Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
That top hats are fabulous? No. Although they are…
Aaaaand we’re right back up and bouncing happily on the Trampoline of Endearingness again. Not at all a bad point of takeoff, as Series Five debuts…
In this episode:
Song: The Ages of Stone — Mat as a totally Jazz Age cave pianist, man…
Historical Masterchef — Pirate (“I like to think of it not as losing a hand, so much as gaining a utensil…”)
Victorian EastEnders — Moving on Up… From the Sewers
Historical Paramedics — Victorian (“And how often does that work?!” “NEVAH!”)
Historical Dragon’s Den — Stone Age (“Me invent beer! It grown-up drink* *Not for kids!” “Ugh… me invent headache!”)
HHTV Sport: The First Olympics — (“Let me guess… It’s an Ancient Greek thing.”)
Stupid Deaths — Milo of Croton (Strongman who got stuck trying to rip a split tree in half… “Hah, you spent too much time working on these muscles, and not enough on this one!… You know, the brain?… and sudoku, and…? Oh never mind.”)
Historical Pet Shop — Cavalier Prince Rupert, cousin of Charles I (“Did I mention that?”)
Historical Don’t Tell the Bride — Stuart elopement options (“Is this even legal?!” “Good question, and in answer to that I’d just like to say that your hair looks lovely…”)
The Spaniard Takes a Wife — “Once upon a time, a loving king married a beautiful queen, and they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, this… is the story of Phillip II of Spain and Mary I of England.”
All-New Tudor Sugar-Paste Toothpaste — Being forced to compliment Elizabeth I on her dental hygiene: proof that being a royal courtier wasn’t all beer and skittles. Or Skittles. It did however apparently involve a ton of other sugary goodies…
Pirate Weather Forecast — Even talking about the weather is more fun when you add pirates. Kind of hard on the black cats, though.
- Yep, it’s back. Again. Series Three, you have proved true to my relationship metaphor from S03E01: while I have come to accept that while you may never really excite me (creatively, guys, creatively) in the manner of the series just fore and aft, your overall likeability, along with the commitment to a swift and engaging recovery from missteps — up to and including recognition of the immediate need for moar Baynton, as displayed here — does still go a long way toward strengthening my affection.
- In all seriousness, though, I’m still not convinced my missing Mat so much from the latter half of the series is totally about the physical. Turns out that when Jim described his BAFTA-nommed buddy as ‘the absolute staple of our show’, he for once wasn’t making a snarky crack about the minstrel eyes.
- Not that the others aren’t all staple-y in their own way; that’s what a comedy troupe is. Ben especially has been doing a sterling job of proving it lately. Only that Mat (and, to a less doe-eyed extent, Larry) bring a certain freeform spark to the whole — free particularly to shift between childlike and adult implications — which if you’re going to spend a season mostly resting on your creative laurels, it’s especially sorely missed.
- Except for the music, which of course never quite rests anywhere. We’ve gone notably minimalist this week, but my imagination does not mind, for it has filled in the blank spots with a running paraphrase of the pre-production meeting. Highlights:
- “OK, so we’ve got this incredible song. You know how Stone Age taxonomy sounds all sort of jazzy, like scatting? …Well, anyway, we get Mat to perform it in that skimpy fur tunic, it’ll sound fabulous. Trust me.”
- “Wait, that’s it, just the one part? No backup chorus? Tell me at least there’s some fun stone instruments in there.”
- “Ah, about that… have you ever seen the Flintstones live-action movie? Yeah, don’t. We figured, wouldn’t it be hilarious if instead there’s this huge modern piano in a cave. (Mat plays piano, right?) And just for insurance, we’ll do that thing where the cute stick cave paintings come to life. Everybody loves the little dancing buffalo.”
- “I don’t know… Anybody remember what we did for the first caveman song?”
- “Uh… I think we just sort of grabbed everybody from the other cave skits and had them do something sort of funny in the background, really. Plus, you know, that whole inset sketches thing. Man, am I glad we don’t have to resort to stuff like that any… What?”
- “Hm? Oh, I just had a great idea…”
- So yeah, a sort of luxury Series One format upgrade — which did turn out to be pretty great overall. Largely because there’s nothing more happifyingly catchy than an authentic jazz/big band performance; clearly Amy Winehouse wasn’t the only British musician of her generation paying close attention to the American standards. This is something else I find incredibly endearing (the paying attention, that is. The Winehouse question is another blog entirely).
- Oh, also I bugged my multi-instrumentalist brother-in-law, and in-between funny looks — engineers just have no appreciation for history — anyway, he confirmed that if Mat can play the keyboards he can play the piano, at least in theory. That said, musical prodigy or no, Mat’s clearly not actually playing here — you can tell from if nothing else the quick just-the-highlights cuts used to show him at the keyboard.
- (This is standard practice when not actually filming Chopin or Liszt biopics. Backing piano tracks, like any other, will usually already be pre-recorded, and attempting to match up the onscreen finger-flying with that would create a continuity headache nobody — let alone a BBC kid’s show on a budget — wants to deal with.)
- Mat can also, and this needs to be stressed as frequently as possible, morph randomly into a hungry tapeworm-slash-concept art for A Bug’s Life II. This alone should cement his essential-ness in HH legend, if only because being in a performance zone where invertebrate-related humour not only seems like but is a gloriously funny idea must be at least one definition of pure joy. Which is, as it happens, exactly how the Victorian HParamedics come across onscreen.
- This is in fact why I’m not altogether broken up that it’s the last of the lot; the Tudor one provided an instructive warning re: just how vulnerable the concept is to self-aware satisfaction… although I wouldn’t have minded risking that on a caveman one, also maybe pirate.
- Luckily, in the meantime we have not only Pirate Weatherman Mat (“Sick as a parrot”… nice one that, must remember it) but Simon and his… unique… knack for both. The Stone Age Dragon’s Den is altogether hilariously adorable, not least because the format is ideally suited to an era in which pretty much every waking moment involved innovation.
- I do also like the meta-conceit — found exactly nowhere else in the series — of flat-out telling the viewership that we’re going to have adult time now, kiddies. Especially the way Mat sounds quite genuinely concerned, like he’s somehow not a fully passport-holding citizen of a nation that considers drinking an essential life skill to begin with. Seriously, guys, you were providing cutesy little infographics for Viking hell by your third episode, and this is the child-development hill you want to die on?
- Anyway, yes, Simon. Who it must be admitted makes a much more authentically appealing cave inventor than Mat, and whose essential role in the troupe is summed up nicely by the fact that when somebody on the writing team was all “Hey, you know what would be good value? If for once the pirate wasn’t all menacing, but really laid back,” everyone nodded and agreed. (Yes, somehow the entire production staff have all acquired Canadian accents, specifically the verbal mannerisms of a blogger from Southern Ontario. It’s odd, I know.)
- So the HMasterchef featuring the resulting awesomely cool pirate is pure Farnabian bliss, and in combination with the ease with which Jim and Ben now inhabit their parody roles easily the best of the four HM segments. Although I do still have a soft spot for Martha and the whale phlegm. At any rate, I am unreservedly glad that this recurring bit will be returning, as it is explicitly designed so that familiarity only makes it funnier. I especially enjoy how unlimited background gags are built right into the format.
- Moreover, in the process there have been vistas opened by Jim’s hitherto criminally underplayed talents as a mimic — this of course is his essential role, to be ridiculously talented regardless of whatever ridiculous creative situation he’s plonked down into — that are a big part of the reason I’m already anticipating, not only reviewing S4, but watching S5.
- Although… So, uh, Rattus? The whole rat-blatantly-skewered-on-a-hook thingy…? Anything you’d like to share with the viewership, who frankly at this point is totally on your side, at least in between the violent retching? …Yeah, you’re right, I guess one more pet flea gag was totally worth ignoring it all. *rolls eyes*
- In other recurring news (on several levels): No, show. I do not care if you bribe me with Mat playing the guy whose picture I walk past every day on the way to my cubicle (more below) and an adorable puppy. I refuse to be sad that the Historical Pet Shop is going away. Frankly I have reached the point where if I hear one more ‘hilarious’ animal fact out of you I’m going to throw socks at the screen, so there.
- Ooh, way to bust out the snark, little cartoon Tudor lady! You were always my favourite. So are Mat as Prince Philip, and Larry his advisor, and their accents that are… sort of what would happen did Spain suddenly decide to embrace Snidely Whiplash, a la the French and Jerry Lewis. (Readers under 21: ask your parents.)
- Larry’s essential role by this point goes a bit deeper than the offbeat wit; as his familiarity with performing alongside the others expands so does his low-level knack — probably related to his writing skills — for tuning into their schticks and enhancing them. So that anytime he’s paired with Mat or Simon especially, his overt silliness level goes down and the hilariousness of the whole goes up about 150%.
- As if to maximise the potential of this, the writers have finally got round to the darkly comic melodrama inherent in the actual Tudor experience — although Alice predictably fails utterly at being homely, but never mind, it’s all enormously satisfying fun, and I adore it. Too much even to chastise them… much… for the “How’s about a kiss?” bit, which let’s face it, that’s literally the only reason Ben’s playing the priest, isn’t it?
- Alice — who, probably to her ongoing chagrin, really is the very definition of ‘ladylike’ — is also signally failing to sell the lower-lower-class ‘Victorian EastEnders’ accent. Again, though, I’m pleasantly surprised enough at the return of this bit to let it pass. Even when tested by the writers’ weakness for horrendous poo-related gags, the thoughtful charm somehow remains strong with this series. I think ‘Dickensian’ may be a species of British media Teflon by this point.
- (Totally random thought had while typing that last sentence: physicality aside, Simon would make an absolutely killer Micawber.)
- On the other hand, Alice could not make a more perfectly virginal historical bride, nor Mat her feckless groom. Always nice when you go into a sketch cringing in anticipation at the cliches and end up laughing aloud. I’m not familiar with the source material, but this is at least equally enjoyable; a neatly and sweetly lovely little bit of universal satire, fine as a needle and as exquisitely performed.
- You can tell this is Ben’s week off — or possibly just that somebody accidentally ordered the wrong size loincloth, because Larry is playing the latest big dumb doofus to have a Stupid Death, and from the camera angles the minimalist costuming was clearly supposed to be the hilight of the role.
- And very acceptable it turns out to be… still, it leaves me strangely unsatisfied. I cannot quite think of a way to explain how Willbond is much better at this moronic stuff without implying terribly unfair things about our resident Oxfordian, so will merely say that it is an art… and hastily change the subject to Death and the ongoing skeleton-intensive middle-class psychodrama, of which I can never get enough.
- Anyway, there’s plenty of appealingly minimalist Wilbond at the Greek Olympics, also Simon come to that. (There is also Jim’s facial hair, but hey, not even this troupe bats a thousand.) Lovely all-round expert mock-Olympic coverage this — presumably designed to co-incide with the anticipation for the real event, so I’m not sure how the parody writers missed the chance to swathe everything in magenta.
- Otherwise it’s only missing the inspirational story of a marathon runner who began as a helot slave in Sparta and started running to avoid getting caught up in one of their periodic slave purges… OK, maybe you have to have access to the American coverage to get that one.
- Right, the real story behind Phillip II of Spain’s sneering villainy is… well, it involved significantly less sneering, and a job lot more dour dutiful Catholicism, given that it was actually Dad’s brilliant idea that he wed his cousin Mary in the first place — in order among other things to unite their thrones against the oncoming Protestant Reformation. Seeing as how Dad was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Emperor Charles I of the Spanish Empire, what’s a guy surnamed ‘the Prudent’ to do?
- Basically, what he’s shown doing here… well, barring the dashing around being tall dark and handsome. In reality, at the time shown here, Philip was a polite, sedate young manikin with the blonde, blue-eyed looks — and trim calves — that were actually required to be considered a hunk in sixteenth-century Europe. Being a tad on the short side (about Jim’s height, actually) didn’t hurt his status with the ladies at all.
- It certainly didn’t deter Mary, who was as (sort of) shown thirty-seven to his twenty-seven, and very much still a virgin, because did we mention she was also a fanatical Catholic? They didn’t have ticking clocks back then, so biological metaphors tended to be couched more in terms of “Fulfilling God’s will that I have offspring to carry out my work,'” but you get the idea. Philip sent his portrait along, and — despite literal riots among her notoriously xenophobic subjects — that was it. Did we mention she also really didn’t get realpolitik?
- The net result went also as shown, only even more pathetic, famously involving at least two false pregnancies. Frankly embarrassed by this faded, middle-aged woman clinging desperately to him (even their formal portrait is awkward), Philip basically kept appearances up just long enough to persuade her to get involved in his ongoing war against the French, whereupon they promptly lost Calais, England’s last possession on the Continent. Shortly after that, Mary took to wandering the palace halls muttering to herself and occasionally attacking Philip’s portrait…
- You can see why Philip saw his much younger, comparatively much hotter sister-in-law as a more appealing alternative. Even much later, after they were well embarked on their epic feud — the one that would lead to (spoiler alert) the Armada — Elizabeth liked to boast that she could have him back merely for the asking… you’ll recall that marriage proposals back then generally didn’t involve getting close enough to breathe on your beloved before the actual contract was signed. Also, incidentally, that the Tudors pioneered the art of sugar sculpture…
- Cut to a couple centuries or so later, and the English throne is being occupied by people considerably more eager to head out and make their mark in — or more accurately on — the world. One of them was, yep, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who some years after playing amateur dog trainer convinced his Cousin Charlie II to back a go-getting little fur-trading outfit calling themselves “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading Into Hudson’s Bay”. Which, in 1670, is exactly what they did.
- Hedging their bets in true Renaissance explorer fashion, the GCAETIHB promptly dubbed huge swathes of their new possession ‘Rupert’s Land’, and appointed him their first Governor. Thus it is that, yes, Prince Rupert’s portrait (OK, a replica of, but still) now hangs on a wall in an office in suburban Brampton, Ontario, Canada: the buying offices of the Hudson’s Bay Company, now Canada’s premier department store and my humble 343-year-old employers.
- Clearly, Rupert’s expedition were careful not to harm any albatrosses en route to the New World. Because this never-kill-an-albatross thingy, quite the big deal, and not only for pirates.
- Check out Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner for a glimpse into just how seriously the random murder of dorky-looking waterfowl could impact your performance review — also the English language’s stock of cliches. It starts off with “Water, water, every where/Nor any drop to drink”, proceeds through “Instead of the cross, the albatross/About my neck was hung”, then winds up with Death winning the souls of all his crewmates… after which things really start to get bad.