15 Jun

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.”)


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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