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S05E10

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

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

Measly Middle Ages

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

Gorgeous Georgians

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

Troublesome Twentieth Century

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

Terrible Tudors

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S04E06

They beat [Becket] to death on the altar of Canterbury Cathedral! The holiest place in the whole of England!
I said I’m sorry…
Are we gonna do this now, Reg?
Yes, but I —
NO. Shush.

That moment at the midpoint of every HH series, in which, having conquered the heights of audacity, the show takes the opportunity to thoroughly enjoy the view…

In this episode:

Song: Victoria & Albert: A Love Ballad — Martha and Jim as the nineteenth-century’s ultimate celebrity couple.

Recurring sketches:

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Leif Ericsson Project (“Are you saying you discovered America before Christopher Columbus?” “Is this a fantasy film?” “Ooh! Are you Conan the Barbarian?!”)

HHTV News: Royalty Today — Live from Henry II’s pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, 1174 (“Is this some sort of initiative to make the Royal Family seem more down-to-earth? If so, I think you may have taken it a bit too far…!” “It’s penance. For I have done a terrible thing — well, if you include the terrible thing I did on the road near Gillingham, two terrible things…”)

Court of Historical Law — Tsar(evich) Peter III -vs- the rat who nibbled his toy soldiers (“… assuming you are a rat, and zat is not an elaborate disguise!” “Er… sorry, what would disguise itself as a rat?” “A mouse! With delusions of grandeur!” “…Good point.”)

Stupid Deaths — Hannah Twynnoy, Georgian barmaid (Thought it would be hilarious to repeatedly poke a menagerie tiger with a stick, thus becoming the first person in Britain to be killed by one. “Ooh, hey — Stupid Deaths are grrrrrr-eat! You know, like the tiger does in the advert?… *to mummy* Whaddaya mean, that joke’s a bit dated? Look who’s talking!”)

One-offs:

Potty Pioneers

Columbus (sic) Finds India (sic) — “Can’t you just admit for once that you’re wrong!?” “NEVER! I am Captain Christopher Columbus, the finest sailor and navigator on the planet, and if I go looking for India, India is what I find! Good day! “ “…Door’s over there.” “I know that. It’s my cabin.”

Measly Middle Ages

Cash My Sin — “Call 0-800-I’VE-BEEN-NAUGHTY now! It’s easy! It’s great value! And what’s more it means you won’t burn in the fires of hell for all eternity! It’s got to be worth it!”

Rotten Romans

Salted Payments — A Roman legionary is dismayed to discover that he’s on the wrong end of the controversy surrounding the origins of the word ‘salary’… also, that he’s in a live-action Asterix comic. (“Join the Roman army, they said… It’s a great career, they said… Get paid in salt, they forgot to mention!…”)

Just Deserter — “Ah, y’know what, I’d like nothing better than to spend the next ten years fighting in some God-forsaken corner of the Roman Empire — but unfortunately, look: no thumbs!” “I see… Well, you’re not going to believe this, but this is the third time this has happened today…”

God Compare — Gaulish warriors have difficulty deciding which of their pantheon to sacrifice a prisoner to, so… uh… something. Really, folks, if you haven’t already, you need to see this one for yourselves.

Savage Stone Age

The Early Show: Domesticating a Wolf — “What exactly is the point…?” “Well… they’ll be useful in hunting, they can warn you of danger… Oh, and if you throw a stick, they’ll fetch it and bring it back to you!” “But if you wanted a stick, why would you throw it away in the first place?” “…I don’t know.”)

The Not-So-Great Mammoth Hunt (animated) — So there’s these two cavemen, and they’re congratulating each other on the new hunting technique of driving a mammoth off a cliff, while standing right under a cliff… yeah.

Vile Victorians

Victoria and the Great Exhibition — “The problem with building our Crystal Palace in a park is that the local sparrows have taken to sheltering in the roof, which has caused a few issues, such as noise and –” *SPLAT* “EEEK!” “…I probably don’t have to finish that sentence.”

Field Notes:

  • So here we are at the half-way point already, and boy howdy it’s been quite a series thus far. Demographic shifts and legendary guest stars and ever-more-elaborate reality-TV parodies and… whatever that Snakes on a Plane thing was. Even the slow moments have been filled with impressive arabesques of monologue, also Spartans.
  • But for all that it’s been just a trifle difficult to locate…I dunno, the essential HH-ness. I miss the slight but singularly quirky, audaciously charming house comedy style I myself fell in love with, away back in Series Two (right around S02E10, to be exact). Back when they were still basically a little kiddy comedy taking big chances, y’know?
  • Until I get to this episode, and I realise all that is very much still there. For all the show-offy sophistication, at heart these are the same people who decided at the time that pinching matches and pistol-packing Reverends were the way forward to maturity… and are now further demonstrating their creative confidence by setting Jim and Martha (and their ridiculously potent couple-chemistry) up with a soft-focus love duet. Because catering to your core female demographic is nice, but frankly messing with their minds is fun.
  • Hence, the Victoria & Albert song, which if you listen closely is actually intended as a satire of your standard sugary-sweet pop duet. This alone would’ve been a fine rebuttal to The Young Victoria et al., had they not gotten a wee bit over-confident and attempted to also cram in celebrity cynicism *and* a parody of BBC costume dramas *and* oh yeah, the historical detail, all at the same time.
  • It’s all fairly clever, in the usual style (I specially enjoy Victoria’s pointed little ‘Called us Alboria, but I preferred Vicbert!”) but it never really gels, so eventually you just give up and go with the pretty soft-focus twirliness…
  • ….which turns out to be EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED YOU TO DO MUAH-HA-HAHHH WHO’S SOBBING HELPLESSLY NOW, CYNICAL CRITIC PERSON?… No, I’m not really, but damned if they didn`t expertly manipulate me right out to the edge. Despite, mind, my having just been sniggering happily at the Crystal Palace sketch… only breaking off to wonder at the sheer, erm, volume of the gag; to paraphrase Bill Bryson, that must’ve been one sick sparrow.
  • Even after all that (and Lawry), Martha still absolutely earns her poignant ending; everything that the Queen was mourning for all those years is all there in her face at the fadeout, even under all those prosthetics. Remarkable. *snif snif*
  • *ahem* Right! Resuming the zippy snarkitude now. In case you needed any further proof that the producers know their fandom entirely too well, I give you the Leif Ericsson sketch: three solid minutes of Larry Rickard standing there in full Tumblr fetish gear… and still basing his Scandinavian accent off the PA system at Ikea, but, y’know, details. Clearly the producers knew they’d face complaints re: the LoG bits, and scheduled accordingly. “Irrelevant? Annoying? Just WAIT UNTIL WE UNLEASH NORDIC LARRY MUAH-HA-HAHHH.”
  • Quite seriously, it cannot be a co-incidence that for once the LoG`s banter is noticeably downplayed in favour of petitioner closeups. I think I was probably the only fan — female or otherwise — for whom the ensemble comedy was still the main event. Just FYI, it was still pretty decent, and that`s even besides the gloriously broken American-ese. The reunion portion of this experiment, at least, is an unqualified success.
  • “But,” you have been impatiently waiting to protest, “where is Baynton in all this discussion of deliberate demographic-mind-messing? He must be included, but after the guyliner became an international sensation, what could they possibly have left for him to truly impress us with?”
  • Glad you asked. For starters, that would be our Mathew in the ‘Historical Law’ bit wearing a blond wig and speaking in a Russian accent. Shortly after which, he implied in an interview that he didn’t actually consider Peter III the ‘silliest and biggest characterization’ he’s ever done. Meaning that between this claim and the potential return of God Compare Guy I spent the rest of the series on full Threat Alert mode.
  • Truly though, if there’s a must-see performance in S4, this is definitely it. It had been far too long since Mat had been allowed to thus fully unleash his inner aristocratic whackazoid (scientific term), and the sketch is designed brilliantly around that opportunity. Including but by no means limited to Ben, who was quite literally born to play the Tsarevich’s foil… also, as it turns out, his accent coach.
  • Yep, I almost hate to spoil the magical mystery that is ‘How the hell did Mat learn to not sound like the low-rent gigolo stereotype in a bad Agatha Christie adaptation?’, but turns out Willbond once studied in Russia. So that when Mat hauls out the teeny little gallows, I’m assuming our Benjamin’s stunned expression is actually the result of the weirdest life-goal-reassessment angst ever.
  • Oh, and worth noting as well that Rattus is finally moved once again to protest the treatment of his brethren, and is still fully adorable in the process. Albeit somewhere the ghost of that skewered rat from S3 HMasterchef is probably now laughing hollowly and checking his haunting calendar for the first free Saturday.
  • Moving on from the ridiculous to the sublime, we find Cash My Sin, which is essentially the direct descendant of the ‘Roman Gods Direct’ bit from S1, only given all the creative and budgetary advantages Great-Grandpa Sketch never had. Mat blithely rechannels the camp into a sort of hyper-sincerity; just authentic enough to be absurd, and just absurd enough to neatly avoid stepping on his audience’s spiritual toes.
  • The only thing off… ish… is, once again, Ben’s place in all this. I’m willing to admit that he’s showing up a lot more than my memory initially suggested, but — I dunno, it’s as though they’ve swopped roles within the troupe. So that Ben’s now the spot performer, while Simon’s picked up the Impressive Leading Man ball… and neither quite seems like it was their idea.
  • As for instance, Simon as the theoretically-suave HHTV News reporter, basically reconfirming — in combination with the more characteristically wonderful military conscription bit — that he’s much better left alone to create a wholly unique character, rather than a specific parody like this. (The making Jim look like a doll of himself by contrast, not really optimal either.) I was squirming uneasily, right up until I realised that a) hey, at least Simon’s hair is making the most of the chance and b) he wouldn’t actually be replacing Mike P. but Alice’s newsbimbo, right? Never mind, forget I said anything, carry on.
  • So they did, and it is frankly wonderful. Mat, Ben and Larry, each playing their own precious version of the guy who got into knighthood mostly because of the cool uniform — how perfect a microcosm of the HH Experience is that? Specially Mat ‘eating’ the mic. Well-played, show, well played indeed… at least, right up to the contrived ‘rid me of this troublesome reporter!’ bit, which is where I started to suspect that Henry really knows exactly what he’s doing and just keeps the idiot knights around for plausible deniability.
  • Meantime, despite the Columbus sketch having rather obviously been written with Mat in mind — and the f/x team also having gone above and beyond — the real star, nay quite possibly hero, of that sketch is Jim. While Mat’s off discovering new and innovative heights of strung, Howick is by contrast clamping both hands firmly onto his big chance to be the voice of reason, not only off the coast of not-India but as Henry II and the Roman military recruiter, and stubbornly refusing ever to let it go…
  • …and still managing to get himself stomped all over, because c’mon, it’s Jim (and Mat, and Simon). Regardless, though, that exquisitely exasperated disbelief stuff, we can haz moar pls? Absolutely priceless.
  • What? No, of course I haven’t forgotten the God Compare bit. It’s only… I only…Yes, of course I giggled helplessly like everyone else when it first aired, but… Look, I even went back to the original parody subject to confirm, and it didn’t help either. The universe in which this concept can — or should — be coherently assessed is clearly at least a few down from the one I inhabit. So I mostly just spend subsequent viewings marvelling that they even got it filmed in the first place. Full-on obsessive desperation on Mat & Ben’s part, is my guess.
  • Come to think of it, I would not be surprised if the universe in question was Death’s, and on account of sheer surreal awesomeness overload is starting to leak. You can tell about the awesomeness thing because his sidekicks now have their own little spinoff psychodramas, complete with skeleton-on-mummy hand-holding. (Which, I like to imagine, in this universe represents a shockingly controversial inter-monster romance.) It was inevitable, really.
  • Meantime Martha gives an unexpectedly game, lively performance as the barmaid — to the point where you’re really disappointed (but still impressed) when she turns out to be easily the most stupid human being ever featured on the show. Sorry, the italics just pop out no matter how rationally I try to discuss this woman. Ginger really suits Martha, though, gotta give her that.
  • And on the further subject of unexpected yet hilariously effective characterizations… yeah, it’s kind of a niche topic, everywhere but where this troupe is concerned… Fine, Larry, you win. Or rather, Asterix for the win, always and forever. They just basically dropped a stack of the comics in front of you and Willbond and told you to have at it, didn’t they? And now I have to spend the rest of my life wondering wistfully what an entire live-action Asterix saga featuring the troupe would look like, don’t I? …yeah, you-all are just really lucky Ben looks that distractingly fetching in big-dumb-lug mode.
  • I’d been wondering where Larry’d got to during the God Compare bit, come to that… then realised he’d probably been a bit busy, what with the being chased by slavering prehistoric wolves and all. (Although as filmed it’s pretty obvious that those are actually trained dogs, ‘attacking’ on a command hidden by the jump cut.)
  • At any rate, I award him the Willbond Memorial Star of Merit for going above and beyond in a most excellent satirical cause, and Simon a cupcake for turning out to be a very quick study, where this suave host parody stuff is concerned. Everyone else, your gold stars are in the mail — plus extra sprinkles for whomever came up with the concept, because somehow it just makes me deeply, deeply happy.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes,the show is not exaggerating either the cashing in one’s sins, or the utter cynicism of the process. Although it might just be pointed out that it wasn’t really supposed to be that way. In Catholic theology, the idea of paying to escape punishment for sin, usually meaning shorten your time in purgatory — either for yourself, or, not mentioned here, any newly-deceased you might care about enough — is formally called an ‘indulgence’, and technically exists to this day.
  • Of course, technically it is, and was, supposed to take the form of so many dutiful recitations of a particular prayer, or maybe a nice sincere pilgrimage to the Vatican, or something noticeably non-profit like that. At the very least, the medieval Church formally insisted, any monies were to be accepted on the understanding that they only represented a short period of reprieve, and were furthermore to be used strictly for good — building cathedrals, organizing Crusades, like that.
  • Those paying attention over the last few episodes will not be surprised to learn that many lesser medieval spiritual authorities (or, eventually, anybody with writing skills and a suitably devout expression) got really bored with all this altruism real quick and cut straight to the chase. Hence literal little Get Into Heaven Free slips, duly authenticated by the Pope — proof? How dare you question a man of God! — good for centuries’ worth of reprieve, yet still available for just a trifling donation…
  • …the trick being, of course, that there was a built-in repeat market. All a monk looking to replenish the monastery’s cellars had to do was go forth and paint lurid pictures of poor departed loved ones, suffering miserably as they awaited their fate. Who wouldn’t willingly fork over to speed Mom on her way to celestial bliss? A monster who’d better break the piggy bank himself just in case, that’s who.
  • Eventually things got so bad that they inspired Martin Luther’s righteous — and famously public — indignation as nailed to that church door, and with the advent of the Protestant Reformation the Church realised it had better regain the moral high ground. In 1562, the Council of Trent finally clamped down for real.
  • There would be no such reprieve for Karl Peter Ulrich, son of a minor duke and eventually Peter III, Tsar of All the Russias. Yep, as it turns out he was actually German — merely a nephew of the formidable Russian Empress Elizabeth — and, whoopsie, had only been educated up to what everyone thought would be a purely ceremonial existence as King of Sweden. Hence the fascination with the trappings of military pomp and circs, with none whatsoever of the practical experience. He was overall probably what we would call developmentally-delayed, although whether this is a matter of nature-or-nurture is hotly debated.
  • At any rate, when he finally made the throne, his subjects got a serious taste of the obsessiveness displayed here. He not only passed a whopping 220 new statutes in the first few weeks — mostly about trifling stuff that made Oliver Cromwell look like, well, Charles II — but started in enthusiastically hero-worshipping the hated Prussians: Historians mark Peter III’s actions as disordered and unreasonable, and had no support in wider Russian society… His personality and policies were so bizarre that no one could guess what his next move would be. 
  • It wasn’t long before the only military supporters Peter had were three inches high. The inevitable coup attempts had the full support of Peter’s wife (and second cousin), Sophia Augusta Frederica, Princesse de Anhalt-Zerbst… better known by her Russian name, Catherine II, ie. the Great. As you can imagine she was not the type to put up with a mate who preferred his toys to her, let alone at bedtime. By skilfully positioning herself as a dignified (and very lovely) martyr to the disaffected generals, she easily earned their sympathy — and then loyalty. Exeunt Peter, exiled and probably assassinated shortly thereafter.
 
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Posted by on July 14, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S02E11

So he asks the Pope for a divorce, and the Pope says ‘no way, Jose!’… which is weird, because his name is Henry.

The inevitable late-series lull is beguiled along pleasantly enough by the application of funky monks, a narcoleptic General and mondo Rickard… also, the understanding that it’s only going to be one episode long.

In this episode:

Song: The Monks’ Song — Ben, Jim & Mat as more-or-less-men of God, and Terry Deary as their Bishop

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast — Egyptian peasant & pyramid builder (hope you have good strong teeth! Oh, plus a real affection for dates and baboons…)

Pyramid Weekly — “Free Gift: a large stone weighing two-and-a-half-tonnes! Buy Pyramid Weekly every week, and in just 442,000 years, you’ll have enough stones to build your own pyramid!… 70,000 labourers not included.”

Dodgy War Inventions — No.21: Union Ironclad Battles Confederate Ironclad… prior to the invention of armour-piercing artillery… for a long, long time.

Stupid Deaths — Draco, statesman of Athens (suffocated by the tributes of an adoring crowd — then faces an adoring Death. “Not the Draco! Ooh, can I have an autograph?… Two kissies! Yay!”)

Bob Hale — The Catholic Report

HHTV News — Anne Boleyn’s execution: Henry VIII’s reaction

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Caligula vs. Poseidon, pt 2: In which the legendary (also, newly blond and fey) Emperor of Loopy decides that if you want crazy done right, you just have to do it yourself… if mostly on account of you forgot to tell your troops about it.

Be the Best… or They’ll Kill You — In an inset to the above, a legionary (foot soldier) explains how the Roman forces were trained to unquestioning obedience, dedication, loyalty and of course fear of being thrown off cliffs.

Measly Middle Ages

The Plague Report — Lots of it. All over Europe. Next! (Seriously, what’s with the persistence of this format? Are weather reports some sort of revered feature of the UK television… wait, I think I may have just answered my own question.)

The Plague Comes North — Proudly-plaid-wearing raiders from plague-free Scotland head out to ransack the plague-weakened English. There’s just one eensy little problem… and for once it’s not the accents.

My Big Fat (Medieval Scottish) Wedding — And if this show has taught us anything, it’s that if your prospective father-in-law has a yellow ‘fro and a mad gleam in his eye, the wedding planning’s gonna be an uphill slog. (“Aye, that’s how we like to do things, in medieval Scotland!”)

Awesome USA

Stonewall Jackson — Now, this is how you pull off crazy and militarily competent at the same time!… possibly could do without the narcolepsy though. (“Yes, I suppose he does have his moments… Sir, he is dribbling on my tunic…?”)

Groovy Greeks

Spartan Parent/Teacher Night — The best bit is, you get to picture Larry here as father to jheri-curled Larry from the song… OK, not much, but at least it’s something. (“Alright… it is a Spartan school, so don’t, erm, cry…”)

Field Notes:

  • Yep, as discussed last time (see S01E10) into every HH series some less-than-inspiring material must eventually fall. Albeit the gentle inconsequence and/or lack of confidence on display this time isn’t anywhere close to the flat-out gasping and flopping characteristic of S1’s last moments, thanks largely to the producers having taken the decision to make S2E13 a clip show, in lieu of stringing out the originality any further than strictly necessary.
  • (The ‘best’ of the subsequently missing material is available on the DVD. Given that it involves yet another Scary Story [later reused for the Halloween special], a long meandering monologue on Roman military retirement and a recurring medieval medical bit that manages to completely ignore the perfectly serviceable existence of both Stupid Deaths and Historical Hospital, I’d say we dodged a rather impressive bullet here, frankly.)
  • As another side benefit to these mostly not being specific character pieces, we have lotsa Larry. We got your Larry the medieval warrior, Larry the shirtless Egyptian, Larry the long-haired Spartan, and of course Larry the, um, Bob Hale. My personal favourite is the wild-n-crazy Scotsman, although Bobsy shows off a nice tactfulness — if also a few minor inaccuracies (see below) — under all the bluster, and besides which the Religion-O-Meter is freakin’ hilarious.
  • Still, only the plague sketch gives us pants-under-the-kilt gags. Besides which, more entertainingly quasi-Scots bellowing (also featured prominently in the wedding sketch). Not to mention bonus comedy routines from the host rodent, who’s really been warming up to the possibilities of this emcee gig lately. “Me husband went to England, and all he brought me back was this lousy plague!” — yeah, what can I say? I’m a sucker for the excited little paws.
  • I’m also something of a sucker for the song, since clearly, I had severely underestimated the effect of a driving beat on the average cricket-loving Oxfordian. ‘Course, it’s not surprising that bright young males would react well on evidently being directed to ‘Make like your last great college party, only when you hit the floor start praying instead of puking’… but dang. Grandmaster Funk Willbond here gets so carried away he doesn’t even start watching his feet until he’s boogied half-way down.
  • So yeah, thank you very much dim lighting and oblique camera angles, but it’s impossible not to be charmed anyway by one of the more genuinely witty songs the show has ever produced. Like the Shouty Man bit last episode, this is a very adult historical concept that somebody noticed could be neatly justified under kiddy slapstick, and it’s a further demonstration of just how adept they’re getting at layering the satire to suit themselves.
  • Not to mention bringing out the best in one T. Deary, who would thus by now be enshrined in the pop-cult pantheon as a Really Cool Old Guy if he’d just please shut up himself already. It’s an honest shame that comments elsewhere have proven his HH stint has at this point much more to do with getting attention for himself than any sincere desire to please (or for that matter enjoy) his young readership.
  • For a look at what happens when the layering misfires…OK look, I ordinarily try hard to pretend they never even made a followup to one of the most neatly and completely brilliant sketches of Series One. However, they did, and I have contracted to be fair and just. *ahem* Here’s Mat as Caligula, trying to pull off a cross between Simon’s familiar mannerisms and Malcolm McDowell’s sheer hamminess, because… who the hell knows, really.
  • There’s no reason why Lawry couldn’t have twitched and squeaked here at least as effectively as he did for George III; more so, because, y’know, homicidal mania. I suppose Mat’s more visually in line with the McDowell film, but he doesn’t have anywhere near the weight of experience needed to anchor that level of camp — which yes, might be a good thing in a kid’s show, but for adults, the resulting aimless flouncing is annoying enough to make Lawry come across as likeably sane and grounded.
  • All the more so, because this also happens to be the ep the local Master of Ham himself reveals not only an affinity for kilts but that they have fluffy pink pens in the afterlife. (Wonder if this was the point at which the props master started looking thoughtfully at the blonde wigs?) Death the dictator fanboi — “Ah, cruel but popular. Me, too.” — is just completely awesomely fabulous, one of those things that really drive home the value performer individuality brings to the HH concept. It also incorporates a nifty callback to last series’ ‘Historical Law’ sketch.
  • Likewise Larry, clearly aware that all bets are off, happily grabs for whatever bits of leftover scenery he can. Then both he and Mat, wearing not much more than their perfect deadpans, team up as Egyptian peasants for a fine display of their own distinctively surreal chemistry. A bit distractingly random in this particular case — and the Rickardian physique turns out to rather obviously belong to a writer, if the drift is clear — but again, always hysterical. And all is right with the HH universe once again.
  • Which brings us round to the Stonewall Jackson sketch: literally when I woke to the realisation that this show had a lot more on the ball than your average kiddy edutainment, both in terms of comedy and facial hair. Once I stopped snickering madly, that is — which took up most of the sketch — but I went rushing off to Google “whether it was just me…?” immediately after the ‘arm longer than the other’ bit, I do recall that.
  • It’s kind of weird to realise I had absolutely no idea, back then; not even any names Just that the little plump dude was having an infectiously great time holding the Crazy Ball (for once, I can now add); so that even the way his accent kept fading in-and-out was funny. The big handsome one had a much better command of nineteenth-century American cadence… but I must now note with some alarm that it hasn’t changed much since moving south.
  • Overall, though, this is what the Nelson sketch should’ve been, given that General Jackson gets to effectively demonstrate his competence while being rather more gently ribbed. Even so, it will never earn the show many fans in the good ol’Awesome USA, where messing with heroes — particularly ones that routinely star in expensive hobby re-enactments — is looked upon as… well, with great confusion as to the point, basically. And probably Obama’s fault.
  • It might also be helpful to apply evil government conspiracy theories — possibly the ones involving the moon landing — to the theoretically multi-tonne pyramid stone that bounces happily into shot. But I don’t think it’d help the embarrassment much, especially with all those suspiciously styrofoam-shaped chips flying around. Kid then does a decent job of pretending it’s super heavy, though, I’ll give them that.
  • There’s much more attention to detail  in the HHTV News sketch, but unfortunately it’s mostly going the wrong way. Alice’s character is entirely too generic a blonde newsbimbo for my taste, and she’s cozying up to a much younger, slimmer and hairier Henry VIII than actually would’ve been the case at the time of Anne Boleyn’s demise — he already being 45 by then, only 10 years off his death.
  • That said, I’m willing to forgive a lot for Henry’s little happy dance of athletic heartiness — big episode this altogether, for Ben’s willingness to sacrifice dignity for the cause. I’d also hate to discourage any comparatively subtle way of getting Tudor horribleness across (including the fact that Henry was at Jane’s side immediately after Anne’s execution).

95% Accu-rat:

  • Actually, Bobsy, burning heretics at the stake was ‘being Catholic’ — or at least, had religious significance. As whacked-out as it sounds, those (like ‘Bloody’ Mary I) who embraced the idea of heretic-burning could also be extremely moral, upright people. The idea was that these poor deluded fools were going to hell anyway, so might as well give them a taste as a last-ditch effort to induce them back to the True Church — or, if they refused even then, a signpost to light the way.
  • So make up your mind, show: did King James take a dislike to Catholics before (as per the earlier Fawkes’ 13 bit) or after (as per Bob here) Guy Fawkes et al. nearly blew him up? A bit of research suggests the earlier sketch had it right: During the late 16th century, Catholics made several assassination attempts against Protestant rulers… until the 1620s, some English Catholics believed that regicide was justifiable to remove tyrants from power. Much of James I’s political writing was “concerned with the threat of Catholic assassination and refutation of the [Catholic] argument that ‘faith did not need to be kept with heretics'”.
  • The song, meanwhile, is as noted absolutely accurate. Being a Man or Woman of God in medieval Europe most often meant you didn’t have to alter your lifestyle one iota — given that back then nobody would ever think of questioning a servant of the Lord (the same one, you’ll recall, that was totally OK with turning you into a flamesicle). Also given that many, esp. those higher up so to speak, were from aristocratic families, leading to monastic life being considered more or less something to do when you weren’t in line for the money or an advantageous marriage.
  • As one of the more hilarious unforeseen consequences of this setup, Henry VIII was forced to turn down then-girlfriend Anne Boleyn’s request that her relative Eleanor Carey be appointed Prioress of an influential abbey. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help out, Henry hastened to assure his sweetheart; only that it’d look bad for both of them if Dame Eleanor, who among other things had two children by two different priests, was preferred by the Crown.
  • It’s a bit difficult to sort the historical Draco out from the fictional, in more ways than one — seriously, Rowling, you couldn’t have named your villain Aloysius or something? — at any rate, there’s not much to tell about the man who gave us one of the more satisfyingly melodramatic adjectives in history, except that he did indeed have a concept of absolute obedience to authority that involved the death penalty for anything but exemplary citizenship.
  • Oh, and the cloak thing… well, you know what I’m about to say re: sourcing, don’t you? Personally I’m a bit sceptical, given the number of cloaks etc needed to do the deed — the sort of thing that would be fairly easy to sidestep once it became clear that it was getting out of hand. However it does lead to lots of fun speculation on whether this ancient flash mob in reality accidentally killed him with kindness… or were *ahem* cloaking their more sinister motives.
  • Meanwhile, the moral implications of casting General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as a buffoonish doofus aside — except on the YouTube page, where masochists are fully invited to take their fill — it can’t be denied that the man really was that, uh, picturesque. Writing in A Walk In the Woods, Bill Bryson (himself an American) confirms, then elaborates at length on, the idiosyncracies shown here:
  • He was hopelessly, but inventively, hypochondriacal… at the Battle of White Oak Swamp, his lieutenants found it all bit impossible to rouse him and lifted him, insensible, onto his horse, where he continued to slumber while shells exploded all around him. He was unquestionably brave, but in fact it is altogether possible that he was given that nickname not for gallantry and daring but for standing inert, like a stone wall, when a charge was called for.
  • Fans of watching Jim suffer with extreme adorableness — which apparently includes his current employers — will be cheered to realise that the Highlander notion of marital martyrdom was even more thorough than shown: [Creeling] required the bridegroom to carry a large basket (a creel) filled with stones on his back. He had to carry this weight from one end of the village to the next and continue carrying it around the town until his intended bride came out of her house and kissed him.
 
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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E04

“Stay calmer when you want to harm a llama — call a llama farmer!”

Poking about in the more diverse corners of their mandate, the show turns up a wealth of good fun… also, seriously, more than you ever wanted to hear about llamas.

In this episode:

Song: We’re the WWII Girls (Original Girl Power) — Alice as a factory worker, Martha as an ‘Air Force miss’ and Katy as a Land Girl.

Recurring sketches:

Historical Hospital — Islamic healer vs. European ‘doctor’: who’s the dangerous alien now? (Hint: probably the one calling the other “You crazy Arabian hippie!”)

Stupid Deaths — Humphrey de Bohun (took a pike up the bum while fighting his way through the Battle of Boroughbridge)

Scary Stories — The Cabinet of Mystery (“I don’t want to do a show called ‘Boring Stories’. I did that last year for the other channel, and frankly it sank like a stone.”)

Historical Shopping Channel: Inca Hour (“And remember, these drums are made from real human skin — so you can go on beating your enemy all day long!”)

HHTV News — Jack Sheppard, Escapologist Extraordinaire: Will He Cheat the Gallows Again? Spoiler: No.

HHTV Sport — Trojan War Special: Hector vs. Achilles, literally for all the marbles. (“And who’d’ve thought that Achilles’ Achilles’ heel would be his Achilles’ heel?”)

Dodgy War Machines (animated) — No.14: Greek War Elephants

One-offs:

Gorgeous Georgians

The Legendary Lord Nelson — Luckily, when you have big honking cannons, being personally imposing is optional… and no, that’s not a euphemism. (“How did you lose your legs, sir? They seem to be cut off at the knee…?” “Psst, no he really is that short…”)

Incredible Incas

Llama Sacrifice-a-rama-lama-ding-dong – Of the livestock, the viewer’s sanity, whichever.

Vile Victorians

Tapeworm Trap — “I once caught a tapeworm this long!”

New! Victorian Beer — Tastes better than the water! Less likely to fill you with loathsome diseases! There’s just one itty-bitty problem…

Woeful Second World War

Churchill Plans D-Day – All you really need to know about this take on the Great Bulldog’s workaholic tendencies: “…So we can continue this meeting in our jim-jams!”

Field Notes:

  • Great rejoicing in camp: The show has finally come flat out and acknowledged the existence of Horrible Herstories — well, the process really started last episode, with Pearl Hart, but it reaches full flower here. And speaking as a fully representative female, let me tell you, it is about damn time. Just a marvellously catchy, upbeat, accurate song, neither too strident nor too apologetic, beautifully performed in honour of entirely deserving subjects.
  • Now, I ordinarily don’t like to get too excited about deep cultural significance in goofy comedy. Esp since there is maybe a fraction too much emphasis here on how icky hard and uncomfortable it all was — “manual labour hurts!” is uneasily reminiscent of that ‘Math is hard!’ Barbie of the ’90’s. But I still can’t help it, it’s just that amazing to think of little girls being taught to consider these women as cool – as their role models even – as opposed to… right, yes, that’s another blog entirely.
  • Interestingly, this same episode also hauls in British comedy’s incomparable Vaguely Ethnic Middle-Aged Guy, Alexi Sayle, to play the, well, middle-aged ethnic guy. This is a vast improvement on the usual, and not only because you just know option B was Mat in a turban. As the Arab healer in a sketch whose strident — if fully justified — political correctness is the point, Sayle gracefully transcends same to create a character I’m genuinely sorry to leave. It’s a wonderfully innovative use of the Big Name, and I find myself desperately wishing they’d explored the possibilities further. Surely Lenny Henry, say, would be open to persuasion?
  • As a side note, Lawry as a helplessly cranky patient has finally found a role I can totally believe him in. One who even has the good sense to object to amputation — not to the extent of getting up off the bed and running for his life, or anything, but then Mat’s French accent is hypnotic like that.
  • Meanwhile, David Baddiel is still gamely making it work. This is probably the definitive Scary Story, both in terms of actual content and auxiliary hissy-fits (bonus: now with 75% more awkward f/x!). Did it end right here I’d be complimenting the writers on another fun and effective use of the Big Name and moving on. As it stands, however… I’ll probably just be moving on. Except in re: chronicling the various snipes at his ‘producers’, as per above, that will never not be mildly amusing. (‘Other channel’ — wonder who that’s directed at?)
  • Elsewhere in the Great Ethnographic Adventure: the Incan sketches, maybe a bit too blandly authentic, and cliched, for their own good. Albeit again, probably much less so to a European audience which hasn’t also assimilated, say, Handy Manny. To me it just all comes across a trifle… unimpressive, let’s say, alongside the fierce and nuanced celebrations of diversity going on elsewhere. Ben especially could not be less convincingly Hispanic if he’d actually attended Oxford and played cricket and — oh, wait. Yeah, this is clearly another cultural discrepancy I need to get used to.
  • Mind you, where the makeup’s concerned bland represents a massive step forward for international goodwill all by itself (stupid and unfortunately permanent Lego-block hairdo on Martha notwithstanding). All the bonus points besides for bunging real live llamas in there — that’s appreciated more than I can say, given my near-total certainty that none of the cast or crew has experience as a South American camelid wrangler. (I have learned to assume nothing where Simon is concerned.)
  • I can also acknowledge that, once having come up with the ‘stay calmer if you want to harm a llama’ slogan, the only way short of exorcism to remove it from the writer’s head would’ve been this sketch. And even then, the poor man, having to write it…! (I picture him eventually grabbing producer lapels and whispering, Alien-style, “Help me… oh God get it oooout…”) More seriously, it’s a nice offbeat note in what’s increasingly becoming the homogenous in-house comedy style. Especially the lovingly detailed bouncy cartoon llama, which is just begging for accessory status in an HH toyline.
  • Oh, and speaking of which… OK, I guess the idiot-chav thing has a continuity excuse this time (albeit if so, what happened to all the blonde curls? Was the pinnacle of Greco-Roman civilization really the discovery of L’Oreal?) Everybody appears to be enjoying themselves so much in the latest Illiad takeoff, in fact, that the viewer can’t help but do the same. It works really well as a sports segment, too; with Larry around, the offbeat always has context.
  • Also: extensive bonus material for non-UK viewers, who get to envision street toughs calling each other “You flannel!” with apparent deep sincerity; in fact entirely as though they have, sometime in the recent past, been totally disrespected by plaid pyjamas. Trust me, this is appreciated even more than the llamas.
  • And oh, speaking of animal adventures, also my general policy of saying something nice about the animations whenever I can, even if I’m not totally proud of myself for admitting it: the image of flaming charging pigs is about 1000x funnier than it has any right to be. Come to that, why pigs, specifically? First time I’ve ever heard of elephants being particularly spooked by pork. I suppose mice wouldn’t last nearly as – oh God, I’ve been spending far too much time with these people, so sorry, really…
  • Larry generally continues to solidify his position as star player in the Non-Sequitur Theatre that clearly is his imagination (seriously, if you’ve not subscribed to his Twitter feed yet, now’s the time.) In this latest installment, he unveils a note-perfect drunk act, which is never quite as easy to make funny as you’d think… although [insert joke about it likely being easier for British comedians here]. Fully three of the six-member HH troupe have now demonstrated remarkable proficiency at it, is all I’m gonna say. Meanwhile, Ben plays a perfect counterpoint: a veritable masterclass in how desperately trying to keep a straight face can usefully pass on-camera as real discomfort.
  • Elsewhere, Mat’s boyish cute and Ben’s unctuous streak both get a good workout in the otherwise rather disappointingly pointless Nelson sketch (see below). And Jim… doesn’t  look or sound like Winston Churchill at all, really, but is somehow still so utterly convincing that the equally dubious ‘workaholic’ sketch — seriously, the toothpick business is lifted straight from 1940’s cartoons — is raised to positively classic heights. (Apropos of which, have I also mentioned how much I love Ben in WWII uniform? “That’s not funny, sir. There is a war on!”)
  • Oh, and yay! brief glimpse of classic crazy Simon! (“You sir [Mat]! You look like you have a tapeworm!” — oh, hardy-har-har). Come to that, pretty sure there’s a brief glimpse of Sarah as well. Possibly to make up for the tapeworm crack, Mat also gets a lovely gurgly death scene that’s sure to delight the kiddies no end… although the brighter of them may wonder along with their parents why nobody — up to and most definitely including Death Scene Guy — doesn’t just pull the trap out via the damn string still dangling from his mouth.
  • Still, it’s amusing to see how comfily the show’s settling into the groove where Mat is concerned. The Jack Sheppard bit is a nice parody matchup once again, effectively recreating the seventeenth-century equivalent of tween Twitter accounts even without access to emoticons. On the other hand: “Thousands of people have turned out for [his execution]”?! Jessica, love, there aren’t enough trick camera angles in this life or next to make that happen.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Wow, turns out there were actually a lot of Humphrey de Bohuns running around out there in the Middle Ages, just generally being all heroic and knightly and stuff. Only one seems to have got it up the bum, though. Our Humphrey is actually the IV on the list, and so should probably be pronouncing it ‘Boon’ (although Ben’s version here is an acceptable later variant). At any rate, yeah, on the scale of Romantic Knighthood, if not actually seated at the Round Table, still fairly well up there. His Wiki article, which includes a graphic description of the fatal ambush, is worth scanning in full — including the usual notation that said Stupid Death may-or-may-not have actually happened. Medieval historians: sucking the fun out of grade-school history since basically forever.
  • Medieval Islamic medical practices: like most of their scholarly knowledge a firm corrective to stereotype both then and now. Although the full story inevitably involves a lot more intercultural exchange and subsequent advancements in learning on both sides, Arab physicians seem to have been much more effectively able to sort the spiritual out of of the physical than their Western contemporaries. Thus they not only were free to apply basic common sense, but were able to experiment in directions that the latter held as taboo. (‘Anatomizing’ corpses, for instance, which up to the nineteenth century the Western world saw largely as horrific desecration, to the extent that it helped spawn Burke & Hare.) The resulting classic Muslim medical texts thus read as strikingly modern to our ears.
  • What’s specifically retold here — albeit with a much more upbeat ending than the original — is a famous anecdote from an Arabic healer describing his visit to a Christian European hospital. Which after much searching I regret I’m unable to find online, but check your appropriate HH book, I’m sure it’s in there somewhere. Meantime, have this similarly charming scoff from one of Dr Ossmer’s contemporaries: It is a foolish custom to have blood let out of the body when it is not needed… The expert physician has no need to choose times for blood-letting. To test this with horoscopes is a vain idea.
  • HH’s ability to highlight amazing achievements that would otherwise remain obscure is one of the most endearing aspects of the concept. Exhibit A: Dr. John Snow — and even more so when you realise he jammed all that pioneering work in hygiene and epidemiology into only a couple short decades, dying a true sciencey-type hero at the tender age of 45. Not from cholera; he pointedly boiled and drank the local water to the end of his life. Although he did eventually relax his temperance stance after some years to the extent of taking meat and wine for his health.
  • Meanwhile, as Wiki points out, the wholesale consumption of ale didn’t actually result in an entire nation of dipsomaniacs, albeit… [insert joke about possible ancestry of English football fans here]. Although the hard stuff certainly existed, what’s described here was basically the forerunner of Bud Light, brewed with other considerations in mind entirely: Ale, along with bread, was an important source of nutrition… particularly small beer, also known as table beer or mild beer, which was highly nutritious, contained just enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and provided hydration without intoxicating effects.
  • Small side addendum: The favourite tipple of your average slum drunk, which Ms. Guttersnipe’s clearly supposed to be representing here, would be gin, not Guinness. Much less expensive to produce and hence to purchase; important considerations because, y’know, Victorian slums. The denizens therein weren’t picky about how they escaped from it, just as long as it was fast and cheap.
  • Besides the Nelson sketch’s highly questionable premise, especially for this particular ep (wow, a legendary naval hero’s taken some damage from all the important battles he’s fought, how whacky! /sarcasm) I’ve never been quite sure where Mat is supposed to fit into the naval scheme of things as it existed at the time. He’s a bit old to be a rookie midshipman (the standard entry-level position), and even if he is, if he’s meeting the great Nelson on his first day he should definitely have a much posher accent.
  • On the other hand, there’s no question Jack Sheppard was as real, and as entertaining, a phenomenon as you like — well, the entertainment value might vary a bit depending on your stance re: the human tendency to idolize unworthy celebrities, but at the very least he gave more value for glitter than, say, your average Kardashian. This lovely page has lots of pictures testifying to the enormous hold he had on the popular imagination. (Oh, and it also mentions the 200,000 people that turned out for his final execution attempt. I’m thinking HH might just want to leave actual figures out of their execution-scene scripts from now on.)
 
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Posted by on February 24, 2013 in Series Two

 

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