I am a king! Reduced to the state of a bum!
…Don’t laugh at ‘bum’, Terry. It demeans us both.
In which we visit, if are not precisely amazed by, some of the more unique corners of the series to date… also, the fully amazing Cleopatra.
In this episode:
Song: Ra Ra Cleopatra — Martha as the legendary (Fashion) Queen of the Nile; Ben as Caesar and Mat as Mark Antony (Parody of: Lady Gaga, feat. Bad Romance)
Stupid Deaths — Griffith ap Llewellyn (Escaped from the Tower of London on a rope of bedsheets… that turned out to be just ten metres too short. “You’re through to the afterlife… Ooh, hey — mind how you go, there’s a bit of a drop...”)
Historical Hospital — Dr Galen, Roman physician (“Hail patient!”)
Shouty Man — New! Criminal’s Head (“Cures just about anything!”* *except death)
Historical Wife Swap — Special Royal Edition: Louis XVII & Marie Antoinette vs. Mr & Mrs. French Peasant (“You don’t expect me to eat grass! Do you think I look like a cow?” “…Serious question?”)
Historical Fashion Fix — Pete the Tudor Peasant Joins the Aristocracy (“Are you ready, Pete?” “…no.” “Then let’s get started!”)
Bob Hale — The Pharaoh Report (“Then Tutankhamen’s daddy became a mummy, which is a very complex operation.”)
Measly Middle Ages
Nice Exile if You Can Get It — Deposed Scots King John Balliol is distraught over his imprisonment in the Tower with only his family… and his luxurious trappings… and his servants, and his musicians, and his freedom to hunt… “I mean, you wouldn’t keep an animal like this! It’s inhumane!” “Fruit, sire?” “Agh! I don’t like grapes!… You see what I mean?!”
Frightful First World War
But Where Are the British Forces?! — A well-deserved reminder that the combined Commonwealth corps also included… erm, based on the accents, somewhere close to something resembling Canada, Australia and South Africa. More or less.
Ladies’ Tights Beneath Your Kilt — Because you’re worth it… and they do seriously help prevent chemical warfare burns, also of course generalised chafing… and, when the ‘so that’s what’s under there!’ gags start, they did also assign you a gun.
The Queen of Picky-Faces — In which the seventeenth-century equivalent of impressing your friend with the latest iPad equates to giving Elizabeth I a little teeny clock on a strap… which seems enviably simpler, until you realise that next year she was probably demanding one that “didn’t keep stopping because of her weird body chemistry!”
Fashion Follies (animated) — Wearing platform shoes in manure-filled streets was an excellent way of keeping your clothes dry… but watching where you were going was even better.
- Being the lone woman in a six-member historical comedy troupe has its advantages — yes, ones besides being able to work with the five guys, although as Martha is only human I bet that does make for some really smug online browsing sessions. The ones I was thinking of just at the moment, though, have to do with ‘getting to be a pop star’, as the lady herself once put it in an interview.
- The thing is, while everyone gets a chance to sing, only Martha gets that chance in the context of a conscious spotlight on the fiercest icons of herstory. Meaning she’s about guaranteed a sassy, sexy musical character whose song is all about how incredibly awesome she is — and it will be real awesome, not the manufactured kind your actual pop stars rely on these days.
- Excepting of course those few who are shrewd enough to work the system, so that the awesome is a carefully-judged mix of real charisma and deliberately cultivated legend… Why hello there, Pharaoh Cleopatra, who would undoubtedly have worn a dress made out of meat or anything else edible did she think it would thrust her further into the spotlight. This is what her song is about, basically: to convince us that being the Lady Gaga of the ancient world — with, OK, some bonus total vicious amorality — was enough to propel her right to the brink of ruling the known universe.
- That she does, absolutely, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this musical number — and about Martha’s musical instincts.The performance is the female equivalent of what Mat does to fuse Adam Ant with Dick Turpin, and combined with some seriously clever, witty songwriting it becomes one of my all-time favourites.
- Besides that… well, there’s the whole special French Revolutionary Wife Swap thing… in which the show pulls the same $@#$^ stunt as they initially did with the Tudors and bases the comedy around the more convenient but much less accurate legend. I am disappoint. My one big chance to see Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette brought to life, by the people who’ve just so skilfully interpreted Cleopatra… and Charles II… and oh right, the Lady Jane Grey thingy, that probably should’ve been a clue not to get my hopes up too far.
- Rant re: the historical is below (enter at your own risk) but up here I will just point out that this version of Versailles is kind of completely freaking missing the approximately fifty-seven billion courtiers, servants and random people who rented swords at the gate… many who would be even then peeing in stairwells… oh, and the dogs, can’t forget those. Versailles was basically Trafalgar Square without the pigeons, is what I’m saying here, and I can’t even actually rule out the pigeons.
- While Alice is at least everything Marie Antoinette should be physically — love those big floaty picture hats! — Ben’s altogether too… well, Ben to be the Louis who said of his wedding night “Oh, I always sleep well after a good supper.” Not to mention that it is really, really hard to take Mat seriously as a pitiful peasant, not to say angry revolutionary, when he’s using that particular accent. Sure, he gets full cred for that mouthful of presumably real grass, but it’s not quite the same thing.
- The rest of the recurring bits are also something of a mixed bag. Death does some more noir bonding with the corpse (at least, I’m assuming that last ‘drop’ gag wasn’t a hidden crack about ending up in a hot place). It’s not quite as engaging this time, as it’s also a curious one-off experiment in hilighting the stupid consequences of the death, rather than the circumstances — live-action Looney Tunes. Which, while I can see where it’d be fun for the f/x team , it mostly just makes me glad the show’s visual style doesn’t generally borrow from the cartoon-filled books that closely.
- Elsewhere, Shouty Man makes a valiant, if not rather desperate, attempt to recapture his Victorian glory days by gaily swinging a severed head around (“Is there nothing you can’t do?!” — yeah, don’t even ask). Let us just say that in the process another HH viewer milestone has been reached: we are now at the point where a bug-eyed little man relentlessly hawking a severed head is only as exciting as speculation re: whether it’s the same head that played Raleigh earlier can make it. That is, not very.
- On the other hand, the Bob Hale report… LARRY I OFFICIALLY LOVE YOU MARRY ME. Seriously, if he’d done nothing else on this entire show, that crack about ‘daddy’ becoming ‘mummy’ is enough to earn his legend.
- Lesson hopefully learned: our Bobsy is much better off when he sticks to wholly fact-based, quantifiable reports, wherein can roam free his trademark ability to make hilariously huge comedy capital out of small fiddly details… such as random incest… and his Nan’s birthday… yeah, OK, we can skip the wedding, but I definitely wouldn’t say no to a few drinks. Especially if there was a dancefloor nearby… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
- I’m sort of torn re: the Fashion Fix bits; they’re definitely getting repetitious, but then again, the direction they’re getting repetitious in is… oh, hi Bob. And Bob. (So tell me again, how there’s a ton of evidence for Mat and Ben, and not for Mat and Jim…?) Suddenly it’s a Historical Hospital episode, and I am cool with this, because although the real HHospital bit here is decently clever as they go — the ‘did you hear anything?’ bit is a fully effective use of the Howick creepy-cuddly mojo — the overall idea by now could really use some freshening up. By mashing the two concepts together you get just about enough novelty to be going on with.
- Meantime, Ben is off being… well, Scots again. It’s official, there’s something about that accent just brings out an entirely new — and not at all unappealing — side of our Benjamin. Sort of roughens up his edges a bit, in a way that’s almost… familiar. Y’know, I joked about this last ep, but quite seriously, put Scots Ben in a plaid flannel shirt, give him a snowmobile and he could totally star in a Molson’s beer commercial — those of you who have Canadian relatives, ask them how seriously we take our beer commercials…
- … whaddaya mean, ‘what about the actual sketch’? I don’t recall a sketch being attached to this character, so much as a single joke being heroically stretched to sketch-length almost solely via his efforts (Mat’s are also fairly heroic, but somehow fall a bit flat, largely I think because his character really should’ve known all this already). Although there were some chuckle-worthily mournful skirling bagipes over Balliol’s big ‘heartfelt’ speech, I do remember that.
- Ben of course will always come off best in the accent sweepstakes — which is not very, in this particularly hilarious-for-all-the-wrong-reasons WWI sketch, but then even the most accurately ersatz Australian does have that tendency to sound like a Paul Hogan movie of itself.
- What’s most impressive — not to say a bit weird — to me is that Mat isn’t doing a particularly horrific job of the Quebecois accent. He gets all the props at least for recognising it as distinct from European French, and a few more for evidently having picked it up from somewhere other than Pierre the lumberjack on the late-night movie. Larry the South African, on the other hand… yeah, well, they hired him to write, not be a walking Berlitz.
- OK, yeah, yeah, so more mondo Lawry. New silver lining: he’s not actually meant to be filling in for Simon, this time. Because I am totally OK with the not having to see Lawry’s legs in tights, thank you very much indeed.
- It has always struck me as sort of weird that they cast Simon as Leicester. From the portrait, and the fact that he was in reality much closer to the Queen’s age — well, not to put too fine a point on it, but you’d think it the one Tudor role Mat was born to play. At any rate, I like the direction the Tudor sketches are headed; Blackadder-style funny redefined as a rather nicely subtle way of getting across the real-life court tensions.
- Right! *cracks knuckles* Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. The Wife Swap here is actually a weird admixture of obscurely accurate details and wildly obvious missteps.
- For starters, popular legend aside — no she did not say ‘let them eat cake’, that was something Rousseau had vaguely attributed to another princess twenty years earlier — Marie Antoinette was personally a kind, generous, enormously charming woman who was actually very sympathetic to the poor… at least when their plight was brought immediately into her view, as ironically is the very point of this sketch. I spent the entire first viewing convinced she was about to adopt these two and set them up in her royal model peasant village, as would’ve most likely happened in real life.
- And just incidentally, no she would never have casually self-identified as Austrian at this point, let alone to her subjects. She had been the Queen of France for nearly two decades, was the mother of the Children of France, and, although the Austrian imperial family never hesitated to make use of her in a diplomatic crisis, is on record at several points throughout her reign as considering herself a proud Frenchwoman — especially given her enemies used her foreign birth as one of their foremost weapons in the propaganda war.
- Meantime, her husband. In comparison to his vivacious bride, yeah, he was a bit of an oaf. He was obese, rather slow on the uptake, and very shy, and his relentlessly plebian tastes — he loved to hang out with the workmen when the palace was being renovated, and his foremost hobby was making locks — were a source of constant exasperation to Antoinette. Like many socially-inept types, his sense of humour did tend toward the loud and broad. In addition to the trouser-dropping he would scamper around his dressing room eluding his valets, that kind of thing.
- But none of it would ever have happened in a public place, and never in front of a woman — he was a lump, but he was by no means a stupid lump. In fact he was quite cultured, a devotee of philosopher David Hume among others, and likewise personally sympathetic to the plight of the poor. In fact, during one of the first assaults on Versailles during the revolution, he ended up charming the peoples’ representatives with his quite genuine empathy.
- But hey, it’s not all bad news: the bonnets rouges, or ‘liberty caps’, totally a thing, as shown adopted by the revolutionaries as their distinguishing symbol. OK, in reality they were Phyrgian-style caps, and so really should’ve had a peak, but hey… I don’t want to get all anal about accuracy here. I mean.
- Still, as long as I’ve got a good satisfying pedantic worked up anyway: Henry VIII certainly didn’t try to hide his girth, and if he had it wouldn’t have involved a ratty grey bedsheet.
- In fact, quite characteristically, he did the absolute polar opposite: when he could no longer wow with his athletic physique (thanks in fact largely to a series of old sports injuries reducing his mobility), he simply swathed what eventually became a 50″+ waist with the richest possible fabrics, added as much fur and/or bling as he could cram on there and turned it into an opportunity to outshine everyone else with his Royal magnificence instead. (Oh, and the little hat to go with? Covering up the bald spots.)
- Funnily enough, as I mentioned, the show’s take on Elizabethan politics is by contrast quite impressively accurate. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and William Cecil really didn’t get along all that well. As the queen’s pre-eminent advisor on matters of state, Cecil basically distrusted Leicester’s influence as her pre-eminent advisor on matters that sent the Queen veering dangerously close to open scandal on more than a few occasions. (That, and the Earl happened to be the son of the John Dudley who’d been executed a traitor after failing to put Jane Grey on the throne, so.)
- Both, of course, were devoted to the lady in question, who in her turn was genuinely fond of both of them. She called Cecil her ‘Spirit’ (in honour of his tireless work alongside her for the good of the country) and Leicester her ‘Eyes’ (ie. he was as intimately precious to her as her sight).