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S04E10

So the Normans built a huge wooden tower for a witch to curse the Saxons, and show them her bottom. The Saxons got revenge by burning the tower down… hence the old saying: Red sky at night, witches’ bottom alight!

The annual late-series lull is enlivened by long-overdue time spent with some of the show’s most memorably enigmatic characters… just not necessarily quality time.

In this episode:

Song: Bloody Mary — Sarah solo as that most angsty of anomalies: a pathetic Tudor princess. (Parody of: Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights)

Recurring sketches:

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From just off the coast of the Isle of Ely, last Anglo-Saxon stronghold, 1071 (“So I presume there’s a Plan B, Your Majesty?” “Yes, of course there’s a Plan B!” “Which is?” “Right. But I think one witch ought to do it, don’t you?”)

Stupid Deaths — Pythagoras (Killed when his religious beliefs prevented him from escaping assassins through a beanfield… no, really. “Well, you’ve been stupid… or, rather, you’ve bean stupid! Hah!”)

Historical Wife Swap — Victorian Britain: The Tombleby-Pumblechooks of Mayfair (“Oh, dash it all, Parkins! We have guests, and there’s a crease in the newspaper!“) -vs- the Smikes of the London slums (“An’ if we kick the dead body out of the way, we’ll have somewhere for you to kip for the night!”)

Historical Dating Service — Saxon (“Can I ask a personal question?” “Sagittarius.” “Noooo, not that one. Do Saxons ever… bathe… at all?”)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Normanopoly — “The board game that lets you invade England alongside William the Conqueror!… and the great thing is, you can just make up the rules as you go along!” (“Well, I better build another church, I’m about to do something… reeeeeeaaaaallly bad! Heh heh heh…” “…You need to work on your evil laugh, boss.”)

Groovy Greeks

Diogenes and Me — In which the most famously crusty of ancient thinkers reveals the extreme unlikelihood of his philosophy of honesty and simplicity ever hitting the best-seller lists… (“Hey! Whaddaya think you’re doing?” “Oh, sorry, mate, I had no idea there was a naked man in that barrel… wait, why is there a naked man in that barrel?!”)

Smashing Saxons

Don’t Go Into the Woods — “OK, then… we must journey through the rocks!” “Are you insane? We can’t go through the rocks! Giants live in the rocks!” “Have you seen one?” “No… but I’ve seen things they built! Big, huge things!” “What, you mean the… rocks?” “Speak not of them!

Putrid Pirates

New! Keelhauling: The Ultimate Exfoliating Experience — The pirate skin care revolution!... Sharp barnacle-studded ship keel not included… but the introductory lashing is free!

HHTV Cribs: Inside Blackbeard — The legendary badass of the seven seas somehow decides to celebrate this by appearing on an MTV parody more frequently associated with the likes of Justin Timberlake. Truly, the Time Sewers work in mysterious ways.

Terrible Tudors

Whipping Boy — How do his teachers punish a Prince when they’re all commoners? Why, find a commoner to punish instead, of course.

Field Notes:

  • So here we are once again at that inevitable little valley in every HH series, into which the producers basically dump off all the stuff that just was never going to make the BAFTA hilight reel. By now it’s practically become a tradition in and of itself — and it can be equally interesting, in its own way.
  • Especially so in this series full of elaborate experiments, wherein creative failure translates mostly to the pieces that rely too much on the tried-and-true schticks. Which obviously isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Most everything here would’ve quite possibly been the hilight of, say, mid-Series Three — but now, when the standard is soaring to new heights, they fall with a clunk… one not un-reminiscent of a fake snowball, in fact.
  • Thus it’s kind of ironic that ‘Bloody’ Mary I as interpreted by Kate Bush, ie. the ultimate in potential misfires, is the one thing in the episode that not only works but succeeds amazingly well. Both in style and substance — features some of the best pure songwriting of the series, in fact. And a great performance from Sarah… no, really. As it is the flailing gets a bit tiresome toward the end, imagine what could’ve been had she not thrown herself into it and made it work.
  • The execution is nice, too. Kind of a shame Alice couldn’t have had a crack at the vocal though, since real-life Mary had a much deeper, almost gruff voice. She was also renowned for her love of rich fabrics and bling; granted they’d be much harder to flail in, but it still would’ve made a nice accurate textural wrinkle, so to speak, and…
  • OK, fine, mostly what we’ve learned here is that I’m never going to be happy. But the more I listen, the more I’m convinced by the pure visceral rightness of the creative response at least. They’ve finally developed some real, delicate sensitivity where the Tudors are concerned. Not only limiting themselves to only the one brief maniacal smile re: the burnings, actually giving Mary a chance to hint at the moral complexity behind them! Good show! Have a cooky.
  • Giving William I depth and nuance, on the other hand, not so much on the agenda. Understandably, since having Farnaby’s grasp of non-sequitur loopiness around means you always want to get your money’s worth… and boy howdy, do they get it here. Even though I kind of miss the original magnificently elaborate costuming, not to mention Greg the loyal squire.
  • Anyway, sticking Gallic Simon front and centre has in turn has resulted in Ben having all kinds of trouble keeping a straight face, to the extent that it rather spoils the Peabody effect. Can’t blame him much for that, I’m sitting here tickled all over myself. And he does contrive eventually to get himself trapped in a burning tower with a witch showing her bottom, thus neatly and completely fulfilling all my MP needs for oh, say, ever.
  • It’s the sketch that has everything, in fact, except any real creative stretching. Besides which, it could plausibly be argued, a lot of potential for wild, dark, spooky weirdness in the atmosphere is going to waste. But again, an executive decision has been taken in favour of adorable quirkiness… and I still can’t complain. Esp. not about Martha in the pointy hat being all awkward at the camera. Damn but this troupe is good. Or charming. Or good at being charming.
  • Even were I inclined to grumble, the Normanopoly bit is up next, and it features Simon just full-on channelling Dr. Evil while Larry critiques, so. It’s the one sketch here that really deserved a showcase shot, being one of those lovely little clever cockle-warmers that result when the team — in this case most definitely including the f/x team — knows they’re onto a can’t-miss parody idea. As always in the case of the board-game spoofs, in several directions at once. (“How come I always have to be the wild pig?”)
  • The Victorian Wife Swap does dive full-tilt into the melodramatic atmosphere. It’s essentially a redo of the Georgian version as augmented by the producers’ enduring love for Victorian detail, as expressed via their much more detail-worthy budget — on three whole sets, yet! Throw in Martha’s beautiful water-blue costume and what we have here is at least a very acceptable Anne Perry-style pastiche. They even (finally) feature Ben as a butler, and Lawry coming perilously close to showstopping as a Devil’s Acre scrapper — what I was saying about road-show Dickens, last ep? Pretty sure I got your Ben Sikes right here, folks. Might have to feed him up a bit, but still.
  • All meaning that it’s a genuine shame that the Georgian WS was based around a wholly one-note concept that there’s no way even their new sophistication can upgrade. Mind, re: the Horrible effects of class division, they’ve definitely upped the ante; in fact, it could be very plausibly argued that this is what the S1 concept should’ve been, had not — I’m imagining — ‘ironing the newspapers’ lost out to ‘private orchestra’ in a very close vote, back in the original writer’s room.
  • Alas, past that you run into sociopolitical and/or philosophical territory that’s impossibly far out of the series’ scope, and the net result here is a historical edutainment getting all dressed up to deliberately run itself into a brick wall. I would suggest, from the comedy perspective, that when “Ewww, a poor person has touched this!” is still your surefire go-to punchline on the subject after four series, it just may be time to assume that you’ve done all you can and move on.
  • …Which of course the rat then basically does. Ohai Rattus, glad to have your snarky self back. I was starting to worry a little there… and am now just a teeny bit melancholy, instead. You know we’re coming to the natural end of the HH concept when Ol’ Excited Paws here feels confident enough to mock his own tact — and even more so when the audience is sitting there fully expecting him to do it.
  • Welp, that’s about it for the really bold experiments… oh, sure, there’s also Larry naked and pooping in a barrel, but it could be plausibly argued that’s just Larry in his element. Albeit with slightly improved accent I will admit. Anyway, my enjoyment here is in a great bit of verbal jousting between two guys not only obviously enjoying the chance to come out of the, uh, box for a bit, but the chance to do so with each other. Like the Armada bit, only, as Shouty would put it, slightly more cleverer.
  • Speaking of which, the Stupid Death meantime is featuring a dose of classic Willbondian complacent prissiness with a few extra sprinkles of random, which is cool… but is also the only redeeming thing about it. Much as with Bobsy Hale last ep, the show’s outsmarted itself with this segment to the point where the standard death-embarrassment-pun routine just isn’t cutting it for me anymore. Yeah, I know, it isn’t actually called ‘Fun With the Grim Reaper’, but really now. With the flowered apron, a standard has been irrevocably set.
  • By the way, hope you enjoyed that last bit of Jim being peed on, because the rest of the episode — save the ‘keelhauling’ interlude, which appears merely to result from somebody hastily grabbing off the Standard Sketch Ideas pile to meet Friday deadline — is dedicated to discovering just how long Howick can monologue in weaselly mode, before even his most devoted fans start wondering uneasily if they couldn’t maybe cut this review viewing short for once…
  • Look, it’s Jim. Of all the troupe, I can totally understand the producers over-relying on this sure thing, and for said sure thing to willingly co-operate with the compliment… except for the part where the ‘sure’ refers to ‘basically whinged his way to a BAFTA’. You want to make sure you have a smart, snappy context for something that’s otherwise going to remind you of that kid in third grade with the perpetual snot drip hanging off his nose, is basically what I am trying to get across here.
  • So the ‘Saxon fears’ business is overlong, equally over-stuffed with esoteric facts and comedy cliches, and over-reliant on things it shouldn’t be… considering all of which, for an impressively long time it also manages to be very funny. Thus incidentally demonstrating why I’m hugely excited about the troupe’s new projects: they aren’t typecast yet, exactly, but it’s definitely far past time they had the chance to see what they can do unfettered by heavily stylised expectations.
  • Like, for instance, Historical Dates. Which is somehow still a thing, despite the writers evidently — if completely inexplicably — having run out of fascinating historically romantic hijinks within only two segments, which is a record even the HPet Shop can’t touch. But boy howdy, folks, can those office tarts file… yes, both their nails and their folders, thanks for asking. OK, show, ‘fess up now, who’s been watching the Lifetime Original movies?
  • So it’s once again up to Jim as our latest hapless historical bozo on the make, who can’t even impress the lady who was all set to snog a Viking last time. Because, see, Vikings take baths once a week, whereas in Western Europe around the same time people didn’t, so much. You thought I was exaggerating, about the relying too much on the weasiliness to make a point? Hah. Also, feh.
  • Although, I suppose it’s nice to have a reminder that our Howick can play several different kinds of hopeless loser. Horrible Histories: the only children’s TV show wherein throwing a bit of sleaze into the mix represents positive character development.
  • Throwing a bit of random MTV-ness, however… Well, it’s likewise encouraging for both Jim and his audience to revisit his one major badass character in the midst of all this showcase snivelling. Under any normal circs, the swashbuckling-pirate-goes-Totally Radical schtick would be amusingly apt; however this is HH, and we’ve already seen Blackbeard the viciously menacing light-opera fan — also, the ‘You’ve Been Artois’d!’ sketch.  Another vaguely melancholy realisation of creative end times approaching: the inability to compete with your own past inspiration.
  • Mind, I was cheered up not a little by the sign reading ‘Booty Room’ —  also, by the much more characteristically engaging little ‘ow!’. Wonder if that was ad-libbed?

95% Accu-rat:

  • Devoted readers — and by this point I am fully defining ‘devoted’ as ‘willing to put up with my ongoing Tudor obsession’ —  will recall, or at least be willing to go back to check, that the actually sad, rather poignantly strange career of Bloody Mary I has been covered herein on-and-off throughout the Series Three reviews, most specifically in S03E02, 03 & 12. There’s an awful lot of Horribleness within the poor girl’s career, basically.
  • It wasn’t always thus. Back when Henry VIII was still hopeful of giving her a few brothers by her mother Catherine of Aragon, pretty, dainty, precocious little Princess Mary was his avowed ‘chieftest jewel’. By which he mostly meant ‘marital bargaining chip’ — she was betrothed within both the French and Spanish royal families before she was ten.
  • Queen Catherine, meanwhile, took a more personal approach, seeing to it that her daughter was educated according to the very latest — and surprisingly enlightened — theories, commissioning curricula from the likes of Vives and Erasmus. Always meanwhile ensuring that Mary also grew up a good daughter of the Catholic aka ‘True’ Church — which back then of course wasn’t a problem, given that her dad was busy earning the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ from the same source.
  • Aaaaaand then he met Anne Boleyn, and the Happy Families thing just went all to hell in a handbasket. This is where the over-the-top angstiness of Kate Bush becomes an inspired stroke, because for Mary, emo was about to become a full-blown lifestyle. By then in her teens, she staunchly supported Mum during the famously messy divorce proceedings. For which dear old Dad — never more creatively tyrannical than when avenging what he saw as betrayal — had her declared illegitimate, stripped her of her household, downgraded her to ‘Lady’ Mary, and forced her not only to take La Boleyn’s vicious insults (including death threats) but actually to serve as lady-in-waiting to her infant sister Elizabeth.
  • This went on for some few years, during which Mary the promisingly vivacious marital prospect faded into a sickly, sad, frustrated woman whose sole comfort was her faith. As mentioned in the song, she did indeed try to be good; it was rumoured that she was actually entirely innocent. (There’s a story of her father — after she’d been restored to court thanks to the good offices of Queen Jane Seymour — sending a courtier over to whisper naughties in her ear to test this theory, and hugely enjoying her subsequent panicked blushes.)
  • Trouble with all this was, as the song also effectively conveys, she also entirely lacked the instinctive knack for reapolitik that characterised her clan. Again relying on Mum’s example, she preferred to be guided by her conscience, which was in turn influenced by the conviction that God had kept her alive solely that she might someday bring England back to the True Church.
  • Which subsequently, as you might imagine, helped seal the fate of the around 300 Protestant ‘rebels’ who burned at the stake during her eventual reign. Back then, far from being a sign of homicidal mania, this was considered fully compatible with a pious, even generous conscience. See, the poor deluded wretches were headed to eternal burning anyway, so facing them with the prospect was considered a kind warning — or, if they stubbornly persisted on their way, a warning signpost for others.
  • Pythagoras and beans, on the other hand, probably a sign of mental instability… although with your brilliant mathematician types, you can never tell. The details are fuzzy, but he did set himself up as the leader of what was imaginatively known as ‘Pythagoreanism’ — cult-founding being considered something of a fashionable hobby, in ancient Athens — and its commandments did indeed include being extra-finicky about the Fabaceae. Although his actual death by legume avoidance isn’t anywhere close to authenticated, not least because it sounds more like it was grabbed off the reject pile of O.Henry-style irony.
  • The really fun part is looking this all up and discovering that modern scholars are fully locked in a hot dispute over why, exactly, the lien on lentils. Seriously. Their papers include lines like this: In a recent scholium Professors Robert Brumbaugh and Jessica Schwartz argue that the Pythagorean prohibition of beans is best understood as a commonsense injunction aimed at preventing acute hemolytic anemia in individuals with a hereditary deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase in their red blood cells. 
  • Given all of which, I’m pleased to report that the consensus among cooler heads is pretty much what you were thinking: beans are kind of… incompatible… with keeping your mind on noble motive and higher thought. Y’know, the musical fruit gets a bit distracting. It’s even been proposed that the Pythagoreans feared that they might, uh, expel their souls with the rest of the gas, so to speak.
  • Blackbeard, also covered in previous installments, ie. S02E06. I did just think to check on something the skipping of which has been bugging me since then: but I regret to report I can confirm only ‘three brace’, or six total, pistols of the twelve, and then only in times of battle. As consolation I offer this delightful little tome by Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, from Their first Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence, to the present Time [ie., 1724]. Blackbeard is chapter III. The facing illustration is not to be missed.
  • Edward VI’s whipping boy (formally ‘proxy for the correction of the prince’) was in reality Barnaby Fitzpatrick, son of the Irish Baron of Upper Ossory. As shown, they were good enough buddies that the threat of proxy whippings actually worked on Edward. Barnaby was a sunny-natured type who held no grudges, and in fact seems to have been a nice balance for the priggishly pedantic prince in more ways than one. A charming fragment of their correspondence survives, with Edward writing:
  • “Shortly we will prove howe ye have profited in the french tongue, for we will write to you in french. For women, as far as ye may, avoid their company. Yet, if the French King command you, you may sometimes dance. Else apply yourself to riding, shooting or tennis, with such honest games, not forgetting sometimes your learning, chiefly reading of the Scripture…”
  • To which Barnaby replied: “Ye make me think the care ye take for me is more fatherly than friendly…” Yep, there’s a total Tudor buddy movie in here somewhere.
 
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Posted by on August 11, 2013 in Series Four

 

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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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S04E07

Napoleon HATED losing… which is a shame, ‘cos he was really rather good at it.

A deeply pleasing romp that meshes the new sophistication with all the surefire classics: decadence, corruption, incompetence, famine and slaughter…with just a dash of desperately adorable.

In this episode:

Song: The Blue-Blooded Blues — Stuart monarchs Robert III [Ben], James VI/I [Mat] and Mary, Queen of Scots [Martha] lament their legendarily ill-fated dynasty.

Recurring sketches:

HHTV Sport — Live from Napoleon’s match against chess-playing automaton the ‘Mechanical Turk’, Vienna, 1809 (“The mechanical Turk’s face is giving nothing away! …Largely because it doesn’t move!”)

Dodgy Inventions — No.84: The Bessemer Anti-Seasickness Ship (That moment you realise you’ve spent so much time stabilizing your passenger liner that you forgot to upgrade the steering… that moment in this case being about two seconds off the Calais pier)

Shouty Man — New! Always-Current Emperor Statue (“Warrior Emperor replaced by a bookworm? No problem! Just replace his spear-holding hand with a book-holding one! Whoa! He looks more cleverer already!!”)

Historical Dating Service — James Hamilton, Earl Arran, Regent for the infant Mary Queen of Scots, seeks a replacement groom for Edward VI of England… yep, son of Henry VIII. Who isn’t taking it well. (“Right! We can do this the easy way, or the hard way! *praying* Pleeeeeease say the hard way, oh please please please…”)

Historical Masterchef —  WWII Berlin (“This competition is going to be waaaaaarrrrrr!” “…No offense to anyone who’s been in an actual war.”)

Stupid Deaths — Richard the Raker (Gong farmer drowns in it…on his day off… in his own outhouse. “And I don’t even have a mop… *eyes dark-haired skeleton speculatively* “…listen, you wouldn’t mind if I flipped you upside-down, and used you, would you — Oh! After all I’ve done for you, too!”)

One-offs:

Gorgeous Georgians

Le Survival Guide — Live… as much as they ever are, in these things… from Napoleon’s disastrous campaign into Moscow. “One quarter of all casualties in ze French army are shot by zere own side! Not Cool!”

Napoleon’s Final Battle (movie trailer) — In which the Emperor’s own personal Waterloo prevents him from getting on his horse just before… the actual Waterloo. Awkward. (“But sir, wizhout your tactical genius we will be defeated! Ze Prussians are attacking our rear!” “Would you please not mention rear!“)

Vile Victorians

Fashion Follies — Victorian England: redefining unnecessary and impractical as the height of civilization since 1837.

Rotten Romans

Hail Emperor… Hoo-ever — The Praetorian Guard, elite Imperial bodyguard, turn out to be much better at saluting than actual bodyguarding… and let’s just say they’re not very good at saluting. (“Shouldn’t we be off avenging Emperor Galba’s death?” “Well, not so much, it was us Praetorians what killed him, bit embarrassing I know, but let’s move on…”)

Woeful Second World War

MI5: Whatever It Takes — “You’re not seriously suggesting that a dead tramp could do a better job than me, sir?!” “Well, he is very good at keeping secrets… and look at that stiff upper lip!” “That’s rigor mortis!”

Measly Middle Ages

An Execution in Winter — No, not an angsty Swedish metaphor, an actual execution in medieval Yorkshire. And if you’re wondering where the winter comes in, you’ve really not been paying enough attention. “When you’re done, can we borrow your head for our snowman?” “Ah — yeah, sure, why not. I won’t be using it…”

Field Notes:

  • Hello and welcome to Part II of the Lure ‘Em in With Funny, Finish ‘Em off With Cute strategy the show has adopted as (I’m assuming) a fun diversion on its way to conquering the universe, or at least making Mathew Baynton a breakout comedy star.
  • This is why I tend not to worry much over ‘Not enough Mat in S5!’: As you may have noticed by now, S4 could’ve been subtitled The Baynton Experience with no fear of overkill. It tapers off over the second half (to make room largely for Farnaby’s Great Adventures in Leading Manhood), but not before those cunning shameless bastards went so far, for the new Historical Dating bit, as to dress Mat up in Stuart-era velvets, give him a Scots accent, and then plonk his son onto his lap.
  • Oh sure, they gave it the fig leaf of a legitimate sketch, including Martha and Dominique having a ball as the office tarts, and even some Surprise!Henry VIII… all of which barely interrupts Baby Baynton’s full rich program of sucking his bonnet strings and having closeups. (Clearly, equanimity in the face of surreal silliness is hereditary). He and Daddy have come to find a date and launch Adorageddon, and the whole point of the sketch is that the date isn’t happening.
  • This particular Very Special Guest was not broadcast abroad beforehand, but confirmed in a prideful tweet from Dad after airing; sweet but wholly un-necessary, because mini-Mat — properly Bo — also has his father’s eyes. Yep, the same enormous, expressive peepers teenage girls routinely giggle about eating, on account of they look like glossy dark chocolates. This, on a six-months-or-so baby. Not even potty-trained and already he’s won the genetic lottery.
  • Of course, he’s also wearing a tiara. However the potential scars inflicted by beautiful women calling him ‘clever little Queenie’ are still years in the future, and meanwhile there are YouTube squeals to be harvested, damnit. Being a childless critic with an Anne Geddes allergy, I hauled in Mum to confirm the effectiveness of this ploy, which she happily did. Albeit she seemed even more interested in how Scots Mat ‘sounds kind of like George Harrison’. Make of it what you will.
  • This all happens somewhere in the middle of an already unusually lively episode, under the new ‘Shocking Scotland’ banner — which somehow wasn’t a thing until after Simon in tights, but OK. At least finally they’ve gotten around seriously to Mary Queen of Scots… sort of. Ambitions being what they are this series, we’re treated to the bluesy woes of not one Stuart monarch, but the whole damn dysfunctional dynasty, as retold by three of its most famously inept members making like Soul Train while wearing the very pinnacle of poufy royal robes.
  • This is… kind of endearingly critic-proof, honestly. Watching episodes for review often means I accidentally pause on some truly great, goofy bits of business and/or expressions… let’s just say that the ones I got on this video, and consistently, convinced me that what we have here is the ‘Evil Emperors’ of S4.
  • Even Ben — already smartly coping with a rare vocal lead by stripping the homicidal glee off his William Wallace — can’t really screw up choreography that amounts to ‘act really foolish’… much, anyway. Mind you, Mat and Martha don’t exactly get away with it either — and on the evidence, no-one really expected to. (Except possibly the songwriters, who do throw in a few great authentic lines, up to and including ‘Left with a limp/And limp was what they called ma rule!”)
  • On the opposite end of the sophistication scale, as ever, we find HMasterchef: Aaaand the reality-TV parody darts get ever-sharper. (“What’s duck normally made from?” being a bullseye, double if you count Ben giving him That Look.) Besides which the writers evidently took valuable notes from Martha’s segment last series, esp her interaction with Ben, and the result is very similarly engaging. Seems like because they don’t really have a flamboyant character type for her to be, they default to giving her the fascinating factoids instead. I approve of this, on all the levels.
  • I have no firm sociological basis for enjoying Greg randomly flirting with a bewildered Saxon Larry in the background, but schwing. This is something they’ve been building up some while now, likely since the director noticed Jim being bored just on the margins of his viewfinder, and wisely went for the ‘Is he really…?!” payoff…
  • …sort of the same way Death in the flowered apron pays off. Let me just repeat that: Death, who’s been dancing on the verge of fussy bourgeois delirium since S2, is now having a full-blown existential crisis in a flowered apron and ‘Alpine Meadow’ house spray. As motivated by Larry making his annual debut as a poopsicle. Frankly, I’m not sure how they found a point in going on with the SDs after this (although it does neatly serve as the saving inspiration for the Halloween special). All I know is that upon first viewing I had the urge simply to go lay down with a beatific smile on my face, as of a comedy fan utterly completed…
  • But not for long!… heh, *ahem*. Unconsciousness would interfere with full appreciation of my New Official Favourite HH Sketch Ever, No Really I Mean It This Time, the perfectly-executed Manly-Man’s pep-talk parody that is the ‘Praetorian Bodyguards’ bit. Although I have a feeling that the overall oddball glory that is Simon — here seen just beginning to realise the full possibilities of his expanded onscreen time — might in fact be capable of rousing people out of comas.
  • Certainly the timing he shares with Jalaal has edge enough to poke them with. Unexpected bonus consequence of the ‘weirdly missing Willbond’ saga: I think Farnaby might have found a real friend for crazytimes at last. Or maybe it’s just that Jalaal’s not as used to ducking out of ol’Dandelion Head’s way as the regular troupe is. Either way, I’m impressed.
  • None of the above, mind, is to suggest the chemistry Farnaby and Willbond share is any less special… in fact, hey, two classic Ben/Simon bits in one series?! And in this one Ben is doing full-on James Bond suave, with a pipe and everything? Show, I… I don’t know what to say. I am the honestly grateful recipient of your No Cynic Left Behind initiative, and succumb happily to the adorableness without a backward glance.
  • These two continue to serve as proof that the HH writer’s room is prey to those urges to be the next Noel Coward that come over all of us scribblers occasionally. Only in their case they have real-world access to their daydream perfect cast. Ben particularly is absolutely revelling in the chance at a literal MI5 agent… substitute cigarettes for the pipe and he makes a good case for his Bondian dreams, honestly. Only a comedian in a thousand could’ve resisted the urge to overplay that ‘stiff upper lip!’ crack.
  • Right, so the only way poor Jim’s going to get a look-in at all these shenanigans and goings-on is to, I don’t know, play Napoleon or something!… OK, you try coming up with witty segues on a regular basis, O Clever Reader.
  • At any rate, yes, between Mary QofC and Le Petit Caporal this turns out to be a pretty big episode for catching up with obviously Horrible types we should’ve heard from long since… oh wait, we already heard from Napoleon in S1, didn’t we? Come to consider it, Larry even made a cute cameo there, too, and… right, it’s probably not a co-incidence that in his cute cameo here, Larry barely speaks at all.
  • However. This is the new and exciting HH era of comic maturity… you can tell, because whereas civilian Larry used to be stuck in the HHospital, he’s now a chess grandmaster, erm, stuck in an automaton. (The whole episode is a throwback to the early days of random Rickardian cameos, wherein he merely lurked about being redheaded and having possibilities. Decent nostalgia value.)
  • So what with that, and Jim having thankfully dialed back the ridiculous Eye-talian — besides Mat taking his Gallic ever further in the opposite direction — all the French sketches still turn out to be totally predictable, but a fair amount of fun regardless. Or in other words, yes, we’ve reached the point in HH history where they’re covering the horrific details of a Russian winter campaign that brutally killed one in five poor unprepared schmucks, and I’m all “What, AGAIN?… OK, as long as there’s properly cute accents!”
  • I do enjoy how they turned the short jokes into a teachable moment, though. And it’s a nice chance to show off the new and gorgeous production values, esp the mechanical Turk — albeit hopefully they stuffed that dead-eyed homunculus back into the creepy cobweb-laden closet from which I’m assuming he was found, before people start falling to suitably ironic historical punishments or some…
  • …Whoops, sorry, phobia getting the best of me there. *ahem* The elaborately gilded titles do however come off here as genuinely witty… and all those fully functional battlefield extras for the one short bit! We are living the high life.
  • …Erm, and so quite possibly is Shouty Man, if the drift is clear. Sure, in reality it’s only that Jim’s gotten a bit bored with the standard intro… and/or it might’ve been just a tad bit too long since that same lad had some nice juicy Roman decadence to chew on. Thing is — specially right after listening to the Praetorian Guard run down their win-loss record —  the product itself seems no more than an eminently sensible and practical idea, so the New! Extra Crazy Eyes schtick still comes off as if Shouty’s on the BC equivalent of crystal meth.
  • We close with one last look at the many uniquely engaging facets of Mathew Baynton… well, one-and-a-half if you count how he goes from unrepentant deserter in one French sketch to Imperial aide in the next. The melodramatic scaffold stuff in the ‘Execution in Winter’ bit is awfully hard to top, though — no really, that’s an impressive bit of real acting he’s doing there, and frankly it deserved real snowballs… wait, that doesn’t sound right. It does seem like actual snowballs would’ve been a bit less painful — gotta love the way these fakes audibly *clonk* off the performers, though. It only adds to the tiny perfect surreal vibe.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, so the short version of Mary QofS‘ turbulent toddlerhood, or the long version of why she really should have a heavy French accent, not Scottish…
  • As per the song, it turns out Charles II’s ancestors were not precisely native-born party people. (He seems to have picked that up during his long exile in France.) The prior Stuarts, definitely including Mary, seem to have been prone to what we’d likely consider a form of bipolar disorder… as per Mary’s dad, James V, who upon his defeat at Solway Moss quite literally lay down and died. Even the news of his daughter’s birth couldn’t penetrate his fatal cloud of doom: “Ach, it [the Stuart dynasty] came with a lass, it will go out with a lass,” he muttered.
  • Things didn’t get a whole whackload better once the Regency kicked in; by delightful coincidence, he subdued manner Bo’s dad adopts here to avoid startling him actually fits the character of Mary’s cousin James Hamilton perfectly. In contrast to the legendarily tough Scots nobles around him, Earl Arran was renowned as a weak, emotionally unstable man, who was in reality opposed to the English match mostly because he was at this point pushing for a betrothal between Mary and his son — who later went actually mad.
  • Of course, the whole thing with the Scots nobles not wanting to be mere vassals of their hated enemies, that happened too. They decided (well, Arran ‘decided’ at the point of a sword, but close enough) they’d far rather throw in with their ancient — and comfortably Catholic — allies, the French. Which as you can imagine is what really cheesed Henry VIII off. In response to the Scots moving their little queen to a heavily-fortified castle, Henry launched his promised invasion, which he’d dubbed “The Rough Wooing”… then no doubt spent a solid week forcing every courtier in bellowing range to compliment him on his wit.
  • Luckily, Mary’s mom — who now took over the Scots regency — was Marie de Guise, and her French noble family was as famous for not putting up with any of this kind of crap as the Stuarts and Henry both were for dishing it out. Long story short, when it became clear the invasion was about to succeed she pulled some strings back home. The French King Henry II not only graciously agreed to a betrothal between little Mary — by now age five — and the equally tiny Dauphin Francis, he invited Mary to be raised within the French royal household. For the next thirteen years.
  • …So yes, the adult Mary Queen of Scots in real life was strikingly tall — about five-foot-eleven — fair, beautiful, notoriously charming if not actually seductive… and spoke with a strong French accent. Her native language was something she had to painstakingly relearn upon her return.
  • Oh, and again with the ‘Liz is a Tudor, so she must automatically want to chop heads!’ stuff… *sigh* — the real Mary’d be much more concerned that Liz was a Protestant, on account of it was all the plotting with disaffected Catholics that ultimately led to Mary’s beheading.
  • I had thought there was another small pronunciation kerfuffle in the Praetorian Guards bit, given the emperor in question spelled it Otho, not Otto. And am still a little sceptical of Simon’s unfettered flights of linguistic fancy, but according to Greg J. it apparently is pronounced to sound like ‘Otto’, thus I must invoke the cardinal rule around here: don’t argue with the man who reads history books for a living.
  • Vive l’Empereur! Napoleon is 100% accu-rat — he was in reality fairly average physically. He also did suffer painful piles — although it’s debateable just how much they had to do with his downfall; at any rate, there were a lot of other French things wrong at Waterloo.
  • His Majesty’s imposing presence came mainly from his obvious genius as a military leader and tactician; it was said that his troops went into battle already believing they’d won, and mostly they did. Also excepting the whole Moscow thing of course; you’ll be amazed to learn they actually made it into the Russian capital, six agonizing months later… only to discover that the Russians had long since already evacuated the city, and frankly Napoleon had to hustle his sore butt back to Paris ASAP to make sure he wasn’t deposed or invaded himself over it all.
  • Incidentally, the sketch somehow manages to leave out the extraordinary initial rationale for this whole fiasco: to compel Tsar Alexander I to remain in the ‘Continental Blockade’, ie. Napoleon’s grand plan for forcing the UK and Ireland to their knees. So basically you lot have been frustrating the empire-building plans of megalomaniacal dictators for fully two hundred years now, and frankly I’m impressed.
 
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Posted by on July 19, 2013 in Series Four

 

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