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Monthly Archives: July 2014

S05E09

The sacred chicken has spoken! We’re doomed! Auuuggghhhh!

In which we pause in the headlong rush to the finale to fully appreciate some of the more sweetly offbeat efforts to overcome the content crisis… and in the process wrap up more than a few plot threads.

In this episode:

Song:  Henry VII: The Original Tu-Tu-Tudor — Mat as the famously dour founder of the melodramatic dynasty decides to upgrade his image with the help of modern glam rock. Featuring Larry and Simon on mandolins and Jim on drums.

Recurring sketches:

Wonders of the Roman Universe — “That’s actually quite impressive, that you knew all about the planets–” “Ooh, but they’re not just planets, they’re gods! Giant beings who played games deciding the fates of everyone in the world! It’s Ancient Roman scientific fact!” “Yeah… it always starts so well, doesn’t it…”

Historical Wife Swap — Egyptian (Pharaoh Rameses II and Queen Nefertari swap with a peasant family: “I am the great Pharaoh! Born of Ra, chosen of Ra. For powerful is the truth of Ra. Half-king, half-god, master of all I survey, Rameses II, glory be to my name, yada yada yada. Right, and you are?” “Susan.”)

Photographic Monthly Chronicle — Pioneering photographer William Henry Fox Talbot reveals the good reasons why nobody’s smiling in old-timey portraits; also post-mortem photography, a real live craze re: remembering the dead. (“And we’ve got all the very latest accessories! These rigid neck irons and body braces make movement blurs a thing of the past, don’t they?! …he’s trying to nod.”)

Words We Get From the… — Stone Age. No, really.

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

Plague, Plague, Who’s Got the Plague? — Pretty much everybody in London by this point, meaning that victim-finder recruitment came with some major occupational hazards… “Can I be your apprentice?” “Sure, why n–errrkk! *thud*” “Well, you can see the problem…”

Ye Olde Starbuckes — Charles II’s attempt to discourage anti-government plotters leads to Cavalier hipsters–and you just know there were a lot of them–having some difficulty in securing a hot beverage. (“What’s your name, I’ll just write it on the mug?” “I’m the only person in the shop…?” “Right, TheOnly... *squeek* *squeek*…” “…and you’re making that noise with your mouth.”)

Rotten Romans

Playing Chicken — The great naval Battle of Drepanum hinges on the predictive powers of a sacred, and not incidentally profoundly land-based, barnyard fowl. No, really. (“O Sacred Chicken! Show us our fate!” *…* “Think she might be a bit seasick…”)

Measly Middle Ages

Middle Ages Antique Roadshow — The renowned experts of which are called upon to assess the value of an, erm, well-traveled lump of medicinal metal… and an even more unsettling recipe for gold… yeah, you know the drill by now. (“Bleaaarrghh…!” “‘Ere, now, that jar’s an antique!”)

New! Middle Ages Magic Set — Makes creating your own miracles so easy, the whole family can do it!… And probably did, in a whole lot of cases. Warning: Performing magic in the Middle Ages could get you executed!

Terrible Tudors

Bosworth Bollocks — So apparently the last great deciding battle of the epic, century-spanning Wars of the Roses came down to one Lord Stanley dithering over which side to enter on while the battle was already in progress.  (“…On the other hand, Henry Tudor’s royal bloodline does stretch back to Edward III — and let’s not forget, I am married to his mum. If I side with the other guy, well, you can imagine how awkward Christmas is gonna be…”)

Vile Victorians

Ahoy-hoy, Mr. Edison — The Wizard of Menlo Park makes a fundamental adjustment to Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention… just possibly not the one you were expecting. (“Mr. Edison! Telephone for you!” “Thanks… wait, what does that even mean?”)

Savage Stone Age

An Historical Place in the Sun — Moving on up and out of the cave for the first time comes with some unique stumbling-blocks. (“What ‘home’ mean?” “OK, well, a home is somewhere you live, it’s a permanent dwelling…” “Per-ma-berm-dwellin?” “…this is gonna take awhile.”)

Field Notes:

  • Well, isn’t this nice. Remember back a few reviews ago, when I brought up the Viking Poetry bit? (Pause for public service announcement: if you still haven’t seen that sketch, and its inexplicably total absence from Tumblr et al suggests that’s likely, get thee back to my S01E11 review immediately for all the reasons why you should. Ben in pigtails, people!)
  • Anyway, it turns out that the gently fragile surreality I thought was unique back then has ended up as a fairly common side effect in S5. It’s located right at the intersection of the new content vibe–in which quirky is totally the new anarchistic–and the consequences of leaving the cast alone to cope with the same material as they will. You know how [spoiler alert] Yonderland is constantly balancing between knowingly raunchy and wide-eyed innocence? Welp, this here HH episode will help you understand where the latter came from. (Hmmm? The former? Ah, this must be your first-ever contact with British comedy, congratulations. Go look up some Monty Python on YouTube, love, and do let me know how it all works out.)
  • In fact, I’d suggest the Wonders of the Universe sketches owe a very direct debt to the VP bit; at least, the nagging question of why Ben’s perpetually-bemused producer character seemed so familiar to me is now definitively answered. Even down to the hair, which is only getting more hilariously implausible. Clearly, somebody in makeup had a film-school relationship they needed closure on.
  • The whole concept really is shaping surprisingly well. Lawry is operating on a level of comedic sophistication unusual both for him and the entire series (I can tell, because it has now become flatly impossible for me to keep a straight face when watching the real Prof. Cox). Ben is likewise invested to a much more subtly impressive degree than is lately typical for him, possibly because for once he’s being forced to create the smarter character.
  • The whole makes marvelous capital out of the one key bit of meta-wit that prevented the Scary Stories from taking off properly: here, it’s not about Ben’s character constantly snapping, but how far Lawry can get before Ben finally snaps, thus giving the viewer real incentive to pay attention to some really interesting factoids. Amazing!… no, really.
  • So is the song, and in some of the same ways. It had my interest built in right from the get-go; there’s something deliciously, even mesmerizingly unsettling about Mat as Henry VII even before the pop-art psychedelia kicks in. It’s hard to pin it down exactly, but something in the way he’s so right for the part feels quite incredibly wrong–a further dark spin on his icily authentic aristocratic aura from S4’s wig debate.
  • Musically, meantime… well, 70’s glam rock has never been my thing exactly, but I am onboard with its basic desire to show me a good time, and on that level this song is fully awesome. The overall theme is so lovingly re-created the ironic distance from Henry’s ‘audience’ evaporates and it starts to feel like you’re enjoying it on exactly the same level. Not coincidentally, our Mathew by now has the genre mimicry down to the point where you only realise how uncanny-verging-on-genius it is when you consciously think about it, and you’re enjoying the result so much you never do think of it until it’s over, so.
  • And because I know you’re all waiting for the Tudor nerd explosion: there won’t be one. Really, for once accuracy isn’t a problem–in fact, major props are deserved for recognizing the subtle but stone cold potential in VII to begin with. OK, so I may have allowed myself just a minor wry grin at how dour Dad’s the one all dolled up in bling while ‘exciting’ Henry VIII is sitting there in, yep, the “sweatshirt” and floppy cap, but this need not concern us here, on account of it is VIII’s last (regular-series) appearance after all *snif*. Besides, by now I am convinced that it must be a deliberate joke. Only I’ll be damned if I can figure out what’s so funny.
  • Much easier to figure out the funny–and the Baynton–in the Stuart-era Starbucks bit. Mat as coffee-shop hipster parody… right, yeah, not a whole lot of Method preparation required for that one, obviously. What we’re looking at here is entirely believable as a Mathew Baynton from an alternate reality in which he’s a failed theatre major who hangs around Starbucks all day with his guitar, telling himself it’s a performance piece… featuring Jim as his snarkily neurotic barista foil… OK, I feel bad fanfic coming on, best we move along now.
  • As a deliberate bit of satire, on the other hand, it’s frankly wonderful. Largely because it never makes the mistake of trying to be pointedly clever on a done-to-death parody subject, so is free to take advantage of Mat and Jim’s near-genius-level penchant for sweetly charismatic silliness instead (also, possibly, Jim’s ongoing eagerness to begin rehearsing his big opening scene in the Yonderland pilot). Thus it manages to stretch a barely interesting factoid to full sketch-length satisfaction. This is what constitutes creating a classic bit, this series.
  • Besides: costuming, even more a happy-making thing in the Stuart bits than the Victorian. I do love me those big plumed hats… well, basically, I just like the idea that at one point in human history it was plausible to walk down the street dressed like a panto production of the Three Musketeers, waving your sword about whilst swopping the latest gossip re: the King’s new mistress. Feels like it would make up for quite a lot, really.
  • So does the knowledge that the Romans consulted oracular chickens. Yes, in theory this isn’t all that far removed from the whole ‘Ericho follows the Spirit-infused livestock to the Holy Land’ hilarity last series, thus I should’ve been expecting at least some level of sublime ridiculousness… but as it turns out there is really no way to prepare for the fact that, and I cannot stress this enough, the Romans consulted oracular chickens.
  • Every history text you’ve ever read or written on the glory of Rome, every epic sword-n-sandal movie you’ve ever seen, you now suddenly can’t unsee the fortunetelling fowl lurking somewhere just off camera. Cleopatra seduces Caesar: cue the ominous clucking. Freakin’ Richard Burton, solemnly marching off to find Christ and his destiny in The Robe: probably checked in with a banty hen beforehand. Best. HH. Fact. Ever, is what I am saying here. Bet there were near-fistfights in the writer’s room over it.
  • Whomever won the day, I congratulate them hugely on not over-thinking the result and simply following in the direction the material leads; in this case, Farnaby biting the rigging in blind panic. And the wildly fake prophetic poultry itself–shades of S2’s Viking navigation raven–it’s all just deeply, deeply appreciated, guys.
  •  I also think I can officially call this now: cuddly little bearded Jim makes for a funnier reversed-expectations military officer spoof than skinny awkward-looking Mat–although, you level the field re: facial hair and the gap closes quite a bit, on account of Mat having much the more spoof-worthily heroic chin to begin with. On the other hand, Jim usually has Ben to bounce off of, which automatically wins you all the things. We get what must be the full spectrum of epic Willbondian exasperation here, and it is as unabashedly glorious as anyone ever suspected. In particular, the being actively intimidated by the chicken. Lovely.
  • And not all, by a long shot. The team of Willbond and Howick then definitively wrap up their dual act by successfully pulling off an Abbott & Costello-type routine whilst trying desperately to hang onto American accents–any American accents, they’re clearly not picky. That’s it, the final summit of the demo-duo charisma has been explored and conquered, much hilarity has been had, closure has been achieved. Seriously, the only thing they could’ve topped it with in S6 would be an actual rendition of “Who’s on First”… and now, see, I have all the fuel I need to imagine it regardless. Once again, I declare myself content.
  • Especially, as usual, with Jim, who makes a surprisingly convincing Edison. However my real appreciation here is reserved for Ben, on the other hand being totally unable to keep the random RP inflections out of what is evidently supposed to be… some sort of a… possibly Midwestern twang… with occasional overtones of the Bowery? Yeah. Somebody may have been just a teeny bit unduly influenced by the traditional Hollywood sidekick archetype, here.
  • Unexpectedly charming closure corollary: Awww, little Cartoon Victorian Gentleman Guy finally loosens up and makes with the puns! I always knew he had it in him.
  • There’s another definitive apex being reached over on Wife Swap, and indeed the whole class struggle plot thread: inasmuch as even given this show’s determination to beat the unfairness of it all into the ground, there’s literally nowhere to go from a Living God/common labourer matchup.
  • Thanks to the aforementioned beating, though, not much else going on here of note; in fact the format is so creatively stalled out by now it’s to the performers’ real credit I didn’t consider that until I’d finished watching. Technically, Pharaoh Simon should’ve probably had a herald/slave to recite that whole schpiel for him, but I do not care, because damn, way to combine the teachable moment with the hysterically funny. Farnaby the Politely Clueless Aristocrat, I have missed you.
  • Say what now? No, no, I totally also noticed the Return of Bald Cap Sarah. It’s just that after Simon’s not only gone over the top but run off with it, any other surrealism in the vicinity inevitably gets reduced to a purely logical development. By that point, I was more interested in how much younger- and cuter-looking a deviation Nefretari is from her old Museum Matron look in S1. In other mildly pique-worthy casting news, Mat in that wig, being a matter-of-fact peasant, is somehow still much more pathetic than he was as a flamboyantly bitter French revolutionary.
  • Speaking of which, it’s past time for my annual (and rather sheepish) confirmation that the latest guy I thought wasn’t around all that much actually turns out to have been around quite a bit, or at least fairly prominently. Evidently, and rather intriguingly, they didn’t so much randomly delete Mat from S5 as choose his spots with elaborate care. Which as previously noted I find myself totally OK with, as a means of fulfilling my minstrel-eyed-spark-related needs. Especially when it’s accompanied by the chance to reuse the accent from last series’ Tudor archery SD, that’s a major plus.
  • So is the photography sketch itself. A bit overtly ‘Internet factoid’-esque precious, yet well and memorably presented… y’know, having now spent this much time with S5 in closeup, overall I’m starting to think they were developing more of a plausible handle on their newly slight, quirky identity than I’ve previously been willing to give them credit for. Still not enough to make me actively long for S6, but definitely a bit more intrigued by what might’ve been. In particular, Prince Albert being tripped up by an insistence on smiling of all things–a tiny perfectly-worked sample of the pure HH everyone raves about, right there.
  • Back here in the present, I must assign more bonus points to Unexpected Corpse Greg. A real old-fashioned trouper to the end, that lad… in particular, I am seriously, and quite sincerely, impressed by the totally keeping the straight face–let alone body–when Martha abruptly pulls out that idiotic voice.
  • And as if to reward me for all this Baynton-related fortitude, oh look, it’s the return of carefully-insouciant Civilian Host Mat! Yeah, I know, Gross Designs, but somehow it’s just not the same without the elaborately casual outerwear and ridiculously over-fluffed ‘do. Besides which, awwww, Martha and Jim the cozy couple! That chemistry will never get old… erm, in a manner of speaking. It’s such an solid, purely sweet-natured asset within the troupe that it’s a shame Yonderland is structured so it can’t happen.
  • And while we’re on the subject of civilian fluffiness… Alice the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ lady, thank you so much for not being shrill and blonde right now. No, really, I mean that. I do have something of a prejudice against your taste in sweaters, but given the parody subject, I can deal.
  • Particularly since I have other costuming distractions to think about. Did they just hustle Jim straight off the Sorby Institute set to this one? If so, awesome. I could stare fascinated at that check suit all day, it’s the professional version of Ben in a sweater-vest. The rest of the sketch doesn’t quite live up to it, but the concept has enough untapped potential to make me rather wistful (at the least, I could’ve been watching the suit instead of the Top Gear crew re-imagined as demonic troll dolls) and is pleasantly predictable in its own way. As per the Whiffy Jar, the pure grossout stuff’s been rare enough this series that it actually starts to seem warmly nostalgic.
  • Also, the random threats of brutal violence, likewise weirdly heartwarming, especially since the Vikings went all fuzzy-wuzzy on me. Thus I am left with the ethical intricacies of medieval magic tricks, and save for possibly a few seconds’ wondering where D.Duckworth has got to I am totally OK with this. Unexpectedly dark, rather impressively complex stuff—I must continue to give the new fact-finding team their due, they’ve got a fully refined eye for a fascinating anecdote…
  • …Which then proceeds to be severely if not entirely undercut by all the unnecessarily goofy over-playing onscreen. Mat’s got something of an excuse, as this seems to be his go-to ecclesiastical characterisation (at least here he’s not speaking in rhyme) but look, Farnaby, we just saw you biting the rigging, nobody’s buying the cutesy stuff, OK?
  • There`s more of the same–well-handled noir vibes, not cutesiness, thank goodness–in the plague-finder bit, aka a nice subtle riff on the Pythonic ‘Bring out your dead’. Yes, HH is now all but explicitly confirming the accuracy of Holy Grail scenes. I feel like a comedic circle of life has just come full round, here, somehow. That, and in the annals of stock HH schticks, ‘plague victims abruptly falling about like ninepins’ has never not been strangely hilarious. And the finale of this sketch, particularly if you’re familiar with Larry’s history as the perpetual patient, could be read as a rather pleasingly noir admission of ultimate futility on the whole topic.
  • Over in the annals of the English Civil War, meantime, we’ve finally reached Bosworth Field… and it’s all so incredibly exciting that my major concern is to determine whether the Tudor velvet flat caps have had a luxe upgrade. Otherwise, uh, yeah, so it turns out Lord Stanley had a perfectly viable, reasonable, definitely non-Horrible dilemma going there, and I still mildly enjoyed the show’s attempt to turn it to account. Forget the Wife Swap, I’m thinking this may represent the final final apotheosis of the cast’s ability to rescue a sketch.
  • Well done turning the car park business to advantage, though–the perfect way to wryly acknowledge the show’s part in the controversy without presuming on more than necessary for a silly comedy.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, yes, Henry VII, forcible founder of the Tudor dynasty.  As noted, the show for once gets a Tudor monarch exactly right: not so much boring as the most sane Bond villain prototype ever. Quite a guy, all things considered… and as the expression in that portrait suggests, either you considered them, or you discovered what it feels like when a real-life version of Machiavelli’s Prince comes down on your butt.
  • This is a man who clawed his way to the English throne despite a ‘claim’ that looked like this: Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, fourth son of Edward III, and his third wife Katherine Swynford. Katherine was Gaunt’s mistress for about 25 years; when they married in 1396, they already had four children, including Henry’s great-grandfather John Beaufort. In theory, the Portuguese and Spanish royal families had a better claim as descendants of Catherine of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt and his second wife Constance of Castile.
  • Wiki is, as usual, understating. In medieval terms, that one wheat farmer who seceded from Australia and now makes a living selling dukedoms to tourists had more of a shot at being taken seriously as royalty. Realistically, all Henry had going for him was his genuinely formidable Mom, a leading Lancastrian intellect of the day. Lady Margaret bore her only son when she was 13, was widowed shortly thereafter, and–despite eventually marrying a prominent Yorkist leader–never wavered in her commitment to her boy’s royal ambitions past that. Trust me, Lord Stanley wasn’t kidding about Christmas.
  • It also helped that the young Henry had his native wits sharpened by long exile due to his dynastic pretensions. In France, traditional hangout of disaffected English nobles waiting for a political shift, and thus also the first last and only time anybody’s ever going to draw a parallel between ol’Happy Harry here and Charles II.
  • The former, frankly, had much better things to do than lounge around Gallicking it up. For one thing, Mom had meantime engineered his massively-throne-claim-strengthening engagement to Elizabeth of York, noted beauty and much more importantly sister to the Princes in the Tower… meaning it can’t help but be interesting that she and Henry enjoyed by all accounts not only a long but unusually happy marriage. During which she produced four children that survived at least to adolescence, including two whole sons–a feat of future-securing the Tudor clan would never quite manage again…
  • …What? Oh, sure. Before Prince Henry VIII there was Arthur, Prince of Wales, original husband of VIII’s noted future wife/victim /inexplicably never an HH subject Catharine of Aragon. Named in, yep, a shameless attempt to cash in on the aura of the single most belovedly English hero ever. I said Henry was cunning, I never said he was subtle about it.
  • While Arthur’s death at fifteen was a blow to Dad’s dynastic hopes, it was no means a fatal one. He raised his kids strictly, thanks in part to his renowned miserly streak; it’s thought VIII’s uber-boisterousness as King was partly the result of finally being let of the short paternal leash. But VII also revered and reflected his mother’s respect for education to the extent that the entire clan would eventually be renowned for their intellect (yes, even VIII–that’s the key part that’s rather frustratingly missing from Ben’s characterization).
  • Speaking of the original Champagne Charlie, meantime: Yes, as yours truly pointed out aways back in S02E09, he really did try to ban the newly hip London coffee houses for awhile, on the grounds (har) that people just, like, sat around and gossiped about the King and his government in them (given that laptops hadn’t been invented yet, and it’s already hard enough to look cool while using a quill pen without introducing delicately-balanced hot beverages into the mix). Because, y’know, his subjects obviously must’ve been fomenting rebellion. I mean, it’s not like their King was a literally larger-than-life character with the single most flamboyantly juicy private life since Casanova, or anything.
  • Finally… ever wonder what exactly happened to Publius Claudius Pulcher, the great and powerful Roman consul who got crossed up by the seasick chicken? Well, yes, he lost the battle and everything, but what’s really sad is what happened next: He was recalled to Rome and ordered to appoint a dictator; his nomination of his subordinate Marcus Claudius Glicia was overruled. He was tried for incompetence and impiety and was fined, and died soon afterwards, possibly by suicide. So basically the guy’s whole entire illustrious life was ruined by one lousy befuddled fowl. Which, yes, is still completely hilarious, but that’s not the point. Geez, people.
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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E08

Transport was duller– We added colour! …Well, as long as it’s black.

More silliness, more magnificent facial hair, more everyday heroines, more Caesar… more farting. You know, just your typical midseason good times. Surprisingly enough.

In this episode:

Song: Transportation — Mobile pioneers George Stephenson (Simon), Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Jim), Henry Ford (Ben) and the Wright Bros. (Mat and Larry) boogie down to a celebration of their relentlessly innovative genius. (Parody of: Greased Lightnin’, from the musical Grease) 

Recurring sketches:

Stupid Deaths — Diane de Poitiers (Swallowed a teaspoonful of gold leaf every day for years as a beauty treatment… until she died of heavy metal poisoning. (“Ooh, hey — let’s hope they don’t play any heavy metal music in the afterlife… *to Louis the skeleton* What did you think? ‘Comedy gold‘? Rats, I was going to say that…”)

Shouty Man — New! Runic Alphabet (“The simple angular letters can be quickly carved* into any wall, rock or twig! Making ‘writing things down’ the new ‘not writing things down’!” *Caution: carving may not actually be quick.)

HHTV Sport — Profiling Lily Parr, only female inaugural inductee into the Football Hall of Fame, 1951 (“Listen mate–I’ve played against men, and I’m tellin’ ya now, I’ve got a harder shot than any of ’em.” “Ha-hah! Well, this is Tony Codger, reporting for HHT–THUNK!  awwwk!… she’s not wrong… owww…”)

DVD set — Celebrating the best of Joseph Pujol, Le Pétomane (Why, yes, that does translate to ‘The Fartomaniac’. You were surprised? It’s the sellout show that’s now touring the biggest theatres in Europe! Every performance is a blast!)

Gals’ Magazine — Yankee Crazy! Comparing the (very) average British squaddie with a shiny-new American GI. (“Wow, you really can dance! What’s that funny thing you’re doing with your mouth?” “I’m chewin’ gum.” “Wow…!”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Julius Caesar Project (“So then I hired a fleet of ships–” “So you wouldn’t miss hanging out with your friends the pirates! That’s our happy ending!” “No–so I could hunt them down and torture them to death. Which I did. Pretty brilliant twist, right?” “Yeeeaahhh… See, the whole ‘torturing to death’ thing, it plays quite badly with families…”)

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

I Had (Not) Forgot the Fart — Edward de Vere, Earl Oxford, learns the hard way that Elizabeth I really doesn’t care for odd smells. (“Cecil! What is the punishment for passing wind in front of the Queen?” “We don’t have one, Your Majesty; no one has ever dared do such a thing before.” “Or if they did, they at least had the decency to cover it up with a well-timed cough!”)

Vicious Vikings

Strictly (Religious) Business — A merchant hawking fake Old Norse sacred relics has to do some even faster thinking to cope with the introduction of Christianity.

Potty Pioneers

The Father of the Railway — Tireless Georgian–and very Northern–transport advocate George Stephenson makes his case to some very skeptical politicians. (“People are gointa be carried up to twenty miles an hour!” “But how would they even survive travelling at such astounding speeds?!” “Why, I imagine their eyes would get sucked from their very skulls!”)

Shocking Scotland

The Lady’s Not For Surrendering — “Black Agnes”, Countess of Moray, single-handedly defends Dunbar Castle against the Earl of Salisbury’s siege, because awesome. Also, Scots. (“We cut off your food supply five months ago! You must be starving!” “Och aye, I haven’t eaten since, oh, at least eleven… Oop, did I forget to mention our secret entrance?”)

Woeful Second World War

Who Wants to Be a German Millionaire? — Between-wars economic hyperinflation made that a much trickier question than you might suspect. Especially if you happen to be in the market for a wheelbarrow…

Rotten Romans

Wall of Doubt — What his subjects were facing after Emperor Hadrian decided to set up the barbarian-repelling battlements smack dab through their farm fields. (“We’re calling it ‘Hadrian’s Wall’.” “Working title.”)

Field Notes:

  • So yeah, this episode the show unveils a new–and not completely unpromising–tactic in the ongoing Content Crisis: be really loud and jolly and have Martha throw things at people a lot and just generally hope that the more emphatically you insist that nothing is wrong, the more people will believe it. Sort of like the way your Uncle Harold deals with family Thanksgiving dinners, only British, so less actual turkey. Possibly similar amounts of alcohol consumption, though, assuming you’re talking about the producers.
  • Alcohol also features in one of the several theories about Jim’s performance I started formulating a few seconds into Shouty Man’s penultimate pitch. Slightly more plausible ideas include Howick i) taking bets with the other guys on the sidelines re: just how much he could get away with by then, to which the answer unsurprisingly was “pretty much everything”; and ii) having just been told that Yonderland was a go and his longtime dream of playing a batty old broad about to be fulfilled, this inevitably morphed into less Shouty’s final fling and more the Crone’s eager debut.
  • On the other hand, this is also how you can tell–well, after three-four attempts to concentrate, the final one of which was audio-only–that the writing is honestly terrific, still much sharper and funnier than Shouty’s segments have been for a long while: you’re actively willing to put up with all of this. Well, OK, that and the by-now-rampant nostalgia… also the wholly unexpected continuity bonus in the form of infant Shouty Junior. No, evidently no-one’s particular sprog this time, or at least nobody’s ever owned up to same.
  • I have rather mixed feelings about this plot twist, honestly. The concept of Shouty as a sort of ancestral huckster spirit from a long line of same is a deeply appealing one, right up until you realise that that means his adorable offspring is due to grow up into whomever invented spam emails, and you involuntarily start to replay key moments from Twelve Monkeys in your head.
  • In desperation for a distraction, I started wondering if I shouldn’t start keeping track of these poignant final moments already… then I had to stop that too, partly on account of my brain started sarcastically picking out the songs for the YouTube tribute soundtrack and partly because, given the onscreen evidence, nobody else seems to have bothered with it either. At, least not as any sort of conscious theme. It’s really hard to blame them for wanting to avoid the hassle… or [spoiler alert] coming up with a characteristically self-aware route around it.
  • It’s anyway a tricky thing to expect anything like linear resolution from a sketch comedy. Personally, I’ll feel much better once Chipmunk-Faced Guy has been identified, and am still nursing a slight irk with Stone Age man for not providing material for more Caveman Art Show bits, but otherwise I can’t think of anything I’m truly anxious to have happen in the next four eps. Maybe have Larry duck out of the way of the poop for once? Organise some sort of historical baseball game and have one of Jim’s sweet little woobie characters make the big catch?
  • One thing I did not need was for the LoG to finally ink a movie deal. When I first heard that Julius Caesar (of course) would be the first, I actively avoided watching it for some time, on the grounds of massive disappointment that comedy genius had been so thoroughly sold out. In related news, I am an idiot who has apparently learned nothing whatsoever from this review project, and two series’ worth of seemingly random snarking actually pays off in a burst of utterly satisfying comedic logic.
  • Yes, including even Ben’s non-sequitur nasal accent, which somehow plays quite brilliantly off Caesar’s relentlessly matter-of-fact brutality because, I dunno, Willbond or something. Since Alex the Great I’ve given up trying to figure it out. The deliberately ‘lofty’ lighting and camera angles help, at any rate.
  • Meantime, over at Stupid Deaths… well, we already had the obvious plot twist, and otherwise the whole concept is predicated on the fact that there’s no way to resolve it without going full-on Bergman parody. I would not be averse to a little chess-playing with the skeletons (I bet Louis cheats), but otherwise am content to let SD exit on its own sweetly, smartly surreal terms. Mind you, this does not prevent me from wondering why we’re randomly reviving the ‘paperwork’ gag from S1 for no particular reason, but then again there’s no way to resolve that which doesn’t involve questions about why I’m blogging about a children’s comedy and why don’t we all just move on now…
  • …Well, we might just pause to note that–in common with many of the show’s beauty-treatment spoofs–it’s hard to work up a satisfying snort of disbelief at those crazy pre-L’Oreal types when even today gold leaf is a luxury menu item. Regardless, playing Diane de Poitiers is a fine way to kick off a rare–now that I think about it, actually the only–showcase ep for Martha. Meantime, Death on eggshells opposite her hauteur is giving me pleasing flashbacks to his similarly subtle underplaying in S4…
  • …Sorry, brb, just indulging in one more tiny ‘grrrrrrr’ that they didn’t figure all this out until after the Ivan the Terrible bit. Because fluffy pink pen. Thank you.
  • Speaking of flamboyantly offbeat characters, man, show, took you long enough to introduce Le Pétomane already. There’s got to be an entire chapter devoted to him in at least one of the books, and I’ve been wondering why you haven’t found it since forever… OK, more like ‘cringing in resigned anticipation’, but you get the idea.
  • And you know, I was all set to make some smart remark about how of course it’s Larry in this role, when I realised: no joke, this actually is a significant step forward in flatulence-related artistic refinement from the merely common or garden-variety Rickardian fart solo, as seen in S2’s Cowboy Song. Which in turn must represent a purely unique achievement in television–nay, media–history. So yeah Laurence, take a bow, you deserve it. I’ll just be over here applauding madly… waaaaay over here. Whilst remaining carefully upwind, and with my hand firmly off the rewind button.
  • In all other respects this is emphatically Martha’s Big Showcase, and all you really need to know about the results is that the Liz I sketch is the weakest of the lot. Granted these bits have never been exquisite masterpieces of staggering subtlety, but this is as far as I can remember the first time they’ve concentrated so hard on the shrewishness that they completely ignored the actual punchline. For the record, that actually happened after Earl Oxford returned seven years later, hoping against hope that the Queen had forgotten his gaucheness, only to have her comment brightly “Ah, my lord! I had forgot the fart!”
  • In other words, Liz in reality thought it was all a great joke (as was her wont), and de Vere voluntarily banned himself, and thus any potential for a grand finale for an HH icon rapidly devolves into a more-than-usually anti-climactic round of Let’s Turn Good Queen Bess Into a Roald Dahl Villain, Because I Dunno, Blackadder or Something.
  • Luckily, nostalgia has enhanced my already long and intricate practice in extracting whatever enjoyment I can from the Tudor sketches to the point where I can sincerely appreciate the goodwill–not to say, probable desperation–inherent not only in the original rationale for using this material (“Say, let’s remake the S3 Silly Laws sketch that everyone loves so much, only with rude noises!”) but the impressiveness of the production details.
  • Like for instance, how Martha by now has Her Majesty’s over-the-top hauteur absolutely nailed, to the point where the offhandedness of it actively enhances the characterization… also, there is the really gleeful way Ben attacks Cecil’s sly cleverness, it having become–I’m guessing–something of an outlet after spending so much time in royal doofus mode. Also mildly intriguing: in the promo photos and the [spoiler alert] finale song, it’s Larry wearing de Vere’s costume… and under the circs this does seem like *ahem* much more his type of role. Last-minute performer switchout, perhaps?
  • I am much more definitively pleased by the return of gorgeous WWII Martha… not to say intrigued by the tonal misstep inherent in her presence in the ‘Yankee Crazy’ bit. At least, I think it’s a misstep. The adult rom-com parody is so neatly done that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intentional, which leads to speculation re: who was supposed to get what out of it. It’s very hard not to conclude that the show deliberately decided to for once gross out the little ones (all that icky giggly flirty stuff, blech!) in the service of creating a fun light trifle for the grown-ups.
  • Speaking as a certified adult critic person, then, may I just say: schwing. Especially the entirely too much fun Ben is now having, enacting the British concept of an All-American Boy. I am really hoping that isn’t a coincidence that it so neatly matches up with the same concept as enacted in Christie, Conan Doyle and other classic UK pop-lit–which, knowing Willbond, it totally isn’t–but either way, it’s really freakin’ hilarious.
  • Also: Mat’s waifishness finally used in a military sketch in a way that doesn’t make me want to slit my wrists over the bleak unfairness of it all. Yes, closure comes in many forms, folks.
  • There’s more interestingly subtle maturity on display in the Norse relics bit… wait, don’t blink, you’ll miss it. Specifically, we’re back on the gently satirical commentary on Christian-vs-pagan belief systems, which continues to be both pleasing and intriguing enough, but even Simon and Larry combined can’t provide it with a sketch-length hook this time. Although, granted, Simon’s little pendant switcheroo comes pretty damn close.
  • A sudden attack of educational conscience over all this might explain the weirdness in the Lily Parr profile. And no, I’m not talking about the Howe-Douglas adventures in Lancashire dialect, although I am assuming the only thing preventing the producers looking into dubbing options with Sarah H. was the characteristically authentic toughness Martha is also projecting. I similarly have no problem with Jim’s blandly mid-century sportscasting unctuousness; in fact he does a fine enough job of it that I might just have to add ‘will never get to hear his Howard Cosell’ to the list of regrets.
  • Trouble is, no sooner does he get duly humiliated for his casually typical-of-his-age sexism than the show inexplicably begins to patronise Ms. Parr all over again. Unprompted and clearly unmeditated, so much so that it’d be almost funny, if they weren’t so awfully in earnest. “Silly Lily,” intones the puppet rodent who makes pets of his fleas and openly gloats over eating filth, in the tone he more usually reserves for the details of genocide; she (grasp!) “smoked lots of cigarettes.”
  • Ah… yeah. Setting aside the fact that duh, mid-twentieth-century, everybody smoked lots of cigarettes, because nobody knew any better than that they were good for you… it might be time for a reminder that ultimately you’re still Horrible Histories, show. Either you retroactively attach a similar disclaimer to pretty much every post-eighteenth-century character you’ve ever created, female or male, or you kindly knock it off.
  • Come to think of it, something of the same uncharacteristically PBS Kids-type vibe also hangs over the song. The idea of celebrating great transport pioneers is not at all unpleasing, but it’s also entirely missing the extra level of shrewd snarkiness that’s the HH hallmark. The whole thing is ephemeral as all hell, in fact, constructed almost entirely of small incidental pleasures.
  • Of which, it must be admitted, there are quite a lot. As for instance Ben trying earnestly to simoultaneously follow doo-wop choreography and maintain a Midwestern accent, Jim effortlessly pulling off the same moves while under that top hat, Larry being all pleasantly twinkly-eyed in a flat cap, and Mat… evidently off in his own little private Chaplinesque universe again just as soon as he got a look at himself in that moustache.
  • None of which, unfortunately, ever quite adds up to a memorable music video, and the choice of parody genre… well, again, probably much more daringly novel to you lot, for whom Grease was likely not the go-to pseudo-edgy choice of high school dramatic societies for decades. Thus despite some amusingly clever staging, this takeoff merely slides smoothly in one N.American ear and out the other. Save perhaps for the final beats spotlighting Ben–if nothing else as a nice apt reward for all his good-sportitude.
  • The old and new comedic sensibilities mingle much, much more happily in the Black Agnes sketch; no actual bodily fluids being flung, but no comedic prisoners being taken, either (let alone Martha’s Scots accent, which is greatly improved by all the bellowing). Just a bunch of old hands luxuriating in the rare surefire bit of business in their various endearingly surefire ways, no more and no less. Which really is an awful lot, up to and including Mat indulging his knightly schtick to the hilt. Once again, I am reminded that Merlin blew a prime casting opportunity.
  • But when it’s over, I find my thoughts drifting toward the props more than anything else. Specifically, did they just have a whole bunch of those drumsticks made up ahead of filming, or are they a standard of the BBC props cupboard, or…? And now I’m imagining the little paper labels: ‘Turkey, 3/4 eaten’, ‘Chicken, roasted, one bite’ etc etc. Once again, the question of whether the f/x masters on this show have the best or worst job in the world is left wide open.
  • The costumers, on the other hand, not a question. Besides all the sartorial pretty-pretty, the Stephenson bit is another decently satisfying good time… except I can’t ever quite relax and enjoy it fully, on account of Rickard-as-Wellington still isn’t giving me any reason to believe he’s not about to make with the jigging any moment. Hell of a time to suddenly rediscover your commitment to character creation, there, show. We’ve blithely recast Pompey, Hephaestion and Saint Joan, but nobody thought that just maybe Larry and his ludicrous pot’o’gold posing might need a break? You really are just using the man for your own entertainment now, aren’t you?
  • The (much) better news is, they do have the excellent sense to give Simon and his Oop North stylings free reign, both here and at Hadrian’s Wall (also: the momentary return of Mat’s Gross Designs wig, whooo!). There’s just something seriously loveable about northern types mocking their own stereotypes–see also Michael Palin at several moments in the Python films… wait, maybe I’m just into uniquely loveable Northern types to begin with. A valid argument I believe nonetheless.
  • Meantime, Larry recoups magnificently as the hapless victim of hyperinflation. I will not claim I didn’t spend the entire first run-through idly wondering once again where Willbond had got to (he totally deserved a bit of Teutonic indulgence after being such a good sport over the song), but I can also see where the giving Mat and Larry another dual shot at the dark undercurrents paid off in spades. There’s something uniquely intriguing in the way these two understand each other, and the result gets the grim reality of between-wars Germany across more effectively than I think was strictly intended.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Seems a shame to complain about such lavish costuming, but it is after all what I do: Diane de Poitiers’ signature colours were black and white. She went to the extent of having the chateaux her ‘boyfriend’ Henry II gifted her completely done in b/w monochrome, which was a much more impressively eccentric luxury back before IKEA was invented, and it would’ve been a cool note to reference in the SD. Although, in their defense, the show’s costumers were likely working off this portrait, so we can call it even.
  • (Albeit, just incidentally… fine, show, I can see the educational point of swopping out ‘mistress’ for ‘girlfriend’ if I squint. Better to avoid introducing the concept of condoned adultery to impressionable young minds. I am still not quite convinced that it’s an improvement to leave the kidlets with the impression of say, Diane here and Henry fumbling with each others’ underwear while Justin Bieber’s latest blares in the background.)
  • Yep, she was quite the character, our Diane. A minor provincial noblewoman who rose to prominence as lady-in-waiting to several previous queens, she was one of the greatest of the legendary French royal mistresses, renowned not only for her beauty, poise and style but charm, wit and intelligence–the absolute ideal of classical femininity as taught to chivalrous youths of the time. So much so, in fact, that Francis I asked Diane to school his ten-year-old second son in courtly manners. She was a good enough teacher that by the time Henry was sixteen and Diane thirty-five, they were a couple and would remain so until his death 24 years later.
  • Alright, yes, they were basically living a late-night Cinemax flick, complete with the occasional nude portrait (mildly NSFW). The thing is, thanks to Diane’s uncanny sophistication it comes across as much, much classier than that. On her lover’s accession to the throne she invariably used her huge influence for the good of the State, even co-signing the royal correspondence, and acting as an enthusiastic patron of the arts.
  • Most famously, she not only approved his marriage but actively nudged him out of her bed and into his new wife’s, all to ensure his duty to France. In due time Diane was put in charge of the numerous heirs’ education. Including, just incidentally, preteen Mary Queen of Scots, who was concurrently being raised in the French royal household and cannot have helped being influenced by this extraordinary example of self-assured womanhood.
  • Other examples of self-assured womanhood were less impressed. Henry’s nominal queen, the small, outwardly unassuming (and also fourteen at the time of her marriage) Catherine de’Medici, was notoriously jealous of Diane. Specially given it took Catherine quite awhile to get started on the aforementioned heir-producing, which one can only assume had something to do with Henry yelling out the wrong name in the bedroom more than once. What is certain is that, while the King lay slowly dying of an agonizing brain injury, Queen Catherine absolutely forbade Diane to see him, although Henry continually called for her. And that’s how you earn your reputation as one of the great villainesses of history, kiddies.
  • While we’re on the subject of purely remarkable females: The tale of Agnes Randolph, Countess of Moray, and the siege of Dunbar Castle turns out to be heartwarmingly close to 100% accu-rat (the “sure you can hang my brother, I’m his heir!” bit is hung up on the reality that she wasn’t his heir at all). Granted, as noted above Agnes had something of a head start on the feistiness thing, hailing as she did from the land where even today they greet terrorism by kicking it in the nuts while it’s on fire, but still. To paraphrase Churchill, on Britain’s similarly resolute resistance to a much larger threat: some lady, some story. “Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.
  • Bad tobacco habit or no–apparently, she actually insisted on being paid in Woodbines at one point–turns out Lily Parr. was likewise everything advertised, and then some. Noting her disdain for dollies and tea sets from an early age, her older brothers (who strike me as pretty damn awesome themselves) happily taught her not only football but rugby. In her non-sporty time, probably to work off some excess epicness, Parr served as a nurse and in a munitions factory during WWI, where an inter-office match first brought her to professional attention. According to the book A League of Their Own, she never looked back, remaining active in one way or another from 1919-1951:
  • “Standing almost six feet tall, with jet black hair, her power and skill was admired and feared wherever she played.  She was an extremely unselfish player who could pin-point a pass with amazing accuracy and was also a marvellous ball player.  And she was probably responsible in one way or another, for most of the goals that were scored by the team…”
  • …But yeah, Rattus, the smoking thing, that’s the main point after all. /sarcasm.
  • And this in a show that’s just finished spotlighting Joseph “Le Pétomane” Pujol, a humble Marseilles baker who, as shown, fashioned an entire wildly successful stage career out of social inappropriateness. (Possibly Wiki’s greatest sentence ever:  [His] profession is also referred to as “flatulist“, “farteur”, or “fartiste”.)  The really endearing part, though, is that by all accounts Pujol wasn’t about a license to ill; he was a genuinely sweet guy who voluntarily worked up a “family-friendly” (less noisy, basically) version of his act and retired outright in horror at the outbreak of WWI. He just happened to also have a unique physical quirk that allowed him to, uh, both suck and blow from the same orifice.
  • Which explains why his audiences weren’t issued gas masks, or for that matter shields: he would merely take in water or air via his rectum and immediately expel it–no mess, no fuss. Enough practice and the whole process was under such fine control that Pujol  was the toast of Europe. Unfortunately no sound recordings seem to exist (probably referencing that whole “wildly socially inappropriate” thingy again) but Wiki has managed to turn up this silent film short, apparently recorded at the Moulin Rouge. Yes, that Moulin Rouge. You may now commence being unable to unsee him sharing the stage with Nicole Kidman.
 
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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E07

 Edward’s project may be controversial, but you’ve got to admire his scale and ambition… although his plans to build a further extension in Scotland have come to a halt, due to a dispute with neighbor William Wallace–

YOU MAY TAKE OUR LIVES!

…but you will never get planning permission to build loads of castles in Scotland. Yep, really. Not gonna happen.

In which the show resorts to anchoring their increasingly ephemeral content, like cobwebs, on sturdy fenceposts of nostalgia (also, the bald cap thingy), and ends up with something nearly as charming.

In this episode:

Song: Owain Glyndŵr: First Prince of Wales — Jim as the proudly undaunted (and practically unpronounceable) Welsh national hero sings of his tumultuous career, with Ben, Mat and Simon on…backup. Or something. (Parody of: Tom Jones, feat. Delilah and Kiss)

Recurring sketches:

Lambert Simnel: Who on Earth Are You? — Hint: probably not one of the lost Princes in the Tower. Or any other threat to his throne “Royalty Expert” Henry VII didn’t already have under iron control.

Bob Hale — The Second World War Report (“Yes, it’s twenty years since Germany lost the First World War, and had a load of land taken off them. And their leader, Adolf Hitler–yup, that one–decides he wants it back. So he just takes it! I know! He’s like that.”)

Gross Designs — Edward I (“So just how big is this extension of yours going to be?” “About eight thousand miles, give or take…” “Wow. And what would you call that: a conservatory? Garden room?” “Actually, I call it ‘Wales’.”)

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Don’t Look Behind You —  “…Might we not be ambushed by barbarians, sir?” “Why on earth would you think that?!” “Well…one, this dense Teutoburg Forest is the perfect place for barbarians to ambush a Roman legion. And two, a spy has warned us of barbarians going to ambush a Roman legion. Specifically, us.”

Augustus: The Movie (movie trailer) — He found Rome a city of brick… and left it a city of marble. Well, with some help from Whatshisname.  The epic, empire-spanning tale of how an Emperor became a legendary hero largely because the guy who actually did all the work heroically refrained from strangling him. (“Erm… Arthur?” “Agrippa!” “Bless you.”)

Terrible Tudors

All-New! Tudor King Lift — The ultimate mobility aid for tubby monarchs! In which we continue to completely ignore the ugly leg ulcers that were the actual major reason why Henry VIII eventually needed to be hoist up the palace stairs. Because the half-eaten turkey leg bit was just so damn hilarious the first thirty-seven thousand times, after all.

Gorgeous Georgians

Ecclesiastical Antics — The oddities of absent-minded Reverend Harvest make for oodles of heartwarming sitcom-esque fun… of course, whether or not that includes forgetting his own wedding is up for dispute. With his bride.

Georgian Showbiz News — Showcasing the fuller spectrum of Georgian celebrity eccentricity: clearly, reality-TV isn’t quite as modern a scourge of civilization as popularly supposed.

Awful Egyptians

Ruthless Rogaine — Ancient cures for hair loss: definitely more trouble than they were worth… and that’s only mentioning the snarky pharmacist. (“Hello! Have you got anything to help with this?” “With what, there’s nothing there?” “Oh ha-ha, that’s really funny…” “I know!”)

New! Only For Men — What a lavish makeup kit turns out to be… well, technically, anyway. Actually, it’s more sort of a totally blatant excuse to show off Simon vogueing shamelessly in eyeliner (and not much else) because why not it’s the last series shut up.

Field Notes:

  • Well, now that we’ve got that all cleared up–well, save for possibly a few freshly-reopened fandom wounds–past time to get back to the windup of what I suppose must henceforth be known as Horrible Histories: The Original Series. Where boy howdy, do we have your soothing balm of nostalgia needs covered and then some.
  • The bad news is, that’s sort of all we have at this point. We’ve already hit the annual late-season lull, and it isn’t even the late season yet. This episode represents a wall of content-related desperation that even S1 didn’t hit until Episode 9, and S1 didn’t have Simon in eyeliner… I don’t think. It’s been awhile, may have to go back and check. There was naked Javone–remember him?–and KISS-groupie sheepskin wigs, I do recall that (memo to self: never buy the cheap brain bleach again). Oh, also wildly earnest revisionist colonialism and Nazis in back-to-back episodes. New bright side just discovered: We’ve definitely moved past the wildly earnest Nazis, here in Series Five.
  • OK, OK, kidding… at least, about the Nazis. More seriously, the show has moved past a whole lot of things in five years, and the results–hell, Bob Hale all by himself, let alone Jim sniggering at Ben in a bald cap–are more than up to the task of making the End Times genuinely not-embarrassing. What’s really endearing, though, is that they haven’t stopped there; the same canny creative resourcefulness that’s swept them from randomly gleeful kiddy grossology to credible all-ages entertainment is very much still on the go. Like I said about S1: the experiments may not all have worked, but the great thing is they never stopped trying.
  • Mind you, they’ve also by now got a much better handle on what works, and not many combinations of idea or performer left that haven’t been thoroughly exploited, so the really offbeat bits of S1 don’t exactly have a corollary here. However, the bunging of neurotic underling Lawry and Proper Military Chucklehead Farnaby into the same skit… well, it’s not Viking Warrior Simon and Ben in pigtails debating poetry, but it is a very acceptable poor man’s substitute.
  • Enough anyway to elevate a very predictable bit into something endearing enough to accept the ‘formidable Roman legion’ composed of three whole legionaries as merely part of the gently surreal vibe. Well, that, and the script called for PMC Farnaby to say ‘poppycock!’ a lot. Or (more likely) Farnaby got bored and decided to say it a lot regardless. Either way, colour me thoroughly charmed.
  • I am considerably less wowed by the episode’s other major attempt to hitch up a sketch to the Farnabian originality/Lewin neurosis and see what happens, ie. the case for Lambert Simnel. As with CDWM, the idea is to retool a proven reality-show parody format; thing is, the initial “Who on Earth Are You?” parody was designed in the service of the subject matter, not the other way around. Thus it does not help much of anything at all that drunk George IV desecrating his ancestors’ bones has been swopped out for Little Actor Who Isn’t Bertie merely standing around scowling blankly at the adults. (Presumably for stuffing him into that costume, which you can just imagine what it’s doing to his playground cred.)
  • Although… see above re: shrewdly marshalling resources, nostalgic and otherwise, of which this is a truly heroic example. For instance, isn’t that also the little guy from the Victorian Dragon’s Den? The one who was all the inventions? Regular fifth-year kindergarten reunion we’ve got going here, which is sort of adorable. Meantime, Simon’s characteristic determination to remain divorced from reality takes on an amusing life of its own and Mat as frighteningly pragmatic “royalty expert” (hee!) Henry VII is genuinely inspired casting, of which much more in a couple eps.
  • There is also a weird… fascination-type-thingy… inherent the way this seasoned team so utterly fails to realise that Sir Guesswork’s entire raison d’etre was the prospect of him being confronted with putrefying corpses. Thus here stranding Lawry in a performance vacuum so complete the viewer’s sympathetic wincing almost works him back around to plausibility. But the whole game and generous collection together is never enough to cover the fact that there’s nothing viably comedic going on, and all concerned finally go down to a rare heroic defeat.
  • So evidently Farnaby’s being used as the go-to coping mechanism in this time of daffiness drought. This isn’t in and of itself a bad idea; after all, it worked out rather well in S3, so it’s possible to understand the impulse to level up from there… which is about all the explanation you’re going to get for the leg-hair removal gags, folks. Except maybe for the fact that it’s pretty obvious even Larry wouldn’t have been able to provide enough leg, or hair for that matter, to make it worthwhile.
  • Seriously, this is what ‘par for the course’ looks like in HH terms: First they put Simon in tights, next in drag as a Stuart-era ‘actress’, now he’s full-on vogueing in beads and eyeliner. If you’re not entertained by even the possibilities of that by now, I am assuming the kids stole the remote while you napped, and the SCREEM when the tape ripped off is what woke you up… and now you’re here just hoping that the universe will eventually make sense again. My condolences. Still, you might just want to stick around for a bit, although I do recommend replenishing your pint glass before we get to the Delilah references.
  • Total auxiliary nostalgia alert: waaaaay back in that first sketch-length look at Egyptian male beauty rituals–in S01E05, featuring Javone doing basically the same schtick except the makeup budget didn’t stretch to beads at that point–I made a joke about how the depilatories must’ve been impressive. Now, at the last mention of the same beauty rituals, five years on, they show off: a truly impressive depilatory! Awwww… *goes all misty-eyed at the mere mention of fly dung*
  • Right, time to move on to more modern sophisticated coping mechanisms. In other words, hellloooo, Gross Designs… which turns out to be actually not much more than yet another excuse for Mat to react to Simon’s crazy. Did I mention that this is also what ‘inevitable’ now looks like in HH terms?
  • Except the crazy here is actually inherent in the lack of it, if that makes any sense. Either we’ve reached the point in his newly-burgeoning career as troupe frontman where even Simon can’t figure out how to make yet another character uniquely offbeat, or he’s pulling a double-reverse fakeout and the (comparative) normalcy is the quirk.
  • Which if true is a rather clever bit of self-awareness, given the loopiness available elsewhere in the piece. Ohboy, Larry goes Welsh! There’s a nice rare one! *checks another box off the Butchered Accents Bingo card* Oop, bonus W.Wallace cameo!… and speaking of double-reverses, the determination to thoroughly meta-mock that song is still running strong, I see. Welp, far be it from me to begrudge you any means of keeping yourself entertained, folks.
  • Seriously though, the GD concept overall really did turn out to be most excellently watchable, all round–the naturally sophisticated evolution of an entire series of similarly engaging longform conquest/land-themed sketches, come to think of it. Funny thing to fixate on under the circs, but it paid off handsomely.
  • On the further subject of self-entertainment value: the cast’s realisation that they can now get away with almost anything has, inevitably, extended to the music. I am not entirely sure how I feel about this coinciding with Jim finally getting  another solo, let alone a Tom Jones pastiche. In the annals of things I never knew I desperately wanted until I heard them announced, that there is a doozy, and I would rather it not be marred by self-indulgent clowning, thank you very much anyway. In particular, Mathew… well, I’m not sure which music video you think you’re in, but trying to figure out what that might be is distracting the hell out of me, and for once in not a good way.
  • And once started with the non-sequitur cutesiness, nobody seems to know quite where to stop. I’d only just managed to definitively refocus off Jim’s hair and his outfit and his sidekicks to the song when suddenly wham! cue the half-hearted hip-hop. These are review notes you probably don’t want to be inspiring in the middle of a kiddie-show tune, no matter how clever you consider yourself: “Ohhhh, Prince! Got it. Har har…uh, except now Howick is all mixed up with my teenage fascination with the When Doves Cry video, and that’s sort of not helping here, folks. Like, at all. Although Mat’s still there too, and that’s a marginal improvement…”
  • In the end, it’s the same fundamental problem as they had with the West Side Story parody: they’re just not believing in the campy melodrama as completely as they should be, and so the result never rises above self-consciously precious. Mind you, despite it all, the central conceit is still strong; it even manages to come across as appropriately epic, thanks almost entirely to Jim’s performance. Which, by sharp contrast with the surrounding antics, represents probably the closest thing to solidly reliable entertainment HH has available by now. Time to bust out the mp3 again, looks like.
  • I know what you’re thinking, and I would absolutely put Bob Hale on the solidly-reliable train as well, except the excesses of last series still have me wanting to quickly double-check his tickets. That, and I couldn’t concentrate properly on his latest until about a third of the way in, because Creepy Disembodied Winky Hitler Head is creepy. Like, bucket-of-chopped-heads from the French Revolution Report creepy. .. or, for that matter, debut-of-Bobsy’s-geriatric-makeup creepy. There’s just something about the childish semi-animation that massively over-enhances the horror factor for, well, this grownup at least.
  • Even after getting a firm grip and a few viewings I’m not quite ready to pronounce this one of the great Reports–largely because everything that might’ve made it truly memorable was entirely, ah, verboten from the get-go. It’s simply a good, solidly entertaining romp in the fine old Hale tradition, which under the circs is quite enough to be going on with. In particular, there is not only a ‘Drama-O-Meter’ but a “Country-O-Meter… or a ‘map’, as some people call it.” There is also the pointed swipeage at Pearl Harbour: The Movie, aka Rickard’s inner action-film buff making a special guest cameo.
  • The format- and film-parody-induced warm fuzzies also abound in the latest movie trailer. Up to and including more lovely satirically surefire gilded titling; very DeMille, guys, well done. Also, more classic casting in the form of Inexplicably Campy Ancient Military Leader Mat… you know, the S1 300 takeoff where Leonidas keeps asking if his hair is OK? Yeah, that. I couldn’t figure out how to summarise it any better, but it’s just as ridiculously funny now as it was then.
  • Even if Larry wouldn’t necessarily be my first pick to fill M.Peabody’s shoes as his foil–in part because now I’m suddenly all wondering exactly where Mike’s got to, in all this rampant glory-day-reliving. Rickard is really close to perfecting that stunned disbelief/resigned frustration combo, though.
  • Another reason to be mildly grateful–or possibly not–at the gang’s refusal to return for S6: at the rate Ben and Jim are going, entire sketches would consist of nothing but the two of them giggling uncontrollably at the sight of each other’s face. (The outtakes of this one, in fact, consist of exactly that.)  Still an’all, I like it. All the gentle funny, uncharacteristic for the later series, yet makes for a most excellent level-up from the old ‘bizarre makeup rituals’ stuff that was such a staple of S1–and despite everything another excellent demonstration of how perfect, almost offhand, the inter-troupe timing has become.
  • There’s more of the same to be had in the Reverend Harvest bit, and thank goodness for small mercies, because otherwise we’ve strayed so far off the Horrible path we’re verging dangerously on the blandly saccharine. To paraphrase a long-ago wit, it is such a mistake to attempt Wodehouse when you don’t succeed.
  • Still, it’s Jim, and he can pull this sweetly eccentric stuff all day as far as I’m concerned… and again, Ben his saner foil, never not watchable. Also, not to be shallow about it or anything–if for no other reason than she’d likely clock me upside the ear for my trouble–but pretty bride Alice is totally kicking in all my feminine wedding-fascination instincts.
  • Martha, on the other hand… Oh, god, I’ve finally found something more viscerally reach-through-the-screen-punchable than Alice as a blonde newsbimbo, and it is Ms. Howe-Douglas as the blonde UK… I think?… equivalent of an Entertainment Tonight hostbimbo. No, the fact that she’s so signally failing at playing dumb only heightens the irritation.
  • Thanks to judicious application of fast-forward, however, there are yet minor rewards to be had. Jim teaching unlikely animals to fetch is now firmly enshrined in the annals of Amusingly Random Minor Casting Fetishes, right alongside Mat and mouthfuls of strange foods… and we probably should add dangerous-animal-trainer Larry in there with them, come to think of it.
  • And finally, as always, there is Henry VIII. Whom I herein leave to the end to demonstrate that I am totally not massively bitter about this whole Return of His Gluttonous Majesty thing, or anything… *heavy sigh of resigned realization that it’s the final series after all* Then again, it might just still be worth pointing out that they’ve somehow have never bothered to make Ben’s face look any heavier, or for that matter, even remotely ravaged by years of luxe living. Yes, I know exactly why, but that’s not the point. 

95% Accu-rat:

  • Ah… totally not arguing with you about the quality of the movie, Bobsy, but Pearl Harbor the actual address isn’t an island. As the name indicates, it’s an Asian-facing lagoon harbor off the real Hawaiian island of Oahu, uniquely deep and broad enough that the American military could maintain a plausible naval base as of 1899. Thusly providing the Pacific Fleet with a headquarters while also solidifying their presence in the then-newly American territory of Hawaii… and, oh yeah, keep an eye on the suddenly aggressive Japanese. Just in case they got any cute ideas about world conquest, fnurr fnurr snort…
  • No, contrary to popular belief American President Roosevelt almost certainly didn’t have advance warning of the attack, thus didn’t callously let his own soldiers die (possibly in cahoots with the British High Command) in hopes of stirring up pro-war sentiment. What is certain, though, is that when word of the attack did finally filter through on the Sunday morning of, the entire American chain of command was too busy demonstrating the downside of setting your base in a tropical vacation paradise to respond effectively, what with the lie-ins and hangovers and all.
  • So going by the online reaction Jim is blithely and repeatedly butchering every last bit of Welsh he attempts in the course of the song, deliberately and not, starting with fussing Prince Owain’s own name to more easily fit the rhyme scheme…
  • …And despite constructing it entirely of randomly inflected grunts the Welsh are still somehow shocked, shocked! when outsiders mangle their language. Don’t get me wrong, I can understand miffed when a national hero let alone several centuries’ worth of sheep jokes are involved, but  really, have you people even heard what they’ve done to French over four series? The intentions here by (violent) contrast were demonstrably of the best, ie. when Larry tries out the Welsh accent he immediately gets a sword up it. S’all good.
  • Yes, that Whole Weird Thing with Lambert Simnel really happened, just as shown… well, except they skipped the part where John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln and Richard III’s designated successor, decided to get back into the kingmaking game in about the weirdest damn way possible. I mean, the show is not kidding, there is absolutely no way anybody with half a brain could’ve plausibly concluded that little Simnel–assuming that was even his real name–however handsome or carefully educated he was reputed to be, was royalty.
  • And as it turns out, nobody did, probably. The Yorkists were simply in just that dire of a need of something to regroup around after Bosworth Field, and hapless little Whatshisname was it. Lincoln worked up a magnificent story of the heroic youngster’s escape from Tudor tyranny, rallied a whole bunch of (presumably very bored) Irish and Flemish troops to his flag, docked them off Lancashire, and they had the battle of Stoke Field…
  • ….which went about as well as you’d expect, given Henry VII was the original pro at seizing the throne on flimsy genealogical pretexts and was getting really tired of dealing with amateurs. Lincoln was killed and Simnel, in one of the saner moments in the annals of royal rebellions, was finally left alone to be ordinary again: King Henry pardoned young Simnel… and gave him a job in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner. When he grew older, he became a falconer. Almost no information about his later life is known… He seems to have married, as he is probably the father of Richard Simnel, a canon of St Osyth’s Priory in Essex during the reign of Henry VIII.
  • Hey, check it, Mental Floss magazine has an article on 14 of History’s Craziest Baldness Cures (our Egyptian pals’ recipe gets a mention at #1), because apparently mankind has been struggling with the loss of their locks since approximately forever. One would think that a nice smooth scalp would actually be an asset in baking Northern Africa/Mediterranean climates, but then again I haven’t dared look up their ideas re: sunscreen yet. Anyway, the ancient idea was that follicle volume = direct tie-in with your strength and virility (think Samson). Keeping people from whispering about your, erm, prowess would explain the willingness to subject themselves to a lot of these recipes, come to think of it:
  • When Julius Caesar’s dome started to thin, Cleopatra suggested he cook up a lotion of ground up mice, horse teeth, and bear grease. Another Roman recipe: 1) take the genitals of a donkey, 2) burn them into ash, 3) mix the ash with your urine, and 4) apply liberally! 
  • …Seriously though, you ever wonder if people eventually started making this stuff up just to see if their friends would actually do it? I probably would.
 
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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Series Five

 

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Meta-stuff: And then there were… six?

So last week it was announced that a sixth series of Horrible Histories was, after all–at least, in the mind of CBBC execs apparently desperate for a proven ratings winner–a very plausible thing.

This provoked a four-part sequence of reactions here at HH Review Central, closely mirrored across the fandom at large: i) Hurray! Gleeful giddiness at tidings of great joy! ii) …wait, doesn’t that make the big finale song just a teeny bit awkward? iii) Oh crap, didn’t they say that they were stopping explicitly because they’d run right out of material, which anyone with observational skills above lettuce can verify just by watching a few episodes of S5? iv) This is gonna suck, isn’t it? I mean, even if they bring the entire original creative team back intact and motivated, the track record of TV revivals alone indicates there’s a really good chance of this sucking, right?

The fandom-at-large was at least spared the complication of having been earnestly blogging about Horrible Histories: The Final Series for quite some while now, writing entire earnest mini-essays around how very poignant yet firmly necessary it was. Here at HH Review Central, I wasn’t. At all. In fact, I had several more earnest addendums to that thesis in the pipeline even as I processed the news, and possibly some while before I’d be given any idea what to do with them. This is what ‘having the rug pulled out from under’ looks like in the Information Age, kiddies.

Amid this mass of conflicting and disconcerting feels, one certainty rose immediately to the top: If it’s not the aforementioned original creative team, it’s not the Horrible Histories I signed on to blog about, and thus I would not be blogging about it. Period. My loyalty does not lie with the franchise, but with the TV show, and more specifically at this point, with the comedy troupe arising from its starring cast. (Whom, incidentally, I really wish would adopt a snappier formal name already. You just can’t go around casually calling grown adults ‘the idiots’ in public, let alone in earnest).

I was just polishing and admiring this bit of decisiveness when Mat, in a manner clearly indicating a round of urgent troupe-wide texting followed by “look, you have the most followers, you do it,” formally tweeted that any proposed new series would involve an entirely different team, and possibly format. In other words, no, the idiots would not be assembling in reverse.

This was not a huge surprise by any means. As Mat further pointed out in a BBC interview, they had meanwhile reached a point where they could fully satisfy their desire to work together while still pursuing their promising separate careers. In the process they had shrewdly moved on up from being ‘the cast’ to, effectively, the showrunners–not only of Yonderland but of burgeoning movie careers. Among other things. Being Mat, he tactfully did not add “Seriously? You want me to give up any part of being J.Corden’s current favourite collaborator, a multiple-prestigious-award-nominee, just to get back into the caveman costume one more time?” but you can be very sure it was his agents/managers’ main theme. Also that variations on same were very popular in the other five camps.

All of which provoked profound relief in this one–if for no other reason than it saved me from having to decide what to blog if only part of the team showed up, a la the final series of the Flying Circus. But mostly, it was about the ‘Thank God, they’re not going to mar this gloriously unique achievement with suckage’ thing. As I’ve repeatedly mentioned in those mini-essays, the existing show had reached a crossroads not only in terms of material but tone; it ended not only when it was still popular but right before it would’ve begun to stumble visibly. Given that a move to primetime still wasn’t on the cards, in any proposed S6 they’d have had to begin actually fumbling to find a compromise between increasingly subtle, adult material and child-friendly clowning, which would’ve been unavoidably painful… or reboot all the way back to S1 and simply resume being loud and unsubtle about various types of ick, which would’ve been frankly ghastly. Not in a good way.

Except, as the books/magazines/stage shows have proven, inasmuch as the popularity of Horrible Histories the franchise and the TV show are still in some ways two very distinct things. It should still be possible to recapture the magic of the former without labouring too far in the shadow of the latter. Skip the attempt at sophistication altogether, return to the books/magazines for material, bring in a fresh lot of game performers (maybe the current stage show troupe?) add some jolly songs and cover the whole thing with slime at judicious intervals, and hey presto, the HH that’s been proven to put bottoms in seats if nothing else. Hopefully, that’s all the CBBC execs are looking for. If they do decide to get ambitious… well, yeah, I’ll just be over here watching, from a safe distance, while blogging about Yonderland.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2014 in Meta-stuff, The background

 

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