antics. Because again, frankly, why would he bother?
  • It’s certainly no use asking Jim, who despite all of the above just flat-out owns this showcase premiere episode in much the same manner as Mat did S03E01… right, excepting the guyliner. Otherwise, every single possible best use that could still be made of the Howickian adorably-miserable mojo is made here, up to and including his being the only plausible reason the ‘kiss for good luck’ bit was not only made but earns a smile (well, OK, maybe him and Martha together).
  • And we will not even get me started on the sheer non-sequitur cleverness that is the Aesop sketch, because it will consist entirely of uncontrollable giggling between bouts of open-mouthed awe at Mat and Larry’s perfect poker faces. The facial hair is a bit dodgy, mind, but what the hell, if I’m not used to that by now…
  • There’s some more, if more conventional, grade-A rescue work in the sketch about crop charms. For once the premise is worth it — a nice advanced riff on the ‘oh, those whacky ancient superstitions’ business that was another Series One/Two staple — but the writing is frankly a bit sloppy. As always, though, you do really want Jim to salvage his crops, so you go along with the patent idiocy… and as it turns out the patent idiot is Simon, so there’s your day made complete.
  • The only one who doesn’t seem to be truly enjoying the party is Ben. He actually will recover his mojo somewhat this series — musically and otherwise — as the Bear Grylls-esque schtick does manage to hint. But thus far his contributions otherwise include not only getting snorted at by elderly nerds, but ducking dead cats (as played by adorable stuffed toys, which may actually be more humiliating) and plunging into the mid-October North Atlantic. For what turns out to be a two-second throwaway insert that actually stars Simon and Jim again anyway. It surely makes for some fine method rage in the moment, but I think I know at least one fortyish children’s TV star who spent the next several days of filming muttering about getting too old for this $%#@$&.
  • And here our foray into the postwar chunk of the Troublesome Twentieth Century began… as hosted by a cute little animated black woman in hippie garb. Stick around, diversity fans, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. First, though, we’re treated to yet another perfect Howickian piss-take, on the soft-spoken, purely middle-Western Armstrong — even if Jim looks generally about as much like an astronaut as Mat does a Spartan warrior. My uneasiness at needing to hold the historical hilarity up to the much edgier standards set by my own reality is relieved… mostly. I don’t think I ever did get over the twitching when the title card came up. But there’s also a certain thrill in watching them re-enact living memory. It means instinct gets the joke as well as intellect, and if done well, is that much more satisfying.
  • …Yep, still talking about the sketch where mankind’s greatest achievement to date is recast largely as a riff on “You can jump reallyreally high on the Moon! Neat-o!” Granted, from a purely critical standpoint probably not the most imaginative premise or subtle gags they could’ve used — albeit maybe a bit more novel in the UK than this side. (They do call them ‘space cowboys’, after all). But the whole is undeniably beautifully handled by our heroes, esp. the little ‘whooo!’ over the stock footage. And they get allllll the bonus points besides for working in the  ‘a man’ gaffe.
  • In particular, after watching his turn as ‘Baz Alldrains’, I feel the need to reaffirm my deep appreciation for Larry’s decision to remain richly satisfied in simply puttering about the odd corners and lighting up whatever he finds therein. Of all the cast he has the most to gain and the least to lose at this point in HH history, and thus, despite its increasingly high profile, the uniquely Rickardian weird abides. Also, it for once manages to be convincingly American without sounding like Texas. Mostly.
  • Then… there is the song. Which best I have not been saving for last, so much as been trying to figure out how to express just how purely and magnificently awesome it is. For starters, we can consider the ‘taking full advantage of Dominique’s talent’ book definitively closed, with full standing ovation attached. The Beyonce takeoff last series? Turns out the lady was only warming up, and the songwriters apparently with her. Here they finally give her a Motown-worthy number that allows her to unleash the full extent of her musical soul, and man, I just want to give all concerned a huge hug. (And a special shout-out to Gospel Singers Incognito, who support the whole with fully committed verve and style.)
  • Is it a overtly-simplistic take on the American civil rights movement? Sure; it couldn’t help but be, really. But as a kid-friendly gateway to that country’s racial struggle, Ms. Parks and her story are a most excellent choice of subject: important, evocative and easily told without snagging on awkward grey areas. In fact (also as per the Seacole song), the characteristic HH focus on humanity rather than sociological debate makes it the perfect vehicle for exposing the absurdities of racial inequality in particular. And Dominique is, as ever, the perfect representative of that focus. Those sugar-coated sly smarts–and concurrent determination to be defined by personality, not by race–that I’ve always enjoyed turn out to perfectly convey the spirit of a woman who used her similarly demure appearance to take down an entrenched institution.
  • There’s one more interesting little note to this production that doesn’t get applauded as often: the courage it took to use, and/or be, the very white HH starring cast as the bus driver/passengers/cop on the scene. The result is some extremely realistic discomfort with the situation, as “oh god I’m playing a humongous racist RIGHT NOW” translates into a variety of vibes authentic to the conflicted white psyches of the time, from impotent distress through “Look, just doing my job” through grimly deliberate blindness. Possibly this is merely a byproduct of having at the time reviewed Black Like Me recently, but I thought it was all terrifically handled, and maybe even a note of useful grey area for the kids, seeing their heroes in that situation.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So I’m not going to get deep into the history of the American civil rights movement, here. Mama Shoe may have (to her vague dismay) raised a blogger, but not the kind who plays with Internet flamebait for fun. Besides, I like to think my readership is mature and sensible enough to have already realised that there had been many similar protests against segregation — and the general, y’know, “no rights which the white man was bound to respect” thing — before Rosa Parks. And there would be many who made similar stands after her. Oh, and while the Parks case did eventually lead to the elimination of all legal segregation in America, it would be several more years — if ever — before it was eradicated in practice. Trust me on this one, folks: just nod thoughtfully right about now, and we’ll all be better off.
  • What set Ms. Parks’ protest apart was that it was, in fact, carefully planned. She was already an activist and in contact with the movement’s Alabama leaders at the time. They in turn chose her as an ideal candidate for a test case, given her quiet, respectable demeanour, obvious well-spoken intelligence, and pristine reputation. Important qualities in any public figure, but essential for a woman who had to stand as proof against, among many other random idiocies, the belief that the “Negro’s” skull bones closed before a white person’s did (thus leaving the brain no room to expand, ie. naturally rendering the African-American incapable of higher learning if not permanently childlike).
  • Mind you, Rosa herself  was a regular rider of Montgomery’s transit system, and quite legitimately inflamed at the injustices she saw and experienced (in one incident, a driver told her to get on the bus at the back door, then drove off when she tried to comply, leaving her to walk home in the rain). She thus played her part with genuine conviction, and the reaction she got was the one she and everyone else entirely expected. The result played out exactly as it does here, and, of course, is the best–and unfortunately rarest–kind of history: the kind that enacted permanent change for the better.
  • Speaking of unfairly-maligned heroes: let the record proudly show that Edwin Eugene ‘Buzz’ Aldrin Jr. was, and is, in fact about the furthest thing from a hapless doofus that the human race has yet produced — and that’s not even counting the time he totally punched an obnoxious moon landing conspiracy theorist right in the mouth. Here’s a quick summary of “the other guy’s” accomplishments before joining NASA:
  • …After graduating one year early from Montclair High School he was educated at the US Military Academy at West Point, graduating third in his class with a BS in mechanical engineering. He then joined the Air Force where he flew F86 Sabre Jets in 66 combat missions in Korea, shot down two MIG-15′s, and was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. After a tour of duty in Germany flying F100′s, he went on to earn his Doctorate of Science in Astronautics at MIT and wrote his thesis on Manned Orbital Rendezvous…
  • …Yeah, well, I managed to not get potato chip crumbs down my shirt today. At least, so far. *tiny sob*
  • Jonathan Wild, on the other hand… well, he was brilliant himself, in his way. It’s important to understand that he wasn’t so much an upright law enforcement official gone rogue, as is implied here, as a vigilante type who openly played his connections on both ends of the law into a sort of epic saga of self-interest. Literally epic — broadsheets and ballads and everything. Remember good ol’ Jack Sheppard, anti-heroic escape artist, from S2? Same time and place, and same ability to capture the public imagination.
  • Because, despite London’s rapid growth as the commercial and sociopolitical hub of the nation over the two previous centuries, anything resembling a regular public service (ie. non-profit) police force wouldn’t be a thing until 1749, with the advent of the Bow Street Runners — all six of them! — something akin to modern-day process servers given big honking clubs. Before then, there were Wild and his fellow ‘thief-takers’: men who were enticed into the business of arresting criminals solely by the prospect of the reward, and thus given much more license to be, or at least, seem, romantically lawless.
  • Back in reality, no, this did not precisely promote the rapid growth of ethical policing standards. At the time, though, it was seen by even the most sober-minded authorities as a decent enough compromise, given that crime was considered a problem of the lower classes anyway; just picture what our Lord Posh’s attitude to prisoner rehabilitation must’ve been, and it’s much easier to understand how Wild could become kingpin of London’s largest gang of thieves along the lines shown here, ie. neatly eliminating all threats and rivals while still being considered a viable figurehead for law and order. As per that Wiki article:
  • In 1720, Wild’s fame was such that the Privy Council consulted with him on methods of controlling crime. Wild’s recommendation was, unsurprisingly, that the rewards for evidence against thieves be raised. Indeed, the reward for capturing a thief went from forty pounds to one hundred and forty pounds within the year. This amounted to a significant pay increase for Wild… in July to August 1724, the papers carried accounts of Wild’s heroic efforts in collecting twenty-one members of the Carrick Gang (with an £800 reward—approximately £25,000 in the year 2000)… To the public, this seemed like a relentless defence of order. In reality, it was a gang warfare disguised as national service.
 
2 Comments

Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Series Five

 

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Meta-stuff: Remember that HH review blog? Well, surprise!…

…it’s back.

Yeah, I know, just in time to be pretty much irrelevant to anything currently HH. Except maybe the new stage show, which I understand is very good indeed, but. Unless it comes with a guarantee of at least one Stupid Death, it will remain outside this blog’s remit.

However. I spent the last few weeks pre-hiatus insisting that I was in this to finish it, and then I just sort of didn’t–without any explanation–and I have been feeling really, really awkward about that ever since. Will spare you the details of the real-life events involved in the excuse, but essentially: these reviews take significant time and effort that, I finally had to admit to myself, I just didn’t have to spare at that point. What was supposed to be a purely lighthearted creative exercise had become an ugly, pressure-filled reminder of failure. So I decided to walk away, just for a few… months… how long has it been now? *checks date of last post* Shoot, really?

In the interim, many lovely not-stressful things HH-related happened, including the success of The Wrong Mans and Yonderland and the filming of Bill; all of which greatly helped revive my initial lighthearted enthusiasm. With RL now more-or-less back under control besides, I thought to dip a tentative toe back into writing a few months ago — and ended up raising the original show’s Wikipedia article all the way to Featured status. Which means it’s now not only considered among the very best of Wiki’s million-plus articles, but was showcased on their front page for the show’s fifth anniversary.

So that was nice, and the compliments I received on the article’s quality were even nicer (even once shared among its many, many helpful copy-editors). Also nice: the fact that people were meanwhile consistently not only reading but commenting on this project thus far. All of it had really only one logical followup (the part where I volunteered to become a Wiki Good/Featured Article reviewer myself not quite counting as logical). Time to finish what I’d started — and, incidentally, keep myself and possibly others mildly entertained at least until Bill hits theatres.

Right, then. Here we are where we left off, at the beginning of Series 5. If that goes well, there is the possibility of something Yonderland-related for afters (esp if, as I suspect, an announcement re: S2 of that show is shortly forthcoming). By that point, Bill might merit a post or two as well. All of which will appear when it wills, sans rigid update schedules, and in–I’m hoping, anyway–a format much closer to the simple, lighthearted snark of earlier posts than the intense mini-theses more recent ones had become. (To that end I’ve also done a bit of editing on the last few posts of S4, basically to remove the more overt signs of crisis.)

As always, feedback–by now, whether commenting on the project or tactfully not commenting on its continued relevance–is enormously appreciated. The HH universe remains the epitome of sweet, silly, un-complicated enjoyment; let’s see if we can’t still have some fun with it together, eh?

 
3 Comments

Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Meta-stuff

 

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