No, no, I’m not Amundsen either! I’m Ernest Shackelton!
So you weren’t first or second?
Actually… my team never made it at all.
Oh, great. Because films about massive losers who never achieve anything make such big hits!
We’re half-way closer to the finale and the show’s creative flailing has finally settled down into… whatever this is. Given that ‘this’ is sometimes clever, mostly charming and always unpredictable… and, not incidentally, has some kickass music… it’s possible to be very good indeed with that.
In this episode:
Song: Alexander the Great — Ben as the original all-conquering hero decides his massive ego can only be expressed via the majesty of stadium rock. Featuring his all-star backup: Larry as Ptolemy on lyre, Jim as Hephaestion on bass, and Mat… on drums.
Shouty Man — New! Roman Dog (“The cuddly companion who puts the’ fur’ into multi-furpose!” “Um, the wart’s still there…?” “It’s a very small dog, mate.”)
Come Dine With Me — Georgian (“The Prince Regent’s guests have arrived and are ready to eat. Although King George III is having trouble parking his invisible kangaroo.” “Whoaaaa there, kangaroo! Down, boy!”)
Historical Grimefighters — Alexander Fleming’s lab, 1928 (“Extraordinary!” “Not really mate, that’s what happens when you go on holiday and leave your dirty dishes…”)
Horrible Movie Pitch — The Ernest Shackelton Project (“Ohhh… then you must be Amundsen, they guy who got there before Scott! …Apparently, he used dogs to pull the sledges.” “Were these talking dogs?” “Lady and the Tramp go skiing?! It’s a yes from me!”)
CD Set — Now That What Me Call Music! (Available at last from Neanderthal Records! Featuring the first-ever musical notes played on the first-ever instrument… “Including the ground-breaking Three Notes in Any Old Order… and the smash hit, Smash Hit!”)
HHTV Sport — Live from the Pirate Races, monk-riding event final (“Pirates are a twisted lot, they take particular pleasure in tormenting these religious men…” “Oop, and Brother Carlos has trod on a nail! There goes his vow of silence…”)
We Are Amused… Unfortunately — Queen Victoria’s theoretically solemn coronation hits some less-than-dignified notes in practice. (“I now pronounce you Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland… the Duke of Ancaster and the Duke of Cornwall.” “…Really?” “It’s what it says ‘ere…”)
Facial Feud — Meanwhile, Prince Albert’s moustaches are of course just unspeakably ridiculous–until they become the fashion after facial hair saves lives in the Crimea. No, really. (“Do I look like an idiot to you?!” “Um… little bit… around the lips…?”)
Chou d’Amour — Ancient medicine: how to become a revered, wise elder statesman and convinced that cabbage is the ultimate universal cure-all simoultaneously.
Alexander the Great: The Board Game — Play it until no one will play it with you anymore! Why yes, it does come with multiple expansion packs, which Alex insisted be played one after another…after another… and another… (“Wait guys, don’t go home yet!” *unveils Conquest of Persia pack* “Are you sure? I mean, it’s getting a bit late…?” “Yeah, maybe we should quit while it’s still fun?” “Well, I’m still having fun–and It’s. My. Game. *snif snif*“)
Savage Stone Age
Historical Springwatch — ‘Excitable wildlife enthusiasts’ explore the hidden lives of Pleistocene-era wildlife… mostly, the part where they get eaten by Pleistocene-era man. (“Oi, you there! Did you never stop to think that people in the future might actually want to see giant panthers, giant sloths, even giant sabretooth tigers…” *grrrrrrrrrrrowllll* “…Er, actually you have my permission to kill this one, heh heh. Wait, where are you going?!”)
Translating from the Pirate (is a Bad, Bad Idea) — Yes, the fabled buccaneer dialect involved more than just howling “Arrrrr!” every three seconds. No, learning that still doesn’t make your drunk self any less annoying on Talk Like a Pirate Day. (“Arrrrr! Paul, sew ‘is mouth up!” “Translation, please?” “… ‘sew-his-mouth-up’?” “…” “Well, ah…shiver my timbers. I think I’ve just filled my keel with bilge.”)
- Right, here we are then: the half-way mark. Only six more half-hours left to go, and… I’m finding myself increasingly OK with this, honestly.* (*Future Shoe: Yeah, yeah, hindsight’s 20/20. Just you wait until she has to revisit the finale song…)
- …Sorry, did anyone else just feel a vaguely portentous temporal breeze? Hm. Anyway, thing is, nothing so far has happened to convince me that the cast–and their quite frankly exciting potential as a comedy troupe–weren’t the only things really worth salvaging from what’s become a very familiar story of failed redefinition. (Albeit the fact that it’s nearly two years later and you lot still haven’t elevated Howick into an adorably neurotic sidekick in a hit sitcom–at the very least–is doing bad things to my estimation of the British comedy scene, let me tell you.)
- The one interesting corollary I’ve discovered on closer inspection is that the cast themselves–having already set Yonderland in motion–were very likely themselves deep into the Acceptance stage of grief. Further, that the rest of the creative team were probably also mostly uninterested in putting in the work that would’ve been required to either recapture the gleefully anarchistic HH vibe (by then being handled very competently by the stage shows anyway) or to transform the new, more quixotic sensibilities into something viable. The seemingly random giddiness of S5 becomes much more understandable–not to say pleasantly watchable–when you realise it very likely emanates straight from everyone’s huge relief at having finally admitted all this to themselves.
- It certainly helps to explain the music, if nothing else. Yes, I may be saying that sheer what-the-hell giddiness was responsible for the decision to definitively anoint Willbond as a hard-rock legend, because c’mon, Willbond. Sure, there was William Wallace, but there was also the distinct possibility that that was the one day Starbucks accidentally served Ben the dark roast. Unless they were first about to dramatically unveil evidence that Alexander the Great was actually Glaswegian, I was sceptical.
- And I was also, as you may have already guessed, completely wrong, and pleased I am to admit it. The revelation that Willbond the Prince of Pickup Truck Radio was totally not a fluke hit my delighted-amazement centres with a solidly satisfying thunk. And in all that extra ‘youthful’ eye makeup, yet. (Must admit, though, they managed to make him look much more convincingly… well, not youthful exactly. Much less likely to distract the audience with the attempt to make him look youthful, let’s leave it at that.) Anyway, well done, Benjamin. I feel that something valuable has been taught and received about cultural prejudices here, and you’ve got my support for a co-starring role in a Russell Crowe film anytime you need it.
- The critical centres, meanwhile received more sort of a thud. Alex has a lot more hard, dry fact to get through in his song–also, not nearly as deserving of a finale-joke-worthy death–bogging it down somewhat in strict comparison with the savage abandon that was Wallace romping through the English corpses. On the other hand, the staging here totally represents a clear awesomeness upgrade on the Wallace video. As does the neat balance between authentic larger-than-life heroism and Tom Clancy-esque campiness that suddenly makes me realise I should’ve known Ben was capable of this all along.
- The rest of the casting, however, not so much with the revelatory excitement. So that wasn’t Hephaestion Mat was playing in the previous sketch? They took him off guitar and Jim off drums, just to gratuitously switch that up? Ooookay, show, your call. And I can totally see where Mat’s ability to keep a straight face at key musical moments was valuable elsewhere. It’s just that… um… Jim’s your considered pick as the bestest buddy of the all-conquering world-bestriding legendary military genius for the ages, huh? In that beard? No no, just a little ouchie on the suspension of disbelief there, nothing fatal, carry on.
- So yes, this whole thing was very likely initially designed around a callback to That Thing Where Ben Sniffed Mat, and no, I’m not as appreciative of this as I probably should be, even given the inherent (splendid, if intentional) sly meta-wit involved in switching exquisite young Baynton out for cuddly bearded Howick. As discussed in the S01E04 entry I’m the one fan who wasn’t all that… excited… by the original follicular violation (if it wasn’t obvious by now, my Willbond feels tend to run in a very different, more *ahem* cultural direction). I did enjoy it a lot as an intriguing moment of real menace–sexual or otherwise–in the midst of silly comedy; which of course is the one aspect that’s utterly destroyed by turning it into a running gag.
- On the other hand, they are still fully invested in the lively, multilayered parody typical of the board game sketches, so I was actually going along just fine with the whole thing right up until I had to watch Ben and Jim trying to hold it together long enough to re-enact The Snuffle-ening. Besides, as it turns out, all that over-the-top hissing I thought was merely Ben laurel-resting last series was actually entirely self-aware, and is growing on me accordingly.
- On a related note, I think I’ve just realised why Shouty Man suddenly looks oddly flushed from some angles; evidently Jim had just come from this bit, and there wasn’t time to break out the fully industrial-strength orange remover. See, um, Baynton at least already has olive skin, makeup team I am now thinking may have been subbing for the regulars and lost their list of reminders first thing. Or maybe, to be fair, that’s the makeup for the dimly lit video being reused for economical reasons. Even so, you’d think “When it comes to fake tan and pleather armour, bright white lighting is so not your friend!” would’ve made it onto a warning poster or something at film production college. I dunno.
- Or, OK, maybe everyone was just distracted by the darling doggie. Hi Tumblr, if you aren’t already totes ded from all teh kitteh adorablez, it’s time to meet Eric the mini-Dachshund puppy. The little guy is nominally the pet of line producer Caroline Norris but is clearly–and correctly–convinced the entire world must be at his feet, working the camera like a seasoned pro. He only fails to steal the show completely because he and the human are an even more perfect double act.
- Howick having playtimes with the ickle bitty puppy, well, what I was saying last week about his coming with insulin trigger warnings? This here would be Defcon Level Five. Not to mention the plushie just found himself a cute animal companion for the deluxe edition, name and all.
- That said, I must spare a hug for the writer on this particular SM bit for smartly playing the adorable off the pragmatic snarkiness until the whole ratchets back up onto a level of purely entertaining marketing satire Shouty hasn’t visited for some time now, apparently being too distracted by the tiaras and whatnot. Very satisfying indeed to have you back on target, Jim. Even if we’re likewise back insisting that WARTS BE HIDEOUS ABOMINATIONS THAT MUST INDUCE SHAME IN ALL WHO SUFFER THEM, which trend has got me mildly concerned I must admit. Is this a localised phobia, or another cross-cultural thing? Did I miss a bit of the Saint George story, and it turns out the dragon had eczema?
- …Oh hey, look, everybody, I made a clever segue! You know, because there’s Georges in the new Come Dine With Me, and… fine, I’ll just be over here in a corner with the rat, he’s having a great time. No, really. I don’t know what was holding him back until now, but hellloooo, S3-era standup-wannabe Rattus and–among many other things–your frankly hysterical fit of bishop-phobia. Did Eccleston ever fancy himself a Spitting Image-esque satirist? ‘Cos he’s just made a slam-dunk audition tape right there.
- *ahem* Right, yes, still a responsible adult critic person, and–Awwww, Simon finally gets his shot at the beef tree and kangaroo gags–basically, at being George III again, outside the Prom. Now there’s a callback I can absolutely get behind.
- However I am still here to critique, so must admit that creatively the whole Georgian CDWM is a wee bit lazy–as neatly encapsulated by the suddenly all matchy-matchy crazy royalty. The luxe blue velvet is a nice costuming upgrade, but there’s just no way in hell IV as lovingly established up to now would show up to dinner in the same fashion as Dad, or stay there if Dad showed up in the same fashion as him… and having now carefully thought same through, with appropriate mental images, I’m sort of sad that I’ll never get to see IV’s freakout scene for real.
- Although… there is something genuinely clever, not to say even more heartwarming, in the way IV hands off all his dynasty’s born-to-rule boorishness to the steadily more inclusive future — in the form of an extra plate of curry, because of course. On the further subject of which, unnamed but actual actor of colour playing Dean Mahomed adds a welcome touch of novelty among, um, other things. Well, no, I didn’t really think they’d do Mat up in a turban this time, but… yeah.
- Sublime costuming distractions are of course among the standard incidental pleasures of the Victorian sketches, and they’re all fully on the go in the latest glimpses of court life. Besides which, the return of Al Murray and his muttonchops (…roughly in that order), maintaining the likeability even if he is still a bit too over-excited from filming the Dickens video to bother actually getting into character or anything. Nice economical use of the guest star, there–actually, come to consider it, the convenient existence of those ‘chops are a nice plausible explanation for the existence of this whole bit.
- Another good one: Ben turning hideously awkward exposition into a wince-worthy burn whilst wearing the uniform jacket from a road-show Nutcracker production. Really, the Willbondian mojo’s making quite the flamboyant comeback this episode. Besides which: silly-ass Larry smearing cake on himself. Yeah, totally worth it.
- Other smile-making goodness: Simon’s ecclesiastical gravity, back where it belongs. Although, you know what, Lawry’s take would’ve probably worked even better here… *ahem* never mind, no sense looking a gift Farnabian cleric in the mouth. Especially one whose accent is apparently the result of one boring run-through too many. Also, welcome back Mat’s nigh-on-forgotten genius for falling down. And at the centre of it all there is Martha the marvellously petulant Young Victoria, accept no substitutes. She may do many variants of this same character elsewhere, but it in no way distracts from the sheer rightness of the original.
- Speaking of Martha’s reliable line in haughtiness… and isn’t that a bullet point every actress would kill to have on their CV… anyway, so I was already dying at Simon in the fully-copied-off-a-classical-bust ‘do, and then he goes and presses a cabbage against his ‘noble’ brow while Ms Howe-Douglas watches in utter disbelief… well, sure, it doesn’t sound like much now, but damn you should’ve been there when I was watching it.
- Oh, and incidentally, want irrevocable proof of that new niceness I’ve been rambling on about? They went through, like, three whole minutes of a cabbage-centric sketch and only made one little offhand smell reference at the end! No sound effects or anything! *is honestly awed*
- On the other hand, the Stone Age musical stuff… nnnnggghhh not so much with the charming moment-ness. Yes, it’s more of a decent parody of a modern rocker and his groupie than it had any right to be, thank you once again Larry and Martha… it just feels like they could’ve used the concept more profitably as the basis for an actually sophisticated sketch. (Compare the equally slight base on which last series’ hilarious-in-all-possible-satirical-directions “domesticating wild dogs” bit rests, for instance.)
- The Historical Grimefighters bit, contrariwise, started out with my not expecting very much at all and proceeded to explode into… well, not quite my newest Most Favourite HH Sketch Ever, because I did pinky-swear on the Royal Society. Man, though, if any aptly clever, endearingly snerky, smartly multileveled HH parody could make me seriously rethink the validity of my childhood vowing rituals, working-class Simon yacking at wide-eyed Dr.Howick about proper sanitation when making world-shattering medical discoveries would totally be it.
- The LoG, meanwhile, with the help of a really interesting historical character choice–which I would be saying even if I wasn’t relieved to finally figure out what that bizarre costume of Jim’s was for, out of all proportion to its actual significance–take one more hilariously witty, original step towards [spoiler alert] a fully amazing payoff to all the seemingly random world-building.
- By contrast, I have a feeling I’d be enjoying the Springwatch bit (yes, up to and including that turtleneck) a whole lot more were I familliar with the parody target. Even so, I have found some solid grounds for objective amusement: ‘Cave artist’s impression’, har har har. More importantly–do you lot really pronounce it “Slothes“? ‘Cos Mat, I was just about to congratulate you on for once managing to keep hold of your Northern accent at least 75% of the time, but that strikes me as just a tad much.
- Check it, Ben gets back into the marquise wig–well, sort of–after all! And having Lord Posh (nope, I’m accepting no substitutes, lalalala can’t hear you!) get captured by pirates ends up being a whole lot more satisfying than just having a few stuffed cats chucked his way. Seriously, this is a welcome original spin on the traditional pirate stuff, with the great benefit of Larry doing the translating, and in the process making the unusually subtle most of a rare turn as the straight man. Meanwhile, Pirate Simon now comes with bonus Robert “Quint” Shaw impression? Welp, that’s settled then, I can die content.
- Especially since we’ve got Giles Terera back again! Hi Giles!–oh, so we’re also back to pretending he has no potential whatsoever except in a bare set behind an empty desk? Hmph. Well, I like his intro better than the following sketch, so there.
- Not that it’s a bad sketch exactly, mind. In fact, it’s fascinating stuff, in which the unusually dark adult implications are handled with the usually unerring tact and discretion… the thing is, they’re also handled more-or-less completely straight, without the usual fig leaf of sweet-natured silliness. Yeah, sure, there’s lots of suave civilian Ben, and he’s paired with Jim, but for once I’m too uneasy to appreciate any of it. (I can, however, appreciate the second shot at vow of silence funny; now, guys, that wasn’t so hard, was it?) Overall it’s about as close to seriously age-inappropriate as the show ever veered, and call me a milquetoast, but I’m not sorry the experiment wasn’t repeated.
- OK, just to repeat from S01E04, as a public service to potential fanfic readers everywhere: No, Alex the G.–aka Alexander III–though pretty darned good-looking (if apparently somewhat slighter) in real life, didn’t actually make a habit of sniffing his subordinates as a means of keeping them in line. Or if he did, it’s not likely anyone in ancient Greece thought it outre enough to record. Yeah, for the 312694th time, the Hellenic concept of love and/or sexuality: complicated. Very.
- Alex did, however, drive his men nearly to mutiny with his ruthless insistence on constant campaigning. The whole world-bestriding accomplishment gets even more mind-boggling–from both ends–when you realise it only took like eight-or-so-years total. And it all started back when young Prince Alexander of Macedon(ia) was just a tiny proto-despot, getting lessons in world-bestriding–or at least, Ancient Greece-bestriding–from dad Philip II, who is not fully renowned for his conquering prowess today only because he passed most of it onto his son.
- Also, he hired the one-and-only Aristotle to be the young prince’s personal tutor… meaning adult Alex would’ve gone into battle not only with a headful of advanced military strategies the likes of which the ancient world had never seen, but the firm conviction that men had more teeth than women. The bits covering philosophy and logical thinking, much more helpful.
- At age twelve, Alex had already managed to tame the supposedly un-breakeable horse Bucephalus– which sounds like something out of a nineteenth-century Boy’s Own Paper but did apparently really happen… or, well, at least Alex owned a horse named Bucephalus who carried him into battle to the end of his master’s life, which is quite Black Beauty-esque enough to be going on with.
- To complete the picture, dad was abruptly assassinated when son Alex was only 20; cue the world-bestriding. At least for a little while. Despite marrying twice in the course of his adventures, Alexander produced only the one son… and little Alex IV was assassinated not long into his co-rule with his uncle, Philip III. Who was also assassinated, and then there were these four generals (ohai, Ptolemy!) who after much bickering divvied the whole empire up among them, and yeah, the ancient Hellenic concept of loyalty, also complicated.
- The episode’s other major Alexander, Dr. Fleming, not so much with the instantaneous heroics. Yes, the discovery of what would eventually become penicillin happened very much as shown here (save perhaps with fewer smartass janitorial staff hanging around)… the thing is, it didn’t magically zip from his lab straight into the arms of needy patients. Far from it. The ‘Accidental discovery’ subsection of Dr. F’s Wiki article is studded with interim frustrations like this:
- Fleming published his discovery in 1929, in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, but little attention was paid to his article. Fleming continued his investigations, but found that cultivating penicillium was quite difficult, and that after having grown the mould, it was even more difficult to isolate the antibiotic agent. Fleming’s impression was that because of the problem of producing it in quantity, and because its action appeared to be rather slow, penicillin would not be important in treating infection.
- So eventually, after a decade of this, Fleming still hadn’t managed to find a chemist interested in mass-producing the stuff–and if you take a look at his picture in the same article, this is clearly not a man whose hobbies included hopelessly pursuing pipe dreams. He finally gave up on the Quest for Penicillin entirely in 1940… only to have several other researchers pick it up, get the government funding needed to produce it in bulk, and hey presto, wonder drug of the century. Luckily, they were nice enough to share the Nobel Prize with Fleming, and he was in turn modest enough to give them most of the credit. The general public, on the other hand, knew a good story when they heard it, and the legend of Fleming the Accidental Founder of Modern Antibiotics was born.
- Then there is Sake Dean Mahomed, who was not quite as much of an all-conquering hero, but you lot do indeed owe him a spare thought next time you pick up your nigh-ubiquitous takeout curry. Bengali by birth, Muslim by faith, a soldier, businessman and writer of travelogues and memoirs, this extraordinary character opened the Hindoostane Coffee House in 1810. According to this lovely Telegraph piece on Mahomed in particular and the British fascination with yummy spiciness in general: The Epicures Almanak of the day described [Mahomed’s restaurant] as a place “for the nobility and Gentry, where they might enjoy the Hookha with real Chilm tobacco and Indian dishes of the highest perfection”.
- Wowzers! Real Chilm tobacco! May I be the first to exclaim: Wheeeee. And indeed, rather sadly, it appears that this initial foray into fiery foodstuffs was well ahead of its time. By 1812, the restaurant had closed and a bankrupt Mahomed was forced to advertise as a valet… only to shortly thereafter see his career revive spectacularly along the lines Rattus describes: he [opened] special treatment baths in Brighton, where he became “shampoo surgeon” to the dandyish Prince of Wales, George IV, and then to William IV. He published another book, Shampooing or Benefits Resulting from the use of Indian Medical Vapour Bath, in 1822, which became a bestseller.