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Interlude: Historical edutainment, American-style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on February 28, 2013 in The background


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The cast, themselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other half-dozen:

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

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

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

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

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

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


*This extends to freakin’ Nero.

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

***Possibly the companion to this.

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

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Posted by on December 15, 2012 in The background


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on November 19, 2012 in The background