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Category Archives: Series One

S01E06

Now, remember what I told ya…
“Try not to die”?
Yeah, that’s the spirit!

A gently nondescript little midseason interlude… mostly.

In this episode:

Song: A Gorgeous Georgian Lady (Martha as Random Noblewoman)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Wife Swap — Georgian Noble vs. Peasant (“Hello, we’re very, very rich.” “Hello, we’re very, very, very hungry!”)

Stupid Deaths — Franz Reichert (personally tested ‘coat-parachute’ from the 1st level of the Eiffel Tower — “Well, at least the ‘coat’ part worked! Ha!”)

Dodgy War Inventions — No.7: The Roman ‘Onager’ Catapult

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, the WWI version (See, soldiers would wee on their boots to soften the leather, so…)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Flagellants — With Europe a mass of festering plague sores, a God who’d demand you whip yourself raw suddenly started making total sense…

The Made-Up Planet (animated) — You laugh, but frankly zoology was lots more fun before it started insisting on stuff like ‘eyewitness accounts’ and “reality”.

Vile Victorians

Victorian Claims Direct — Being a small, defenseless kid during the Industrial Revolution sucked. The end.

Chimney Sweepstakes — Because they had to get the inevitable “something stuck up the chimney, guv!” gags out of the way… and I honestly thought that was a joke, right up until Santa fell out of there.

Rotten Romans

Row, Row, Row Your Galley (Or We’ll Kill You) — Because they also urgently had to get shot of the ‘mess with the rowing rhythm’ gags. Trust me, we’ll all feel better later.

Frightful First World War

Good Luck Charms — You laugh, but they didn’t wear them to the recruiter’s office and just look what happened.(“…lucky penny… lucky rabbit’s foot…” “Where’d you get that?” “From the lucky regimental mascot. Got hit by a bomb.”)

Groovy Greeks

Greek Myth Talk: Cronus Eats His Own Children — The origin story of the Olympian pantheon. Remember that, next time someone claims the Greeks had all the really cool gods.

Field Notes:

  • Yeppers, just a quiet, peaceful little episode… not much to see here… right up until the unabashed infant cannibalism kicks in. Yes, I really should be used to this by now, but… but… everyone’s covered in mucus and/or has comically awful facial hair and/or sliced-off ‘dangly bits’… (Yet people still look at me funny when I tell them this show will never air in America.) Basically, the Cronus sketch is the last and most vivid reminder that at this point in the show’s history, devoting precious time and resources to the equivalent of the Brothers Grimm + genital mutilation + Jerry Springer seemed like a great idea.
  • To the point that this is the only “chat show” sketch to feature an actual studio audience, containing more members than were present for freaking Charles I’s execution a few eps ago. Granted, the former probably brought their own costumes, but still. It’s like looking at what would’ve happened had the show actually applied its growing cleverness to that juvenile grossout mentality they like to play up in the marketing — frankly unpleasant now to watch, and I don’t think would’ve earned them near the success. Of course, it should always be kept in mind that I’m not British, and neither am I an eight-year-old boy.
  • In happier news, the music’s back!… Sort of. At least I can usually remember this one, albeit largely because the score reminds me of the ‘Perfect Nanny’ number from Mary Poppins… assuming that movie to have been made on a BBC props budget recently gutted by mucus procurement. Seriously, they couldn’t even afford a painted backdrop? Basing historical comedy off fashion foibles anyway requires more delicate handling than the show is thus far capable of, even were they not still convinced that awkward makeup application = one-way ticket to Wackyland.
  • Ironically enough the song also unintentionally falls into the same trap as the scripted one Rattus elsewhere trips over, re: belief in medieval monsters vs. modern Loch Ness devotees. Similarly, leave it at “Har har! Mouse-skin eyebrows!” and the next thing you know some snotty Georgian is all snorting and going “Yeah, well you lot put metal spikes through your tongue!” (Granted, this tends to work out better when the potential snorter is long dead. Still, you get the drift.)
  • The Georgian Wife Swap installment teased at the end of the Restoration ditto also crops up here, and also is a distinct letdown, coming as it does right after sublime proof that the ‘reality show’ sketches work best when they involve clashes of culture and belief — below-surface stuff that really enables character comedy. Here, once they’ve established the ‘rich vs. hungry’ cliches, they’ve literally got nowhere else to go…
  • …save perhaps inspiring viewer sympathy for Jim, who is always being cast as the hopeless serf in these things (this is especially urgent, after hearing his pathetic screeches in the ‘Flagellants’ sketch). Oh, and to speculate re: just how Lord Posh managed to nab that wig second-hand from one Dr. Fuzzlepeck… You’re welcome, fanfic authors.
  • Ideas the HH Producers Fell in Love With Early On, vol.287: the horrors of Industrial Revolution-era child labour. This will eventually account for easily two-thirds of the Vile Victorian sketches (plus one actually lavishly produced song), most of which will work a whole lot better than this one. Yet another high-concept gag that goes not a whole lot of anywhere, along with the WWI good luck charms, and the Roman galley, and… yeah, worryingly big episode for those, come to think of it.
  • On the bright side, Simon having so recently, and firmly, established that anything is liable to happen when he’s onscreen — plus having a hugely charming native accent — helps greatly to rivet viewer attention. both as the aforementioned flagellant and the chimney sweep. (The latter of whom especially is forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting in his sketch, because protip: slapping flashing SANTA! signs on a gag older than Saint Nick himself does not, in fact, act as magical humour Febreze.) Even Death finally seems to be getting with the program, cheerfully twitting the Corpse du Jour in much the more familiar manner.
  • Minuses: weirdly miscast Mat as the butler. Dashing WWI officer Mat isn’t working either, somehow. Not just physically (they did at least give him a coat this time) — they’re trying to shoehorn him in as the stock effortlessly aristocratic type, and he’s not, exactly. None of the eventual core troupe is, although you give Ben a magnificent enough hairdressing job and he can fake it very acceptably. So I do have to give him that, also the ‘orchestra, play something sad’ bit, because he’s just having way too much fun with it at that point. And Jim… well, hey, Jim really does have a knack for those pathetic little woobie types, doesn’t he! Won him a BAFTA and everything. So, um, yeah, yay Jim.
  • Gotta hand it to the littlest cast members, too, and quite seriously. The show benefits greatly from an unusually solid core of child actors, able to switch convincingly from snark to pathos as needed — a skill never to be underestimated, in onscreen rugrats. To my shame I never have learned all their names; according to Twitter the blond one is Bertie Gilbert, who once almost made it into a Harry Potter movie, then eventually grew up to be a YouTube star. Thus becoming the only person ever named ‘Bertie’ to do that, so good for him.
  • Starting to feel like I should be saying something about the fairy tale bits, especially since from the debut press release forward, these were clearly intended as the crown jewel of recurring HH sketches. Death gets the cardboard desk, while Storytime Lady has a cozy chair and lavishly produced standalone tales to narrate, as a reminder that a) Meera Syal was a huge casting coup for the fledgling kiddy series and b) Shrek was still vaguely relevant in 2009.
  • The real trouble is it’s all basically the same tale, or at least the same punchline, and that of a kind the show was rapidly outgrowing even before these sketches first aired. They resemble nothing else about the finished series, or for that matter HH’s generally relentless insistence on the real story, so there was just nowhere for them to go. Ave aqua vale, Meera; you gave it your best shot in a situation where you really, really didn’t have to, and for that you have my respect. Just not my interest.

95% Accu-rat:

  • For all I rag on the animations — you must understand, I wasn’t raised on the HH books or anything — I do like the Medieval Bestiary very much, because, frankly, Dark Ages biology is just endlessly hilarious. As conclusive evidence I give you the beaver, pace Gerald of Wales: When he finds he cannot save himself from the pursuit of the dogs who follow him, that he may ransom his body by the sacrifice of a part, he throws away that, which by natural instinct he knows to be the object sought for, and in the sight of the hunter castrates himself, from which circumstance he has gained the name of Castor; and if by chance the dogs should chase an animal which had been previously castrated, he has the sagacity to run to an elevated spot, and there lifting up his leg, shews the hunter that the object of his pursuit is gone.
  • WHOA YOU GUYS, VIDEO OF FRANZ REICHELT’S FALL TOTALLY EXISTS. He invited the Press and everything. Now I feel even worse for the poor guy… although that’s still not very, because according to the full story this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment leap to glory; his friends spent quite some time begging him not to try it himself, and he just blew them all right off. If the Grim Reaper ever decides to hold a Stupid Deaths Masters or somesuch, Reichelt’s a shoo-in.
  • So… Cronus. On top of everything else, not actually a god: he was a Titan, and yes this is an important distinction, because… well… I’m pretty sure the paper I wrote in grade nine Ancient History explains it all, just as soon as I get around to digging it out of storage. He was for certain a pretty bad dude, anyway, having already castrated his dad Uranus at the behest of his mum Gaia (the Furies, Giants and some nymphs rose where Uranus’ blood hit the ground). Greek mythology… overall, I’m kinda glad HH quit while they were ahead.
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E05

It’s true! William the Conqueror really did explode at his own funeral… see if you can find that on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Having full-on stormed the boundaries of children’s media and come out the other side still on the air, the show takes a moment to relax and enjoy the view…

In this episode:

Song: Sorry, true believers, it’ll be awhile yet before the music becomes mandatory. In the meantime, have some gratuitous shots at Simon Cowell.

Recurring sketches:

Bob Hale — The Stone Age Report

Court of Historical Law — Anglo-Saxon Britain (Ethelred the Unready vs. a horse thief)

Fractured Fairy Tales — Goldilocks, the Saxon version (Wherein stealing gets you branded on the forehead & ears/hands cut off.)

Historical Hospital — Dr. Montague Fuzzlepeck: Master of Georgian medicaments

One-offs:

Awful Egyptians

Pharaoh Phashion Magazine — Playing it cool in the desert, from your hair down to your… erm… let’s just say the depilatories must’ve been really impressive.

Mouse Fresh Max Toothpaste —  No, of course they didn’t just stuff the mice in live! They cut them in half first! … Doesn’t really help, does it?

Ruthless Rulers

Louis XI and the Pig Piano (animated) — A bored French king demands a nifty new musical instrument, which turns out to be auto-squealing pork, which turns into the aforementioned Cowell riff.  (…”Though even I’m not that old.” *oink!* “I’m not!”)

Measly Middle Ages

HHTV News: The Domesday Book — The conquering Normans survey their new holdings… and if this sample is anything to go by, were severely disappointed.(“How many chickens do you have?” “Fifteen.” *squawk! thud!* “Fourteen.”)

William I: Hurry Up and Bury Him — Royal funerals were a bit… different before TV. But arguably a lot more entertaining.

Rotten Romans

Caligula vs. Poseidon — The definition of a big problem: being the Emperor of Rome’s generals the day he decides to go to war with a god. (“BIGGER THAN MEEEE?!!”)

Savage Stone Age

Modern Stone Age Family (imagine spot) — Why Emily Post suggests your dinner guests should always be at the same evolutionary stage. (“Please, take a seat…wait, what are you doing?” “Ugg take seat!”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Join the Georgian Navy — “Bravely defending Britain’s empire with some people we picked up off the floor in the local tavern.”

Field Notes:

  • Nope, no song — in case you were still wondering just how far they’d come in four series. At this point in the show’s evolution that particular lavish care was being expended instead on the animated bits. Not incomprehensible if you’ve ever seen the books — but clearly a decision made prior to (independently of?) taking a good look at the live cast, or for that matter, most of the live-action scripts.
  • Because otherwise this is such a lovely romp of an episode — well, the (unusual) insistence on the realistically bloody maiming of cute li’l Goldilocks is a bit much, but other than that, just pure good times. None of the sketches are exactly insta-classics, but they’re all frankly hilarious, suggesting that the writers were rapidly becoming very comfortable indeed not only with the material, but in adapting it from the source to fit their own notions of *ahem* family entertainment. Besides all of which I’m so very grateful for an episode that isn’t actively trying to give me or my inner history nerd nightmares.
  • Besides that… lots of Mat, and specifically, lots of Mat having a whole lot of fun, in a way that vividly illustrates why these people signed up for HH in the first place and have stayed all these years. Y’know, biases re: beauty aside, Mat’s not the best actor of the troupe per se — that would be Ben or Jim, depending on the requirements of the sketch — but as a clown he has something that were I a genre expert I suspect I’d be dubbing genius, and am certainly able to call intensely watchable.
  • Rattus’ crack — the first of many similar — about Neanderthals being ‘your PE teacher’s relatives…’ I dunno. I mean, ragging on boring ol’school, integral part of the HH/Terry Deary/small children everywhere experience, I get it. That PE teachers are obviously far less respected and feared over there than here, a little odd (do you people not play dodgeball?), but OK. The thing is, though, as it turns out some of the cast actually are PE teacher relatives, or at least have relatives that are PE teachers. Do they have Thanksgiving in the UK? ‘Cos I’d imagine this is the sort of thing that’d make it weird.
  • Trivia time: if you guessed that the first HH actor to get a full-frontal scene (with the relevant bits tastefully obscured of course!) would be Javone… well, hey, you’re in luck. He’s got nothing to be ashamed of — unlike the rest of the sketch, which is doing that thing the show always does to demonstrate historical beauty choices, ie. applying them like a toddler raiding Mummy’s makeup bag. This has always struck me as vaguely unfair, besides leading to things like Return of Museum Matron Sarah and [actress name to be inserted here on receipt] making like a low-rent KISS groupie. Something else I thought they didn’t have in the UK.
  • Elsewhere, this episode features the debut of one Terry Deary, apparently just for a lark. I’m not the man’s biggest fan — there’s a point at which ‘loveable old curmudgeon’ becomes just plain ‘self-absorbed old crank’, and to my mind, if he hasn’t crossed it, he’s hovering dangerously on the verge — but hey, without him none of us would be here. And he gets all the respect besides for making himself actually useful and funny onscreen, not just standing around waiting for a medal.
  • Also debuting here: Cartoon Simon Cowell (complete with lovingly delineated moobs — nice one, animators!) and the show’s inexplicable need to get all up in his grill wherever possible. Not exactly complaining, you understand; just a trifle bemused by the specific importance of it all, especially since his relevance over here is long since done. Does one of the writers have an embarrassing Pop Idol audition buried in his past somewhere? Does this mean that with suitable stimulus — financial or otherwise — we could displace that rage onto, say, Chris Brown getting whomped by a megabear?
  • What a wonderful sketch Caligula vs. Poseidon is. Everything that inspires me to blog about HH, in one neat package. Whenever my warm fuzzy levels are off I watch it again, once for the pure funny — how did they all keep a straight face? — once to appreciate Simon’s advanced masterclass in comic crazy, and once to… well.. Mat. Um. Even if I’m pretty sure the Romans didn’t actually invent hairspray, and even if in terms of convincing armour-wearing he is still the charter founder of Skinnymandria. Shut up and watch he and Jim adorkably high-five each other, inner history nerd.
  • The Domesday Book is another guaranteed gigglefest. Not so much in and of itself — although the gags are solid and expertly played — as for the implications in odd corners. I love that Martha gets a rare non-gender-specific role (and/or one in which she’s not stuck wearing hideous blouses — sorry, Sam). Then there’s Jim cutting up in the background — not saying he’s trying to mess with Mat, but it’s the perfect opportunity, and another fuzzy-inducing indication of how much fun they were having putting this thing together, even at that early date. (Is there a blooper reel attached to Series One? My *ahem* online copy doesn’t include one.)
  • They’re also starting to get a more nuanced understanding of their leads’ strengths, as demonstrated by the Stone Age Family sketch — or, more accurately, by an expertly-cast Ben, Mat and Sarah fully rescuing same from what could’ve been a dreadful morass of overplayed cliches. And while I’m handing out individual laurels, let’s hear it for Larry the perpetual — and perpetually anonymous — patient in the Historical Hospital sketches, demonstrating his willingness to put up with anything for an onscreen laugh. Nice knowing now that he’ll be rewarded for it.
  • You can tell this is very early days for the Bob Hale Report, as not only is ol’Bobsy still blond — incidentally, this side of the pond, that floppy ‘do is mostly associated with aging surfers in particular and males who’ve been refusing to grow up since 1995 in general, leading to delightful speculations on B.Hale: the College Years — but his catchphrases go by with barely a pause. Also, the fadeout isn’t to Sam but to Rattus, in what I think is the only direct interaction to date between he and the HHTV crew. When someone decides to work out the timey-wimey stuff of the HH universe — and yes, it’s the internet, of course someone will — I fully expect this to be a major plot point.
  • In a similar vein, the actor ‘playing’ William I’s corpse doesn’t bear much resemblance to Simon’s later live-action take. Still, all hail Whatshisname and his amazing ability to remain dead throughout what’s essentially the Worst Extra Job Ever, including highly convincing-looking flames (and while I’m at it, huzzah to whomever convinced the owners of that gorgeous Great Hall to let it be set it on fire). Must make for quite the memorable resume in both cases.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Not really a historical note per se, but I do love the mental image of baffled parents attempting to explain the ‘hair of the hound that first bit him’ to their wide-eyed darlings. Good one, show.
  • OK, so, Egyptian hairdressing turns out to be a bit too ridiculous to be true. The provenance for those wax cones is limited to paintings — contemporary wigs don’t show a lot of residue — but it’s thought the idea if any was to melt perfume over your ‘do (picture a cross between hot oil treatments and aromatherapy), not just prance round with the cone stuck up there. In a desert-dwelling aristocracy, where, as the sketch does accurately indicate, the higher you climbed the more clothes you required, not smelling like old socks was a valued sign of status.
  • The mouse-paste, however… sorry, animal lovers, that one’s golden: The mouse, which was considered to be protected by the sun and capable of fending off death, was often used by individuals with a toothache…applying half of the body of a dead mouse to the aching tooth while the body was still warm. (So why, I’d like to know, does Rattus not throw a tantrum as he will over later sketches featuring rats being threatened? Evidence of teeny little rodent apartheid?)
  • Ordeal by cake, meanwhile, also totally a thing. In Anglo-Saxon, corsned: literally (and even more delightfully), the ‘bread and cheese’ ordeal. In real life, of course, since God was doing the judging they had to make sure this lump of dough was untainted by yeasty evil, so an exorcism was conducted… ie. totally featured a priest going all William Peter Blatty over, basically, kindergarten snack time. You may now close your eyes and appreciate that scene to the fullest.
  • Back? Great. Just in time for a long and involved discussion in the YouTube comments on the genealogical controversies inherent in… WAIT NO STOP PUT DOWN THAT EYE-GOUGER. Seriously, no, even I’m not going back in there. Non-mouth-foam-intensive version: ‘Unready’ really refers not to poor old Aethelred, but to his advisers, pace Wiki: (“Unready” is a mistranslation of Old English unræd (meaning bad-counsel) —a twist on his name “Æthelred” (meaning noble-counsel). A better translation would be “ill-advised”. Also, there seems to be some problem with calling his uncle ‘Earl Harold Godwin’, whether he even was his uncle in the first place, and even more with his actually having taken the corsned. Horrible Histories: proudly reminding me that people really do care deeply about this stuff since 2009.
  • Animal instruments along the lines shown here have a long and storied history, albeit mostly as novelty items — you ever spare a thought for the poor servant forced to clean that piggy piano, five minutes later? My personal favourite is the Katzenklavier (‘cat organ’), which if it existed would’ve been much the same thing, but it didn’t exist, because, hello, cats having their tails pulled, nobody wanted to get in front of that. Still: The instrument was recreated using squeaky toys… for a garden party held… in 2010 by Prince Charles [for charity].The tune Over the Rainbow was played and caused great amusement. To paraphrase Death: I love the British so much, sometimes. I do. I really do.
  • Guess what: Caligula really did take on Poseidon, the Greek god, not Neptune, the Roman one. If he actually did take one a god at all, of course. Like all things Little Bootikins (check back to S01E04 for details), sources naturally differ widely on whether he fully believed in his divine war, or if it was merely a legend grown up around the symbolic gesture of marching to the sea (the details of the ‘battle’ will be covered in another sketch). But whatever it was, it was apparently happening against the Hellenic deity.
  • Finally (boy this episode just keeps on giving, doesn’t it?)… Neanderthals: As it turns out, not really all that stupid. Not Rhodes Scholars or anything, but pretty darn good at being cavepeople, ie. able to independently evolve tools. It’s currently suspected that they may actually be an obsolete subspecies of Homo Sapiens… meaning Bored Yuppie Ben is probably sitting there chatting to his embarrassing cousins that nobody in the family really likes to talk about. Makes the sketch that much better, doesn’t it?
 
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E04

I liked that arm! That was my favourite!

So there’s this sketch where Ben sniffs Mat’s hair, and some other stuff… helicopters.

In this episode:

Song: We’re Tudors (Martha as Elizabeth I, Ben as Henry VIII)

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast – Dr. William Buckland: Famed eater of weird things

Stupid Deaths – Matthew Webb (tried to swim the rapids under Niagara Falls)

Dodgy War Inventions – No.16: Zeppelin Airships

Historical Hospital – Hippocrates, Father of Medicine

Bob Hale – The Roman Report

Oh Yea! Magazine – Tudor execution special

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

Saxon Family Feud – “Like Eastenders, but with lots more blood!”… so apparently Eastenders makes a regular thing out of Saxon kings running around in poofy robes ineffectually demanding weregeld? I may need to start watching again.

Anglo-Saxon Ghost Hunt —  Essentially, if you’re in pre-Norman Britain, you’re living the Blair Witch Project 24/7. Except with Vikings.

Frightful First World War

TNT Hair Dye – Yep, how to become a literal blonde bombshell…

Groovy Greeks

Alexandria – In which Alexander the Great’s advisor Hephaestion learns that challenging the ego of a world-conquering tyrant and keeping your dignity is a distinctly either/or proposition.

Rotten Romans

Caligula’s Speechwriter – “So you’re saying, lose the whole chopping-necks thing completely…?” “I wouldn’t start with it.”

Terrible Tudors

Elizabeth the Nicknamer — Yeah, you know that one really, really non-PC co-worker who insists you’re all one big family and so keeps demanding $10 for random baby showers? Bess here was the royal equivalent.

Field Notes:

  • Aaaaaand welcome to the episode that launched a thousand fanfics — also, to be fair, quite a few other essential components of HH canon, including Bob Hale, Caligula and Elizabeth the First, albeit surprisingly petite-nosed compared to later appearances. Moot point now of course, but somebody may just want to explain to the makeup dept, the notion of people’s noses growing longer as they get older? Not really a thing.
  • Oh, and Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild, known with varying degrees of fondness in HH lore as The Guy Who Drove Zebras Through London, Har Har Har. That is, I’m not particularly fond of him, and I haven’t really met anyone else who counts him as integral to their fandom, but damned if the producers aren`t head-over-heels for this mildly eccentric aristocratic zoologist. Or possibly just don`t keep track of the random mentions. I’ve counted four separate ones, which frankly would be about three past interesting even if they didn`t all reiterate the exact same details. (Along the same lines, get real used to Caligula’s story about killing the priest instead of the sacrificial beast…)
  • Speaking of benign eccentricity… time to meet Bob Hale, HHTV Special Correspondent and Larry Rickard`s very own shining comic achievement. Confined to a bad suit in front of what I think was originally supposed to be the weatherman’s map, forced to cover all the boring details the other sketches skip over, Bob`s legend will nevertheless grow into a wonderful Wonka-esque medley of catchphrases (“BUT NOT FOR LONG!”), whimsical asides, clever cartoons, Thing-O-Meters and of course helicopters. His enthusiastic cluelessness reaches Bob & Ray levels of endearing… yes, I know, but trust me, I’m paying Larry a huge compliment.
  • So… really expecting the kiddies to get the Eastenders reference, were we, children’s show?… Actually, y’know what, never mind, after last episode I’m thinking you might. Except that later on, Liz’s French suitor, the Duc d’Alencon, is fudged into a `friend’. So now I’m just totally confused.
  • Wildly inappropriate implications aside (most of them, according to himself, contributed on-the-spot by one B.Willbond) the Alexandria sketch is well-put-together, and — even given the need to accept Ben as ‘barely twenty-six’ — our lush leads a whole whackload more plausible than Colin Farrell. I especially like that the armour Alex is wearing ends up being the same Caligula digs up a few sketches later. All hail continuity!
  • I think my own fan instincts must be a bit cracked, because honestly my major Ben feels here come from the Ghost Hunt sketch. “The spirits like to have a little natter…” I dunno, I just love the way he says that. Really, rewound it a few times. If I ever had a chance to have him repeat a line just for me, that’d be the one.
  • Much love also for the Saxon Family Feud, the niftiest outcropping to date of the sophistication discussed last entry; the funny has an unusually complex internal logic, almost like a mini-sitcom episode. (”You’re, like, so much sweatier in person!” “Well, I’ve just run up a hill, haven’t I?”). I’ve never understood why it doesn’t get more appreciation among the fandom; containing as it does, besides Mat & Jim being Mat & Jim, the same sweetly ineffectual Ben from the Ghost Hunt. Not an archetype he pulls out very often, and again, call me daffy, but I like it better than Alexander. (Now, Hephaestion, we can discuss).
  • OK, held off the negative as long as I can, but… The Tudors song. Yes, fine, it’s catchy (despite some annoyingly juvenile and/or forced rhymes), the details are mostly accurate, Martha does a decent vocal job, and some of the staging is interesting. Still, the overall tone — if you need a refresher on my sensitivity where the Tudor clan is concerned, you may want to head back to S01E02 & mentally add ‘but even more so’ at the end of each sentence. Otherwise… *deep breath* NO THE HISTORY BOOKS DID NOT REVIEW THEM AS ‘ROTTERS AND BIG BRUISERS’! THIS SORT OF CARTOONISH PANDERING TO IDIOTIC SOAP OPERA STEREOTYPES IS COMPLETELY…
  • …*takes several more deep breaths*…
  • …OK, better now. Will air out my similar frustrations with the ‘Oh Yea!’ bit in the historical notes below. But really — I don’t even get the fig leaf of a charming Henry VIII in this song, on account of it’s all but been specifically designed to expose Ben’s vocal limitations (I’m assuming it was written prior to his, or at least Henry’s, being cast). There is nothing at all engaging about watching an actor you respect being hung out to dry in living colour. I haven’t done this much wincing since Mom brought home those Best of the Dean Martin Show DVDs.
  • Right, back to the positives…for instance, erm, Caligula. Whether or not ‘Little Bootikins’ (no really, look it up) was in reality all that bad is debatable, but in Simon’s hands he’s the definition of utterly random hilarity, less a characterisation than an outlet. Seriously, I’m willing to let a lot pass just because without something this juicy to play with, I’m not sure we’d still have a Farnaby round to enjoy, lo these several series later. Keeping that kind of crazy bottled up would’ve done some serious damage.

95% Accu-rat:

  • As a takeoff on the tabloid tendency to unfairly exaggerate details out of context, the “Oh Yea!” Tudor piece is fabulous. As a vehicle for getting the actual facts across… well. Yes, Elizabeth signed the death warrant for her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. What’s not mentioned is that i) Mary had become not only a focus for disaffected Catholics, but a willing and eager participant in their schemes; and ii) despite all of which, Elizabeth agonised over signing that warrant, and eventually did so only because her closest advisors insisted. Not so much out of family feeling — they’d never actually met, after all — as deep-seated qualms, both ethical and practical, about executing royalty. After all, if the ‘divine right to rule’ could be breached in one case, what about all the others? Especially *ahem* the arguably-illegitimate daughter of a Protestant king whose marital history was murky at best…?
  • One other probably-just-me thing that’s always irked re: the song: yes, Liz adored her father — and she also cared deeply for her brother. They were more or less raised together, studied together, and were told of their father’s death at the same time, whereupon they sobbed inconsolably together. Even when I’m determined to get into the spirit of the thing, hearing this version of Elizabeth dismissively refer to ‘sickly little Eddie’ just bounces me right back out.
  • After all of which it’s only fair to note that the ‘Nicknamer’ sketch gets a lot of the small stuff exactly right. The Duc did in fact demand a nickname, albeit mostly because he was actually there to convince our Bess to marry him. Unavoidable casting limitations (ie, not hiring disabled people solely to snigger at them) prevent an accurate visual of ‘Pygmy’, but Robert Cecil — son and carefully-groomed successor to Sir William — did in reality fit the bill: “A slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature, but with a face not irregular in feature, and thoughtful and subtle in expression, with reddish hair, a thin tawny beard, and large, pathetic, greenish-coloured eyes…”
  • So… Caligula. Right. As noted above, I’m a bit more forgiving here; frankly it’d be downright cruel to insist the show wholly overlook the motherlode of historical horror. Still, as one unusually sensible YouTube commenter put it, fair compromise with fact would merit at least a disclaimer from Rattus, re: the really outre stuff being based largely on one or two hostile sources with an axe to grind. (Luckily, there’s no way in even Viking hell most of that same stuff is usable for a family audience). The Wikipedia page does a good job of summarizing specific controversies.
  • OK, you’ve probably already looked this one up, but in the interests of promoting fanfic accuracy it’s worth reiterating: yes, Alexander and Hephaestion were very likely lovers, but in a very different context from the modern, arising naturally out of their lifelong friendship.
  • Meanwhile — he’s not nearly as adorable granted, but Dr. William Buckland: genuinely quite a guy. Absolutely willing to chow down on the heart of a king, too… albeit sources are a little unclear whether it actually was or not, which spoils the effect a little. I do strongly recommend looking him up, though; the full bat urine story alone is worth it.
 
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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Series One

 

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S01E03

She’s old and warty and looks a bit evil, don’t you think?

In which the show finally and completely abandons all pretense of having been designed for children… that, or the producers out themselves as sadistic bastards willing to ride the nightmares of innocents for ratings, whichever.

In this episode:

Song: How to Make a Mummy (Jim as Random Embalmer)

Recurring sketches:

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Frog Prince, the Stuart version (turning a frog into a person must = witchcraft!)

Historical Wife Swap — Cavaliers vs. Puritans (“Restoration’s here! Party on!” “Fun is sinful!”)

Shouty Man — All-Purpose Ancient Egyptian Mummy (“And it won’t cost you an arm and a leg!”)

One-offs:

Wicked Witches

Witchfinders Direct — Your Stuart-era tax dollars at work: “Do you have a cat?” “Yes…?” “Then thou art a witch!”

Slimy Stuarts

HHTV News Live: Charles I Gets the Chop — But (fear not, Baynton fans!) not before fathering an uncannily look-a-like son…

Measly Middle Ages

Middle Ages (Witch)Craft Show — The nerdy kid gets revenge, with help from Witchfinders Even-More-Direct. Because they didn’t have IBM to grow up to become head of back then.

Vicious Vikings

Top Three Weird Viking Beliefs (animated) — In which we learn that ancient Norse religious tradition, like most others, wasn’t very fond of giants… but was surprisingly enlightened re: cross-dressing.

Viking Names: Eric Blood-axe vs. Ascot the Clumsy — I’m not entirely sure of that last one; I just like the mental image of a Nordic warrior in a little bowtie.

Viking Heaven & Hell — Yes, they really do call it ‘hell’ (complete with just the cutest little Up/Down infographics…). In case you’ve ever wondered what horrified a people whose idea of heaven was an eternal barroom brawl.

Potty Pioneers

Race to the South Pole — Lowlights from the “We will conquer Nature with our superior Britishness!” era of exploration.

Awful Egyptians

The Model of a Modern Mummy — Turns out it took awhile to come up with the classic B-movie monster archetype. Because they didn’t have Brendan Fraser to menace back then.

Rotten Romans

Christians by Candlelight — No clever way to put this, kids: Occasionally, Nero tied Christians to posts, doused them in tar and set them alight. Sweet dreams!

Man vs. Lion (imagine spot) — Let’s face it, gung-ho sports reporters… if you held post-savaging interviews with Christians in the arena, they’d sound exactly like this.

Field Notes:

  • Seriously, this is easily the darkest episode ever. There are individual sketches upcoming that might cause significant shivers (hint: Nazism hasn’t shown up yet) but here the nightmare-fuelled bases are covered with a thoroughness that strongly suggests it was the point. Witches and mummies and beheadings and burning alive and lion attacks and doomed explorers and serpents dripping poison and freezing in Hell while drinking goat’s urine… do they even have ‘child development research’ in the UK, or is it just about finding ever-more efficient ways to winnow out the wimpy ones?
  • OK, admitted, all of it is expertly done, in the actual great — if much more adult — UK tradition of history as savage self-deprecation. And thus for the most part is honestly funny, especially the over-the-top hubris of Scott and crew (‘Agonizingly hard boots?’ “Just put them on, sir! I’ve got blisters already!’ — the chipper little thumbs-up slays me every time). Still, by the time we get to Nero’s ‘Roman candles’ even Rattus looks as authentically shellshocked as is possible for a fuzzy puppet, which turns out to be quite a bit.
  • It doesn’t help that His Imperial Majesty is for the first and last time a platinum blond, kicking off a carousel of imperial hair colour changes and thus, in hindsight, adding a creepily banal touch to the evil. “Notes for party — 1. Find some helpless innocents to torture — unique’n’fun centerpieces! 2. Get roots touched up.”
  • Speaking of grooming: Egyptian Matron Sarah turns out to look a lot like the display-mannequin ditto in the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), where I spent a ton of my formative free time. This poses some obstacles to my full enjoyment of the sketch; despite an intriguing premise and a great turn from Javone as the mummy salesman (insofar as he had time to develop a signature schtick, this was it), my inner child keeps bouncing around going ‘Ooh, can we hit the gift shop after?”
  • Re: that last bit of Viking hellishness…why goats, particularly? Reindeer urine, say, would be A-OK? Their own effluent, they could handle? I’m willing to take the show’s word for it (read: not willing to have it in my search history), just seems a bit random is all.
  • Also incidentally, this won’t be the last time in the series that wannabe manly men are insulted as ‘big girls‘. I’m assuming this is mostly just offhand for ‘sissies’, but even then… a rather incongruous note in a series that celebrates the likes of Elizabeth I and (later) Boadicea, eh what, chaps?
  • Thank goodness there’s a song!… I think there was a song… [glances up at notes]… Oh, right, forgot there for awhile: The first series contains music largely because (as per the now-inevitable onscreen lyrics) it’s what conscientious edutainment shows do, no matter how many rhymes they have to force in the process. And good ol’ Whatever It’s Called here is Exhibit A. Despite Jim’s utter inability to perform anything without suffusing it with charm and humour, it’s so nondescript that the whole process of mummy-making will be covered again from scratch in a later series sketch.
  • OK then, thank goodness for the Restoration! There’s no room for blame and lots to praise in the show’s ongoing fascination with the English Civil War (especially as an alternative to more goat’s urine); it’s the comparatively simple, colourful, relateable-for-all-ages conflict that will just keep on giving, and it kicks off here in really fine and clever style, with Simon especially contributing a robust turn as the uber-Cavalier.
  • Come to that, there’s a satirical shrewdness starting to make itself felt through all the sketches, regardless of tone. Besides being, y’know, British, the writers are clearly becoming more comfortable with using the historical fact as a springboard for the funny, rather than as an end in itself. This intuitive shift in focus from the Horribleness to the human flaws behind it will eventually become the difference between the book and TV universes, and the key to unlocking all-ages credibility.
  • As the next overt salvo, we’re introduced to HHTV, the sleek modern news crew doing their damnedest to reduce messy past-time traumas to soundbites, and providing multiple satisfying satirical outlets in the process; here in particular, the concept of live beheadings (“…and let’s hope for a nice clean cut…”). Also the Shouty Man lets his initial success go to his head — see notes re: Jim’s endless charm, above — and just flat-out loses whatever cares he had to give in the first place. And it is awesome.
  • One especially nice facet of this new sophistication is the ability to smoothly shift emotional gears. They may not be interested in toning the horrible stuff down, but to their enormous credit they can and do acknowledge its impact — and they have the perfect archetype of reluctant-yet-fuzzily-reassuring humanity to filter it through to the audience: Rattus. Really, you know you’re doing black comedy right when the puppet mascot has launched his own mini-character arc by the third episode: “Well, whaddaya expect? It is ‘Horrible’ Histories!” (Or, more commonly: “It’s horrible, but it’s true!”)

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, so the Puritans really weren’t all that bad. The dour, divinely-named killjoys portrayed here were pretty much the radical minority, as is common in most religious traditions today — and even then, they weren’t totally against fun; they turn out to have had a pretty relaxed view of the marital bed, for example. And as the show itself will admit later, they also didn’t wear those hats as a regular thing.
  • Along the same lines, while the Stuart-era hunt for witches was indeed deadly serious business, actual burnings were rare (some argue nonexistent) in England and/or the Americas — it was more a Continental thing apparently, especially in Germany. Which will come as exactly no surprise to anyone who’s ever read the Brothers Grimm.
  • The market for mummies was very real, and not something you want to read about if you’re a) an archaeology major and/or b) would like to preserve an image of exotic royal remnants lovingly protected by individual curses. In fact, the hapless modern Egyptians were snowed under not only with mummified peasants but cats, birds and various other things that had obviously gone to whatever after-life long since, so why not make a buck off them in this one? The trade led to such odd offshoots as truckloads of mummified cats being plowed up for fertilizer, and a few industrial urban legends revolving around smallpox caught from reused wrappings.
  • It seems a bit nitpicky to complain about sparse execution attendance on a BBC costuming budget, but really, back then even the hanging of your average Joe Pickpocket drew huge unruly crowds, so you can imagine the utter chaos that would’ve been Charles I’s actual death scene. Also in real life, Charlie Senior was as unlike his son as it’s possible to be — a probably-overcompensating shortish stutterer who went to the scaffold fully nurturing one of history’s most infuriating stubborn streaks. (pace TVTropes: Charles made a difficult situation worse by… refusing to accept the inevitable in the face of defeat, or compromise to head off trouble down the road. Like his father, he was an instinctive autocrat who had no intention of surrendering any of his power. Unlike his father, he had no understanding of how power actually worked, seemingly sincerely believing that the English people were required to succumb to his will.)
 
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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Series One

 

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S01E02

So… Squadron Leader Higgins… ve meet again!
I’m sorry, have we actually…?
Nein, nein… I just like ze vay I sound vhen I say zat.

The show wastes exactly no time in getting down to the business of being the rudest, rowdiest, most in-your-face children’s edutainment ever — and they do mean business, if the drift is clear. If not, the endless parade of dead bodies may help it sink in…

In this episode:

Song: The Wives of Henry VIII (Ben as Henry VIII)

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — Pee-Sil Laundry Detergent (“Wee! And the dirt is gone!”)

Historical Hospital — Stone Age Medicine Man

Caveman Art Show — How to Preserve the Head of a Dead Relative

Stupid Deaths — Francis Bacon (caught pneumonia whilst experimenting with frozen chickens)

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Princess and the Pea, the Ancient Egyptian version (yay, she’s a princess! Time to die as a threat to the ruling Pharaoh!)

This is Your Reign — Henry VIII

One-offs:

Rotten Romans:

Urine Real Trouble Now (animated) — The cartoon centurion from the titles pops into the Shouty Man’s sketch to mention that Romans used pee as mouthwash. Everyone is so horrified that (in my imagination) they banish the animated characters from the live-action forever.

Measly Middle Ages

Mediaeval Loo Management — Possibly unsurprisingly, keeping the flame of humanity alive through the Dark Ages turns out to involve figuring out how to stop people pooping on passersby…

Woeful Second World War

Mary the Heroic Homing Pigeon (animated) — Forget the Polish and Czechs; some of the bravest RAF fliers weren’t even human.

Prisoners of War — In which we learn that Hogan’s Heroes may actually have been a documentary.

Slimy Stuarts

My Stuart Family: Keeping Up With the Joneses — Which apparently wasn’t any easier back when it involved non-microprocessor-intensive fruit.

Awful Egyptians

King Pepi’s Super-Sticky Anti-Fly Honey Slave — The good news for the Pharaoh’s house slaves: they didn’t have to build the Pyramids. The bad news? Well…

Pyramid Scheme — Being Pharaoh means never having to say you’re sorry for demanding that the Seventh Wonder of the World be your monument.

Terrible Tudors

Henry VIII in the Market Again (animated) — A succinct demonstration of the female reaction after one Tudor divorce too many.

Field Notes:

  • One of the main criticisms of the show is that it does a disservice to complex historical realities by isolating the ridiculous out of context. To which I would ordinarily respond, hello, requirements of an edutainment series =/= a textbook’s. The comedy’s intended to pique kiddy interest in the serious nuances, which is what matters.
  • But…I’m also a huge Tudor nerd. And when I see HH over the first few eps shamelessly playing up to the hoary (if admittedly far more media-friendly) legend, I can concede that, at the least, it took awhile for the bugs to be worked out of the process. While the books might be able to get away with cartoonishly evil caricatures, it’s rather more problematic on the level of sophistication the TV show was struggling for…
  • …and yes, I do realise I’m saying that about a show that also just based an entire sketch around two men being pooped on. (Note though how elegantly the blocking prevents anything from hitting their faces until the final embrace… really, a triumph of excrement wrangling.) A sketch consisting entirely of hauling out more and more of the Tudor executed still irks, because it’s just so damn pointless on any level, historical or comedic. (Generally speaking bodies are not funny until re-animated, hopefully in a shopping mall.)
  • All that said, the song is a fun and frankly impressive compression of Henry VIII’s convoluted marital history, and ol’Bluff King Hal himself would deservedly become one of the show’s iconic characters — extra-portrait-perfect here, before the makeup/costuming was simplified for routine use. Ben as noted almost can’t help but spring him to life; with not much work he could pass in a straight drama. If nothing else, his muttered asides (“Ha! The old Wolster!”) are just begging for a more deserving setting.
  • Several other best-beloved icons also debut here, to the point where this ep feels more like a pilot than the real one. Just a few minutes spent with Death and the Shouty Man (dibs on the New Wave band name!) and I’m willing to forgive anything… um, except possibly the return of the goofy live-action/animation interaction …oh, and [RANDOM EDUCATIONAL EARNESTNESS ALERT] the song lyrics. As in, on-screen. Which sort of makes me snicker unkindly, given Ben is speak-singing this thing with enunciation that would make Rex Harrison genuflect.
  • Come to consider it, they may have simplified future-Henry’s makeup to buy more time to buff up Death’s. The original look is weirdly minimalist, featuring large random patches of obviously live flesh, so the effect’s not so much Guardian of the Afterlife as Pretentious Student Film Extra, stuck alone and glowering behind a wretched cardboard check-in desk in exactly the manner of a cheap Bergman knockoff. I spend a lot of time, while rewatching Series One, regretting that they used up all the really good stupid deaths (like this one) before they upgraded.
  • Caveman Art Show… ‘now here’s a skull I prepared earlier!’…ARRGGHHHH I FRELLING LOVE THIS CONCEPT SO MUCH. (Love also for Mat & Jim onscreen together generally — the closest the show ever comes to that Pythonesque anticipation of intelligent anarchy). I was severely annoyed that they only made a couple of these bits, until I realised, y’know, cavemen, not exactly a wide selection of creative techniques available to demo in the first place. Still, you’d think they could’ve at least taken a break from the hunter-gathering long enough to master pastels or something.
  • Speaking of Mat, while the Modern Stuart Family is cute (“Yoo-hoo! Having lots of banana fun over here!”) what really impresses me about that sketch is him taking a full, unedited bite of an unpeeled banana. Let no one question this man’s dedication to his craft… on the other hand, questioning a craft that involves eating banana peels, sure, go nuts.
  • The modern Historical Hospital’s bizarre deference to Dr. Ugg notwithstanding —  Simon’s ooga-booga act is so unbelievably corny it’s possible the staff think they’re on Candid Camera — I am fascinated by the idea of tattooing treatments. Also with the, ah, high-pitched yelp our Benjamin lets out at the idea. If he ever achieves his dream of being cast as Bond he’d do well to have that footage burned, I’m thinking.
  • Undauntedly cheeky POW Squadron Leader Higgins, on the other hand, is much more like it (despite clearly being a lousy escape artist). Really, for Ben this ep is just one massive born-to-play-fest. Apparent inspiration Hogan’s Heroes, Teh Google informs perpetually-overestimating-the-good-taste-of-the-British me, did in fact make it overseas *muttermutter probably aired right after the Addams Family muttermutter* So hey, rock on ‘Commandant Klintzmann’, your hair has already won all the wars.
  • Ohhhhh, Larry. Had recalled it as being several more eps before he really brought the weird, but obviously I malign our resident redhead. Not so much that he (I’m assuming) conceived the idea of Pharaoh Pepi II Neferkare as an American infomercial pitchman — Ancient Egypt, Texas, same difference, right? You got your heat, your dust, your wealthy megalomaniacs with comical facial hair. What really impresses me is that he nails it. Absolutely. And in a later series it turns out that he’s also somehow absorbed arena rock ballads. Basically, Larry is a redneck, is what I’m saying. Only of course with way better beer.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, the show’s take on cavemen… everybody realises they most likely didn’t actually speak artfully-broken English and/or hop around like demented orang-utans being poked by Discovery Channel directors, right? You in the back?… OK, just checking.
  • Rattus gets a lot of comedy mileage out of Stone Age ‘trepanning’ here, as have many, many before him… but as he admits in a later ep, the newest research indicates a lot of cave-patients actually did survive having holes drilled in their heads (presumably being frankly too backward to realise they should be keeling over). You know, Reality, you are one hell of a buzzkill.
  • One more (small) reason for me to be cranky over the parade of Tudor bodies: one of King Henry’s eviscerated ‘advisors’, Thomas Culpeper, actually wasn’t. He was merely a favourite courtier, apparently because the King saw a great deal of his own younger self in the handsome, sporty young buck… which became severely ironic when Culpeper was discovered to have been bonking Queen Katharine Howard. It’s generally important, when reviewing Tudor history, to remember that while Harry and clan were undoubtedly (to various degrees) despotic tyrants, they were also extremely intelligent, complex people, and shrewd politicians besides. There was a reason behind every execution… just not always a good reason.
  • Although, the little animated bookend showing contestants running screaming from “Who Wants to Be Henry VIII’s New Queen?” auditions (not actually the plot of the sketch, although now that I think of it…) — anyhoo, that bit is 110% accu-rat. Around about wife hunt #4, it was getting very hard indeed to spin Henry as ideal marriage material, even in that notoriously pragmatic age. Christina Duchesse of Milan is reported to have quipped that if she had two heads, one of them would certainly be at the King’s service; while Marie de Guise (eventual mother of Mary Queen of Scots), suggested as worthy of the King’s stature, retorted that while she might be a big woman, “she had but a little neck.”
  • As per above, the song’s neat retelling of this convoluted marital history makes it a favourite of mine… with the tiny little proviso that Katharine Howard (the second ‘beheaded’) probably wasn’t nineteen. She was the eighth or so of ten children born to an obscure second son, and nobody bothered to record her birthdate for posterity — sources I’ve seen place her as anything from fifteen to twenty-four when she first came to court.
  • Meanwhile… I’ve spent quite some time on Google Images, staring earnestly at the homely alabaster visage of Pharaoh Pepi II, and have seen nothing to indicate that this was a man who liked to flounce around in a platinum wig with dryer lint glued to his chest. (Nor, I am truly sad to report, is this au courant among the Texas elite). On the other hand, you know that rule I imposed last entry, about not arguing with the history guru? That, plus new, similar rule about not messing with the makeup team. Their wound-simulation skills scare me.
 
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Posted by on December 21, 2012 in Series One

 

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S01E01

Me, I would`ve been more at home in a zoo…

The pilot is launched… and lands not only in the lap of a delighted juvenile nation but straight between the eyes of their parents. Four King Georges sing, pirates pontificate, good-looking men cavort at funerals, and a valuable lesson is learned about the perils of basing opening credits on Windows95 screensavers.

In this episode:

Song: Born 2 Rule (The 4 Georges: I [Ben], II [Mat], III [Simon], & IV [Jim])

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast —  WWI Shortages & Substitutions

Computer Game: Warrior! — Vikings vs. Monks

Historical Hairdressers — Viking Ear Spoons

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Three Little Pigs, the Georgian version (the brick house walls were blanked to avoid the window tax, so the third little piggy never saw his brothers coming…)

One-offs:

Rotten Romans:

Funeral Fight Club — How the Romans elevated tacky graveside behavior to a legendary sport.

High School Confrontational — What if “The Gladiators” weren’t just the mascots? The first of several imagine spots courtesy Rattus, complete with wavy dissolve cut and “Oooh, I’m imaginin’ it… I’m imaginin’ it!”

Frightful First World War:

Lice Warfare — Life in the trenches was so gross it requires a closeup of Jim’s cartoon-vermin-ridden stomach to explore fully.

Putrid Pirates:

The Black Spot(s) —  No, really, apparently this was an actual thing. Because obviously if you’re just gonna show up and put a knife into someone, then what’s the point of being a pirate?

The Pirate Rulebook — Arrrr, maties, now this is more like it!… sort of. The dreaded Captain Black Bart abruptly drops the timber-shivering to explain that on his ship, there’s no fighting, everyone has a vote and bedtime’s at 8pm sharp.

Savage Stone Age:

Sharp Stone, Blunt Stone — Now you too can own the (literal) cutting-edge cave tech! …Relentlessly adorable pitchman not included.

Stone-Age Burial — We know not with what rites the cavemen buried their dead, but we’re pretty sure it… didn’t go anything close to like this. (“And a little extra something to confuse the archaeologists who dig him up in years to come…”)

Gorgeous Georgians:

Window Tax — A short explanatory bit carrying on from the fairy tale, featuring the cartoon noblewoman from the title card and more live-action/animation interaction (thankfully no longer involving Jim’s stomach).

How to Vote in a Georgian Election — In which same is dissected with frank and funny (if mildly inadequate) outrage.

Field Notes:

  • Seriously, those opening titles are so eye-sporkingly not working as intended, which out of charity I will assume was to evoke the bright, cartoony feel of the book layouts. I do have an alternate and I think plausible theory involving quietly moving some extra $$ into the costume budget by outsourcing the F/X to somebody’s nephew who ‘fools around with that Photoshop thingy all the time’.
  • The theme tune, on the other hand, kicks all kinds of inappropriate-for-minors butt, basically turning a list of book titles into simoultaneous raw anticipation for the kiddies and mounting horror for their parents.
  • The general idea was clearly to impress a much older audience; except the ‘Ready Steady Feast’ skit of course, which was purely and patently designed to send same — including me! — running to the loo, thereby cementing it in children’s minds as THE MOST AWESOME TV SHOW EVER. Or whatever kids are using to mean ‘awesome’ these days, it suddenly occurs to me I don’t know. Have I mentioned I’m forty? At any rate, whatever it is, that’s what they were calling it.
  • For a pilot, though, generally the sophistication is impressive. Front-loading the first ep of a new series with the critical bait would actually become something of a tradition, and in keeping, this one resembles a later ep much more than anything to come in the first series, right down to the proto-music video. The few overtly kiddie/educational elements — the random animation segues and strict “era sketch-quiz-sketch” structure — were the only ones later abandoned.
  • In related news, for some reason cartoon German lice are red, thus ruining a perfectly good Communist lice joke opportunity for future WWII sketches.
  • Fun with media realities: In the press release for the series debut, none of the eventual main cast are mentioned. In the actual series debut, the Two Really Hot Ones are blatantly front-and-centre in nearly every sketch, with able support from… whatever wildly-inappropriate thing Jim’s doing in the ‘Sharp Stone’ sketch. (My viewing notes at that point read “relentlessly eye#@!-ing the camera?!”, and frankly I can’t find a better way to put it.)
  • Funny all round, how many of their signature schticks arrived fully-formed — Ben even gets to exclaim “Oh look! Sausages!” in a campy German accent. Besides which I do love me some Incongruous Yuppie Ben… also Pirate Mat, despite some very questionable facial hair.
  • Meanwhile, Larry’s off enjoying a rare lead role in a sketch. You can already tell he doesn’t expect this front-of-the-camera gig to amount to much, because his gladiator school instructor is simply Cleese’s drill sergeant in “Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit,” with the serial numbers just barely filed off.
  • Somehow, Mat in a WWI trench sketch always makes me really uneasy, in a sort of “things must be massively bad if they let HIM past the physical” way. I spend the whole sketch — even the ones where he’s not actually dying of exposure — imagining him dying of exposure ten minutes later.
  • Something else that always startles me a little in this ep is the flat-out political ranting, Gleefully exposing stupidity will of course become a hallmark in future but I don’t ever recall it being this specifically angry.
  • “Born 2 Rule” got a lot of attention for its audacity and attention to detail (specially Mat’s), and deservedly so. But in retrospect, it’s clear the music took centre stage because of it, not before. The set is minimal, the choreography is offhand at best (compare the snappy, complex moves in “The Few”, three series later), and, well, Ben and Simon are singing lead. Frankly we’re all really lucky they didn’t put up the bouncing-ball lyrics (again, look critics, sophistication, always sophistication!)
  • Still, it’s taken on a whole new level of loveliness, watching the four of them together and realising it’s just the first step of the journey. And what a long, strange trip it would be…

95% Accu-rat:

  • The obvious bloopers in the song — ie., ’twas George II actually died on the loo, and George III was in reality his grandson — are legendary by now. All the props to the producers, though, for very publicly correcting themselves in the Prom Special.
  • There was a [REDACTED] paragraph in here complaining about the Black Spot being an entirely fictional concept, prior to the show’s historical consultant informing me personally that it’s been ‘attested to prior to [Robert Louis] Stevenson’. Not that I could find, but will be shutting up now in keeping with my new policy: Don’t Argue With the Man Who Reads History Books for a Living.
  • On the other hand, the ‘Pirate Rulebook’ is a deservedly classic example of sorting the stranger truth from the fiction — although the ‘8pm bedtime’ rule apparently in reality went “The lights and candles should be put out at eight at night, and if any of the crew desire to drink after that hour they shall sit upon the open deck without lights“. This distinction became very important one morning when Captain Bartholomew Roberts’ crew were still too drunk from a victory celebration the night before to repel an enemy boarding party… exit Black Bart, unceremoniously.
  • Somehow, everyone manages to work their panties into an unprecedented bunch over Georgian elections without (audibly) mentioning the most egregiously corrupt aspect of the whole thing — the ‘rotten borough‘, basically an electoral district with few-to-no actual inhabitants, controlled as shown by the nearest aristocratic family. The hapless sole landowner in the sketch would in reality have long since realised his vote was the merest formality.
 
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Posted by on December 16, 2012 in Series One

 

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