Transport was duller– We added colour! …Well, as long as it’s black.
More silliness, more magnificent facial hair, more everyday heroines, more Caesar… more farting. You know, just your typical midseason good times. Surprisingly enough.
In this episode:
Song: Transportation — Mobile pioneers George Stephenson (Simon), Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Jim), Henry Ford (Ben) and the Wright Bros. (Mat and Larry) boogie down to a celebration of their relentlessly innovative genius. (Parody of: Greased Lightnin’, from the musical Grease)
Stupid Deaths — Diane de Poitiers (Swallowed a teaspoonful of gold leaf every day for years as a beauty treatment… until she died of heavy metal poisoning. (“Ooh, hey — let’s hope they don’t play any heavy metal music in the afterlife… *to Louis the skeleton* What did you think? ‘Comedy gold‘? Rats, I was going to say that…”)
Shouty Man — New! Runic Alphabet (“The simple angular letters can be quickly carved* into any wall, rock or twig! Making ‘writing things down’ the new ‘not writing things down’!” *Caution: carving may not actually be quick.)
HHTV Sport — Profiling Lily Parr, only female inaugural inductee into the Football Hall of Fame, 1951 (“Listen mate–I’ve played against men, and I’m tellin’ ya now, I’ve got a harder shot than any of ’em.” “Ha-hah! Well, this is Tony Codger, reporting for HHT–THUNK! …awwwk!… she’s not wrong… owww…”)
DVD set — Celebrating the best of Joseph Pujol, Le Pétomane (Why, yes, that does translate to ‘The Fartomaniac’. You were surprised? It’s the sellout show that’s now touring the biggest theatres in Europe! Every performance is a blast!)
Gals’ Magazine — Yankee Crazy! Comparing the (very) average British squaddie with a shiny-new American GI. (“Wow, you really can dance! What’s that funny thing you’re doing with your mouth?” “I’m chewin’ gum.” “Wow…!”)
Horrible Movie Pitch — The Julius Caesar Project (“So then I hired a fleet of ships–” “So you wouldn’t miss hanging out with your friends the pirates! That’s our happy ending!” “No–so I could hunt them down and torture them to death. Which I did. Pretty brilliant twist, right?” “Yeeeaahhh… See, the whole ‘torturing to death’ thing, it plays quite badly with families…”)
I Had (Not) Forgot the Fart — Edward de Vere, Earl Oxford, learns the hard way that Elizabeth I really doesn’t care for odd smells. (“Cecil! What is the punishment for passing wind in front of the Queen?” “We don’t have one, Your Majesty; no one has ever dared do such a thing before.” “Or if they did, they at least had the decency to cover it up with a well-timed cough!”)
Strictly (Religious) Business — A merchant hawking fake Old Norse sacred relics has to do some even faster thinking to cope with the introduction of Christianity.
The Father of the Railway — Tireless Georgian–and very Northern–transport advocate George Stephenson makes his case to some very skeptical politicians. (“People are gointa be carried up to twenty miles an hour!” “But how would they even survive travelling at such astounding speeds?!” “Why, I imagine their eyes would get sucked from their very skulls!”)
The Lady’s Not For Surrendering — “Black Agnes”, Countess of Moray, single-handedly defends Dunbar Castle against the Earl of Salisbury’s siege, because awesome. Also, Scots. (“We cut off your food supply five months ago! You must be starving!” “Och aye, I haven’t eaten since, oh, at least eleven… Oop, did I forget to mention our secret entrance?”)
Woeful Second World War
Who Wants to Be a German Millionaire? — Between-wars economic hyperinflation made that a much trickier question than you might suspect. Especially if you happen to be in the market for a wheelbarrow…
Wall of Doubt — What his subjects were facing after Emperor Hadrian decided to set up the barbarian-repelling battlements smack dab through their farm fields. (“We’re calling it ‘Hadrian’s Wall’.” “Working title.”)
- So yeah, this episode the show unveils a new–and not completely unpromising–tactic in the ongoing Content Crisis: be really loud and jolly and have Martha throw things at people a lot and just generally hope that the more emphatically you insist that nothing is wrong, the more people will believe it. Sort of like the way your Uncle Harold deals with family Thanksgiving dinners, only British, so less actual turkey. Possibly similar amounts of alcohol consumption, though, assuming you’re talking about the producers.
- Alcohol also features in one of the several theories about Jim’s performance I started formulating a few seconds into Shouty Man’s penultimate pitch. Slightly more plausible ideas include Howick i) taking bets with the other guys on the sidelines re: just how much he could get away with by then, to which the answer unsurprisingly was “pretty much everything”; and ii) having just been told that Yonderland was a go and his longtime dream of playing a batty old broad about to be fulfilled, this inevitably morphed into less Shouty’s final fling and more the Crone’s eager debut.
- On the other hand, this is also how you can tell–well, after three-four attempts to concentrate, the final one of which was audio-only–that the writing is honestly terrific, still much sharper and funnier than Shouty’s segments have been for a long while: you’re actively willing to put up with all of this. Well, OK, that and the by-now-rampant nostalgia… also the wholly unexpected continuity bonus in the form of infant Shouty Junior. No, evidently no-one’s particular sprog this time, or at least nobody’s ever owned up to same.
- I have rather mixed feelings about this plot twist, honestly. The concept of Shouty as a sort of ancestral huckster spirit from a long line of same is a deeply appealing one, right up until you realise that that means his adorable offspring is due to grow up into whomever invented spam emails, and you involuntarily start to replay key moments from Twelve Monkeys in your head.
- In desperation for a distraction, I started wondering if I shouldn’t start keeping track of these poignant final moments already… then I had to stop that too, partly on account of my brain started sarcastically picking out the songs for the YouTube tribute soundtrack and partly because, given the onscreen evidence, nobody else seems to have bothered with it either. At, least not as any sort of conscious theme. It’s really hard to blame them for wanting to avoid the hassle… or [spoiler alert] coming up with a characteristically self-aware route around it.
- It’s anyway a tricky thing to expect anything like linear resolution from a sketch comedy. Personally, I’ll feel much better once Chipmunk-Faced Guy has been identified, and am still nursing a slight irk with Stone Age man for not providing material for more Caveman Art Show bits, but otherwise I can’t think of anything I’m truly anxious to have happen in the next four eps. Maybe have Larry duck out of the way of the poop for once? Organise some sort of historical baseball game and have one of Jim’s sweet little woobie characters make the big catch?
- One thing I did not need was for the LoG to finally ink a movie deal. When I first heard that Julius Caesar (of course) would be the first, I actively avoided watching it for some time, on the grounds of massive disappointment that comedy genius had been so thoroughly sold out. In related news, I am an idiot who has apparently learned nothing whatsoever from this review project, and two series’ worth of seemingly random snarking actually pays off in a burst of utterly satisfying comedic logic.
- Yes, including even Ben’s non-sequitur nasal accent, which somehow plays quite brilliantly off Caesar’s relentlessly matter-of-fact brutality because, I dunno, Willbond or something. Since Alex the Great I’ve given up trying to figure it out. The deliberately ‘lofty’ lighting and camera angles help, at any rate.
- Meantime, over at Stupid Deaths… well, we already had the obvious plot twist, and otherwise the whole concept is predicated on the fact that there’s no way to resolve it without going full-on Bergman parody. I would not be averse to a little chess-playing with the skeletons (I bet Louis cheats), but otherwise am content to let SD exit on its own sweetly, smartly surreal terms. Mind you, this does not prevent me from wondering why we’re randomly reviving the ‘paperwork’ gag from S1 for no particular reason, but then again there’s no way to resolve that which doesn’t involve questions about why I’m blogging about a children’s comedy and why don’t we all just move on now…
- …Well, we might just pause to note that–in common with many of the show’s beauty-treatment spoofs–it’s hard to work up a satisfying snort of disbelief at those crazy pre-L’Oreal types when even today gold leaf is a luxury menu item. Regardless, playing Diane de Poitiers is a fine way to kick off a rare–now that I think about it, actually the only–showcase ep for Martha. Meantime, Death on eggshells opposite her hauteur is giving me pleasing flashbacks to his similarly subtle underplaying in S4…
- …Sorry, brb, just indulging in one more tiny ‘grrrrrrr’ that they didn’t figure all this out until after the Ivan the Terrible bit. Because fluffy pink pen. Thank you.
- Speaking of flamboyantly offbeat characters, man, show, took you long enough to introduce Le Pétomane already. There’s got to be an entire chapter devoted to him in at least one of the books, and I’ve been wondering why you haven’t found it since forever… OK, more like ‘cringing in resigned anticipation’, but you get the idea.
- And you know, I was all set to make some smart remark about how of course it’s Larry in this role, when I realised: no joke, this actually is a significant step forward in flatulence-related artistic refinement from the merely common or garden-variety Rickardian fart solo, as seen in S2’s Cowboy Song. Which in turn must represent a purely unique achievement in television–nay, media–history. So yeah Laurence, take a bow, you deserve it. I’ll just be over here applauding madly… waaaaay over here. Whilst remaining carefully upwind, and with my hand firmly off the rewind button.
- In all other respects this is emphatically Martha’s Big Showcase, and all you really need to know about the results is that the Liz I sketch is the weakest of the lot. Granted these bits have never been exquisite masterpieces of staggering subtlety, but this is as far as I can remember the first time they’ve concentrated so hard on the shrewishness that they completely ignored the actual punchline. For the record, that actually happened after Earl Oxford returned seven years later, hoping against hope that the Queen had forgotten his gaucheness, only to have her comment brightly “Ah, my lord! I had forgot the fart!”
- In other words, Liz in reality thought it was all a great joke (as was her wont), and de Vere voluntarily banned himself, and thus any potential for a grand finale for an HH icon rapidly devolves into a more-than-usually anti-climactic round of Let’s Turn Good Queen Bess Into a Roald Dahl Villain, Because I Dunno, Blackadder or Something.
- Luckily, nostalgia has enhanced my already long and intricate practice in extracting whatever enjoyment I can from the Tudor sketches to the point where I can sincerely appreciate the goodwill–not to say, probable desperation–inherent not only in the original rationale for using this material (“Say, let’s remake the S3 Silly Laws sketch that everyone loves so much, only with rude noises!”) but the impressiveness of the production details.
- Like for instance, how Martha by now has Her Majesty’s over-the-top hauteur absolutely nailed, to the point where the offhandedness of it actively enhances the characterization… also, there is the really gleeful way Ben attacks Cecil’s sly cleverness, it having become–I’m guessing–something of an outlet after spending so much time in royal doofus mode. Also mildly intriguing: in the promo photos and the [spoiler alert] finale song, it’s Larry wearing de Vere’s costume… and under the circs this does seem like *ahem* much more his type of role. Last-minute performer switchout, perhaps?
- I am much more definitively pleased by the return of gorgeous WWII Martha… not to say intrigued by the tonal misstep inherent in her presence in the ‘Yankee Crazy’ bit. At least, I think it’s a misstep. The adult rom-com parody is so neatly done that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intentional, which leads to speculation re: who was supposed to get what out of it. It’s very hard not to conclude that the show deliberately decided to for once gross out the little ones (all that icky giggly flirty stuff, blech!) in the service of creating a fun light trifle for the grown-ups.
- Speaking as a certified adult critic person, then, may I just say: schwing. Especially the entirely too much fun Ben is now having, enacting the British concept of an All-American Boy. I am really hoping that isn’t a coincidence that it so neatly matches up with the same concept as enacted in Christie, Conan Doyle and other classic UK pop-lit–which, knowing Willbond, it totally isn’t–but either way, it’s really freakin’ hilarious.
- Also: Mat’s waifishness finally used in a military sketch in a way that doesn’t make me want to slit my wrists over the bleak unfairness of it all. Yes, closure comes in many forms, folks.
- There’s more interestingly subtle maturity on display in the Norse relics bit… wait, don’t blink, you’ll miss it. Specifically, we’re back on the gently satirical commentary on Christian-vs-pagan belief systems, which continues to be both pleasing and intriguing enough, but even Simon and Larry combined can’t provide it with a sketch-length hook this time. Although, granted, Simon’s little pendant switcheroo comes pretty damn close.
- A sudden attack of educational conscience over all this might explain the weirdness in the Lily Parr profile. And no, I’m not talking about the Howe-Douglas adventures in Lancashire dialect, although I am assuming the only thing preventing the producers looking into dubbing options with Sarah H. was the characteristically authentic toughness Martha is also projecting. I similarly have no problem with Jim’s blandly mid-century sportscasting unctuousness; in fact he does a fine enough job of it that I might just have to add ‘will never get to hear his Howard Cosell’ to the list of regrets.
- Trouble is, no sooner does he get duly humiliated for his casually typical-of-his-age sexism than the show inexplicably begins to patronise Ms. Parr all over again. Unprompted and clearly unmeditated, so much so that it’d be almost funny, if they weren’t so awfully in earnest. “Silly Lily,” intones the puppet rodent who makes pets of his fleas and openly gloats over eating filth, in the tone he more usually reserves for the details of genocide; she (grasp!) “smoked lots of cigarettes.”
- Ah… yeah. Setting aside the fact that duh, mid-twentieth-century, everybody smoked lots of cigarettes, because nobody knew any better than that they were good for you… it might be time for a reminder that ultimately you’re still Horrible Histories, show. Either you retroactively attach a similar disclaimer to pretty much every post-eighteenth-century character you’ve ever created, female or male, or you kindly knock it off.
- Come to think of it, something of the same uncharacteristically PBS Kids-type vibe also hangs over the song. The idea of celebrating great transport pioneers is not at all unpleasing, but it’s also entirely missing the extra level of shrewd snarkiness that’s the HH hallmark. The whole thing is ephemeral as all hell, in fact, constructed almost entirely of small incidental pleasures.
- Of which, it must be admitted, there are quite a lot. As for instance Ben trying earnestly to simoultaneously follow doo-wop choreography and maintain a Midwestern accent, Jim effortlessly pulling off the same moves while under that top hat, Larry being all pleasantly twinkly-eyed in a flat cap, and Mat… evidently off in his own little private Chaplinesque universe again just as soon as he got a look at himself in that moustache.
- None of which, unfortunately, ever quite adds up to a memorable music video, and the choice of parody genre… well, again, probably much more daringly novel to you lot, for whom Grease was likely not the go-to pseudo-edgy choice of high school dramatic societies for decades. Thus despite some amusingly clever staging, this takeoff merely slides smoothly in one N.American ear and out the other. Save perhaps for the final beats spotlighting Ben–if nothing else as a nice apt reward for all his good-sportitude.
- The old and new comedic sensibilities mingle much, much more happily in the Black Agnes sketch; no actual bodily fluids being flung, but no comedic prisoners being taken, either (let alone Martha’s Scots accent, which is greatly improved by all the bellowing). Just a bunch of old hands luxuriating in the rare surefire bit of business in their various endearingly surefire ways, no more and no less. Which really is an awful lot, up to and including Mat indulging his knightly schtick to the hilt. Once again, I am reminded that Merlin blew a prime casting opportunity.
- But when it’s over, I find my thoughts drifting toward the props more than anything else. Specifically, did they just have a whole bunch of those drumsticks made up ahead of filming, or are they a standard of the BBC props cupboard, or…? And now I’m imagining the little paper labels: ‘Turkey, 3/4 eaten’, ‘Chicken, roasted, one bite’ etc etc. Once again, the question of whether the f/x masters on this show have the best or worst job in the world is left wide open.
- The costumers, on the other hand, not a question. Besides all the sartorial pretty-pretty, the Stephenson bit is another decently satisfying good time… except I can’t ever quite relax and enjoy it fully, on account of Rickard-as-Wellington still isn’t giving me any reason to believe he’s not about to make with the jigging any moment. Hell of a time to suddenly rediscover your commitment to character creation, there, show. We’ve blithely recast Pompey, Hephaestion and Saint Joan, but nobody thought that just maybe Larry and his ludicrous pot’o’gold posing might need a break? You really are just using the man for your own entertainment now, aren’t you?
- The (much) better news is, they do have the excellent sense to give Simon and his Oop North stylings free reign, both here and at Hadrian’s Wall (also: the momentary return of Mat’s Gross Designs wig, whooo!). There’s just something seriously loveable about northern types mocking their own stereotypes–see also Michael Palin at several moments in the Python films… wait, maybe I’m just into uniquely loveable Northern types to begin with. A valid argument I believe nonetheless.
- Meantime, Larry recoups magnificently as the hapless victim of hyperinflation. I will not claim I didn’t spend the entire first run-through idly wondering once again where Willbond had got to (he totally deserved a bit of Teutonic indulgence after being such a good sport over the song), but I can also see where the giving Mat and Larry another dual shot at the dark undercurrents paid off in spades. There’s something uniquely intriguing in the way these two understand each other, and the result gets the grim reality of between-wars Germany across more effectively than I think was strictly intended.
- Seems a shame to complain about such lavish costuming, but it is after all what I do: Diane de Poitiers’ signature colours were black and white. She went to the extent of having the chateaux her ‘boyfriend’ Henry II gifted her completely done in b/w monochrome, which was a much more impressively eccentric luxury back before IKEA was invented, and it would’ve been a cool note to reference in the SD. Although, in their defense, the show’s costumers were likely working off this portrait, so we can call it even.
- (Albeit, just incidentally… fine, show, I can see the educational point of swopping out ‘mistress’ for ‘girlfriend’ if I squint. Better to avoid introducing the concept of condoned adultery to impressionable young minds. I am still not quite convinced that it’s an improvement to leave the kidlets with the impression of say, Diane here and Henry fumbling with each others’ underwear while Justin Bieber’s latest blares in the background.)
- Yep, she was quite the character, our Diane. A minor provincial noblewoman who rose to prominence as lady-in-waiting to several previous queens, she was one of the greatest of the legendary French royal mistresses, renowned not only for her beauty, poise and style but charm, wit and intelligence–the absolute ideal of classical femininity as taught to chivalrous youths of the time. So much so, in fact, that Francis I asked Diane to school his ten-year-old second son in courtly manners. She was a good enough teacher that by the time Henry was sixteen and Diane thirty-five, they were a couple and would remain so until his death 24 years later.
- Alright, yes, they were basically living a late-night Cinemax flick, complete with the occasional nude portrait (mildly NSFW). The thing is, thanks to Diane’s uncanny sophistication it comes across as much, much classier than that. On her lover’s accession to the throne she invariably used her huge influence for the good of the State, even co-signing the royal correspondence, and acting as an enthusiastic patron of the arts.
- Most famously, she not only approved his marriage but actively nudged him out of her bed and into his new wife’s, all to ensure his duty to France. In due time Diane was put in charge of the numerous heirs’ education. Including, just incidentally, preteen Mary Queen of Scots, who was concurrently being raised in the French royal household and cannot have helped being influenced by this extraordinary example of self-assured womanhood.
- Other examples of self-assured womanhood were less impressed. Henry’s nominal queen, the small, outwardly unassuming (and also fourteen at the time of her marriage) Catherine de’Medici, was notoriously jealous of Diane. Specially given it took Catherine quite awhile to get started on the aforementioned heir-producing, which one can only assume had something to do with Henry yelling out the wrong name in the bedroom more than once. What is certain is that, while the King lay slowly dying of an agonizing brain injury, Queen Catherine absolutely forbade Diane to see him, although Henry continually called for her. And that’s how you earn your reputation as one of the great villainesses of history, kiddies.
- While we’re on the subject of purely remarkable females: The tale of Agnes Randolph, Countess of Moray, and the siege of Dunbar Castle turns out to be heartwarmingly close to 100% accu-rat (the “sure you can hang my brother, I’m his heir!” bit is hung up on the reality that she wasn’t his heir at all). Granted, as noted above Agnes had something of a head start on the feistiness thing, hailing as she did from the land where even today they greet terrorism by kicking it in the nuts while it’s on fire, but still. To paraphrase Churchill, on Britain’s similarly resolute resistance to a much larger threat: some lady, some story. “Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.“
- Bad tobacco habit or no–apparently, she actually insisted on being paid in Woodbines at one point–turns out Lily Parr. was likewise everything advertised, and then some. Noting her disdain for dollies and tea sets from an early age, her older brothers (who strike me as pretty damn awesome themselves) happily taught her not only football but rugby. In her non-sporty time, probably to work off some excess epicness, Parr served as a nurse and in a munitions factory during WWI, where an inter-office match first brought her to professional attention. According to the book A League of Their Own, she never looked back, remaining active in one way or another from 1919-1951:
- “Standing almost six feet tall, with jet black hair, her power and skill was admired and feared wherever she played. She was an extremely unselfish player who could pin-point a pass with amazing accuracy and was also a marvellous ball player. And she was probably responsible in one way or another, for most of the goals that were scored by the team…”
- …But yeah, Rattus, the smoking thing, that’s the main point after all. /sarcasm.
- And this in a show that’s just finished spotlighting Joseph “Le Pétomane” Pujol, a humble Marseilles baker who, as shown, fashioned an entire wildly successful stage career out of social inappropriateness. (Possibly Wiki’s greatest sentence ever: [His] profession is also referred to as “flatulist“, “farteur”, or “fartiste”.) The really endearing part, though, is that by all accounts Pujol wasn’t about a license to ill; he was a genuinely sweet guy who voluntarily worked up a “family-friendly” (less noisy, basically) version of his act and retired outright in horror at the outbreak of WWI. He just happened to also have a unique physical quirk that allowed him to, uh, both suck and blow from the same orifice.
- Which explains why his audiences weren’t issued gas masks, or for that matter shields: he would merely take in water or air via his rectum and immediately expel it–no mess, no fuss. Enough practice and the whole process was under such fine control that Pujol was the toast of Europe. Unfortunately no sound recordings seem to exist (probably referencing that whole “wildly socially inappropriate” thingy again) but Wiki has managed to turn up this silent film short, apparently recorded at the Moulin Rouge. Yes, that Moulin Rouge. You may now commence being unable to unsee him sharing the stage with Nicole Kidman.