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Epilogue: The specials

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a popular and beloved children’s TV series is, at some point, going to spawn offshoots. Since the universe inexplicably continues to fail at taking up my idea of a DI Bones spinoff–just like Elmo’s World, except with Larry in place of that stupid bowtie dude!–for Horrible Histories this largely took the form of holiday/event specials.

The catch was that these were full-length episodes that had to somehow be squeezed into a production schedule already padded out to the edge of impossible. Thus the reasons why I’m not treating them as individual episode reviews: a) they’re largely composed of recycled material and b) most bear unmistakeable hallmarks of having been shoved out the door on a shoestring.

(If you do have a need for the sketch-by-sketch rundown, no worries; the List of HH Episodes Wikipage has your oddly specific-yet-adorable OCD covered.)

All of which does not, however, mean that they’re not decent value, and in a few cases much more…

2010: Horrible Christmas

The ‘Christmas special’ is a bit more elaborate a concept in the UK than in countries whose TV seasons consist of more than six-eight episodes per. Under those circs, being handed an entire bonus full-length episode is considered both an honour for the creators and a real treat for their audience. Thus, HH’s only holiday special to consist near-entirely of new and elaborately produced material.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that, as Britons, they had access to several centuries’ worth of snarkily hilarious dichotomy between the spiritual nature of this particular holiday and the earthy traditions arising therefrom. Nor that this exploration happened right around S2, the point at which creative confidence had hit its first and arguably most audacious peak.

The resulting hilights include several traditional carols rewritten from a more, ah, realistic POV (the truth behind not-so-Good ‘King’ Wenceslas is not to be missed) and a recreation of the last moments of the famous WWI Christmas Truce football match; powerfully moving if only because this silly children’s comedy series is trying so hard to do it justice. There is also a much more typical interlude featuring a jester named Roland the Farter, a fun riff on weird holiday cards, that one regular-series bit where Oliver Cromwell has his relatives arrested for daring to wish him the compliments of the season, and–a personal favourite–a proto-HMasterchef segment in which Our Bemused Hosts learn that Tudor palace cooks routinely worked in the nude (to cope with the heat of huge open fires)…

…Oh, and a Victorian prison celebration that includes the jailer telling Mat, “I think I can speak for all the lads when I say that you’re our favourite prisoner!” Because yes, they totally saved the blatant nudity and sodomy jokes for the Christmas special. Happy Holidays, kiddies! Be sure to revive your parents in time for turkey!

2011: Horrible Histories’ Big Prom Party

The next creative peak: “Music from Horrible Histories” being chosen as the theme for the summer 2011 children’s ‘Prom’ concert at the world-renowned Royal Albert Hall. (Non-UK types: you can tell this was a big honking honour, because it more usually goes to Doctor Who.)

Now, first things first, non-attendees–there are recordings of the original BBC Radio Three broadcast out there, which you need to hear at some point, and preferably before you see this special. If you can’t find the audio download, I’ll happily Dropbox you a copy. Those wondering what I’m on about: this unedited version includes among many other things a rendition of the Plague Song led by Larry and Martha. Yes. Also, bonus Mat as George II.

…Right, that’s all set? Good. So eventually the BBC got round to repurposing that ninety-ish-minute concert as an hourlong special, largely by cutting out all the classical interludes (along with most of the in-character badinage surrounding them) and substituting specially-shot inset sketches in their place. Because this was immediately post-S3 and everything was running just that smoothly, all of these sketches are authentically clever and funny, especially Mike Peabody’s excruciatingly typical efforts to turn this into a News Event and Shouty Man hawking the RAH for your all-purpose concert needs. Even a slight surfeit of Georges III and IV is mitigated by the sheer joy of having Simon back where he belongs.

Still… the downside of hearing the audio first is how very annoyed you’re going to be at the video editors, upon realising just how much they left out. But it will not matter in the end, because it is all equally brilliant. All the musical favourites through S3 are here, save Dick Turpin–given the extended yelp that accompanies Mat’s signature wink in “Born 2 Rule”, this is perhaps not surprising–and all are done full justice…

…Almost. Clearly the the (otherwise splendid) Aurora Orchestra never quite figured out how to transpose “King of Bling” and compensate by speeding it up slightly, leaving poor Mat audibly losing the race in bizarrely insult-to-injury-adding company with generic Solid Gold-esque dancers. Thus handily demonstrating just how far you can climb up the cultural ladder in the UK before nobody’s heard of Eminem.

July 2012: Sport Special

Return with me now to those halcyon days of Summer 2012, when London hosted the Olympìcs, magenta was suddenly the colour of the moment and the world was equally delighted by awesome sporting feats and the sight of the British–owners of a dazzlingly implausible number of those feats–for once in their collective lives unabashedly, unashamedly, almost deliriously happy and proud. While surrounded by magenta, did I mention that?

Something of that sweet giddiness is captured in the HH Sport Special, aired as part of the runup to the Big Event. It’s a kaleidoscopic mix of old and new, demonstrating clearly that creative coherence had become a luxury the specials couldn’t afford. Still, the old sketches are cleverly chosen–the Cow’s Hindquarter Twist from the medieval Highland Games and the Roman funeral fight sketch, in particular–and the new are, if not quite as thoughtful as of old, still very engaging. (Also interestingly, because so flamboyantly, willing to ignore timelines; there is a casual reference to a marathon cheating scandal from 1999.) The special Olympic edition of the Movie Pitch featuring the Baron de Coubertin, ie. Ben in Poirot moustaches with appropriate accent, is worth the watch all by itself. Almost unbearably precious.

Besides which there is the really delirious new music video, “Flame (It’s Gonna Burn Forever)”–ie. the reason why I’m so cranky, in later episode reviews, that they stuck Giles “Jesse Owens” Terera back behind that stupid bare HHTV Sport desk afterwards. (Although it should be noted that he does a fine job in the anchorman role here, hosting the programme alongside Rattus.) The song itself is not an overt masterpiece but the video is just relentlessly freaking hilarious, showcasing everything they’d learned about non-sequitur silliness to that point… which turns out to be more than even diehard fans would’ve suspected.

October 2012: Scary [Halloween] Special

Right, so they were actually two full-length specials produced alongside S4, and… erm… well, let us just say that it is deeply ironic that of the two—or of any, come to that — this is the only one currently available on DVD.

Of course it stars Simon’s Grim Reaper, and yes, he pulls out all the preternaturally charming stops for a countdown of his top twelve(?) all-time scariest things. That’s where the problems start, because the list has so clearly just been hastily Frankensteined together out of whatever came to hand. There are only two new pieces included, and one of those is a Scary Story. The few genuinely intense prose moments in show history (Nero and his Christian ‘candles’, for instance) are entirely, and revealingly, missing.

Oh, and there’s a new song, “Death’s Favourite Things”, which is marginally watchable thanks to a Thriller-esque zombie chorus… also the revelation that Sound of Music parodies aren’t yet self-recursive in the UK. In-between times—as evidently inspired by the random bourgeois vibe that ran through S4’s Stupid Deaths–we get a look at the Reaper’s home life; turns out he really is just a suburban slacker, still living with his mom and taking scythe deliveries from the British equivalent of FedEx! Har har!

Yeah… so at least the kiddies will get a comprehensive lesson in how much better it can be to leave things to the imagination. The patented HH wit does shines through on occasion—as per the inclusion of the Disco Aztecs, and Ma Death as a chintz-intensive riff on Mrs. Bates—but by and large it’s a half-hour’s struggle to recapture what any SD segment pulls off effortlessly in three minutes. And those are available on YouTube for free.

February 2014: Valentine’s Day Special: Rotten Romance

There were also two specials commissioned alongside S5, and this is also pretty clearly not the one anybody considered top priority. On the plus side, though, lessons have been learned; the laboured framing devices have been replaced by simple-but-surefire interludes with Rattus, a la the Savage Songs episodes. Here he’s preparing for a romantic dinner with his new girlfriend Ratalie (which name amuses me far more than it deserves, esp. considering she’s the exact same rat puppet in earrings).

Also, there’s obviously a bit more care been put into the sketch selection; in particular, any excuse to revisit the Countess Nithsdale’s Great Escape plot is welcome, also both Victorian bits from S03E01. On the other hand, I really could’ve done without the arch hint that Elizabeth I’s temper was the reason why she never married. The couple of new segments are likewise higher quality, starting with an *ahem* reframing of the Anne of Cleves/Henry VIII debacle as a dating-themed game show. Henry’s still deep in generic-doofus mode, but at least, y’know, Anne of Cleves! I’d been hoping to see her on the show for ages.

The only letdown—for me anyway–is the new song: the Cure’s Love Cats reimagined as “Love Rats”, featuring a handful of the usual suspects recounting their notably rocky love lives, plus Mat as equally rock-headed romantic Edward VIII. It’s a cute parody idea, and well-executed–save of course the parts that are Ben attempting smooth jazz. It’s just that it’s largely the same old characters recounting the same old information we literally just saw in the same old sketches. At this point, it all can’t help but be something of a buzzkill. Ah well; at least we’ll always have Rattus. “You’re never alone with a thousand lice”, indeed.

August 2014: Frightful First World War Anniversary Special

…So that’s where it all went.

Longer version: It’s not actually required that you be deep into review-blogging Series 5 to fully appreciate this special 45-minute commemoration of the anniversary of WWI’s kickoff… but as it turns out, it sure doesn’t hurt. Specifically, it definitively explains where all the really elegant, subtle, generally adult-level sophisticated comedy vibes went after S4–both in terms of choosing and executing the material–and thus also why so much of mainstream S5 feels so offhand. For once, obviously, everyone’s attention was focussed on the special instead.

This is not actually surprising. For starters, it had been given a slot on the BBC’s daylong WWI retrospective schedule, and as you can imagine, this was not an atmosphere in which the audience would be in the mood to forgive ill-timed fart jokes. Especially not after the Diamond Jubilee debacle, as part of which BBC coverage the troupe was pegged to perform a few sketches on Tower Bridge. Due officially to time constraints, the only one actually to air, stripped of any context, was Bob Hale’s Thames Report… yeah. Cue quite a lot of post-event crankiness to the editors about the random babbling idiot in inexplicable old-age makeup.

There were no such complaints after this tribute to the Great War aired, even though the framing device consists almost entirely–and inspired-ly–of an extended Bob Report, as he gives a year-by-year overview of the war’s progress with Rattus chiming in on specifics. Nobody objected to any of the considerable amount of new material, nor of the choice of the old (in very likely related news, none of the latter involved plastic nose icicles). There was more than one comment from reviewers that the entire thing conveyed the Great War’s mix of black comedy and bleaker tragedy better than any adult program of the day.

All of which a roundabout way of saying, folks, this thing is brilliant. In many ways it’s more of an appropriate finale than the actual final episode, the absolutely triumphant culmination of everything anyone ever loved about this version of Horrible Histories, and you should go and watch it RIGHT NOW. Whether you’ve already seen it or not. It opens with the sublimely silly ‘Causes of WWI’ sketch, ends by shamelessly ripping the viewer’s heart out (yes, that involves Mat too, like I always knew it would), and in-between treads that razor-fine line with all the practiced grace of a ballet dancer… or of a children’s comedy show that’s been practicing ever since they featured Adolf Hitler in S1.

Seriously, this is pretty much HH’s Carnegie Hall. You can tell, because Bob and Shouty Man and HMasterchef and Girl Guide spies and Charleston-happy Tsars manage to co-exist right alongside the Christmas Truce sketch, the desperation behind letting children and women into the ranks and a blunt summary of the Somme disaster (Bobsy: “The funny thing about that is… nope, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”) Somewhere in the middle there is Simon as a note-perfect Red Baron and plucky Private Larry trapped in a wardrobe with Germans outside. There is also the Suffragettes’ Song, but even that benefits from the extra context, and is anyway basically just tacked on at the end, probably to pad out the timing, so is very easily ignored.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in The specials

 

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S05E12

In fact, only twelve people have set foot on the moon, and no-one has been there at all since 1972; a tragic oversight that I’m going to rectify right now. Yes, it’s time to take one small step for Bob Hale, one giant leap for the good people at Bob Hale Space Rocket Industries. Good-bye Sam, I’ve always loved you… will you wait for me?
…No!
Well, I’m not going then! Fine! *storms off*

So yeah, we’ve finally reached the very last regular-issue Horrible Histories episode ever, and and a bunch more iconic recurring characters and/or sketches say farewell, and there’s a Big Damn Finale Song, and … erm… ah… *snif*…

…Right, this isn’t going to go very well at all, is it?

In this episode:

Song: We’re History (Finale) — In which the entire troupe plus most of the supporting add-ons revisit every major era the show ever featured, via stock footage from across all five series… featuring cameos from pretty nearly every beloved character the show ever created, right down to Mat’s little pathetic medieval peasant… oh, god… *snifsnif* *sob!*

Recurring sketches:

Good Day Magazine — Profiling “Little Giant” Isambard Kingdom Brunel (“Oi! Not so much with the little! I’m six foot if you include the ‘at!”)

Words We Get From the — Greeks

Wonders of the Greek Universe — (“It was us that worked out that the rainbow is a natural phenomenon, and not the work of the gods! They’re not made of magic, they’re natural! Like waterfalls, and hamsters!” “Well… fine then, thanks Brian!” “Ooh, and I almost forgot–we also believed that the planet Earth is floating in water! “…Right, lads, you know what to do.”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Rameses II Project (“So is ‘King Tut’ just a nickname, or…?” “No! I ruled Egypt for sixty-six years! King Tutankhamun died when he was only eighteen!” “A boy Pharaoh–I like it! We could give him a pet, like a talking Sphynx…” “Is Robin Williams available?”)

Bob Hale — The Space Race Report (“And just one year later, America is ready to do what mankind has always dreamt of: Teaching a pig to tapdance!… Hrm? Oh, right, the moon landing. Yeah, that makes more sense, what with all this other stuff…”)

Stupid Deaths — John of Bohemia (Surnamed ‘the Blind’… which unfortunately didn’t stop him tying himself to his bodyguard’s horses and charging full-tilt into the heat of combat. “Ooh–‘sorry I’m late for the battle, I got a bit tied up!’ Hah! You know, cos you, and the reins, and…” “Ah… we weren’t late?” “Whatever!“)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

She (Doesn’t) Sell Seashells — Pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning discovers that it’s actually pretty handy, when dealing with patronizing male colleagues, to have a lot of sharp objects collected by the seashore…

Awful Egyptians

Labour Issues — A prospective pyramid-builder is dismayed to learn Pharaonic architecture wasn’t all about raising majestic monuments… (“Horse toilets!?” “Yeah, it’s where horses go to the–” “I know what it is, mate!”)

Measly Middle Ages

Making It in the Middle Ages — “An’ showin’ us how it’s done is my main man, all the way from Italy, Bernard de Trevisio! Bernie, tell us about yourself, man?” “Well, I’ve travelled ze vorld, and spent my entire fortune, studying ze ancient art of alchemy.” “So whazzat, some kinda hocus-pocussy–” “It’s a Middle Ages science.” “OK, we cool, bro…!”

Woeful Second World War

Staying Dry For Your Country (animated) — How total was Britain’s war effort? It even managed to cut into pool time at the Carlton Ladies Club.

Homefront Gardening — Expert landscaper Alan Smallbog attempts to demonstrate some further typical wartime sacrifices, while evading the wrath of the typical wartime housewife… (“You can’t plant carrots and turnips in my ornamental flowerbed!” “You’re not wrong, Margery. Best just dig them all up…” “But that’ll look horrible~!” “That’s as may be, but the country needs food, and you can’t eat chrysanthemums…” “Are you sure? Cos you’re going to eat these!”)

Field Notes:

  • Well, here we are: the final regular-format HH episode review… and I’m honestly not sure what to do about it.
  • I mean, sure my inner Sensitive Writer Person has absolutely no doubt that the best way to handle it is running around in circles screaming maniacally, but that’s a little hard to coherently translate to the printed page. The closest possible transcript I could come up with would be something like “I DID IT!! *gabblegabblesoproud!gabblethesheerrelief! gabblegabbleNEVER HAVE TO  #^&#$%& SPELL ‘MEASLY’ AGAIN!!!”
  • So it’s probably best that I instead direct you back to the little farewell post I wrote when this episode first aired, which seems to cover it pretty well, also, and has the distinct bonus of punctuation besides. As noted therein, I didn’t bother writing a more lengthy tribute to the show then–and will not now–because I’d already definitively done so via this blog.
  • Which isn’t a blatant attempt at encouraging archive-bingeing (*psst!* maybe start with the Savage Songs posts, they’re shorter) so much as it is a literal inability to think of how else I might put it at this point: Everybody connected with this production has earned a lifetime supply of all the coolness points ever. From producer Caroline Norris and ‘tyrannical pedant’/ sometime corpse Greg Jenner through John “Rattus Rattus” Eccleston right on down to… well, whomever created those faux wasp stings in S01E12, because no I will never get over that.
  • In particular, the starring troupe. On the off-chance checking for review-blog updates hasn’t yet become part of your daily routine (*psst!* handy ‘follow blog’ button, just there on your top right! Get in now, before the Yonderland recaps start!) here’s a brief rundown of the major themes I’ve been developing on this subject, therein. In alphabetical order only–and leaving out the question of physical attractiveness, because c’mon now:
  • I adore Mat for that peculiarly charismatic mix of very adult implications and equally childish clowning that may-or-may-not be comic genius, but is most definitely fascinating.
  • Simon, for his complete lack of comedic inhibition, and lavishly surreal inventiveness in applying same.
  • Martha, for the wonderfully total, authentic self-belief that she brings to every character, no matter how bizarrely deluded.
  • Jim, for his ability to combine huggably adorable with the fully mature, not to say scarily-precise, talent required in any given creative situation.
  • Larry, for his genuine wit and willingness to embrace the oddest of comic corners, both as a writer and as a performer.
  • Ben, for being not only quite incredibly British but self-aware enough to leverage same to extremely sophisticated, occasionally really surprising comic effect.
  • In their own ways they’re all perfectly suited to smartly blur the lines between adult and children’s comedy, and put all together that’s something not only endearing but genuinely intriguing. I intend to keep following their adventures via this blog as long as they keep working together.
  • But for now… well, look, as I mentioned last review there’s only one reason why anybody was paying attention to this episode, and it wasn’t to find out what happened to the Carlton Club pool. So let’s just get it out of the way right upfront: the finale song is utterly, wonderfully perfect in every last respect. So much so, that it becomes one of two excellent explanations (the other is [spoiler alert] the WWI special) for why so much of this last series feels so unusually offhand: they were busy expending all that creative energy, all the lessons learned and all the experience gained, on getting the stuff that really mattered just right.
  • They succeeded brilliantly in both cases, but especially here, where the expectations of their audience were so high. They fulfilled those, while at the same time remaining ferociously true to their own idiosyncratic take on comedy, the universe and everything. The charity-single parody format allows fully for sentiment while neatly and characteristically avoiding sentimentality; the song itself gets the point across while staying out of the way of the purpose; and the performers, freed to thus simply get on with saying goodbye, do so with the effortless warmth of five years’ worth of understanding that they were on to something really, really good
  • …Yes, absolutely, I’ve spent an entire series worth of reviews insisting the show ended when it had to, and I stand by that. But the sheer unadulterated awesomeness of the whole that the song conveys is still powerful enough as to be almost unbearably poignant.
  • Besides which, multiple viewings do turn up a few specific critical pleasures. Notably, the realisation of how neatly the whole has been knitted from various aspects of the current series’ production. This isn’t nearly so obviously a cut-n-paste job as the Monarchs’ Song video, but it’s similarly about taking advantage of the materials at hand. It’s possible to identify several characters and sets lifted wholesale from the previous eleven episodes–and a couple more from the new specials, which [spoiler alert] is also how Cleopatra comes to be standing front and centre at the end there. A few others have been recreated from previous series, like Mat the peasant, who quite fittingly (in several respects) gets the last word.
  • Also, because this is the finale and nobody’s worrying about buzzkill-y details like singing ability, Ben gets a couple surprisingly decent solos and Lawry… gets decent context for his off-key bellowing. I particularly enjoy how he switches from fully psychotic Viking warrior to hapless monk victim literally shot-to-shot.
  • Elsewhere among my own little throat-lump-raising moments: Jim and Martha get one last shot as the cozy couple; Mat puts a final flourish to his Latin accent; Larry takes the weird for one last medieval spin; Ben and Mat together do a hilariously blatant Grecian spoof on five years’ worth of fanfic; and–I think this might be my favourite touch of all–Giles Terera, in pointedly 20th-century attire, ends up directly in the camera’s line of sight on “Thought we were amazing–” just in time to give an exquisitely knowing nod to “–though you may quibble…!”
  • Before all this, of course, there was an episode. You can be forgiven for not recalling it in much detail, composed as it is mostly of the odd leftover bits from an entire series of them, but there are a few reasons to rewatch it with the prose sketches in mind.
  • Notably, there is the final Bob Hale Report. In which he at last brings his eccentric take on the past up to the present, and for one last time finds it not exactly what he was expecting… nor does the audience, quite frankly. Of all the HH regular characters, Bobsy deserved a chance to go out in a real no-holds-barred blaze of goofy glory, and he doesn’t quite achieve that here–although, now having watched the WWI special and hence realising where his creator’s priorities actually were at the time, that becomes much more forgivable.
  • Let us just say here, then, that Bobsy’s genuinely glorious finale is still to come. Meantime, this Report is a solidly pleasing romp that manages a few really nifty moments, which when you come to think of it a fine way regardless to crown his endlessly inflated expectations.
  • Sure, Sam’s rejection is harsh, but look at it like this: according to the comic logic of the Hale universe as established over five series, she literally couldn’t have done anything else but turn him down. And the fact that Larry, and by extension the show, is more concerned with honouring that than any sentimental farewell scene is a tiny perfect microcosm of why both are universally beloved in the first place.
  • On the other hand… oh look, we’ve finally got a handle on Chipmunk-Faced Guy from the credits, and it’s… Lawry the Wonders of the Universe whacko, in seriously unfortunate ‘swarthy’ makeup, randomly babbling about hamsters. Welp, gotta give this one to you, show, that’s quite literally the last thing I would’ve thought of.
  • Yep, the WOtU series gets a deservedly elaborate finale, a really clever bit of self-aware expectation-playing as an appropriate roundoff to what’s indisputably been S5’s contribution to the really great recurring bits…or at least this is what I’m telling myself to avoid the conclusion that it’s really all just one more symptom of the show’s ongoing obsession with the scientific/engineering superiority of Ancient Greece.
  • Cos otherwise, I don’t wish to dispute your facts here, production team I’m assuming contains at least one person who’s a tad bit defensive about the viability of their Classics degree, but you’re starting to come across like the dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Except you’re British, so it’s all just sort of weird…
  • …even without the fact that your supposedly proudly Hellenic character is suddenly rocking the totally non-sequitur brownface last employed on Incan Shouty Man back in S02E01. The f/x team started the “Whoo! We’ll never have to simulate bodily fluids ever again!” party just a tad early, apparently.
  • Ooh boy, major inadvertently-poignant-reference bomb incoming in the last LoG bit. Just for the record, I would in fact watch the living daylights out of Robin Williams as a talking Sphynx.
  • Otherwise, the trio go out on their own characteristically skillful, surreally crass terms; there’s no shortage of idiocy to be mined from the Hollywood experience, so of course no reason why they should ever cease having fun with it, and to all appearances they never did–or for that matter, given that Shearsmith’s still retweeting random photos from the HH experience lo these many months later, have ever done.
  • Thus the final burst of the irrepressible manic glee that’s developed on Gatiss’ face over two series is all the finale this segment needs. Props also to the writers for keeping up the quality of the concept to the very end. Simon’s Rameses fully deserved another airing, and he continues to bounce exactly the right touch of exotic fantasy off the less-than-legendary reality.
  • Speaking of which, ohai I.K Brunel–aka “Horrors That Defy Description” Guy from the credits, which in sharp contrast to the above turns out to be a pretty decent joke. It was great to…. sort of… get to know you for, like, thirty whole seconds. Yep, yet again, the show tosses up another impossibly charming eccentric genius (complete with awesome Howick plushie accessory) just in time to say farewell. Accompanied by one last fun little flourish with Rattus. Damnit, show, you’re going to make me sorry there won’t be a proper S6 if it kills you, aren’t you?
  • Then again… Jim, just where the hell did you get that pseudo-Hollywood-Cockney accent, and does it have anything to do with that same viewing of Mary Poppins I mentioned a couple reviews ago? Seriously, I know accents aren’t much more your thing than Larry’s, but of all the things starring in a history-themed comedy for five series should’ve enabled you to pull off…
  • Still though, you have learned a really nice line in MTV mimicry. Remember back when I said I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to see in these last eps? Check that: I just realised that I really, really wanted to see Chavvy Jim present a sketch on alchemy. The ‘also starring Mat and his Italian accent, roughly in that order,’ that’s just gravy; tasty, rich brown gravy, such as makes poutine the food of the gods. Basically I’m just so happy that my finale memories contain one last Howick/Baynton collaboration that it’s entirely critic-proof. Particularly the ‘look me in the eye’ bit with the sunglasses.
  • Oh, and on the subject of surefire happiness, there is also the final Words We Get From the… , featuring B.Willbond evidently just then realising that he’ll never, ever have to have pythons thrown at him again–until round about Yonderland‘s third series, probably. Meantime, I’m rather pleased they took the trouble to give this segment a proper finale. Ongoing evidence of the Ancient Greek obsessiveness aside, it’s an appropriately meta-affectionate windup to what’s been a surprisingly durable source of gentle chuckles over all five series.
  • And then there is the final Stupid Deaths, because of course there is. Another HH icon goes out on a cheerfully effortless example of their best: Death and his skeleton pals, forever squabbling over the mundane bourgeois details of the afterlife, as occasionally interrupted by odd but equally snarky corpses. You simply can’t improve on perfection–save perhaps by ensuring that I also get one last wonderful Willbond/Farnaby collaboration–and again, it’s to the show’s *ahem* eternal credit that they didn’t try.
  • They did, however, try a few other things, to the extent that I am at last compelled to call no-fairsies. Because Jim in a top hat is one thing, but introducing Ben as a beachcomber, in that blouse, and then wandering off into a mundane sketch like nothing at all resembling a marvelously intriguing codicil to this series’ surreal running gags was just introduced in the last half of the very last episode, is plain dirty pool.
  • Or, OK, it could also be that the random flourish was introduced because the Mary Anning sketch itself isn’t precisely what you’d call funny, or subtle, or anything. It’s more or less a Tumblr post given animation, and that mostly in the form of the show’s newfound conviction that Martha throwing things at men–also on view here in the gardening bit–is a seriously hi-larious way to enact social justice. Which… well, let’s just say it loses something when castle ramparts aren’t involved. 
  • Even so, thanks to her aforementioned fundamental self-assurance–not to mention that, whew, when Mat decides to use that sweetly playful charm for evil, he does not fool around–they come impressively close to pulling off something powerful. All the bonus points besides for working cophrolites in there.
  • There are no comparably exciting diversions in the Homefront Gardening sketch–it being one of those parodies I’m pretty sure I’d be considerably more amused did I only recognise the source. Best I can do under the circs is awww, they finally got Mat into the sweater-vest! Score! Also the cuffs, those are lovely.
  • So, come to that, is chipper housewife Martha and her almost unbearably pretty little cottage garden. I am at least heartened by the strong evidence that rural Britain as N.Americans think of it actually once existed outside Rosamund Pilcher novels.
  • So… well, yeah, so here we are, at the very last bit of regular-series commentary I’m ever going to type… once I get over being all wibbly in my insides for some reason. Look, why don’t you lot just imagine a fanfare or something for a few seconds, OK? I feel like there should be trumpets, at least.
  • *several deep breaths later* Right, yes, the pyramid-building business. Well-written, original, generally intriguing way of getting the unique majesty of it all across without sacrificing the Horribleness of the hard labour required… although possibly could’ve sacrificed Mat back in ‘inexplicably failed to be left on a mountaintop as a baby’ mode, especially since the Egyptians didn’t actually do that and it was still the first thing that sprang to mind.
  • Also, just incidentally: the heck with the eternal riddles of the Pyramids, I’m more interested in getting in touch with the mysteries of the all-purpose sweat-stain-removing laundry detergent these lowly peasants clearly had access to.
  • But never mind. It’s over, and they managed to end it with all the grace and dignity and charm and sheer, satisfying intellectual bravado that five years of one of the most remarkable experiments ever in children’s TV fully deserved. Whatever the proposed new Series Six attempts–and I’m not saying it mightn’t be something watchable enough–this crew’s achievement will stand untouched. They’re history–and they made it Horrible.

95% Accu-rat:

  • …wait, does anybody actually care at this point?
  • Well, OK, for both of you still reading, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (Apparently Dad was French, which makes me feel at least a bit better about the given names.) So basically yes to the short, and the probably compensatory top hat, and the generally cocky attitude, and the engineering genius to back it up… yep, even the emergency upside-down coin-removal surgery, all absolutely kosher.
  • In fact, having but skimmed his lengthy Wiki article, I’m now a little sad that I will never have the chance to encounter him at cocktail parties. Or, for that matter, live in an era in which “Ooh, Mr. Brunel, do tell us all about your scheme for a railway using atmospheric pressure to suck the cars along the tracks?” counts as any kind of plausible conversation starter.
  • Also, John of Bohemia‘s bizarre battle tactics, not a thing wrong with that little anecdote either. In fact, according to Wiki at least, “to fight like John of Bohemia” used to be a common euphemism for ‘to charge in blindly”. This seems to have been the closest anyone ever got to suggesting his Majesty might have been just a teensy bit, y’know, ill-advised to enter the battle after having been sightless (due to an unspecified inflammatory disease) for a decade–what? Oh, did I not mention he was in reality a noticeable few years older than Ben by then?
  • Anyway. it seems he was originally just going to give the enemy the one *ahem* pointed sword-stroke–sort of a “The old man’s still got it, damnit!” gesture–but, well, one thing led to another, as they had a habit of doing in confused, noisy pre-industrial foot battles, and the next you know JoB and escort were right in the middle of the main battlefield, and, well. They were romantic like that, in the Middle Ages.
  • It feels appropriate that the last entry in this series go to Mary Anning. The good news: the sketch slightly over-exaggerates her exclusion from scholarly circles; like most female scientists of her day, she was excluded from the Royal Societies and had to have papers published under a man’s name and whatnot–which of course was bad enough. But unlike most, her work was unofficially widely recognised and admired, if only because, hot damn, there was a lot of it. Female, working-class poor religious Dissenter she may have been, still, in order to blow off our Ms. Anning you’d have to ignore the entire cutting-edge of paleontology at that time.
  • On the other hand… the show is notably not exaggerating the poverty thing. Poor Mary really was reduced to selling off her valuable fossils for pennies to continue her work, and never did attain to the fame and fortune she so richly deserved before she died of breast cancer at only 47. So yeah, history…definitely could be just a little bit Horrible, at times.
 
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Posted by on October 19, 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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S05E03

You’re not going to bite my neck and suck the blood out, are you?
Ha ha! No, I am not vampire.
You’re not some crazed killer! Heh heh…
Mmm… well, I’m not vampire, anyway.

Wherein we settle into as close to the mainstream as this series will ever get with the solid help of some old friends… and one unexpected, completely effervescent arabesque of musical excellence.

In this episode:

Song: Charles Dickens — Mat as the great man of English literature relates the tumultuous relationship between his real life and fiction in the equally tumultuous style of the Smiths — complete with swinging gladioli. Also, the help of Jim and Larry plus special guest Al Murray.

Recurring sketches:

I [Heart] Cats Magazine — Everything the Egyptian cat lover needs to know! …And some things they probably didn’t. (“I can haz mummification?”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Robert the Bruce Project (“Nay, the spider thing never happened! It’s just a story people tell to explain why I never gave up…” “What if he got bitten by the spider, and turned into a superhero?” “Spider-Guy~!” “Spider-Guy II!” “Now we’re getting somewhere!”)

Come Dine With Me — Greek thinkers (Of course, including Diogenes… and Aristotle, serving up a “duck, a goose, an octopus and a swan!” “Sounds delicious…” “Oh, I’m not serving them, I’m just chopping them into bits to see how their bodies work. Hummus?”)

Bob Hale — The Mary, Queen of Scots Report (“Whoops, Darnley’s dead too–killed in a very weird explosion. The kind of “weird explosion” that also strangles you and dumps your body in the garden. Which, if we look at the Suspicious-Death-O-Meter–yup, highly suspicious.”)

Gross Designs — Vlad the Impaler (You know what the Ottomans will say when they see the bodies of 20,000 of my own people spiked on the border?” “You’re insane!” “Exactly!”)

Stupid Deaths — Ivan the Terrible (The most flamboyantly fearsome of all the great Russian emperors died… while playing chess. “Alright, laugh it up, Skeletor…” “So who won? Or was it a dead heat? Ha!” “…I once killed my jester, remember?”)

One-offs:

Awful Egyptians

The Purr-fect Weapon — Persian general Cambyses uses the Egyptians’ feline fetish as inspiration for a clever, not to mention cuter, variant on a human shield… now he just has to convince his troops. (“Warriors! I present our ultimate weapon!*meow* “…Does it explode?”)

Shocking Scotland

A Bonnie Escape — Poor Prince Charlie: he may not have won Culloden, but a resourceful peasant woman is ready to ensure that his flight into exile will be truly fabulous. (“Can you imagine anything more humiliating, a man of royal blood having to skulk around the moors like… Right, apparently you can.”)

Savage Stone Age

Stone Age Invention No.28: Wearing Clothes (animated) — Amid the wails of disappointed fangirls, strictly cartoon cavemen explore the profits and perils of wearing furs.

Historical Top Gear — Next up on the parade of small innovations with world-changing consequences: the bit and bridle. “And next week, we’re going to have a look at how the boffins are getting on inventing the wheel… Well, that’s not gonna work, I mean, how are they going to fit it on the horses’ legs?”

Vile Victorians

Victorian Word Battles — Or, ‘Words We Get From the…’ goes way upscale: Charles Dickens -vs- Lewis Carroll to see who can make the most quixotic contributions to the English language.

Terrible Tudors

New! Francis Walsingham’s Royal Postal Service — Absolutely, positively, 100% not having your mail read by government spies since 1569. Really. (“Hold on, by denying we’re using spies, it’s pretty clear that we are using spies, isn’t it…”)

Field Notes:

  • So there’s an important corollary to the series progression thesis I elaborated upon last week… no, not that I’ve got far too much time on my hands, we’ve established that long since. To paraphrase Death, keep up mate, keep up.
  • The corollary I had in mind was the one where the music inevitably is one level of creative badassery up on everything else in its respective series. Essentially, they figured it out in the very first episode, and if the bulk of Series One was spent bumbling back along to that point, the subsequent series picked up the ball and never looked back. The sketches were all “Yay! Possibilities! Let’s see how this works, or maybe this!”; meanwhile the music videos are like “Yeah. Charles II as Eminem. Any questions?”
  • Which is why it was a bit of a disappointment to me that S4’s music actually slid sideways a bit. By then they knew what to do just a bit too well, if that makes any sense; found solidly amazing parody mashup concepts and then just… sort of… did a solidly amazing job with them. Some vital spark of gleeful innovation, the kind that had produced both George IV and Pachacuti, was missing…
  • …and then in S5 the sparks suddenly exploded all over the damn place. I’m not saying the results were uniformly wonderful, but they were all intensely watchable, if only to see what firework might go off next. It’s the closest I will ever come to mourning what might have been in S6.
  • This episode’s example in particular… right, what else is there to say after it got picked up by the Washington Post’s online Slate magazine, the LA Times and was retweeted by not only the usual scholarly types but American actor/musician Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Clearly, a universal chord of comedic imagination had been struck.
  • And at the centre of it is easily the finest thing Mat’s ever done for the show — the absolutely logical followup to Charles II and Darwin, combining the former’s exquisitely cheeky charm with the latter’s playful erudition… and, let us not forget, those gladioli. Neither Dickens or Smiths parodies are anything novel in and of themselves, so it’s entirely to the show’s credit that this piece fully sails above the standard to become… well, whatever it is Mat’s been becoming since he started this whole adventure in combining children’s comedy with adult clowning. Yes, up to and including the Muppet voice. And it is glorious.
  • Meanwhile, the rest of the production matches him note for sweetly smart note, building on what they learned with the Natural Selection video about showcasing the central Victorian jewel in an expertly flattering setting. Including, of all people, the guy whom Wiki tells me is best known for a game show called Compete for the Meat. I don’t know much about Al Murray, honestly, but hey, he’s clearly having a ball and he fits into the mutton-chop-intensive mileu perfectly. Besides, I like meat. Welcome aboard, Al.
  • So… yeah, there was also an episode, which will hereinafter be enshrined in HH lore as The One With the Cats. Specifically, they’re the best part of an altogether rather odd remake of the S3 ‘Nasty Knights’ sketch. Presumably the idea was that the itteh bitteh warrior kittehs would act as adorableness-themed wallpaper over the mismatched comedic seams.
  • This… well, I’m not saying it wasn’t a fairly productive strategy (having them be all black was a particularly nice touch). It’s just not quite enough to prevent me from noticing that basically all involved in this elite army–all, like, four of them–have kicked on the autopilot and taken a little vacation from being shrewd comedy veterans. Thus explaining the failure to realise that the whole ‘stick the skinny guy in armour and hope it’s funny when he yells’ thing in particular was never all that showstopping to begin with. I am also a trifle dubious about the armour itself, which looks a lot more like Calvin Klein’s fall collection with the belts swopped out.
  • In the end, all I can say is… thank heavens for good ol’ Rattus and the ‘moment to think about all those dead cats’! …No, really. I’d seriously been starting to worry he was losing his edge, especially after the J.K Rowling crack. We can get back to the awful puns anytime now, fuzzy little pal.
  • Luckily, everyone gets back on the comedy-veteran job ASAP, all nice and rested and with a pretty decent tan. Especially is this noticeable–both metaphorically and literally, come to think of it–in the Come Dine With Me bit, which this series has been shrewdly retooled to focus back on the foibles of the diners rather than their food, and thus become the ideal vehicle to reintroduce great characters from series past. The relief at–nay, sheer joy in–having such surefire stuff to put onscreen is palpable. I give them special props for recognizing that Pythagoras and his non-sequitur spirituality still had much comedy goodness left to give.
  • Also, Larry seems to have located his perfect Ringo impersonation again. Also also, Mat’s still got the beard and the vaguely unsettling air of having just blown in from a PSA on the dangers of speed. Somehow the fact that whatever Aristotle’s cutting up bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of the animals the narrator mentions just makes me very happy. On the other hand, I think we can all agree that we have definitively wrung every last, erm, drop of comic potential from Diogenes’ austerity philosophy now, kthx. Yes, even for the twelve-year-old demographic. Sheez.
  • In other surefire recurring entertainment news: Yay, Bob Hale has finally sorted his meds and is back to his… well, at least mildly-manic self! (By contrast, Sam’s blouse… man, those ruffles just get more and more implausible, don’t they?) Really, a fully splendid recovery from last year’s tendency to rest on his catchphrase-laden laurels–not one catchphrase of which is uttered here, interestingly enough. I dunno where Larry went to get re-inspired, but it was a good place. You can tell right off, because the old-age makeup has gotten much less existentially terrifying. I suppose it was either that or equip the poor guy with a wheelchair and laser pointer, which– *aaaaghh* Bad brain! Stop that!
  • …Sorry, rapid-aging phobia kicked in there for a sec. But man, yes, time to admit I spent the off-season uneasily anticipating the Rickardian interpretation of senility as goofy comedy. Instead, we get a  classically bright, clever, notably accurate and and just generally one of the all-time great Bob Reports, wherein the inspired running gag is seamlessly kicked up notch-by-notch into an actual meta-satirical comment on the entire show’s attitude to history, and by extension, the entire discipline’s methods. Well done Bobsy, and even better done his creator.
  • Over at Stupid Deaths, by contrast, it’s becoming unfortunately clear that the re-inspiration wad may well have been shot with the ‘Boring Deaths’ business. Hang on, let me just go back and check… yep, that would in fact be ol’ Ivan the T’s signature among Death’s pre-existing collection of autographs from great villains of history, all the way back in S2’s Draco sketch… and yes, the fact that I not only remembered that but spent some time being miffed over having my newfound SD continuity summarily destroyed only an episode later is only the latest indication that I may need a vacation myself.
  • Still, it really is an awful shame that the potential for the callback wasn’t picked up. Just imagine how the fearsome Tartar Emperor, as envisioned by a production team who clearly needs to back off the Game of Thrones Netflix bingeing, would’ve reacted to that fluffy pink pen? Which is in fact rather inexplicably visible throughout this sketch? By contrast, the angle they did go with is so clunky that the whole thing winds up only being novel inasmuch as it proves that it is, in fact, possible for comic surrealism to not take flight in the vicinity of Farnaby’s performance tics.
  • Not that there aren’t still rewards inherent in Ben’s big chance to show off his Russian. I would be saying this anyway, out of sympathy for what appears to have been six hours straight in the makeup chair, but it is so regardless. Albeit it takes a couple viewings to appreciate, or frankly even realise there’s a Willbond in there, under those eyebrows. (Seriously. The “Uhhh… that is him, right?” reaction online when this bit first aired was priceless.) One of those creative decisions you feel like watching film of them being made–or, for that matter, executed–would be far more entertaining than the results.
  • On the other hand: Benjamin, you totally ad-libbed that ‘Skeletor’ line, didn’t you? If so, it’s the closest I may ever get to wanting to give you a great big hug.
  • Simon gets far better served on the nostalgia front in the Movie Pitch sketch–even if it does involve cheerfully tossing William Wallace the hard-rocking rebel legend under a bus without, apparently, much in the way of second thoughts at all. Interesting bit of insight into the show’s dedication to the facts, that.
  • Anyway, I have long been anxious to see how Farnaby’s full-on crazy bounces off the LoG’s be-suited smarminess … wonderfully as ever, as it turns out. It’s been far too long since he’s had the chance to thus let loose, also since the trio had a really worthy opponent, and the results are fully classic all the way ’round. Meantime, I continue to enjoy how the same trio are developing their own little world of Hollywood cluelessness; it still doesn’t have much to do with HH, but it’s a joy to watch regardless. Like, right in the middle of the historical stuff, the kiddies are being treated to an extra-credit clinic in comedy development. Complete with the face paint.
  • On the further subject of fascinating makeup decisions: For the first time, based solely on Mat’s look as host of the new ‘Gross Designs’ bit, I was motivated to look up the source material. And I was mightily pleased… well, not so much in that direction, although it’s a decent bonus, as that it’s a nice clever idea for a recurring concept with lots of potential. Sort of a more sophisticated take on the old ‘Location Location Location’ bits, which I also always liked.
  • OK, so it turns out to be kind of unnecessarily goofy in the execution. Simon’s evident idea of Eastern Europeans goes a long way towards explaining his later decision to sign on as presenter of Man Vs. Weird. (It’s more fun listening to him provide the mundane explanation of ‘Dracula’ in that pantomime accent than in the whole of his SD performance, though, must admit that.) Not to mention that the ‘impala’/’Impaler’ thing is officially the furthest the show’s ever reached for a joke, and this is a show that contains Death’s puns on a regular basis. But Mat’s comparatively subtle symphony of growing unease just about makes up for everything.
  • Except maybe why he’s not playing Bonnie Prince Charlie, thus breaking his frankly magnificent streak of sassy royal Stuart portrayals. I mean, if we’re going to play around with casting, why couldn’t that have been Lawry instead of Mat as the kitty-obsessed Persian general… no, wait, that actually wouldn’t’ve worked any better, would it… OK, how about Mat here, Ben as Cambyses over there and Lawry as the guy with the derpy sneeze? But that leaves Simon… ah, geez, now I’m all confused up in here.
  • Of course, the ridiculous over-the-top squeeky stuff at the beginning of his bit does suggest the doomed-but-Bonnie Prince was specially written with the whinge specialist in mind. I’ll also grant there’s a certain wit in using that same guy in a sketch that’s all about underlining the ultimate futility of Charlie’s regal ambitions; in particular, he plays the quoted line really well. Otherwise, this little interlude is notable mostly for underlining how good Martha really does look in blue… which you can tell, because it distracts from her Scots accent.
  • I am by contrast not at all sure how well the Historical Top Gear spoof was thought through, beyond the writers’ understandable need to change their pop-culture dartboard picture every now and then. Masterchef has run its course, and the Apprentice while loaded with other possibilities isn’t nearly as satisfying a mickey-taking outlet, so it’s obviously time to move on to… ‘Jeremy Clarkstone’ and ‘James Clay’? Ah, guys? Exactly when did this turn into the Flintstones?
  • …Fine, ‘Stone Age Stig’, that’s mildly amusing. Points also for the business at the end with the wheel, and indeed for James Clay’s asides throughout, primarily because ‘sophisticated’ Cave-Willbond being baffled by basic technology can never not be hilariously endearing.
  • But really guys, this experimental thing is getting a little out of hand. Mind, I do not wish to seem like I’m ready to jump on every role Lewin gets this series; I am just saying that after being confronted with this one I felt it necessary to immediately study pictures of the real-life Jeremy Clarkson with great care, not to say concern. And while I gather he’s something of a noted curmudgeon, there’s no indication whatsoever he’s an eldritch abomination drawing on the dark hearts of those 90’s troll dolls to return specifically to eat children’s souls. Somebody seriously needs to cut the makeup team’s Red Bull supply.
  • But not before I congratulate them on managing to make Mat look more like Dickens than anyone approximately thirty years younger has a right to. The ‘Word Battle’ thing with Ben as Lewis Carroll is another weirdly underthought sketch idea, but I do not care, because awwww. Somebody clearly just wanted to reignite the competitive spark in these two after the Greatest Composer thing at the Proms, and how do you argue with that?
  • Besides, they did a brilliant job of following through, or at least the performers did. The chemistry inherent in the creative tension–ie. Dickens’ obsessive need for moral justice and order vs. Carroll’s overt refusal to give a damn about anything but being clever–is even better matched than the original, and handled with subtly elegant intelligence by both men (never mind that in real life, the ebullient, verbose Dickens would’ve totally overwhelmed the shy, gauche, introverted Dodgson).
  • Honestly, Ben should by all rights not be this convincing as Carroll, but he is. Largely by focussing in on what popular imagination thinks the author of Jabberwocky must have been–edge of inspired lunacy and everything. Shades of what I’ve been complaining about missing from his signature characters lately, come to think of it. At any rate, “Personal recitation of Carroll’s poetry” just got added to my list of weirdly off-brand Willbond fantasies.
  • Jim meanwhile is a bit out of things in this episode full of magnificently outsized characters; he’s here only to be upstaged by a magnificently indifferent feline and to all-too-briefly recreate Francis Walsingham, one of his most intriguing roles exactly because one of the few–possibly only, come to think of it–that’s  not the universe’s go-to chew toy. Unfortunately this latter is stuck in another one of those little scraps of anecdote that never quite gets around to an actual punchline, or anything, but the sheer novelty of seeing Howick play so against type–and his almost offhanded skill in the execution regardless–makes it worth a  watch anyway.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Completely self-indulgent feline footnote and incidental proof that I do have a life, since I’m also in the middle of polishing up the domestic cat breed articles on Wiki… wait, that didn’t come out quite as intended… Anyway, that’s a very lovely blue-point Siamese being used in the magazine sketch. Which breed is a) not even close to originating in Egypt (as the name indicates, it’s native to Siam, ie. modern Thailand) and b) ironically enough is among the few breeds of cat that can be taught to fetch. Given enough owner patience, anyway.
  • I said above that this Bob Report is notably accurate, and I stand by that down here — because I’m exploiting a loophole that says the background goofiness doesn’t really count. Still, in this case it would’ve been nice had they got the right French King Francis; the animation here is clearly based off the famous portrait of Francis I, actually a contemporary of her Great-Uncle Henry VIII’s (devoted HH fans will remember him from S02E12 as the guy who tripped Henry up at the Field of Cloth of Gold).
  • Sadly, Mary’s Francis bore very little–make that ‘no’, actually–resemblance to his virile, handsome, cultured predecessor. The son of Henry II by Catherine de’Medici, Francis II, who ascended the throne at age fifteen after a freak jousting accident took out Dad, was a sickly,stunted kid who didn’t even have time to begin growing facial hair before dying ignominously of an ear infection at age sixteen… and let’s just say there were some seriously conflicting reports re: his potential for virility, too. It’s been suggested that this unsatisfactory early experience of marriage played a role in Mary’s later eagerness to get unwisely involved with unsuitable, but very virile, noblemen as Queen.
  • All of which ultimately led to the creation of Francis Walsingham’s postal service, ie. at least one cute little throwaway sketch that just got a whole lot more topical — though to be fair, Walsingham had a job lot more specific reasons for concern than the NSA. As Bobsy notes, the whole post office ruse was initially set up explicitly to foil Mary’s many attempts at rebellion by correspondence with the disaffected Catholics of the realm… and man, did it work brilliantly. Per Wiki:
  • Walsingham arranged a…  covert means for Mary’s letters to be smuggled in and out of Chartley [the castle in which she was being held] in a beer keg. Mary was misled into thinking these secret letters were secure, while in reality they were deciphered and read by Walsingham’s agents.
  • Meantime, over in Wallachia, or what would later become Romania with some of Hungary thrown in… meet Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad III Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. Not actually a monarch, but a Voivode, a sort of chief prince of the realm appointed by the boyars, or noble families. Although Vlad frankly despised his boyars (*tch* these nobles, always behaving like you owe them your throne or something) and by all accounts had a nastily fatal habit of letting them know it, he actually served three terms as Voivode; the sketch is set during the second, spanning approx. 1456-72.
  • Yep, turns out that even while his Turkish, German and Russian enemies were (understandably) busy spreading propaganda about his methods, in his own country Vlad was being, and thereafter continued to be, hailed as a conquering hero for holding them off — a dauntless David facing down the Goliath-esque Ottoman Empire.
  • If the assertions by Romanian historians found not only in this short but memorable overview of his career (warning! probably not safe to read while eating) but elsewhere are correct, Dracula is to this day revered in his homeland as a law-and-order legend, a man of the people whose knack of dealing, erm, sternly not only with outside threats but with corrupt nobles and criminals in his own realm is considered positively noble. All those stories of his wildly inventive cruelty, his fans insist, were exaggerated by his enemies. And–historical reality being the total buzzkill that it is–it’s probable they’re at least partly correct.
  • Because I know at least some of you are dying of curiosity: Ivan the Terrible, indeed the owner of some fairly impressive eyebrows, and an even more legendary temper. Like Vlad, though, he had a softer side; he was a talented muscian and patron of the arts, has been described as ‘devout’, and just generally might’ve been remembered mainly as a shrewd and effective politician save for that whole thing with the flying into rages and beating people… but still, there’s a small-but-vocal campaign out there to have him canonised as a saint.
 
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Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S04E12

Ooh, goody! Amateur scientists are so much more fun than professional ones…

As has become the usual, the series wraps up with a funny and full reminder of exactly how much there will be to miss… perhaps a leetle too full a reminder, by now.

In this episode:

Song: (We’re the) Georgian Navy — Jim returns as ultimate All-England manager Admiral Horatio Nelson to oversee a motley team of enthusiastic new recruits, including Ben, Mat, Larry, Simon and Jalaal.

Recurring sketches:

Stupid Deaths — Robert Cocking, ‘professional watercolour artist and amateur scientist’ (Sought a better parachute, carefully taking into consideration all variables… except the weight of the parachute itself. Oops. “Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to test it with a dummy first? Ooh, wait, you already did, didn’t you! Hah!”)

Historical Dentist — Ancient Roman (“Now, we need the blood of a man who’s been killed in a violent way, and I think we’re all out. Do you mind fetching me some, Mandy?” *AUUUGHH! EEEEK!* “… they never outrun Mandy…”)

Historical Masterchef — Tudor (“I’m – looking – thoughtful.” “I’m – SHOUTING!”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Alfred the Great Project (“I don’t want to be remembered for a cake story that never happened! This could be a great movie!” “Yeah, you’re right. And guess what? It’s called Alfred the Cake. Somebody get me Ashton Kutcher on the phone, we got a hit…!” “Ooh, look, Cake Guy’s getting upset!”)

Words We Get From the — Greeks: Scholarly

Historical Mastermind — Ancient Greek scholar

Bob Hale — The Napoleon Report (“… as he helps to overthrow the monarchy and protect the new people’s government. An act that wins him fame, wealth, influence and helicopters — though probably not that last one.”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

Necropolis Railway — “When you run out of room to bury people in the city it does make sense to put your cemeteries further out — and you do get a lovely day in the countryside!” “Ooh, yes, it’s very convenient. And my husband does love trains!… or, well, he did..”

Rotten Romans

Tarpeian Rocks — In which we discover the characteristically elegant-yet-ruthless Roman solution to ensuring people thrown to their deaths off cliffs actually die… well, having the ensurers stand directly below, that maybe needed work. (“Now, always stay tight to the cliff, because… *thud* *urghh* …hmmm, should’ve started with that one first, shouldn’t I? My bad!”)

Terrible Tudors

The Prince of Paranoia — Towards the end of his life Henry VIII developed a real fear that his enemies — up to and including Death — were out to get him, and took (some very odd) measures accordingly. I’ve no idea why he’d think something so outlandish, do you?

Smashing Saxons

New! Saxon Bank — “Literally a bank of earth! Interest rates are at an all-time low, so your secret stash of treasure will attract zero interest (from Vikings)!… Just don’t forget where you buried it all…”

Groovy Greeks

The Gordian Knot — Unravel it, the prophecy said, and all of Asia is yours. Luckily, when not ominously sniffing subordinates, Alexander the Great liked to spend time literally cutting to the chase. (“Now, where’s my Asia?!” “Uh… over… there, sort of…”)

Field Notes:

  • So now would probably be a good time to admit it: Series Four is far and away my favourite patch of HH goodness. As chronicled therein I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Series Two, of course; but not long into my first viewing of S4 I began to suspect that the one was merely the natural extension of my affectionate nostalgia for the other. The even-numbered HH series represent the leaps forward into what we think of as classic HH style, while the odd-numbered… well, consolidate those gains, let’s say.
  • This review project has confirmed that theory, in spades, with several cherries on top. If S2 was a joyous, anarchistic, ambitiously creative rollercoaster ride, S4 is that same rollercoaster made bigger, more elaborately engineered and accordingly that much more exhilarating. (Again, as me and my fear of heights are assuming. We do have a small nephew who studies these things in-depth.) And it concludes here, even more so than most series-ending episodes, with a shot of essential, endearing familiarity.
  • The flipside — and in some ways the spice — to all this being I likewise already knew Series Five wasn’t going to offer anything more. That the cast would have a chance to play on the same field as established here was tremendously exciting… but just a trifle poignant, as well. The producers had always been adamant that the show would go out ‘while it was still popular’, and as the creative completeness of S4 became obvious, this provoked a sort of low-level uneasiness re: just how much longer it could be justified under those circs.
  • Thus the sort of rose-coloured sentimentality that makes one actually appreciate a sketch whose entire point is transporting bodies to a cemetery. Because in S2, it would’ve been a fun but forgettable throwaway (possibly still involving random limbs flopping out). But two series and one massive evolutionary shift in creative purpose later, it’s just all kinds of surefire, hilariously morbid stuff, performed with the snappy ease of chemistry enhanced by genuine affection.
  • Speaking of which, only between a man and — to all appearances — his coffins: Never change, Laurence Carl Rickard. Never, ever change.
  • Especially, never change the sheer enthusiasm that has me much less worried for Bobsy Hale going forward, now that you have demonstrated that you quite literally can’t help it, and helicopters to boot. (I was going to complain about your blatantly reusing the ‘give the Bonaparte brothers countries instead of socks’ gag, but then realised I was probably the only one who noticed.. until now, of course. Oops.)
  • Much the same nostalgic overcoming effect is strong with the Tarpeian Rocks sketch. Technically it all goes on much too long for the slender point — especially since the same point was already made, with little plastic wings on, in S3’s ‘Angel of Death’ bit — but in practice, by now, there is no limit on how much classic loopy Farnaby is enough, nor Worried Mat as his foil. In the case of Jim’s little wavering offscreen pleas from the falling criminals, this holds true regardless of how long you’ve been watching.
  • In fact, I am so on the Hallmark-card verge here that I am perilously close to deciding to settle for what I can get, re: Ben and Henry VIII. Because while some real hints of complex menace would be nice, the childish-idiot-ness has here at least acquired some very acceptable Blackadder-y edges. Up to and including Jim’s relentless devotion so neatly paying off as a sort of pop-up target.
  • It’s all going a bit too brilliantly apparently; you can almost see the seam where inspiration becomes over-excitement, and on the other side is the *sigh* more usual cliche of Henry as endlessly beef-gnawing glutton. Really not at all sure why the show stubbornly refuses to clue into the fact that the actual major difficulty in getting him up the stairs were his horrendously ulcerated legs (as per below), the sores by all accounts were wonderfully oozy, smelly and putrid…
  • …Erm, *ahem*, terribly painful I mean of course. There is apparently also a slight downside to hanging out with this outfit so long… or possibly just with the rat and his shamelessly teeny-excited-paw-laden snarkiness leading me into temptation. Albeit he’s grown up a little bit too, this series; clearly the increasing contrast between demographic ambitions and puppet-intensive comedy has led to a compromise. I would complain about the concurrent lack of squee-worthy teeny accessories, except that (spoiler alert) I have also seen the next episode.
  • At any rate, even when Alexander the Great encounters the, uh, other sketch-worthy moment of his career, Ben still isn’t helping with the cliches nearly as much as I suspect he could. (Given the way they play this scenario up, though, I am guessing this must be kind of annoying for the writers, the otherwise deeply, boringly efficient way Alex went about being Horrible.)
  • So no, there’s no sniffing. There is, however, a lot of hissing. This… Oh, what the hell, I can make the nostalgia value stretch just that much further, why not. If I remain convinced that Willbond has been something less than fully inspired this series, it here at least makes an excellent foil for Larry and Simon’s more-than-usually nuanced goofballery.
  • …Also, there was the juggling. Oh, and the Asterix impression, that makes up for a lot too.
  • The unexpected — and/or inexplicable — return of Historical Mastermind, on the other hand, acts merely as an object lesson in how the writers taking an obvious snit against a parody target does not automatically result in oodles of inspired hijinx. At all. ‘Nikos Ancientgreekios’?! Really, show? Really? Not to say that watching Ben’s smug coping with yo-yo trivia isn’t mildly amusing, but you didn’t figure the whole skit being a nakedly blatant lift of an entire previous song would distract just a smidge?
  • Mind you, again, the repurposing the S1 stuff generally, probably less of a problem given CBBC viewers’ attention spans than a cranky adult critic person (currently obsessively reviewing every episode) has been willing to concede up to now. Even if it is merely about running out of surefire factoids faster than sketch ideas, it can still work on the grownup level when writerly experience (and, apparently, whacking great doses of childhood trauma) is applied properly.
  • Or, y’know, with total self-indulgent abandon. What I am getting at here is that, despite my open scepticism of their motives up to now, the Historical Dentist team has decided to treat me to a denouement beyond my wildest Horrible Points of View-influenced daydreams. Featuring a blood-streaked Sarah loyally backing up Very Civilized Roman Mat — who, from the hairstyle, got into dentistry after pounding criminals to death on the Tarpeian Rocks proved strangely unfulfilling — and Civilian Larry as the patient bemusedly watching all this.
  • Now, I do feel it incumbent on me, as also a (marginally) responsible adult critic person, just to mention that blatantly using the medical factoids to reach new heights of sophisticated black comedy is not precisely the Surgeon General’s approved method for moulding juvenile attitudes to health care. Not for the first time am I entertaining myself by adding to the mental list of therapy bills the show will likely find itself being served with in the next decade…
  • …And trust me, I am grateful. Even more than I was to discover it’s Death’s deathday, and so the party-hat wearing skeletons and mummy have bought him a nice little cake from the grocery. Chocolate, mmm!… Sorry? Yes, of course there was a death, and it was very stupid. That special sort of HH stupid that comes with an actual little to-do list of stupid, which always makes my cockles auto-warm. Or it would, if I wasn’t already happily lost in Dr. Phil’s ideal of purgatory. “It’s a joke… Oh, you got it? Well, tell your face!”
  • All this and we haven’t even gotten to the Masterchef segment yet! Which I am kind of OK with, because I had completely forgotten there even were five MC segments this series. That the fifth contestant is Lawry in full whinge mode, yeah, that’d partly explain it, but I’m at a bit of a loss to begin with as to how they so badly overshot the natural end of this bit.
  • After blowing up the sexual harassment and hauling out the bottom-slicing you’d figure a team as sharp as they’ve demonstrated recently would’ve realised the novelty value was officially exhausted; but no, we’re stuck watching as what was once needle-fine satire devolves into helplessly-flailing schtick… well, yeah, there is that one little moment where Jim, told vegetables cause hair loss, goes to check his scalp. Otherwise, HMasterchef, I shall prefer to remember you in your prime.
  • The LoG’s Movie Pitch bits, meanwhile, have much more smartly been saved as occasional treats, and are thus — as far as I’m concerned at least — still very much on the top of their game. Yep, sorry kids, still giggling helplessly… granted, assisted by their own growing glee in the part, and even more so Mat’s gloriously, hilariously, yet almost surreally convincing turn as Alfred ‘Don’t Call Me Cake Guy!’ the Great.
  • Needlessly harping again I know, but frankly that bottom-burning business last ep is shaping up to be the absolute least of his performances this year. There are worse ways to sum S4 up than by noting that, while a strict count reveals Ben actually played the most roles — several more in fact than Mat — the refrain from viewers all series long (not to say mine here, earlier) was nearly equally divided between “Too much Baynton, nobody else can get a look in!” and “Not enough Willbond, where’s he got to?”
  • Finally, there is the song, or more accurately the anthem. “Playing with these balls can really do you harm…” oh, sure, why not? It’s about as close as this production gets to the authentic naval atmosphere. Seriously, I place it here because it is so obviously the final summing-up of all that joyous, endearing etc stuff I was babbling about — very much including one of the aforementioned rare moments Ben gets to shine through.
  • Strictly considered as a production it is an engaging mix of brightly enthusiastic and handsomely lavish, and the song is a right rousing example of its kind — a Gilbert & Sullivan version of Horatio Hornblower, substituting energetic clutter for the choreography and sporty posturing for the chest-pounding. Even if you’re not familiar with the parody source, it’s all endless amounts of good, verging on genuinely witty, fun. No surprise (esp. if you follow him on Twitter) to learn it was co-written by Greg Jenner…
  • …however I was a bit startled to discover the cute l’il mute peasant so far indulging his dark side as to force Jim to sing about how ‘the [Arsenal] Gunners are my team!’. American viewers: Jim is a diehard Tottenham Spurs supporter, making this the NFL equivalent of trapping a Chicago Bears fan into belting out ‘The Packers are my team!’ in front of many thousands. With a huge smile on his face. What the hell, Greg, did he steal your red stapler or something?
  • It’s all not quite enough to make it onto the list of true HH classics — although it should be noted in connection with same that I’m speaking from entirely outside the football ethos. Regardless, it does something that in the moment is even more precious: it captures the pure essence of the matter perfectly, all four ridiculously amazing years of it. Certainly, there is still Series Five to go… but for me at least, an oddly satisfying sort of closure had already been achieved.

95% Accu-rat:

  • The really annoying thing about the insistence on the Greek inventions stuff (OK, besides Ben’s hair) is that, as noted back in S01E12, it’s based on a deeply shaky premise: that any one civilization, specially in an era prior to reliable recordkeeping, can claim the ultimate discovery of anything… and yeah, trust me, where national pride is concerned, even who gets to claim the yo-yo can become a YouTube battleground.
  • Henry VIII’s weight, also a rather deceptively complex issue. Sure, he was a big eater of more or less all the wrong things, as was pretty much every other upper-class type at the time — the Renaissance had by then revealed many strange and wonderful things to the medieval European mind, but the existence of cholesterol was not one of them.
  • First time I’ve heard the ‘vegetables carry disease’ thingy, though… not sure how they proved that one, given that logically  the entire human population would’ve been long decimated by then, but moving on…
  • The thing is, the Tudor royal diet wasn’t always the problem. Besides being well over six feet and strongly-built with it, in his youth Henry was actually quite the handsome strapping athletic type, renowned across the entire continent as the very model of princely perfection in both mind and body. (Think Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, only actually doing the accent.) Under these circs, the vast appetite was merely one facet of his enthusiastic efforts to live up to the part.
  • It wasn’t until some years into the production, with age and accumulated injury — jousting alone was pretty much guaranteed to turn you into a modernist sculpture of yourself — that the more familiar image of ‘Bluff King Hal’ started to take shape. In particular, one fall from a horse had left him with severely ulcerated legs. Basically? Ugly, perpetually inflamed, incredibly painful running sores that due to their location (and the fact that the Renaissance hadn’t been much help with medical hygiene, either) refused to heal.
  • So yeah, eventually his only princely consolation was sitting around having banquets, so there was less than nothing to stop all that athletic musculature from rapidly dissolving into slouchy fat. By the time he’d reached the point shown here — near his death, at only 55 — he wasn’t only being helped up stairs but winched onto his horse in armour with a 50-plus-inch waist. (Also, marrying wife No.6, Catherine Parr, almost solely for her manner beside the bed, not in it. If the drift is clear.)
  • Finally, no. 31457 in the You Probably Weren’t Wondering But Too Bad, It’s Interesting files: how the approximately 25m/80ft (just low enough to warrant those executioners) Tarpeian Rock got its name. Turns out it was perfectly in keeping with the general pathetic-ness:
  • According to early Roman histories, when the Sabine ruler Titus Tatius attacked Rome after the Rape of the Sabines (8th century BC), the Vestal Virgin Tarpeia, daugter of Spurius Tarpeius, governor of the citadel on the Capitoline Hill, betrayed the Romans by opening the city gates for the Sabines in return for ‘what they bore on their arms.’ She believed that she would receive their golden bracelets. Instead, the Sabines crushed her to death with their shields, and her body was buried in the rock that now bears her name.
 
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Posted by on August 26, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E09

Shut up! Just shut up SO MUCH!!

Some unusually dark, ominous corners of history — and the apparently equally pressing question of shifting wig fashions — are explored in the course of conducting an episode-length experiment in style over substance…

In this episode:

Song: The Borgia Family — Jim [Rodrigo], Ben [Giovanni], Mat [Cesare] and Martha [Lucrezia] as the creepy, kooky, altogether ooky Renaissance clan. [Parody of: The Addams Family (TV Theme)]

Recurring sketches:

The Real Victorian Hustle — Road-show Fagin and the Artful Dodger’s demos notwithstanding, actual Victorian juvenile delinquency tended to involve more merciless exploitation and (much) less multi-part harmony.

Bob Hale — The Roman Britain Report (“Well, it’s around 100 years BC, and that right there, unless I’m very much mistaken, is my Britain-shaped birthmark! And so — oh, er, no, that’s actually Britain…”)

Historical Dentist — Georgian (“Not to worry; we are very advanced in this area. False teeth, fillings, the ill effects of too much sugar, all these things are known to us…” “Well, that’s very reassuring –” “…as is the use of sticks, wee and gunpowder in cleaning teeth!”)

Words We Get From the — Greeks: Medical

Dominic Duckworth: HHTV Investigates — Aesclepian Doctor-Priests, Dedicated Healers or Daring Frauds? (“If anyone does die while they’re in the temple, we have to dump their bodies in the nearby woods… Actually, there’s a huge pile of rotting dead corpses in a fetid rancid heap! I could show you if you like?” “…No, you’re alright, mate.”)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

A Royal (Pain in the) Wedding — Wherein we learn why, when planning your perfect fairy-tale nuptials, it’s important to confirm with your venue booking months in advance… even if you actually are the King… and even if you’re pretty sure it’ll have a roof.

Agincourt (movie trailer) — Coming soon to a field in Northern France… the most memorable battle of the age... Maybe even more so for the French, as it turns out. “Okay… heavy armour, too many knights, too little room, lots of arrows and lots of mud…” “We probably should have thought this through a little better…”

Vile Victorians

Criminal Slang — …Yep, still not just made up by Dickens. Which is still frankly surprising. “Do you want the raw lobsters on our tail?!” “Sorry… are you afraid we’ll be pursued by uncooked seafood?”

Rotten Romans

Julius Caesar’s New! Romeover — Maintaining a truly Imperial presence took some creative hairstyling… also, some strategic laurel wreaths… and, of course, being Emperor in the first place. (“Warning: the Romeover only works with people too scared to tell you the truth. And is not designed to work in a strong wind.”)

Radical Renaissance

Borgia Family Business — Patriarch Rodrigo, aka Pope Alexander VI, makes a disapproving Church emissary an offer he can’t refuse. (“Family? Bribery? Corruption? Everything I head about you was true! It is disgusting! Is there anything you wish to add to your list of crimes against this most holy of offices before I tell the world?!” “Yeah… Sometimes I arrange the murder of men who stir up trouble for me.”)

Gorgeous Georgians

To Wig or Not to Wig — Seventeenth-century mean girls give the geeky one a schooling in fashion faux pas… for men. Because they’re male. This isn’t so much a sketch as a sop to the fanfic authors, is what I am saying here. (“Yes, well, I’m a bigwig, and I like to look like one by having a big wig! Heh…?” “Hum, yes, but it’s soooo last reign, isn’t it?”)

Field Notes:

  • Yep, we’re back on the sophistication train once again… sort of. Herein at any rate are collected some of the show’s more elaborately flashy efforts to cope with the shortage of easy punchlines by dazzling with… well, it’s not by any means a science, but it’s definitely something.
  • It also means we’re back to featuring people and things we really should’ve heard from long since, but haven’t essentially because their particular Horribleness wasn’t snappy-bodily-fluid-gag related. Horrible Histories: the only children’s edutainment show ever wherein an increasingly subtle grasp of evil counts as positive creative development…
  • …Primarily because they’re also the only children’s show ever that would attempt to present the Borgias as an Addams Family parody, only with Renaissance costuming in place of cobwebs. Thus hitting a level of hilariously logical musical inspiration that even for this series I didn’t think was possible. In any sense. In fact, I can about guarantee that the best way to watch this video is as a BBC-costume-drama-loving North American who had absolutely no idea that the Addamses were even a thing in the UK.
  • Viewed thus, it reaches heights of novelty such that it takes upwards of two-three viewings to notice that, in the actual execution, the troupe — with the interesting exception, for a rose-snipping moment, of Martha — are being effortlessly upstaged by the anonymous kid just sitting there playing Gioffre/Wednesday. (Well, it’s either a great performance or he’s bored out of his mind, a bit hard to tell. About halfway through you start getting the urge to poke him with something, to find out.)
  • Evidently the grownups decided maintaining the sublime hauteur of either original wasn’t worth totally freaking out their younger viewers… and also would’ve involved upgrading their Italian accents from ‘cut-rate Pizza Hut mascot’, so. Which is not to wholly discount Mat’s shameless plotty-fingers mugging, because after all Mat. Not to mention the sort of ” *sigh* Little brothers…”  thing Ben does at him when he suggests murdering Lucretia’s husband — and, I can’t help thinking, re: the shameless mugging as well.
  • There’s also Jim as Rodrigo… and the reason I didn’t bother wondering how the show could possibly ever top the song concept: because he, and they, already had, definitively in the Borgia sketch just prior. In fact, weirdly enough under the circs, the two versions of the character switch tones completely — so that we literally go from the sublime to the ridiculous.
  • It’s not so much that the idea of Alexander VI as papal Godfather is a major flight of inspiration; in fact, if it wasn’t the first thing that popped to mind when deciding how to handle him, I’d be demanding a look at the writers’ comedy credentials. It’s not even Jim pulling off, at the least, a far better Brando than a children’s series deserves… although, if he really wanted to put that on his tombstone, I wouldn’t have the heart to object.
  • It’s the absolute rightness of the whole that pushes it over the top into Frequently My Most Favourite HH Sketch Ever territory. This is every element of everything the show has learned to do, basking in the glow of having just won the creative lottery. Writing is perfect, casting is perfect, visuals are amazing, Mat’s prissily-offended-naivety schtick is almost unbearably precious. Every detail is exquisitely faithful — and all without ever going over the top. Which is really saying something, on both ends of the parody.
  • The only minor off note is the insistence on fudging ‘mistress’ into ‘girlfriend’. Honestly, the things this show balks at sometimes. It’s nice of you to want to spare the parents from having to define the adult concepts, guys, but a bit late in the day, no?
  • At any rate, it all can’t help but make the rest of the episode seem a little anti-climactic. Although the Agincourt sketch does manage to provide Ben and Larry on (truly gorgeous) horseback — or more accurately, their characters on horseback, while Ben and Larry are more ‘sitting very still and hoping their noble steeds don’t get any ideas or anything’.
  • For this dichotomy I am deeply grateful. Especially inasmuch as it meshes neatly with Simon and Jalaal on the other side, by now not so much having comic chemistry as operating out of the same comic brain, facing their dramatically shifting fortunes with engagingly Python-esque equanimity. Quite a lot of genuine comedic sophistication went into this whole thing, really… you can tell, because Larry’s little ‘um, giddyup horsey?’ thing there at the end. Kills me every time.
  • This brings us round to Mat’s creepily legitimate Fagin, and a rather relieving demonstration that he can underplay cartoonish menace even more effectively. This, along with the ever-sturdy contribution from Little Guy Who Isn’t Bertie, is the main reason why I’m not ragging this sketch for undermining its subject matter by being a total Oliver! ripoff…. uh, much, anyway. Between this and the ‘Work!’ song last series, I would just point out that somebody’s reliance on their high school English medal is starting to show.
  • For the York Minster bit, the f/x team has set up a likewise very appealing — not least because a welcome diversion from all this noir menace — pseudo-Perrault fairytale vibe. Not much to do here other than appreciate the clever completeness of it all, from Ben and Katherine Jakeways (last seen providing much the same Rackham-esque elegance in the Emicho sketch) dolled up in classic Disney-style bling, right down to Jim and Larry filling in for the helpful idiot peasants.
  • So yes, we’ve got Willbond back in most of his natural haunts… and we’ve also got him for some completely inexplicable reason bunged into the latest Criminal Slang sketch. Not that I am complaining exactly, only that I’ve discovered a corollary to the general rule that Ben’s characters work much better when they’ve attended at least one public school: they really do need to stick to being the anxious potential victims of crime, not the perpetrators thereof.
  • Larry and Mat, on the other hand, are really laying on the authentic menace — a dark and intriguingly legitimate variant on their usual unpredictable chemistry. Also, this is one of those Lawry roles where what he does well is exactly what’s needed, and in this case very well done indeed. Probably the most impressed I’ve ever been with him, honestly, up to and including the side-whiskers. All told, then, it’s another strikingly effective staging experiment.
  • Not least because elsewhere, Larry is having some uncharacteristically serious problems with finding the intriguing. Evidently finding himself a bit short of new and fascinating Report material, Bob Hale has instead taken to reading his own press releases, and thus is starting to un-nerve me in entirely new yet unexciting ways.
  • It all starts promisingly, with the birthmark business, and ends satisfyingly enough, but in between… mmph. Enthusiastic but totally clueless Bobsy = genuine comic creation; subdued Bobsy standing there deliberately trading on his catchphrases = …well, Larry’s obviously pretty good at being Bob by now regardless, but it’s not anywhere near as endearing, nor ultimately memorable.
  • I don’t think anyone’s going to be excitedly discussing the HDentist years from now, either; having already exhausted the topic back when it was set in the HHospital, which itself has long since been eclipsed by the HParamedics. By now the whacky medical hijinks are just barely holding their own against this episode’s ‘Words We Get From the’ (Larry’s face on “autopsy… Sympathy.” alone being worth the entire Hale report besides).
  • That said, the fan willing to exert some imagination here will be rewarded with a fairly Farnabond-worthy ‘desperate patient vs. psychotic doctor’ comic scenario; Ben always did make a very decent HHospital doctor, come to think of it. Not only does it all provoke pleasant conundrums re: the S1 bit that actually already featured Simon as a Georgian dentist with Ben as his patient, but Simon’s desperate voice turns out to sound interestingly like his Caligula voice.
  • Speaking of interesting, Jim, I have to give it to you: Dom Duckworth gets more entertainingly plausible every segment. Either that, or I’m being blinded by the ever-more authentic Crusading News Personality hair. At any rate, that I managed even to notice Dom in a sketch that contains…
  • …um, Mat? The temple priest there, still not the ‘silliest and biggest characterization’ you’ve ever done, huh? Right, just checking… *sets Baynton Performance Alert to Code Red*…
  • …*ahem*, so yeah, Dom’s doing really well regardless, one of the few later-series recurring bits to fully sustain both the hilarity and the historical relevance. Besides which I’m appreciative that Lawry’s carved a niche as the hapless stooge in these things. As long as they’re busy finding him stuff he’s perfectly suited for, he’s not going to be messing up my appreciation of anything else.
  • This is how happy I am to have Ben back properly: I can’t bring myself to be cranky over a sketch whose entire point is literally male-pattern baldness. And I wanted to, believe me. But it turns out it’s just the gang having a ball with some admittedly surefire stuff… maybe too surefire, come to that. As per previous notes re: Henry VIII, Willbond’s definitely been taking the easy way out with the dictatorial-doofus stuff lately, especially for a Thick of It alumnus.
  • Meanwhile I’m being proactive and not even bothering with the Georgian wig fashion bit, because clearly there’s no way that it has a point other than everyone, up to and including the producers, wanted to see Mat, Ben and Jim faff about in those costumes. Fine, I agree, that was a pretty good point. If I try in any way to go further with the sophisticated analysis here, I’m going to look even more in need of a life than usual.
  • So I’ll just mention what really amused me: Ben’s idea of flouncing aristocratic fabulousness clearly hasn’t advanced any since S1. It’s an archetype, something obviously foreign he deliberately puts on. Whereas Mat, on the other hand, is supremely, actually rather terrifyingly in his element. I… am not entirely certain where this leaves us, only that it’s really past time to re-evaluate whom we should be directing the ‘posh’ jokes at here.
  • …And just for the record, I also think they’re saying what everyone thinks they’re saying at the end there. Even given the most objective possible listen, “Wig-gy!” should not be coming out sounding like “Wr-gy! Wr-gy!”

95% Accu-rat:

  • Not really a historical note per se, but I am right there with you on the swan PSA, Rattus. Truth to the, uh, feathers. Except that you missed the bit about the hissing (‘mute’ swans, my left foot!), which I assume has to do with your PTSD, but is the vital component of the nightmare fuel. Who needs Lovecraft, when you’re nine, when a great white beast exactly your height is racing toward you, wings outstretched, making noises more usually reserved for Freddy Krueger movies?
  • So, the Borgias. In real life, definitely creepy, debatably ooky… but not so much with the kooky. As has been documented pretty extensively in other media, when your Wiki article starts out like this, you know you’re not exactly ideal whacky sitcom material:
  • Especially during the reign of Alexander VI, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, simony [ie. forcing the faithful to pay to receive the sacrament], theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). Because of their grasping for power, they made enemies of the Medici, the Sforza, and the Dominican friar Savonarola, among others… Today they are remembered for their corrupt rule, and the name has become a synonym for libertinism, nepotism, treachery and poisoners.
  • The actually funny part is, when you dig a little deeper, the curdled clan — especially Lucrezia, who seems to have been guilty of not much more than extreme familial loyalty — weren’t really all that bad. Apologies to the Assassin’s Creed devotees, but historians will insist on trying to sort out truth from smear campaign, and in this case it reveals quite a different (and fairly routine, for the time) story. Corrupt, venal and mostly amoral, sure, but depraved monsters, no…
  • OK, except maybe for Cesare. He really was a charming-but-vicious SOB on a hair-trigger, who had originally been groomed to follow in Dad’s Popey footsteps. He made it as far as cardinal before Dad, ever the opportunist, decided to make him a prince of some locally disputed territories instead. The subsequent charming, scheming, and mercenary-ing campaign through southern Europe did impress Machiavelli greatly, but only two direct anecdotes from Cesare’s career were used in The Prince — “as an example to elucidate the dangers of acquiring a principality by virtue of another.”
  • Oh, and you know how Ben as the eldest brother, Giovanni, just sort of stands there looking nobly lost? This is because Giovanni’s equally if not more promising religiopolitical career was brutally cut short by his murder at the age of twenty-two. Quite possibly by jealous Cesare, who saw him as a rival for power… or maybe by Gioffre, with whose wife big brother was apparently having an affair. Yeah, kind of puts a whole new spin on that kid’s bland expression, doesn’t it?
  • Given their obsession with dentistry in general and Georgian in particular, I have never understood why the show never featured perhaps the most famous victim/patient of same: George Washington, acclaimed Father of his country, conquering General of the Revolution, and man with some serious dental hygiene issues. By the time he’d hit heights requiring he be featured on the dollar bill, he only had one real tooth left, extensive experience with the more inept denture options of his day, and — not incidentally — a soon-to-be-immortal habit of smiling (grimacing, really) with his lips firmly closed.
  • According to the delightful link above, courtesy his Mount Vernon estate, once Washington was inaugurated: Dr. John Greenwood—a New York dentist…—fashioned a technologically advanced set of dentures carved out of hippopotamus ivory and employing gold wire springs and brass screws holding human teeth. Yep, life was good, when you were the first President. Or at least, enabled you to avoid the gunpowder, wee and hot wires.
  • So yeah, Julius Caesar does seem to have been sensitive enough about his regal presence to have popularised the combover/laurel wreath combo. However he was not responsible for the salad (invented by New York chef Caesar Cardini in 1924), nor was he the first beneficiary of the Caesarian section operation (which prior to comparatively recent times was a near-guaranteed death sentence for the mother).
  • The latter more likely has to do with the Latin caedere, to cut… which was in turn claimed by Pliny the Elder as the origin of ‘Caesar’, the name, after one of Julius’ ancestors who was in fact ab utero caeso, or ‘cut from the womb’. Historical etymology: an entire Horrible morass in itself.
 
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Posted by on August 11, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E05

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

One-offs:

Savage Stone Age

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

Wild Warriors

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

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

Radical Renaissance

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

Awful Egyptians

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

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

Terrible Tudors

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

Vile Victorians

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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