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S01E12

Yes, join the Hitler Youth — and if you’re lucky, we’ll run so short of troops that we’ll send you off to fight and get killed for ze Vaterland!
But I’m only ten…
Talk to ze hand, cos ze face ain’t listening.

We interrupt this quiet, relatively painless winding-down to bring you: NAZIS! Which is either the most awkward or the most clever application of Godwin’s Law ever, I haven’t decided yet. Quite possibly, both.

In this episode:

Song: We are Greek (Mat as Aristotle, Jim as Archimedes)

Recurring sketches:

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Ugly Duckling, the Middle Ages version (Yeah, so swan pie, very big back then…)

Stupid Deaths — Aeschylus (conked on the head by a tortoise dropped by an eagle who thought his bald spot was a rock…the playwright’s, that is, not the eagle’s.)

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

Monastic Sign Language — Peaceful, orderly English abbeys vs. mercilessly chaotic Vikings, round one of many. Though they never would quite top “the gorillas are ringing the bells…?” ever again.

The Monk Art Show: Write Like a Monk — Not to be confused with ‘drunk like a monk’, that’s for a later ep. But, arguably, still the same monastery…

Vile Victorians

Genuine Victorian Names — And the really scary part is, now all also freely available to newly-minted post-millennial parental units. (“Ooh, rough. Your parents must’ve been hippies, then?” “History majors, actually.”)

QVP Presents: The Queen Victoria Workout — Because, as small and dumpy as she may have become in later life, nobody ever called this woman soft.

Rotten Romans

Gladiator vs. Nature — In which the latter disappears via the former faster than Mat’s snaggletoothed look was dropped after this sketch. I like to extend it a few lines out: “In our defense, Your Imperial Majesty, that was NO ORDINARY GERBIL!!”

Execution Animals ‘R’ Us — “Oh dear. Do you have any other winged insect that can sting a man to death who’s covered in honey?” “Not really… a bee could do it on a good day, but there’s no guarantee...

Measly Middle Ages

Fine Fiddly Feast — The boorish Earl of Warwick checks on banquet preparations and still manages to come off as more sympathetic than most modern kitchen managers.

Groovy Greeks

The First Play Ever (movie trailer) — “I know it sounds boring, but remember… there’s literally nothing else on.”

Woeful Second World War

Evacuees With Dirty Faces – Anybody who thinks that the little slum kids are as angelic as they look is in for a shock, har har!… no, really, that’s the entire joke. Yes, it’s almost over.

Join the Hitler Youth… or Else — “Just like ze Scouts… only EVIL!”

Top Three Strangest Hitler Survival Rumours (animated) — Presumably the one where he moved to a North Minehead rest home and changed his name to ‘Hilter’ was thought to be pushing it a bit.

Field Notes:

  • Yeah, so, the Hitler Youth, quite a sketch. A sort of sideways outcropping of the “British Things” –type impulse from last episode; much more necessary, but also much more complicated, emotionally if not factually. It gets all the points first for attempting and then for actually balancing along a razor-fine line of sensitivity even adult comics would fear to tread (helped by Ben’s entirely too open and wholesome-looking Fuehrer, in the same way Nero benefits from Jim’s overwhelming cuddliness). It’s honestly an excellent demonstration of how deftly the writers had learned to use history against its subjects. But still…
  • I was going to suggest that possibly it was cut from S01E03 (aka The One That Still Haunts My Nightmares) for time constraints, but it wouldn’t really have fit there — except maybe as an intriguing riff on why the ‘comedy = tragedy + time’ formula exists. Possibly it was banished to this far episodic outpost of irrelevance on the understanding that it wouldn’t really fit anywhere. There is a reason why ‘full-on whacky Nazis’ is still the universally accepted comedy compromise — as the show itself acknowledges immediately afterwards, and as late as Series Four.
  • Right, back to your regularly-scheduled lighthearted irrelevance… oh look, it’s the Greek thinkers’ song that isn’t a brilliantly-honed pastiche of great satirists past! Seriously, not much you can say about this one – save that whoa, apparently Aristotle here got deep into the man-grooming between now and Series Four. Still, yay! performer continuity, also makeup budget increases.
  • Otherwise… mmph. It’s not even a song really, just a long string of (mostly) rhyming couplets with no real visual theme to tie them together (compare the effort put into the very similar ‘Victorian Inventions’ next season). They don’t even bother making Mat’s piano-playing mime look convincing. About halfway through, in fact, he quite visibly decides to privately entertain himself however he can. Meanwhile Jim gamely struggles on to the end… and is rewarded by being forced to declaim that ‘our physiques were not weak’, a mere couple eps past playing a totally effete Athenian. That Wife Swap sketch is just doing no-one any favours, is it?
  • Jim gets much better served in ‘Write Like a Monk’ — albeit not by the makeup team. Those wound-simulation skills I mentioned, away back? I’d like to introduce you to Exhibit A: Still Life of Miserable Monk with Wasp Stings. How do you even learn to simulate wasp stings? Is there a textbook? Do they sell tickets to the final exams, and if so where can I buy several?
  • Honestly, though, that bit is a whole lot funnier than it has any right to be. Ben and Jim are the total Abbott and Costello of ‘demonstration’ sketches, somehow the concept just brings out the funniest and most watchable in both of them. Luckily, someone on the production side took this down for future reference.
  • There’s only one really glaring cosmetic misstep here… OK, two if we’re counting those tonsure wigs. But only one involves Mat’s face, so is destined to be mocked by bored Tumblr-GIF-makers for a very long time to come. I do have a certain amount of respect for Mat re: the attempt, having gathered elsewhere that those snaggle-mouth appliances are desperately uncomfortable (as anything bunged into your mouth without warning must be)… but yeah. Exeunt male-cast-face-distorting experiments, not lamented.
  • Still though, itty-bitty gerbil! And Rattus’ teeny baked-bean-can shield! And – don’t believe I’m saying this, but ‘tis so — Terry Deary as an uncannily adorable Roman Emperor! Squeeee!… right, look, I’ve been at this for twelve episodes now, OK? Cut me some slack.
  • Speaking of Mat and experiments (also, probably, entertaining himself), the otherwise-unremarkable sign-language sketch is his big chance to break out his inner mime – and this man was trained in a Parisian clown school, you know that sucker had to have been knocking hard. At any rate, he makes the most of it here, in what might best be described as an, ah, uniquely rewarding mileu. The ‘spilling guts’ maneuver especially is not to be missed; I bet it was the hit of the college pubs (cafes?) for miles around.
  • Oh, and kudos to whomever folded all those dozens of origami swans just for a frankly mediocre medieval kitchen sketch. I’m picturing a revelatory career insight such as frequently crops up mid-experiment on Mythbusters: “I just had one of those what-the-hell-are-we-doing moments…” (And this sketch gets one other distinction, as one of the very rare – and in this case, rather cleverly done – times Rattus interacts directly with the players.)
  • I’m honestly torn by the Queen Victoria Workout. On the one hand, it’s a hilariously creative way to get the lady’s legendary toughness across; on the other… was it honestly necessary to keep harping on her figure not being perfect, as though it was some sort of massive defect on the scale of the villainy and stupidity presented elsewhere in the same ep? One last little reminder that the HH comedy model only works properly if the ‘horror’ in question is genuinely the result of a flaw in human nature, not physical.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, so any attempt to attribute inventions to a particular ethnic group means willingly striding into a sociopolitical minefield, and honestly, my tolerance for foaming-mouthed nationalism is low at the best of times. Suffice it to say that what we like to think of as a sudden, shining, cue-the-inspiring-music ‘Eureka!’ moment in actuality involves a frankly boring series of small auxiliary discoveries, usually built upon by many people at once, so that the credit for the finished Iconic Piece of Civilization frequently depends literally on who got to the patent office first. Or was the most inclined to brag, or frankly was just the more popular when the textbooks were being written. Both the histories of the telephone and television provide instructive glimpses into this crediting process; you can imagine how convoluted it becomes prior to the invention of reliable record-keeping.
  • Also, yeah, see, about Queen Victoria’s weight issues… funny how sixty-four years including nine pregnancies will do that to an already petite, plump figure. You wouldn’t like me — you really wouldn’t like me — when I get started on distorted female media representation and the effects on vulnerable young girls, so let’s just all acknowledge you had a notably insensitive moment here and move on, kthx show?
  • Besides, y’know what? Hitler probably wasn’t actually a vegetarian, either. At least not a strict one. Much as I hate to lose any opportunity to mock PETA, while he surely liked animals, there’s good evidence that he also appreciated his schnitzel from time-to-time. Overall, as this Psychology Today article demonstrates, the Nazi attitude to animal cruelty is a complex and fascinating thing worthy of more thoughtful debate.
  • Oh, and the First Play Ever?… apparently only this boring if you discount the elaborate costumes, lively conversation, oodles of enthusiastic battle and other action, fifty-person chorus backing our two protagonists up (the original ‘Greek chorus’) and the fact that it wasn’t one four-hour-long production but four shorter ones, one of which was specifically a comedy to lighten the mood after all that heavy stuff.  About the only part of this little interlude that could be safely harvested for exam answers is the bit about two people having a conversation with each other for the first time… previously, they’d only been allowed to talk to the chorus. I mean — as the show is in fact in the process of stressing right at that moment — these were ancient peoples, not unimaginative ones.
  • It’s not all bad news, though; that bit about Royal swan ownership turns out to be totally 110% accu-rat, right down to the Orkney Islands exemption. This article goes into more bureaucratic detail, including the purely wonderful existence of a ‘Swan Master’, and, surprisingly, various legal challenges to her Majesty’s claim down the years. Apparently you lot are deeply ticked about losing your swan pie… which having had a close encounter with the nasty buggers at age nine I don’t blame you one bit. Did you know that, when they stretch up, swans are taller than your average cute little innocent just-strolling-by-the-river nine-year-old? And that they hiss?
  • Also… because I just knew you’d be interested… gerbils, totally native to Northern Africa! Nice going, show, I knew you’d never let me down in the end. Here, have some gratuitously adorable evidence of the species in their native habitat.
 
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Posted by on February 3, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E11

Guards! Take him away and make him dead!…Unless you can think of something worse than death, in which case, do that too, OK? OK.

The slight but curiously endearing interlude just before the steam fully ran out on Series One: a reminder that while the experiments may not all have worked, the great thing is they never stopped trying.

In this episode:

Song: British Things (Sarah as Queen Victoria, Mat as her Butler)

Recurring sketches:

Oh Yea! Magazine — Henry VIII wedding special

Stupid Deaths — Pausanius of Sparta (declared sanctuary from his pursuers in a temple… so they bricked him up in it)

Court of Historical Law — Draco of Athens vs. an apple thief

Fractured Fairy Tales — Sleeping Beauty, the Ancient Greek version (In which she falls afoul of the idleness laws…)

Bob Hale — The British Empire Report

Words We Get From the – Vikings, part 2

Ready, Steady Feast — Live from the Siege of Orleans, 1429

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

The Axe Factor (imagine spot) – Who wants to be the next Tudor executioner? And, not incidentally, demonstrate the increasingly blurry line between actual reality-show logic and parody?

Vicious Vikings

Warrior Poetry – No I am not going to write this description in rhyme. It’s a silly thing to do, and besides, I’m out of tim– Curse you, Dr. Seuss!

Slimy Stuarts

Guy Fawkes’ Firework Tips – The first of several pennies chucked at the hapless Old Guy, who couldn’t even keep ‘Stuff some explosives in the basement and run like hell’ straight.

HHTV News: Pick a Side, Any Side – The quiet countryside during the English Civil War was suddenly fraught with peril… marauding armies rending the kingdom asunder, half-dressed comics re-enacting ancient vaudeville routines, take your pick.

Measly Middle Ages

Too Grim For the Reaper – Or as I like to think of it, the moment at which Death finally chucked up the pointless paperwork (seriously, where was he filing those?) moved to Vegas and started hanging out with blonde skeletons.

Field Notes:

  • Confession time: I have always enjoyed Sarah as Queen Victoria just a leetle bit more than Martha, despite the latter being really a much more faithful take. Sarah, though, has the ‘We are not amused’  down to the point where frankly I would hate to be the go-fer accidentally serving lukewarm tea on any set she happened to frequent.
  • So I rather like “British Things”, as a production concept anyway. Granted the song’s revisionist earnestness is in further over its head than a random jock at a feminist rally, and Mat’s still not quite the buttling type (albeit at least they didn’t try to shoehorn poor Ben in there). It still overall works as a sort of lavishly illustrated frontispiece for Bob H.’s likewise unsettlingly thorough report on the travails of empire — at least to me, the Canadian (mentioned by Bobsy, woo! represent!)
  • Obviously I can’t speak to the UK’s empirical angst, esp. since I feel like we’ve gotten off fairly lightly — save perhaps still having to take respectful notice every time a minor Duchess sneezes — so am mostly just going on artistic merit here. When they do get to the bit about ‘Victoria’ actually being (gasp!) Latin, the only thing really is to be grateful they got it out of their systems early, and switch that part of the brain over to anticipating Series Two’s music instead.
  • Ohai General Pausanius!… boy, you’ve changed. Or will change. I guess death by slow painful starvation might have had a part in that; it would at least explain, which I feel I must point out in fairness to your fourth-series likeness, why you’re not any more buff than he is despite continuing to be Spartan. That is to say, I’d just like to remind the producers, a career warrior battle-hardened from a toddler. I’m starting to realise why Hollywood went with the rotoscoping; it was clearly that much easier than reproducing this effect in real life.
  • Big week altogether for rough drafts of more elaborate later-series redos. And having now also seen the original fun-but-raggedy Guy Fawkes sketch here, I am fully on board with this. (At least old Guy gets to keep the same rather dashing look, although I think the accent refines a bit.) While we’re on, can we also revisit the Stupid Death where [SPOILER ALERT] the Viking gets bitten by the severed head of his enemy?  Pretty please with cherry atop?
  • Speaking of which, this ep also gives us the first last and only appearance of the ‘Stupid Deaths’ milieu sans actual SD, and it cannot be a coincidence that it shows a Reaper so ready for exactly the changes he’s about to make. It certainly doesn’t have much point as a sketch otherwise — except to stress that HH purgatory can involve entire decades spent suffering in Death’s anteroom, without even so much as a towel for the drowned. Y’know, we make jokes about waiting in line at government offices here too, but you lot… I can only bow before your desperation.
  • So let’s cheer things up a bit and remind ourselves that the same show created the gentle symphony of Seussian charm that is “Viking Poetry”. Totally unlike anything else HH before or since, but fully and entirely brilliant, performance and writing both. Basically, I love how it all just works. Two grown men, one speaking in rhyme and the other playing his foil in pigtails, sitting there so gravely respecting the fragility of what they’re doing (unlike, say, the people who bunged Mike Myers into a Cat in the Hat costume). Ben peering round involuntarily, looking for the audience, is especially precious.
  • By contrast, the Axe Factor’s much more characteristically a Series One sketch: overwrought and sloppy around the edges, but still an ingeniously fun parody idea. The takeoff on your typical hopeful reality-TV contestants hits all the right notes, so to speak. Besides, I do enjoy comedy wherein just as you start preening yourself for noticing the illogic (“Um, why are they letting the clearly psychotic contestant hold the axe?”), it swings back around and smacks you upside the ear.
  • Also: extensive bonus material in the form of my imagination riffing on what might happen if they really did give, say, American Idol contestants axes. There would be sparkly pony decals involved, of that I am very sure.
  • Elsewhere in the annals of clever ideas, Larry gets his own back on Mat for that corsned business… and thus, not incidentally, becomes the bane of reality-challenged Baynton fangirls everywhere. If you’re ever in a particularly snarky mood, go look this one up on YouTube and the pink sparkly wailing will cheer you up no end… uh, so I’ve heard. Revelations from my evil twin aside, Mat does always tend to come across as a bit too authentically vulnerable (with those eyes, it was either that or become Enrique Iglesias), but Larry does cheerfully weird equally well — especially with the help of those ridiculous little visual aids — so here at least, it all evens out.
  • Right, so at one point during the Siege of Orleans bit — and we will not get me started on the sheer disgustingness of that — however, one of the items hauled out is half a rat, as played by what looks unnervingly like the bottom of the Rattus puppet. With the implication that the top was chomped raw on the way to the studio… all this, and not a squeak of protest from Our Host. It is of course possible he fainted from the sheer gross; were it not for deadlines here, I would be joining him.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, erm, yeah, I do hate to go all History Math Nazi here, but the Hundred Years’ War. Technically yes, it did last for 100 years — thing is, by the calculations of the Historians That Calculate These Things it lasted another 16 years past that. Given a choice between a puppet rat or people whose self-respect depends on an in-depth knowledge of fourteenth-century politics, I know who I’m not gonna challenge. (And am kind of surprised the HH writers passed up the much better joke inherent in the accurate figure.)
  • It’s mentioned in passing (and illustrated by the brief excerpt Simon recites) but just to reiterate, on account of it’s also once again clear from the YouTube comments that people really care about this — seriously, don’t you people have Doctor Who fanfic to read or something? — at any rate no, Viking poetry didn’t really rhyme, per se. At least, I don’t think. Did you ever want to expand your knowledge of technical literary terms (and/or have bad flashbacks to HS English) now’s the time to head over there.
  • [TUDOR RANT ALERT] Geez, though, show, are we not done with this yet? Anne Boleyn’s ‘extra finger’ / ‘humongous wart’ was actually described in the most reliable contemporary accounts as ‘some little show of nail’ on one side of her legitimate right pinky, ie, a vestigial blemish easily covered by the hanging sleeves she wore for just that reason. A more glaring deformity (other versions also feature multiple huge moles and a third breast) is extremely unlikely to have kept His Serially Married Majesty on the string for six long years. Especially in those hyper-superstitious times, when the ‘witch’s mark’ was a legitimate thing — but never mentioned re: Anne, not even when Henry was insisting later that he’d been seduced by her (literal, not Sinatra) black magic.
  • Fun facteage to save for parties: next time some bore calls the latest government proposal ‘draconian’, you can reply “Yes, but really, they don’t bear much resemblance to Athenian statesman Draco, from whence the word derives. After all, it’s not like they want to have us all executed for stealing apples!” Then smile brightly. Within approximately ten seconds you’ll be left all alone with their helping of that delicious quiche.
  • In real life, as you might imagine, being an executioner — in a world teeming with vengeful and often well-connected relatives — wasn’t exactly the most sought-after job in medieval Europe, although it could be very well-compensated for those same reasons. (In France, it was simply hereditary.) That said, talent did make a difference. Just ask Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, Henry’s sainted elderly cousin and victim of one of his periodic waves of dynastic paranoia. Her execution for treason was made even more horrifically shameful when: The frail and ill lady was dragged to the block and, as she refused to lay her head on it, was forced down. As she struggled, the inexperienced executioner’s first blow made a gash in her shoulder rather than her neck. Ten additional blows were required to complete the execution. A less reputable account states that she leapt from the block after the first clumsy blow and ran, pursued by the executioner.
 
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Posted by on February 3, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E10

He’s-a my brother, innit? I conquer ze country, I give-a him ze crown. I can’t buy him socks anymore — he’s got a wool allergy!

In which the show digs down deep… finds one last rich vein of historical comedy… and it’s in Sparta?

In this episode:

Song: The Plague Song (Ben as Corpse Collector, Mat, Sarah and Larry as Corpse Chorus)

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast — Tudor Diets: Peasant vs. Aristocratic

Historical Hairdressers — Tudor Beauty Treatments

Computer Game: Warrior! — Roman Legionary vs. Celtic Warrior

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Middle Ages version (See, they were in the middle of a plague epidemic, and rats carry plague…)

This is Your Reign — Napoleon Bonaparte

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — from the Battle of Thermopylae

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Sponge on a Stick (two parts) — On the bright side, we’ve moved up from animal to human toilet habits…

New! Viper Deodorant — “Do YOU smell like a barbarian died in your armpit?”

Vile Victorians

Genuine Victorian Slang — Surprisingly enough, not actually made up by Charles Dickens. (Bonus educational tip, kids: try listing this sketch in the bibliography of your next paper on Oliver Twist! Your teacher will love it!)

Great Victorian Inventions: The Car (animated) — True story: at one point engineers were seriously concerned that ‘horseless carriages’ would suffocate their riders, as the air was rushing by them too fast to breathe. That is, once they hit roughly around 30mph. Really.

Cut-Throat Celts

Better Homes & Severed Heads — You do have to admit, nuked-noggin decor probably cut way down on annoying Celtic telemarketers.

Groovy Greeks

This! Is… Wait! — Detailing how actual, normal humans would’ve reacted to being sent to Thermopylae… in other news, nobody ever accused Spartan warriors of being normal.

Field Notes:

  • Oh thank goodness, it was only temporary. Also, my profound thanks to Ben and Katy Wix, not forgetting Larry and Martha later at the Prom. The evolution of HH musical genius gets right back on track this ep, with what to this day is still one of the most offbeat, interesting musical things the show has to offer. So just imagine what it feels like when you’ve only been reviewing the first series for six weeks straight.
  • Seriously though, the Black Death as Danse Macabre…how awesome is that? Possibly not the most original staging idea ever, but — and this is very much the point — a brilliantly apt way to both be a historical comedy and avoid making light of 25 million agonizing deaths. (Also, to shoehorn zombies in there. I have a lot of fun imagining the potential outtakes from this one. “Brainnnnsss…”) In the annals of HH’s revelatory “Hey, we really could be a whole lot more than the source material!” moments, this one’s a doozy.
  • ‘Doozy’ is also a good way to describe Ben’s performance in the prep-for-Thermopylae sketch, although “I think I’ve figured out which script they used to get him to sign on” works too. Honestly, I’m not sure the man even realises he’s supposed to be giving a comedy performance here, or for that matter cares; he’s off in his own private 300, living the dream, rocking the Gerald Butler ‘do… except opposite Larry and Mat instead of comely servant wenches. Thus handily explaining why he also seems so convincingly ticked whenever they speak… or not, depending on just how deep into the Spartan experience he is.
  • It also helps the offbeat vibe to remember, when watching Mat’s final freakout, that as per what the show has just established ‘Mommy’ will be clocking him upside the ear and throwing him right back out into the battle. I would be making further snarky comments about how Mat’s continued failure to have been left out on a mountaintop at birth undermines everything the show is trying to establish about Spartans… but I’m too busy smiling at the aforementioned mental picture.
  • So yes, wow, Spartans, obviously still pretty darn cool in 2008-ish, when all of the writing would’ve started going down… shortly after which the writers, much like the rest of us, found the testosterone-crazed warriors increasingly hard to take seriously. By the time we arrive at Thermopylae, in company with ever-credulous Mike Peabody, they’re ready to have a whole lot of fun with the same phenomenon they straight-up celebrated just last ep. Watching Mike repeatedly being forced to assure Hellenic generals that their hair looks fine, this is another thing that makes my brain grin all over.
  • In this sketch even Mat’s unconvincing armour-wearing works in context — of course the pretty boy with the great hair is the king in this reality! And this reality is hilarious! So, hell, why not try the combo out in other realities too? In short, it’s taken awhile, but relentlessly earnest warrior-next-door Mat finally has a campy, adult archetype of his very own. This will become a trifle more obvious in the next series — as will a lot of other adult implications surrounding Mat — but for now, it’s just seriously funny.
  • Speaking of jacking up the adult content… erm… look, generally, I like the Historical Hairdressers sketches, I really do. Martha works the first of several feisty modern blue-collar gals with all the verve they demand (I gather her native accent is considered kind of annoying, but I rather like it). However… how do I put this… meth, is it a thing in the UK? At least, you do watch Breaking Bad? ‘Cos I’m looking at Shelly’s sore-covered face post-‘treatment’, and I’m not seeing ‘standard, if slightly gross, HH gag’, I’m seeing ‘convincingly authentic PSA’.
  • On the further subject of convincing… DAMMIT LARRY THAT IS THE MOST EMBARRASSING PSEUDO-IRISH THING I HAVE EVER SEEN SINCE THE TIME BOB THREW UP THE GREEN BEER AT THE GREEK RESTAURANT. Sorry, this one’s been building up through several viewings. I realise the man was likely excited at being upright onscreen for the first time in ages, but really, watching Lucky Charms commercials does not count as research. Mind, Jim and his Eye-talian accent aren’t far behind — you lot are just lucky the sketch itself is generally cute enough to dim the memory of Tudor Traitors on Parade. And that Rattus gets a darling little brocade armchair of his own. Squee!
  • I will refrain from commenting on the Roman toilet sketches, on account of I can figure out no way to do so without sounding like, well, a puritanical old poop. Just not my thing, kiddies, sorry. I’m a cranky grownup who takes much more glee in noting that the 2nd bit here was obviously meant to follow on from the main ‘communal toilet’ sketch — which doesn’t happen until epIsode 13.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, the naked Celtic warrior? Totally a thing. The reasons are disputed, and the frequency probably exaggerated by Romans interested in painting the enemy as wild irrational freaks in dire need of the civilizing Latin influence, but they did really charge into battle in the nude… so yeah, point goes to the Romans here, mostly.
  • Contrariwise I couldn’t find much info re: deadly snake as Roman man-grooming staple, but this recipe for a depilatory is intriguing: Resin, pitch, white vine or ivy gum extract, asses’ fat, she-goat’s gall, bat’s blood and powdered viper. Apparently the belief was that the viper, or asp, made its nest in lavender plants, which as a rationale for cosmetic ingredients is at least up there with “hey, this musk deer gland smells great!”
  • This isn’t a scientific forum I know — and very grateful I am for it usually — but the Plague Song lyrics always make me go ‘hmmmm?’ right around “Bites the rat and gives it germs…” In the interest of biological clarity, shouldn’t that be “bites the rat and picks up germs?” Otherwise, we’re missing a step in the transmission. I think. Yes, I’m a hopeless nerd.
  • According to most sources “half the people on the Earth/are simply blown away!” seems to be a rather massive exaggeration — although this was undoubtedly one incredibly, horrifically huge Very Bad Thing That Really Happened, so I doubt there’s much point in anyone being offended at a little post-millennial artistic license intended to get that across. The (impromptu?) revision to “Half the children...” in the Prom version probably helps though.
  • Speaking of exaggeration to make a point… the Tudor diet wasn’t actually that sharply divided along class lines, or at least not along the lines suggested here. A peasant diet would be much more veg-intensive, but the nobles did eagerly eat veggies too. In fact Henry VIII was known to have grown artichokes at Hampton Court palace. The real difference was that the upper-class had the ability (from which our modern notion of haute cuisine descends) to spend time and money on making food snazzy instead of merely sustaining. Hence more sophisticated preparations, like delicate salads and cabbage boiled with spices.
  • On the other hand, bunging random poisonous substances on your face (or, in the case of Victorian ladies and arsenic, in your face): totally the province of the rich, or at least those who wanted to appear so. The coveted clear, luminous pink-and-white complexion indicated not only aristocratic birth — ‘blue-blooded’ likely refers to the veins visible under a truly delicate skin — but innocence, femininity and purity: the historical Holy Grail of womanhood. (Olive skin was dismissed as ‘brown’ and thought of as a major defect — was one of the objections to Anne Boleyn, in fact.)
  • Right, not to put too fine a point on it, but: Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Aka the ‘Iron Duke’. Not a dude prone to breaking into jigs in public. (Although as the hero of all the papers after Waterloo he did star — along with his sons — in the Brontes’ earliest juvenile writings… which were more or less romantic fanfic. Seriously.)
  • That sketch’d overall be a lot more fun if they skipped the comic-opera accents and told the real story: according to my Treasury of Royal Scandals (don’t leave home without it!) the ‘Battling Bonapartes’ would, in fact, have made fabulous modern reality-show fodder. The only thing this clan could agree on is that their Nap was doing it wrong. Whatever it was. He thought he was running a realpolitik empire; they pictured it more as a sort of extra-glittery Mafia, in which everybody’s honour was being offended at once.
  • Oh, and Josephine — aka the ‘Great Whore’ — not impressed with her either. In fact, ‘strong-willed’ Meré Bonaparte and her daughters, in a move familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to plan a wedding reception, refused to attend the Imperial coronation over their fear of being one-upped by the scandalous (and middle-aged, yet!) Empress.
  • Everybody else spent Napoleon’s reign haughtily (and in at least one case, insanely) miffed that their baby bro was now treating them as mere puppets in his empirical schemes, to the point of wholesale refusal to take their advice, breaking up inconvenient marriages and/or abandoning them in the face of rebellious natives. Napoleon, on the other hand, was understandably ticked at what he saw as their ingratitude for his raising the whole dysfunctional, spendthrift, sexually irresponsible lot to the First Family of Europe. Something to remember, next time you start wishing you had a nice normal family like everyone else…
 
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Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E09

Why would I pray to the goddess of the sewers?
Soldiers get very nervous before a battle, General. If fifteen thousand men decide to go to the toilet at the same time, I’m not clearing it up.

Sports teams call it ‘playing out the string’ — the point in the season at which the outcome’s been decided, so might as well give whatever’s left a shot. Although there still may be individual bright lights…

In this episode:

Song: It’s Not True! (Mat as Random…Historical Cop?, Martha as Random Teacher)

Recurring sketches:

Fractured Fairy Tales — Thumbelina, the Tudor version (Wherein she takes a wrong turn into the city and drowns in a gutterfull of poop)

Shouty Man — New Victorian Child (“And you can really see it working!”)

Words We Get From the — Vikings (No, not called that yet, but close enough)

Historical Wife Swap — Athenians vs. Spartans (“Hi, I’m a playwright!” “I’M – A – WARRIOR!!”)

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From plague-riddled 1665 London

Ye Sun Magazine: Great Plague Special — “Read it before you die!”

Ready, Steady Feast — Thomas Farriner, the man who started the Great Fire of London

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

Tudor Forecast — Poo. Lots of it. Next!

Vile Victorians

Uncool School Punishments — Demonstrating why very few alumni showed up for the class reunions, in Dickensian London.

Rotten Romans

Roman Gods Direct — Because frankly if they can’t smite the guy why stole your lunch out of the office fridge, what good is a divine pantheon anyway?…

Gotta Hail ‘Em All — …Seriously though, you ever wonder if the ancients eventually started inventing petty deities just to mess with each other? I probably would’ve.

Vicious Vikings

No Horns Here (animated) — Because contrary to nerdlore, not everything ancient warriors did was based on how badass it looked.

Field Notes:

  • So yeah, now entering the phase in every HH series at which things start to feel something less than wholly inspired… the difference between this and later series being that, in the latter, said phase usually only lasts an ep or two. Given the additional lack of a song special (albeit if this ep has taught us anything, it’s that we need not waste time mourning that) Series One is effectively one episode longer. More space and much less memorably funny stuff to fill it: ladies and gentlemen, a situation in which six total minutes of blandly reiterating that ‘Medieval streets were awash in poo!’ is considered viable television.
  • Also: Simon dressed up as vaguely-possibly-sort-of Mercury, the hell? The whole ‘Roman Gods Direct’ sketch is a distressingly detailed example of the pitfalls awaiting even a decent — and surprisingly adult, even given what’s gone before — sketch idea when it comes time to commit to film. Should really have set this one aside for when the show’s comedic commitment and costuming budget kicked up a notch, and let the much more succinctly funny followup (have I mentioned how well Mat & Jim play off each other yet?) stand on its own.
  • Oh, and the song. Ordinarily when confronted with the memory of ‘It’s Not True!’ I quietly change the mental subject as soon as possible; being aware that there are HH fans who have never watched Barney, and thus do not twitch uneasily whenever chipper music starts up in a cheap schoolroom set. However, for this project I’m determined that everything should have a fair and objective watch. Therefore it is with newly empowered confidence that I now can say: boy, this musical sequence sucks. On toast.
  • Even making the standard allowances for creative bumbling, budget etc; it’s literally hard to believe that the same people behind the 4 Georges also greenlighted these desperate dance moves. Basically this, right here, is what HH would’ve looked like were it really ‘just a children’s series’, with expectations lowered accordingly from ‘challenging and creative’ to ‘bright and cheerful’…
  • …Sorry, I’ll work on the dosage. Meantime, have an unquestioned bright spot: introducing Mike Peabody, HHTV News’ Man on the Scene, and the perfect (not to say rather impressively sophisticated) face for their campaign to wring media cliche out of historical chaos. I like to think of Mike as a sort of expatriate grand-nephew of Bob & Ray’s Wally Ballou: outfitted with newer tech (and/or stylists) but likewise entirely sure only that he is a Journalist and his job is therefore to Get the Story. The stonefaced bemusement with which Ben greets every deviation from same is pure gold.
  • Elsewhere the Shouty Man’s most excellent mercenary adventures take a sinister turn, as he moves up from hawking dead bodies into more-or-less creating them, in a sharply improved second draft of the ‘Chimney Sweep’ sketch from a few eps ago. Rather sadly, this and the companion ‘Victorian Maid’ bit will represent Shouty’s apotheosis; not to say that it’s all downhill from here, since Jim’s adorable amorality is a wonder in-and-of-itself, but the sharp and multileveled satire will dissipate into more generic comedy.
  • The above stuns Rattus into genuine sympathy again. That little puppet can look more convincingly moved than most human actors. Besides which this ep marks the debut of his teeny little temporal accessories — all carefully and cleverly designed to seem jury-rigged from stuff he’s found down sewer. Clearly, someone in the props dept is as smitten by miniatures as is this reviewer, who is self-banned from a certain dollhouse store in Toronto for fear of impulsively buying all their stock at one go. I warn you now: there will be squee.
  • OK… I truly don’t want to keep harping on Mat’s physique, or lack thereof. Besides being boringly shallow, it has no bearing on his talent… except, oh shoot, he’s starring in a historical sketch show, and they keep casting him not only as a Roman general but as a Spartan warrior. Apparently merely to save a bit of money on the fake tan. Bless the man, he’s doing everything short of banging his head on the table to convey menacing toughness, but honestly. If he wasn’t left out for the birds at birth, then these Spartans were clearly just big softies at heart.
  • Great sketch, this Wife Swap, though. The feminist angle feels a bit too obviously shoehorned in — an early indication of how the producers intend to deal with the relative dearth of available herstory — but the fight/vote thing is a nice touch, and it’s nice to see Martha getting a chance at a really meaty comic role for the first time in awhile.
  • Oh, and a couple other *ahem* interesting notes: a few eps from now Athenians will claim in song that ‘[their] physiques were not weak”. The next ep will give us a Spartan warrior — played by guess who? — flatly refusing to fight. And at the end of this sketch, as is standard, we get a teaser… for the Restoration WS, which aired awaaayyy back in S01E03. Whoops.
  • Now I will make up for all the ragging by pointing out again that Mat is a great comic performer, and in this ep alone does a fantastic job both of rapidly disintegrating reverence and total charming-morning-show-host obliviousness to flaming carnage, which is not something even the finest comedians are routinely accused of (unless possibly they are already dead of massive drug overdoses).
  • Then, I will complain that he is also doing the least convincing ‘elderly man’ I have ever heard. This will improve rapidly of course (helloooo, Darwin), but for now, the ‘School Punishments’ sketch is mostly making me wince at what that voice must be doing to his throat. Also, giving some interested thought to Simon as Mark Twain impersonator, and wondering if there’s any correlation between Ben’s Russian studies and his ability to make ersatz-Wackford Squeers here so convincing… yeah, sometimes you just have to keep yourself entertained however you can.
  • Finally, for once, I must give props for a really clever use of the magazine format: that is one great  two-edged slogan that I can totally imagine real tabloids borrowing in like crisis. Also, hi Larry the perpetual patient — it’s almost over, dude. Really.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Another fun little bit of fridge brilliance from the Wife Swap sketch: Spartans really were renowned for their dry humour! In fact, the word ‘laconic’ is a direct homage to Laconia, the actual name of the city-state of which Sparta was the principal city. So there you go, the whole “You will be going to a funeral” exchange is more accurate than the retelling of the fairy tale.
  • Because, and yes I realise this isn’t actually historically controversial, unless we’re talking messing with my treasured childhood memories, which hey, it’s my blog — Thumbelina, the original, never tried to make it in the big city. That’s kind of the whole point, she hangs out with animals the whole time. Danish animals, that is, because she’s actually a Hans Christian Andersen creation. So there. Nyahhh.
  • Ooh look, an indication that science actually existed back in the (not-so-) Dark Ages times — well, OK, in the Renaissance (the microscope first appeared in the Netherlands, 1590) but still, good going, show! Further evidence that it wasn’t all filth-gathering and funky smells, from Cracked.com’s highly recommended (to grownups) article on medieval myths:
    The church… started establishing universities to foster the preservation of knowledge. You may have heard of a few of them: Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Paris (not to mention pretty much every other top school in Europe). The universities… translated into Latin guys like Aristotle and Plato, which effectively made the Renaissance possible.
    Around the same time… the Crusades were bringing Europeans into contact with advanced Muslim ideas of science and technology. Ideas like the compass and the astrolabe came to the West via Muslim Spain and came in handy during the later Age of Exploration.
  • I gather “No horned helmets” is sort of the “no wire hangers” of HH lore. Which is sort of understandable, given — as the sketch hints — the tradition requires believing that one of the most dedicated warrior races of all time really wore heavy, conveniently-graspable handles either side of their cranial region. One good enemy twist and yipes, suddenly we’re celebrating the not-so-glorious demise of Sweyn the Chicken-Necked. According to Wiki, the spiky imagery is all the fault of those derned Swedish Romanticists: The popular association probably arose in the 19th century… possibly by misattribution of Bronze Age images such as the Grevensvænge figurines. (Which, I’d like to suggest, also explain a lot that’s incomprehensible about Ikea textiles.)
 
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Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E07

We hunt for deer and rabbits too — so long as they are slow!
…’cos otherwise, we can’t catch them…

In which writers and performers alike nail their ultimate Horrible ambitions to the mast, and thus the viewer is given a delicious glimpse of goodies both now and to come…

In this episode:

Song: I’m a Knight (Mat, Jim and writer Steve ‘Eric Idle’ Punt)

Recurring sketches:

Oh Yea! Magazine — Elizabeth I Exposed

Historical Hospital — Tudor physician

Fractured Fairy Tales — Cinderella, the WWII version (Even fairy godmothers got hit by clothes rationing. Also, the Blitz.)

One-offs:

Groovy Greeks

Helen of Troy – If Classics Illustrated were about x100 more honest. (“Listen up, yeah! I want all us Greek soldiers to march on Troy, you get me? We’re gonna tear that city UP! Kill dem all, izzit? Yeah, it is!”)

The Trojan Horse (imagine spot) – Even without badgers, still really a very silly idea. (“Either we assume this giant wooden horse is a trap, and burn it where it stands; or we say “Look, this is just a nice — if completely weird — present”, and drag it inside the city walls, leave it unguarded and go to bed.”)

Measly Middle Ages

That Was Entertainment!: Jousting on Ice – Bored British peasants take advantage of winter ice to invent a fast-paced, violent, stick-intensive sport… or as I like to think of it, ‘Canada: The Hockey-ening.’

Woeful Second World War

Gravy Stockings — “Look good enough to eat!”

Awful Egyptians

Resurrection Realtor (imagine spot) – …and that parody pyramid either could’ve used some granite countertops, or I’ve been watching way too much House Hunters lately.

Egyptian Gods (animated) — Aka Dogface, Birdbrain and Hippo-Bum the Devourer. Because some things HH will never change. (“Sorry. The wicked give me terrible wind.”)

Vile Victorians

There’s Something in the Water – As you may have guessed, it ain’t attar of roses.

Parliament and the Thames Problem – Solving the “Great Stink” of 1858: So many “which one smells worse” gags, so little time…

Field Notes:

  • Hmmmm. It all begins to fit together, the method in the producers’ seeming madness: “So, cleverly subversive satire, you OK with that, CBBC mums? Fine, now how about we layer on the relentless violence…? Right — but what happens if someone gets bored and decides to throw in overt homeroticism? Really? And jokes about religion to boot? Great! *calls offscreen* “Steve! Ready for the brazenly obvious Monty Python influence!”
  • Or maybe not. Given everything I’ve been told about UK broadcast standards I will concede that they may just’ve thought the Spamalot Jr. vibe would avert a mid-series lull. However it happened, this ep showcases the outer limits of the HH creative team’s ambition, and it is glorious. Not quite the definitive gearshift from kiddy edutainment with parental bonus, to all-ages historical sketch show with an educational hook – ie. it’s still the first series — but for awhile here, it’s Ghost of HH Future all the way. Even the fairy tale segment is kinda nifty.
  • Clearly, all this had a rather intoxicating effect on the editing team. Much as I’ve been complaining about a lack of musical excitement… when interim sketches, animated scene wipes and sign-bearing rats are suddenly all bunged into the singalong at once, I feel the need to register a mild protest. And when in the same ep we also get an entire elaborate medley of cartoonage schlepped in-and-around the live-action (in the ‘Vile Victorians’ segments), I am forced to unkind conclusions re: desperation to justify film-school loans to the parental units.
  • Especially since even without all the ‘help’ this lot are rather overselling the knowing silliness. The sudden, vividly daring rebuttal to generic-ness is hugely appreciated, guys, don’t get me wrong — thing is, we have the Internet now, and riffing on the Holy Grail just doesn’t make you clever enough to kiss anymore. Although it does neatly transform the over-earnest onscreen lyrics into authentically Pythonesque overkill… OK, maybe a little cheek peck.
  • Really, the song overall has the same effect on the critical psyche as trying to punish a kitten, you just cannot stop smiling long enough to protest. Besides which, that the historical comedy sketch show even has Eric Idle’s body double writing for them is clearly a sign from the entertainment gods that they were on the right and good track… yeah, including the Camelot-esque can-can. It’s a very Reform theology.
  • Speaking of adorable… ‘Bradley Huxtable’ is so going to be what I am calling the fuzzy Jim plushie that I have been designing since roughly the Shouty Man’s first appearance. Plushie Jim will be cuddly-soft just like one of those Hallmark teddy bears, except that instead of singing he will make snarky remarks when you press his paw, also occasionally giggle. Seriously, it’s rare he turns up thus in ‘normal’ mode — neither hopeless loser nor over-the-top huckster — and every time he does it’s a reminder for me to be amazed that he’s not starring in his own sitcom by now. He’s not that short, producers, get over it.
  • Whether more a sign of increasing commitment in the moment or a desire to still have viable grown-up careers afterward — my personal guess is a lot of a) tinged noticeably with b) — the whole cast effortlessly handle whatever level-up the writers throw at them, showing off precision skills and timing that haven’t had a whole lot of chance to shine until now. Especially where Mat and Larry are concerned (Ben and Simon having arrived with their comic cred already more-or-less fully developed, and Jim nearly there); the Trojan Horse sketch flat-out belongs to the fledgling clown & the unknown writer, helping make it one more thing I totally cherish.
  • Sarah also contributes a very capable comic turn — which is probably why she was cast as Helen; not saying she’s not qualified otherwise, exactly, only that whether Martha’s face might launch more ships is at least debatable (this same ep, after all, does find MHD convincingly playing Cinderella). While I’m at it, here’s a spare laurel for Terry Deary, who’s developing a really nice, original line in wise old patriarchs. Honestly, if he’d just skip the pontificating and stick to acting while he’s in the public eye, I’d like him a whole lot better.
  • Ooh hey, and Larry the Historical Hospital patient finally gets to talk back! Turns out it really ups the funny-making ante when you give the daffy doc something to bounce off. Here he and Ben use that dynamic to build a wonderfully classic screwball comedy scene. (That is, once you get past that unnervingly dull modern deference to the historical crazy characteristic of the ‘timeslip’ sketches. Personally, I figure that in this world the Time Sewers malfunction so often the modern folk have just given up and gone with it. Can never decide if that`s charming or disturbing.)
  • So we’re hip-deep in Ancient Greek goofiness again — albeit in keeping with the current mood they’ve abandoned the genital mutilation for something much lighter. The Helen of Troy sketch is deservedly a classic, and I really do try to get into it, because the concept — an early version of the ‘match the modern genre to the equally pretentious history’ formula so simple-yet-cool it was later adopted for the songs — is just that brilliant… but I keep getting distracted by the accents. Specifically, this ‘chav’ thing, does it really sound like that? I do understand they’re channeling the same vibe as Sasha Baron Cohen’s Ali G; I have the same credibility flakeout while listening to both. (I imagine it’s much the same thing you lot go through when dealing with depictions of the American inner city.)
  • Incidentally, on the subject of distracting uncertainty — never let it be said I don’t know how to segue — who is that playing the Pharoah in the ‘pyramid realty’ sketch? It’s not Ben, right? I mean, I’d recognise Ben, and that isn’t him. I don’t think. It just seems weird that they’d bring in Random Unknown Lead Actor just for this one sketch. What I am sure of is that they paid good money for that sheepskin KISS wig (from the Pharoah Phashion sketch), because by god they’re going to use it!
  • Seriously, the Jousting on Ice… I see no reason why Canucks’ primal instinct for ice hockey couldn’t have originated in idiot English peasant DNA; it took decades just to convince ice hockey goalies it wasn’t sissified to wear face masks. The sketch itself has some nice details — it actually doesn’t seem like a bad idea for a real-world TV series — but the jousting itself starts and suddenly I’m thinking: nobody tell Don Cherry about this, OK? Just trust me, don’t.
  • Right, so I don’t usually make this sort of recommendation… family show, family-friendly blog, is the way I look at it… but if you’re into hair porn at all, boy howdy do you want to cue up the ‘Parliament’ sketch behind closed doors. I’m picturing somebody on the makeup team, probably after one too many Red Bulls, deciding that by God she was gonna fulfill her dream romance novel cover image now or never. Otherwise the sketch is funny but a bit too noticeably lazy, to the point of repeating almost verbatim the ‘does it bother us? No? OK then!” punchline from a few eps ago. Simon does have a wonderful take on urbanely clueless authority, though.

95% Accu-rat:

  • The Oh Yea! bit about Elizabeth’s supposedly poor hygiene… sigh. Here, have this accurate and well-reasoned rebuttal. Short version: i) Elizabeth was actually unusually finicky for the time, which certainly did involve regular bathing (also, not mentioned in the link, daily changes of linen undergarments) and ii) Everybody had smallpox scars and (among the nobility) bad teeth, because hello, it was frelling 16th-century Europe, anything above ‘not actually being dead’ was considered a bonus! Seriously, guys, all this is one rather shaky step up from laughing at victims of malnutrition for being short.
  • On the other hand, the gravy stockings I do have to give you. I went into researching this one extremely skeptical about the smell being anything close to socially acceptable in human company let alone canine, but instead learned a(nother) valuable lesson in never, ever, underestimating British resourcefulness under fire, and a new definition of ‘suffering to be beautiful’ besides. This vintage fashion blogger gives an entertaining in-depth overview of the Great Stocking Crisis.
  • OK, so, the whole ‘chivalry’ concept… um, in theory at least a wonderful, noble expression of man’s higher ideals (neutral-to-a-fault Wikipedia waxes positively ethereal on the subject). Also, a pretty good early attempt at maintaining order in the chaos of war. In practice, however — well, we’ve all encountered actual humans at some point, yes? Particularly the ones that are young, male, and  bored out of their tiny little minds? I’m not going to link it directly here (again, family blog), but if you’re over 16 and have a minute, check out Cracked.com’s recent article on Ridiculous Middle Ages Myths Everyone Believes — including one more satisfying whack at the hygiene thing.
 
6 Comments

Posted by on January 8, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E06

Now, remember what I told ya…
“Try not to die”?
Yeah, that’s the spirit!

A gently nondescript little midseason interlude… mostly.

In this episode:

Song: A Gorgeous Georgian Lady (Martha as Random Noblewoman)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Wife Swap — Georgian Noble vs. Peasant (“Hello, we’re very, very rich.” “Hello, we’re very, very, very hungry!”)

Stupid Deaths — Franz Reichert (personally tested ‘coat-parachute’ from the 1st level of the Eiffel Tower — “Well, at least the ‘coat’ part worked! Ha!”)

Dodgy War Inventions — No.7: The Roman ‘Onager’ Catapult

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, the WWI version (See, soldiers would wee on their boots to soften the leather, so…)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Flagellants — With Europe a mass of festering plague sores, a God who’d demand you whip yourself raw suddenly started making total sense…

The Made-Up Planet (animated) — You laugh, but frankly zoology was lots more fun before it started insisting on stuff like ‘eyewitness accounts’ and “reality”.

Vile Victorians

Victorian Claims Direct — Being a small, defenseless kid during the Industrial Revolution sucked. The end.

Chimney Sweepstakes — Because they had to get the inevitable “something stuck up the chimney, guv!” gags out of the way… and I honestly thought that was a joke, right up until Santa fell out of there.

Rotten Romans

Row, Row, Row Your Galley (Or We’ll Kill You) — Because they also urgently had to get shot of the ‘mess with the rowing rhythm’ gags. Trust me, we’ll all feel better later.

Frightful First World War

Good Luck Charms — You laugh, but they didn’t wear them to the recruiter’s office and just look what happened.(“…lucky penny… lucky rabbit’s foot…” “Where’d you get that?” “From the lucky regimental mascot. Got hit by a bomb.”)

Groovy Greeks

Greek Myth Talk: Cronus Eats His Own Children — The origin story of the Olympian pantheon. Remember that, next time someone claims the Greeks had all the really cool gods.

Field Notes:

  • Yeppers, just a quiet, peaceful little episode… not much to see here… right up until the unabashed infant cannibalism kicks in. Yes, I really should be used to this by now, but… but… everyone’s covered in mucus and/or has comically awful facial hair and/or sliced-off ‘dangly bits’… (Yet people still look at me funny when I tell them this show will never air in America.) Basically, the Cronus sketch is the last and most vivid reminder that at this point in the show’s history, devoting precious time and resources to the equivalent of the Brothers Grimm + genital mutilation + Jerry Springer seemed like a great idea.
  • To the point that this is the only “chat show” sketch to feature an actual studio audience, containing more members than were present for freaking Charles I’s execution a few eps ago. Granted, the former probably brought their own costumes, but still. It’s like looking at what would’ve happened had the show actually applied its growing cleverness to that juvenile grossout mentality they like to play up in the marketing — frankly unpleasant now to watch, and I don’t think would’ve earned them near the success. Of course, it should always be kept in mind that I’m not British, and neither am I an eight-year-old boy.
  • In happier news, the music’s back!… Sort of. At least I can usually remember this one, albeit largely because the score reminds me of the ‘Perfect Nanny’ number from Mary Poppins… assuming that movie to have been made on a BBC props budget recently gutted by mucus procurement. Seriously, they couldn’t even afford a painted backdrop? Basing historical comedy off fashion foibles anyway requires more delicate handling than the show is thus far capable of, even were they not still convinced that awkward makeup application = one-way ticket to Wackyland.
  • Ironically enough the song also unintentionally falls into the same trap as the scripted one Rattus elsewhere trips over, re: belief in medieval monsters vs. modern Loch Ness devotees. Similarly, leave it at “Har har! Mouse-skin eyebrows!” and the next thing you know some snotty Georgian is all snorting and going “Yeah, well you lot put metal spikes through your tongue!” (Granted, this tends to work out better when the potential snorter is long dead. Still, you get the drift.)
  • The Georgian Wife Swap installment teased at the end of the Restoration ditto also crops up here, and also is a distinct letdown, coming as it does right after sublime proof that the ‘reality show’ sketches work best when they involve clashes of culture and belief — below-surface stuff that really enables character comedy. Here, once they’ve established the ‘rich vs. hungry’ cliches, they’ve literally got nowhere else to go…
  • …save perhaps inspiring viewer sympathy for Jim, who is always being cast as the hopeless serf in these things (this is especially urgent, after hearing his pathetic screeches in the ‘Flagellants’ sketch). Oh, and to speculate re: just how Lord Posh managed to nab that wig second-hand from one Dr. Fuzzlepeck… You’re welcome, fanfic authors.
  • Ideas the HH Producers Fell in Love With Early On, vol.287: the horrors of Industrial Revolution-era child labour. This will eventually account for easily two-thirds of the Vile Victorian sketches (plus one actually lavishly produced song), most of which will work a whole lot better than this one. Yet another high-concept gag that goes not a whole lot of anywhere, along with the WWI good luck charms, and the Roman galley, and… yeah, worryingly big episode for those, come to think of it.
  • On the bright side, Simon having so recently, and firmly, established that anything is liable to happen when he’s onscreen — plus having a hugely charming native accent — helps greatly to rivet viewer attention. both as the aforementioned flagellant and the chimney sweep. (The latter of whom especially is forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting in his sketch, because protip: slapping flashing SANTA! signs on a gag older than Saint Nick himself does not, in fact, act as magical humour Febreze.) Even Death finally seems to be getting with the program, cheerfully twitting the Corpse du Jour in much the more familiar manner.
  • Minuses: weirdly miscast Mat as the butler. Dashing WWI officer Mat isn’t working either, somehow. Not just physically (they did at least give him a coat this time) — they’re trying to shoehorn him in as the stock effortlessly aristocratic type, and he’s not, exactly. None of the eventual core troupe is, although you give Ben a magnificent enough hairdressing job and he can fake it very acceptably. So I do have to give him that, also the ‘orchestra, play something sad’ bit, because he’s just having way too much fun with it at that point. And Jim… well, hey, Jim really does have a knack for those pathetic little woobie types, doesn’t he! Won him a BAFTA and everything. So, um, yeah, yay Jim.
  • Gotta hand it to the littlest cast members, too, and quite seriously. The show benefits greatly from an unusually solid core of child actors, able to switch convincingly from snark to pathos as needed — a skill never to be underestimated, in onscreen rugrats. To my shame I never have learned all their names; according to Twitter the blond one is Bertie Gilbert, who once almost made it into a Harry Potter movie, then eventually grew up to be a YouTube star. Thus becoming the only person ever named ‘Bertie’ to do that, so good for him.
  • Starting to feel like I should be saying something about the fairy tale bits, especially since from the debut press release forward, these were clearly intended as the crown jewel of recurring HH sketches. Death gets the cardboard desk, while Storytime Lady has a cozy chair and lavishly produced standalone tales to narrate, as a reminder that a) Meera Syal was a huge casting coup for the fledgling kiddy series and b) Shrek was still vaguely relevant in 2009.
  • The real trouble is it’s all basically the same tale, or at least the same punchline, and that of a kind the show was rapidly outgrowing even before these sketches first aired. They resemble nothing else about the finished series, or for that matter HH’s generally relentless insistence on the real story, so there was just nowhere for them to go. Ave aqua vale, Meera; you gave it your best shot in a situation where you really, really didn’t have to, and for that you have my respect. Just not my interest.

95% Accu-rat:

  • For all I rag on the animations — you must understand, I wasn’t raised on the HH books or anything — I do like the Medieval Bestiary very much, because, frankly, Dark Ages biology is just endlessly hilarious. As conclusive evidence I give you the beaver, pace Gerald of Wales: When he finds he cannot save himself from the pursuit of the dogs who follow him, that he may ransom his body by the sacrifice of a part, he throws away that, which by natural instinct he knows to be the object sought for, and in the sight of the hunter castrates himself, from which circumstance he has gained the name of Castor; and if by chance the dogs should chase an animal which had been previously castrated, he has the sagacity to run to an elevated spot, and there lifting up his leg, shews the hunter that the object of his pursuit is gone.
  • WHOA YOU GUYS, VIDEO OF FRANZ REICHELT’S FALL TOTALLY EXISTS. He invited the Press and everything. Now I feel even worse for the poor guy… although that’s still not very, because according to the full story this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment leap to glory; his friends spent quite some time begging him not to try it himself, and he just blew them all right off. If the Grim Reaper ever decides to hold a Stupid Deaths Masters or somesuch, Reichelt’s a shoo-in.
  • So… Cronus. On top of everything else, not actually a god: he was a Titan, and yes this is an important distinction, because… well… I’m pretty sure the paper I wrote in grade nine Ancient History explains it all, just as soon as I get around to digging it out of storage. He was for certain a pretty bad dude, anyway, having already castrated his dad Uranus at the behest of his mum Gaia (the Furies, Giants and some nymphs rose where Uranus’ blood hit the ground). Greek mythology… overall, I’m kinda glad HH quit while they were ahead.
 
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E05

It’s true! William the Conqueror really did explode at his own funeral… see if you can find that on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Having full-on stormed the boundaries of children’s media and come out the other side still on the air, the show takes a moment to relax and enjoy the view…

In this episode:

Song: Sorry, true believers, it’ll be awhile yet before the music becomes mandatory. In the meantime, have some gratuitous shots at Simon Cowell.

Recurring sketches:

Bob Hale — The Stone Age Report

Court of Historical Law — Anglo-Saxon Britain (Ethelred the Unready vs. a horse thief)

Fractured Fairy Tales — Goldilocks, the Saxon version (Wherein stealing gets you branded on the forehead & ears/hands cut off.)

Historical Hospital — Dr. Montague Fuzzlepeck: Master of Georgian medicaments

One-offs:

Awful Egyptians

Pharaoh Phashion Magazine — Playing it cool in the desert, from your hair down to your… erm… let’s just say the depilatories must’ve been really impressive.

Mouse Fresh Max Toothpaste —  No, of course they didn’t just stuff the mice in live! They cut them in half first! … Doesn’t really help, does it?

Ruthless Rulers

Louis XI and the Pig Piano (animated) — A bored French king demands a nifty new musical instrument, which turns out to be auto-squealing pork, which turns into the aforementioned Cowell riff.  (…”Though even I’m not that old.” *oink!* “I’m not!”)

Measly Middle Ages

HHTV News: The Domesday Book — The conquering Normans survey their new holdings… and if this sample is anything to go by, were severely disappointed.(“How many chickens do you have?” “Fifteen.” *squawk! thud!* “Fourteen.”)

William I: Hurry Up and Bury Him — Royal funerals were a bit… different before TV. But arguably a lot more entertaining.

Rotten Romans

Caligula vs. Poseidon — The definition of a big problem: being the Emperor of Rome’s generals the day he decides to go to war with a god. (“BIGGER THAN MEEEE?!!”)

Savage Stone Age

Modern Stone Age Family (imagine spot) — Why Emily Post suggests your dinner guests should always be at the same evolutionary stage. (“Please, take a seat…wait, what are you doing?” “Ugg take seat!”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Join the Georgian Navy — “Bravely defending Britain’s empire with some people we picked up off the floor in the local tavern.”

Field Notes:

  • Nope, no song — in case you were still wondering just how far they’d come in four series. At this point in the show’s evolution that particular lavish care was being expended instead on the animated bits. Not incomprehensible if you’ve ever seen the books — but clearly a decision made prior to (independently of?) taking a good look at the live cast, or for that matter, most of the live-action scripts.
  • Because otherwise this is such a lovely romp of an episode — well, the (unusual) insistence on the realistically bloody maiming of cute li’l Goldilocks is a bit much, but other than that, just pure good times. None of the sketches are exactly insta-classics, but they’re all frankly hilarious, suggesting that the writers were rapidly becoming very comfortable indeed not only with the material, but in adapting it from the source to fit their own notions of *ahem* family entertainment. Besides all of which I’m so very grateful for an episode that isn’t actively trying to give me or my inner history nerd nightmares.
  • Besides that… lots of Mat, and specifically, lots of Mat having a whole lot of fun, in a way that vividly illustrates why these people signed up for HH in the first place and have stayed all these years. Y’know, biases re: beauty aside, Mat’s not the best actor of the troupe per se — that would be Ben or Jim, depending on the requirements of the sketch — but as a clown he has something that were I a genre expert I suspect I’d be dubbing genius, and am certainly able to call intensely watchable.
  • Rattus’ crack — the first of many similar — about Neanderthals being ‘your PE teacher’s relatives…’ I dunno. I mean, ragging on boring ol’school, integral part of the HH/Terry Deary/small children everywhere experience, I get it. That PE teachers are obviously far less respected and feared over there than here, a little odd (do you people not play dodgeball?), but OK. The thing is, though, as it turns out some of the cast actually are PE teacher relatives, or at least have relatives that are PE teachers. Do they have Thanksgiving in the UK? ‘Cos I’d imagine this is the sort of thing that’d make it weird.
  • Trivia time: if you guessed that the first HH actor to get a full-frontal scene (with the relevant bits tastefully obscured of course!) would be Javone… well, hey, you’re in luck. He’s got nothing to be ashamed of — unlike the rest of the sketch, which is doing that thing the show always does to demonstrate historical beauty choices, ie. applying them like a toddler raiding Mummy’s makeup bag. This has always struck me as vaguely unfair, besides leading to things like Return of Museum Matron Sarah and [actress name to be inserted here on receipt] making like a low-rent KISS groupie. Something else I thought they didn’t have in the UK.
  • Elsewhere, this episode features the debut of one Terry Deary, apparently just for a lark. I’m not the man’s biggest fan — there’s a point at which ‘loveable old curmudgeon’ becomes just plain ‘self-absorbed old crank’, and to my mind, if he hasn’t crossed it, he’s hovering dangerously on the verge — but hey, without him none of us would be here. And he gets all the respect besides for making himself actually useful and funny onscreen, not just standing around waiting for a medal.
  • Also debuting here: Cartoon Simon Cowell (complete with lovingly delineated moobs — nice one, animators!) and the show’s inexplicable need to get all up in his grill wherever possible. Not exactly complaining, you understand; just a trifle bemused by the specific importance of it all, especially since his relevance over here is long since done. Does one of the writers have an embarrassing Pop Idol audition buried in his past somewhere? Does this mean that with suitable stimulus — financial or otherwise — we could displace that rage onto, say, Chris Brown getting whomped by a megabear?
  • What a wonderful sketch Caligula vs. Poseidon is. Everything that inspires me to blog about HH, in one neat package. Whenever my warm fuzzy levels are off I watch it again, once for the pure funny — how did they all keep a straight face? — once to appreciate Simon’s advanced masterclass in comic crazy, and once to… well.. Mat. Um. Even if I’m pretty sure the Romans didn’t actually invent hairspray, and even if in terms of convincing armour-wearing he is still the charter founder of Skinnymandria. Shut up and watch he and Jim adorkably high-five each other, inner history nerd.
  • The Domesday Book is another guaranteed gigglefest. Not so much in and of itself — although the gags are solid and expertly played — as for the implications in odd corners. I love that Martha gets a rare non-gender-specific role (and/or one in which she’s not stuck wearing hideous blouses — sorry, Sam). Then there’s Jim cutting up in the background — not saying he’s trying to mess with Mat, but it’s the perfect opportunity, and another fuzzy-inducing indication of how much fun they were having putting this thing together, even at that early date. (Is there a blooper reel attached to Series One? My *ahem* online copy doesn’t include one.)
  • They’re also starting to get a more nuanced understanding of their leads’ strengths, as demonstrated by the Stone Age Family sketch — or, more accurately, by an expertly-cast Ben, Mat and Sarah fully rescuing same from what could’ve been a dreadful morass of overplayed cliches. And while I’m handing out individual laurels, let’s hear it for Larry the perpetual — and perpetually anonymous — patient in the Historical Hospital sketches, demonstrating his willingness to put up with anything for an onscreen laugh. Nice knowing now that he’ll be rewarded for it.
  • You can tell this is very early days for the Bob Hale Report, as not only is ol’Bobsy still blond — incidentally, this side of the pond, that floppy ‘do is mostly associated with aging surfers in particular and males who’ve been refusing to grow up since 1995 in general, leading to delightful speculations on B.Hale: the College Years — but his catchphrases go by with barely a pause. Also, the fadeout isn’t to Sam but to Rattus, in what I think is the only direct interaction to date between he and the HHTV crew. When someone decides to work out the timey-wimey stuff of the HH universe — and yes, it’s the internet, of course someone will — I fully expect this to be a major plot point.
  • In a similar vein, the actor ‘playing’ William I’s corpse doesn’t bear much resemblance to Simon’s later live-action take. Still, all hail Whatshisname and his amazing ability to remain dead throughout what’s essentially the Worst Extra Job Ever, including highly convincing-looking flames (and while I’m at it, huzzah to whomever convinced the owners of that gorgeous Great Hall to let it be set it on fire). Must make for quite the memorable resume in both cases.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Not really a historical note per se, but I do love the mental image of baffled parents attempting to explain the ‘hair of the hound that first bit him’ to their wide-eyed darlings. Good one, show.
  • OK, so, Egyptian hairdressing turns out to be a bit too ridiculous to be true. The provenance for those wax cones is limited to paintings — contemporary wigs don’t show a lot of residue — but it’s thought the idea if any was to melt perfume over your ‘do (picture a cross between hot oil treatments and aromatherapy), not just prance round with the cone stuck up there. In a desert-dwelling aristocracy, where, as the sketch does accurately indicate, the higher you climbed the more clothes you required, not smelling like old socks was a valued sign of status.
  • The mouse-paste, however… sorry, animal lovers, that one’s golden: The mouse, which was considered to be protected by the sun and capable of fending off death, was often used by individuals with a toothache…applying half of the body of a dead mouse to the aching tooth while the body was still warm. (So why, I’d like to know, does Rattus not throw a tantrum as he will over later sketches featuring rats being threatened? Evidence of teeny little rodent apartheid?)
  • Ordeal by cake, meanwhile, also totally a thing. In Anglo-Saxon, corsned: literally (and even more delightfully), the ‘bread and cheese’ ordeal. In real life, of course, since God was doing the judging they had to make sure this lump of dough was untainted by yeasty evil, so an exorcism was conducted… ie. totally featured a priest going all William Peter Blatty over, basically, kindergarten snack time. You may now close your eyes and appreciate that scene to the fullest.
  • Back? Great. Just in time for a long and involved discussion in the YouTube comments on the genealogical controversies inherent in… WAIT NO STOP PUT DOWN THAT EYE-GOUGER. Seriously, no, even I’m not going back in there. Non-mouth-foam-intensive version: ‘Unready’ really refers not to poor old Aethelred, but to his advisers, pace Wiki: (“Unready” is a mistranslation of Old English unræd (meaning bad-counsel) —a twist on his name “Æthelred” (meaning noble-counsel). A better translation would be “ill-advised”. Also, there seems to be some problem with calling his uncle ‘Earl Harold Godwin’, whether he even was his uncle in the first place, and even more with his actually having taken the corsned. Horrible Histories: proudly reminding me that people really do care deeply about this stuff since 2009.
  • Animal instruments along the lines shown here have a long and storied history, albeit mostly as novelty items — you ever spare a thought for the poor servant forced to clean that piggy piano, five minutes later? My personal favourite is the Katzenklavier (‘cat organ’), which if it existed would’ve been much the same thing, but it didn’t exist, because, hello, cats having their tails pulled, nobody wanted to get in front of that. Still: The instrument was recreated using squeaky toys… for a garden party held… in 2010 by Prince Charles [for charity].The tune Over the Rainbow was played and caused great amusement. To paraphrase Death: I love the British so much, sometimes. I do. I really do.
  • Guess what: Caligula really did take on Poseidon, the Greek god, not Neptune, the Roman one. If he actually did take one a god at all, of course. Like all things Little Bootikins (check back to S01E04 for details), sources naturally differ widely on whether he fully believed in his divine war, or if it was merely a legend grown up around the symbolic gesture of marching to the sea (the details of the ‘battle’ will be covered in another sketch). But whatever it was, it was apparently happening against the Hellenic deity.
  • Finally (boy this episode just keeps on giving, doesn’t it?)… Neanderthals: As it turns out, not really all that stupid. Not Rhodes Scholars or anything, but pretty darn good at being cavepeople, ie. able to independently evolve tools. It’s currently suspected that they may actually be an obsolete subspecies of Homo Sapiens… meaning Bored Yuppie Ben is probably sitting there chatting to his embarrassing cousins that nobody in the family really likes to talk about. Makes the sketch that much better, doesn’t it?
 
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Series One

 

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