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Category Archives: The background

The cast, continued

When you review it nonstop for five series, one thing becomes very, very obvious: Besides all the professional accolades, the adoration from children and adults alike, the chances to not only meet but share a stage with comedy legends and the occasional prancing around the Royal Albert Hall dressed in Viking armour… being the starring cast behind Horrible Histories was above all just a whole lot of fun.

…well, barring the possibility of accidentally stumbling on certain fanfics. OK, also the filming in scanty costumes in the late English autumn, that seems to come up a lot in interviews. (Mostly from B. Willbond, in whose memoirs the chapter dealing with this show–hopefully titled Pushing Benjamin’s Buttons–is clearly going to be a corker.)

Still it was all mitigated by the fact that “Mat, Simon, Martha, Jim, Larry and Ben” had in the process rather miraculously become, not only as tight and balanced a bonafide comedy troupe as one could hope from people routinely playing cavemen, but the best of friends behind the scenes–or the playground, as they put it. Real, non-scripted friends, the kind who work on each other’s random vanity projects and chatter together on Twitter and then happily go out and get drunk together despite the heightened potential for career-destroying Twitter pics.

Granted, a certain amount of mutual goodwill might’ve been expected to emanate from people guileless and generous-hearted enough to devote five prime years of their lives to making intelligent children’s comedy. On the other hand, the bit where, when their playground was pulled out from under, their first concern was not to desert the ship but to find another one they could all steer together… not quite so common, that. Especially not in comedy, wherein success is predicated on who can garner the most attention to themselves. Founding uber-inspirations Monty Python barely made it through three initial series intact, if Michael Palin’s diaries are to be believed. How much more so the stars of a kiddy series, who might safely be assumed to be chomping at the bit to resume their ‘real’ grownup careers?

Which, in fact, they hadn’t been neglecting in the interim. Simon ended up in both the Boosh movie and as a pet-turtle-owning neighbor in the sitcom version of The Midnight Beast, whilst somehow simoultaneously developing into a plausible documentary presenter. Ben maintained a less eccentric albeit equally full guest-starring schedule, including a recurring role on The Thick of It, while nurturing his short film Tooty’s Wedding around the festival circuit. Jim supplemented his quasi-regular status on Peep Show with a kind-to-his-pocket(-if-not-his-dignity…) stint as an O2-shilling faun. Larry kept up his freelance writing with partner George Sawyer. Martha joined friends for various Edinburgh Festival shows. And Mat, alongside the co-starring role in Darren Boyd’s Spy, had juggled being James Corden’s personal friend during the latter’s public nadir deftly enough to become the co-creator and -star of Corden’s wildly successful 2013 TV comeback, sitcom/action-film spoof The Wrong Mans. 

…Thing is, somewhere in there, they’d all also really gotten into using the restrictions of tots’ TV as a spur to pure creativity. In particular, Mat and Ben had been kicking around a film idea based on their mutual love for, of all things, ’80s fantasy movies. Yes, that unique period in children’s cinema history during which Hollywood’s conviction that ‘fuzzy puppet’ must automatically = ‘family-friendly’ reached its most memorably mistaken zenith. This, CGI-jaded readers, would be why your parents still will not shut up about The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth, Return to Oz and all the other “lo-fi” variants on the tale of an ordinary kid forced into a quest through some bizarre magical otherworld, during which s/he learns Valuable Life Lessons up to and including avoidance of David Bowie’s crotch at all costs. (Hey, I said the characters learned lessons, not the audiences.)

Leaving the crotch thing out of it for now–although [spoiler alert] trust me, we’ll be getting back to it soon–those so impressed clearly included our newly formed troupe, who pounced on the idea of a Hensonian odyssey as on manna to their purpose-starved souls. You can practically hear the pieces clicking into place, like creative dominoes: The fantasy setting meant they could maintain the familiar, child-friendly costume-and-character-driven comedy style (or as Willbond put it, “continue to raid the dress-up box and speak in silly voices”) and the cross-demographic nostalgia for same meant they could still mess about with adult parody in the process. The newcomer-on-a-quest format naturally lent itself to self-contained vignettes within a larger plot. Said lone newcomer would of course be played by the lone female of the troupe, while the five very different males could equally obviously tackle the many different–and decidedly loopy–characters she would be expected to meet along the way.

It would be called Yonderland, and it would be all theirs, unfettered by anyone else’s thematic or stylistic quirks. They would create the world, write the stories, and–most importantly, it must be assumed, after a half-decade of never knowing when you’d be playing the guy covered in poop–design the characters. They could play anybody. Almost. Anybody they couldn’t play, but could still imagine, could be those (quite possibly literally) damned puppets. Because Henson’s associates Baker Coogan were still out there, and still dedicated to embodying the daffily weird in felt. The only thing truly missing was Bowie’s magnificent package… then again, they were British, there were workarounds for that.

It was, in sum, the single most elaborate plan to avoid breaking up The Group ever envisioned. Now, all they had to do was get somebody to pay for it.

Which is where fantasy series make a hard right at reality: they are, especially ones predicated on the extensive use of lovingly-crafted, man-hour-intensive niche artistry, about the furthest thing TV knows from cheap. This is presumably why seemingly natural allies the BBC weren’t even mentioned as potential sponsors for this one. Nor were any of the other mainstream UK channels (all, like, four of them). Clearly, this was a job for cable… yes, ‘cable’ means something slightly different in the UK than the US. Slightly. Keep those workarounds in mind, is all I’m saying.

Enter SkyOne, an offshoot of the Murdoch empire best-known for endlessly running American imports and (understandably, esp. if you’ve seen the last couple Simpsons seasons) lately very eager to get on with making their original mark. So eager, in fact, that for the first last and I’m guessing only time in TV history, when six Twitter buddies showed up in a boardroom and pitched the perfect Sunday evening family viewing as “The new 80’s-influenced comedy project from the adult cast of an historical kiddie edutainment, except totally not historical, unless maybe you count the puppets”, many perfectly sober executives immediately began laying plans for the moss-and-Mojo-themed premiere venue.

And–as you may be suspecting by now–they weren’t disappointed. As it turned out, this crew still had a lot of joyously guileless lunacy to give. Which they did, eight nonstop episodes’ woth, with all the verve required of a troupe that an adoring cadre of TV critics (who clearly also weren’t disappointed) had already dubbed a latter-day Python for the pint-sized set… even as the same troupe continued to insist that they saw no particular distinction between adult and children’s programming. As ever, they were making Yonderland for no particular demographic but themselves.

And it was… well, it was at least worth individual episode recaps. So I’ve done some, beginning in the new year. More standard formatting this time, as more standard episode structure involved, but pretty much the same… um, whatever it is I’ve applied to the HH episodes. Sort of funny, sort of serious, and always in search of fresh synonyms for ‘sophisticated’.*

*No, really, I’m getting a bit desperate over here. Please send thesaurus.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2014 in The background, Yonderland

 

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Meta-stuff: And then there were… six?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Interlude: Historical edutainment, American-style

Given that one of the major themes of this project has become the different ways British and American media approach children’s TV, I thought it’d be entertaining, if not actually instructive, to take a look at the latter’s most notable attempt to bring history lessons to the smaller set: Histeria!

It all started in 1996, when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally put their foot down and announced “no really, you guys, we’re serious!” about the Children’s Television Act of 1990. Notably, the clause providing that broadcast stations must set aside three hours each week for children’s programs that have educational content.

Around the same time, Warner Bros. Animation was having a mini-renaissance, overseen by one Steven Spielberg along with veteran kiddy-show writer Tom Ruegger. Thus far the combo had produced the likes of Animaniacs!, Freakazoid, Pinky & the Brain and Tiny Toon Adventures. Not sure how far these penetrated across the pond, but over here their ubiquitousness was such that when Spielberg & co. announced that their idea of fulfilling the new educational-content mandate was a similarly outrageous slapstick take on history, the response from fledgling The WB network was “Sure! Have lots of money and resources!”

The result was the 1998 debut of Histeria!, and it really was quite a show. Featuring a troupe of offbeat types including Father Time, Loud Kiddington and Miss Information (as voiced by a much more respectable cast than their names deserved) and taking full advantage of the fact that nobody was really expecting the creators of Slappy Squirrel to earnestly mould young minds, the show instead scampered cheerfully through ‘fact-based’ skits and songs in very much the same manner as its predecessors, except namechecking historical icons instead of current celebrities.

In fact, it looks familiar on several levels: the relentless barrage of pop-culture references, the song spoofs (notably ‘Trustbuster’ Teddy Roosevelt taking on literal greedy capitalist pigs to the tune of Ghostbusters), the jokes blatantly designed to sail over the younger set’s heads. They refused — in an American context, at least — to be sanitized, and even managed to push boundaries. Including the first last and only sanctioned swearing under the PG-Y rating — because “War is heck!” and “Darn the torpedoes…!” sounded too stupid even for the FCC.

In more direct comparison to Horrible Histories, it was wildly unfocussed, frenetic and unsubtle; the British idea of history as self-deprecating satire just doesn’t have an equivalent in the American psyche, and so the latter never did bother to master the next step, essential to HH’s growing sophistication, of recognizing the funny inherent within the facts themselves. But for all that Histeria! did manage to be decently faithful to its premise, and chuckle-worthy with it…

…so naturally, nobody watched. Also, budget overruns, to the tune of $10 million. Planned for the usual 65 episodes, it eventually only ran for 52, and was essentially given up by its parent network — which really could’ve used a flagship hit right about then. Instead, they quietly let the show languish until 2000, and didn’t bother even to re-run it much past that. Its one unique angle may have proved too awkward to promote to its native audience either as education or entertainment, and it lacked any other established reason to exist (a la the HH books). Shortly thereafter, the whole slate of WB-style silliness would be swamped by the rising new trend of imported anime hits.

Still, Histeria! has a ferociously loyal cult following to this day. As proof I offer the show’s TVTropes page, which you’ll note lists fanfic recommendations. Again, for a series featuring something called The Big Fat Baby. Enter at your own risk.

Or, more reasonably, have this YouTube playlist, which as far as I can tell contains the hilights. Bonus: this odd little mashup that *ahem* marries Henry VIII’s HH song with the Histeria! visuals, with very cute results.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2013 in The background

 

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The cast, themselves

In the case of Horrible Histories — which you’ll recall from the previous entry as the children’s TV show making a bold bid for adult credibility — casting must’ve looked damn near impossible. Or, as they put it in press release-speak, “we spent some time finding just the right people to take on this unique challenge.”

Yeah, no kidding. The corner they had backed themselves into looked something like this:

Wanted: Character comedians sophisticated enough to pull off sketch comedy at a Python-esque level, yet willing enough to do so in the service of a children’s series. Must be charismatic enough to convincingly play historical heroes (and distract mums from the bodily fluids), yet amenable to having same routinely doused under beards, scars, dirt and of course fluids… frequently while singing and dancing…. Oh, did we mention the musical talent?

What eventually sealed the show’s credibility with any and all demographics was the discovery that, yes, such people exist — at least, around a dozen of them (plus a few more who took a flier along the way).

It would of course be asking far too much of the artistic fates for fully six of that dozen — one of whom wasn’t even originally hired as a performer — to naturally form a note-perfect comedy troupe… which may be one reason why they weren`t immediately acknowledged as such. That collectively they didn’t have enough name recognition to front a Wonder Bread commercial may also have factored in. At any rate, like everything else about the first series, casting became a matter of sorting the show everyone wanted to make from… well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

Eventually — ie., like everything else about the second series — they’d figured out what worked, and since then all things officially HH have starred that same sextet. In alphabetical order:

Mathew (Mat) Baynton — The skinny dark one with the gorgeous great eyes… yes, Dick Turpin, that one. Also, Charles II. The youngest member of the troupe, he has somehow contrived to be a strikingly beautiful, talented, Continentally-trained clown and indie-folk musician whilst remaining likeably funny and engaging throughout, which must be at least one definition of genius. At any rate, when added to an uncanny knack for genre mimicry, it qualifies him as the natural star of both the show’s music videos and its various fan-fictional spinoffs. More recently, it also merited a children’s BAFTA nom for Best Performer.

Simon Farnaby — The tall, squinty-eyed older one with the vaguely enigmatic air and yellow curls. (Not that this last is usually obvious, as it turns out very few historical figures had dandelion-fluff heads… their loss, frankly.)  Imported, apparently much to his vaguely enigmatic bemusement, from The Mighty Boosh troupe; spends most of his HH screentime investing irredeemably dark and/or eccentric characters — Death, Caligula, that sort of thing — with the same combination of absolute commitment to the crazy and childish glee in its possibilities.

Martha Howe-Douglas —  The beautiful blonde one with the great singing voice and a decided flair for WWII fashion. Also a highly capable comedienne, with a persona generic enough to be versatile yet strong enough to be memorable — as tends to be required on a show  that mainly compensates for charting the White Man’s Route to Western Civilization by spotlighting the fiercest icons of herstory (Elizabeth I, Boudicca, Cleopatra, Victoria). At any rate, it was enough to score her the second of the show’s Best Performer BAFTA noms.

Jim Howick — The short, plump, deceptively cuddly-looking one, next-to-youngest and probably the most impressive all-round talent the show can boast. Certainly the only one to date to actually win that Best Performer BAFTA…. by virtue of his range and skill as a vocalist (fine enough to make even George IV’s fits of self-pity touching), celebrity impersonator (up to and including Rodrigo Borgia as the papal Godfather) and all-round nailer of even the most vile villains, whiny royals and bombastic hucksters with zero loss of viewer desire to own the fuzzy plushie version.*

Laurence (Larry) Rickard — The redheaded** one with the striking bright bIue eyes, deep voice and general air of off-the-wall quirkiness; largely due to his actually being hired as a writer, only to be summarily promoted from back of the camera to front in the first series after creating Bob Hale, ‘News at When’ special correspondent, and his extended monologues. Having thus proven his natural knack for the ridiculous, and with nothing else particularly to lose, he simply carried on filling odd comedic corners as needed and before long was established as the go-to ‘character actor’.

Ben Willbond — The very British one, with the looks of the dashing-yet-wholesome hero of a between-wars dime novel — “just six feet in his socks”, “boyish grin and honest blue eyes”, all that sort of thing — and the manner of the same hero’s particularly upright, uptight Civil Service foil. Somewhere in the middle is a sophisticated comedian self-aware enough to use each to play up the absurdity of the other — much to the benefit of both HH’s larger-than-life swashbucklers (Henry VIII, Sir Francis Drake) and awkward wannabes (war correspondent Mike Peabody).

The other half-dozen:

Lawry Lewin — The seventh member of the starring troupe in all but actual billing. Bears an uncanny resemblance to a stick insect, assuming said insect to be the star of a cheap-but-earnest educational cartoon (probably called “Scotty the Stick Insect Learns to Just Be Himself”)***. Proved his comedic worth as Simon’s understudy in Series Two and is since routinely brought on when what’s needed is neurotic/vulnerable rather than outright crazy. Along those lines, also does a killer takeoff of pop-science presenter Brian Cox.

Sarah Hadland — The petite, older, very Northern original female lead and approximately seven-tenths of its star power to begin with, she left the show after the first series and returned as ‘Also Starring’ in the fourth. Funny but dependent on a jarringly shrill schtick that can get wearing after awhile — and which became awkward in another way when she was paired with our overtly boyish leads.

Dominique Moore, Alice Lowe, Katy Wix — The remainder of the main female support, all strong solo comediennes in their own right, who pop in-and-out as their schedules permit. Moore, who is black, fills in most of the diversity requirement and possesses a killer singing voice; Lowe can also sing and is particularly brought on when a part requires overt delicacy and/or femininity (ie. Marie Antoinette).

Javone Prince — The other notable regular of colour, apparently shaping up as a member of the starring troupe before disappearing without trace after Series One. A great and game performer, but hamstrung as a perpetually rather obvious potential victim of “What`s the Black Guy Doing in Sherwood Forest?” Syndrome, so confined mostly to the Ancient Egyptian sketches.****

And finally, what kiddie series would be complete without a loveable anthropomorphic mascot? Meet “your host, a talking rat”:

Rattus Rattus (puppeteer John Eccleston) — Named for his species (ie., the black rat), as a riff on a similarly anonymous rat character from the books and a pleasingly historical-sounding reference into the bargain. Lives in a tastefully-appointed hole down the Time Sewers and  — with the aid of a nifty line in teeny temporal accessories — appears in short bridging segments between sketches, explaining and clarifying the factual backdrop… in his own inimitable fashion (on the Black Death: “So that’s Rats 1, Humans 0.”).

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*This extends to freakin’ Nero.

**OK, yes, actually chestnut-which-has-some-red-in-it. Semantics nerds, you may want to abandon hope here and save time before entering the reviews.

***Possibly the companion to this.

****There have been no Hispanic or Arabic regulars to date; those parts are usually handled by the white leads wearing fake tans, which of course doesn’t carry near the Unfortunate Implications it would this side of the pond (and thus is reason #98,453 why this show will likely never make it to America, even late-night PBS).

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2012 in The background

 

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A bit of background… or, why I’m not completely crazy

Assigned circa 1992 to write a “kids’ history book with a couple of jokes thrown in”, UK performer-turned-children’s-author Terry Deary wound up instead producing Horrible Histories: the exact flipside of the exquisitely balanced, benignly supportive world postulated by the likes of Elmo and Dora.

Instead of conscientiously demonstrating what human nature should be, the HH books revel in the vast black comedy (and that mostly of errors) that it actually, inevitably is.

Somehow, his young readers’ minds declined to be blown by this revelation. Possibly because it also comes naturally packed with just the sort of bodily-fluid-filled gags that warm their tiny hearts. At any rate, one multi-media franchise in thirty languages later, books like Vicious Vikings and Terrible Tudors have become best-beloved classics.

Thus, when it inevitably came time for the CBBC (roughly, the UK equivalent of PBS Kids) to get involved in a live-action adaptation, it was obvious that there was no way to create a typical children’s series of this material. But then again, neither was there license to go the adult route.

So the producers came up with the archetypal plan so crazy it just might work: take the third, entirely demographically-neutral option of sheer creativity, and see where that would lead them. Basically, they would create a kid’s show on the assumption that the kid in question was the precocious history nerd offspring of Monty Python & Rowan Atkinson. (In my head he looks a lot like the kid from Spy, only in a sweater vest instead of a suit.)

Anyway, short version: it worked, to the tune of (as of current date) one hit show across four series and multiple demographics, five children’s BAFTAs (for writing, performance and 3x Best Comedy), plus two British Comedy Awards for Best Sketch Comedy and a six-part prime-time ‘Best of’ hosted by Stephen Fry.

The longer version, as covered in these posts, involves a sewer rat named Rattus presiding over a randomly irreverent multi-era romp along the rocky road to Western Civilization, via a mix of live-action sketches intercut with quizzes, short animated bits, and at least one song per episode (later expanded into a full-blown music video).

All of which frequently involve parodies of current UK media programs and/or personalities, and are always prone to veering off in hilariously unexpected — and/or bodily-fluid-intensive — directions. It’s a ‘family show’ in pretty much the exact same way the Muppet Show was, if the drift is clear. (Right down to the goofy accents.)

Oh, and the cast… well, come to think of it, they’re an entire post all on their own.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2012 in The background

 

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