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S05E06

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

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

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

Rotten Romans

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

Groovy Greeks

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

Savage Stone Age

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

Putrid Pirates

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S05E02

We introduced some new words: husband, gasp, egg, awkward, nag, leg
More than fifty words to leave your lingo
To your liking, thank a Viking

The show settles down to establishing the parameters for the final series, and in the process we learn definitively that, in HH terms, closure’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

In this episode:

Song:  Vikingland (Vikings and Garfunkel) — Nordic invaders Jim and Mat explain how, on arrival in Britain, they gave up savagery for sweet harmony… and really stupid wigs.

Recurring sketches:

Dodgy War Inventions — No.92: The WWII Bat Bomb (Turns out attaching ordnance to something tiny with a tendency to escape into the hangar rafters is a bad idea, go figure.)

CD Set — Now That’s What They Called Greek Battle Music! (Beats to both unleash and strategically restrain your inner world-beater… “Buy now, while enemies last!”)

Historical Don’t Tell the Bride — Spartan (Transforming the bride into not only her husband’s dream but his double, for reasons… not more than demurely hinted at here. Which, given the existence of the Spartan School Musical, is hilarious all by itself.)

Stupid Deaths — Arthur John Priest (Actually escaped the Titanic… also, several other high-profile sinkings…. earning him the first ever one-way ticket back to the ‘long and boring’ Boring Deaths line. (“Listen mate, if you’ve only lost a couple of tootsies, you’re not going to impress anyone here, you follow?” *points to skeletons*)

Thou Hast Been Framed! — Botched Tudor execution special

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Mary Shelley Project (“Your story’s been made into a film already! There’s Frankenstein, Frankenstein, Frankenstein…” “…Young Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein…” “…Count Duckula…” “No, that’s the other guy.” “Oh, right.”)

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

The Happy Highwayman — Raffish rogue Claude Duval invents the inexplicable musical interlude a full two hundred years before Broadway. (“Stand and deliver!… by which I mean, stay seated and give me stuff.”)

Woeful Second World War

The Great Carrot Caper — The Allied cover story to hide their new radar systems translates to an unusual new diet for German pilots — and mealtime dismay for small children ever since.  (“Zhen zhere is only one thing for it: Ve must build a veapon to destroy ze vorld’s carrots!… and just to be safe, any other brightly-coloured root vegetable.”)

Troublesome Twentieth Century

A Titanic Disaster — The clueless crew of what’s about to become history’s  most famous marine tragedy gather for a cruelly revealing ‘safety check’.  (“Right then, I think I deserve a nightcap! Ooh, hey — anybody know where I can get some ice?”)

Vicious Vikings

Righteous Resolutions — Feuding warriors unveil their most fearsomely unexpected tactic ever: sober, reasoned… erm, negotiation? So being totally disappointed that it’s not  berserkers would make me a terrible person right about now? Right, figures.

Terrible Tudors

Ready for the Religious Switchover? — Henry VIII appoints himself Supreme Head of the Church: even more autocratic a monopoly than your cable company. Or at least, with more axes. “Just tick the box that says ‘I accept the supreme authority of the King’, and you’ll be able to carry on as normal. But if you refuse… then you can just talk to one of our special advisors about the other options available.”

Gorgeous Georgians

Twit Light — Brooding Lord Byron is forced to disillusion a breathless groupie: he’s not a vampire, merely an “incredibly pretentious poet”… so, basically, ye olde tyme teen girl’s  equivalent of a Stephanie Meyer vampire.

Field Notes: 

  • So I was re-reading my S4 reviews, just as a way of getting back into the groove, and was struck by the difference in tone between S04E01 and now. The different level of seriousness it demanded. Back then, and throughout that series as a whole, I was tossing around words like “elegant”, “subtle” and “complex” as if they were popcorn. By contrast, it’s only the second episode of S5, and I’m already writing things like “Texas Larry is channeling Mr T alongside Jim as a meditative Spartan in a Katy Perry wig”, then glancing into my lemonade with real concern. I mean, yes, I was the one last review fully applauding the decision to let the cast loose as a coping mechanism, but there are limits.
  • Clearly, there also needs to be a reassessment of my assumptions, last seen in S04E12, re: series progression. I had been under the impression that it was simple enough: even-numbered series were the creative leaps, after which the odd-numbered ones represented the perfectly stuck landings. So that S2 was a flat-out romp through possibilities unleashed, while S3 did in fact consolidate that. It solidified the show’s ambitions, and gave the creative team the ferocious confidence in their own sophistication that then, despite the rapidly encroaching issues with content, propelled S4 to new heights of purely elegant comedy…
  • …and now here we are in S5, and that sophistication train is still moving forward, but somewhere in the process (I would guess, right after they realised they’d be tossing out half their material even before production began) fluctuating confidence levels have turned it into a roller-coaster ride. Occasional positively  breathtaking arabesques of elegant complexity are underlaid by a sort of skittishness, as if all involved had only just looked down from the creative limb they’d crawled out on and realised the safety net–not only in terms of the books’ content, but equally surefire tone and delivery–was finally, irrevocably gone.
  • Meaning that the various attempts to deal with this on-the-fly identity crisis result in Series Five often coming across more as a replay of Series One. With a bigger budget, (much) better music and several more intriguing characters and concepts accumulated to experiment with… but also with the ever-present danger of Larry’s freeform redneck stylings.
  • Which is one of many reasons why it’s hilarious that Jim’s the one in the credits again under “horrors that defy description”… well, there is the Katy Perry wig, but oddly enough that’s not the clip in question. This one has somehow escaped my memory, despite the enormous top hat. I await developments with great interest.
  • Otherwise, the production upgrades have done that keep-up-with-the-budget-increase thing they do most excellently every year, to the point that by now there’s not a whole lot of interest here to note… except perhaps that Rattus has swopped out the homey portrait of the ‘rents for a more upscale Victorian ancestor complete with top hat. Which if you think too deeply about the circs under which that was painted you… have a pretty good idea for a children’s story, that I am now copyrighting, by the way.
  • Evidently the little guy has been seduced further (another teeny raise?) into semi-respectability this year, and has adjusted his demeanour accordingly. Understandable, but if he pulls out a teeny coffee mug at any point, I’m gonna be cranky.
  • Meanwhile, I am already deeply irked at the return of Henry VIII’s frankly stupid college-sweatshirt-and-strawberry-curls combo from S3. The sheer inexplicability of this outfit actually becomes something of an unintentionally hilarious punchline here, as Henry the Ratty-Ikea-Throw-Clad is required to hold up the famous portrait depicting what he really looked like at this point. Which is not nearly as fetching as strawberry-blond Willbond, I am willing to concede, but still. Geez, show, you go to the trouble of giving Cartoon Tudor Lady a whole new accent, but can’t give the King even a bit of bling?
  • (Along the same lines, we will not even get into how much that isn’t Sir Thomas More… and I’m not best pleased with Anne Boleyn, either, frankly. Warning: standard Tudor nerd rant oncoming below.)
  • Oh, and speaking of production peculiarities, there is also the debut of the Hadland in a Bald Cap saga: the single most surreally weird running gag in HH series history… and can I just mention one more time that the competition included Larry’s Texan accent? Thank you.
  • At that, it’s about the only possible thing Sarah H. could’ve done to have topped her run as Mandy the Historical Dental Assistant from last series, so, y’know, my respect for her dedication to the strange takes another significant step toward overcoming my disdain for her shrill little voice. I am fascinated by this particular manifestation because given the structure of the show’s production process, there is just no way that it wasn’t intentional.
  • It’s like it was one of those experiments I described above, where everybody sat down at a meeting and went “You know what would really help to distract from the ongoing slightness of our material? If we did this thing where the crazy-eyes lady constantly ends up bald.” That they were correct in no way distracts from the magnificent randomness of the thought process.
  • In this case, they may have been trying to distract from more than that. The convincingly rather sweet giggly little pre-wedding party vibe is cute and all, and bounces off the warrior stuff decently, but the really entertaining sketch possibilities are hidden in the more complex reasons behind the Spartan marriage customs. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your concept of parenthood) you’ll recall from the ‘love’s banned until you’re thirty’ fudge that even this production team occasionally develops cold feet… although the reference to “all me army buddies” does serve as a nicely subtle hint.
  • Another problem inherent in turning slight little footnotes into full-on what-the-hell hijinks: a tendency toward narrative overkill. Possibly I’ve been  reading too much Etiquette Hell, but frankly, guys, at least as you portray it: no,  the groom kidnapping the bride for some extra pre-wedding-night fun, not all that whacky.
  •  Of course, if there was ever an episode in which it’s possible to forgive the makeup team all the things (except maybe those wasp stings in S1) the one containing this song would be it. Mat and Jim as Hippie Viking Simon & Garfunkel is this season’s God Compare moment: it exists as its own, perfect quantum singularity of silly. Thus it’s frankly a good thing it’s not quite a perfect takeoff, or it would have torn a hole in the very fabric of creativity and we’d all have literally died laughing.
  • As it is, it comes dangerously close, thanks to HH’s most charmingly unpredictable comedy duo–and of course Larry their constant sidekick–doing it again. Technically, it’s a pure triumph; the vocals, esp the harmonies, soar beyond ‘loving tribute’ into the realm of the absolutely uncanny, and the little *trip* at the end is an almost achingly perfect act of mickey-taking. Plus, especially if you happen to have watched the Boast Battle just beforehand, Rickard’s enthusiastic petal-strewing is besides everything else the single funniest self-parody you will ever see.
  • All involved are, unsurprisingly, having just a tad too much fun to maintain S&G’s trademark  solemn, otherworldly intensity–albeit this may be unavoidably tied into sheer-wig-silliness levels, as Jim does the better job of it. Similarly, the focus on Richie Webb’s weaving in the musical cues is understandable given the new heights of brilliance achieved, but means the whole loses track of the contrast between the ethereally lovely melodies and sharp, often bleakly sarcastic lyrics that was the real heart of their style. A missed opportunity, really, given the subject matter…
  • …but by no means a fatal one. In fact, after several viewings’ practice at keeping a straight face, it’s possible to appreciate both song and preceding skit for the novelty interest alone. (Fun mirth-enhancing side project: imagine that’s the same thoroughly domesticated Wilbondian warrior from the Viking Wife Swap. For extra credit, go on to picture the whole thing as a Hanna-Barbera-esque anachronistic sitcom.) I’ve always enjoyed the show’s brief deviations into not-axe-intensive Viking culture… although, erm, about that whole thing with the feuding and the berserkers and whatnot in S2…? Wait, that actually ended with reasoned negotiation too, didn’t it. Shoot.
  • On the further subject of novelty and Willbond: Ben gets most of the credit for the latest oddball highwayman sketch, and rightly so, but for me there’s even more fun to be had in Simon the impatient holdup victim: he gets a rare (come to think of it, possibly unique) moment as the voice of reason, and they still manage to make it completely surreal.
  • Ben does make a ridiculously charming job of the kind of insouciance more usually reserved for Mat; it’s worth remembering he can do a killer French accent too… not to mention that sweetly low-key mode, a la George I. I’ll take any of that I can get, even an undertone. As usual, whenever he and Farnaby merge their comedic confidence–not forgetting Martha as their increasingly adept foil–the show gets effects that can legitimately be called enchanting.
  • No, I have absolutely no idea how everyone missed the carrot/radar business up to now either, but it”s easily one of the best obscure oddball nuggets the show ever turned up. The loopiness writes itself from there; all the performers have to do is take it even remotely seriously and they’re home free. Which… well, yeah, again, that’s the advantage of giving them free rein after all, they know how to maximise loopiness if nothing else. Thus the viewer need merely sit back and revel in both Ben and Larry’s particular uber-Teutonic stylings… and Mat’s epic melodramatic idiocy! Sheer comic luxury.
  • Interesting side effect of the new temporal format: the chance to finally dig into the between-wars stuff that’s technically always been within the show’s timeline but has fallen into a sort of semantic black hole before now. We really should’ve seen the Titanic in some context long since… albeit from a creative standpoint this particular context is so clunkily obvious that my first reaction on watching it was to snerk that maybe the guy who wrote the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ bit last series needs his Prozac dosage upped. As comes in handy on many media occasions, I blame James Cameron.
  • At any rate, my comeuppance came immediately upon watching–and I can tell the universe was homing in on me personally, because it’s Lawry who makes the surprisingly sane, decent, even touching straight man of the piece. Overall this is about as tactful and tasteful a take on comparatively recent tragedy as this show is capable of, even given Simon’s bizarrely no-holds-barred cross between a ship’s captain and a drunk suburban mall Santa Claus. It’s the latter who ends up selling the most excellent bit of slyly noir fun–the ‘ice for the nightcap’ business–thrown in at the end (a callback to real-life incidents that night).
  • I do keep forgetting that it’s ultimately about the kiddies, for whom obvious and laboured exposition in this case is most likely providing a real educational service. And meanwhile, any really bored adults can be staring at the snappy naval uniforms… not to mention Ben experimenting with a squeaky Cockney accent. They flipped the casting between him and Lewin deliberately just to see how Willbond would react, didn’t they?
  • Introducing one other intriguing minor side effect of the new 20th-century focus: a fascination with American achievements… and, inevitably, accents. Strap in, kids, it’s about to become a bumpy ride. Still, it’s good to have the Dodgy War Inventions back. Awwww, cute little bat bomb is…
  • <BOOM!>
  • …oh, damn you, producers. And your Russian anti-tank dogs, too.
  • Speaking of random animal-based factoids, I am entirely too entertained by the quiz preceding the Twilight parody sketch about Lord Byron’s exotic pets… yes, show, but did he have a team of zebras and dine with chimps, hmmm?
  • Otherwise, well, this particular parody certainly didn’t go the way I began  envisioning immediately it was announced early in the off-season. Let us just say my version involved considerably more Mat, a curling iron and red silk… also, sparkles. I can deal with the rest as a good joke on my own expectations, but I really do miss the sparkles.
  • Overall I am torn generally between being ready to applaud the show for managing to work the parody so cleverly and–in conjunction with the Avengers thing last episode–being uneasy about this budding willingness to pile on such obvious targets. Mind you, when I am watching it, the former mood always wins handily. Besides, they continue to have the wit to cast Sarah in the emo female parts, and juxtapose same with the bald-cap-wearing. So I guess we can call success, here.
  • *ahem* So anyway, it’s past time to check back in with Death and his ongoing bourgeois dream of purgatory. Though unsure as to why they’d spring it now instead of the finale, I thoroughly approve of the well-handled meta-plot twist. Not least because it proves that our Reaper did strike off to establish his own self-indulgent corner of the afterlife, exactly as suggested in S1. That the SD sketches have this level of detailed continuity makes me quite unreasonably happy.
  • Oh, speaking of which–except the happiness part–the mummy’s gone. Forced out unjustly after the afterlife equivalent of Perez Hilton broke the story of the affair with the skeleton, I will be assuming. Anyway, clever reverse-juxtaposition of the unusually upbeat SD with the earlier unusually bleak sketch — complete with nice (awesome, if intentional) creepy frisson in the form of Captain Smith having apparently seamlessly morphed into Death.
  • And awww, cute plucky working-class pajama-wearing Jim, squeeee! First item in my Howick plushie’s new optional wardrobe. Could’ve done without the overt ‘first time for everything’ bit, tho.
  • Hey, the Movie Pitch is back!… yaaaaayyyy. Right, for those of you just tuning in, yes I’m both an unabashed fan of these bits and well aware that that places me in the severe minority among the fandom. Still, I don’t see why both camps can’t appreciate how the LoG are making an unexpectedly nice smooth transition from brittle novelty to comfortably ongoing world-building. It’s clear they’re genuinely invested in making something three-dimensionally clever out of the kiddie series cameo, and I think that’s really damn cool of them. I think Martha’s affected aristocratic lisp is slightly less cool, but the sheer sympathy for her having to wear that costume more or less balances it out.
  • Anyhoo, you might as well settle in and enjoy, kiddies, because this and (spoiler alert) Historical Apprentice are about all that’s left of the richly detailed S3/4 reality-TV parody vibe. By contrast, you know how the tabloid parodies have always served as repositories for those little scraps of anecdote that won’t stretch as far as a full-length sketch? And how most of the time, that’s for a good reason? Welp, meet ‘Thou Hast Been Framed’, besides (spoiler alert) a boatload more tabloid parodies to come, because of course there’s a lot more of those anecdotal shreds floating around this series. Sigh.
  • Which doesn’t stop me from being rather unnecessarily pleased with myself over the bit with Margaret Pole’s execution, that I first mentioned as an intriguing story back in S02E11. Go me. Of course, they went for the “less well-documented” half of the anecdote, and thus transformed the whole thing with the “dignified and completely innocent elder stateswoman dies in a heartrendingly grotesque fashion on the whim of an increasingly paranoid despot” into an awful mini-mess of cheezy comedic desperation. Really, it…
  • *thinks back to Mat making saucer eyes under that Garfunkel wig while Larry prances in the background*…
  • …Ahhh, never mind, show, s’ok. I forgive you.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes, Spartan marriage customs, routinely popping up on lists of ‘Weirdest Wedding Rituals’ since pretty much ever. The thing is, the sketch here gets it right while somehow rearranging the details so as to avoid all the actual memorably awkward stuff. Which I can actually understand, because, according to contemporary historian Plutarch, the kidnapping bit in reality happened first, and then:
  • The so-called ‘bridesmaid’ took charge of the captured girl. She first shaved her head to the scalp, then dressed her in a man’s cloak and sandals, and laid her down alone on a mattress in the dark. The bridegroom – who was not drunk and thus not impotent, but was sober as always – first had dinner in the messes, then would slip in, undo her belt, lift her and carry her to the bed.
  • …OK, some backstory is in order. Spartans weren’t any more convinced of the inherent value of the female than any other Greek society; but–as addressed in that S1 Wife Swap–as long as the ladies held the keys to population growth, which in turn was the key to Spartan security, the state was sure as hell going to make sure they were capable of birthing and raising real warriors.
  • Thus, unlike any others in Greece, Spartan girls were educated, participated in sport and just generally hardened from early childhood right alongside the boys. There’s evidence that young women even trained in the nude, right alongside those same young men. (If you’ve ever wondered what would really shock an ancient Greek historian, well, there’s your answer.) Given all of which, marriage didn’t happen until they were eighteen or so–in contrast to the Athenian custom of equating marriage availability to a girl’s first period.
  • Meantime, the men had gone off to military training, as, erm, detailed in the S2 song. That is, they spent years in close companionship with other young males, whom they were taught to rely on absolutely as brothers-in-arms… but there was still that pesky question of ensuring State security, and that was the one thing his brothers just couldn’t help with.
  • So marriage was mandatory for all Spartan males at age thirty (although in practice the age limit was frequently handwaved, so long as nobody caught the underage groom slipping out of the barracks at night to visit his bride). And it’s not hugely surprising that, when convincing said adult male to voluntarily get it on with an (eeew!) girl, it was thought prudent to turn her into basically a facsimile of one of his ‘army buddies’, bung her into a dark room, and hope for the best. Interestingly, some scholars point out that this strictly regulatory attitude to procreation also acted as a curb on any heterosexual hormonal hooplah induced by the aforementioned co-ed nudity. Spartans: no matter how you slice it, still and always utterly unique.
  • Right-ho, past time for your scheduled Reasons Why the Show’s Handling of the Tudors Drives Me Nuts Rant, number… oh, gosh, must be a whole lot, because getting even the little details of Tudor history wrong is by now the historical-scholarship equivalent of misidentifying the occupant of Grant’s Tomb, and yet the show just keeps on doing it. Even when, once again, reality is much the more interesting. For starters, this is what Thomas More actually looked like at the time; an older, learned man, a statesman and one of Henry VIII’s best friends. Sort of what you’d expect to happen when an academic gets forced into public life. Even a bit naiively fanatical on the whole Catholic issue, maybe–but frail little blond wuss, he was emphatically not.
  • Second… even setting aside the fact that slight, naturally brunette Alice L. would’ve been much the better choice to embody her, the whole damn switchover from the Pope to Henry had Anne Boleyn’s enthusiastic approval, given that it was all about finally legalising the King’s divorce and making her Queen. In fact, her entire relationship with Henry was about her power over him; she knew he was a middle-aged, balding, tubby tyrant when she got into this mess, and she frankly did not care, because he was the King, and also did I mention he was working very very hard to make her Queen? It helps.
  • Speaking of revealing portraiture: Here’s Victorian artist William Powell Frith’s take on the highwayman sketch, or at least the anecdote that inspired it. You’ll notice quite a lot more cowering away from pistols and whatnot, but even so, a weirdly charming scene. Just generally, Claude Duvall (technically Du Vall, but really now) is a much more appealing candidate for inappropriate romanticisation than either Dick Turpin or James Hind. Certainly his legendary way with the ladies goes a long way towards explaining his popularity with Charles II in particular. And if Duvall’s epitaph is any indication at all, he kept it up to the very end:  Here lies Du Vall: Reader, if male thou art, Look to thy purse: if female to thy heart.
  • OK, I do know the misguided sensationalisation is part of the… fun… of the tabloid parodies. As a public service, though, I’d just like to point out that Mary QofS wasn’t actually a twelve-year-old waif at her execution — she was 45 (hence the wig, get it?), a middle-aged, corpulent figure wracked with rheumatism thanks to all those years shut up in Northern castles. Oh, and she went to the block wearing a bright red dress, as a final sign of Catholic defiance, and with her favourite little lapdog tucked somewhere among her voluminous skirts, because… damn it got dusty in here all of a sudden.
  • The Titanic sketch does as noted do a very nice job of getting the facts straight–as well it might, given that the disaster is rivalled only by the Tudors in exhaustive scholarly analysis. Yes, contrary to rather over-excited modern revisionists the ship was in fact touted as ‘unsinkable’ pre-maiden voyage, prompting impressive displays of passenger stiff-upper-lipped-ness that totally included guys wandering around with cocktails post-collision coolly snarking that they needed some ice, anyway.
  • All this confidence was fueled in part by the ship’s unique construction, featuring a specially-partitioned lower hull (the area our old pal Arthur Priest would’ve been working in) that was designed to prevent further flooding in the event one section of the hull was breached, rather like modern fire doors. Unfortunately, nobody pictured an impact that would rip open several sections all at once…
  • One other thing: Overconfident Captain Smith may have been, magnificently bearded he certainly was… but, by God, he went down with his ship just as the finest traditions of his day prescribed. (So, incidentally, did Lawry’s character, thus vaulting my usual sympathy for his pathetic types to heights I don’t think either of us ever considered possible.)
 
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Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Series Five

 

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