…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.
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*)
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!”
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.”)
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.