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S05E11

Poland! Perfect… we’ll agree to protect them, and maybe they’ll repay us in the future with reasonably-priced builders…

For one last time, the show bounces back with the traditional series-ending leave-’em-wanting-more episode… or in this case, leaving the viewer terribly grateful it’s going away soon before it has a chance to spoil. Yep, still trying to tell myself that, and sometimes it even works.

In this episode:

Song: Australia — Martha recounts the famously Horrible antedecents of everyone’s favourite sunshine-intensive barbie-shrimp-slippers, with help from Simon and Ben… but not, surprisingly enough, from the wildlife. (Parody of: Kylie Minogue, feat Can’t Get You Out of My Head and I Should Be So Lucky)

Recurring sketches:

DI Sergeant Bones: Historical Crime Road Traffic Accident Squad — The Bikers and the Baffling Velocipede (“You mean to tell me you ride around on this thing with four wheels, two seats, a drawing board and a sunshade, but no brakes?!” “Why, yes!” “…Note to self: I. Quit. That’s it. I’m gonna write that novel.”)

Stupid Deaths — Pliny the Elder (Was trapped in a toxic gas cloud while trying to rescue a friend from Vesuvius’ eruption… “Hah, ‘fortune favours the brave’! Volcanoes favour the cowardly, mate! Ooh, I am on fire today! Erm, no offense…”)

Historical Apprentice — Team Maximus and Team Minimus vie to create and exploit a celebrity gladiator in some very creative ways… and discover that where gladiators are concerned, it’s possible to get a bit too creative. (“Can I just say, ‘man -vs- beast’ was actually his idea?” “Yeah, well, I didn’t mean a tiger, did I? I meant like a badger or something!”)

DVD set — Winston Churchill: Britain’s Wittiest Man (Britain’s wartime genius is also a comedy genius. Yes, really! “A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you–fails–and then asks you not to kill him!”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

New! My Little Pit Pony — Less with the sparky rainbow friendships, more with the grinding labour and choking toxic dust… and it fits perfectly in its special Coal Mine playset! (“Careful, Lily dear, you don’t want your My Little Pit Pony to get hurt in a rockfall, or an explosion in the mine!” “Don’t be silly, Mummy! …That’s just what happens to pit ponies!”)

Awful Egyptians

Don’t Tell the Corpse — Even before they got to the Land of the Dead, Egyptian funeral planning involved approximately fifty-seven zillion small details. (“At the top end, you can have the deceased’s intestines removed by a professional embalmer; and at the bottom end–so to speak–we can have his guts dissolved with the injection of cedar oil. You know, right up the–” “Yeah, thank you…”)

Hieroglabble — It’s the word-based board game that’s fun for the whole literate priesthood only! Warning: Hieroglyph combinations may take years to learn. “And coming soon, new Advanced Hieroglabble, with all the glyphs from the later Greco-Roman period–meaning you can play with up to 5,000 tiles!” “We’re gonna need a bigger board…!”

Gorgeous Georgians 

Pity Port Jackson — The arrival of a British relief fleet on the shores of the first Australian colony only complicates the question of who’s meant to be relieving who. (“Well, we’ve got to sort this out, man! Without food supplies, more people are going to die!” “*erghkkk* *thud*” “My point exactly!”)

Woeful Second World War

Neville Chamberlain Online — The Historical Desktop sketches literally go out with a bang, as the beleaguered architect of ‘peace for our time’ (#humblebrag) logs on to discover just how temporary it’s going to be… (“What’s this, then? ‘InvasionAdviser.com review of Czechoslovakia by AHITLER33’… OK, no need to panic, Neville; a lot of these invasion reviews are fake…”)

Measly Middle Ages

Great Historical Country Walks — The Norman conquerors’ subsequent ‘harrowing’ of the Northern countryside wasn’t nearly as pleasant as it sounds… unless you’re really, really into homonym-type puns. And even then, sort of disturbing. (“OK, so York is over there, by that massive bonfire… wait a minute, I think York is that massive bonfire…!”)

Sophisticated As — In which the new post-1066 fad for French words elevates dinner-party small talk into entirely new realms of awkward. (“Is there any more pig?” “Oh, really, Laurence! Zut alors!”)

Field Notes:

  • Damnit, they’ve done it again. For one last time, the show has pulled off its neat and nifty trick of immediately following up a disappointing episode with one of such clever, insinuating charm you’re fully reminded why you started watching in the first place.
  • And it gets worse… that is to say better, except the part about being, y’know, Episode 11 of Series 5. Because it also fully honours the tradition of ending each series with a further flourish of all the things that make it most endearing. Basically the sketch-comedy equivalent of a cliffhanger, designed to make you realise not only exactly what you’re going to miss but just how much. Now, I don’t want to actually accuse the producers of setting up this next-to-last-ever episode with that in mind as well–they’re usually not that sadistic unless Mat’s particular charms are concerned, and—
  • *looks down sketch list* …Oh, crud.
  • So yeah, as a side-effect of serving as the prose finale (the producers perhaps realising, correctly, that in the literal final episode all anybody would be anticipating was the song) this episode collates the remnants of the casting experiment that gave S4 so much of its peculiarly sweet, vivid appeal: namely, Let’s Throw Baynton Over the Top and Film What He Finds on the Other Side. How sniffle-worthy it is to rediscover that particular meme at this late date will of course be dependent on how fond you are of Ol’Minstrel Eyes in particular; for me, it makes it very poignant indeed.
  • I think I’ve made it clear throughout this project that I have great affection for every member of the starring cast; but having also spent the same project dropping hints will formally admit here, where it seems to be appropriate, that Mat is far and away the only one whose departure would’ve made me reconsider watching altogether. Although the thought of losing Larry, Jim or Simon has at various times also made me twitch noticeably. Also sometimes Ben, usually when he’s onscreen with Jim or Simon. And Martha, in WWII mode… oh, and that whole Boudicca deal… Well, hell, it never did happen (and I suspect I only brought it up in the first place to delay the inevitable) so let’s move on.
  • Should anyone accuse me of waxing melodramatic about the above production motives re: rebounding or anything else, however, may I just point out that the very first thing the viewer is confronted with here is Baynton as DI—or whatever–Bones lolloping up to an accident scene making siren noises… then being pitched right to the outer edge of his Leslie Nielsen by Jim and Dominique as scatterbrained Victorian lovers. In the course of which he’s both literally and figuratively blown away by a [magically intact, but hey] parasol. Rebound nothing; I don’t think the show has pulled off this level of pure comic joy since Baynton as the Victorian HParamedic imitated a tapeworm.
  • Even making allowances for the usual attention paid to the Victorian bits, the dour DI—or whatever–in fact gets a more elaborately thought-through sendoff than pretty much any other of the show’s recurring stalwarts, up to and including Death and the Shouty Man (yes, if anybody’s wondering, I still have dibs on that band name). To the extent that someone was actually commissioned to execute a fully recognizable, detailed pencil portrait of Jim–which I do hope they gave him to take home–rather than resorting to either generic daisies or a gag copy of the Mona Lisa. Between which and the earlier papier-mache elephant, the gallant-to-the-last f/x team is definitely owed a bow.
  • Someone evidently really, really believes in this whole concept of melodramatic Mat as an *ahem* vehicle for police drama satire, is what I am saying here. And on the off-chance they occasionally Google their audience’s reaction, I would just like to not only offer them a hug of full validation, but once again throw out the suggestion that the material (also likely the performers) are available and the format beyond perfect for an ongoing standalone series of shorts. Trust me, I’ve had the Kickstarter copy written long since.
  • In other clearly-I’ve-been-a-really-good-fan-this-year news, the Historical Desktops also get a joyously worthy sendoff. Featuring not only the return of Jim’s Churchill (who finally gets to really show off that famous wit) but the full redemption of Prime Minister Simon, so badly wasted last ep. That single little #humblebrag hashtag, in that moment, is as absolutely perfect a bit of comedy as the show has ever produced.
  • Really, the whole thing is almost painfully wonderful, to the point where, as usual with these bits, it’s difficult to coherently explain why. All I know is, favourite sketch hell, it just officially became my Favourite Satirical Concept Ever. So many juicy comedic threads intertwined so cleverly, character, plot and matching reference, and never a false step; in fact, the skill level actually keeps climbing as each sketch progresses, and the best part is you can never tell what form it’ll take next, because it’s mostly in the tiny throwaway asides. Here, for instance: that pic of Dali on RateMyTache.com… “Have you tried our sister site, RateMySide-Whiskers.com?”… Churchill bragging about having ‘the top score on Minesweeper in the Foreign Office’…
  • ….and as the sprinkles on the top of the sundae of endearingness, the mummy judge makes a triumphant comeback on Stupid Deaths! I have no idea why I should be so ridiculously happy about this, but come to think of it, let the fact that I am stand as an appropriate final testament to just how much sheer engaging the show has achieved with this segment.
  • In particular this is another massively satisfying old-style SD, even if the death, once again, is much more unfortunate than genuinely idiotic. Evidently—and rather interestingly–aware of this, Mat contributes a performance that fully manages to salvage Pliny’s dignity while still fulfilling all the requirements of the surreal silliness.
  • Speaking of salvage, the show has also finally righted the HApprentice ship, producing a segment that’s decently clever re: both satire and subject. If the funny’s still not quite hitting the lavishly witty heights of last series, it’s at least back to not involving charts. In their place are some really genuine side pleasures, including more hilariously sweet “isn’t this all just so much fun?!” from Greg, more vamping from Simon, more intriguingly grrrl-powered Martha, and of course more cringing amoral schmuck Larry. Funny how I don’t mind Rickard whingeing in the slightest, but when Lawry does it… well, Lawry isn’t otherwise in this delightful final wrapup episode at all, as it happens, and we’ll just leave it at that.
  • There is however one last nicely sophisticated use of the Hadland crazy-eyed brittleness, or crazy brittle-eyed-ness, or whatever it is. Having never previously heard of Abigail’s Party, of which fandom agrees the Norman dinner party bit is supposed to be a piss-take, my viewing notes here continue “… nice ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’-esque tension she and Larry set up, anyway.”
  • Ordinarily I’m not a fan of novelty naming, but the ‘Laurence’ conceit is for once actually reasonably novel, and in fact has me musing over other notably missed boats in that line. Matthew Arnold, anyone? Martha Washington? Benjamin Franklin? Simon Bolivar? James… pretty much every other male born in Western Europe from 1700-1956?
  • Meanwhile, in all the kerfuffle over Sarah and the bald cap, it further occurs to me that something should be said for the almost equally inexplicable “stick Jim in a Dutch-bob wig to indicate exotic antiquity” trope, which makes a typically non-sequitur appearance in the Egyptian funeral sketch, alongside its (slightly more understandable) cousin ‘Mat in artfully disheveled shoulder-length tresses’. I dunno, I just have much more trouble imagining either as the go-to ‘do for the happening historically accurate North African male than as the go-to method of keeping the makeup team amused.
  • Anyway, one of the few longform sketches of S5 pays off handsomely regardless, in terms both of a satisfyingly logical, detailed followup to last series’ ‘Duat’ bit and allowing Baynton and Howick one last surreal romp together. They’re the one intra-troupe pairing that right to the end I’ve never known what to expect; save that, as here, it will be both gloriously and uniquely adorable.
  • Up to and including, in this case, Mat’s accent I have no idea what it is, and don’t want to know, because frankly that’d spoil everything… oh, and the gestures, can’t forget those. Altogether, assuming he’s not actually mimicking someone specific, this is one of the single best characters he’s ever created for the series–perfectly skimming his own unique line between irresistibly childlike silliness and razor-sharp adult satire.
  • Also, somewhere in there he and Simon throw out a small celebration of the show’s decision to finally cover some Australian history, in the form of finding time to pull off a freakishly expert mimicry routine. The technical term for the amount of rehearsal required to achieve the apparent offhand ease with which they speak in unison in the Port Jackson sketch is “one hell of a lot.”
  • In tandem with Simon’s reliably thick-headed bureaucratic schtick (which the writers are still enjoying as much as ever) this just about makes me not amazed that this much creative effort would be invested in a slight throwaway bit that doesn’t even have the side bonus of making Ben miserable… um, depending on how closely he was paying attention the day they taught ‘falling’ in drama class.
  • It’s altogether funny, really, how Australia of all civilizations has been so thoroughly overlooked in the HH canon up til now. The sketches about a country founded literally as a side-effect of punishing people who stole handkerchiefs and impersonated Egyptians (per Bill Bryson) seem like they’d pretty much write themselves. I’d been assuming the lack of same was the result of the notorious Aussie sensitivity to what they term the ‘stain’ of their convict heritage, except we now have a whole entire song crammed in here in a clear effort to make up for lost time.
  • And it is… well, as a prelude I should mention that Kylie Minogue is known in N.America primarily as “that Loco-Motion remake girl”, and that when this song was first aired surprise at learning she was still relevant anywhere sent me to Wikipedia. Where I was chastened, but not all that enlightened. Except inasmuch as that it’s clearly an apt (if not actually obvious) parody match, and definitely a nice step up, sophistication-wise, from the relentlessly banal adherence to novelty of our previous entry. Martha contributes her usual effective vocal, and the songwriting does an excellent job of playing peppy plastic synthpop off relentlessly earthy reality–quite a nice sharpish touch about it, really, if you listen closely enough.
  • That proved a bit difficult, on account of the video having some uncharacteristically severe problems with holding my interest. When your biggest visual achievement–in support of a song set in one of the most famously charismatic ecosystems on the planet–is speculating whether Ben losing his hat was accidental or not… yeah, a biggish boat got missed somewhere, and I don’t think it contained Egyptian impersonators this time. What’s left is I suppose charming enough, depending on your appreciation for a behatted Benjamin; but overall much more reminiscent of the first-series musical ethos than the last.
  • There’s also the rather uncharacteristically glib little swipe at the Aborigines, that appears to have much more to do with the chance at a winking reference (the general conviction that bare namedropping = cute enough to kiss these last couple of eps is rather worryingly suggestive of songwriter burnout) than any type of desire to convey the reality of early colonist/native relations–again, a touchy subject, and not really suited for indepth comedy treatment, but let us just say the latter likely have a much different perspective on who turned out to be the ‘bad neighbors’.
  • It looks especially odd alongside the effortlessly snarky My Little Pit Pony business. Which turns out to be everything sweetly and slyly subversive that the earlier Spartan Girl advert should have been, starting with the pitch-perfect logo art, and delights me exceedingly in consequence. The more so because I have no particular investment in the parody subject; I think I must’ve been born without the ‘little girls=love ponies’ gene. Thus am all the more free to enjoy how this sketch skewers the moral blindness of the Victorian upper-middle-class more effectively in thirty seconds than in the entirety of last series’ uber-elaborate Wife Swap.
  • I also like the snarkiness of country-walking Martha trying to switch gears upon encountering rampant horrific death and destruction, except she’s wearing a pink puffer jacket. Altogether it’s one of the niftier throwaway bits of the series, although y’know, honestly, maybe it’s different in the UK, but when I hear ‘harrowing’ my first thought is the more disturbing meaning.
  • There’s likewise a lot of pop-cult parody goodness to be had in the Heiroglabble advert, which admirably maintains the board-game spoofs’ gentle-but-multidirectional satire right to the end, and throws a rather surprisingly low-key final cameo from Deary into the bargain. On the other hand, there is Simon, who in his relentless quest to find something unique in every character he has ever been given has finally been driven to pulling out his Death voice and hoping that nobody recognizes it without the makeup. Pretty darn effective in the moment, mind you (especially when combined with the ongoing ‘random Jaws homage’ thingy), but still… one more little sign that they all gave it up just in time.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, so velocipedes. Actually the collective name for all human-powered wheeled vehicles (the term itself comes from the Latin for ‘fast foot’). Of which the bicycle is one, and the more outlandish ‘quadracycle’ shown here another. There were and are also, of course, unicycles, tricycles and something called a dicycle, wherein the two wheels are side-by-side rather than sequential. All of them went through endless permutations beginning in the early nineteenth century, as inventors vied not only to come up with more sophisticated pedaling mechanisms but, seemingly, new ways to cull the thrill-seeking herd.
  • Nobody tell poor Bones, but he encountered one of the more stable setups all told. By contrast, Darwin probably heartily endorsed the original ‘bicycle’, the famous (if in reality very short-lived) penny-farthing, which left the rider wobbling on a tiny saddle atop an enormous front wheel. As ludicrous as it seems now, the p-f was intended then as an improvement on the boneshaker, first developed in the late 1860’s and what children’s books of the period mean when the bratty rich kid brags about his ‘velocipede’.
  • The joke’s on him, see, because they got their common name from the harsh ride that resulted from the inflexible wrought-iron frame and wooden wheels. Thus the model we know and love, first introduced around 1880 or so, was initially called the ‘safety bicycle’… because it had a braking mechanism.
  • OK, Neville Chamberlain deservedly takes a ton of flak for the whole deeply unnecessary ‘peace in our time’ grandstanding, but let’s not crucify the poor guy just yet. More sympathetic revisionist historians have suggested that our Neville was a lot cannier than he traditionally gets credit for. After all, signing that treaty with Hitler did buy the erstwhile PM the time he needed to quietly get the UK on a proper war footing, without which, frankly, Churchill wouldn’t have had a nation to inspire in the first place. It’s only in hindsight that these boring backroom policy details get obscured by the whole, y’know, “YOU SIGNED A TREATY WITH #%@$%-ING HITLER?!” thing.
  • Meantime, over on the other side of the world: Australians, as noted just a little tetchy about the whole ‘originally a penal colony’ concept. The rest of the world, meanwhile, is all “Are you kidding? An entire country of badass thieves and murderers and stuff? That’s, like, so cool!
  • Needless to say, the rest of the world is indulging in serious wishful thinking. These were not cunning master criminals; these were mostly hapless slum-bred pickpockets and drunks and tavern brawlers and (no, seriously) Egyptian impersonators and suchlike, precisely none of whom had any skills whatsoever that might help upon being plonked down on the other side of the world and told to recreate something resembling a civilised existence. The lovely (at least in hindsight) Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson is available for the curious.
  • Short version: everybody got off the boat and immediately began randomly bumbling into such Colonisation 101 roadblocks as what to plant when and which end of a cow you get milk from (that’s assuming they could even find a cow, given that most of the herd promptly escaped into the wild on arrival) and how to store food supplies so bugs don’t get in and, um, whoops, bugs are good to eat, right?… all, it must be assumed, while coping with the native wildlife’s tendency to viciously murder them for no apparent reason. (Ohai, cute little cone-shaped shell just lying there on the beach! I think I’ll just pick you up and squeeze you and —OHGODOHGODTHEPAINOHGODMAKEITST*erk*)
  • This is not even mentioning the native human population, who despite the song’s assertion were basically OK with and even seemingly amused by the palefaced newcomers… except for those occasional times when they also decided to viciously murder them for no apparent reason.
  • All this, as the sketch here indicates, was not doing wonderful things to the already-high stress levels of those stalwart representatives of Queen and Country tasked with reducing some type of order out of this inexplicably colourful chaos. They’d just unmasked the one convict who’d faked being a botanist in order to get special privileges (among various other similar scams), and here’s the Second Fleet shows up not with desperately needed supplies, but with plenty more of those damned convicts. So yeah, the original Australians: in the most literal sense, not happy campers.
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five

 

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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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S05E04

These Romans think they’re minted
But they ain’t rich like me
You can’t call yourself loaded
Till you can buy an army…

Some more old standbys return for an offbeat, odds-and-ends romp in which the purely golden moments still manage to bridge the creative cracks… just barely. They were saved by the timely application of Roman grime rap, is basically what I am saying here.

In this episode:

Song:  Crassus: Minted — Simon as the forgotten third member of the First Roman Triumvirate explains via the traditional route for HH royalty — ie, party-intensive hip-hop — why he couldn’t care less about the fame, so long as he had the fortune. (Parody of: Dizzee Rascal, Bonkers)

Recurring sketches:

Dominic Duckworth: HHTV Investigates — Touching for the King’s Evil: A Viable Healthcare System? (Nope, even in HH reality, Charles II in maroon can’t actually cure what ails you.”This is Dom Duckworth, in Stuart England, covered in the remains of an Ancient Egyptian mummy… which is a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say.”)

Thou Hast Been Framed — Roman royal blooper special

Words We Get From — Jeremy Bentham

Stupid Deaths — Sophie Blanchard (Ballooning pioneer who decided her dramatic public ascent could only be improved by: setting off fireworks. After said ascent. “Now, where were we?” *phhhbbbbbttttthhhhhh* “…that was the balloon.”)

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Magazine — The magazine everyone in Saxon England should read! “…well, as long as they’re monks.” “What happened to the vow of silence?!” “Oh, right. Starting now…”

Historical Apprentice — Team Monk vs. Team Johannes Gutenberg vie to demonstrate the most efficient printing technology… except not really, that’s a given, so we’re all just here for more ‘vow of silence’ jokes. Unfortunately. (“Just to recap: Team Gutenberg single-handedly started a revolution in communication… and Team Monk here gave us a few pretty letters? Team Monk, what d’you have to say for yourselves?!” “…?”)

HHTV Sport — Live as Emma Sharp completes her thousand-mile walk in one thousand hours, Bradford,1864 (“Somebody stop ‘er! I’ve ‘eard of men doing it, but whoever ‘eard of a woman doing something so physically demanding? It shouldn’t be possible! …also I bet ten quid that she couldn’t.”)

One-offs:

Woeful Second World War

Canine Covert Ops — In which the German attempt to train canine spies gets just a tad over-optimistic, even for the ‘delusional-egomaniacal-dictator-insists-on-total-control’ system of military strategy. (“Perhaps you will be more easily impressed by Private Rolf. He taps his paw in a different way for each letter… Is there anything you wish to say to ze General, Rolf? Ah: WOOF…”)

Corporal Wojtek — Well, no, the Polish army giving a brown bear a commission wasn’t strictly what you might call ‘normal operating procedure’ either. But definitely lots more badass.

Vicious Vikings

I Can’t Believe You’ve Got Me Eating Seal Blubber! — Dude, not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re living in ancient Scandinavia. How is this stranger (or less fishy-tasting) than the walrus?

Frostbite Follies — Erik the Red’s heated attempt to lure settlers to the ‘sun-drenched paradise’ of Greenland inevitably gets put on ice. (“P-p-p-pour me a drink, Magnus!” “I c-c-an’t — the beer is frozen, and the jug is st-stuck to my hand! I’ve g-got jug-hand!”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Jeremy Bentham, I Presume — Tea with one of Britain’s leading sociopolitical thinkers comes sweetened with a nice dose of eccentricity. (“We must demystify death, sir! Surround ourselves with it, and we will lose our fear of mortality!” “But… you can’t keep corpses in a garden!” “Yes, well.. perhaps you’re right, the weather would rot them. Maybe I’ll just display some preserved heads in a specially modified cabinet.”)

Vile Victorians   

The Original Media Darling — Captivating young heroine Grace D. and her dad negotiate the perils of pre-Internet celebrity… well not really, we’re mostly just here for Sarah H. in another bald cap. Which is at least an improvement over the muffled monks.

Field Notes:

  • Forgotten credit weirdness, update: Someone… I’m gonna say Lawry?… totally making chipmunk face behind (naturally enough) ‘Your host, a talking rat’. Yes, with appropriate makeup and everything. You can see why I’m getting more sceptical about this experimental business by the review, here. At the least, I now definitively feel much better about the non-existence of a Series Six, because if we are already channeling Chip’n’Dale in this series I am reasonably certain they would’ve resorted to Transformers-based satire in the next. Or maybe Historical Government, featuring Rob Ford jokes…
  • …Actually, while typing all this I did have an idea for a Kafka-inspired song, featuring Lawry as the cockroach guy, and maybe a Freudian cameo from Simon. I’m a little sad about missing that, now.
  • However I am getting over it fast, because this week’s real experiment in musical originality involves a full-on attempt to top Charles II, the Eminem-inspired King of Bling. It fails, of course, if for no other reason than the attempt to compensate for Ben’s juggling with Ben making what he fondly assumes are happening hand gestures… gesture, really. (I think it may actually be the same one he’s making in the iconic stock photo of Charlie and cronies.) Just had another missed-opportunity-based mental image, of Caesar drunkenly tossing Crassus’ minor room ornaments around in the background, and am even sadder. I don’t even get Pompey showing off his Electric Slide. Larry Rickard, you have let me down.
  • Right, yes, nominally at least still a kiddy show, I do get that. And even for the adults, casting Farnaby as legendary mega-zillionaire Marcus Licinus Crassus, Grime God among mere partying mortals, is still pushing the boundaries of regal rap out to deeply pleasing new levels of ridiculousness. First reaction is ‘Really? Simon?’ and the second, approx ten seconds in, is ‘Of course, Simon!” After all, when you recall how convincingly his Caligula boogied down in S3, this begins to seem no more than the solidly logical followup.
  • The overall effect, coming directly after Dickens the definitive musical celebration of erudition, is of the wild post-exam bash in the frat house, and equally exhilarating… the return of Grandmaster Funk Willbond and all… up to and including Mat tonguing the camera. Y’know, guys, I might have a bit less difficulty remembering the demographic boundaries if you’d quit randomly forgetting them yourselves.
  • Incidentally, everyone’s also evidently forgotten that they’d firmly established that same Baynton as General Pompey way back in S1; or possibly are merely trying to forget that at that stage they still weren’t above ripping off Python scenes wholesale. Kind of pleasingly ironic really, given that back then it was ol’ Pom who got the credit–correctly reassigned here, interestingly enough–for Crassus’ reviving the Decimation punishment.
  • Anyway, Mat gets something of his own back–accent, even more so than usual, on the ‘something’–when Charles II flits in for his annual go at driving more rational characters absolutely nuts. That the rationality in this case is represented by Dom “Stone-Face” Duckworth is a great idea, absolutely inspired… but in practice, it ends up hilighting just how far Charlie has veered from the genuinely intriguing original, in much the same way as Henry VIII. (It may-or-may not be a coincidence that this comparative indifference kicked in around the same time Mat also started getting vocal about the show’s failure to hilight the Merry Monarch’s less fun, more autocratic qualities.)
  • Which doesn’t really spoil this party in the slightest, because: Dom! Most excellent choice of recurring bit to bring back for further development, show… even if you might want to quit developing the hair, at least, while you’re ahead. Also, Jim, it wouldn’t hurt to back off the ‘crusading reporter’ voice just an itty-bitty smidge, there.
  • I am also a bit concerned, given that this is a character best-remembered for getting clocked in the face by a fish-wielding knight, by his failure to pass the stuck-in-the-HH universe spot check here. Duckworth ol’buddy, if your bar for implausible statements is still set that low you are setting yourself up for for a world of hurt… or at least, an encounter with the chipmunk-face guy. As it is, we’re clearly now just fine with the blatant fat jokes in Howick’s direction, which let me be the first to say: Huh. O…kay, then. I guess.
  • On the other hand, much decisive excitement re: the return of Steve “Not Actually Eric Idle, But…” Punt. In fact, tell me why we didn’t develop him as the de facto seventh member of the troupe instead of Lawry, again? He was there first, and as far as I can tell, wouldn’t have had much of a problem handling the neurotic. Meanwhile, check the impressive lineup of fully-made-up extras behind him! …Most of whom don’t actually look all that ill, and certainly don’t appear to comprise any sort of viable ‘crush’, but I am certainly not complaining, because in HH terms it’s ruddy Downton Abbey.
  • I think I would be a bit more sympathetic toward Jim the target if Hannibal: The Return wasn’t also the star of this week’s ‘Thou Hast Been Framed’. Which bit has already been established as highly problematic re: performer dignity, and here… Oh God, Howick, please can you just knock off the Colonel Sanders impersonation before they make you give back the BAFTA, OK? (On the plus side, last series elephants made out of stagehands and flannel, this series papier-mache. Result!… no, I don’t know what it would be, exactly, only that it’s encouraging.)
  • Oh, and also: Fine, show, we’ve definitively established liking the bagpipes puts me on par with Emperor Nero. Thanks to you lot I am strangely OK with this, so there.
  • Let’s get back on the happiness train alongside Jim as Jeremy Bentham, revelling in the chance to spend quality time being, essentially, a Doctor Who character, which from all appearances turns out to be fully as delightful an experience as I’ve always envisioned.
  • It’s a delightful experience altogether, this sketch; the show hasn’t made my brain feel smiley all over like this since the HParamedics fled the scene for good. Add Bentham to the list of Concepts They Really Should’ve Found Long Since; now they have to cram in all the rich comic goodness at once, and still wind up sticking the really excellent bit into the quiz for afters. All of which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–except when I start thinking about how I could’ve been watching Bentham’s precious eccentricity unfold instead of, say, the Historical Pet Shop, or for that matter any given iteration of the Baron Rothschild and his chimps…
  • Ah well, at least I can cross the return of Lawry the magnificently snarky butler from last series’ Victorian bits, and Ben doing what he totally should’ve been back when Martin Luther was involved, off my wish list before it’s too late. And this time there’s no toilet jokes involved, either–quite the reverse, in fact. (Protip: accidentally pausing on video of Jim cooing at a teapot really should come with insulin warnings.)
  • It’s all part of an interesting new trend I’ve noticed as the material moves further and further away from the books. In general, it appears to be getting… well… nicer, is the best way I can put it. Still gleefully scatological, and violent where needed, but not nearly as dedicated to the anarchistic ‘stuff they don’t teach you at school’ undertone. I can’t speak to the precise motives or priorities of the new crew of fact-gatherers, but it’s obvious that the kiddies are being challenged to develop their understanding of human nature on a whole ‘nother level. Taken together with the ongoing gains in creative complexity, entering S6 it likely would’ve been nigh-unrecognizable as HH at all. One wonders if T.Deary was impressed or otherwise by the prospect.
  • Having unveiled said thesis, damned if they haven’t found one last surefire vein of anarchic stupidity to mine, and it began with the “Don’t Wake the Fuehrer” bit last series. Yes, I know delusional megalomania that leads to innocent deaths isn’t at all funny, and I also know the show knows that–see: Titanic sketch. Still, man, the possibilities in the Reich’s increasing detachment from reality as the war waned have got me all bouncy on the edge of my seat here, going “Ooh, ooh! Next, can we have the story about how Goebbels diverted entire desperately-needed divisions from the front to be extras in a major propaganda film, so that by the time it was finished they had to cancel the Berlin premiere because the theatre had been bombed out?”
  • … Right, this show has turned me into a terrible, terrible person. But for the moment at least I do not care, because it is pure gold, this intricate and clever canine bit, even if Martha & Mat’s accents aren’t any of the above. Frankly, I’m a bit torn here, casting-wise; I wouldn’t trade Mat’s slow realisation that he’s slipping down the rabbit hole for anything — except maybe the equally glorious set of possibilities that would be Ben, filling out the uniform properly, with That German Accent. Man, the kind of problems you want to have, huh?
  • On the other hand of surreal glories past: we have reached the point in the history of Stupid Deaths when even skeletons in shiny party hats cannot shake me from faintly melancholy nostalgia … and then suddenly it’s all whoa, callbacks to Death the despiser of foreigners from Moliere’s SD! Helium voice! Balloon-fart gags! Martha doing a neatly and appealingly toned-down version of her Madame Tussaud from S3! Perhaps still not the most sublime comic heights you’ve ever achieved with this bit, show, but I do really appreciate the thoroughness of the effort to cheer me up.
  • So, based on the accent, Gutenberg turns out to have been a direct descendant of Vercingetorix? And is possibly an ancestor of the Fashion Fix host? Well hey, Mat, I’d be upset with you for thus pointlessly trivialising one of the great figures of intellectual history (and a personal hero of mine), but that and Jim’s sweet new neckbeard are about all that’s keeping me going through the latest Historical Apprentice sketch–which is saying something when not only S.Punt but Greg J. are also sitting nearby–so carry on.
  • And we will not even get into your line in ‘trying to pretend it’s summer on an ice floe’ gags, because whew, at least the vow of silence ditto apparently had some sort of satirical purpose. Here… well, even given the sheer obviousness of it all understandably weighing you down, you still had Nordic Larry available front and centre and… y’know, maybe that was the problem, actually. I kept waiting for the weird to really take off and break loose, and all I got were a couple of broken thumbs; too little, too late. If you ever wondered what an actual earnest children’s show version of HH would look like, this would probably be it… complete with crappy dollar-store cardboard snowman.
  • This illusion was not hurt at all by the preceding ode to seal blubber, which of all the whacky food trivia this show has brought forth (two words: Whale. Phlegm.) it doesn’t even rate as remotely quirky. I mean, yeah, they got Lawry to do the kvetching in his dependably impressive Victorian Cockney mode, which it says a lot about this bit that that actually helps rather than merely increases the odd–but still.
  • Much more interestingly, at least for the non-UK viewer: you lot still advertise that not-butter stuff over there? I mean, not judging or anything, whatever provides your cheap-breakfast-spread needs. Just saying that, at this point, most North Americans would rather go for the blubber.
  • Contrariwise to all of the above, and to my intense personal gratification to boot, the show for once manages to turns up an entirely unexpected yet utterly awesome everyday heroine, thus continuing the tradition of my having to forgive them everything at the last minute. Especially because, total unexpected bonus alert, Larry as the sport reporter! I don’t know why I like him so much in this guise, exactly; possibly it has something to do with watching him play blandly cheerful while all the while knowing what he’s really capable of… exactly as per the last punchline.
  • We are also treated to a great plot twist in the ongoing series of wartime animal heroes: the animal survives the experience! Well, at least you can finally cross PETA off the list of potentially annoyed special interest groups, show!
  • More seriously, thwe whole thing is a much better use of the animation than is typical in the final few series, and a very welcome expansion into other nations’ wartime experiences to boot. It’s a bit surprising we haven’t seen more of those, actually; you’d have to believe that, in the search for new and novel Horrible material, this would’ve  developed into a really fertile field. Not to mention, you’ve got Ben and his knack for Eastern European accents, besides the others and their…
  • …*pictures Larry attempting a Bohemian lilt*…
  • …Y’know, maybe it’s all for the best as-is.
  • Anyway, there will always be the Victorian sketches, maintaining their unusual thoughfulness and lush detail to the end. I may have been unduly influenced in this by a recent viewing of North and South, but am convinced that the saga of Grace Darling, whatever its shortcomings as fascinating historical folly, is nevertheless about as close and precise as we’re ever likely to get to a pure satire of the BBC’s historical-drama vibe.
  • I may also have been influenced by Mat, doing his fully charming bit in the noble cause of keeping up with the bald cap–no, not by attempting that accent, or at least not just that accent–and no, not by being Sarah H.’s dad, that actually works out quite well, or at least better than it did when Martha tried the same stunt. It’s just… if there’s one thing completely and consistently effortless about this series, it’s the cast’s ability to bring the weird. And frankly it is a damn good thing there is Yonderland and Bill, otherwise I might have found myself really… sniffly about that, right now.

95% Accu-rat:

  • You think I’m kidding, about the sheer volume of eccentric goodness Jeremy Bentham had yet to give? Look on his QI Infocloud page, ye skeptic, and despair. Not that I am bitter or anything, but I will just point out again that very nearly all the info in that cloud was ignored by the entire HH creative community for years, while they conducted an inexplicable love affair with a guy who merely dined with chimps. Bentham, on the other hand, turns out to have actively changed the world not only for the cuter, but for the better:
  • Odd though he was, Bentham is an important thinker. His idea that ordinary people were entitled to happiness struck at the heart of the entrenched rights of the aristocracy, the Crown and the judicial system. He opposed slavery, capital and corporal punishment; he believed in equal rights for women, and for animals; and called for the decriminalising of homosexuality; he praised free trade and freedom of the press; he supported the right to divorce and urged the separation of the church and state. Most of what we now call liberalism can be traced back to Bentham and his protégé, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).
  • About the only crazy market Bentham didn’t have cornered was the effect of great wealth; he was content to putter around writing and snoring and naming teapots and whatnot. Marcus Licinius Crassus, on the other hand, took no prisoners–quite literally–on his way to becoming the wealthiest single private individual in history. It’s always a bit tricky to sort fiscal historical reality from the exaggerations, but in modern terms, adjusted for inflation etc, some estimate that the man had a net worth of nearly two trillion US dollars. Here, I’ll write that out for you (in the British notation): $2,000,000,000,000.
  • And this after the previous generation had managed to lose the entire already-impressive family fortune playing politics. Having once got a tiny shred of influence back, Crassus proceeded to methodically rebuild said fortune to Scrooge McDuck-like levels by the time-honoured method of having absolutely no moral or ethical scruples whatsoever. By ‘Took the land off enemies to flog it’ the song means running the government’s list of “proscriptions”, ie. those declared enemies of the state. The listees’ possessions would then be confiscated and auctioned off–basically, modern-day estate auctions, only with a lot more elaborate family shame and disgrace and stuff. It’s said that Crassus added at least one wealthy enemy to the proscription list outright.
  • Once hip to the possibilities of screwing other people out of their funds, and steadily regaining influence because of it, Crassus got more and more brazen. Alongside the fire-brigade scam hilighted in the song, there is also the story (via Plutarch) of his seduction of a young relative of his, Licinia, wholly in order to get his gold-plated paws on her “pleasant villa in the suburbs… at a good price”.
  • Sure, standard operating procedure in Ancient Rome–except that Licinia was a Vestal Virgin, bound to a State-sponsored vow of chastity. Thus forcing even the most jaded public officials to go “Tut, tut” in the zillionaire’s general direction, although of course money–aided by his politician’s tongue–easily talked Crassus out of any official immortality charges. History doesn’t record what happened to Licinia, except that it was definitely minus one pleasant villa.
  • And then there’s poor old Erik “the Red” Thorvaldsson, hoist by his own petard into an icy hell-hole. As it turns out, he wasn’t even able to claim the honours of discovery; according to Wiki, Tradition credits  Gunnbjörn Ulfsson (also known as Gunnbjörn Ulf-Krakuson) with the first sighting of the land-mass….nearly a century before Erik… After Gunnbjörn, Snaebjörn Galti had also visited Greenland.  Apparently neither of these guys had Erik’s PR expertise (as many an MMORPG player has discovered, having a flaming ginger beard will do wonders for your warrior cred) and, more to the point, they didn’t manage to establish permanent settlements.
  • Yep, outlandish as it sounds, Erik’s little etymological scam in reality worked a treat. Granted, mostly with poor Icelandic famine victims, but, y’know, details. It’s anyway generally believed that the new settlement would have been significantly more ‘green’ back then, the island historically being notoriously subject to rapid climate shifts:  Interpretation of ice core and clam shell data suggests that between 800 and 1300 AD, the regions around the fjords of southern Greenland experienced a relatively mild climate several degrees Celsius higher than usual in the North Atlantic, with trees and herbaceous plants growing and livestock being farmed. Barley was grown as a crop up to the 70th parallel.
  • At any rate, within just a few years after his return from exile in 982, Erik had managed to attract a fair few thousand settlers to the imaginatively named Eastern and Western Settlements respectively. Whereupon he promptly named himself paramount chieftain of the whole schmear, built himself a grand estate and became both “greatly respected and wealthy”. Thus everybody lived happily ever after… or at least until the fifteenth century, when another ice age kicked in and farming became impossible once again.
  • It’s not made clear in the sketch itself, but the reason everyone therein is so het up about Emma Sharp’s attempt (or for that matter, is giving her any attention at all) is because covering 1000 miles in the shortest possible time turns out to be historically a pretty big deal, it being the longest recognised standard distance. For awhile there at the turn of the 19th century, quite a few intrepid (also, male) sporty types earned a handsome living taking bets that they could walk it in x hours. Emma’s definitely a worthy candidate for feature treatment, but I have a soft spot for George Wilson, dauntless dare-taker extraordinaire:
  • …[He] became involved in great controversy when in the middle of one of his 20 day 1000 mile wagers he was stopped by the authorities and charged with causing a breach of the peace. He lost the wager and ended up in debtor’s prison. Unbowed, he then proceeded to walk 50 miles in 12 hours in a tiny prison yard, a mere 11 yards by 8, making 9.026 turns!
 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S04E08

*SPLAT*
Only think, my son: the gods have chosen you to receive this divine message. Perhaps this bird brings tidings of great joy — or of a future love! Perhaps you have been singled out for greatness…!
Or perhaps the gods want us to stop standing under trees full of doves!
*SPLAT*
Yeah, could be that too…

Ever wonder what might have been had the show skipped over all those carefully-considered creative strides toward cross-demographic subtlety and just upgraded Series One to PG-13 instead? Well…

In this episode:

Song: Luddites! — Proletariat punk rockers Jim, Mat, Simon and Larry channel the original rage against the machine.

Recurring sketches:

Wonders of the Viking Universe — “What we Vikings don’t know about the universe isn’t worth knowing! …And we also know that it rests in the branches of an enormous tree called Yggdrasil! Amazing!” “Brian… stick to the script, yeah?”

Historical Dating Service — Viking warrior seeks a wife… and may have found one right there in the office. (“Now, how much will your father want for you?” “Oh, Sally’s cheap as chips. In fact, for two bags of chips, you could probably marry Sal and her sister!” “Hum. Nice deal. Well, I must go and fetch the goat…”)

Computer Game: Scorpus Chariot Racer! — “Yeah, green’s good… although red doesn’t show up your opponents’ blood so much!”

Stupid Deaths — Richard the Lionheart (Hit with a child defender’s arrow while distracted by the grownups’ comic efforts at defense, and… “Wait, you went into battle without wearing armour?” “Oh, totes! It’s how I roll!”)

Historical Apprentice — crop-rotation pioneer Viscount ‘Turnip’ Townshend and his Team Whig -vs- the random peasants on Team Go Wurzel (“I’m a Georgian gent, I never get my hands dirty. I’m more the ‘ideas’ person.” “Yeh, and I’m the ‘do the actual work’ person!”)

Shouty Man — New! Ancient Greek Tattoo Messenger (“Simply shave the head of your most trusted slave, then tattoo the message directly onto his skull… wait for his hair to grow back, and voila! The messaging system that’s ‘hair’ today, but not gone tomorrow! …or something.”)

Historical Dentist — Tudor (“You’re not going to put that poo into my mouth?!” “Don’t be ridiculous! In order to be effective, it must be your own poo. Ah, I don’t suppose you feel like –” “Not a chance, mate.”)

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Disastrous Relief — After the Great Fire of Rome, Emperor Nero tours the devastation… which goes about as well as you’d expect. (“But Emperor, our lives have been destroyed! You have to do something for us!” “And so I shall! I promise you that I will not rest, until there is a thirty-five-foot bronze statue of me just — there! How do you think I should pose? Grapes, or no grapes?”)

Nasty Knights

Here There Be Monsters — A Crusader prepares the new recruits for the exotic fauna they might encounter in the Holy Land and OHAI MP’S ‘SELF-DEFENSE AGAINST FRESH FRUIT’ SKETCH DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE. (“What about the one-legged Cyclops?! What’ll you do then, hey?! — Too slow!! You think that slow, and he will dance on your grave — “ “Hop.” “Hop on your grave!!!”)

New! Mellified Man — A mummy in honey that’s yummy! “Want a great way to start their day? Give them the finest delicacy of modern Arabia! Chunks of real honey-soaked hundred-year-old dead person!”

Groovy Greeks

Winged Messengers — One thing about birds as divine symbols, they’re not subtle. At all. “Look, a dove! Tell us Aphrodite’s bidding, O White-Winged One!” *SPLAT!* “A blessing!” “Easy for you to say, you don’t have poo on your shoulder!”

Terrible Tudors

HHTV News: Behind the Throne — Profiling Sir Thomas Heneage, Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool. Let’s just say, when historians speak of the position’s unprecedented access to the King, they were so not exaggerating.

Field Notes:

  • Right, so it turns out the Samuel L. Jackson pastiche was merely the beginning of the gleeful grossology update; in other words, it was already clear that the HH crew are past caring about any Carthaginian demographic barriers, and this is where we find out just how far. Spoiler: somewhere just barely south of the post-10PM programming watershed.
  • Which I… did not strictly consider necessary to my viewing happiness, but can sympathise. It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when a children’s edutainment series has patiently worked its way to grownup creative respectability, the creators thereof are entitled to have a bit of fun. At least, this is what I keep telling myself. Along with the occasional “well, at least they’re not actually sitting on the toilet this time… much…”
  • So what the hey, let’s patch together a half-hour kiddy gigglefest out of — among other things — Henry VIII’s bowel movements, mummies for breakfast, Historical Dentists with S&M fetishes and finding out exactly how desperate the Historical Dating Service tarts are! Oh, and of course a Sex Pistols-inspired song. Because education, or whatever it is that makes the BBC feel better about lyrics like “smash my switch up!”
  • It really is educational, though… the song, that is. (We’ll get to the mummies later.) Also, a job lot of satisfyingly clever fun. It’s so fundamentally logical, and universal, a subject/genre parody mashup that this team basically could not possibly screw it up, either production or performance. Once the connection was made, the only thing left to do was get out of the way and let the gang have at it…
  • …possibly after purchasing some additional insurance on ersatz Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, there. Giving Jim and Mat full licence to lose all inhibitions is not only as brilliantly, authentically entertaining as you’d expect, but also as you’d expect comes with bonus hilarity in the form of Jim’s subsequent Twitter account of having ‘nearly killed Mat and a crewmember’ with that staff.
  • Mind you, it’s not all about the rowdy stuff. There is still Historical Apprentice, once again starring Chris Addison and what I think we can safely now dub his thing for flouncy wigs. At any rate, as the wigs have gotten bigger — and, OK, his time spent hanging out-on set presumably increased — his confidence has noticeably expanded, to the point where he’s a genuine addition to the HH house style. (Check out the grin on ‘I’m a gent’, especially.) It’s a real shame it turns out to be one of those classic ‘finally gets it just as he has to go’ moments.
  • As a sendoff, though, it definitely makes the most of the trip. Leave it to HH to turn a sketch literally all about crop rotation into one of the flat-out funniest, most engaging of the series — largely because the slightness of the subject serves to allow Larry, Mat and Greg J. all to demonstrate just how adept they’ve become at filling in the odd comedy corners. The first two are of course old hands at the hilarious idiot game, but you especially have to love Greg, totally unable to keep his own intelligent interest from shining through the mute pitchfork-toting peasant.
  • Meantime Jim is still doing a great job of being Donald Trump Except Non-Ironically Entertaining — seriously, if the real-life Lord Sugar also does things like insist the Queen produce her birth certificate to prove she’s not one of the Lizard People, I don’t want to know, OK? The guy’s really starting to grow on me. As is his assistant Martha.
  • His assistant Lawry, on the other hand, is really starting to make me want a shower. And then I got to the Historical Dentist bit, and… well, look, let me stress the good news: as Not Brian Cox, he now has the wide-eyed idiot child of the universe thing about nailed, which makes me very happy — despite a severely ironic lack of fact-checking (see below). That said, there is not enough brain bleach in the whole amazingly vast universe to make me comfortable with inviting him into my imagination to explore feces-related fun and games.
  • I am less viscerally panicked by Sarah frolicking merrily amid the sadistic undercurrents, because for better or worse my brain accepts and even respects this as the natural level-up of her S1 persona… but I still had to construct an entire little fantasy around Civilian Simon and his de-fluffed hair, and how it clearly responds to his moods, to feel properly clean again. To top it all off, incipient obsession with this or no, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the patient would more naturally have been Ben.
  • I’m better with Simon driving the chariot; that sketch could use a dash of unexpected fun, given that it’s otherwise expecting to earn same from pretty much your average PlayStation experience (and, OK, ‘Dobbinus’. Heh…). Granted this isn’t going to hurt its coolness factor any with small audiences — and at this point, it’s almost reassuring to have evidence that we’re still thinking about the small audiences — but mere random brutish violence, in the gaming world, does not a viable parody make.
  • It does however make a dependably great Viking parody, which just about manages to save me from questioning why the HDating Service exists in the first place. Along with my other theory, which involves the producers creating a sort of playroom for the HH cast’s domestic whims — a chance to hang out with Mat’s adorable baby, for Martha and Dominique to whoop it up, for Simon to pillage stuff, whatever. It’s all very ‘women’s programming’, only in this case the man is literally a big dumb insensitive brute with only one thing on his mind.
  • This would be an excellent time for my usual rant re: Scandinavian accents, except that it’s also time to kick off the short-but-fabulously memorable career of our final major royal character, Richard I Lionheart, and in-between the mad snickering it occurs to me that I am a total linguistic hypocrite. Because reality dictates that the uber-English legend of countless Robin Hood movies is here played by Mat in full mock-Gallic magnificence…
  • …also an arrow stuck under his armpit, kind of embarrassing that. Even with their full rich schedule of simulating fresh scalp tattoos, you’d think the f/x crew could’ve glued a suction tip on the fly.
  • Nevertheless, Richard’s Stupid Death manages for once to upstage Death’s surreal antics (although the random mummy-motivating campaign sure doesn’t hurt). The really impressive part, in fact, is the unexpected coda, and more specifically Death demonstrating he knows when to turn it off. Right in the middle of all the enthusiastic ickiness, the perfectly-judged comic maturity here might be one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen on the show — and it says something about their newfound confidence that they’d even try.
  • Shouty Man with new! bonus afro and tiara, on the other hand, slightly less with the endearing. I like Shouty a lot, but this does not mean I was prepared for a glimpse into what happens when Jim not only gets bored, but apparently starts reading TMZ.
  • I am more solidly enchanted with his product concept. I don’t care how formulaic the gags for your history lesson are, if the formula was first concocted for the Flintstones — and is currently being executed by Mat and his grasp of the ridiculous — you’re pretty well covered in the random hilarity department. Kind of a shame they missed their chance at the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (or possibly Waterworld) gags, though.
  • Speaking of unsettling Howick-ness… Jim’s Nero has officially joined Ben’s Henry VIII in the Could Pass in a Serious Drama stakes. I am still giggling every second the vile sociopath’s onscreen, and still hating myself for it in the morning — even the ‘Hail me!’ bit, which I think itself actually dates back to the Roman era. Clearly I have no shame… albeit in my defense, Jim is trying on the aristocratic lisp that Caligula’s been modelling for awhile now, except working off Mat’s version rather than Simon’s, and so ends up declaiming that “I will not rust…!”
  • Another way you can tell this is a straight S1 update: Python influence bunged in wholesale. Seriously, the MP influence hasn’t been this obvious for awhile… luckily the the producers’ taste in inspirational sketches is as, well, inspired as ever, and so is Jalaal’s and Larry’s timing. Jim, meanwhile, is making about as impressive a Drill Sergeant Nasty as you’d expect… which actually works well as an oddball stand-in for Cleese’s full-on insane, under the circs. Like heading around in the opposite direction to achieve the same comic results.
  • There’s more exquisitely Pythonic goodness in the ‘Winged Messengers’ bit. Easily one of the slightest excuses for a sketch in the entire canon, but so worth it just to see Simon and Mat’s respective interpretations of ‘beatific’. Again, sort of disappointed they didn’t go for Ben here — since part of me can’t help but envision a smartly wicked riff on ‘Baybond’ — but I’ll take what I can get, especially when it’s “Maybe the gods want us to stand over there…?”
  • We do eventually get mondo Benjamin in the Henry VIII sketch, which is nice. So is Jim’s chipper devoted act, which really sells the outrageous premise, and Sarah, doing the best she can as Alice’s replacement brunette newsbimbo despite not having much indignation to stand on after that HDentist bit. Otherwise… yeah, again, the toilet sketches aren’t my thing, and so a tactful veil will be drawn over further comment. Except, maybe, to offer a hug to poor dear Jim. It’s a hell of a way to win comedy awards, isn’t it?

95% Accu-rat:

  • I did get a little distracted by the unusually blatant goofs in the Viking Universe sketch — blatant enough, in fact, that I gather they may have been fixed on the DVD. In the original broadcast (of which I have the iPlayer recording), the Gorgeous Viking Scientist accidentally makes himself look not only mad, but frankly like he bought his diploma from a random guy — or possibly a talking rat — wearing a horned helmet at ComicCon. Protip: Loki is Odin’s son only in the Marvel Asgard, kids. And the ‘six-legged’ horse he gave birth to… well, why don’t we have Wiki explain it all:
  • In Norse mythology, Loki, Loptr, or Hveðrungr is a god or jötunn (or both). Loki is the son of Fárbauti and Laufey, and the brother of Helblindi and Býleistr. By the jötunn Angrboða, Loki is the father of Hel, the wolf Fenrir, and the world serpent Jörmungandr. By his wife Sigyn, Loki is the father of Narfi and/or Nari. And by the stallion Svaðilfari, Loki is the mother—giving birth in the form of a mare—to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir. In addition, Loki is referred to as the father of Váli in the Prose Edda.
  • …Amazing, isn’t it?
  • So of course is the Mellified Man, and not only because it stuns the rat into complete disgust only an episode or two after confessing to adore ‘rotten seafood sick’… and no, I don’t plan on letting that go anytime soon. Anyway, I’m sure we’ll all be most pleased — and not a bit surprised — to learn that ‘honey-soaked dead guy’ as medical aid may not have been an actual thing.
  • While honey’s uniquely limitless shelf-life could theoretically make it happen (still-edible traces of the sweet goop have been found all over the ancient world, including in some coffins) there’s very little hard evidence that it actually did, in medieval Arabia. The concept was recorded as a secondhand rumour by a 16th century Chinese pharmacologist, who noted that it even if true, it was considered a rare and exotic, uh, delicacy.
  • But wait, there’s more! The really fun part is, in the course of researching, I noticed the Wiki article has a section on ‘Similar Medical Practices’. To wit:
  • …the medicinal use of mummies, and the sale of fake ones, is “well documented” in chemistry books of 16th to 18th centuries in Europe, “but nowhere outside Arabia were the corpses volunteers”. Mummies were a common ingredient in the Middle Ages until at least the eighteenth century, and not only as medicine, but as fertilizers and even as paint. The use of corpses and body parts as medicine goes far back—in the Roman Empire the blood of dead gladiators was used as treatment for epilepsy.
  • Yep, the afterlife really could be only the beginning of your great adventure… only quite possibly not the one you were expecting. Makes the whole rest of the business with the poo and mouse parts and whatnot seem almost quaintly charming, doesn’t it?
  • Meantime, I am deeply saddened to report that tattooing random slaves did not, in fact, catch on as the text-messaging equivalent of ancient Greece. The good news is, though, that the facts as recorded here are still substantially correct. According to contemporary historian Herodotus, the whole thing was a sort of last-ditch inspiration by ancient POW Histiaeus of Miletus, who had to convince the slave in question that it would ‘help his failing eyesight’ in order to get him to submit to the procedure.
  • At any rate, the whole thing worked like a charm, the rebellion was a success and Histiaeus was freed. History doesn’t actually record what happened re: the slave’s eyesight, but I like to think he got many free rounds out of the story anyway, down at the Grecian equivalent of the pub.
 
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Posted by on July 30, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E04

My home was in Plymouth, let’s call this New Plymouth!
I got an ideer, let’s call this New Hampshire!
I’m from Newcastle, can we call this New Newcastle?!
…Nahhhhh.

In a bit of have-to-believe-it’s-intentional irony, wanna-be Americans reach their new world just as the show settles comfily into mining their backlog of surefire funny…

In this episode:

Song: It’s a New World — Mat, Martha, Larry aka William Mullins and Ben (in decreasing order of credibility) reveal the Pilgrim Fathers as hardcore, man. (Parody of: Empire State of Mind, Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys)

Recurring sketches:

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From the Norman siege of Palermo, 1064 (“This looks like a disaster, Sir Robert! Most of your men have been bitten by spiders!” “Well, no, I haven’t — I just like dancing!”)

Stupid Deaths — King Harold’s Brothers (“So let me get this straight: The Normans were losing, until you two ran down a hill… causing the end of your brother King Harold, the end of Saxon rule in England, and in fact, the end of the Saxon era altogether?!” “Yeah, in a nutshell…”)

Words We Get From the — Normans

Dodgy War Inventions — No.81: The German U-Boat (“It was the perfectly designed fighting machine…” including a sleek, modern, and — as it turned out — rather over-complex toilet: “It’s supposed to be a white flag, only… ja, long story, sorry…”)

Historical Apprentice — Team Neanderthal -vs- Team Homo Sapiens (“I’ve had some primitive types around the table over the years, but you lot take the flamin’ biscuit! Two words: Beard. Trimmers.”)

DI Bones: Historical Crime Squad — The Victorians and Something Funny in the Water (“Ah, yeh, that’ll probably be the cholera.” “Note to self… get a desk job.”)

One-offs:

Groovy Greeks

The (Theoretically) Fighting Spartans — Despite their leader’s best attempt at Gerald Butler’s hair, the legendarily dedicated warriors notice a weak spot in their awesomely unified battle front.

Pausanius: A True Story (movie trailer) — The epic story of how a great Spartan general managed to severely underestimate the shrewdness and cunning of his own people… who were freaking Spartans, did we mention that? (“How dare they accuse me of siding with the Persians! Just for that… I’m gonna side with the Persians!”)

Awesome USA

Colonisation, Colonisation, Colonisation — “This is such a lovely spot! I wonder why the native Indians don’t live here!” “Well, it could be something to do with the swamp… Could be to do with the lack of drinkable water… Or it could be the *slap* mosquitoes…” “Yes, well, at least none of us have caught any nasty diseases!” “Erk…”)

Woeful Second World War

Don’t Wake the Fuehrer — Detailing how the German reaction to D-Day was delayed thanks to his guards’ reluctance to disturb ‘Mr. Grumpy Pants’ at his nap. (“But if we wake ze Fuhrer, he will… why, he will… get in such a paddy!” “Ooh, such a paddy he will get in!”)

Vile Victorians

I Scream — Back by probably-not-very-popular demand, the show’s fascination with Horrible things that happened to milk pre-pasteurization! Now with bonus cute innocent child!

Field Notes:

  • So yeah, we appear to have reached the point in Series Four where the remarkable is starting to show a distinct resemblance to remarkableness past. Which, as demonstrated last episode, is not by any means a bad thing; not only because it’s one way at least to ensure both audiences old and new will be equally delighted… but because when they do decide to get all innovative and clever, the results tend to involve things like Larry as a hip-hop Pilgrim with a shoe fetish.
  • Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that concept didn’t delight many, many people. What I am possibly saying is that these are the many of the same people who openly declare they have crushes on Bob Hale, so you can consider yourself fairly warned. Friends don’t let friends wander into an HH rap parody alone, y’know?
  • Actually, thanks to the smouldering he can fake the angsty posturing fairly acceptably, I’ll give him that at least — right up until he unfortunately abandons it at a key moment in favour of his inevitable Plan B: straight over the top and hope for the best. Yeah, so that doesn’t really work when living up to Jay-Z, Rickard… as you can tell when Ben’s calling you out. What the hell, was Jim off sick that day? (Paper-cut tongue from licking wedding invitations, maybe?)
  • The whole thing is an unusually un-self-confident mismash of satirical stylings — as if even up to the moment of filming they couldn’t decide whether to play it silly or straight, so just left it up to each individual performer, who in turn picked a really bad time (quite possibly out of embarrassment) to for once not tune into the others. Luckily for a genuinely decent concept, it’s eventually held together by Mat and Martha being brilliant along much more standard lines (and can we just take a moment to marvel once again at Mathew Baynton, ‘quality rapper’) besides some passably clever wordplay and Ben… wearing one of those wigs with the curls clustering round his face. Which definitely helps.
  • This apparently being official Let’s Mess With Willbond Day, musically speaking, we also get Mike Peabody learning that even the natural world is out to get him. Dear, dear Ben… quite honestly, I think this is about as far out of his comfort zone as HH has ever chucked him, and that would include both the time they required him to cope with a full-grown python round his neck and the one where he was forced to bathe in the North Atlantic in mid-October for a two-second throwaway bit.
  • Really you have to wonder if the producers don’t see pushing Benjamin’s buttons as sort of light entertainment… which sounds like an awesome idea, actually. I’d buy tickets. Still can’t help but feel a bit bad for him here, though. At least snake-wrangling makes for a decent story at the pub afterwards, and doesn’t involve getting shamelessly upstaged by a Farnaby to boot.
  • Dear, dear Simon. Also seen here overseeing easily the most epic SD ever — big week for epic military disasters altogether, come to that. Much love for how Death just lets these two stand there and dig themselves in deeper. Of course, on the evidence, this may be because the writers were suffering from punner’s block that week — no, the punny songwriters are different people, although I will concede Larry’s creativity works in mysterious ways. Generally speaking, though, when you have to resort to visual aids to get the wordplay across, you’re working too hard.
  • (Incidentally, I’ve been putting this off, but… does anyone else think the opening/closing SD titles could stand an upgrade? Not the song of course, but the visuals are starting to look decidedly… I dunno, early-series-ish.)
  • On the further subject of Simon’s adorableness… OK, so you remember how back last series they had the other Location, Location Location takeoff, and I was all “gee, too bad they didn’t take it any further, this would’ve been a great parody vehicle for settlers vs. Native Americans”? Yeah, so can we all just focus on the bit where I’m really prescient, there? Thanks.
  • Because, no kidding, I totally was.The Native POV is noticeably absent, but the Jamestown sketch gets the point across anyway — proof that valuable lessons have been learned from the Mesoamerican experiment. It’s as purely fun a romp as the series has ever produced, the result of a bunch of seasoned performers just having a great time with a series of surefire running gags — the signpost with the crossed-out ‘pop.’ is especially fun — as led by positive oodles of classic Proper Upper-Class Farnaby. The phrase ‘what’s not to love?’ was totally invented for this point in the show’s evolution. I am only disappointed that they didn’t give them actual arrows, albeit I can see where they’d have reason to worry about Ben’s aim.
  • Unlike, for instance, the Historical Apprentice writers, who have settled to their reality-TV-trashing task in much the familiar manner — which I picture as the writers sitting round a dartboard with the current parody target’s logo on it and assigning the quips based on where the darts land. (“Why not fire Grunt? He already dead!” being an example of a treble-twenty.)
  • The fact that the target for once seems reasonably shrewd, if not actually clever, himself — or at least, that the concept is based off that illusion — seems, interestingly, only to have roused team HH further to the challenge. And it has thus far paid off handsomely. The whole sketch resonates with the joy of  writers released back on familiar ground and loving every minute of it…
  • …plus, did I mention there was moar Simon? And that he has a shrew? And that Smug Caveman Ben inquiring “Sorry, what is wheel?” is well up the running for Most Incredibly Adorable HH Moment Ever? Oh, and while I’m on… erm, look, I know I don’t have a ton of credibility here, but is Lawry’s character supposed to be coming off as faintly sticky-palmed, or…? ‘Cos frankly he’s creeping me right the hell out — yes, even more than usual. I think it’s the glasses.
  • OK! In case you were wondering about the rest of the Most Adorable Moment finalists, there are, like, at least another two dozen here in my New Most Favourite HH Sketch Ever: Mat and Jim playing SS guards with much the same sweetly campy abandon as they play the Historical Paramedics. The little ‘ADOLF’S ROOM’ plaque on the door behind them is totally making the MAME shortlist.
  • Seriously, if you haven’t seen this thing, your ability to experience joy is woefully incomplete, even if you’ve already seen all the HParamedic bits. This one goes above and beyond, starting with Mat getting a chance to let his face run riot — no, new-and-enlarged audience, that’s not Silly Putty, that’s his actual face. Elsewhere… erm, if I say Larry makes a surprisingly competent hardcore SS officer — accent and all — does that count as a compliment?
  • Oh, and howdy Jalaal Hartley, sorry I’ve missed you up til now.  Jalaal, folks, will be the most prominent of this series’ new set of Random Character Guys, the result of the expanding number of roles for same I mentioned last review. Evidently the producers were concerned at the lack of ridiculously attractive brunet types. I can sympathise.
  • On that note, welcome back DI Bones, with bells on. The writers’ love affair with the relentlessly dour DI is back in full swing, and this time it comes along with their other love affair for Victorian poverty, with just a dash of their enthusiasm for Mat falling over. (The unexpectedly dissolving into doe eyes at key moments, however, that’s pure instinct. On the off-chance you haven’t seen the highwayman song vid before now, new and by now probably totally bemused audience, this sketch provides a handy microcosm of The Baynton Experience.)
  • Personally, the whole thing intersects my favourite media to the extent that I desperately wish DI Bones would appear more often. Like maybe in his own spinoff series. With Larry playing a different hapless bozo nemesis each week… although not Liverpudlian ones. Seriously, how does a man go from a note-perfect ripoff of Ringo Starr to whatever he fondly thinks that accent is? And we’re not even going to get into Martha’s attempts. I think they encourage each other.
  • Which brings us well enough around to the Pausanius bit. Inspired officially by the Stupid Death from S01E12 (which reminds me, I never did get the ‘Viking bitten by the severed head of his enemy’ opus, also based on an S1 SD. *tiny sigh*). Unofficially, by the show’s ongoing insistence that Mat somehow remotely resembles a ferocious warrior battle-hardened from birth. And no, show, the improved makeup budget doesn’t help your credibility any. ‘Fess up now, you just fell in love with the idea of that cliched ‘golden’ lighting washing across all the heroically-furred chin thrusting, didn’t you?
  • Hey, y’know, also very impressively masculine — dare I say 300-esque — facial hair on Spartan General Jim there! Also, nice use of camera angles to disguise the physical discrepancies with the original! Could it possibly be that the show has finally learned its lesson about… *checks Jim in next episode’s sketches*… nahhhh. I do anyway enjoy how they cut from his inspiring speech to the standard, like, eight warriors, indicating that they may at least be developing a sense of humour about their lack of an extras budget. It all adds a bit of interest to what’s otherwise, yeah, Lawry being Lawry, whatever. Can we just have a sketch where he murders something soon please?
  • Finally, random bit of trivia that may amuse only me: this is the second time in as many series that a rampaging Larry’s been soothed by seafood. I have… no idea whatsoever what this means honestly, but fanfic authors may have it for free.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So the spider-bite dance turns out to be the tarantella — yep, that fun’n’snappy Italian folk dance. Something to ponder, next time you’re considering the practical value of dance lessons: About the mid-fifteenth century, the people of Taranto, Italy, decided (…somehow) that dancing really really fast was the cure for the bite of the local species of wolf spider. Which they had previously dubbed the ‘tarantula’. Special bonus lesson for the day, kids: when once medieval Italians got hold of a good name for something, they didn’t fool around.
  • No, of course it didn’t actually work. But it was a lot more fun than anything else you might be doing to deal with the “swelling, mild pain and itching” that actually results when the local ‘tarantula’ takes a fancy to your ankles. (To be fair to Robert and crew, it’s suggested they possibly ran into a more virulent variant.) However the bit here seems to be conflating the much later, more serious tarantella craze with the biohazard during the siege, that in reality were usually treated much more boringly by ‘hot compresses’.
  • Poor William Mullins, shoemaker: forever enshrined in HH lore as the vain, impractical, over-civilized Mayflower colonist who brought along nothing but 126 pairs of his product… plus 13 pairs of boots, thank you Bobsy… to a rough and ready new American colony that wound up struggling just to survive. Hah! Typical Euro-hubris, amirite? What a maroon!
  • …Except not really. Yes of course, as the song says, ‘a fishing rod, a plough, a pig or a cow would’ve been a much better idea,’ but just a few seconds’ further reflection (perhaps aided by this admirably sensible blog post) will attest that in a situation like this — notably devoid, as the song itself goes on to emphasise, of any type of manufacturing infrastructure let alone knowledge — lots of nice sturdy shoes, also boots wouldn’t exactly be hay either. So to speak.
  • As a bonus, under eighteenth century conditions, they’d also be much easier and more reliable to transport. Remember, these were people who could barely get themselves across the ocean in one piece; frankly I’d rather trust the guy who didn’t think bringing in the leather on the hoof was the better idea.
  • In essence, Mullins was no more shortsighted than anyone else on the Mayflower, and quite possibly a lot less so than most. Basically just a reasonably shrewd businessman who saw the whole thing not as an adventure but as a sales opportunity; his way of recouping some of his original investment in the venture. And he ended up giving his life for it, that first winter in Plymouth colony. In his will — which is how we know about the footwear in the first place — he requests that they be sold to the colony for the then-astronomical sum of forty pounds total. Snigger all you like, but that there is dedication.
 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E02

Well, do tuck in, Mr. Ambassador!
Aren’t you going to say grace first?
Oh — yes. *folds hands reverently* Party. On.
Ah…amen?
Big time.

A followup that takes skilful advantage of both familiarity and famous names to keep the event-TV ball rolling… and oh yeah, tosses out another sublimely sparkling musical gem in the process.

In this episode:

Song: Natural Selection — Mat as Charles Darwin, with Jim (and, apparently, ‘Stuart from Production’) as The Gorilla. (Parody of: David Bowie, Changes)

Recurring sketches:

Bob Hale — The Human Report

Historical Apprentice — Team Pirate vs. Team Merchant (“So… who was your project manager?” “Arrrr! I prefers the term ‘Cap’n’!” “Yeah, well, I prefer the term ‘King’, but I’ve got to do with plain old ‘Lord’, haven’t I?”)

Oh Yea! Magazine — Nell Gwyn special: Superstars of the Stuart stage — female for the first time!… possibly not coincidentally, during Charles II’s rule. (“What can I say? I’m a lady magnet!”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

Victoria & Albert: The Photo Love Story — …but frankly, I’m more interested in the revelation that the Queen had a really snarky proto-Bachelorette-host butler. (“With all due respect, Ma’am, he’s totally fit.”)

Terrible Tudors

Martin Luther at Home — Or, more specifically, in one room of his home. The smallest room.. which he’s redone into the largest. The father of the Protestant Reformation had an unhealthy fixation on the health of his fecal matter, is what I’m trying to get across here. (“So now, I can do my business, while I do my business! Ha-ha! I make ze joke…”)

Cash in the Abbey — Henry VIII runs the dissolution of the ecclesiastical properties of England pretty much the way you’d expect… ie. the only reason I’m not making a steamroller joke here is because they hadn’t been invented yet. (“Yes, well, they shouldn’t have done all those terrible things that we said they did!”)

Hide and Priest — Religious intolerance helps to provide antique manor hidey-holes enough to delight an entire future generation of Agatha Christie fans. “The game that brings Protestants and Catholics together… only not in a good way.”

Woeful Second World War

Station Identification — Larry’s first-ever HH sketch, used as Mat’s first audition, finally sees the light of day: a carriage-full of wartime railway passengers and their conductor try with ever-decreasing success to maintain security and their sanity at the same time.

Gas Bag Blues (animated) — Finding a way around petrol rationing strains the limits of even British ingenuity… and dinner on the unlit gas fire once they got home couldn’t have been much compensation, either.

Slimy Stuarts

Charles II at Home — Which at mealtimes he just happens to share with an entire gallery-full of his closest random subjects…

Field Notes:

  • Let us now consider the curious phenomenon that TVTropes has dubbed Sesame Street Cred: the enormous cachet celebrities gain by making an appearance on the Street (or, by now, nearby programming suburbs) as driven by the mutual realisation that few things are as appealing to parents as attractive, talented adults voluntarily taking time out to hang with little kids.
  • I mention it because, well, it got a little lost in all the LoG hype, but somewhere in the off-season — in much the more traditional manner of these things — currently-hot stand-up comic/Willbond’s Thick of It co-star Chris Addison also revealed himself and family as big fans, and could he please come over and play sometime? Not, nota bene, get the Big Name treatment, or even his own segment, or anything; just maybe hang out with the HH troupe for awhile.
  • In other words it was, even more than the opportunity to host Mark Gatiss’ class reunion, validation that the HH crew had attained to SSCred on their own merits — their own creative merits. The kid’s show had hit another small but significant milestone on the road to grownup credibility: they had evolved into not only a place where adult celebrities wanted to be, but where they wanted to interact on the show’s own terms. A mutually-beneficial enhancement of talent, not just image.
  • As if to demonstrate exactly how that happened, our song this week is the first HH tuneage to be based entirely around the triumph of intellectual discovery, rather than the more conveniently relateable personal or moral conquest. And somehow young Mathew gets that, on a visceral level that makes this easily his best performance, musical or otherwise, of the show to even date.
  • (Also weirdly — and amusingly — reminiscent of another. As portrayed on HH, Darwin’s closest cousin may be Robert Knox, the unwitting conspirator of Burke & Hare.)
  • Sure, it helps that this time they gave him a note-perfect Bowie pastiche, but honestly, even then, this could’ve been so stupidly goofy, and instead — lo these many months later — I am still cranky about it not winning Baynton that Best Actor BAFTA. Picture, say,  Bill Nye… except as translated through a Victorian gentleman in his eighties. In which case picture all that same charm and enthusiasm, only confined mostly to those uncannily expressive eyes, glittering with all the reminiscent awe of ch-ch-changing our fundamental relationship to the universe…
  • Also, OK, there’s a drumming gorilla. Regardless of which the staging matches the performance note-for-sweetly-erudite-note; fully managing to be silly while refusing to compromise the sophistication. It all represents possibly the most intelligent series of artistic choices the show ever made. Just edging out Richard III’s song by a stuffed finch.
  • Speaking of intelligent choices, the accompanying Bob Hale report… Oookay, I can now officially show you one whacky daring CBBC children’s comedy that’s going to have to be heavily edited — again — before it hits American screens. Seriously, I’m pretty sure the American heartland would let the ‘brownface’ skate by well before they’d sign off on the ape in the ‘I’m Evolving’ tee, however adorable — and so is ‘Handy Man’, incidentally. (Albeit fudged a bit re: racial characteristics, for obvious reasons. Imagine being the little kid of colour on the playground the day after the cool TV show implied your ancestors were monkeys?)
  • Less appealing is Bob’s decision to physically slow the showmanship down just as his material’s gotten way more ambitious. Understandable, mind, but also massively un-nerving — and not just because of the relentlessly ongoing aging thing illustrating human mortality way beyond what was intended.
  • It’s just… all so responsible, and stuff. Yes, I know — I started out totally aghast at the lack of child development cues in HH, and now they’ve finally given in three series later, even this little teeny bit, I’m going on like a teenage slacker upon learning her friends have gone out and gotten a job. But — Bobsy, man! They got to Bobsy! *snif*
  • What? Oh yes, our guest star, thanks for the reminder. Erm… so yay, more spot-on savaging of random British reality types I don’t know who they are! Mind, we of course have The Apprentice over here too, so we’re roughly on the same satirical-potential page here. It’s just weird, when it gets this specific.
  • Everybody’s all ‘Yeah, that’s him! That’s so totally him!” and I’m here realising that a) I’m gonna have to do some in-depth research and b) based on what I’m seeing I obviously don’t want to research at all. So I just sit there frantically trying to glean between the lines. Regular readers especially can imagine how well this has worked out thus far. “But… but… he has decent hair, and everything! What are you people even complaining about?!” *sob*
  • So eventually I just give up and give in to the sheer glee inherent in Jim’s mimicry. It hasn’t let me down yet, and it doesn’t look like it will here. Anyway, all of it would be hilarious all on its own regardless, because pirates -vs- merchants as reality competition is as close to a no-fail concept as the writers have ever been confronted with.
  • Which means we’ve finally gotten around to Chris Addison!… no, him, the guy on the far right of Team Merchant. The one in the really goofy wig…? Yeah, I’m not sure either. I mean, what I said above is great and all, but you do go in assuming they’d at least give him a customised feature role, a la Alexi Sayle as the Muslim healer — OK, yeah, but surely baby-facedness is an equally heroic handicap, under the right circs? I mean, think of all those American mobsters who had to go around killing people, just to get some respect.
  • *ahem* So basically, what we ended up with is a rather oddly formal Portrait of a Comedian Trying Just a Trifle Too Hard to Fit In, and who thus ends up getting thoroughly upstaged not only by Lord Jim, Pirate Mat and Merchant Larry, but very nearly by a totally mute Greg J., here seen making something of a career out of adorably devoted seconds-in-command.
  • On the other hand, this stern critic person’s inner child fully recognises that it would be well-nigh impossible to show up to the HH set and not immediately demand the part involving just the flounciest wig going. She is furthermore sort of impressed that they did manage to work the cute naiive-looking thing into the point of the skit, however offhandedly.
  • Our Chris also gets some bonus points for noticing (on Twitter) that the new credit sequence references Jim as Martin Luther on the toilet over ‘horrors that defy description’. We get the actual sketch here, and I’m pleased to report that those rumours are a trifle exaggerated. Although I may just be less easy to impress since the one elder in my congregation started thinking of his bowel cleanses as chipper post-service conversation. (I do love Jim’s completely anachronistic but somehow utterly appropriate Muppet voice, though. Especially when I picture it coming out of the real Luther. You’re welcome.)
  • The most interesting part of this sketch is who’s coming up the stairs to be shocked by all this. Of course it should be Ben… except it’s actually Simon. Get real used to the resulting bemusement, because this is the first tentative sign of S4’s final and in some ways most offbeat off-stage wrinkle. Not the part where Farnaby becomes near-ubiquitous; this is the natural consequence of more complex sketches, that there will simply be more Generic Guy roles… and this is HH, he’s about as generic as it gets, given that Larry’s weird became an official plot point as of the Aztec song.
  • No, the really odd bit is the noticeable effacement of Willbond for much of this series, without explanation, even in places where he should logically be. And (spoiler alert) in S5, the same bizarre dynamic seems to be happening with Lawry/Mat. Not that any of it exactly disrupts anything critically — more like a really low-level disturbance in the creative Force. Picture… I dunno, the Dead Parrot suddenly being Slovakian Purple instead of Norwegian Blue. It doesn’t change anything, but it totally does.
  • Speaking of which, starting to realise why they brought Sarah H. back. Like Lawry — and, by this point, the whole Stuart novelty-foods schtick — she fills a niche so well that I can value having it around. I certainly can’t imagine anyone else making such a good job of Nell Gwyn, nor in turn any character more suited to the gossip-rag parody format. The little surrounding bits, with Charles II and Ben the theatre manager, likewise deftly hysterical.
  • Of course we’ll never lose Ben entirely, not as long as Henry VIII’s around (and has apparently borrowed Richard III’s fur robes this year! That’s… a bit creepy, actually, given their history.) The advent of subtlety has nicely co-incided with the running out of marriage gags, so we’ve moved on to the Dissolution as ‘Cash in the Attic’-style game show.
  • This is a brilliant idea, if still too dedicated to the notion of Henry as brutal bully (see below). Ben’s gotten just a bit too comfy in the part, I think;  he’s missing the edge of intellectual deception that was the original’s trademark. I’m a bit disappointed really that Ben doesn’t rise to the challenge, he could’ve made something really interesting of it.
  • The rising-to-the-challenge stuff is all Larry’s, this time — the hiding behind more openly ruthless lackies also being a Tudor specialty. Barring that the original was quite a bit heftier and much less primly hypocritical (see below), he pulls out a very nice dourly contemptuous Cromwell… especially so given that, while Larry’s skillset involves many unexpected things, ‘dour’ is about the last I would’ve assigned him before now.
  • Oh, and welcome back Mat the cheerily amoral reality-show host. The experiment last series has become the fixture in this… prep for which must involve quite a lot of watching really tacky TV, for this he has my sympathies. I of course can’t comment on how fine or not each specific parody is, but I do like the attention he pays to the little details, like the hands in his pockets here.
  • I also really like the performance he gives as the harassed railway conductor in Larry’s first-ever sketch. Clearly, the audition gods were smiling on him that day; this is funny, sweetly clever stuff all but specially designed to show off his strengths. So of course is Charles II… even so his creakily predictable bit should not be hitting me as this unbearably hilarious, but there it is. Enjoy the compliment to your comic timing, guys.
  • One more new addition to meet this ep: the Young Victoria, of whose impersonation Martha makes a remarkably nice job (Katy Wix might make even a better one, but the female cast seems to have been entirely rejiggered this year around other commitments). Nice understated bit of BBC cozy-corner parody this… possibly a bit too understated, in Jim’s case, or more specifically, Jim’s on-and-off-again German accent… yeah, well, I suppose Ben would be fudging reality a bit too far.
  • Anyway, it’s Jim and Martha who have the couple-chemistry, and I continue to admire the show’s persistence in finding ways to use it. Ooh, and hey, Lawry being all Alfred-style-snarky! Y”know, I could actually get used to this… mostly because it gives me hope that eventually he’s going to snap and interrupt all the billing-and-cooing with a machete, but still.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, do I even have to say it? That’s not quite how the Dissolution went. Sure, the sketch gets the royal motives right, and Thomas Cromwell — the self-made son of a blacksmith — really was that perpetually grumpy and/or ruthless, which might have something to do with the fact that nobody at court ever let him forget the blacksmith thing. (They were also no help when he finangled Henry a Protestant bride; to be fair though, she turned out to be Anne of Cleves, nothing was gonna help him with that one.)
  • The kicker was that — as the show has admitted in the past and will admit again as early as next episode (thank you, D.Duckworth) quite often the monasteries actually, um, did do all those things Henry and co. said they did. Refer back to S02E11 for the full story of how the only lifestyle difference being  a man or woman of God had for centuries basically meant was that now you were cooped up with a whole lot more available persons of the opposite sex. And they were probably also bored out of their frequently-tiny minds. You get the idea.
  • That said, there were inevitably also a whole lot of sincere, honest religious types who were deeply affected by the whole thing — mostly the lower ranks, so with very little if any influence on the larger project. The result was an irreparable rip in the basic fabric of English life. Not only were the spiritual houses that had acted as a sort of social assistance net, sheltering and feeding the poor as needed, now closed for good… but the priests etc doing the housing now found themselves thrown on the mercy of now-nonexistent resources. Let’s just say there was something of an explosion in the transient/beggar population, in the later years of Henry’s reign.
  • So no, it wasn’t entirely Charles Darwin’s reflection that led to natural selection… and no, I’m not doing the entire entry like that. Contrary to appearances, I do have a life, you know. Anyway, Darwin was pretty well puttering along towards the whole Unified Theory of Everything World-Changing when a guy named Alfred Russell Wallace sent him an essay on whaddaya know, the exact same subject, only with a few holes filled in. (As Darwin frankly acknowledged, there were a couple of other sciencey types kicking similar ideas around as well, but they didn’t get as far as publishing papers, so, y’know, sucked to be them.)
  • Otherwise this is a reasonably neat layman’s summary of the concept that eventually came to solely bear Darwin’s name — largely ‘cos Wallace turned out to be something of a professional embarrassment, what with the fervent belief in Spiritualism and holding seances and whatnot. More serious students may find themselves twitching a bit (as per the exhaustive, and fascinating, first comment below).
  • It did manage to find its way across sciencey-type Twitter accounts with relatively few bumps, save the one line that obviously sacrifices accuracy for a neat rhyme — fairly understandably, unless you’re an evolutionary biologist. Protip, next time you meet one at a party: do NOT make the jokes about how we evolved from chimps. (According to current theory we came up along parallel tracks.)
  • Oh, and QI aside, YouTube commenters: yes indeed, the Church of England was formally outraged even if many of its members (and interestingly, those of other denominations), weren’t much at all — hence the formal, if rather crankily reluctant, apology 126 years later.
 
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Posted by on June 30, 2013 in Series Four

 

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