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Category Archives: Series Four

S04E06

They beat [Becket] to death on the altar of Canterbury Cathedral! The holiest place in the whole of England!
I said I’m sorry…
Are we gonna do this now, Reg?
Yes, but I —
NO. Shush.

That moment at the midpoint of every HH series, in which, having conquered the heights of audacity, the show takes the opportunity to thoroughly enjoy the view…

In this episode:

Song: Victoria & Albert: A Love Ballad — Martha and Jim as the nineteenth-century’s ultimate celebrity couple.

Recurring sketches:

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Leif Ericsson Project (“Are you saying you discovered America before Christopher Columbus?” “Is this a fantasy film?” “Ooh! Are you Conan the Barbarian?!”)

HHTV News: Royalty Today — Live from Henry II’s pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, 1174 (“Is this some sort of initiative to make the Royal Family seem more down-to-earth? If so, I think you may have taken it a bit too far…!” “It’s penance. For I have done a terrible thing — well, if you include the terrible thing I did on the road near Gillingham, two terrible things…”)

Court of Historical Law — Tsar(evich) Peter III -vs- the rat who nibbled his toy soldiers (“… assuming you are a rat, and zat is not an elaborate disguise!” “Er… sorry, what would disguise itself as a rat?” “A mouse! With delusions of grandeur!” “…Good point.”)

Stupid Deaths — Hannah Twynnoy, Georgian barmaid (Thought it would be hilarious to repeatedly poke a menagerie tiger with a stick, thus becoming the first person in Britain to be killed by one. “Ooh, hey — Stupid Deaths are grrrrrr-eat! You know, like the tiger does in the advert?… *to mummy* Whaddaya mean, that joke’s a bit dated? Look who’s talking!”)

One-offs:

Potty Pioneers

Columbus (sic) Finds India (sic) — “Can’t you just admit for once that you’re wrong!?” “NEVER! I am Captain Christopher Columbus, the finest sailor and navigator on the planet, and if I go looking for India, India is what I find! Good day! “ “…Door’s over there.” “I know that. It’s my cabin.”

Measly Middle Ages

Cash My Sin — “Call 0-800-I’VE-BEEN-NAUGHTY now! It’s easy! It’s great value! And what’s more it means you won’t burn in the fires of hell for all eternity! It’s got to be worth it!”

Rotten Romans

Salted Payments — A Roman legionary is dismayed to discover that he’s on the wrong end of the controversy surrounding the origins of the word ‘salary’… also, that he’s in a live-action Asterix comic. (“Join the Roman army, they said… It’s a great career, they said… Get paid in salt, they forgot to mention!…”)

Just Deserter — “Ah, y’know what, I’d like nothing better than to spend the next ten years fighting in some God-forsaken corner of the Roman Empire — but unfortunately, look: no thumbs!” “I see… Well, you’re not going to believe this, but this is the third time this has happened today…”

God Compare — Gaulish warriors have difficulty deciding which of their pantheon to sacrifice a prisoner to, so… uh… something. Really, folks, if you haven’t already, you need to see this one for yourselves.

Savage Stone Age

The Early Show: Domesticating a Wolf — “What exactly is the point…?” “Well… they’ll be useful in hunting, they can warn you of danger… Oh, and if you throw a stick, they’ll fetch it and bring it back to you!” “But if you wanted a stick, why would you throw it away in the first place?” “…I don’t know.”)

The Not-So-Great Mammoth Hunt (animated) — So there’s these two cavemen, and they’re congratulating each other on the new hunting technique of driving a mammoth off a cliff, while standing right under a cliff… yeah.

Vile Victorians

Victoria and the Great Exhibition — “The problem with building our Crystal Palace in a park is that the local sparrows have taken to sheltering in the roof, which has caused a few issues, such as noise and –” *SPLAT* “EEEK!” “…I probably don’t have to finish that sentence.”

Field Notes:

  • So here we are at the half-way point already, and boy howdy it’s been quite a series thus far. Demographic shifts and legendary guest stars and ever-more-elaborate reality-TV parodies and… whatever that Snakes on a Plane thing was. Even the slow moments have been filled with impressive arabesques of monologue, also Spartans.
  • But for all that it’s been just a trifle difficult to locate…I dunno, the essential HH-ness. I miss the slight but singularly quirky, audaciously charming house comedy style I myself fell in love with, away back in Series Two (right around S02E10, to be exact). Back when they were still basically a little kiddy comedy taking big chances, y’know?
  • Until I get to this episode, and I realise all that is very much still there. For all the show-offy sophistication, at heart these are the same people who decided at the time that pinching matches and pistol-packing Reverends were the way forward to maturity… and are now further demonstrating their creative confidence by setting Jim and Martha (and their ridiculously potent couple-chemistry) up with a soft-focus love duet. Because catering to your core female demographic is nice, but frankly messing with their minds is fun.
  • Hence, the Victoria & Albert song, which if you listen closely is actually intended as a satire of your standard sugary-sweet pop duet. This alone would’ve been a fine rebuttal to The Young Victoria et al., had they not gotten a wee bit over-confident and attempted to also cram in celebrity cynicism *and* a parody of BBC costume dramas *and* oh yeah, the historical detail, all at the same time.
  • It’s all fairly clever, in the usual style (I specially enjoy Victoria’s pointed little ‘Called us Alboria, but I preferred Vicbert!”) but it never really gels, so eventually you just give up and go with the pretty soft-focus twirliness…
  • ….which turns out to be EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED YOU TO DO MUAH-HA-HAHHH WHO’S SOBBING HELPLESSLY NOW, CYNICAL CRITIC PERSON?… No, I’m not really, but damned if they didn`t expertly manipulate me right out to the edge. Despite, mind, my having just been sniggering happily at the Crystal Palace sketch… only breaking off to wonder at the sheer, erm, volume of the gag; to paraphrase Bill Bryson, that must’ve been one sick sparrow.
  • Even after all that (and Lawry), Martha still absolutely earns her poignant ending; everything that the Queen was mourning for all those years is all there in her face at the fadeout, even under all those prosthetics. Remarkable. *snif snif*
  • *ahem* Right! Resuming the zippy snarkitude now. In case you needed any further proof that the producers know their fandom entirely too well, I give you the Leif Ericsson sketch: three solid minutes of Larry Rickard standing there in full Tumblr fetish gear… and still basing his Scandinavian accent off the PA system at Ikea, but, y’know, details. Clearly the producers knew they’d face complaints re: the LoG bits, and scheduled accordingly. “Irrelevant? Annoying? Just WAIT UNTIL WE UNLEASH NORDIC LARRY MUAH-HA-HAHHH.”
  • Quite seriously, it cannot be a co-incidence that for once the LoG`s banter is noticeably downplayed in favour of petitioner closeups. I think I was probably the only fan — female or otherwise — for whom the ensemble comedy was still the main event. Just FYI, it was still pretty decent, and that`s even besides the gloriously broken American-ese. The reunion portion of this experiment, at least, is an unqualified success.
  • “But,” you have been impatiently waiting to protest, “where is Baynton in all this discussion of deliberate demographic-mind-messing? He must be included, but after the guyliner became an international sensation, what could they possibly have left for him to truly impress us with?”
  • Glad you asked. For starters, that would be our Mathew in the ‘Historical Law’ bit wearing a blond wig and speaking in a Russian accent. Shortly after which, he implied in an interview that he didn’t actually consider Peter III the ‘silliest and biggest characterization’ he’s ever done. Meaning that between this claim and the potential return of God Compare Guy I spent the rest of the series on full Threat Alert mode.
  • Truly though, if there’s a must-see performance in S4, this is definitely it. It had been far too long since Mat had been allowed to thus fully unleash his inner aristocratic whackazoid (scientific term), and the sketch is designed brilliantly around that opportunity. Including but by no means limited to Ben, who was quite literally born to play the Tsarevich’s foil… also, as it turns out, his accent coach.
  • Yep, I almost hate to spoil the magical mystery that is ‘How the hell did Mat learn to not sound like the low-rent gigolo stereotype in a bad Agatha Christie adaptation?’, but turns out Willbond once studied in Russia. So that when Mat hauls out the teeny little gallows, I’m assuming our Benjamin’s stunned expression is actually the result of the weirdest life-goal-reassessment angst ever.
  • Oh, and worth noting as well that Rattus is finally moved once again to protest the treatment of his brethren, and is still fully adorable in the process. Albeit somewhere the ghost of that skewered rat from S3 HMasterchef is probably now laughing hollowly and checking his haunting calendar for the first free Saturday.
  • Moving on from the ridiculous to the sublime, we find Cash My Sin, which is essentially the direct descendant of the ‘Roman Gods Direct’ bit from S1, only given all the creative and budgetary advantages Great-Grandpa Sketch never had. Mat blithely rechannels the camp into a sort of hyper-sincerity; just authentic enough to be absurd, and just absurd enough to neatly avoid stepping on his audience’s spiritual toes.
  • The only thing off… ish… is, once again, Ben’s place in all this. I’m willing to admit that he’s showing up a lot more than my memory initially suggested, but — I dunno, it’s as though they’ve swopped roles within the troupe. So that Ben’s now the spot performer, while Simon’s picked up the Impressive Leading Man ball… and neither quite seems like it was their idea.
  • As for instance, Simon as the theoretically-suave HHTV News reporter, basically reconfirming — in combination with the more characteristically wonderful military conscription bit — that he’s much better left alone to create a wholly unique character, rather than a specific parody like this. (The making Jim look like a doll of himself by contrast, not really optimal either.) I was squirming uneasily, right up until I realised that a) hey, at least Simon’s hair is making the most of the chance and b) he wouldn’t actually be replacing Mike P. but Alice’s newsbimbo, right? Never mind, forget I said anything, carry on.
  • So they did, and it is frankly wonderful. Mat, Ben and Larry, each playing their own precious version of the guy who got into knighthood mostly because of the cool uniform — how perfect a microcosm of the HH Experience is that? Specially Mat ‘eating’ the mic. Well-played, show, well played indeed… at least, right up to the contrived ‘rid me of this troublesome reporter!’ bit, which is where I started to suspect that Henry really knows exactly what he’s doing and just keeps the idiot knights around for plausible deniability.
  • Meantime, despite the Columbus sketch having rather obviously been written with Mat in mind — and the f/x team also having gone above and beyond — the real star, nay quite possibly hero, of that sketch is Jim. While Mat’s off discovering new and innovative heights of strung, Howick is by contrast clamping both hands firmly onto his big chance to be the voice of reason, not only off the coast of not-India but as Henry II and the Roman military recruiter, and stubbornly refusing ever to let it go…
  • …and still managing to get himself stomped all over, because c’mon, it’s Jim (and Mat, and Simon). Regardless, though, that exquisitely exasperated disbelief stuff, we can haz moar pls? Absolutely priceless.
  • What? No, of course I haven’t forgotten the God Compare bit. It’s only… I only…Yes, of course I giggled helplessly like everyone else when it first aired, but… Look, I even went back to the original parody subject to confirm, and it didn’t help either. The universe in which this concept can — or should — be coherently assessed is clearly at least a few down from the one I inhabit. So I mostly just spend subsequent viewings marvelling that they even got it filmed in the first place. Full-on obsessive desperation on Mat & Ben’s part, is my guess.
  • Come to think of it, I would not be surprised if the universe in question was Death’s, and on account of sheer surreal awesomeness overload is starting to leak. You can tell about the awesomeness thing because his sidekicks now have their own little spinoff psychodramas, complete with skeleton-on-mummy hand-holding. (Which, I like to imagine, in this universe represents a shockingly controversial inter-monster romance.) It was inevitable, really.
  • Meantime Martha gives an unexpectedly game, lively performance as the barmaid — to the point where you’re really disappointed (but still impressed) when she turns out to be easily the most stupid human being ever featured on the show. Sorry, the italics just pop out no matter how rationally I try to discuss this woman. Ginger really suits Martha, though, gotta give her that.
  • And on the further subject of unexpected yet hilariously effective characterizations… yeah, it’s kind of a niche topic, everywhere but where this troupe is concerned… Fine, Larry, you win. Or rather, Asterix for the win, always and forever. They just basically dropped a stack of the comics in front of you and Willbond and told you to have at it, didn’t they? And now I have to spend the rest of my life wondering wistfully what an entire live-action Asterix saga featuring the troupe would look like, don’t I? …yeah, you-all are just really lucky Ben looks that distractingly fetching in big-dumb-lug mode.
  • I’d been wondering where Larry’d got to during the God Compare bit, come to that… then realised he’d probably been a bit busy, what with the being chased by slavering prehistoric wolves and all. (Although as filmed it’s pretty obvious that those are actually trained dogs, ‘attacking’ on a command hidden by the jump cut.)
  • At any rate, I award him the Willbond Memorial Star of Merit for going above and beyond in a most excellent satirical cause, and Simon a cupcake for turning out to be a very quick study, where this suave host parody stuff is concerned. Everyone else, your gold stars are in the mail — plus extra sprinkles for whomever came up with the concept, because somehow it just makes me deeply, deeply happy.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes,the show is not exaggerating either the cashing in one’s sins, or the utter cynicism of the process. Although it might just be pointed out that it wasn’t really supposed to be that way. In Catholic theology, the idea of paying to escape punishment for sin, usually meaning shorten your time in purgatory — either for yourself, or, not mentioned here, any newly-deceased you might care about enough — is formally called an ‘indulgence’, and technically exists to this day.
  • Of course, technically it is, and was, supposed to take the form of so many dutiful recitations of a particular prayer, or maybe a nice sincere pilgrimage to the Vatican, or something noticeably non-profit like that. At the very least, the medieval Church formally insisted, any monies were to be accepted on the understanding that they only represented a short period of reprieve, and were furthermore to be used strictly for good — building cathedrals, organizing Crusades, like that.
  • Those paying attention over the last few episodes will not be surprised to learn that many lesser medieval spiritual authorities (or, eventually, anybody with writing skills and a suitably devout expression) got really bored with all this altruism real quick and cut straight to the chase. Hence literal little Get Into Heaven Free slips, duly authenticated by the Pope — proof? How dare you question a man of God! — good for centuries’ worth of reprieve, yet still available for just a trifling donation…
  • …the trick being, of course, that there was a built-in repeat market. All a monk looking to replenish the monastery’s cellars had to do was go forth and paint lurid pictures of poor departed loved ones, suffering miserably as they awaited their fate. Who wouldn’t willingly fork over to speed Mom on her way to celestial bliss? A monster who’d better break the piggy bank himself just in case, that’s who.
  • Eventually things got so bad that they inspired Martin Luther’s righteous — and famously public — indignation as nailed to that church door, and with the advent of the Protestant Reformation the Church realised it had better regain the moral high ground. In 1562, the Council of Trent finally clamped down for real.
  • There would be no such reprieve for Karl Peter Ulrich, son of a minor duke and eventually Peter III, Tsar of All the Russias. Yep, as it turns out he was actually German — merely a nephew of the formidable Russian Empress Elizabeth — and, whoopsie, had only been educated up to what everyone thought would be a purely ceremonial existence as King of Sweden. Hence the fascination with the trappings of military pomp and circs, with none whatsoever of the practical experience. He was overall probably what we would call developmentally-delayed, although whether this is a matter of nature-or-nurture is hotly debated.
  • At any rate, when he finally made the throne, his subjects got a serious taste of the obsessiveness displayed here. He not only passed a whopping 220 new statutes in the first few weeks — mostly about trifling stuff that made Oliver Cromwell look like, well, Charles II — but started in enthusiastically hero-worshipping the hated Prussians: Historians mark Peter III’s actions as disordered and unreasonable, and had no support in wider Russian society… His personality and policies were so bizarre that no one could guess what his next move would be. 
  • It wasn’t long before the only military supporters Peter had were three inches high. The inevitable coup attempts had the full support of Peter’s wife (and second cousin), Sophia Augusta Frederica, Princesse de Anhalt-Zerbst… better known by her Russian name, Catherine II, ie. the Great. As you can imagine she was not the type to put up with a mate who preferred his toys to her, let alone at bedtime. By skilfully positioning herself as a dignified (and very lovely) martyr to the disaffected generals, she easily earned their sympathy — and then loyalty. Exeunt Peter, exiled and probably assassinated shortly thereafter.
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Posted by on July 14, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E05

You know, that’s actually quite offensive. Neolithic man was nearly as evolved as you are now, so our language was actually quite sophisticated.
Right, sorry. I wasn’t… you know… Lots of my friends are cavemen!
…Just try to ignore him, Nug. I do.

Let us now take a moment to celebrate the HH troupe’s ability to reel off massively factoid-laden monologues. Actually, several moments… OK, would you believe an entire episode?

In this episode:

Song: Mary Seacole — Dominique as the other selfless, courageous, innovative (but not, it must be admitted, pie-chart-inventing) nursing pioneer of the Crimean War. (Parody of: Beyonce, Single Ladies)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Masterchef — Stone Age (“People make food, and we eat the food!” “That is the format as I understand it!“)

Bob Hale — The Renaissance Report (“[Da Vinci] comes up with designs for the calculator! Solar power! Military tanks! And helicopters!… Though, obviously, not helicopters. But then — hm? Oh… apparently he did come up with helicopters. Knew that one’d come back to bite me one day…”)

Oh Yea! Magazine — Royal Rage Special (“Buy it now, while necks last!”)

One-offs:

Savage Stone Age

How Cities Were Invented — Neolithic man takes his first whack at planning a civilization without actually whacking anyone… cue subsequent invention of despotic dictatorship in three, two… (“What if you’re good at everything?” “I don’t think you need to worry about that, Craig.”)

Wild Warriors

Snakes on a Ship (movie trailer) — Hissstory has never been more terrifying… Yep, ancient General Hannibal has about had it with these Carthaginian Romans on this Carthaginian ship, so he fires snakes at them. While speaking in what I have a terrible suspicion is Jim’s interpretation of Ebonics. Best if we all just go with it, he also has the…

Elephants on a Plain — Under a ten-ton elephant, no-one can hear you scream. “I’m gonna take the elephants over the mountains and crush the Romans on the plain! I mean, literally crush them! When I fight, I fight Carthaginian dirty, y’all!”

Radical Renaissance

The Da Vinci Problem — In which the great man’s omnidisciplinary genius pushes Mona Lisa right out to the limits of her enigmatic. (“Can we finish this argument tomorrow? I have a very important mathematical problem I need to solve…” “Tomorrow, tomorrow! You’re a procrastinator!” “Maybe I do something about being a procrastinator tomorrow!”)

Awful Egyptians

Egyptian Make Show — Today we’re going to learn how to create great works of art, still revered by the foremost museums of the world to this… oh, who am I kidding? Time to learn how to make a mummy, kids. Again. (“First off, we’re going to need a dead body. Here’s one that died earlier!”)

Mummification! The Ancient Egyptian Board Game — Yes, fellow Gen-Xers, this is Operation! with bandages… which actually looks like a really good idea, come to think of it.

Terrible Tudors

Words at Ten Paces — William Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language, Prologue: enabling him to win a battle of wits without even once mentioning yo’ mamma… should really have looked out for that tavern wench, though.

Vile Victorians

Plotting a Disaster (imagine spot) — The military leaders responsible for the Charge of the Light Brigade revel in their incompetence, stupidity, and really shiny buttons, roughly in that order. (“You see, these are all the advantages of having the Army commanded by a small group of upper-class twits!”)

Field Notes:

  • So yes, this episode’s theme can be succinctly summed up as ‘long lists and even longer monologues’. And let us all just take a moment to appreciate the special hell that must’ve been those rehearsals, not to mention multiple takes… also, to feel frankly disappointed that some low-level studio functionary hasn’t gotten on the ball and covertly recorded them for posterity, a la the Star Trek blooper reels.
  • Admittedly teaching of this type is exactly what a children’s show should be doing, and something the cast has proven they can (eventually) do with real style, from a long while back — see S01E08, ‘Causes of WWI’. An occupational hazard I suppose of no longer having surefire historical one-liners to fall back on (save, apparently, “Elizabeth I had a temper! Har! …*sigh*). So hang on, everyone, it’s about to get… educational. Carthaginian educational.
  • Because the show has also decided, in the midst of all this elaborate explanatory stuff, to bung in a two-part movie-trailer parody of Snakes on a Plane. More specifically, the only things anybody ever remembers about that movie, ie. that there were snakes and Samuel L. Jackson was Carthaginian annoyed about it. That’s it, nothing more to see here, the pinnacle has been reached and the only thing left to do with HH is to put it in adult prime-time.
  • OK, look, seriously. I want to love this idea, so badly. I want to just sit here and tell it how hilariously, adorably audacious it is basically forever, if for no other reason than so that the troupe having live freaking pythons thrown among them might not be in vain. Also: the ‘under a ten-ton elephant…’ tagline — and the fact that the entire ‘Roman Army’ can fit under said ‘elephant’, so that for once problems with the f/x budget work to enhance the comedy. They’re obviously going for a straight re-creation of the original’s knowing camp…
  • …except, and this is the key bit that cannot be stressed enough, in the original that was handled by Samuel L. Jackson, exuding badassery. While here we’re featuring Jim Howick, inadvertently inducing Deliverance flashbacks. Kids, don’t ask your parents. What I am basically saying is that, much as I love Jim, every time they cut back to him trying to make his Colonel Sanders impersonation from S2 sound all tuff — menacing, even — it’s just so, so completely not happening.
  • Especially since elsewhere, the show is so effortlessly demonstrating how you do it right. Really, I can’t say enough about Dominque’s debut musical performance — except that damn, show, what the Carthaginian hell have you been thinking up to now? Maybe I’m just particularly cranky at the moment thanks to one too many Desperately Ethnic Willbonds, but honestly. All this time spent even animating that damn pyramid, you could’ve been simply devising new and exciting ways to use all that voice, wit, presence — in short, cool
  • At least they make full use of it all here, and give it a convincing Jamaican accent to boot (“and I t’ink it my destiny, child / to be a war medic!” — cute touch that). Seeing as I’ve stepped into it this far, it’s only fair to note that musical inspiration, HH-style, means Mary Seacole gets to skip right over the pedestal-heavy preachiness and expand her story with all the sass and spirit of simply knowing it’s deserved… yep, right down to the constipation treatments… while simoultaneously taking the mickey not only out of Beyonce but the skewed idol-making system that spawned her.
  • By contrast — on several levels — how completely forgettable was the first series’ music? Say hello to the mummy-making process all over again, kids. In fact, I think Jim may even be wearing the same makeup. As noted — and as Ben is demonstrating with distressing thoroughness — this is kind of a bad time to expect the (adult, at least) audience to laugh off the goofy ‘ethnic’ f/x, there, show. While I can see why they wanted a Willbond particularly in the part, ultimately it’s not worth it… mind you, Jim trying desperately to keep a straight face at his efforts, that might be worth it.
  • It’s especially… odd… given that Historical Masterchef has evidently decided to apologise for four series’ worth of ugga-bugga caveman cliches all at once, and this after a similarly conscientious update on Neanderthal brain size just last ep. Wonder what inspired this particular sudden attack of conscience? There can’t be much of a Stone Age anti-discrimination lobby, unless I suppose you count those Geico caveman adverts.
  • But I kid the earnest children’s edutainment series. Nug the not-so-primitive chef is likely merely about playing with expectations — shades of Simon the Hippie Pirate from last series. Y’know, the most interesting thing about these reality-TV parodies is how intelligently the HH writers can now integrate the history. Blending surreal with factual on their own unique terms has quietly become an absolutely seamless process, to the point where you can forget what a real challenge to their skill it actually was, and one they’ve risen to magnificently…
  • …”My favourite dish is rotten seafood sick!” … OK, so ‘magnificently’ in HH terms is relative. And often involves a sewer rat. Oddly though, other than that notably TMI moment, Our Bewhiskered Host has been pretty sedate this series… ever since he’s had that portrait of Gram and Gramps staring down at him, come to think of it. It probably came with a teeny little lecture re: exactly when he’s going to do something with his life. “Why can’t you be more like that nice Remy, he won an Oscar and everything!”
  • The incidental host comedy this series mostly comes from the cartoon intro characters, thanks apparently to the cast getting bored again. Seriously though, by now they’ve developed their own little personalities and catchphrases and everything, and it really is very cute.
  • As you can tell by my viewing notes for the Shakespeare verbal duel bit — yes, the one that features Mat effortlessly pulling off every high school senior’s ultimate nightmare English assignment, which somehow still didn’t win him the BAFTA, but I digress. Anyway, my notes here read in their entirety, verbatim: “Awww, little Tudor lady, you’re the bestest! Awww, drunk fluffy-haired pretty-costume-wearing Jim, you’re the second-bestest!”
  • That reminds me ….guys, just how long have you been at this ‘Terrible Tudor’ thing now? Setting aside the fact that even by your own notoriously repetitious standards Liz’ temper isn’t exactly news, c’mon now. When Shakespeare wins an insult battle it’s completely awesome, gets the full-tilt Beauty and the Beast-esque staging and cheering extras and everything, but when Liz uses (probably some of the same) words in the exact same way, it’s a shrewish spectacle worthy of endless mockery?
  • Right, where was I? Oh yes, elegantly complex comedy… *sigh* Fine, show, you put magenta undies on the statues in the Renaissance Report instead of the standard white ones, your cooky’s in the mail.
  • Maybe I’m better off just concentrating on the explanatory stuff after all. Especially since it appears Bobsy’s new meds have merely rechanneled his ambitions, so that he’s gone from manic to epic. The impressiveness of which is clearly to be tacitly understood as constituting the full entertainment value for this Report, and I am frankly impressed enough to be OK with this. Even if an entire world-defining, century-spanning cultural concept is a long, long way to go, just for one helicopter joke. You can definitely discern both the interest and the intimidation behind the writing, on this one.
  • And just incidentally, if you’re me — or maybe just a North American of the right age — you can also, during the ‘perspective’ bit particularly, have deeply pleasing flashbacks to Sesame Street’s iconic demo on Near and Far. I rather suspect ‘loveable, furry ol’Grover’ and Bob H. would have a lot to talk about generally, did they ever end up hanging out somewhere in Children’s TV Heaven…
  • Right, OK, so elegant explanatory cleverness, I know I left it around here somewhere… oh, yes, here we are: the ‘Stone Age City Planning’ bit. Wherein the surreal/factual fusion works so smoothly that it becomes the closest thing we’ll ever get — ‘family’ DVDs being what they are — to the guys just sitting around on set, randomly being endearing. While wearing caveman costumes. It’s just possible I may have overthought this, but at any rate don’t spoil it for me, ‘k?
  • Especially given that it’s getting distinctly difficult not to notice how sweet quiet dream-to-work-with Mat’s somehow also always the one everyone’s on eggshells around in these ensemble things, complete with sotto voce murmurs of rebellion. Taking into account optional accessories including but not limited to boredom, access to costumes and just how hard and fast the early-start caffeine must hit that spindly frame, you have a very nice do-it-yourself mental DVD extra kit, right there.
  • Which brings us round nicely to the absolute rightness of his turn as Da Vinci… not surprisingly, this closely resembles his turn as Darwin, except with new! bonus stupid accent. I’m just as happy that they didn’t try for anything more authentic; it would’ve wrecked the sweetly surreal vibe entirely. As it is, they’ve got waaaaay too much invested in the Mona-Lisa as complete shrew gag — see, she doesn’t have eyebrows, just like the painting! Huh? Hey? Hmmm? — but Mat’s delicately endearing counterpoint, along with the lovely set (borrowed from concurrent CBBC series Leonardo, perhaps?), manages to save at least some of the transcendent charm of the original.
  • A lack of saving genius is on prominent display in the ‘Light Brigade’ sketch; I say, even with Simon the Military Chucklehead in the highly capable lead this is a bit heavy on the point, what? Somebody was massively motivated by the sheer injustice of this one — understandably, but as frequently happens, self-righteousness tends to get in the way of the clever comedy. Although in a weird way the sheer effective adorableness of the troupe doing elderly grumps works to salvage things a bit — you’re so absorbed in the ‘Awwww…” that remembering what it led to hits with that much more of a sickening thud.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, so as I recall from the discussion around this ep on first airing, apparently the show is having some serious issues with the pronunciation of ‘Skara Brae’. Which discussion is also the reason why I’m frankly way too intimidated to attempt to correct it here. I can however report that the show’s newly-discovered fascination with its strikingly-advanced Stone Age inhabitants is mostly authentic, save for this amusingly awkward bit:
  • Huge quantities of limpet shells were found, but these may not have been a staple part of the Skara Brae diet. Through the centuries, limpets were generally regarded as an “emergency” food in Orkney, used only when there was nothing else available. Instead, they were harvested for bait, something that probably explains the quantities found in Skara Brae. The tanks within the houses could have been used to soak the limpets, softening them up before being used.
  • If anyone even so much as asks if the real Mona Lisa really didn’t have eyebrows, be it known right now that I am going to punch them SO HARD. (Besides, as several culture nerds pointed out at the time, the portrait does, in fact, have eyebrows. They’re just really faint now against the darkening tint of her skin.) In reality, Lisa del Giocondo — aka Lisa Gherardini, Lisa di Antonio Maria (or Antonmaria) Gherardini and, eventually, Mona Lisa, established definitively in 2005 as the subject of the portrait, seems to have been essentially pretty boringly bourgeois, pace Wiki: Little is known about Lisa’s life. Born in Florence and married in her teens to a cloth and silk merchant who later became a local official, she was mother to five children and led what is thought to have been a comfortable and ordinary middle-class life. Lisa outlived her husband, who was considerably her senior.
  • As for her portrait itself, yes, it did take around three years to finish (from 1503 to roughly 1506), went through several revisions, and is thought by some to be incomplete even now. This article gives some fascinating background on the artistic process and significance of the work, including a glimpse at what the painting would have looked like before the varnish started to go all enigmatically yellow.
  • I said above that the Mary Seacole song gives her a praiseworthy chance to tell her story accurately and unadorned from the ground up, not from atop a pedestal, and I’m sticking to that down here… except that the one point where they do dip slightly into monument-raising illustrates the dangers of same nicely.
  • Without getting into the finer points of why Florence Nightingale and supporters actually turned her down — those I covered in her first appearance, in S02E06 — the question of her racial self-identification is in reality a complex, and rather interesting one, shedding some valuable light on the likewise fraught nature of nineteenth-century social attitudes. From Wikipedia’s highly-recommended article:
  • Seacole… called herself a Creole, a term that was commonly used in a racially neutral sense or to refer to the children of white settlers. In her autobiography… she records her bloodline thus: “I am a Creole, and have good Scots blood coursing through my veins. My father was a soldier of an old Scottish family.” Legally, she was classified as a mulatto, a multiracial person with limited political rights… Seacole emphasises her personal vigour in her autobiography, distancing herself from the contemporary stereotype of the “lazy Creole”. She was proud of her black ancestry, writing, “I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related—and I am proud of the relationship—to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns.”
  • Yes, OK, Good Queen Bess in reality had a ferocious temper. All the Tudors did — even Henry’s ‘little Eddie’, briefly Edward VI, is on record as in a fit of frustration tearing a hunting falcon apart in front of his startled courtiers, saying as he did so to his governors that he likened himself to the falcon, whom everyone plucked; but that he would pluck them too, thereafter, and tear them in four parts. Of course, this is coming from the Imperial Ambassador, who was relaying court gossip to his master, so stands a good chance of not having actually happened. History… gotta love it.
 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E04

My home was in Plymouth, let’s call this New Plymouth!
I got an ideer, let’s call this New Hampshire!
I’m from Newcastle, can we call this New Newcastle?!
…Nahhhhh.

In a bit of have-to-believe-it’s-intentional irony, wanna-be Americans reach their new world just as the show settles comfily into mining their backlog of surefire funny…

In this episode:

Song: It’s a New World — Mat, Martha, Larry aka William Mullins and Ben (in decreasing order of credibility) reveal the Pilgrim Fathers as hardcore, man. (Parody of: Empire State of Mind, Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys)

Recurring sketches:

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From the Norman siege of Palermo, 1064 (“This looks like a disaster, Sir Robert! Most of your men have been bitten by spiders!” “Well, no, I haven’t — I just like dancing!”)

Stupid Deaths — King Harold’s Brothers (“So let me get this straight: The Normans were losing, until you two ran down a hill… causing the end of your brother King Harold, the end of Saxon rule in England, and in fact, the end of the Saxon era altogether?!” “Yeah, in a nutshell…”)

Words We Get From the — Normans

Dodgy War Inventions — No.81: The German U-Boat (“It was the perfectly designed fighting machine…” including a sleek, modern, and — as it turned out — rather over-complex toilet: “It’s supposed to be a white flag, only… ja, long story, sorry…”)

Historical Apprentice — Team Neanderthal -vs- Team Homo Sapiens (“I’ve had some primitive types around the table over the years, but you lot take the flamin’ biscuit! Two words: Beard. Trimmers.”)

DI Bones: Historical Crime Squad — The Victorians and Something Funny in the Water (“Ah, yeh, that’ll probably be the cholera.” “Note to self… get a desk job.”)

One-offs:

Groovy Greeks

The (Theoretically) Fighting Spartans — Despite their leader’s best attempt at Gerald Butler’s hair, the legendarily dedicated warriors notice a weak spot in their awesomely unified battle front.

Pausanius: A True Story (movie trailer) — The epic story of how a great Spartan general managed to severely underestimate the shrewdness and cunning of his own people… who were freaking Spartans, did we mention that? (“How dare they accuse me of siding with the Persians! Just for that… I’m gonna side with the Persians!”)

Awesome USA

Colonisation, Colonisation, Colonisation — “This is such a lovely spot! I wonder why the native Indians don’t live here!” “Well, it could be something to do with the swamp… Could be to do with the lack of drinkable water… Or it could be the *slap* mosquitoes…” “Yes, well, at least none of us have caught any nasty diseases!” “Erk…”)

Woeful Second World War

Don’t Wake the Fuehrer — Detailing how the German reaction to D-Day was delayed thanks to his guards’ reluctance to disturb ‘Mr. Grumpy Pants’ at his nap. (“But if we wake ze Fuhrer, he will… why, he will… get in such a paddy!” “Ooh, such a paddy he will get in!”)

Vile Victorians

I Scream — Back by probably-not-very-popular demand, the show’s fascination with Horrible things that happened to milk pre-pasteurization! Now with bonus cute innocent child!

Field Notes:

  • So yeah, we appear to have reached the point in Series Four where the remarkable is starting to show a distinct resemblance to remarkableness past. Which, as demonstrated last episode, is not by any means a bad thing; not only because it’s one way at least to ensure both audiences old and new will be equally delighted… but because when they do decide to get all innovative and clever, the results tend to involve things like Larry as a hip-hop Pilgrim with a shoe fetish.
  • Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that concept didn’t delight many, many people. What I am possibly saying is that these are the many of the same people who openly declare they have crushes on Bob Hale, so you can consider yourself fairly warned. Friends don’t let friends wander into an HH rap parody alone, y’know?
  • Actually, thanks to the smouldering he can fake the angsty posturing fairly acceptably, I’ll give him that at least — right up until he unfortunately abandons it at a key moment in favour of his inevitable Plan B: straight over the top and hope for the best. Yeah, so that doesn’t really work when living up to Jay-Z, Rickard… as you can tell when Ben’s calling you out. What the hell, was Jim off sick that day? (Paper-cut tongue from licking wedding invitations, maybe?)
  • The whole thing is an unusually un-self-confident mismash of satirical stylings — as if even up to the moment of filming they couldn’t decide whether to play it silly or straight, so just left it up to each individual performer, who in turn picked a really bad time (quite possibly out of embarrassment) to for once not tune into the others. Luckily for a genuinely decent concept, it’s eventually held together by Mat and Martha being brilliant along much more standard lines (and can we just take a moment to marvel once again at Mathew Baynton, ‘quality rapper’) besides some passably clever wordplay and Ben… wearing one of those wigs with the curls clustering round his face. Which definitely helps.
  • This apparently being official Let’s Mess With Willbond Day, musically speaking, we also get Mike Peabody learning that even the natural world is out to get him. Dear, dear Ben… quite honestly, I think this is about as far out of his comfort zone as HH has ever chucked him, and that would include both the time they required him to cope with a full-grown python round his neck and the one where he was forced to bathe in the North Atlantic in mid-October for a two-second throwaway bit.
  • Really you have to wonder if the producers don’t see pushing Benjamin’s buttons as sort of light entertainment… which sounds like an awesome idea, actually. I’d buy tickets. Still can’t help but feel a bit bad for him here, though. At least snake-wrangling makes for a decent story at the pub afterwards, and doesn’t involve getting shamelessly upstaged by a Farnaby to boot.
  • Dear, dear Simon. Also seen here overseeing easily the most epic SD ever — big week for epic military disasters altogether, come to that. Much love for how Death just lets these two stand there and dig themselves in deeper. Of course, on the evidence, this may be because the writers were suffering from punner’s block that week — no, the punny songwriters are different people, although I will concede Larry’s creativity works in mysterious ways. Generally speaking, though, when you have to resort to visual aids to get the wordplay across, you’re working too hard.
  • (Incidentally, I’ve been putting this off, but… does anyone else think the opening/closing SD titles could stand an upgrade? Not the song of course, but the visuals are starting to look decidedly… I dunno, early-series-ish.)
  • On the further subject of Simon’s adorableness… OK, so you remember how back last series they had the other Location, Location Location takeoff, and I was all “gee, too bad they didn’t take it any further, this would’ve been a great parody vehicle for settlers vs. Native Americans”? Yeah, so can we all just focus on the bit where I’m really prescient, there? Thanks.
  • Because, no kidding, I totally was.The Native POV is noticeably absent, but the Jamestown sketch gets the point across anyway — proof that valuable lessons have been learned from the Mesoamerican experiment. It’s as purely fun a romp as the series has ever produced, the result of a bunch of seasoned performers just having a great time with a series of surefire running gags — the signpost with the crossed-out ‘pop.’ is especially fun — as led by positive oodles of classic Proper Upper-Class Farnaby. The phrase ‘what’s not to love?’ was totally invented for this point in the show’s evolution. I am only disappointed that they didn’t give them actual arrows, albeit I can see where they’d have reason to worry about Ben’s aim.
  • Unlike, for instance, the Historical Apprentice writers, who have settled to their reality-TV-trashing task in much the familiar manner — which I picture as the writers sitting round a dartboard with the current parody target’s logo on it and assigning the quips based on where the darts land. (“Why not fire Grunt? He already dead!” being an example of a treble-twenty.)
  • The fact that the target for once seems reasonably shrewd, if not actually clever, himself — or at least, that the concept is based off that illusion — seems, interestingly, only to have roused team HH further to the challenge. And it has thus far paid off handsomely. The whole sketch resonates with the joy of  writers released back on familiar ground and loving every minute of it…
  • …plus, did I mention there was moar Simon? And that he has a shrew? And that Smug Caveman Ben inquiring “Sorry, what is wheel?” is well up the running for Most Incredibly Adorable HH Moment Ever? Oh, and while I’m on… erm, look, I know I don’t have a ton of credibility here, but is Lawry’s character supposed to be coming off as faintly sticky-palmed, or…? ‘Cos frankly he’s creeping me right the hell out — yes, even more than usual. I think it’s the glasses.
  • OK! In case you were wondering about the rest of the Most Adorable Moment finalists, there are, like, at least another two dozen here in my New Most Favourite HH Sketch Ever: Mat and Jim playing SS guards with much the same sweetly campy abandon as they play the Historical Paramedics. The little ‘ADOLF’S ROOM’ plaque on the door behind them is totally making the MAME shortlist.
  • Seriously, if you haven’t seen this thing, your ability to experience joy is woefully incomplete, even if you’ve already seen all the HParamedic bits. This one goes above and beyond, starting with Mat getting a chance to let his face run riot — no, new-and-enlarged audience, that’s not Silly Putty, that’s his actual face. Elsewhere… erm, if I say Larry makes a surprisingly competent hardcore SS officer — accent and all — does that count as a compliment?
  • Oh, and howdy Jalaal Hartley, sorry I’ve missed you up til now.  Jalaal, folks, will be the most prominent of this series’ new set of Random Character Guys, the result of the expanding number of roles for same I mentioned last review. Evidently the producers were concerned at the lack of ridiculously attractive brunet types. I can sympathise.
  • On that note, welcome back DI Bones, with bells on. The writers’ love affair with the relentlessly dour DI is back in full swing, and this time it comes along with their other love affair for Victorian poverty, with just a dash of their enthusiasm for Mat falling over. (The unexpectedly dissolving into doe eyes at key moments, however, that’s pure instinct. On the off-chance you haven’t seen the highwayman song vid before now, new and by now probably totally bemused audience, this sketch provides a handy microcosm of The Baynton Experience.)
  • Personally, the whole thing intersects my favourite media to the extent that I desperately wish DI Bones would appear more often. Like maybe in his own spinoff series. With Larry playing a different hapless bozo nemesis each week… although not Liverpudlian ones. Seriously, how does a man go from a note-perfect ripoff of Ringo Starr to whatever he fondly thinks that accent is? And we’re not even going to get into Martha’s attempts. I think they encourage each other.
  • Which brings us well enough around to the Pausanius bit. Inspired officially by the Stupid Death from S01E12 (which reminds me, I never did get the ‘Viking bitten by the severed head of his enemy’ opus, also based on an S1 SD. *tiny sigh*). Unofficially, by the show’s ongoing insistence that Mat somehow remotely resembles a ferocious warrior battle-hardened from birth. And no, show, the improved makeup budget doesn’t help your credibility any. ‘Fess up now, you just fell in love with the idea of that cliched ‘golden’ lighting washing across all the heroically-furred chin thrusting, didn’t you?
  • Hey, y’know, also very impressively masculine — dare I say 300-esque — facial hair on Spartan General Jim there! Also, nice use of camera angles to disguise the physical discrepancies with the original! Could it possibly be that the show has finally learned its lesson about… *checks Jim in next episode’s sketches*… nahhhh. I do anyway enjoy how they cut from his inspiring speech to the standard, like, eight warriors, indicating that they may at least be developing a sense of humour about their lack of an extras budget. It all adds a bit of interest to what’s otherwise, yeah, Lawry being Lawry, whatever. Can we just have a sketch where he murders something soon please?
  • Finally, random bit of trivia that may amuse only me: this is the second time in as many series that a rampaging Larry’s been soothed by seafood. I have… no idea whatsoever what this means honestly, but fanfic authors may have it for free.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So the spider-bite dance turns out to be the tarantella — yep, that fun’n’snappy Italian folk dance. Something to ponder, next time you’re considering the practical value of dance lessons: About the mid-fifteenth century, the people of Taranto, Italy, decided (…somehow) that dancing really really fast was the cure for the bite of the local species of wolf spider. Which they had previously dubbed the ‘tarantula’. Special bonus lesson for the day, kids: when once medieval Italians got hold of a good name for something, they didn’t fool around.
  • No, of course it didn’t actually work. But it was a lot more fun than anything else you might be doing to deal with the “swelling, mild pain and itching” that actually results when the local ‘tarantula’ takes a fancy to your ankles. (To be fair to Robert and crew, it’s suggested they possibly ran into a more virulent variant.) However the bit here seems to be conflating the much later, more serious tarantella craze with the biohazard during the siege, that in reality were usually treated much more boringly by ‘hot compresses’.
  • Poor William Mullins, shoemaker: forever enshrined in HH lore as the vain, impractical, over-civilized Mayflower colonist who brought along nothing but 126 pairs of his product… plus 13 pairs of boots, thank you Bobsy… to a rough and ready new American colony that wound up struggling just to survive. Hah! Typical Euro-hubris, amirite? What a maroon!
  • …Except not really. Yes of course, as the song says, ‘a fishing rod, a plough, a pig or a cow would’ve been a much better idea,’ but just a few seconds’ further reflection (perhaps aided by this admirably sensible blog post) will attest that in a situation like this — notably devoid, as the song itself goes on to emphasise, of any type of manufacturing infrastructure let alone knowledge — lots of nice sturdy shoes, also boots wouldn’t exactly be hay either. So to speak.
  • As a bonus, under eighteenth century conditions, they’d also be much easier and more reliable to transport. Remember, these were people who could barely get themselves across the ocean in one piece; frankly I’d rather trust the guy who didn’t think bringing in the leather on the hoof was the better idea.
  • In essence, Mullins was no more shortsighted than anyone else on the Mayflower, and quite possibly a lot less so than most. Basically just a reasonably shrewd businessman who saw the whole thing not as an adventure but as a sales opportunity; his way of recouping some of his original investment in the venture. And he ended up giving his life for it, that first winter in Plymouth colony. In his will — which is how we know about the footwear in the first place — he requests that they be sold to the colony for the then-astronomical sum of forty pounds total. Snigger all you like, but that there is dedication.
 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E03

Well, I’ve eaten a goose filled with the Holy Spirit, and now a goat filled with the Holy Spirit… I must be morbidly obese with divine wisdom!

Having firmly established to their new and age-improved audience that the hype was deserved, the show takes a moment to let the familiar take centre stage…

In this episode:

Song: Hey, Hey, We’re the Thinkers — Socrates [Ben], Plato [Jim], Diogenes [Larry] and Aristotle [Mat] warble witty and wise (Parody of: The Monkees, feat. Theme and The Beatles, feat. Help!… with a bit of assistance from MP’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year”)

Recurring sketches:

Dominic Duckworth: HHTV Investigates — Religious Relics (“For a small donation, I’ll let you rub one of Saint Appolonia’s teeth — as knocked out by the Romans, before they burnt ‘er alive!” “That’s an awful lot of teeth…Are you sure they’re all hers?!” “Oh yeah, ‘course. She had a big gob on ‘er.”)

Historical Dentist — Saxon (“I have been trained… We’ll just put this boiled holly leaf into the saucer — now, if you could just yawn for me?” “…were you trained by Dr. Saxon, by any chance?”)

Historical Masterchef — Saxon (“Five munuts!” “Eleven minutes!!” “…You literally never learn, do you?”)

Shouty Man — New! Great Western Railway — “The Victorian Transportation Revolution!” (“It”s not great!” “It is great. Ignore him.” “It isn’t!” “Yes it is.”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The King Canute Project (“King Dumb and Queen Dumber! It’s a sequel!”)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

The Crusade is Thataway — Wannabe subject of heroic ballads Emicho of the Rhineland sets out to conquer the Holy Land! and bring back Jerusalem as a prize for his fair lady!… all without a map. And for some reason the Holy Spirit-imbued livestock are no help either. (“Well, I never thought I’d become part of a walking metaphor, but that really was a wild goose chase…”)

Groovy Greeks

The Rescue of Socrates… Why? — “But I don’t want to be rescued!” “Why?” “Oh, don’t you start…!” “Look, no real philosopher fears death. If you rescue me, people will still find me really annoying, and I’ll end up in prison again.”

Terrible Tudors

Elizabeth I Online — In which good Queen Bess follows in her dad’s footsteps… to the dating services, if not necessarily the actual dating. (“The truth is, I am already married…” “Oh yes, your Majesty?” “…To England.” “Ah. Well-said, m’um…. *clik* Yep, she’s really lost it.” “I’M STILL HERE, CECIL!”)

Vile Victorians

Great Victorian Institutions: The Postal Service — Y’know, as much as we modern types complain how slow and inefficient the mails are, I’m not sure we’d’ve been able to handle the Victorian solution… (“Why won’t you leave me alone?!” “Well, that’s the joy of [it], madam. Up to twelve deliveries a day, come rain or shine, and all at a reasonable charge!”)

Vicious Vikings

New Home Abroad — In which Chipper Host Mat’s efforts to relocate a Nordic couple to English climes are hampered by even more than a ridiculous feathered ‘do… yes, even more than the bright red puffer jacket, sorry, forgot to mention that one. (“Whoa whoa whoa, guys! Don’t kill them!” “You are right. Perhaps we have been a little hasty… After all, we’re going to need a couple of slaves!”)

Field Notes:

  • Every now and again, when I’m at a bit of a loss re: the current review, I go back and reread the previous ones for inspiration. Then I decide to do a bit of editing ‘as long as I’m here’, and the next thing I know it’s several hours later and deadline’s looming so I just bung whatever down and hope for the best. Which thus will still, eventually, need editing. So it’s kind of a vicious cycle really.
  • Until today, when I realised that hey, I’ve pretty much done all the editing, on account of I’ve been at this for forty reviews now. Which led to the real epiphany: it is past time simply to pause and realise just how far the show had come in four series. I mean, I’m perusing S01E05, wherein I was totally all ‘ooh, great episode!’ and it didn’t even have a song. It did have Caligula, also auto-squealing pork insulting Simon Cowell… but seriously now.
  • So this right here is what ‘ooh, great episode!’ looks like in Series Four: all the way from live-action kiddy book cartoon to clever, complex — adult, basically — exploration of the possibilities. As you can tell from the above, I had a real struggle with this one not to just quote the whole thing and call it a week.
  • I only regret to report there is no Simon Cowell… oh, who am I kidding? Never understood that one. Not that I understand the obsessive need to take shots at the Masterchef hosts that well either, but as per last ep’s review I do not care, just as long as it inspires the writers to these heights of intricate hilarity.
  • Of course, if your sketch stars Ben and Jim together, you’re half-way there already. Also, the playing-with-food shtick has literally been around since Episode One, albeit back then called Ready Steady Feast, so by now, you’ve got the possibilities down. And as the cherry on top, if you like, you have Larry, who here gets to show off a rather startlingly effective noir side that usually gets lost amid the random goofiness. The generally snide vibe of the HM bit has been very good to him generally.
  • So has the Viking getup, for which our blue-eyed boy discovered an affinity in S2 and never has looked back. Unfortunately he also discovered an affinity for dopey accents around the same time, which he has since tried to explain as a deliberate effort to invoke the ‘when in doubt, go over-the-top’ principle of comedy. All I know is, here it comes off as his having maybe once spent a weekend in Minnesota. Possibly with Martha. Which sort of simoultaneously enhances the jokes and distracts from the… other stuff. I do unreservedly enjoy the mad gleam in Ms. Howe-Douglas’ eye upon realising she’s gonna need some slaves, though.
  • In a similar vein, the ring of triumph in Shouty Man’s voice signifies his return to the Victorian era, scene of his S1/S2 glory days. He’s never more at home than when gleefully exposing the discomforting realities under the veneer of civilization, and the mock-travelogue is an inspired, ah, vehicle, with Ben once again his natural foil. This sketch is fully Shouty Classic… including, I notice, full (if rear) views of the outdoor gents, which I guess counts as a daring adult update of that squirting coffin doll last series.
  • Speaking of daring, so there’s lots of modern civilian Mat in this one… no, that’s not the daring bit. At this point it’s the equivalent of giving the audience an extra helping of dessert before they’ve asked. Which yes, means that feathery ‘do represents the icky cheap frosting on the cake. Also, the daring bit, because frankly I have a feeling that if anything could make a man reconsider starring in a wildly popular TV series, looking in the mirror after that particular styling session would be it.
  • The Historical Dentist, meanwhile, is unreservedly great, albeit not for cosmetic reasons (a pink pullover automatically disqualifies on those grounds). I know describing anything about this show as ‘subtle’ is just inviting snickers, but seriously, imagine a HH writer trying to capitalise on his dentist phobia in S1… wait, you don’t have to, they already covered the ‘stuff in half a dead mouse in loving close-up’ five short eps in.
  • Since then, they’ve learned the value of leaving things to the audience’s imagination. Sure, it helps a lot that they’d previously learned their audience isn’t exclusively eight, but still, nicely handled all ’round. Especially by Sarah, who more than anyone can appreciate the difference. Even Mat and Simon have learned when to dial back the loopiness… sort of… hence the lovely little ‘silent scream’ bit.
  • Which brings us round to Emicho of the Rhineland, who stars in what’s occasionally my favourite HH sketch ever. It’s basically what became inevitable once the writers got a good look at the ‘Nasty Knights’ sketch from last series, and Mat clearly didn’t need much convincing to help them up the stakes. Damn but he enjoys these mock-chivalric posturings… which would, come to think of it, be kind of an interestingly effective way to deal with self-image issues, when you look like a fairy-tale character to begin with.
  • At any rate, everyone else somehow manages to match him with appropriately profound gravitas, so that the sheer ludicrousness can be savoured as it gradually builds. That there is serious comic skill, folks. (Excepting the ‘morbidly obese’ crack, which is more just the natural result of these people having been hanging around each other far too long.) Also, serious animal-wrangling skill, especially on Simon there. Trust me, fluffy feathers or no, hanging onto a goose is never going to be the best part of your day.
  • No, I haven’t forgotten the song. Nooooooo. The song is central to my thesis; you’ll recall that while S01E05 doesn’t have a song, S01E12 most definitely does… yeah, OK, you’re excused for not remembering it. The Greek thinkers’ song that doesn’t merge the iconoclasts of ancient times with their equally iconic modern counterparts in a way that actually makes the irreverence feel fresh and the respect sincere.
  • Aka the one in which Aristotle isn’t totally on speed, and also doesn’t have a beard, which may or may not be related. While I can appreciate excitement making it difficult to fine-tune his face — that must be a chore on the best of days — Mat isn’t so much communicating ‘endearingly kooky’ here as he is ‘climactic freakout of the After-School Special’. Then again, it’s the 60’s, this isn’t exactly unrealistic (or un-educational, come to that). Also he’s onscreen a lot with Jim, so, y’know, precedent.
  • More seriously, like all the most engaging HH musical productions, the seeming effortlessness of this one actually rests on a delicate balance of perfect understanding… you can tell, because this is also the song in which Our Larry the Perpetually Accent-Challenged somehow pulls out a note-perfect takeoff on Ringo. Also Ben contrives to genuinely get in the groove for the first time since that one S2 song with the monks, and this time in full daylight. So I am inclined generally to assume that whatever was in the ether that day, it was good, man.
  • This extends to the intro sketch to the above. Only Willbond’s smug could be simoultaneously annoying enough that people would fully support his execution and yet charming enough that this sketch is a classic… albeit I must admit that Mat and Simon’s frustration looks pretty damn realistic. The result of several run-throughs too many, perhaps? (In other news, there’s something about adorable weasely little Jim beneath that huge helmet plume that tells me the plushie just picked up another accessory.)
  • Hey, speaking of whom, Dom Duckworth! Who is actually starting to really grow on me. Between having stumbled on an excellent subject for this sort of sketch — and a nice complement/followup to the Dissolution last sketch to boot — for once Dom’s on a roll. Which makes the ‘state of the streets’ running gag a really clever idea, because, not to put too fine a point on it, otherwise Jim as hard-nosed reporter would become less and less convincing.
  • Ah, Lawry, every once in awhile I realise why they keep you around… because you can snivel really really convincingly, is what I’m thinking here, so this may not actually be a compliment, sorry. Meantime, Simon’s native ability to slide into that hard, grasping Northern stereotype (shades of Palin and Swamp Castle) has evidently been well under-used up to now.
  • The Elizabeth I Online bit, on the other hand, makes full use of previous funny, so that all the little seemingly throwaway gags in her dad’s original tech foray reappear. It’s just incredibly endearing to me that they’re not only keeping continuity with these details, but expanded on them, so you’ve got this whole totally coherent parody narrative that opens with ‘Mullions XP’ and winds up with Elizabeth changing her relationship status to ‘married… to England’ while Cecil fails utterly to understand the ‘mute’ button.
  • The show has now basically created an entire sitcom around Tudor marital troubles as filtered through modern social media, and frankly, why the hell not? Despite some serious messing with the actual timeline (see below) I am still fully onboard with the sheer on-point cleverness of it all. The individual characterizations are great… much love esp. for Martha, who gives what may be her finest prose performance of the series, esp. when reacting to Amy Dudley’s death.
  • And thus we swing back around to the present, and the LoG… and my ongoing delight. Sorry, kids, I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I really am trying my best; I know they’re increasingly alien to the HH milieu, I know (now) that the concept’s a shameless ripoff — but somehow, the fundamental humour centres of my brain just refuse to be irritated.
  • Really. Confronted full-on with the realisation that that Reece there on the end would ordinarily have us planning to throttle him right through the screen by now, the humour centres just sort of went ‘Ehhhh…’ and gave me an apologetic shrug. Then they pointed out that these bits enable us to fully appreciate Vaguely Swishy Barbarian Jim without actually having to watch the ‘Danke Magazine’ sketch, and what could I do but give in?

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, according to YouTube, the current segment of the Icelandic population with too much time on their hands would like a few words with this episode’s producers re: the characterization of their homeland. Starting with the animated-map-makers who heard ‘Viking’ and went ‘Norway!’ and now will never hear the end of it, ever.
  • On the other hand, Emicho of the Rhineland (more formally Count Emicho of Flonheim, “sometimes incorrectly known as Emicho of Leiningen”, because apparently there was a difference): In this case the Net fully agrees with Rattus, this was one bad dude. Basically he seems to have gotten jealous of the popular Crusade movements of the day — ie., 1096 — and decided to announce that Christ had not only appeared to him in a vision, but offered to make him Emperor of the World and everything once everyone was converted, so there nyah.
  • This being the Dark Ages, this managed to impress some few thousand people (including the ones who worshipped the Spirit-stuffed goose and goat) who promptly marched up and down the Rhine in his name forcibly converting Jews. Or, more often, simply murdering them upon refusal and confiscating their valuables, because apparently Christ had left the question of financing the Second Coming a bit vague, and Emicho was just that kind of go-getter.
  • Right! *cracks knuckles* As noted above, there’s some serious temporal tinkering happening within the Elizabeth I sketch. The actual timeline of major events mentioned (which should give an even better idea of how intricate the sketch itself is) goes like this:
  • 1558: Twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth ascends to the throne, appoints ‘special friend’ Robert Dudley her new Master of Horse (with the right to ride next to her at all times, wink-wink-say-no-more) and immediately starts taking grief from Cecil and her Privy Council — aided and abetted by Parliament — about the whole marriage-and-heirs thing. This is seen as a religious as well as a political duty, and divinely appointed ruler or no, no 16th-century male is about to trust a woman with her own reproductive powers.
  • Elizabeth, in response, immediately starts dangling her eligibility in front of the other great powers of Europe… playing them off one another… spinning out prospective courtships as long as she can… gaining all the favours and concessions that implies. This will eventually evolve into history’s only full-fledged foreign policy based almost entirely around a womb, and will net her even Cecil’s grudging respect, if not approval.
  • 1560: Amy Dudley, wife of Robert, dies under suspicious circs, having been found at the foot of a staircase at her home just hours after insisting all her servants leave her to attend a local fair. Elizabeth acts with characteristic decisive ruthlessness to avoid scandal and preserve her throne, ordering a full inquiry and banishing Dudley from court for the duration.
  • It’s eventually decided that brittle bones caused by advanced breast cancer was enough reason for her to have fallen and broken her own neck — also, the whole ‘advanced cancer’ thing meant there was no real reason to kill her in the first place — but by then Robert Dudley will have already acquired the faintly sinister rep that will follow him throughout history.
  • 1578: Having finally realised that Elizabeth really really meant that whole ‘I will never marry’ thing she first threw at him when they were, like, five, Dudley — now Earl of Leicester — defiantly hooks up with her cousin Lettice Knollys instead. Liz is furious, but just can’t quit her Robert, so takes revenge by banishing Lettice from court while requiring her man there constantly.
  • 1584: Leicester’s stepson, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, comes to court under stepdad’s sponsorship (in much the same way William Cecil is concurrently grooming young son Robert to take his place). By now Liz is of course well past marrying age, but still, evidently, highly susceptible to handsome young silver-tongued courtiers.
  • 1588: Leicester dies. A grieving Queen takes further steps to set Essex up in his place, naming him the new Master of Horse and granting him his stepdad’s lucrative patents, as well as sending him out on military expeditions, notably to Ireland. That the vain, arrogant, rash youth deserves none of it will take a few more years yet to sink in.
  • 1591: Sir Walter Raleigh does not, in fact, ask the Queen before he marries Bess Throckmorton, hence spends his honeymoon  in the Tower. It’s generally conceded that this likely had a personal component.
  • 1601: Essex, having arrogantly, rashly etc. made a hash of his Irish assignment and further disobeyed orders not to return until it was fully straightened out, is deprived of his privileges and patents. Desperate, he decides to foment rebellion against the evil advisors he’s certain must be poisoning the Queen’s mind against him. This largely consists of Essex wandering the streets yelling ‘To arms! To arms!” and then being all kinds of surprised when exactly nobody flocks to his banner. He’s eventually arrested and executed.
  • 1603: Elizabeth dies age 70, by all accounts still a virgin. It was one hell of a ride.
 
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Posted by on July 1, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E02

Well, do tuck in, Mr. Ambassador!
Aren’t you going to say grace first?
Oh — yes. *folds hands reverently* Party. On.
Ah…amen?
Big time.

A followup that takes skilful advantage of both familiarity and famous names to keep the event-TV ball rolling… and oh yeah, tosses out another sublimely sparkling musical gem in the process.

In this episode:

Song: Natural Selection — Mat as Charles Darwin, with Jim (and, apparently, ‘Stuart from Production’) as The Gorilla. (Parody of: David Bowie, Changes)

Recurring sketches:

Bob Hale — The Human Report

Historical Apprentice — Team Pirate vs. Team Merchant (“So… who was your project manager?” “Arrrr! I prefers the term ‘Cap’n’!” “Yeah, well, I prefer the term ‘King’, but I’ve got to do with plain old ‘Lord’, haven’t I?”)

Oh Yea! Magazine — Nell Gwyn special: Superstars of the Stuart stage — female for the first time!… possibly not coincidentally, during Charles II’s rule. (“What can I say? I’m a lady magnet!”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

Victoria & Albert: The Photo Love Story — …but frankly, I’m more interested in the revelation that the Queen had a really snarky proto-Bachelorette-host butler. (“With all due respect, Ma’am, he’s totally fit.”)

Terrible Tudors

Martin Luther at Home — Or, more specifically, in one room of his home. The smallest room.. which he’s redone into the largest. The father of the Protestant Reformation had an unhealthy fixation on the health of his fecal matter, is what I’m trying to get across here. (“So now, I can do my business, while I do my business! Ha-ha! I make ze joke…”)

Cash in the Abbey — Henry VIII runs the dissolution of the ecclesiastical properties of England pretty much the way you’d expect… ie. the only reason I’m not making a steamroller joke here is because they hadn’t been invented yet. (“Yes, well, they shouldn’t have done all those terrible things that we said they did!”)

Hide and Priest — Religious intolerance helps to provide antique manor hidey-holes enough to delight an entire future generation of Agatha Christie fans. “The game that brings Protestants and Catholics together… only not in a good way.”

Woeful Second World War

Station Identification — Larry’s first-ever HH sketch, used as Mat’s first audition, finally sees the light of day: a carriage-full of wartime railway passengers and their conductor try with ever-decreasing success to maintain security and their sanity at the same time.

Gas Bag Blues (animated) — Finding a way around petrol rationing strains the limits of even British ingenuity… and dinner on the unlit gas fire once they got home couldn’t have been much compensation, either.

Slimy Stuarts

Charles II at Home — Which at mealtimes he just happens to share with an entire gallery-full of his closest random subjects…

Field Notes:

  • Let us now consider the curious phenomenon that TVTropes has dubbed Sesame Street Cred: the enormous cachet celebrities gain by making an appearance on the Street (or, by now, nearby programming suburbs) as driven by the mutual realisation that few things are as appealing to parents as attractive, talented adults voluntarily taking time out to hang with little kids.
  • I mention it because, well, it got a little lost in all the LoG hype, but somewhere in the off-season — in much the more traditional manner of these things — currently-hot stand-up comic/Willbond’s Thick of It co-star Chris Addison also revealed himself and family as big fans, and could he please come over and play sometime? Not, nota bene, get the Big Name treatment, or even his own segment, or anything; just maybe hang out with the HH troupe for awhile.
  • In other words it was, even more than the opportunity to host Mark Gatiss’ class reunion, validation that the HH crew had attained to SSCred on their own merits — their own creative merits. The kid’s show had hit another small but significant milestone on the road to grownup credibility: they had evolved into not only a place where adult celebrities wanted to be, but where they wanted to interact on the show’s own terms. A mutually-beneficial enhancement of talent, not just image.
  • As if to demonstrate exactly how that happened, our song this week is the first HH tuneage to be based entirely around the triumph of intellectual discovery, rather than the more conveniently relateable personal or moral conquest. And somehow young Mathew gets that, on a visceral level that makes this easily his best performance, musical or otherwise, of the show to even date.
  • (Also weirdly — and amusingly — reminiscent of another. As portrayed on HH, Darwin’s closest cousin may be Robert Knox, the unwitting conspirator of Burke & Hare.)
  • Sure, it helps that this time they gave him a note-perfect Bowie pastiche, but honestly, even then, this could’ve been so stupidly goofy, and instead — lo these many months later — I am still cranky about it not winning Baynton that Best Actor BAFTA. Picture, say,  Bill Nye… except as translated through a Victorian gentleman in his eighties. In which case picture all that same charm and enthusiasm, only confined mostly to those uncannily expressive eyes, glittering with all the reminiscent awe of ch-ch-changing our fundamental relationship to the universe…
  • Also, OK, there’s a drumming gorilla. Regardless of which the staging matches the performance note-for-sweetly-erudite-note; fully managing to be silly while refusing to compromise the sophistication. It all represents possibly the most intelligent series of artistic choices the show ever made. Just edging out Richard III’s song by a stuffed finch.
  • Speaking of intelligent choices, the accompanying Bob Hale report… Oookay, I can now officially show you one whacky daring CBBC children’s comedy that’s going to have to be heavily edited — again — before it hits American screens. Seriously, I’m pretty sure the American heartland would let the ‘brownface’ skate by well before they’d sign off on the ape in the ‘I’m Evolving’ tee, however adorable — and so is ‘Handy Man’, incidentally. (Albeit fudged a bit re: racial characteristics, for obvious reasons. Imagine being the little kid of colour on the playground the day after the cool TV show implied your ancestors were monkeys?)
  • Less appealing is Bob’s decision to physically slow the showmanship down just as his material’s gotten way more ambitious. Understandable, mind, but also massively un-nerving — and not just because of the relentlessly ongoing aging thing illustrating human mortality way beyond what was intended.
  • It’s just… all so responsible, and stuff. Yes, I know — I started out totally aghast at the lack of child development cues in HH, and now they’ve finally given in three series later, even this little teeny bit, I’m going on like a teenage slacker upon learning her friends have gone out and gotten a job. But — Bobsy, man! They got to Bobsy! *snif*
  • What? Oh yes, our guest star, thanks for the reminder. Erm… so yay, more spot-on savaging of random British reality types I don’t know who they are! Mind, we of course have The Apprentice over here too, so we’re roughly on the same satirical-potential page here. It’s just weird, when it gets this specific.
  • Everybody’s all ‘Yeah, that’s him! That’s so totally him!” and I’m here realising that a) I’m gonna have to do some in-depth research and b) based on what I’m seeing I obviously don’t want to research at all. So I just sit there frantically trying to glean between the lines. Regular readers especially can imagine how well this has worked out thus far. “But… but… he has decent hair, and everything! What are you people even complaining about?!” *sob*
  • So eventually I just give up and give in to the sheer glee inherent in Jim’s mimicry. It hasn’t let me down yet, and it doesn’t look like it will here. Anyway, all of it would be hilarious all on its own regardless, because pirates -vs- merchants as reality competition is as close to a no-fail concept as the writers have ever been confronted with.
  • Which means we’ve finally gotten around to Chris Addison!… no, him, the guy on the far right of Team Merchant. The one in the really goofy wig…? Yeah, I’m not sure either. I mean, what I said above is great and all, but you do go in assuming they’d at least give him a customised feature role, a la Alexi Sayle as the Muslim healer — OK, yeah, but surely baby-facedness is an equally heroic handicap, under the right circs? I mean, think of all those American mobsters who had to go around killing people, just to get some respect.
  • *ahem* So basically, what we ended up with is a rather oddly formal Portrait of a Comedian Trying Just a Trifle Too Hard to Fit In, and who thus ends up getting thoroughly upstaged not only by Lord Jim, Pirate Mat and Merchant Larry, but very nearly by a totally mute Greg J., here seen making something of a career out of adorably devoted seconds-in-command.
  • On the other hand, this stern critic person’s inner child fully recognises that it would be well-nigh impossible to show up to the HH set and not immediately demand the part involving just the flounciest wig going. She is furthermore sort of impressed that they did manage to work the cute naiive-looking thing into the point of the skit, however offhandedly.
  • Our Chris also gets some bonus points for noticing (on Twitter) that the new credit sequence references Jim as Martin Luther on the toilet over ‘horrors that defy description’. We get the actual sketch here, and I’m pleased to report that those rumours are a trifle exaggerated. Although I may just be less easy to impress since the one elder in my congregation started thinking of his bowel cleanses as chipper post-service conversation. (I do love Jim’s completely anachronistic but somehow utterly appropriate Muppet voice, though. Especially when I picture it coming out of the real Luther. You’re welcome.)
  • The most interesting part of this sketch is who’s coming up the stairs to be shocked by all this. Of course it should be Ben… except it’s actually Simon. Get real used to the resulting bemusement, because this is the first tentative sign of S4’s final and in some ways most offbeat off-stage wrinkle. Not the part where Farnaby becomes near-ubiquitous; this is the natural consequence of more complex sketches, that there will simply be more Generic Guy roles… and this is HH, he’s about as generic as it gets, given that Larry’s weird became an official plot point as of the Aztec song.
  • No, the really odd bit is the noticeable effacement of Willbond for much of this series, without explanation, even in places where he should logically be. And (spoiler alert) in S5, the same bizarre dynamic seems to be happening with Lawry/Mat. Not that any of it exactly disrupts anything critically — more like a really low-level disturbance in the creative Force. Picture… I dunno, the Dead Parrot suddenly being Slovakian Purple instead of Norwegian Blue. It doesn’t change anything, but it totally does.
  • Speaking of which, starting to realise why they brought Sarah H. back. Like Lawry — and, by this point, the whole Stuart novelty-foods schtick — she fills a niche so well that I can value having it around. I certainly can’t imagine anyone else making such a good job of Nell Gwyn, nor in turn any character more suited to the gossip-rag parody format. The little surrounding bits, with Charles II and Ben the theatre manager, likewise deftly hysterical.
  • Of course we’ll never lose Ben entirely, not as long as Henry VIII’s around (and has apparently borrowed Richard III’s fur robes this year! That’s… a bit creepy, actually, given their history.) The advent of subtlety has nicely co-incided with the running out of marriage gags, so we’ve moved on to the Dissolution as ‘Cash in the Attic’-style game show.
  • This is a brilliant idea, if still too dedicated to the notion of Henry as brutal bully (see below). Ben’s gotten just a bit too comfy in the part, I think;  he’s missing the edge of intellectual deception that was the original’s trademark. I’m a bit disappointed really that Ben doesn’t rise to the challenge, he could’ve made something really interesting of it.
  • The rising-to-the-challenge stuff is all Larry’s, this time — the hiding behind more openly ruthless lackies also being a Tudor specialty. Barring that the original was quite a bit heftier and much less primly hypocritical (see below), he pulls out a very nice dourly contemptuous Cromwell… especially so given that, while Larry’s skillset involves many unexpected things, ‘dour’ is about the last I would’ve assigned him before now.
  • Oh, and welcome back Mat the cheerily amoral reality-show host. The experiment last series has become the fixture in this… prep for which must involve quite a lot of watching really tacky TV, for this he has my sympathies. I of course can’t comment on how fine or not each specific parody is, but I do like the attention he pays to the little details, like the hands in his pockets here.
  • I also really like the performance he gives as the harassed railway conductor in Larry’s first-ever sketch. Clearly, the audition gods were smiling on him that day; this is funny, sweetly clever stuff all but specially designed to show off his strengths. So of course is Charles II… even so his creakily predictable bit should not be hitting me as this unbearably hilarious, but there it is. Enjoy the compliment to your comic timing, guys.
  • One more new addition to meet this ep: the Young Victoria, of whose impersonation Martha makes a remarkably nice job (Katy Wix might make even a better one, but the female cast seems to have been entirely rejiggered this year around other commitments). Nice understated bit of BBC cozy-corner parody this… possibly a bit too understated, in Jim’s case, or more specifically, Jim’s on-and-off-again German accent… yeah, well, I suppose Ben would be fudging reality a bit too far.
  • Anyway, it’s Jim and Martha who have the couple-chemistry, and I continue to admire the show’s persistence in finding ways to use it. Ooh, and hey, Lawry being all Alfred-style-snarky! Y”know, I could actually get used to this… mostly because it gives me hope that eventually he’s going to snap and interrupt all the billing-and-cooing with a machete, but still.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, do I even have to say it? That’s not quite how the Dissolution went. Sure, the sketch gets the royal motives right, and Thomas Cromwell — the self-made son of a blacksmith — really was that perpetually grumpy and/or ruthless, which might have something to do with the fact that nobody at court ever let him forget the blacksmith thing. (They were also no help when he finangled Henry a Protestant bride; to be fair though, she turned out to be Anne of Cleves, nothing was gonna help him with that one.)
  • The kicker was that — as the show has admitted in the past and will admit again as early as next episode (thank you, D.Duckworth) quite often the monasteries actually, um, did do all those things Henry and co. said they did. Refer back to S02E11 for the full story of how the only lifestyle difference being  a man or woman of God had for centuries basically meant was that now you were cooped up with a whole lot more available persons of the opposite sex. And they were probably also bored out of their frequently-tiny minds. You get the idea.
  • That said, there were inevitably also a whole lot of sincere, honest religious types who were deeply affected by the whole thing — mostly the lower ranks, so with very little if any influence on the larger project. The result was an irreparable rip in the basic fabric of English life. Not only were the spiritual houses that had acted as a sort of social assistance net, sheltering and feeding the poor as needed, now closed for good… but the priests etc doing the housing now found themselves thrown on the mercy of now-nonexistent resources. Let’s just say there was something of an explosion in the transient/beggar population, in the later years of Henry’s reign.
  • So no, it wasn’t entirely Charles Darwin’s reflection that led to natural selection… and no, I’m not doing the entire entry like that. Contrary to appearances, I do have a life, you know. Anyway, Darwin was pretty well puttering along towards the whole Unified Theory of Everything World-Changing when a guy named Alfred Russell Wallace sent him an essay on whaddaya know, the exact same subject, only with a few holes filled in. (As Darwin frankly acknowledged, there were a couple of other sciencey types kicking similar ideas around as well, but they didn’t get as far as publishing papers, so, y’know, sucked to be them.)
  • Otherwise this is a reasonably neat layman’s summary of the concept that eventually came to solely bear Darwin’s name — largely ‘cos Wallace turned out to be something of a professional embarrassment, what with the fervent belief in Spiritualism and holding seances and whatnot. More serious students may find themselves twitching a bit (as per the exhaustive, and fascinating, first comment below).
  • It did manage to find its way across sciencey-type Twitter accounts with relatively few bumps, save the one line that obviously sacrifices accuracy for a neat rhyme — fairly understandably, unless you’re an evolutionary biologist. Protip, next time you meet one at a party: do NOT make the jokes about how we evolved from chimps. (According to current theory we came up along parallel tracks.)
  • Oh, and QI aside, YouTube commenters: yes indeed, the Church of England was formally outraged even if many of its members (and interestingly, those of other denominations), weren’t much at all — hence the formal, if rather crankily reluctant, apology 126 years later.
 
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Posted by on June 30, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E01

 Take that, Hitler!

The first episode of HH the Bonafide Award-Winning Phenomenon debuts amid relentless hype, clashing expectations and creative dilemmas… if it were any other show, this is where I’d advise you start worrying. As it is, all you’ve got to be concerned with is an all-out charm assault…

In this episode:

Song: The Few (WWII RAF Pilots) — Jim as Douglas Bader; Mat, Larry, Ben and Simon as Stinky, Squiffy, Frantisek and Stanislav, respectively (Parody of: Take That, feat. Relight My Fire)

Recurring sketches:

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Dick Whittington Project (“So, who do you see playing the talking cat?” “Right, the cat thing again… This is a true story of my life. A political drama.” “Oh yeah sure sure, a political drama.” “With a talking cat.” “For kids!” “I love it.”)

Stupid Deaths — Tudor Archers (As should not actually be news, archery and stupidity don’t mix well… “So I leaned over to see what’s going on there with the bow, and…” “Yeeeessss?” “…twang. Right in me ‘ead.”)

Wonders of the Egyptian Universe —  “Before us Egyptians, no-one had any idea that the sun travelled across the sky by being rolled by a giant vast dung beetle!” “Alright, reality check, Brian: if this dung beetle is so massive, why can’t we see it?” “…a giant vast invisible dung beetle!”

Computer Game: Duat! Egyptian Journey Through the Underworld — “Look out, giant man-eating beetle! I’m packing a scroll!”

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

Wee For Victory — War with Scotland required a very personal sacrifice of the nation’s women… no, even more personal than that. “The makers of gunpowder for our troops are desperate… as, hopefully, are some of you…”

Warts and All — “Truly, Lady Fortune smiles on me this day! Finally, I get to paint Mr. Cromwell himself!” “…yeah, good luck with that.”

Terrible Tudors

The Spanish Armada: Judgement Year (movie trailer) — “So, to cut a long story short… no corks, no Armada.” “I’ll be back!” “Oooh, good catchphrase!” “Thanks.” “De nada.”

The Spanish Armada II: This Time It’s Really Judgement Year — “Are my ships ready?” “They are, sire.” “Do my barrels have corks?” “They do, sire!”
…”Bad news, sire! We have lost more than feefty sheeeps!” “…and the good news?” “Uhm… there’s venison for supper?”

The Spanish Armada III: This Time It Must Be Judgement Year — “What news of my Armada? Has it at last been successful?” “It has caused minor damage to Mousehole! An inconsequential village in Cornwall! Yay!” “I’ll be back!…maybe. It might take awhile.”

(Pause for Stupid Deaths sketch above, then…)

The Spanish Armada IV: Maybe This is Judgement Year — “I don’t care what happens, so long as my fleet of 140 galleons wasn’t wrecked by storms off the English coast!” “It wasn’t! … it never got that far. It was wrecked by storms off the Spanish coast.”

The Spanish Armada V: Let’s Face It, It’s Not Gonna Be Judgement Year — “Storms again?… yeah, I won’t be back. Forget it.”

Gorgeous Georgians

(Fees for) Safety First — In which seventeenth-century fire insurance is handled with all the empathic finesse of a… modern health insurance debate, come to think of it. “What happened to ‘No blaze too big, no fire too small’?!” “If you’re not insured, we won’t help at all!” “Well, can I at least borrow a bucket?” “NO.”

Toilet in the Court — You know how you never see aristocratic people going to the loo in those swank historical dramas? This right here is why.

Savage Stone Age

World of Stone — “We’ve got all the furniture new to the Neolithic era! Beds! Cupboards! Shelves! Dressers! Chairs! Even limpet tanks! Buy now, don’t pay until the Bronze Age*!” (*Delivery times may vary a lot. For henges please allow thirty years.)

Early News: End of an Era? — Guess what, people who stand in line for days to pick up the latest Apple gadget: you were out-tooled — literally — about four thousand years ago.  (“Ooh, look, they’re so shiny an’ all!” “Ehh, I reckon this whole Bronze Age thing is just a fad. I’m gonna wait for the Iron Age to come along.”)

Woeful Second World War

First, We Hit the Gift Shop — “German High Command wants us to bomb any city with three stars in the Baedeker guide.” “Do they have fudge? I luff fudge!”

Field Notes:

  • Well, this is exciting. Where I came in, you might say. Those familiar with my S2 reviews — and if you haven’t been printing them out and memorising key passages, why not, may I ask? — at any rate, those willing to put up with me to this point may recall that it was round about the Stonewall Jackson sketch in S02E11 that I finally decided to ask Google if it was just me.
  • What I found first was the Prom, which had just happened. So… clearly not just me then. The next thing I found was a comment thread re: the minor post-Prom debacle in which the cast was prevented from coming out to meet their fans, to which both Mat and Jim had apparently responded. This in turn led to an impulse to match the names I’d found to the faces… which in turn led to the discovery that holy crap there was an entire fandom out there. An over-12 fandom. (Good thing I picked up on that latter tidbit before I discovered the fanfiction, or things might’ve gotten really weird.)
  • There was also somewhere in there Stephen Fry, besides a boatload of awards, up to and including the British Comedy Award for Best Sketch Comedy. You’ll note the lack of “children’s” in that sentence; the People Who Notice These Things, UK division, certainly did. When they weren’t too busy swooning over the highwayman and snickering at the audacity of a platinum-blond Death. Clearly a delighted BBC had found itself driving a bonafide bandwagon: the kiddy educomedy it was cool for adults to love, too.
  • It was all just ridiculously, hilariously adorable… which made it unique among my experiences at the time. Clearly the only thing to do — and you might just keep this in mind, kids, next time someone tells you that escapism is harmless — was write a lengthy article for the semiprestigious online pop-culture ‘zine I was blogging for at the time, explaining in excruciating detail what a cultural phenomenon this children’s series had become…
  • …on which note I would just like to thank the entire Horrible Histories team for subsequently making me look awesomely sophisticated, instead of really, really stupid. I can tell, because as the hype for Series Four commenced, it became clear that the UK comedy community was backing me up. The show that had once pinned all its hopes for notice on Meera Syal reading fairy tales now found itself fielding requests from some of the hottest names in the business.
  • Most notably, the one from genre wunderkind Mark Gatiss and his buddies from the League of Gentlemen troupe, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, that the show host their reunion. The HH team, quite understandably, fell all over their hero-worship in their rush to say yes. Given that the LoG had produced some of the most famously dark, quirky, critically-acclaimed comedy of the last decade, this was already a much better idea than the fairy tales (or, for that matter, the Scary Stories). The really remarkable thing, though, was that the world’s most famously cynical media also thought it was a fine idea…
  • …right about the time that, as was starting to be evident towards the latter end of S3 and will become much clearer from here on in, the nature of the show’s material had undergone a sea change. Albeit not exactly in the way that’s popularly supposed. Human nature dictates that the well of Horrible historical moments will never run dry. From a creative standpoint, though, there’s a significant difference between a moment surefire enough to sum up in a cartoon and one that — while not necessarily less subtle — does require more delicate handling to extract the edutainment. Let alone what is at least nominally children’s edutainment.
  • And the HH crew had not so much run out of the former as run them into the ground. I have a mental image of writers scanning the books ever more frantically as they realise they’ve been hoist by their own ambition. After a moment of tense silence, one speaks: “… I suppose there’s always the Baron Rothschild and his –” “NO.”
  • In effect, they found themselves almost entirely thrown back on their own imaginative resources just as they were being forced to prove them. Full-blown comic maturity, a praiseworthy novelty up til now, had suddenly become a requirement on several levels… while still officially not happening at all. Because on top of everything else, thanks to revised regulations, they were now solely confined to the CBBC channel.
  • Enter the really nifty thing about all of the hype: it had been fairly earned — not just by the awards, but by the entire series of shrewd creative choices that underpinned them, both on and off camera. Shrewd, and frankly anarchistic. A team that had spent years juggling education with Python were not people who were about to be unnerved by abruptly skyrocketing expectations, however sophisticated.
  • As if to prove it, S4 kicks off with a bit of ecclesiastical exquisiteness that not only showcases the latest budget upgrades, but is the visually lavish equivalent of anything in any adult BBC historical costume epic… riiight up until you realise that what the unctuous clergyman is piously intoning is an urgent request for ladies’ pee. As in chamber pots now available under the pews. Welcome to Horrible Histories, everybody.
  • Which triumph they then follow up with an odd little interlude focussing on Oliver Cromwell’s ‘warts and all’ —  that’s literally the entire point, that warts are somehow grotesque abominations — that comes across as a script abandoned half-way through but filmed anyway because… well, hell if I know. Maybe the f/x crew spent all off-season perfecting Cromwell’s new makeup and nobody had the heart to tell them? They’d heard the fandom rumours about Lawry leaving the show and wanted to have a bit of fun off the top?
  • Alright, so subtle doesn’t always mesh well with shrewd. But by the time you get to a fourth series, sometimes, as per the above bit, endearing works nearly as well… yeah, I think I did just call Lawry endearing. Something about the way he skates right out to the edge of petulant whining trying to find a reason to still be onscreen is triggering my affectionate-nostalgia reflexes.
  • A much more effective combination of experience and intuition and endearing happens in the Armada sketch(es)… another personal set of Sketches That Make My Brain Never Stop Grinning Like a Loon, as you’ll have noticed from the fact that I’ve transcribed them nearly in full above. Thing is, in the course of which I realised that, frankly, the writing here is nearly as slight as in the Cromwell bit (although here at least they progressed as far as looking up everyone’s correct titles).
  • Then I read through them again, only in Mat and Larry’s voices to get the full effect, and I realised I’d actually just fully and totally proven… whatever it is I’ve been rambling about up to now. The whole wonderful thing is based on intimate knowledge of who the cast are and what they can do, as anchored to a perfectly adapted concept — equating Philip II’s attempts to a series of steadily diminishing movie sequels is just awesome.
  • And again, awesomely adult… on a few separate levels, as evidenced that Ben-as-Drake got his own notice in the reviews, and rightfully so. They really don’t give him enough chances to play with that suave… the smug is good, but it’s just not the same. Meanwhile, back in the foreground, Larry and Mat play off each other with the inspired — and, not incidentally, unselfish — brilliance of comedians who by now trust each other even unto stupid accents. Pace Carl Reiner, they “don’t know what’s going to come out — but they know that something is!”
  • Speaking of which: Kind of a shame that all the ‘Gift Shop Bombers’ bit is remembered for is the fudge; that’s probably the least remarkable aspect of the enchantingly unique comic chemistry that happens whenever Ben and Simon’s veteran understanding of ridiculousness is deliberately paired. Seriously, this is now officially not a co-incidence. Not sure whether it’s the result of the writers getting excited at that prospect or production carefully selecting the assignment, but they’re inevitably among the best-written sketches of their series, and this here is probably the best of that lot. Just fabulously witty stuff — I honestly had to restrain myself from transcribing it in full.
  • Great ensemble stuff also from Martha and the competing fire brigades, esp. Ben, who is clearly now allowed to amuse himself on-set however he wants. They all really do turn this very slight sketch into something close to a classic. In the process, quite seriously, demonstrating how much individual leeway they’ve been given by now within the format — to become a troupe, in fact. The evolution of Yonderland etc starts right here, kids.
  • Oh, and “Ding-a-ling-a-ling!” Simon and the marshmallows… nope, he hasn’t let me down yet. Not even once. And certainly not while being the go-to caveperson. In related news, it’s kind of interesting, as always, what media concepts — like annoying furniture ads — turn out to be cross-cultural… it’s somehow always not the ones I would’ve imagined.
  • We’re actually reintroduced to Death in the middle of playing rock-paper-scissors with the skeletons, which I like to think of as my own particular little cosmic present for being a really good fan. Aside from which — and the total lack of explanation for the new mummy sidekick, which acts as the pink bow on top — his contribution to the new creative subtlety this season will involve more patiently letting the corpses… ah, hang themselves, so to speak, with their own stories. Or, in this case, accents. Larry’s is the better anecdote, but Mat’s — by a hair — is the better-told.
  • By now, of course, you’re wondering how the music fits into all this… well, if you’re not, rest assured that the prospective new S4 audience certainly was, with bells on. Having as usual already surmounted the challenges the prose sketches were facing — up to and including ‘dazzlingly subtle maturity’ — this series’ musical efforts will focus increasingly on finding clever genre matches as a sort of quick shortcut to maintaining that impressiveness, or at least, quite a lot of impressed new fans.
  • Whether the actual songwriting itself rose to the occasion, as it did so amazingly last series… well, that’s to be seen. For now, it’s altogether irrelevant. The point of this series’ debut number is merely “Yeah, you remember that boy-band thing you all drooled over? So check this — now we have DANCE MOVES!” Well, sort of. Kiddy-show-level expectations do have their uses, not least when trying to pass off Willbond needing to not only stay in step but hold a note. Also, Larry doing that… whatever he does, when there’s music. Expecting it is not quite the same thing as being prepared for it.
  • OK, I know, details. In all seriousness this thing is a positive arabesque of engaging… IN A PLANE!… that somehow works as an affectionate takeoff of both real and Hollywood-style wartime heroics — while still providing fully *ahem* believably dashing eye candy. I’m literally only just now realising how horribly tacky topping things off with a Churchill quote could’ve come across under the circs, that’s the level of goodwill this show had built up to this point. As far as I know, there wasn’t even a perturbed letter written to the Daily Mail.
  • I personally tend to focus more on the goofy stuff mostly because my distaste for the genre target is such that the accuracy would otherwise really start to get in the way of my enjoyment after awhile. (You ever try to clear mouth foam off a keyboard?) So it falls to the guys to cheer me up, and as usual they don’t disappoint.
  • Especially not Mat, who’s throwing himself full-tilt into this whole derring-do-doing bit despite wearing a uniform that — as per usual in these things — is easily two sizes too big. Granted they’ve done a very decent job of tucking the extra in round the belt; still, being the one member of the squadron with both a lead vocal and a noticeably nipped-in waist cannot have been a major confidence-booster either. (I also wouldn’t have minded being in Jim’s head when they told him about having to fake prosthetic legs.)
  • So having gone on at length about subtlety and complexity, I must now concede that it’s time to introduce the League of Gentlemen into the conversation. Personally I could sum the whole thing up as ‘I don’t care if the HH stuff is nothing more than a showcase for their reunion, it’s all just completely freakin’ hilarious,’ but given that this is clearly the minority POV…
  • The trick is remembering that it is the LoG’s reunion. Everything I said in S02E03 about giving the Big Name(s) a safe place to play within an established, stylised concept applies here as well, except with extra chocolate on top in the form of what I said earlier in this review about it being an honour. No offense to the uber-dependable David Baddiel, but his presence didn’t rate a full-colour spread in the Radio Times. (Although it can be argued that the fez deserved one.)
  • In that context, perhaps it’s worth reconsidering the fact that two parties nevertheless came up with a durable, dependably funny and fascinating concept — one that meshes the worlds of celebrity and historical satire in a way that’s relevant to both, leaving the LoG free rein to do their preternaturally quick, clever thing and the show to provide interesting historical insights at the same time. Come to think of it, in most important respects it’s quite like Stupid Deaths.
  • This one in particular, I can’t understand what’s not to love. There’s just something about the way they bounce the over-the-top cynicism off Mat’s primly sweet earnestness — the talking cat -vs- “I created the first public toilets in London!” — that means I can’t stop giggling, no matter how often I watch it. (“How do you feel about Keira Knightley playing you?” Oh, god…) Also, as a footnote, nifty bit of accent misdirection on Gatiss there at the beginning. No idea why he decided to try the American, but I salute a decent attempt. The whole corporate stuffed-shirt thing really suits him, weirdly enough.
  • “Hi, I’m a hot Egyptian scientist…” Oh, very subtle, there, show. In not-entirely-unrelated news, the other major creative development this series will be a sharp uptick in the recognizable parodies. Despite the challenges any pop-culture takeoff faces re: aging well — and, as I can testify, exporting well — this is basically good news. Both as a way to be very-but-not-really adult, and to take advantage of some hitherto criminally unappreciated mimicry skills among the troupe.
  • Having now seen the original, I can appreciate that ‘Lewin!’ would’ve popped into the producer’s heads almost immediately… and frankly agree with them. It’s a shade too excitable for strict accuracy — as far as I can gather, Prof. Cox is more about the angsty “I am but a dust mote in the Great Cosmic Reality” understatement — but having once been handed this assignment, it’s easy to understand our Lawry jumping at it full-tilt. Yep, he’s won my heart… for those three minutes, anyway.
  • Ooh, and while we’re on about impressively heart-winning angst, check Ben in Val Kilmer’s wig from The Saint!… right, so there’s a joke exactly three people will get. Of whom apparently at least two are on the HH makeup team.
  • Speaking of which, it’s past time to pay tribute to this series’ f/x upgrades, including as noted impressively updated makeup jobs on Cromwell and Elizabeth I, a quick cut-n-style for Death, vastly improved computer-game graphics that allow for true, and truly hilarious, player interaction… and a squeefully tasteful teeny portrait of Gran and Grandpa Rattus, indicating that fame may have gone slightly to the head of our host rodent. (My theory is that, instead of a badger they eventually gave him a teeny raise to handle ‘the sad bits’).
  • O and hai, Also Starring Sarah H.! Can’t say I’m wildly excited to have you and your shrill little voice back, but hey, you’re an integral part of the HH lore, so… on the other hand, so is Lawry. Watch it, lady.
  • ‘Vanessa Stonebottom’? ‘Trevor Geek’? Yeah, some things HH will never change… no matter how much they should. Despite which the Bronze Age report is a fun little expansion on the Internet sketches (and incidentally a nice complement to the ‘aBook’ bit from S03E01). Much love for Mat the cave-hipster; I will not suggest he’s basically playing himself, because that would be evil, and… uh… oh, look, they even managed to work in some Ben-annoyed-with-Jim stuff! Awesome! *runs away*

95% Accu-rat:

  • Congratulations on making it all the way down here! Your reward is learning that Oliver Cromwell really should’ve been referred to as ‘Lord Protector’ (or more formally, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland), not ‘Mr’. He wasn’t any fonder of pointlessly fancypants titles than he was of formal portraits — and of course calling him ‘Your Highness’ was just totally defeating the point — but they had to put something on the official flowcharts, so this was the compromise.
  • Yep, Philip II really did not take his rejection by then-Princess Elizabeth at all well. It pleased Liz to claim in later years that his obsession with retaking England was all about thwarted love for her, and that in fact she could have him back merely by ‘crooking her little finger’. She of course refused to think of it out of love for her stalwart subjects, but still.
  • In reality, of course, it had much more to do with the fact that on her accession Liz has definitively tipped the national religious scales to Protestant, and as you may recall from previous entries, Philip was a confirmed fanatical Catholic. Not that this alone exactly justified wasting the equivalent of billions in national resources or anything… only that it really helps your lust for conquest when it’s sanctioned by the Pope, and back then His Holiness could totally do that.
  • Elizabeth was after all not only a ‘weak and feeble woman’, but one that the Vatican still officially considered illegitimate. By their lights, given that Mary Queen of Scots was still a toddler at this point, Philip was about as close to a Divinely-sanctioned legitimate claimant to the English throne  as was going. So you can just about imagine how wrecked his day was when God apparently sided with the heretic five times running.
  • Incidentally, the ‘minor damage to Mousehole’ is more formally known as the Mounts Bay Raid, or as Wiki seems to be alone in calling it, the Battle of Cornwall. On the international scale it was indeed a pretty inconsequential affair, although to the locals the whole ‘overpowering the local militia and setting fire to the town’ thingy must’ve been pretty damn inconvenient at least. Sir Walter Raleigh apparently wasn’t best pleased about having to bustle down to what he evidently considered the back end of civilization and train the remaining defenders, either.
  • So the Egyptian Book of the Dead: actually a personalised document commissioned for each individual mummy, of which several still exist to this day. They do indeed contain all sorts of spells and other stuff to impress and amaze your friends… a lot of stuff. This is afterlife as extended D&D session, and it’s hard not to imagine that a lot of it was designed to serve mostly the same purpose. Real life probably got really really boring at times, out there in the desert hauling stones around.
  • The sketch here actually starts a little late in the process; you’re a mummy, remember, so your first priority would be making sure all that disembowelling wouldn’t hurt your chances. During embalming there would be chants performed to preserve your body (‘jewelled heart scarabs’ available for a small fee in case of damage to the real thing), and later on food and incense offerings designed to satisfy your ka, or life-force, which was a bit peckish after all that reassembly.
  • Finally, the appropriate spells would then transmute you into a sort of soul-shadow, suitable for negotiating the Byzantine corridors of the afterlife — many, many more than could be comfortably fitted into one short sketch. If you were lucky — or at least had friends with a lot of time on their hands — and completed all the steps above, you became an akh, and earned the right to travel with Ra himself in his golden barge; if not, you remained a ba, a bird-headed being that had to maneuvre under its own, um, wing-power. Either way, I can’t help thinking it would’ve improved the sketch immensely…
 
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Posted by on June 23, 2013 in Series Four

 

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