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Monthly Archives: June 2014

S05E06

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.

Recurring sketches:

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…”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

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…?”)

Rotten Romans

Chou d’Amour — Ancient medicine: how to become a revered, wise elder statesman and convinced that cabbage is the ultimate universal cure-all simoultaneously.

Groovy Greeks

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?!”)

Putrid Pirates

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.”)

Field Notes:

  • 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.

95% Accu-rat:

  • 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. 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E05

Hi, I’m Dr. Kenneth Mellanby. And here in this ordinary suburban house in Sheffield, I’d like to give you a horrible parasitic infection for which there is no known cure!

As is its wont, the show bounces back from a wildly uneven episode with a solidly entertaining, intelligent treat that finally begins to build on the lessons in sophistication learned from S4…

In this episode:

Song: Joan of Arc — Martha as the sassy saviour of France takes no prisoners — not even when she’s been taken prisoner herself, by Mat as the Bishop of Beauvais. (Parody of: Jessie J, Price Tag)

Recurring sketches:

Wonders of the Saxon Universe — “We Anglo-Saxons were the first people anywhere in the world to discover the scientific fact that storms are caused by people from a cloud country in the sky, called Mergonia!” “Oh, here we go…”

Tudor Wildlife Magazine — Buy now, while species last! Henry VIII discusses his conservation schemes: specifically, conserving farmland by placing bounties indiscriminately on the wildlife. (“Are you calling me stupid? Because I can have you put on the official vermin list, you know!”)

Stupid Deaths — Hans Steininger (Proud owner of a luxuriant floor-length beard… which turned out to be a problem when trying to run for his life from a fire. (“Ooh, hey — that wasn’t a close shave! Get it? Because you died, and you have a beard, and…” “Ja, thanks.”)

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

God is in the Details — Brother Augustine discovers that the suspicious, superstitious Angles are actually perfectly OK with Christianity… just not with the concept of an all-powerful deity. (“…Bit greedy, isn’t it?” “I don’t think you’re quite getting the hang of this; maybe I should stick around. I’ll call myself the Archbishop of Canterbury, how’s that?” “Sure! And you can be god of something, if you want?”)

Slimy Stuarts

New! Whiffy Jar — Aromatherapy takes a deeply dubious–if handily self-renewing–turn during the search for a plague cure.”Phew! That’s even worse than his…!” “Are we gonna do this now? I am ill, you know.”

Something Fishy at the Royal Society — Wherein treasurer Samuel Pepys makes some even more dubious publishing decisions… of course, he didn’t realise Isaac Newton was about to make a world-shattering physics breakthrough, but still. (“And how many fish historians do you know?” “…One.” “Apart from the bloke who wrote the book!”)

Woeful Second World War

The Sorby Research Institute — Alternate service as a medical test subject: experience all the suffering and inconvenience of life in the field, without actually being killed. Probably not being killed, anyway. (“…Is it too late to sign up for battle?” “You’d never pass the physical.”)

Queen-Fit-Fitters — One’s the one to trust! Wartime mechanic and future monarch Princess Elizabeth takes time out to celebrate her service via a… sprightly… parody of the jingle for the British equivalent of Mister Goodwrench. Because of course she does it’s the last series shut up.

Groovy Greeks

With Your Shield, Or… — For Spartans, identifying cowardice in battle was simple… except that the cowards had totally been trained in Spartan cunning and deceit, too.

New! Spartan Girl Dolls — Pretty much what my explanation of the unique Spartan concept of femininity the other post would’ve looked like, did I have access to an even more than usually anatomically-incorrect Barbie… also, the inability to reach through the screen and clock the little princess for whining about that sweet hunting knife accessory.

Gorgeous Georgians

History’s Greatest Escapes — The Countess of Nithsdale devises an unexpectedly cunning plan to break her Earl out of the Tower of London… really unexpected. (“So what we thinking — burn down this wall and let loose your secret ninjas on the panicked guards while you two leap 200 feet into the icy water below, yeah?!” “No, I’m dressing him as a woman.” “…Right. You know, there is a show called “World’s Stupidest Escapes”, I can give you their number…”)

Fabulous French

Saint Joan the Teenage — The Dauphin of France introduces their unlikely new leader to his openly skeptical army. (“I’m not little, actually, I’m four-foot-ten, which is actually quite tall for my age. Anyway, I’d rather be a bit short than stinky like you!” “Ah… she is a leetle bit, erm, annoying…” “I’m not taking that from a dolphin!”)

Field Notes:

  • “I squid you not”?! OK, erm, Rattus, what I said about getting back to the puns a review or so ago, I didn’t… that is, I… Ah well, should’ve learned my lesson about being careful what I wish for from this show long since…
  • Thing is, though, thanks to this episode for once I have gotten what I wished for from S5. At long last, it’s providing me with evidence that the creative team did truly understand what they had going on in S4. All that leaps-and-bounds brilliance wasn’t a fluke, and moreover was a foundation that could be built on. Yes, I know I should’ve been more trusting to begin with… but you’ve seen that seal blubber business too, right? Right.
  • What makes this sudden burst of experimental energy all the more promising is that for once it’s not tied to the potential of the material. There’s stuff here that’s as shaky as anything we’ve seen yet; the change is in the way they’ve dealt with it. As though every so often, during the creative process, they took a break from desperately throwing out performance tics and novel parodies and plot twists and whatever else might distract for a moment, and settled down to apply that same shrewd, focussed intelligence I celebrated at the start of S4.
  • Then they gathered a whole bunch of those moments together into one episode, and if nothing else earned the profound gratitude of at least one adult critic person. Rather like the relief on rediscovering the Plague Song was a thing in S1, just after the final straw that was “It’s Not True”.
  • It’s nowhere near that desperate by now, of course. Even so, given the events of last episode it’s definitely reassuring that in this one, Queen Elizabeth II doing a jig in a wartime airfield is merely a very minor blip on the way to Jim as genial mad scientist, Mat playing Newton, and multiple debates on the nature and will of God… also, Simon farting into a jar. Because, as I also once mentioned in a long-ago review, some things HH will never change.
  • So yes, about that whole Queen-Fit-Fitters business. Best we get that out of the way right up front, since I am almost certainly not its intended audience, not even after a kind soul found the original inspiration for me. I gather it’s intended as a sort of… cuter… version of God Compare, and indeed, what the random is missing in magnificence it almost makes up for in sheer dedication to the ridiculousness. Particularly Alice’s. There is also mild novelty value in how Martha makes a nice plausible Liz II… albeit it’s beginning to be a trifle distracting that all the female royals have the exact same face.
  • Otherwise, sorry, kids, but clearly your relationship to your royal family is much more complex than I’d ever suspected, here in the land where the Queen merely stares solemnly up from the coinage, and I feel it best to leave you alone with it. Meanwhile I will be over here, really starting to wonder what the discarded 50% of the proposed material looked like, if this (and the seal blubber, have I mentioned that?) is what made the cut.
  • …And then Martha proves all over again she can pwn the entire current crop of pop tartlets even when forced into a pixie bob and an awkwardly flopping breastplate, and I have to forgive her all the things, because damn, girl… woman, I should say. With all due respect. And this despite the song parody choice doing the exact opposite of making me want to plonk myself into an HMV sound booth with the original. Having really bad flashbacks to my failure to feel the similarly-glossy Suffragettes’ Song, over here.
  • This time, though, I’m willing to compromise a bit further. As first mentioned in S2, there’s probably no really effective way Saint Joan’s wholly unique blend of romanticism, mysticism and frank pragmatism could be interpreted for a young audience except via a goof on grrrrl-power cliches. If they don’t have anything nearly as cleverly appealing here as Heavenly Messenger Howick, they do at least have both Martha’s obvious commitment and the wit to cut across the glossiness with Joan’s own memorable words. Evidences of sincerity, duly appreciated.
  • Given all of which, I am enabled to forgive not only all those distracting fleurs-de-lys but the cheezy, wannabe-hipster ‘heavenly’ effects. Mostly. There is still the matter of Mat the impressively stern judge abruptly flapping about like a South Park extra.
  • All of that decided, I am back to wondering what happened to Alice the originator of the role. She’s evidently available this series, and can actually sing. Besides which she has that clever capable mode that I really like, that would’ve been ideal for adding some interest to the otherwise predictable prelude in which Joan is introduced.
  • It’s physically impossible not to smile anyway at Martha doing a note-perfect ‘typical teenager’ (not to mention Ben hauling out a Gallic turn on his usual blustery royal stuff), but seriously now. Did Ms. Howe-Douglas renegotiate her contract in the off-season to insist she has to play every single prominent female character or else? ‘Cos even given artfully dimmed lighting, it really is a bit much when latter-sketch Liz II is suddenly also claiming to be fourteen.
  • On the other hand, large chunks of the aforementioned really good stuff do happen to involve Alice, in a role that plays the clever capable etc. off as a nice witty riff on her particular femininity. The entire ‘Great Escapes’ sketch is like that–cast perfectly not only on the surface but through several satirical layers. Both she and Simon keep perfect control of the comedy while skimming as close to the straight line as possible, so that the whole can be enjoyed as farce without ever losing the thread of adventure. Pure skill creating something wonderfully satisfying…
  • …well, skill, and bored producers assigning Rickard the exotically-accented parts now that dousing him in poop has gotten a bit old, I am increasingly convinced. Much love here for how he has to audibly stop and readjust his Scots in the middle of a line. In other incidental-pleasure news, not sure if Simon is meant to be parodying anybody in particular, but either way, the strategically-cheekbone-enhancing scar, nice touch. Actually, the whole look is sort of strategically-enhancing-Simon-in-general. Dunno how they convinced Willbond to let go of the flak jacket and/or mousse, but I would be open to it becoming a trend.
  • I am however sort of disappointed that they didn’t bother recreating Ben’s Val Kilmer-is-the-Saint ‘do from the first couple Wonders of the Universe sketches. Otherwise, I have nothing but frank and open goodwill towards the return of this series. The mythology is uniquely interesting and the idiot child of the universe schtick remains agreeably daffy, if for no other reason than that I haven’t seen Lawry enjoying himself this much since… erm… well, ever, come to think of it.
  • Otherwise, the absence of Willbond is near-total, excepting a quick characteristic fillip in the Whiffy Jar bit… oh, and another smitch of Henry VIII, which owing to a pleasantly impressive costuming upgrade has suddenly become interesting again. That is, just this once, inner Tudor nerd, we’re going to shut up and appreciate fetching strawberry-blond Benjamin to the full, ‘kay? Standing in a lovely, appropriately aristocratic-looking garden, to boot. If nothing else, any attempt at a Henrician sketch that doesn’t involve chopping heads, marriage or chopping heads after marriage deserves all the encouragement possible.
  • The rest of the leading-man stuff comfortably belongs to Simon, who over the last three series has slid from the lunatic fringes into the solid, dare I suggest nuanced, forefront of the troupe with almost unnervingly assured confidence. Almost, because the farting-in-a-jar. This is not something I ever imagined myself describing as ‘reassuring’, but it is so. In fact, my first viewing of this all-round tiny perfect triumph of casting triggered the most intense bout of nostalgia thus far this series… save possibly the Stupid Deaths segment involving Death blithely ignoring the implications of a bearded skeleton.
  • I am also strongly tempted to say something about his similarly surreal take on Brother Augustine; except that it would be stern, and invoke the perils of over-confidence. Sure, I laughed, but still cannot in good conscience recommend trying it at home, not when an unusually delicate, intriguing bit of comedy material very nearly gets swamped. (Incidentally, also: “Hold the sausage!”… pushing it, guys. Really pushing it.)
  • The whole thing with the Angles and the niceties of conversion to Christianity does manage to hang onto its subtly offbeat charm, thanks either to a deliberately brilliant satirical commentary on the relative value of belief systems that cleverly invokes Clarke’s Third Law to bring a thought-provoking philosophical point down to kiddy level…
  • …or, y’know, they closed their eyes, punched a spot in the encyclopedia index, then bunged Simon and Mat in there and told them to make it work. Either is equally plausible at this point, but I like the results a lot, regardless. Especially Mat consciously playing with his own lack of imposing–oh, and the random blond facial foliage, that’s got even more novelty value than the beard from the SD. Although the beard does come with the same prissy downtown-art-gallery-owner accent last heard on Gutenberg, so it’s a close-run thing.
  • Speaking of Mat’s prime command of prissiness: The Royal Society sketch is totally my new Most Favourite Sketch Ever, and I honest and true really mean it this time, pinky swear. Even if it didn’t hit all my particular HH buttons dead-on, it’s still easily the best prose thing in this series, and equally easily among the top ten sketches ever. An elegant-yet-endearing triumph in the same vein as S4’s Borgia/Godfather sketch: every element the show has mastered, exquisitely perfect in every way and interacting perfectly from there. Up to and including Simon refining the quiet skill thing to the point where what was designed merely as a springboard for Mat and Jim’s antics morphs into an actual performance that very nearly steals the show.
  • Of course, that was never going to actually happen or anything, and especially not when that particular duo are under those wigs exploring a whole new dimension of their nervy genius-vs-plain commonsense chemistry. This troupe knows each other’s creative strengths to an almost scarily precise degree at this point; whatever other production problems the producers encountered, casting must’ve been an unqualified delight. All props to Baynton particularly for restraining himself insofar as possible; making Jim’s exaggerated bluster that much more hilarious in response. Proven ability to respect intellectual excitement while still fully honouring the idiocy: yet another reason to be excited for Bill-the-film.
  • Meantime, over at the Sorby Research Institute, Jim is doing another kind of smart-guy sell, and it is fully as entertaining. Again, loving how this creative team now knows each other well enough to not only rely on individual schticks but pull off this type of complicated, clever experiment with them. It’s the same old creepy-cuddly Howick hilarity, except turned inside-out then held upside-down and sideways. Until you’re not entirely sure what to think, except that you are just incredibly creeped out by this cuddly little elderly man earnestly doing his best for his country’s war effort.
  • It helps that it’s Larry opposite him, doing the resigned disbelief he’d previously perfected as a Fashion Fix victim… come to think of it, that might explain the outfit here, they were trying to help get him in the mood. Really, it’s the uncannily accurate “All Creatures Great and Small client” vibe that gives the performance, Rickard just has to follow along looking increasingly miserable. All that’s missing is the little terrier.
  • After all that rampant innovation, the Spartan shield business comes across as positively refreshing: a nice little classic Jim’n’Larry palate-cleanser… yeah, I just now realised afresh that that’s a thing in my world, and am suddenly very, very happy in my heart cockles. The Spartan material has the great benefit to begin with of naturally working perfectly as throwaway anecdotes, a minute or so being the exact time available to thoroughly enjoy the funny before the uglier implications have a chance to kick in.
  • Which leads us finally to the Spartan Girl advert. I have been putting this off partly because I’m slightly terrified that the show and I are clearly now locked in a symbiotic comic relationship (see history notes for S05E02), and partly because, even though creatively it’s an amusing riff on little girls and their Barbies (of which I totally was one), in all other ways it’s just an incredibly annoying about-face from celebrating Jeanne d’Arc.
  • Turning the relative freedom and empowerment of Spartan female culture back on itself merely ‘cos it’s not ‘girly’ enough strikes me as very much throwing out the great teachable moment with the frankly tepid comedic bathwater. I’m really disappointed that they wouldn’t take the chance, in the final series, to…
  • …*thinks back to all that genuine excitement over scientific achievement*
  • *sigh* Fine, show, you win again. Just…well… watch it, OK?

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes, Saint Joan. For the full context surrounding the goofy gyrations (in particular, why I’m so weirded out at Mat’s share) check out S02E07. Actually, you might want to check that sketch out just on g.p’s–Alice deserves her due, and the chance to witness Apologetic Angel Howick in all his glory never a bad thing.
  • Otherwise, given that both my major topics have been poached, and everything else is basically self-explanatory anecdotes, we’re a little light on fun historical sidelights this week. Especially since I never did find anything further re: the Anglo-Saxon Sky Kingdom of Storms, and am severely cranky as a consequence. Anybody care to give me the scoop in the comments, I’d be much obliged.
  • I did manage to find out that cute little Doctor Mellanby was absolutely a real doctor… well, a real entomologist and ecologist, anyway. Actually, he was Major Kenneth Mellanby, CBE, Sorby Research Fellow of the Royal Society in the Zoology Department at the University of Sheffield, whose death in 1993 was accompanied by the kind of public-service and medical-breakthough-filled eulogies you really wouldn’t mind having. The sketch here catches him more or less at the start of his career, when an interest in scabies–caused by mites, in case you’re still wondering about the connection–led to the Sorby project (link highly recommended for a more detailed overview) which in turn led to all those other fun bits of medical research…
  • …which in turn led to his argument at the Nuremberg tribunal that the Nazis’ own notorious medical experiments were… well… It was Mellanby’s view that Nazi medical research was justified by its long-term scientific benefit, despite the human costs: the death of each victim had the indirect potential to save thousands of lives in the future. ‘If their sufferings could in any way add to medical knowledge and help others, surely this is what they would have preferred.’…Mellanby also justified the malaria experiments that were carried out in what he called the ‘reasonably humane’ concentration camp at Dachau. 
  • Yeah, so this, ah, unique theory got him completely curb-stomped by the prosecution at Nuremberg shortly afterwards, thanks for asking. Although the same link notes that it’s possible to defend Mellanby somewhat based on just how urgently important two World Wars had made the field of wartime medicine. Besides which, the man did establish the first university in Nigeria, at Ibadan. And was a prolific writer on environmental causes, eventually founding the journal Environmental Pollution. And–if Wiki is to be believed–wrote a children’s book called Talpa, the story of a mole. Still… ‘reasonably humane’. Brrrrr.
  • On a much-needed lighter note, Hans Steininger: definitely also real, and definitely the star of more than one online list of bizarre deaths. Unfortunately he lived well before the age of photography, so instead, have a 1927 snap of Hans Langseth, Danish owner of the longest recorded beard in history–17.3 feet (in case it’s not clear at first glance at the photo, that’s the rest of it braided and slung back over his shoulder)–or approximately four times ol’Hans the First’s superior in the matter of luxuriant facial fungus. Evidently much luckier when it came to beard-related accidents, too. What it is about men named Hans that particularly compels them to bury their chins, on the other hand, we may never know…
 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E04

These Romans think they’re minted
But they ain’t rich like me
You can’t call yourself loaded
Till you can buy an army…

Some more old standbys return for an offbeat, odds-and-ends romp in which the purely golden moments still manage to bridge the creative cracks… just barely. They were saved by the timely application of Roman grime rap, is basically what I am saying here.

In this episode:

Song:  Crassus: Minted — Simon as the forgotten third member of the First Roman Triumvirate explains via the traditional route for HH royalty — ie, party-intensive hip-hop — why he couldn’t care less about the fame, so long as he had the fortune. (Parody of: Dizzee Rascal, Bonkers)

Recurring sketches:

Dominic Duckworth: HHTV Investigates — Touching for the King’s Evil: A Viable Healthcare System? (Nope, even in HH reality, Charles II in maroon can’t actually cure what ails you.”This is Dom Duckworth, in Stuart England, covered in the remains of an Ancient Egyptian mummy… which is a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say.”)

Thou Hast Been Framed — Roman royal blooper special

Words We Get From — Jeremy Bentham

Stupid Deaths — Sophie Blanchard (Ballooning pioneer who decided her dramatic public ascent could only be improved by: setting off fireworks. After said ascent. “Now, where were we?” *phhhbbbbbttttthhhhhh* “…that was the balloon.”)

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Magazine — The magazine everyone in Saxon England should read! “…well, as long as they’re monks.” “What happened to the vow of silence?!” “Oh, right. Starting now…”

Historical Apprentice — Team Monk vs. Team Johannes Gutenberg vie to demonstrate the most efficient printing technology… except not really, that’s a given, so we’re all just here for more ‘vow of silence’ jokes. Unfortunately. (“Just to recap: Team Gutenberg single-handedly started a revolution in communication… and Team Monk here gave us a few pretty letters? Team Monk, what d’you have to say for yourselves?!” “…?”)

HHTV Sport — Live as Emma Sharp completes her thousand-mile walk in one thousand hours, Bradford,1864 (“Somebody stop ‘er! I’ve ‘eard of men doing it, but whoever ‘eard of a woman doing something so physically demanding? It shouldn’t be possible! …also I bet ten quid that she couldn’t.”)

One-offs:

Woeful Second World War

Canine Covert Ops — In which the German attempt to train canine spies gets just a tad over-optimistic, even for the ‘delusional-egomaniacal-dictator-insists-on-total-control’ system of military strategy. (“Perhaps you will be more easily impressed by Private Rolf. He taps his paw in a different way for each letter… Is there anything you wish to say to ze General, Rolf? Ah: WOOF…”)

Corporal Wojtek — Well, no, the Polish army giving a brown bear a commission wasn’t strictly what you might call ‘normal operating procedure’ either. But definitely lots more badass.

Vicious Vikings

I Can’t Believe You’ve Got Me Eating Seal Blubber! — Dude, not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re living in ancient Scandinavia. How is this stranger (or less fishy-tasting) than the walrus?

Frostbite Follies — Erik the Red’s heated attempt to lure settlers to the ‘sun-drenched paradise’ of Greenland inevitably gets put on ice. (“P-p-p-pour me a drink, Magnus!” “I c-c-an’t — the beer is frozen, and the jug is st-stuck to my hand! I’ve g-got jug-hand!”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Jeremy Bentham, I Presume — Tea with one of Britain’s leading sociopolitical thinkers comes sweetened with a nice dose of eccentricity. (“We must demystify death, sir! Surround ourselves with it, and we will lose our fear of mortality!” “But… you can’t keep corpses in a garden!” “Yes, well.. perhaps you’re right, the weather would rot them. Maybe I’ll just display some preserved heads in a specially modified cabinet.”)

Vile Victorians   

The Original Media Darling — Captivating young heroine Grace D. and her dad negotiate the perils of pre-Internet celebrity… well not really, we’re mostly just here for Sarah H. in another bald cap. Which is at least an improvement over the muffled monks.

Field Notes:

  • Forgotten credit weirdness, update: Someone… I’m gonna say Lawry?… totally making chipmunk face behind (naturally enough) ‘Your host, a talking rat’. Yes, with appropriate makeup and everything. You can see why I’m getting more sceptical about this experimental business by the review, here. At the least, I now definitively feel much better about the non-existence of a Series Six, because if we are already channeling Chip’n’Dale in this series I am reasonably certain they would’ve resorted to Transformers-based satire in the next. Or maybe Historical Government, featuring Rob Ford jokes…
  • …Actually, while typing all this I did have an idea for a Kafka-inspired song, featuring Lawry as the cockroach guy, and maybe a Freudian cameo from Simon. I’m a little sad about missing that, now.
  • However I am getting over it fast, because this week’s real experiment in musical originality involves a full-on attempt to top Charles II, the Eminem-inspired King of Bling. It fails, of course, if for no other reason than the attempt to compensate for Ben’s juggling with Ben making what he fondly assumes are happening hand gestures… gesture, really. (I think it may actually be the same one he’s making in the iconic stock photo of Charlie and cronies.) Just had another missed-opportunity-based mental image, of Caesar drunkenly tossing Crassus’ minor room ornaments around in the background, and am even sadder. I don’t even get Pompey showing off his Electric Slide. Larry Rickard, you have let me down.
  • Right, yes, nominally at least still a kiddy show, I do get that. And even for the adults, casting Farnaby as legendary mega-zillionaire Marcus Licinus Crassus, Grime God among mere partying mortals, is still pushing the boundaries of regal rap out to deeply pleasing new levels of ridiculousness. First reaction is ‘Really? Simon?’ and the second, approx ten seconds in, is ‘Of course, Simon!” After all, when you recall how convincingly his Caligula boogied down in S3, this begins to seem no more than the solidly logical followup.
  • The overall effect, coming directly after Dickens the definitive musical celebration of erudition, is of the wild post-exam bash in the frat house, and equally exhilarating… the return of Grandmaster Funk Willbond and all… up to and including Mat tonguing the camera. Y’know, guys, I might have a bit less difficulty remembering the demographic boundaries if you’d quit randomly forgetting them yourselves.
  • Incidentally, everyone’s also evidently forgotten that they’d firmly established that same Baynton as General Pompey way back in S1; or possibly are merely trying to forget that at that stage they still weren’t above ripping off Python scenes wholesale. Kind of pleasingly ironic really, given that back then it was ol’ Pom who got the credit–correctly reassigned here, interestingly enough–for Crassus’ reviving the Decimation punishment.
  • Anyway, Mat gets something of his own back–accent, even more so than usual, on the ‘something’–when Charles II flits in for his annual go at driving more rational characters absolutely nuts. That the rationality in this case is represented by Dom “Stone-Face” Duckworth is a great idea, absolutely inspired… but in practice, it ends up hilighting just how far Charlie has veered from the genuinely intriguing original, in much the same way as Henry VIII. (It may-or-may not be a coincidence that this comparative indifference kicked in around the same time Mat also started getting vocal about the show’s failure to hilight the Merry Monarch’s less fun, more autocratic qualities.)
  • Which doesn’t really spoil this party in the slightest, because: Dom! Most excellent choice of recurring bit to bring back for further development, show… even if you might want to quit developing the hair, at least, while you’re ahead. Also, Jim, it wouldn’t hurt to back off the ‘crusading reporter’ voice just an itty-bitty smidge, there.
  • I am also a bit concerned, given that this is a character best-remembered for getting clocked in the face by a fish-wielding knight, by his failure to pass the stuck-in-the-HH universe spot check here. Duckworth ol’buddy, if your bar for implausible statements is still set that low you are setting yourself up for for a world of hurt… or at least, an encounter with the chipmunk-face guy. As it is, we’re clearly now just fine with the blatant fat jokes in Howick’s direction, which let me be the first to say: Huh. O…kay, then. I guess.
  • On the other hand, much decisive excitement re: the return of Steve “Not Actually Eric Idle, But…” Punt. In fact, tell me why we didn’t develop him as the de facto seventh member of the troupe instead of Lawry, again? He was there first, and as far as I can tell, wouldn’t have had much of a problem handling the neurotic. Meanwhile, check the impressive lineup of fully-made-up extras behind him! …Most of whom don’t actually look all that ill, and certainly don’t appear to comprise any sort of viable ‘crush’, but I am certainly not complaining, because in HH terms it’s ruddy Downton Abbey.
  • I think I would be a bit more sympathetic toward Jim the target if Hannibal: The Return wasn’t also the star of this week’s ‘Thou Hast Been Framed’. Which bit has already been established as highly problematic re: performer dignity, and here… Oh God, Howick, please can you just knock off the Colonel Sanders impersonation before they make you give back the BAFTA, OK? (On the plus side, last series elephants made out of stagehands and flannel, this series papier-mache. Result!… no, I don’t know what it would be, exactly, only that it’s encouraging.)
  • Oh, and also: Fine, show, we’ve definitively established liking the bagpipes puts me on par with Emperor Nero. Thanks to you lot I am strangely OK with this, so there.
  • Let’s get back on the happiness train alongside Jim as Jeremy Bentham, revelling in the chance to spend quality time being, essentially, a Doctor Who character, which from all appearances turns out to be fully as delightful an experience as I’ve always envisioned.
  • It’s a delightful experience altogether, this sketch; the show hasn’t made my brain feel smiley all over like this since the HParamedics fled the scene for good. Add Bentham to the list of Concepts They Really Should’ve Found Long Since; now they have to cram in all the rich comic goodness at once, and still wind up sticking the really excellent bit into the quiz for afters. All of which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–except when I start thinking about how I could’ve been watching Bentham’s precious eccentricity unfold instead of, say, the Historical Pet Shop, or for that matter any given iteration of the Baron Rothschild and his chimps…
  • Ah well, at least I can cross the return of Lawry the magnificently snarky butler from last series’ Victorian bits, and Ben doing what he totally should’ve been back when Martin Luther was involved, off my wish list before it’s too late. And this time there’s no toilet jokes involved, either–quite the reverse, in fact. (Protip: accidentally pausing on video of Jim cooing at a teapot really should come with insulin warnings.)
  • It’s all part of an interesting new trend I’ve noticed as the material moves further and further away from the books. In general, it appears to be getting… well… nicer, is the best way I can put it. Still gleefully scatological, and violent where needed, but not nearly as dedicated to the anarchistic ‘stuff they don’t teach you at school’ undertone. I can’t speak to the precise motives or priorities of the new crew of fact-gatherers, but it’s obvious that the kiddies are being challenged to develop their understanding of human nature on a whole ‘nother level. Taken together with the ongoing gains in creative complexity, entering S6 it likely would’ve been nigh-unrecognizable as HH at all. One wonders if T.Deary was impressed or otherwise by the prospect.
  • Having unveiled said thesis, damned if they haven’t found one last surefire vein of anarchic stupidity to mine, and it began with the “Don’t Wake the Fuehrer” bit last series. Yes, I know delusional megalomania that leads to innocent deaths isn’t at all funny, and I also know the show knows that–see: Titanic sketch. Still, man, the possibilities in the Reich’s increasing detachment from reality as the war waned have got me all bouncy on the edge of my seat here, going “Ooh, ooh! Next, can we have the story about how Goebbels diverted entire desperately-needed divisions from the front to be extras in a major propaganda film, so that by the time it was finished they had to cancel the Berlin premiere because the theatre had been bombed out?”
  • … Right, this show has turned me into a terrible, terrible person. But for the moment at least I do not care, because it is pure gold, this intricate and clever canine bit, even if Martha & Mat’s accents aren’t any of the above. Frankly, I’m a bit torn here, casting-wise; I wouldn’t trade Mat’s slow realisation that he’s slipping down the rabbit hole for anything — except maybe the equally glorious set of possibilities that would be Ben, filling out the uniform properly, with That German Accent. Man, the kind of problems you want to have, huh?
  • On the other hand of surreal glories past: we have reached the point in the history of Stupid Deaths when even skeletons in shiny party hats cannot shake me from faintly melancholy nostalgia … and then suddenly it’s all whoa, callbacks to Death the despiser of foreigners from Moliere’s SD! Helium voice! Balloon-fart gags! Martha doing a neatly and appealingly toned-down version of her Madame Tussaud from S3! Perhaps still not the most sublime comic heights you’ve ever achieved with this bit, show, but I do really appreciate the thoroughness of the effort to cheer me up.
  • So, based on the accent, Gutenberg turns out to have been a direct descendant of Vercingetorix? And is possibly an ancestor of the Fashion Fix host? Well hey, Mat, I’d be upset with you for thus pointlessly trivialising one of the great figures of intellectual history (and a personal hero of mine), but that and Jim’s sweet new neckbeard are about all that’s keeping me going through the latest Historical Apprentice sketch–which is saying something when not only S.Punt but Greg J. are also sitting nearby–so carry on.
  • And we will not even get into your line in ‘trying to pretend it’s summer on an ice floe’ gags, because whew, at least the vow of silence ditto apparently had some sort of satirical purpose. Here… well, even given the sheer obviousness of it all understandably weighing you down, you still had Nordic Larry available front and centre and… y’know, maybe that was the problem, actually. I kept waiting for the weird to really take off and break loose, and all I got were a couple of broken thumbs; too little, too late. If you ever wondered what an actual earnest children’s show version of HH would look like, this would probably be it… complete with crappy dollar-store cardboard snowman.
  • This illusion was not hurt at all by the preceding ode to seal blubber, which of all the whacky food trivia this show has brought forth (two words: Whale. Phlegm.) it doesn’t even rate as remotely quirky. I mean, yeah, they got Lawry to do the kvetching in his dependably impressive Victorian Cockney mode, which it says a lot about this bit that that actually helps rather than merely increases the odd–but still.
  • Much more interestingly, at least for the non-UK viewer: you lot still advertise that not-butter stuff over there? I mean, not judging or anything, whatever provides your cheap-breakfast-spread needs. Just saying that, at this point, most North Americans would rather go for the blubber.
  • Contrariwise to all of the above, and to my intense personal gratification to boot, the show for once manages to turns up an entirely unexpected yet utterly awesome everyday heroine, thus continuing the tradition of my having to forgive them everything at the last minute. Especially because, total unexpected bonus alert, Larry as the sport reporter! I don’t know why I like him so much in this guise, exactly; possibly it has something to do with watching him play blandly cheerful while all the while knowing what he’s really capable of… exactly as per the last punchline.
  • We are also treated to a great plot twist in the ongoing series of wartime animal heroes: the animal survives the experience! Well, at least you can finally cross PETA off the list of potentially annoyed special interest groups, show!
  • More seriously, thwe whole thing is a much better use of the animation than is typical in the final few series, and a very welcome expansion into other nations’ wartime experiences to boot. It’s a bit surprising we haven’t seen more of those, actually; you’d have to believe that, in the search for new and novel Horrible material, this would’ve  developed into a really fertile field. Not to mention, you’ve got Ben and his knack for Eastern European accents, besides the others and their…
  • …*pictures Larry attempting a Bohemian lilt*…
  • …Y’know, maybe it’s all for the best as-is.
  • Anyway, there will always be the Victorian sketches, maintaining their unusual thoughfulness and lush detail to the end. I may have been unduly influenced in this by a recent viewing of North and South, but am convinced that the saga of Grace Darling, whatever its shortcomings as fascinating historical folly, is nevertheless about as close and precise as we’re ever likely to get to a pure satire of the BBC’s historical-drama vibe.
  • I may also have been influenced by Mat, doing his fully charming bit in the noble cause of keeping up with the bald cap–no, not by attempting that accent, or at least not just that accent–and no, not by being Sarah H.’s dad, that actually works out quite well, or at least better than it did when Martha tried the same stunt. It’s just… if there’s one thing completely and consistently effortless about this series, it’s the cast’s ability to bring the weird. And frankly it is a damn good thing there is Yonderland and Bill, otherwise I might have found myself really… sniffly about that, right now.

95% Accu-rat:

  • You think I’m kidding, about the sheer volume of eccentric goodness Jeremy Bentham had yet to give? Look on his QI Infocloud page, ye skeptic, and despair. Not that I am bitter or anything, but I will just point out again that very nearly all the info in that cloud was ignored by the entire HH creative community for years, while they conducted an inexplicable love affair with a guy who merely dined with chimps. Bentham, on the other hand, turns out to have actively changed the world not only for the cuter, but for the better:
  • Odd though he was, Bentham is an important thinker. His idea that ordinary people were entitled to happiness struck at the heart of the entrenched rights of the aristocracy, the Crown and the judicial system. He opposed slavery, capital and corporal punishment; he believed in equal rights for women, and for animals; and called for the decriminalising of homosexuality; he praised free trade and freedom of the press; he supported the right to divorce and urged the separation of the church and state. Most of what we now call liberalism can be traced back to Bentham and his protégé, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).
  • About the only crazy market Bentham didn’t have cornered was the effect of great wealth; he was content to putter around writing and snoring and naming teapots and whatnot. Marcus Licinius Crassus, on the other hand, took no prisoners–quite literally–on his way to becoming the wealthiest single private individual in history. It’s always a bit tricky to sort fiscal historical reality from the exaggerations, but in modern terms, adjusted for inflation etc, some estimate that the man had a net worth of nearly two trillion US dollars. Here, I’ll write that out for you (in the British notation): $2,000,000,000,000.
  • And this after the previous generation had managed to lose the entire already-impressive family fortune playing politics. Having once got a tiny shred of influence back, Crassus proceeded to methodically rebuild said fortune to Scrooge McDuck-like levels by the time-honoured method of having absolutely no moral or ethical scruples whatsoever. By ‘Took the land off enemies to flog it’ the song means running the government’s list of “proscriptions”, ie. those declared enemies of the state. The listees’ possessions would then be confiscated and auctioned off–basically, modern-day estate auctions, only with a lot more elaborate family shame and disgrace and stuff. It’s said that Crassus added at least one wealthy enemy to the proscription list outright.
  • Once hip to the possibilities of screwing other people out of their funds, and steadily regaining influence because of it, Crassus got more and more brazen. Alongside the fire-brigade scam hilighted in the song, there is also the story (via Plutarch) of his seduction of a young relative of his, Licinia, wholly in order to get his gold-plated paws on her “pleasant villa in the suburbs… at a good price”.
  • Sure, standard operating procedure in Ancient Rome–except that Licinia was a Vestal Virgin, bound to a State-sponsored vow of chastity. Thus forcing even the most jaded public officials to go “Tut, tut” in the zillionaire’s general direction, although of course money–aided by his politician’s tongue–easily talked Crassus out of any official immortality charges. History doesn’t record what happened to Licinia, except that it was definitely minus one pleasant villa.
  • And then there’s poor old Erik “the Red” Thorvaldsson, hoist by his own petard into an icy hell-hole. As it turns out, he wasn’t even able to claim the honours of discovery; according to Wiki, Tradition credits  Gunnbjörn Ulfsson (also known as Gunnbjörn Ulf-Krakuson) with the first sighting of the land-mass….nearly a century before Erik… After Gunnbjörn, Snaebjörn Galti had also visited Greenland.  Apparently neither of these guys had Erik’s PR expertise (as many an MMORPG player has discovered, having a flaming ginger beard will do wonders for your warrior cred) and, more to the point, they didn’t manage to establish permanent settlements.
  • Yep, outlandish as it sounds, Erik’s little etymological scam in reality worked a treat. Granted, mostly with poor Icelandic famine victims, but, y’know, details. It’s anyway generally believed that the new settlement would have been significantly more ‘green’ back then, the island historically being notoriously subject to rapid climate shifts:  Interpretation of ice core and clam shell data suggests that between 800 and 1300 AD, the regions around the fjords of southern Greenland experienced a relatively mild climate several degrees Celsius higher than usual in the North Atlantic, with trees and herbaceous plants growing and livestock being farmed. Barley was grown as a crop up to the 70th parallel.
  • At any rate, within just a few years after his return from exile in 982, Erik had managed to attract a fair few thousand settlers to the imaginatively named Eastern and Western Settlements respectively. Whereupon he promptly named himself paramount chieftain of the whole schmear, built himself a grand estate and became both “greatly respected and wealthy”. Thus everybody lived happily ever after… or at least until the fifteenth century, when another ice age kicked in and farming became impossible once again.
  • It’s not made clear in the sketch itself, but the reason everyone therein is so het up about Emma Sharp’s attempt (or for that matter, is giving her any attention at all) is because covering 1000 miles in the shortest possible time turns out to be historically a pretty big deal, it being the longest recognised standard distance. For awhile there at the turn of the 19th century, quite a few intrepid (also, male) sporty types earned a handsome living taking bets that they could walk it in x hours. Emma’s definitely a worthy candidate for feature treatment, but I have a soft spot for George Wilson, dauntless dare-taker extraordinaire:
  • …[He] became involved in great controversy when in the middle of one of his 20 day 1000 mile wagers he was stopped by the authorities and charged with causing a breach of the peace. He lost the wager and ended up in debtor’s prison. Unbowed, he then proceeded to walk 50 miles in 12 hours in a tiny prison yard, a mere 11 yards by 8, making 9.026 turns!
 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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