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S05E10

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

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

Measly Middle Ages

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

Gorgeous Georgians

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

Troublesome Twentieth Century

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

Terrible Tudors

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S05E09

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

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

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

Rotten Romans

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

Measly Middle Ages

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

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

Terrible Tudors

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

Vile Victorians

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

Savage Stone Age

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S05E08

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

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

Vicious Vikings

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

Potty Pioneers

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

Shocking Scotland

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

Woeful Second World War

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

Rotten Romans

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S05E07

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

YOU MAY TAKE OUR LIVES!

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

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

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

Terrible Tudors

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

Gorgeous Georgians

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

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

Awful Egyptians

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

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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Meta-stuff: And then there were… six?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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S05E06

No, no, I’m not Amundsen either! I’m Ernest Shackelton!
So you weren’t first or second?
Actually… my team never made it at all.
Oh, great. Because films about massive losers who never achieve anything make such big hits!

We’re half-way closer to the finale and the show’s creative flailing has finally settled down into… whatever this is. Given that ‘this’ is sometimes clever, mostly charming and always unpredictable… and, not incidentally, has some kickass music… it’s possible to be very good indeed with that.

In this episode:

Song:  Alexander the Great — Ben as the original all-conquering hero decides his massive ego can only be expressed via the majesty of stadium rock. Featuring his all-star backup: Larry as Ptolemy on lyre, Jim as Hephaestion on bass, and Mat… on drums.

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — New! Roman Dog (“The cuddly companion who puts the’ fur’ into multi-furpose!” “Um, the wart’s still there…?” “It’s a very small dog, mate.”)

Come Dine With Me — Georgian (“The Prince Regent’s guests have arrived and are ready to eat. Although King George III is having trouble parking his invisible kangaroo.” “Whoaaaa there, kangaroo! Down, boy!”)

Historical Grimefighters — Alexander Fleming’s lab, 1928 (“Extraordinary!” “Not really mate, that’s what happens when you go on holiday and leave your dirty dishes…”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Ernest Shackelton Project (“Ohhh… then you must be Amundsen, they guy who got there before Scott! …Apparently, he used dogs to pull the sledges.” “Were these talking dogs?” “Lady and the Tramp go skiing?! It’s a yes from me!”)

CD Set — Now That What Me Call Music! (Available at last from Neanderthal Records! Featuring the first-ever musical notes played on the first-ever instrument… “Including the ground-breaking Three Notes in Any Old Order… and the smash hit, Smash Hit!”)

HHTV Sport — Live from the Pirate Races, monk-riding event final (“Pirates are a twisted lot, they take particular pleasure in tormenting these religious men…” “Oop, and Brother Carlos has trod on a nail! There goes his vow of silence…”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

We Are Amused… Unfortunately — Queen Victoria’s theoretically solemn coronation hits some less-than-dignified notes in practice. (“I now pronounce you Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland… the Duke of Ancaster and the Duke of Cornwall.” “…Really?” “It’s what it says ‘ere…”)

Facial Feud — Meanwhile, Prince Albert’s moustaches are of course just unspeakably ridiculous–until they become the fashion after facial hair saves lives in the Crimea. No, really. (“Do I look like an idiot to you?!” “Um… little bit… around the lips…?”)

Rotten Romans

Chou d’Amour — Ancient medicine: how to become a revered, wise elder statesman and convinced that cabbage is the ultimate universal cure-all simoultaneously.

Groovy Greeks

Alexander the Great: The Board Game — Play it until no one will play it with you anymore! Why yes, it does come with multiple expansion packs, which Alex insisted be played one after another…after another… and another… (“Wait guys, don’t go home yet!” *unveils Conquest of Persia pack*  “Are you sure? I mean, it’s getting a bit late…?” “Yeah, maybe we should quit while it’s still fun?” “Well, I’m still having fun–and It’s. My. Game. *snif snif*“)

Savage Stone Age

Historical Springwatch — ‘Excitable wildlife enthusiasts’ explore the hidden lives of Pleistocene-era wildlife… mostly, the part where they get eaten by Pleistocene-era man.  (“Oi, you there! Did you never stop to think that people in the future might actually want to see giant panthers, giant sloths, even giant sabretooth tigers…” *grrrrrrrrrrrowllll* “…Er, actually you have my permission to kill this one, heh heh. Wait, where are you going?!”)

Putrid Pirates

Translating from the Pirate (is a Bad, Bad Idea) — Yes, the fabled buccaneer dialect involved more than just howling “Arrrrr!” every three seconds. No, learning that still doesn’t make your drunk self any less annoying on Talk Like a Pirate Day. (“Arrrrr! Paul, sew ‘is mouth up!” “Translation, please?” “… ‘sew-his-mouth-up’?” “…” “Well, ah…shiver my timbers. I think I’ve just filled my keel with bilge.”)

Field Notes:

  • Right, here we are then: the half-way mark. Only six more half-hours left to go, and… I’m finding myself increasingly OK with this, honestly.* (*Future Shoe: Yeah, yeah, hindsight’s 20/20. Just you wait until she has to revisit the finale song…)
  • …Sorry, did anyone else just feel a vaguely portentous temporal breeze? Hm. Anyway, thing is, nothing so far has happened to convince me that the cast–and their quite frankly exciting potential as a comedy troupe–weren’t the only things really worth salvaging from what’s become a very familiar story of failed redefinition. (Albeit the fact that it’s nearly two years later and you lot still haven’t elevated Howick into an adorably neurotic sidekick in a hit sitcom–at the very least–is doing bad things to my estimation of the British comedy scene, let me tell you.)
  • The one interesting corollary I’ve discovered on closer inspection is that the cast themselves–having already set Yonderland in motion–were very likely themselves deep into the Acceptance stage of grief. Further, that the rest of the creative team were probably also mostly uninterested in putting in the work that would’ve been required to either recapture the gleefully anarchistic HH vibe (by then being handled very competently by the stage shows anyway) or to transform the new, more quixotic sensibilities into something viable. The seemingly random giddiness of S5 becomes much more understandable–not to say pleasantly watchable–when you realise it very likely emanates straight from everyone’s huge relief at having finally admitted all this to themselves.
  • It certainly helps to explain the music, if nothing else. Yes, I may be saying that sheer what-the-hell giddiness was responsible for the decision to definitively anoint Willbond as a hard-rock legend, because c’mon, Willbond. Sure, there was William Wallace, but there was also the distinct possibility that that was the one day Starbucks accidentally served Ben the dark roast. Unless they were first about to dramatically unveil evidence that Alexander the Great was actually Glaswegian, I was sceptical.
  • And I was also, as you may have already guessed, completely wrong, and pleased I am to admit it. The revelation that Willbond the Prince of Pickup Truck Radio was totally not a fluke hit my delighted-amazement centres with a solidly satisfying thunk. And in all that extra ‘youthful’ eye makeup, yet. (Must admit, though, they managed to make him look much more convincingly… well, not youthful exactly. Much less likely to distract the audience with the attempt to make him look youthful, let’s leave it at that.) Anyway, well done, Benjamin. I feel that something valuable has been taught and received about cultural prejudices here, and you’ve got my support for a co-starring role in a Russell Crowe film anytime you need it.
  • The critical centres, meanwhile received more sort of a thud. Alex has a lot more hard, dry fact to get through in his song–also, not nearly as deserving of a finale-joke-worthy death–bogging it down somewhat in strict comparison with the savage abandon that was Wallace romping through the English corpses. On the other hand, the staging here totally represents a clear awesomeness upgrade on the Wallace video. As does the neat balance between authentic larger-than-life heroism and Tom Clancy-esque campiness that suddenly makes me realise I should’ve known Ben was capable of this all along.
  • The rest of the casting, however, not so much with the revelatory excitement. So that wasn’t Hephaestion Mat was playing in the previous sketch? They took him off guitar and Jim off drums, just to gratuitously switch that up? Ooookay, show, your call. And I can totally see where Mat’s ability to keep a straight face at key musical moments was valuable elsewhere. It’s just that… um… Jim’s your considered pick as the bestest buddy of the all-conquering world-bestriding legendary military genius for the ages, huh?  In that beard? No no, just a little ouchie on the suspension of disbelief there, nothing fatal, carry on.
  • So yes, this whole thing was very likely initially designed around a callback to That Thing Where Ben Sniffed Mat, and no, I’m not as appreciative of this as I probably should be, even given the inherent (splendid, if intentional) sly meta-wit involved in switching exquisite young Baynton out for cuddly bearded Howick. As discussed in the S01E04 entry I’m the one fan who wasn’t all that… excited… by the original follicular violation (if it wasn’t obvious by now, my Willbond feels tend to run in a very different, more *ahem* cultural direction). I did enjoy it a lot as an intriguing moment of real menace–sexual or otherwise–in the midst of silly comedy; which of course is the one aspect that’s utterly destroyed by turning it into a running gag.
  • On the other hand, they are still fully invested in the lively, multilayered parody typical of the board game sketches, so I was actually going along just fine with the whole thing right up until I had to watch Ben and Jim trying to hold it together long enough to re-enact The Snuffle-ening. Besides, as it turns out, all that over-the-top hissing I thought was merely Ben laurel-resting last series was actually entirely self-aware, and is growing on me accordingly.
  • On a related note, I think I’ve just realised why Shouty Man suddenly looks oddly flushed from some angles; evidently Jim had just come from this bit, and there wasn’t time to break out the fully industrial-strength orange remover. See, um, Baynton at least already has olive skin, makeup team I am now thinking may have been subbing for the regulars and lost their list of reminders first thing. Or maybe, to be fair, that’s the makeup for the dimly lit video being reused for economical reasons. Even so, you’d think “When it comes to fake tan and pleather armour, bright white lighting is so not your friend!” would’ve made it onto a warning poster or something at film production college. I dunno.
  • Or, OK, maybe everyone was just distracted by the darling doggie. Hi Tumblr, if you aren’t already totes ded from all teh kitteh adorablez, it’s time to meet Eric the mini-Dachshund puppy. The little guy is nominally the pet of line producer Caroline Norris but is clearly–and correctly–convinced the entire world must be at his feet, working the camera like a seasoned pro. He only fails to steal the show completely because he and the human are an even more perfect double act.
  • Howick having playtimes with the ickle bitty puppy, well, what I was saying last week about his coming with insulin trigger warnings? This here would be Defcon Level Five. Not to mention the plushie just found himself a cute animal companion for the deluxe edition, name and all.
  • That said, I must spare a hug for the writer on this particular SM bit for smartly playing the adorable off the pragmatic snarkiness until the whole ratchets back up onto a level of purely entertaining marketing satire Shouty hasn’t visited for some time now, apparently being too distracted by the tiaras and whatnot. Very satisfying indeed to have you back on target, Jim. Even if we’re likewise back insisting that WARTS BE HIDEOUS ABOMINATIONS THAT MUST INDUCE  SHAME IN ALL WHO SUFFER THEM, which trend has got me mildly concerned I must admit. Is this a localised phobia, or another cross-cultural thing? Did I miss a bit of the Saint George story, and it turns out the dragon had eczema?
  • …Oh hey, look, everybody, I made a clever segue! You know, because there’s Georges in the new Come Dine With Me, and… fine, I’ll just be over here in a corner with the rat, he’s having a great time. No, really. I don’t know what was holding him back until now, but hellloooo, S3-era standup-wannabe Rattus and–among many other things–your frankly hysterical fit of bishop-phobia. Did Eccleston ever fancy himself a Spitting Image-esque satirist? ‘Cos he’s just made a slam-dunk audition tape right there.
  • *ahem* Right, yes, still a responsible adult critic person, and–Awwww, Simon finally gets his shot at the beef tree and kangaroo gags–basically, at being George III again, outside the Prom. Now there’s a callback I can absolutely get behind.
  • However I am still here to critique, so must admit that creatively the whole Georgian CDWM is a wee bit lazy–as neatly encapsulated by the suddenly all matchy-matchy crazy royalty. The luxe blue velvet is a nice costuming upgrade, but there’s just no way in hell IV as lovingly established up to now would show up to dinner in the same fashion as Dad, or stay there if Dad showed up in the same fashion as him… and having now carefully thought same through, with appropriate mental images, I’m sort of sad that I’ll never get to see IV’s freakout scene for real.
  • Although… there is something genuinely clever, not to say even more heartwarming, in the way IV hands off all his dynasty’s born-to-rule boorishness to the steadily more inclusive future — in the form of an extra plate of curry, because of course. On the further subject of which, unnamed but actual actor of colour playing Dean Mahomed adds a welcome touch of novelty among, um, other things. Well, no, I didn’t really think they’d do Mat up in a turban this time, but… yeah.
  • Sublime costuming distractions are of course among the standard incidental pleasures of the Victorian sketches, and they’re all fully on the go in the latest glimpses of court life. Besides which, the return of Al Murray and his muttonchops (…roughly in that order), maintaining the likeability even if he is still a bit too over-excited from filming the Dickens video to bother actually getting into character or anything. Nice economical use of the guest star, there–actually, come to consider it, the convenient existence of those ‘chops are a nice plausible explanation for the existence of this whole bit.
  • Another good one: Ben turning hideously awkward exposition into a wince-worthy burn whilst wearing the uniform jacket from a road-show Nutcracker production. Really, the Willbondian mojo’s making quite the flamboyant comeback this episode. Besides which: silly-ass Larry smearing cake on himself. Yeah, totally worth it.
  • Other smile-making goodness: Simon’s ecclesiastical gravity, back where it belongs. Although, you know what, Lawry’s take would’ve probably worked even better here… *ahem* never mind, no sense looking a gift Farnabian cleric in the mouth. Especially one whose accent is apparently the result of one boring run-through too many. Also, welcome back Mat’s nigh-on-forgotten genius for falling down. And at the centre of it all there is Martha the marvellously petulant Young Victoria, accept no substitutes. She may do many variants of this same character elsewhere, but it in no way distracts from the sheer rightness of the original.
  • Speaking of Martha’s reliable line in haughtiness… and isn’t that a bullet point every actress would kill to have on their CV… anyway, so I was already dying at Simon in the fully-copied-off-a-classical-bust ‘do, and then he goes and presses a cabbage against his ‘noble’ brow while Ms Howe-Douglas watches in utter disbelief… well, sure, it doesn’t sound like much now, but damn you should’ve been there when I was watching it.
  • Oh, and incidentally, want irrevocable proof of that new niceness I’ve been rambling on about? They went through, like, three whole minutes of a cabbage-centric sketch and only made one little offhand smell reference at the end! No sound effects or anything! *is honestly awed*
  • On the other hand, the Stone Age musical stuff… nnnnggghhh not so much with the charming moment-ness. Yes, it’s more of a decent parody of a modern rocker and his groupie than it had any right to be, thank you once again Larry and Martha… it just feels like they could’ve used the concept more profitably as the basis for an actually sophisticated sketch. (Compare the equally slight base on which last series’ hilarious-in-all-possible-satirical-directions “domesticating wild dogs” bit rests, for instance.)
  • The Historical Grimefighters bit, contrariwise, started out with my not expecting very much at all and proceeded to explode into… well, not quite my newest Most Favourite HH Sketch Ever, because I did pinky-swear on the Royal Society. Man, though, if any aptly clever, endearingly snerky, smartly  multileveled HH parody could make me seriously rethink the validity of my childhood vowing rituals, working-class Simon yacking at wide-eyed Dr.Howick about proper sanitation when making world-shattering medical discoveries would totally be it.
  • The LoG, meanwhile, with the help of a really interesting historical character choice–which I would be saying even if I wasn’t relieved to finally figure out what that bizarre costume of Jim’s was for, out of all proportion to its actual significance–take one more hilariously witty, original step towards [spoiler alert] a fully amazing payoff to all the seemingly random world-building.
  • By contrast, I have a feeling I’d be enjoying the Springwatch bit (yes, up to and including that turtleneck) a whole lot more were I familliar with the parody target. Even so, I have found some solid grounds for objective  amusement: ‘Cave artist’s impression’, har har har. More importantly–do you lot really pronounce it “Slothes“? ‘Cos Mat, I was just about to congratulate you on for once managing to keep hold of your Northern accent at least 75% of the time, but that strikes me as just a tad much.
  • Check it, Ben gets back into the marquise wig–well, sort of–after all! And having Lord Posh (nope, I’m accepting no substitutes, lalalala can’t hear you!) get captured by pirates ends up being a whole lot more satisfying than just having a few stuffed cats chucked his way. Seriously,  this is a welcome original spin on the traditional pirate stuff, with the great benefit of Larry doing the translating, and in the process making the unusually subtle most of a rare turn as the straight man. Meanwhile, Pirate Simon now comes with bonus Robert “Quint” Shaw impression? Welp, that’s settled then, I can die content.
  • Especially since we’ve got Giles Terera back again! Hi Giles!–oh, so we’re also back to pretending he has no potential whatsoever except in a bare set behind an empty desk? Hmph. Well, I like his intro better than the following sketch, so there.
  • Not that it’s a bad sketch exactly, mind. In fact, it’s fascinating stuff, in which the unusually dark adult implications are handled with the usually unerring tact and discretion… the thing is, they’re also handled more-or-less completely straight, without the usual fig leaf of sweet-natured silliness. Yeah, sure, there’s lots of suave civilian Ben, and he’s paired with Jim, but for once I’m too uneasy to appreciate any of it. (I can, however, appreciate the second shot at vow of silence funny; now, guys, that wasn’t so hard, was it?) Overall it’s about as close to seriously age-inappropriate as the show ever veered, and call me a milquetoast, but I’m not sorry the experiment wasn’t repeated.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, just to repeat from S01E04, as a public service to potential fanfic readers everywhere: No, Alex the G.–aka Alexander III–though pretty darned good-looking (if apparently somewhat slighter) in real life, didn’t actually make a habit of sniffing his subordinates as a means of keeping them in line. Or if he did, it’s not likely anyone in ancient Greece thought it outre enough to record. Yeah, for the 312694th time, the Hellenic concept of love and/or sexuality: complicated. Very.
  • Alex did, however, drive his men nearly to mutiny with his ruthless insistence on constant campaigning. The whole world-bestriding accomplishment gets even more mind-boggling–from both ends–when you realise it only took like eight-or-so-years total. And it all started back when young Prince Alexander of Macedon(ia) was just a tiny proto-despot, getting lessons in world-bestriding–or at least, Ancient Greece-bestriding–from dad Philip II, who is not fully renowned for his conquering prowess today only because he passed most of it onto his son.
  • Also, he hired the one-and-only Aristotle to be the young prince’s personal tutor… meaning adult Alex would’ve gone into battle not only with a headful of advanced military strategies the likes of which the ancient world had never seen, but the firm conviction that men had more teeth than women. The bits covering philosophy and logical thinking, much more helpful.
  • At age twelve, Alex had already managed to tame the supposedly un-breakeable horse Bucephalus– which sounds like something out of a nineteenth-century Boy’s Own Paper but did apparently really happen… or, well, at least Alex owned a horse named Bucephalus who carried him into battle to the end of his master’s life, which is quite Black Beauty-esque enough to be going on with.
  • To complete the picture, dad was abruptly assassinated when son Alex was only 20; cue the world-bestriding. At least for a little while. Despite marrying twice in the course of his adventures, Alexander produced only the one son… and little Alex IV was assassinated not long into his co-rule with his uncle, Philip III. Who was also assassinated, and then there were these four generals (ohai, Ptolemy!) who after much bickering divvied the whole empire up among them, and yeah, the ancient Hellenic concept of loyalty, also complicated.
  • The episode’s other major Alexander, Dr. Fleming, not so much with the instantaneous heroics. Yes, the discovery of what would eventually become penicillin happened very much as shown here (save perhaps with fewer smartass janitorial staff hanging around)… the thing is, it didn’t magically zip from his lab straight into the arms of needy patients. Far from it. The ‘Accidental discovery’ subsection of Dr. F’s Wiki article is studded with interim frustrations like this:
  • Fleming published his discovery in 1929, in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, but little attention was paid to his article. Fleming continued his investigations, but found that cultivating penicillium was quite difficult, and that after having grown the mould, it was even more difficult to isolate the antibiotic agent. Fleming’s impression was that because of the problem of producing it in quantity, and because its action appeared to be rather slow, penicillin would not be important in treating infection.
  • So eventually, after a decade of this, Fleming still hadn’t managed to find a chemist interested in mass-producing the stuff–and if you take a look at his picture in the same article, this is clearly not a man whose hobbies included hopelessly pursuing pipe dreams. He finally gave up on the Quest for Penicillin entirely in 1940… only to have several other researchers pick it up, get the government funding needed to produce it in bulk, and hey presto, wonder drug of the century. Luckily, they were nice enough to share the Nobel Prize with Fleming, and he was in turn modest enough to give them most of the credit. The general public, on the other hand, knew a good story when they heard it, and the legend of Fleming the Accidental Founder of Modern Antibiotics was born.
  • Then there is Sake Dean Mahomed, who was not quite as much of an all-conquering hero, but you lot do indeed owe him a spare thought next time you pick up your nigh-ubiquitous takeout curry. Bengali by birth, Muslim by faith, a soldier, businessman and writer of travelogues and memoirs, this extraordinary character opened the Hindoostane Coffee House in 1810. According to this lovely Telegraph piece on Mahomed in particular and the British fascination with yummy spiciness in general: The Epicures Almanak of the day described [Mahomed’s restaurant] as a place “for the nobility and Gentry, where they might enjoy the Hookha with real Chilm tobacco and Indian dishes of the highest perfection”.
  • Wowzers! Real Chilm tobacco! May I be the first to exclaim: Wheeeee. And indeed, rather sadly, it appears that this initial foray into fiery foodstuffs was well ahead of its time. By 1812, the restaurant had closed and a bankrupt Mahomed was forced to advertise as a valet… only to shortly thereafter see his career revive spectacularly along the lines Rattus describes: he [opened] special treatment baths in Brighton, where he became “shampoo surgeon” to the dandyish Prince of Wales, George IV, and then to William IV. He published another book, Shampooing or Benefits Resulting from the use of Indian Medical Vapour Bath, in 1822, which became a bestseller. 
 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E05

Hi, I’m Dr. Kenneth Mellanby. And here in this ordinary suburban house in Sheffield, I’d like to give you a horrible parasitic infection for which there is no known cure!

As is its wont, the show bounces back from a wildly uneven episode with a solidly entertaining, intelligent treat that finally begins to build on the lessons in sophistication learned from S4…

In this episode:

Song: Joan of Arc — Martha as the sassy saviour of France takes no prisoners — not even when she’s been taken prisoner herself, by Mat as the Bishop of Beauvais. (Parody of: Jessie J, Price Tag)

Recurring sketches:

Wonders of the Saxon Universe — “We Anglo-Saxons were the first people anywhere in the world to discover the scientific fact that storms are caused by people from a cloud country in the sky, called Mergonia!” “Oh, here we go…”

Tudor Wildlife Magazine — Buy now, while species last! Henry VIII discusses his conservation schemes: specifically, conserving farmland by placing bounties indiscriminately on the wildlife. (“Are you calling me stupid? Because I can have you put on the official vermin list, you know!”)

Stupid Deaths — Hans Steininger (Proud owner of a luxuriant floor-length beard… which turned out to be a problem when trying to run for his life from a fire. (“Ooh, hey — that wasn’t a close shave! Get it? Because you died, and you have a beard, and…” “Ja, thanks.”)

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

God is in the Details — Brother Augustine discovers that the suspicious, superstitious Angles are actually perfectly OK with Christianity… just not with the concept of an all-powerful deity. (“…Bit greedy, isn’t it?” “I don’t think you’re quite getting the hang of this; maybe I should stick around. I’ll call myself the Archbishop of Canterbury, how’s that?” “Sure! And you can be god of something, if you want?”)

Slimy Stuarts

New! Whiffy Jar — Aromatherapy takes a deeply dubious–if handily self-renewing–turn during the search for a plague cure.”Phew! That’s even worse than his…!” “Are we gonna do this now? I am ill, you know.”

Something Fishy at the Royal Society — Wherein treasurer Samuel Pepys makes some even more dubious publishing decisions… of course, he didn’t realise Isaac Newton was about to make a world-shattering physics breakthrough, but still. (“And how many fish historians do you know?” “…One.” “Apart from the bloke who wrote the book!”)

Woeful Second World War

The Sorby Research Institute — Alternate service as a medical test subject: experience all the suffering and inconvenience of life in the field, without actually being killed. Probably not being killed, anyway. (“…Is it too late to sign up for battle?” “You’d never pass the physical.”)

Queen-Fit-Fitters — One’s the one to trust! Wartime mechanic and future monarch Princess Elizabeth takes time out to celebrate her service via a… sprightly… parody of the jingle for the British equivalent of Mister Goodwrench. Because of course she does it’s the last series shut up.

Groovy Greeks

With Your Shield, Or… — For Spartans, identifying cowardice in battle was simple… except that the cowards had totally been trained in Spartan cunning and deceit, too.

New! Spartan Girl Dolls — Pretty much what my explanation of the unique Spartan concept of femininity the other post would’ve looked like, did I have access to an even more than usually anatomically-incorrect Barbie… also, the inability to reach through the screen and clock the little princess for whining about that sweet hunting knife accessory.

Gorgeous Georgians

History’s Greatest Escapes — The Countess of Nithsdale devises an unexpectedly cunning plan to break her Earl out of the Tower of London… really unexpected. (“So what we thinking — burn down this wall and let loose your secret ninjas on the panicked guards while you two leap 200 feet into the icy water below, yeah?!” “No, I’m dressing him as a woman.” “…Right. You know, there is a show called “World’s Stupidest Escapes”, I can give you their number…”)

Fabulous French

Saint Joan the Teenage — The Dauphin of France introduces their unlikely new leader to his openly skeptical army. (“I’m not little, actually, I’m four-foot-ten, which is actually quite tall for my age. Anyway, I’d rather be a bit short than stinky like you!” “Ah… she is a leetle bit, erm, annoying…” “I’m not taking that from a dolphin!”)

Field Notes:

  • “I squid you not”?! OK, erm, Rattus, what I said about getting back to the puns a review or so ago, I didn’t… that is, I… Ah well, should’ve learned my lesson about being careful what I wish for from this show long since…
  • Thing is, though, thanks to this episode for once I have gotten what I wished for from S5. At long last, it’s providing me with evidence that the creative team did truly understand what they had going on in S4. All that leaps-and-bounds brilliance wasn’t a fluke, and moreover was a foundation that could be built on. Yes, I know I should’ve been more trusting to begin with… but you’ve seen that seal blubber business too, right? Right.
  • What makes this sudden burst of experimental energy all the more promising is that for once it’s not tied to the potential of the material. There’s stuff here that’s as shaky as anything we’ve seen yet; the change is in the way they’ve dealt with it. As though every so often, during the creative process, they took a break from desperately throwing out performance tics and novel parodies and plot twists and whatever else might distract for a moment, and settled down to apply that same shrewd, focussed intelligence I celebrated at the start of S4.
  • Then they gathered a whole bunch of those moments together into one episode, and if nothing else earned the profound gratitude of at least one adult critic person. Rather like the relief on rediscovering the Plague Song was a thing in S1, just after the final straw that was “It’s Not True”.
  • It’s nowhere near that desperate by now, of course. Even so, given the events of last episode it’s definitely reassuring that in this one, Queen Elizabeth II doing a jig in a wartime airfield is merely a very minor blip on the way to Jim as genial mad scientist, Mat playing Newton, and multiple debates on the nature and will of God… also, Simon farting into a jar. Because, as I also once mentioned in a long-ago review, some things HH will never change.
  • So yes, about that whole Queen-Fit-Fitters business. Best we get that out of the way right up front, since I am almost certainly not its intended audience, not even after a kind soul found the original inspiration for me. I gather it’s intended as a sort of… cuter… version of God Compare, and indeed, what the random is missing in magnificence it almost makes up for in sheer dedication to the ridiculousness. Particularly Alice’s. There is also mild novelty value in how Martha makes a nice plausible Liz II… albeit it’s beginning to be a trifle distracting that all the female royals have the exact same face.
  • Otherwise, sorry, kids, but clearly your relationship to your royal family is much more complex than I’d ever suspected, here in the land where the Queen merely stares solemnly up from the coinage, and I feel it best to leave you alone with it. Meanwhile I will be over here, really starting to wonder what the discarded 50% of the proposed material looked like, if this (and the seal blubber, have I mentioned that?) is what made the cut.
  • …And then Martha proves all over again she can pwn the entire current crop of pop tartlets even when forced into a pixie bob and an awkwardly flopping breastplate, and I have to forgive her all the things, because damn, girl… woman, I should say. With all due respect. And this despite the song parody choice doing the exact opposite of making me want to plonk myself into an HMV sound booth with the original. Having really bad flashbacks to my failure to feel the similarly-glossy Suffragettes’ Song, over here.
  • This time, though, I’m willing to compromise a bit further. As first mentioned in S2, there’s probably no really effective way Saint Joan’s wholly unique blend of romanticism, mysticism and frank pragmatism could be interpreted for a young audience except via a goof on grrrrl-power cliches. If they don’t have anything nearly as cleverly appealing here as Heavenly Messenger Howick, they do at least have both Martha’s obvious commitment and the wit to cut across the glossiness with Joan’s own memorable words. Evidences of sincerity, duly appreciated.
  • Given all of which, I am enabled to forgive not only all those distracting fleurs-de-lys but the cheezy, wannabe-hipster ‘heavenly’ effects. Mostly. There is still the matter of Mat the impressively stern judge abruptly flapping about like a South Park extra.
  • All of that decided, I am back to wondering what happened to Alice the originator of the role. She’s evidently available this series, and can actually sing. Besides which she has that clever capable mode that I really like, that would’ve been ideal for adding some interest to the otherwise predictable prelude in which Joan is introduced.
  • It’s physically impossible not to smile anyway at Martha doing a note-perfect ‘typical teenager’ (not to mention Ben hauling out a Gallic turn on his usual blustery royal stuff), but seriously now. Did Ms. Howe-Douglas renegotiate her contract in the off-season to insist she has to play every single prominent female character or else? ‘Cos even given artfully dimmed lighting, it really is a bit much when latter-sketch Liz II is suddenly also claiming to be fourteen.
  • On the other hand, large chunks of the aforementioned really good stuff do happen to involve Alice, in a role that plays the clever capable etc. off as a nice witty riff on her particular femininity. The entire ‘Great Escapes’ sketch is like that–cast perfectly not only on the surface but through several satirical layers. Both she and Simon keep perfect control of the comedy while skimming as close to the straight line as possible, so that the whole can be enjoyed as farce without ever losing the thread of adventure. Pure skill creating something wonderfully satisfying…
  • …well, skill, and bored producers assigning Rickard the exotically-accented parts now that dousing him in poop has gotten a bit old, I am increasingly convinced. Much love here for how he has to audibly stop and readjust his Scots in the middle of a line. In other incidental-pleasure news, not sure if Simon is meant to be parodying anybody in particular, but either way, the strategically-cheekbone-enhancing scar, nice touch. Actually, the whole look is sort of strategically-enhancing-Simon-in-general. Dunno how they convinced Willbond to let go of the flak jacket and/or mousse, but I would be open to it becoming a trend.
  • I am however sort of disappointed that they didn’t bother recreating Ben’s Val Kilmer-is-the-Saint ‘do from the first couple Wonders of the Universe sketches. Otherwise, I have nothing but frank and open goodwill towards the return of this series. The mythology is uniquely interesting and the idiot child of the universe schtick remains agreeably daffy, if for no other reason than that I haven’t seen Lawry enjoying himself this much since… erm… well, ever, come to think of it.
  • Otherwise, the absence of Willbond is near-total, excepting a quick characteristic fillip in the Whiffy Jar bit… oh, and another smitch of Henry VIII, which owing to a pleasantly impressive costuming upgrade has suddenly become interesting again. That is, just this once, inner Tudor nerd, we’re going to shut up and appreciate fetching strawberry-blond Benjamin to the full, ‘kay? Standing in a lovely, appropriately aristocratic-looking garden, to boot. If nothing else, any attempt at a Henrician sketch that doesn’t involve chopping heads, marriage or chopping heads after marriage deserves all the encouragement possible.
  • The rest of the leading-man stuff comfortably belongs to Simon, who over the last three series has slid from the lunatic fringes into the solid, dare I suggest nuanced, forefront of the troupe with almost unnervingly assured confidence. Almost, because the farting-in-a-jar. This is not something I ever imagined myself describing as ‘reassuring’, but it is so. In fact, my first viewing of this all-round tiny perfect triumph of casting triggered the most intense bout of nostalgia thus far this series… save possibly the Stupid Deaths segment involving Death blithely ignoring the implications of a bearded skeleton.
  • I am also strongly tempted to say something about his similarly surreal take on Brother Augustine; except that it would be stern, and invoke the perils of over-confidence. Sure, I laughed, but still cannot in good conscience recommend trying it at home, not when an unusually delicate, intriguing bit of comedy material very nearly gets swamped. (Incidentally, also: “Hold the sausage!”… pushing it, guys. Really pushing it.)
  • The whole thing with the Angles and the niceties of conversion to Christianity does manage to hang onto its subtly offbeat charm, thanks either to a deliberately brilliant satirical commentary on the relative value of belief systems that cleverly invokes Clarke’s Third Law to bring a thought-provoking philosophical point down to kiddy level…
  • …or, y’know, they closed their eyes, punched a spot in the encyclopedia index, then bunged Simon and Mat in there and told them to make it work. Either is equally plausible at this point, but I like the results a lot, regardless. Especially Mat consciously playing with his own lack of imposing–oh, and the random blond facial foliage, that’s got even more novelty value than the beard from the SD. Although the beard does come with the same prissy downtown-art-gallery-owner accent last heard on Gutenberg, so it’s a close-run thing.
  • Speaking of Mat’s prime command of prissiness: The Royal Society sketch is totally my new Most Favourite Sketch Ever, and I honest and true really mean it this time, pinky swear. Even if it didn’t hit all my particular HH buttons dead-on, it’s still easily the best prose thing in this series, and equally easily among the top ten sketches ever. An elegant-yet-endearing triumph in the same vein as S4’s Borgia/Godfather sketch: every element the show has mastered, exquisitely perfect in every way and interacting perfectly from there. Up to and including Simon refining the quiet skill thing to the point where what was designed merely as a springboard for Mat and Jim’s antics morphs into an actual performance that very nearly steals the show.
  • Of course, that was never going to actually happen or anything, and especially not when that particular duo are under those wigs exploring a whole new dimension of their nervy genius-vs-plain commonsense chemistry. This troupe knows each other’s creative strengths to an almost scarily precise degree at this point; whatever other production problems the producers encountered, casting must’ve been an unqualified delight. All props to Baynton particularly for restraining himself insofar as possible; making Jim’s exaggerated bluster that much more hilarious in response. Proven ability to respect intellectual excitement while still fully honouring the idiocy: yet another reason to be excited for Bill-the-film.
  • Meantime, over at the Sorby Research Institute, Jim is doing another kind of smart-guy sell, and it is fully as entertaining. Again, loving how this creative team now knows each other well enough to not only rely on individual schticks but pull off this type of complicated, clever experiment with them. It’s the same old creepy-cuddly Howick hilarity, except turned inside-out then held upside-down and sideways. Until you’re not entirely sure what to think, except that you are just incredibly creeped out by this cuddly little elderly man earnestly doing his best for his country’s war effort.
  • It helps that it’s Larry opposite him, doing the resigned disbelief he’d previously perfected as a Fashion Fix victim… come to think of it, that might explain the outfit here, they were trying to help get him in the mood. Really, it’s the uncannily accurate “All Creatures Great and Small client” vibe that gives the performance, Rickard just has to follow along looking increasingly miserable. All that’s missing is the little terrier.
  • After all that rampant innovation, the Spartan shield business comes across as positively refreshing: a nice little classic Jim’n’Larry palate-cleanser… yeah, I just now realised afresh that that’s a thing in my world, and am suddenly very, very happy in my heart cockles. The Spartan material has the great benefit to begin with of naturally working perfectly as throwaway anecdotes, a minute or so being the exact time available to thoroughly enjoy the funny before the uglier implications have a chance to kick in.
  • Which leads us finally to the Spartan Girl advert. I have been putting this off partly because I’m slightly terrified that the show and I are clearly now locked in a symbiotic comic relationship (see history notes for S05E02), and partly because, even though creatively it’s an amusing riff on little girls and their Barbies (of which I totally was one), in all other ways it’s just an incredibly annoying about-face from celebrating Jeanne d’Arc.
  • Turning the relative freedom and empowerment of Spartan female culture back on itself merely ‘cos it’s not ‘girly’ enough strikes me as very much throwing out the great teachable moment with the frankly tepid comedic bathwater. I’m really disappointed that they wouldn’t take the chance, in the final series, to…
  • …*thinks back to all that genuine excitement over scientific achievement*
  • *sigh* Fine, show, you win again. Just…well… watch it, OK?

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes, Saint Joan. For the full context surrounding the goofy gyrations (in particular, why I’m so weirded out at Mat’s share) check out S02E07. Actually, you might want to check that sketch out just on g.p’s–Alice deserves her due, and the chance to witness Apologetic Angel Howick in all his glory never a bad thing.
  • Otherwise, given that both my major topics have been poached, and everything else is basically self-explanatory anecdotes, we’re a little light on fun historical sidelights this week. Especially since I never did find anything further re: the Anglo-Saxon Sky Kingdom of Storms, and am severely cranky as a consequence. Anybody care to give me the scoop in the comments, I’d be much obliged.
  • I did manage to find out that cute little Doctor Mellanby was absolutely a real doctor… well, a real entomologist and ecologist, anyway. Actually, he was Major Kenneth Mellanby, CBE, Sorby Research Fellow of the Royal Society in the Zoology Department at the University of Sheffield, whose death in 1993 was accompanied by the kind of public-service and medical-breakthough-filled eulogies you really wouldn’t mind having. The sketch here catches him more or less at the start of his career, when an interest in scabies–caused by mites, in case you’re still wondering about the connection–led to the Sorby project (link highly recommended for a more detailed overview) which in turn led to all those other fun bits of medical research…
  • …which in turn led to his argument at the Nuremberg tribunal that the Nazis’ own notorious medical experiments were… well… It was Mellanby’s view that Nazi medical research was justified by its long-term scientific benefit, despite the human costs: the death of each victim had the indirect potential to save thousands of lives in the future. ‘If their sufferings could in any way add to medical knowledge and help others, surely this is what they would have preferred.’…Mellanby also justified the malaria experiments that were carried out in what he called the ‘reasonably humane’ concentration camp at Dachau. 
  • Yeah, so this, ah, unique theory got him completely curb-stomped by the prosecution at Nuremberg shortly afterwards, thanks for asking. Although the same link notes that it’s possible to defend Mellanby somewhat based on just how urgently important two World Wars had made the field of wartime medicine. Besides which, the man did establish the first university in Nigeria, at Ibadan. And was a prolific writer on environmental causes, eventually founding the journal Environmental Pollution. And–if Wiki is to be believed–wrote a children’s book called Talpa, the story of a mole. Still… ‘reasonably humane’. Brrrrr.
  • On a much-needed lighter note, Hans Steininger: definitely also real, and definitely the star of more than one online list of bizarre deaths. Unfortunately he lived well before the age of photography, so instead, have a 1927 snap of Hans Langseth, Danish owner of the longest recorded beard in history–17.3 feet (in case it’s not clear at first glance at the photo, that’s the rest of it braided and slung back over his shoulder)–or approximately four times ol’Hans the First’s superior in the matter of luxuriant facial fungus. Evidently much luckier when it came to beard-related accidents, too. What it is about men named Hans that particularly compels them to bury their chins, on the other hand, we may never know…
 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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