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S05E04

15 Jun

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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