19 Oct

So why should you vote for me, ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton? ‘Cos I’m an ordinary guy, just like you!
…I mean, yes, I set myself on fire when I’ve got the hiccups. Who doesn’t? And like you, I also enjoy riding bears!

A couple further flashes of newly quirky brilliance can’t hide the fact that the steam is running out awfully fast, now… by which I mean, the sketches are starting to involve actual steam. With diagrams. And the ABBA references may-or-may-not be helping…

In this episode:

Song: Matilda(s) and Stephen… and Henry — Alice, Martha, Larry and Jim battle it out for the English throne in the medieval power struggle known as the Anarchy… as retold via, yep, ABBA references. Because that literally makes as much sense as any other attempt to explain it.

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — New! Roman Baths (“After a hard day of watching your slaves do all the work, why not de-stress in a range of temperature-controlled baths?!” “Oi, you’re starting to get annoying now, mate…” “Yes, I get that a lot!”)

Stupid Deaths — Emperor Domitian (Killed by an assassin exactly at the time predicted, after his attendants lied about the hour to protect his paranoia… “Come on out, mate, we haven’t got forever!… well, actually we have, but that’s not the point.”)

Historical Apprentice — Team James Watt and Team (Spinning) Jenny vie to see who can maximise textile production. No, nobody’s taken a vow of silence this time …because there’s “what/Watt’ jokes instead. (“With the help of the Watt steam engine, the factory business has produced three hundred kilos of textiles…” “So what’ve you got to say about that then, Team Mary?” “Jenny, Lord Sugar.” “What?” “Aye?”)

HHTV News — Live from a schoolboy strike in Llanelli, Wales, 1911 (“And what exactly are your demands?” “Two-four-eight-six! We want more math-e-mat-ics!” “Shush!” “…sorry.”)

Real Tudor Hustle — Demonstrating how market day scams exploited the greedy and gullible… ie, pretty much Times Square on any given Tuesday, but with way more sweet velvet caps.


Vile Victorians

Victorian Undercover Proprietor — A mill owner investigates the squalid conditions his workers toil and live under and–surprise!–does not decide to have them flogged for insolence into the bargain. (“I knew it! I knew that were a disguise, as soon as I saw that daft fake beard–” “OW!” “…so sorry.” “…s’alright.”)

Measly Middle Ages

The War of the Bucket — Which the participants therein are understandably less than impressed to discover is an actual thing. (“Well, a couple of guys from Modena stole our town’s bucket… so in order to get it back, the Pope has insisted we launch a full-scale war.”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Political Party — Move over, Monster Raving Loonies, “Mad Jack” Mytton is in the house. And if you and/or his constituents are lucky, he won’t actually ride off with it. (“But that’s not all! If you vote for me, I guarantee I will go naked duck hunting–at night!”)

Troublesome Twentieth Century

Suffragette Express — When you absolutely, positively need to annoy the socks off the powerful in three-four days or so.

Terrible Tudors

“P” For… — Why a forehead brand has never been recommended as an icebreaker at a job interview… yes, it’s almost over. (“The ‘P’ doesn’t stand for ‘perjurer’, it stands for… erm… ‘Perfect Employee’!”)

Field Notes:

  • Wow. I urgently need to apologise to S03E10, which up to now is what I confidently thought was the least impressive HH episode I had ever or would ever see. Unfortunately, as has been proven repeatedly throughout this review project, I suck at predicting things, and the existence of our current subject episode is no exception.
  • Yes, sure, it has a great, fully classic Stupid Death, and an equally lovely unexpected roundoff to the Victorian labour thread, and a party-animal politician… oh, and can’t forget the bit with people being incredulous that they’re fighting a holy war over a ceremonial bucket. It’s just that the rest of it is so… so…
  • OK, story time: During this series’ filming, some of the most intriguing spoilery leaks concerned a space-race-themed sketch in which Ben would play legendary Soviet Premier Nikita “Don’t Tell ME I’m Not Going to Disney World!” Khruschev. Later, one of the cosmonaut extras (they apparently imported authentic Russian actor/models, which unusually lavish expense suggests this was planned as one of the hilights of the series at the time) tweeted a shot of the finished sketch that also showed Mat in a supporting role as a dorky young apparatchik.
  • Well. Words cannot express how much I was looking forward to all this. I was almost as excited about Nikita Willbond & His Great Space Adventures as I was about my sparklier version of the Twilight/Byron takeoff. Then came the finished series and both just sort of… never happened. The Russian sketch in particular had evidently been wholly scrapped, without trouble or trace (and also evidently without reference to the poor tweeting extra).
  • Thus, to recap: No additional exciting space-race stuff. No Benjamin-as-Khruschev. No adorkable Mat  or hunky cosmonauts. None of that was thought worth keeping… but the suffragette sketch that only makes sense if somebody mistook the opening scenes of Mary Poppins for a documentary, that made it through.
  • So did various other bits so desperately uninspired that even Larry couldn’t salvage them. So did a sketch centering round a random schoolboy strike, which to add insult to idiocy somehow does not feature Mike Peabody having rocks bunged at his ankles by beanie-wearing rugrats. It does feature Alice the newsbimbo being menaced by Lawry in full psychotic mode as the Dickensian schoolmaster, which is appreciated, but that’s not the point
  • “But… but,” you have for some time been sputtering frantically, “there was a song! ABBA references! Nobody can ever possibly be unhappy when there’s ABBA references!”
  • Yeah… about that. Something else we need to get clear before going much further: I have never understood the ABBA phenomenon, and am now more confident than ever that I never will. Mind you, I am perfectly OK with them as purveyors of catchy dance-pop; I just don’t understand how same rates their subsequent elevation to shining icons of fluffy campiness. Or, for that matter, the whole European concept of fluffy campiness to begin with. And I am having further real trouble understanding how all this equates to regal Middle Ages infighting. I would be a really lousy person to watch Eurovision with, is I guess what I am saying here.
  • Thusly, despite the song relentlessly bunging knowingly ironic winks at me like somebody just remembered they have to use their remaining stock up before show’s end, I remain stolidly unenchanted. (On the other hand, suddenly previous failures to work the musical melodrama correctly, as in “The English Civil War Song”, now make total sense.) It doesn’t help that from what I can tell, some genuinely good satirical elements are going to waste in the general slavish desperation to the theme…
  • …One of which, unfortunately, is not Larry attempting a straight vocal lead. The Rickardian musical weird, as it turns out, needs the scope and breadth of campiness that only disco can provide in order to flourish properly. The difference between his Aztec vocal and this one, in fact, serve as a neat gauge of the relative effectiveness of the two productions. Here, I’m imagining a pre-production meeting in which someone defends casting Larry by mentioning all those singularly non-musical types in the Mamma Mia! movie, and everyone else goes along just to avoid having to think about warbly Pierce Brosnan anymore.
  • Right, fine, getting to the good stuff. Martha and Alice can never not be musically awesome either apart or together, so that their delicately regal catfight actually does come close to making the insistent references fun and/or relevant… and Jim in the background, just sort of hanging out being Jim, makes a most excellent foil. Special bonus points for when he does get a couple solo lines, and the entire cotton-candy overlay is effortlessly blown aside by his serious talent. But none of it particularly resonates with the historical subject, so that the whole never rises above a random novelty.
  • This disconnect between style and substance is especially noticeable when one has just finished marvelling at the Victorian Undercover Boss bit. Not so much creatively; on that end, it’s merely another case of surefire casting–and facial hair–paying off accordingly. I might just congratulate Alice on noticeably upgrading her slum-class cred since S3, but man, it’s hard to figure out how to phrase that as a compliment.
  • The real kicker is the subject matter–the Establishment trying to do the right thing in the face of the proletariat’s ignorance and prejudice–and what it represents. After years of loving elaboration on the themes of class struggle in general and Victorian drudgery and squalor in particular, the show has somehow not only realised that a perfect plot-twisty finale in terms of both subject and creative choice lay on the other side, but managed to explore the murky spaces between without missing a beat re: either fairness or poop jokes.
  • …Or, yeah, somebody just noticed a most excellent excuse for poop jokes and the entire sensitivity thing’s an elaborate rationalisation from there. However, as further evidence of deliberate and intriguing exploration of the grey areas, I suggest a compare-and-contrast in evident motivations between S1’s righteously outraged ‘How to Vote in a Georgian Election’ and the current profile of actual outrageous Georgian political candidate “Mad Jack” Mytton, which… well. You just can’t up and use Simon Farnaby to tell the story of a man who randomly rode bears without understanding the consequences re: implied awesomeness, any more than you can doll up an ‘unromantic’ highwayman in guyliner and plead innocence.
  • Taken all-in-all, it’s very hard indeed to avoid the conclusion that we’ve moved on from tweaking Terry Deary’s beloved anarchistic sensibilities to quite deliberately pulling them right the hell out from under him. Quirkiness nothing, this is mutiny… which would explain why such such an interesting and entertaining milestone ended up in this far outpost of episodic irrelevance to begin with: they were really hoping Deary wouldn’t notice. At any rate, I doubt the proposed revival series will continue this particular maturation process (although Horrible campaign tactics generally represent a potentially fertile sketch source that hasn’t yet been mined nearly as thoroughly as it might).
  • The revival series will also not have Death and/or the Shouty Man, or at least–suddenly realising I don’t know who ultimately owns the characters–not these versions. As this particular edition of Stupid Deaths demonstrates, this is going to be a serious handicap. Unless of course they can find another guy who’s not only willing but able to ad-lib an entire wildly satisfying comedy experience into being simply by telling a skeleton “No, pine nuts.”. Somehow I find this a little hard to imagine.
  • Especially since the show clearly not only agrees with me that SD is closure-proof, but is now actively handling it like it’s Series Two and there’s still a world of possibilities… as, of course, in the case of human self-destruction, there always will be. Given what the writers have had to work with elsewhere this series, sheer delighted giddiness on realising that afresh isn’t hard to understand.
  • The result is an SD that fully honours all the best happy-reviewer-brain-making traditions,while also rather cleverly playing around with the stupidity–something that’s been neglected in the last couple seasons, as the focus shifted to Death and his bourgeois Purgatory. Not that I am complaining… just a little sad to have another tiny window into what could’ve been open at this late date. For the moment, though, as noted, I am wholly happy. Larry maybe comes up a bit short in the regal department again, but that’s OK. I always liked him much better as the random (and non-singy) schlub corpses anyway.
  • Over in the other sendoff for an icon, things aren’t going nearly so well. I was sceptical to begin with of the Shouty Man needing any further farewells after Jim doing everything but disappear into the sky on a wave of his own hot air, Oz-like, last episode. But I was also–briefly–hopeful, because I do love me some hapless Willbond being dragged around in the wake of Shouty’s enthusiasm
  • …in related news, I hate it when sketches get my hopes up like that. In the event, the happy huckster’s last hurrah turns out to be merely a (scarily close to literal) fig leaf applied to the producers’ dignity after one of two things were said in a pitch meeting : “Hey, been awhile since we could blatantly imply nudity, hasn’t it?” or “We should totally do an upgrade on S1’s Roman toilet sketches!”
  • Either way, despite some typical cleverness, ultimately Jim’s just going through the motions while the audience oohs over Ben having a chest or Larry pooping or whatever other marginally more novel thing is currently happening in the foreground. Even the tiara looks tired, by now. Ah well, ave aqua vale anyway, Shouty; you and your single joke were there at the very beginning and you both made it to the end not only intact but deservedly beloved. Nice work.
  • After all that, as noted, things get sort of desperate. And strange. And sometimes strangely desperate. Albeit none of the above is necessarily a problem in the War of the Bucket bit, whose premise alone is almost enough to make me OK with the fact that the commander isn’t Simon. Which is really, truly saying something, because of all the places in this whole damn show that Simon should be, it is in this sketch not being Lawry. Especially not Lawry with icky Breaking Bad-extra hair. Sheez. Also, blech.
  • Luckily for us both, there is the sudden welcome infusion of Mat and his vivid vulnerability–for once well-handled in a military sketch; there is another useful compare-and-contrast in the effortless grace with which this is accomplished here vs. the plastic nose icicles in S03E10. The current piece continues on in the promisingly loopy vein of the ‘sacred chicken’ business last ep–and for that matter, all the way back to S2 and the megabear hunt: just find the past-time ludicrousness and let the gang react to it in their own inimitably enlightened  fashion.
  • A little odd that this attitude hasn’t been combined with similar military surreality (also see, for instance, the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”) long since; humans tend to self-destruct even more stupidly in groups than they do individually.
  • *ahem* Speaking of which–no, seriously, something’s got fundamentally off-balance in the HApprentice skits. Apparently the writing team have finally fallen so in love with skewering their latest parody/dartboard target–the sheer offhand skill of Jim’s impersonation undoubtedly, and understandably, being just that seductive–that they’ve lost track of integrating the historical element. To put it kindly. Thus you’ve got a theoretical comedy sketch that in practice requires actual technical diagrams, and meantime everybody’s doing broadly ‘funny’-name-based humour, and it’s just generally all kinds of weirdly pointless up in here.
  • Yes of course, because it’s this troupe, there are always compensations regardless of how far out of context they stray; thing is, by this late date whether they’re novel enough to be worth extracting has become a perpetually open question, and the answer here is mostly ‘not so much’. Ben doing a mashup of his big-dumb-lug voice with his Scots voice does easily have more pure entertainment value than the entire song, but, well, see above re: the song. I’m a little more impressed with Larry’s ‘sweet sensitive artisan’ act (see above re: his skill with hapless schlubs) complete with hilariously appropriate hair, and Simon… is paired with Ben, so gets a pass on residual goodwill alone.
  • As for the rest of it… I dunno really, it all just sort of muffles together in my head. Like one of those Big Balls O’Random Violence you see in cartoons, except this is a Big Ball O’Blandly Amusing and it’s speckled with occasional chuckles instead of “ow!”s. I do vaguely remember being impressed again with Larry… it was Larry, right? Let’s go with Larry, because checking would take thirty seconds out of my life that could be more profitably employed in matching odd socks.
  • …*returns from sock drawer* Anyway, so probably-Rickard gets props for even managing to extract something in the remote vicinity of plausible wit out of the forehead-branding bit. Also, the Tudor Hustle makes me feel sort of guilty for ragging on last series’ Victorian version–the one that was based around Mat’s Fagin impersonation, which I thought was sort of lazily cheating at the time, but am now realising was the comparative height of creative innovation.
  • I did perk up some for the suffragette and school strike sketches. Mostly because they both seemed so determined to shoot themselves in the creative foot–and in precisely the same ways–that I had to conclude it was all the deliberate work of one author, and thus spent a fun few minutes playing yet another round of What the Hell Were They Thinking? The leading theory as of even date involves humouring somebody’s nephew desperate to break into comedy-writing, possibly on account of the real writers taking off early for drinks.
  • I mean really now, show. Took me about ten seconds to come up with a more plausible, ie. Peabody-intensive, premise for the strike stuff (it starts with him arriving on the scene not realising the strikers are little kids…). As for the self-addressed suffragettes… just so we’re all clear, these are meant to be the ‘fierce girls’ from S3, yes? The ones whose struggle you were so conscientiously spotlighting? And yet you couldn’t think of a single plausible thing to have them say here, thus deliberately creating the implication that they approached a potential audience with the Prime Minister with all the finesse of karaoke night at the biker bar? And here I thought I was kidding about the drinking starting early…

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, Emperor Domitian. Whether or not it had anything to do with the odd resemblance to Neil Patrick Harris, according to his very comprehensive Wiki article he was one of the more admirable and popular (ie. not insanely depraved) rulers of Ancient Rome: Domitian’s government exhibited totalitarian characteristics; he saw himself as the new Augustus, an enlightened despot destined to guide the Roman Empire into a new era of brilliance. Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality, and by nominating himself perpetual censor, he sought to control public and private morals. 
  • …Why all the above makes it even funnier that it’s Larry in the role, I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, so yes, the poor man had but one serious chink in his self-esteem, and it was that pesky prophecy of his untimely death. He tried setting up Minerva (aka Athena) as his protector deity, only to have her appear in a dream a few days beforehand to explain that whoopsie, Jupiter/Zeus had disarmed her, so yeah, good luck foiling that elaborate assassination plot involving several of your closest associates and the Praetorian Guard. That no, she apparently didn’t think it was worth telling him about or anything… not even the bit about being first stabbed in the groin. This is what ‘the entire universe is against me’ literally looks like, kiddies.
  • I am delighted to report that the War of the Bucket was indeed an actual thing, and in outline at least follows the description General Icky-Locks Lewin gives here. I am slightly less delighted to explain that it wasn’t actually a random event, but a minor blip in a 300-plus-year conflict. See, starting around 1175, much of Italy divided off into factions supporting the political ambitions of the Holy Roman Emperor  and the Pope respectively–yes, the Pope had political ambitions, because Middle Ages. At any rate, eventual bucket-nabbers Modena were in the former camp, and bucket-owners Bologna the latter–in fact, were personally led by the Pope.
  • This all festered until the early 1300’s, at which point the rival regions started up in earnest with the border incursions and destroying each others’ fields and yada-yada-yada-standard-Middle-Ages-regional-hostility-cakes. Things got so tense, in fact, that all it would take was a little thing like, ooh, say, stealing a ceremonial bucket to set off a major conflict. Albeit apparently said bucket was filled with ‘loot’ from previous raids, so, y’know, slightly more badass. But not by much.
  • Anyway, so then everybody had the big fight over it shown here–more formally, the Battle of Zappolino–and for a brief shining moment this whole mess registered on the international stage… right up until the vastly outnumbered Modenans still managed to handily route the Bolognese, and thus by implication the Pope (in case you were still wondering if God has a sense of humour). And, yes, they kept the bucket. After all, it was the principle of the thing.
  • The whole phenomenon of the schoolboy strikes of 1911 was a similarly wide-ranging one in comparison to its treatment here, and (as you might have intuited already) considerably less adorable with it. Essentially, it pitted working-class students against their comfily middle-class masters, thus becoming the juvenile offshoot of a much more comprehensive set of issues surrounding unions and the perceived exploitation of the poor. From the link:
  • The strike spread locally by word of mouth, across the country courtesy of the press and even, in London, through flying pickets (moving from Shoreditch to Islington). In Swansea, the pickets locked the school gates; in Edgehill near Liverpool, the strikers smashed the glass in the lamp posts as they marched; in Montrose, the schoolboys demanded shorter hours, potato-lifting holidays, no strap, and free pencils and rubbers; at Darlington, the main demands were for attendance payments and an extra half day holiday…
  • …I suddenly feel much less proud of that time we convinced Mrs. Andrews to let us spend recess inside on cold days.
  • OK, in partial mitigation of the show’s handing of the suffragette incident I must just note that the reason they showed the ladies babbling incoherently may have been because, in real life, they didn’t say anything to the PM at all. On account of they never actually met him, having been foiled by the very bureaucracy they had tried to exploit. According to this wonderfully solemn description of the incident, from the British Postal Museum’s blog:
  • On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the East Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union. 
  • This of course raises a whole new set of questions re: why the show bothered to dramatise the incident at all, and why they didn’t bother taking the opportunity to compose a really cutting speech for their luckier fictional counterparts… but I think it’s beyond time we moved on, now.
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five


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