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Epilogue: The specials

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a popular and beloved children’s TV series is, at some point, going to spawn offshoots. Since the universe inexplicably continues to fail at taking up my idea of a DI Bones spinoff–just like Elmo’s World, except with Larry in place of that stupid bowtie dude!–for Horrible Histories this largely took the form of holiday/event specials.

The catch was that these were full-length episodes that had to somehow be squeezed into a production schedule already padded out to the edge of impossible. Thus the reasons why I’m not treating them as individual episode reviews: a) they’re largely composed of recycled material and b) most bear unmistakeable hallmarks of having been shoved out the door on a shoestring.

(If you do have a need for the sketch-by-sketch rundown, no worries; the List of HH Episodes Wikipage has your oddly specific-yet-adorable OCD covered.)

All of which does not, however, mean that they’re not decent value, and in a few cases much more…

2010: Horrible Christmas

The ‘Christmas special’ is a bit more elaborate a concept in the UK than in countries whose TV seasons consist of more than six-eight episodes per. Under those circs, being handed an entire bonus full-length episode is considered both an honour for the creators and a real treat for their audience. Thus, HH’s only holiday special to consist near-entirely of new and elaborately produced material.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that, as Britons, they had access to several centuries’ worth of snarkily hilarious dichotomy between the spiritual nature of this particular holiday and the earthy traditions arising therefrom. Nor that this exploration happened right around S2, the point at which creative confidence had hit its first and arguably most audacious peak.

The resulting hilights include several traditional carols rewritten from a more, ah, realistic POV (the truth behind not-so-Good ‘King’ Wenceslas is not to be missed) and a recreation of the last moments of the famous WWI Christmas Truce football match; powerfully moving if only because this silly children’s comedy series is trying so hard to do it justice. There is also a much more typical interlude featuring a jester named Roland the Farter, a fun riff on weird holiday cards, that one regular-series bit where Oliver Cromwell has his relatives arrested for daring to wish him the compliments of the season, and–a personal favourite–a proto-HMasterchef segment in which Our Bemused Hosts learn that Tudor palace cooks routinely worked in the nude (to cope with the heat of huge open fires)…

…Oh, and a Victorian prison celebration that includes the jailer telling Mat, “I think I can speak for all the lads when I say that you’re our favourite prisoner!” Because yes, they totally saved the blatant nudity and sodomy jokes for the Christmas special. Happy Holidays, kiddies! Be sure to revive your parents in time for turkey!

2011: Horrible Histories’ Big Prom Party

The next creative peak: “Music from Horrible Histories” being chosen as the theme for the summer 2011 children’s ‘Prom’ concert at the world-renowned Royal Albert Hall. (Non-UK types: you can tell this was a big honking honour, because it more usually goes to Doctor Who.)

Now, first things first, non-attendees–there are recordings of the original BBC Radio Three broadcast out there, which you need to hear at some point, and preferably before you see this special. If you can’t find the audio download, I’ll happily Dropbox you a copy. Those wondering what I’m on about: this unedited version includes among many other things a rendition of the Plague Song led by Larry and Martha. Yes. Also, bonus Mat as George II.

…Right, that’s all set? Good. So eventually the BBC got round to repurposing that ninety-ish-minute concert as an hourlong special, largely by cutting out all the classical interludes (along with most of the in-character badinage surrounding them) and substituting specially-shot inset sketches in their place. Because this was immediately post-S3 and everything was running just that smoothly, all of these sketches are authentically clever and funny, especially Mike Peabody’s excruciatingly typical efforts to turn this into a News Event and Shouty Man hawking the RAH for your all-purpose concert needs. Even a slight surfeit of Georges III and IV is mitigated by the sheer joy of having Simon back where he belongs.

Still… the downside of hearing the audio first is how very annoyed you’re going to be at the video editors, upon realising just how much they left out. But it will not matter in the end, because it is all equally brilliant. All the musical favourites through S3 are here, save Dick Turpin–given the extended yelp that accompanies Mat’s signature wink in “Born 2 Rule”, this is perhaps not surprising–and all are done full justice…

…Almost. Clearly the the (otherwise splendid) Aurora Orchestra never quite figured out how to transpose “King of Bling” and compensate by speeding it up slightly, leaving poor Mat audibly losing the race in bizarrely insult-to-injury-adding company with generic Solid Gold-esque dancers. Thus handily demonstrating just how far you can climb up the cultural ladder in the UK before nobody’s heard of Eminem.

July 2012: Sport Special

Return with me now to those halcyon days of Summer 2012, when London hosted the Olympìcs, magenta was suddenly the colour of the moment and the world was equally delighted by awesome sporting feats and the sight of the British–owners of a dazzlingly implausible number of those feats–for once in their collective lives unabashedly, unashamedly, almost deliriously happy and proud. While surrounded by magenta, did I mention that?

Something of that sweet giddiness is captured in the HH Sport Special, aired as part of the runup to the Big Event. It’s a kaleidoscopic mix of old and new, demonstrating clearly that creative coherence had become a luxury the specials couldn’t afford. Still, the old sketches are cleverly chosen–the Cow’s Hindquarter Twist from the medieval Highland Games and the Roman funeral fight sketch, in particular–and the new are, if not quite as thoughtful as of old, still very engaging. (Also interestingly, because so flamboyantly, willing to ignore timelines; there is a casual reference to a marathon cheating scandal from 1999.) The special Olympic edition of the Movie Pitch featuring the Baron de Coubertin, ie. Ben in Poirot moustaches with appropriate accent, is worth the watch all by itself. Almost unbearably precious.

Besides which there is the really delirious new music video, “Flame (It’s Gonna Burn Forever)”–ie. the reason why I’m so cranky, in later episode reviews, that they stuck Giles “Jesse Owens” Terera back behind that stupid bare HHTV Sport desk afterwards. (Although it should be noted that he does a fine job in the anchorman role here, hosting the programme alongside Rattus.) The song itself is not an overt masterpiece but the video is just relentlessly freaking hilarious, showcasing everything they’d learned about non-sequitur silliness to that point… which turns out to be more than even diehard fans would’ve suspected.

October 2012: Scary [Halloween] Special

Right, so they were actually two full-length specials produced alongside S4, and… erm… well, let us just say that it is deeply ironic that of the two—or of any, come to that — this is the only one currently available on DVD.

Of course it stars Simon’s Grim Reaper, and yes, he pulls out all the preternaturally charming stops for a countdown of his top twelve(?) all-time scariest things. That’s where the problems start, because the list has so clearly just been hastily Frankensteined together out of whatever came to hand. There are only two new pieces included, and one of those is a Scary Story. The few genuinely intense prose moments in show history (Nero and his Christian ‘candles’, for instance) are entirely, and revealingly, missing.

Oh, and there’s a new song, “Death’s Favourite Things”, which is marginally watchable thanks to a Thriller-esque zombie chorus… also the revelation that Sound of Music parodies aren’t yet self-recursive in the UK. In-between times—as evidently inspired by the random bourgeois vibe that ran through S4’s Stupid Deaths–we get a look at the Reaper’s home life; turns out he really is just a suburban slacker, still living with his mom and taking scythe deliveries from the British equivalent of FedEx! Har har!

Yeah… so at least the kiddies will get a comprehensive lesson in how much better it can be to leave things to the imagination. The patented HH wit does shines through on occasion—as per the inclusion of the Disco Aztecs, and Ma Death as a chintz-intensive riff on Mrs. Bates—but by and large it’s a half-hour’s struggle to recapture what any SD segment pulls off effortlessly in three minutes. And those are available on YouTube for free.

February 2014: Valentine’s Day Special: Rotten Romance

There were also two specials commissioned alongside S5, and this is also pretty clearly not the one anybody considered top priority. On the plus side, though, lessons have been learned; the laboured framing devices have been replaced by simple-but-surefire interludes with Rattus, a la the Savage Songs episodes. Here he’s preparing for a romantic dinner with his new girlfriend Ratalie (which name amuses me far more than it deserves, esp. considering she’s the exact same rat puppet in earrings).

Also, there’s obviously a bit more care been put into the sketch selection; in particular, any excuse to revisit the Countess Nithsdale’s Great Escape plot is welcome, also both Victorian bits from S03E01. On the other hand, I really could’ve done without the arch hint that Elizabeth I’s temper was the reason why she never married. The couple of new segments are likewise higher quality, starting with an *ahem* reframing of the Anne of Cleves/Henry VIII debacle as a dating-themed game show. Henry’s still deep in generic-doofus mode, but at least, y’know, Anne of Cleves! I’d been hoping to see her on the show for ages.

The only letdown—for me anyway–is the new song: the Cure’s Love Cats reimagined as “Love Rats”, featuring a handful of the usual suspects recounting their notably rocky love lives, plus Mat as equally rock-headed romantic Edward VIII. It’s a cute parody idea, and well-executed–save of course the parts that are Ben attempting smooth jazz. It’s just that it’s largely the same old characters recounting the same old information we literally just saw in the same old sketches. At this point, it all can’t help but be something of a buzzkill. Ah well; at least we’ll always have Rattus. “You’re never alone with a thousand lice”, indeed.

August 2014: Frightful First World War Anniversary Special

…So that’s where it all went.

Longer version: It’s not actually required that you be deep into review-blogging Series 5 to fully appreciate this special 45-minute commemoration of the anniversary of WWI’s kickoff… but as it turns out, it sure doesn’t hurt. Specifically, it definitively explains where all the really elegant, subtle, generally adult-level sophisticated comedy vibes went after S4–both in terms of choosing and executing the material–and thus also why so much of mainstream S5 feels so offhand. For once, obviously, everyone’s attention was focussed on the special instead.

This is not actually surprising. For starters, it had been given a slot on the BBC’s daylong WWI retrospective schedule, and as you can imagine, this was not an atmosphere in which the audience would be in the mood to forgive ill-timed fart jokes. Especially not after the Diamond Jubilee debacle, as part of which BBC coverage the troupe was pegged to perform a few sketches on Tower Bridge. Due officially to time constraints, the only one actually to air, stripped of any context, was Bob Hale’s Thames Report… yeah. Cue quite a lot of post-event crankiness to the editors about the random babbling idiot in inexplicable old-age makeup.

There were no such complaints after this tribute to the Great War aired, even though the framing device consists almost entirely–and inspired-ly–of an extended Bob Report, as he gives a year-by-year overview of the war’s progress with Rattus chiming in on specifics. Nobody objected to any of the considerable amount of new material, nor of the choice of the old (in very likely related news, none of the latter involved plastic nose icicles). There was more than one comment from reviewers that the entire thing conveyed the Great War’s mix of black comedy and bleaker tragedy better than any adult program of the day.

All of which a roundabout way of saying, folks, this thing is brilliant. In many ways it’s more of an appropriate finale than the actual final episode, the absolutely triumphant culmination of everything anyone ever loved about this version of Horrible Histories, and you should go and watch it RIGHT NOW. Whether you’ve already seen it or not. It opens with the sublimely silly ‘Causes of WWI’ sketch, ends by shamelessly ripping the viewer’s heart out (yes, that involves Mat too, like I always knew it would), and in-between treads that razor-fine line with all the practiced grace of a ballet dancer… or of a children’s comedy show that’s been practicing ever since they featured Adolf Hitler in S1.

Seriously, this is pretty much HH’s Carnegie Hall. You can tell, because Bob and Shouty Man and HMasterchef and Girl Guide spies and Charleston-happy Tsars manage to co-exist right alongside the Christmas Truce sketch, the desperation behind letting children and women into the ranks and a blunt summary of the Somme disaster (Bobsy: “The funny thing about that is… nope, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”) Somewhere in the middle there is Simon as a note-perfect Red Baron and plucky Private Larry trapped in a wardrobe with Germans outside. There is also the Suffragettes’ Song, but even that benefits from the extra context, and is anyway basically just tacked on at the end, probably to pad out the timing, so is very easily ignored.

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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in The specials

 

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S04E12

Ooh, goody! Amateur scientists are so much more fun than professional ones…

As has become the usual, the series wraps up with a funny and full reminder of exactly how much there will be to miss… perhaps a leetle too full a reminder, by now.

In this episode:

Song: (We’re the) Georgian Navy — Jim returns as ultimate All-England manager Admiral Horatio Nelson to oversee a motley team of enthusiastic new recruits, including Ben, Mat, Larry, Simon and Jalaal.

Recurring sketches:

Stupid Deaths — Robert Cocking, ‘professional watercolour artist and amateur scientist’ (Sought a better parachute, carefully taking into consideration all variables… except the weight of the parachute itself. Oops. “Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to test it with a dummy first? Ooh, wait, you already did, didn’t you! Hah!”)

Historical Dentist — Ancient Roman (“Now, we need the blood of a man who’s been killed in a violent way, and I think we’re all out. Do you mind fetching me some, Mandy?” *AUUUGHH! EEEEK!* “… they never outrun Mandy…”)

Historical Masterchef — Tudor (“I’m – looking – thoughtful.” “I’m – SHOUTING!”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Alfred the Great Project (“I don’t want to be remembered for a cake story that never happened! This could be a great movie!” “Yeah, you’re right. And guess what? It’s called Alfred the Cake. Somebody get me Ashton Kutcher on the phone, we got a hit…!” “Ooh, look, Cake Guy’s getting upset!”)

Words We Get From the — Greeks: Scholarly

Historical Mastermind — Ancient Greek scholar

Bob Hale — The Napoleon Report (“… as he helps to overthrow the monarchy and protect the new people’s government. An act that wins him fame, wealth, influence and helicopters — though probably not that last one.”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

Necropolis Railway — “When you run out of room to bury people in the city it does make sense to put your cemeteries further out — and you do get a lovely day in the countryside!” “Ooh, yes, it’s very convenient. And my husband does love trains!… or, well, he did..”

Rotten Romans

Tarpeian Rocks — In which we discover the characteristically elegant-yet-ruthless Roman solution to ensuring people thrown to their deaths off cliffs actually die… well, having the ensurers stand directly below, that maybe needed work. (“Now, always stay tight to the cliff, because… *thud* *urghh* …hmmm, should’ve started with that one first, shouldn’t I? My bad!”)

Terrible Tudors

The Prince of Paranoia — Towards the end of his life Henry VIII developed a real fear that his enemies — up to and including Death — were out to get him, and took (some very odd) measures accordingly. I’ve no idea why he’d think something so outlandish, do you?

Smashing Saxons

New! Saxon Bank — “Literally a bank of earth! Interest rates are at an all-time low, so your secret stash of treasure will attract zero interest (from Vikings)!… Just don’t forget where you buried it all…”

Groovy Greeks

The Gordian Knot — Unravel it, the prophecy said, and all of Asia is yours. Luckily, when not ominously sniffing subordinates, Alexander the Great liked to spend time literally cutting to the chase. (“Now, where’s my Asia?!” “Uh… over… there, sort of…”)

Field Notes:

  • So now would probably be a good time to admit it: Series Four is far and away my favourite patch of HH goodness. As chronicled therein I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Series Two, of course; but not long into my first viewing of S4 I began to suspect that the one was merely the natural extension of my affectionate nostalgia for the other. The even-numbered HH series represent the leaps forward into what we think of as classic HH style, while the odd-numbered… well, consolidate those gains, let’s say.
  • This review project has confirmed that theory, in spades, with several cherries on top. If S2 was a joyous, anarchistic, ambitiously creative rollercoaster ride, S4 is that same rollercoaster made bigger, more elaborately engineered and accordingly that much more exhilarating. (Again, as me and my fear of heights are assuming. We do have a small nephew who studies these things in-depth.) And it concludes here, even more so than most series-ending episodes, with a shot of essential, endearing familiarity.
  • The flipside — and in some ways the spice — to all this being I likewise already knew Series Five wasn’t going to offer anything more. That the cast would have a chance to play on the same field as established here was tremendously exciting… but just a trifle poignant, as well. The producers had always been adamant that the show would go out ‘while it was still popular’, and as the creative completeness of S4 became obvious, this provoked a sort of low-level uneasiness re: just how much longer it could be justified under those circs.
  • Thus the sort of rose-coloured sentimentality that makes one actually appreciate a sketch whose entire point is transporting bodies to a cemetery. Because in S2, it would’ve been a fun but forgettable throwaway (possibly still involving random limbs flopping out). But two series and one massive evolutionary shift in creative purpose later, it’s just all kinds of surefire, hilariously morbid stuff, performed with the snappy ease of chemistry enhanced by genuine affection.
  • Speaking of which, only between a man and — to all appearances — his coffins: Never change, Laurence Carl Rickard. Never, ever change.
  • Especially, never change the sheer enthusiasm that has me much less worried for Bobsy Hale going forward, now that you have demonstrated that you quite literally can’t help it, and helicopters to boot. (I was going to complain about your blatantly reusing the ‘give the Bonaparte brothers countries instead of socks’ gag, but then realised I was probably the only one who noticed.. until now, of course. Oops.)
  • Much the same nostalgic overcoming effect is strong with the Tarpeian Rocks sketch. Technically it all goes on much too long for the slender point — especially since the same point was already made, with little plastic wings on, in S3’s ‘Angel of Death’ bit — but in practice, by now, there is no limit on how much classic loopy Farnaby is enough, nor Worried Mat as his foil. In the case of Jim’s little wavering offscreen pleas from the falling criminals, this holds true regardless of how long you’ve been watching.
  • In fact, I am so on the Hallmark-card verge here that I am perilously close to deciding to settle for what I can get, re: Ben and Henry VIII. Because while some real hints of complex menace would be nice, the childish-idiot-ness has here at least acquired some very acceptable Blackadder-y edges. Up to and including Jim’s relentless devotion so neatly paying off as a sort of pop-up target.
  • It’s all going a bit too brilliantly apparently; you can almost see the seam where inspiration becomes over-excitement, and on the other side is the *sigh* more usual cliche of Henry as endlessly beef-gnawing glutton. Really not at all sure why the show stubbornly refuses to clue into the fact that the actual major difficulty in getting him up the stairs were his horrendously ulcerated legs (as per below), the sores by all accounts were wonderfully oozy, smelly and putrid…
  • …Erm, *ahem*, terribly painful I mean of course. There is apparently also a slight downside to hanging out with this outfit so long… or possibly just with the rat and his shamelessly teeny-excited-paw-laden snarkiness leading me into temptation. Albeit he’s grown up a little bit too, this series; clearly the increasing contrast between demographic ambitions and puppet-intensive comedy has led to a compromise. I would complain about the concurrent lack of squee-worthy teeny accessories, except that (spoiler alert) I have also seen the next episode.
  • At any rate, even when Alexander the Great encounters the, uh, other sketch-worthy moment of his career, Ben still isn’t helping with the cliches nearly as much as I suspect he could. (Given the way they play this scenario up, though, I am guessing this must be kind of annoying for the writers, the otherwise deeply, boringly efficient way Alex went about being Horrible.)
  • So no, there’s no sniffing. There is, however, a lot of hissing. This… Oh, what the hell, I can make the nostalgia value stretch just that much further, why not. If I remain convinced that Willbond has been something less than fully inspired this series, it here at least makes an excellent foil for Larry and Simon’s more-than-usually nuanced goofballery.
  • …Also, there was the juggling. Oh, and the Asterix impression, that makes up for a lot too.
  • The unexpected — and/or inexplicable — return of Historical Mastermind, on the other hand, acts merely as an object lesson in how the writers taking an obvious snit against a parody target does not automatically result in oodles of inspired hijinx. At all. ‘Nikos Ancientgreekios’?! Really, show? Really? Not to say that watching Ben’s smug coping with yo-yo trivia isn’t mildly amusing, but you didn’t figure the whole skit being a nakedly blatant lift of an entire previous song would distract just a smidge?
  • Mind you, again, the repurposing the S1 stuff generally, probably less of a problem given CBBC viewers’ attention spans than a cranky adult critic person (currently obsessively reviewing every episode) has been willing to concede up to now. Even if it is merely about running out of surefire factoids faster than sketch ideas, it can still work on the grownup level when writerly experience (and, apparently, whacking great doses of childhood trauma) is applied properly.
  • Or, y’know, with total self-indulgent abandon. What I am getting at here is that, despite my open scepticism of their motives up to now, the Historical Dentist team has decided to treat me to a denouement beyond my wildest Horrible Points of View-influenced daydreams. Featuring a blood-streaked Sarah loyally backing up Very Civilized Roman Mat — who, from the hairstyle, got into dentistry after pounding criminals to death on the Tarpeian Rocks proved strangely unfulfilling — and Civilian Larry as the patient bemusedly watching all this.
  • Now, I do feel it incumbent on me, as also a (marginally) responsible adult critic person, just to mention that blatantly using the medical factoids to reach new heights of sophisticated black comedy is not precisely the Surgeon General’s approved method for moulding juvenile attitudes to health care. Not for the first time am I entertaining myself by adding to the mental list of therapy bills the show will likely find itself being served with in the next decade…
  • …And trust me, I am grateful. Even more than I was to discover it’s Death’s deathday, and so the party-hat wearing skeletons and mummy have bought him a nice little cake from the grocery. Chocolate, mmm!… Sorry? Yes, of course there was a death, and it was very stupid. That special sort of HH stupid that comes with an actual little to-do list of stupid, which always makes my cockles auto-warm. Or it would, if I wasn’t already happily lost in Dr. Phil’s ideal of purgatory. “It’s a joke… Oh, you got it? Well, tell your face!”
  • All this and we haven’t even gotten to the Masterchef segment yet! Which I am kind of OK with, because I had completely forgotten there even were five MC segments this series. That the fifth contestant is Lawry in full whinge mode, yeah, that’d partly explain it, but I’m at a bit of a loss to begin with as to how they so badly overshot the natural end of this bit.
  • After blowing up the sexual harassment and hauling out the bottom-slicing you’d figure a team as sharp as they’ve demonstrated recently would’ve realised the novelty value was officially exhausted; but no, we’re stuck watching as what was once needle-fine satire devolves into helplessly-flailing schtick… well, yeah, there is that one little moment where Jim, told vegetables cause hair loss, goes to check his scalp. Otherwise, HMasterchef, I shall prefer to remember you in your prime.
  • The LoG’s Movie Pitch bits, meanwhile, have much more smartly been saved as occasional treats, and are thus — as far as I’m concerned at least — still very much on the top of their game. Yep, sorry kids, still giggling helplessly… granted, assisted by their own growing glee in the part, and even more so Mat’s gloriously, hilariously, yet almost surreally convincing turn as Alfred ‘Don’t Call Me Cake Guy!’ the Great.
  • Needlessly harping again I know, but frankly that bottom-burning business last ep is shaping up to be the absolute least of his performances this year. There are worse ways to sum S4 up than by noting that, while a strict count reveals Ben actually played the most roles — several more in fact than Mat — the refrain from viewers all series long (not to say mine here, earlier) was nearly equally divided between “Too much Baynton, nobody else can get a look in!” and “Not enough Willbond, where’s he got to?”
  • Finally, there is the song, or more accurately the anthem. “Playing with these balls can really do you harm…” oh, sure, why not? It’s about as close as this production gets to the authentic naval atmosphere. Seriously, I place it here because it is so obviously the final summing-up of all that joyous, endearing etc stuff I was babbling about — very much including one of the aforementioned rare moments Ben gets to shine through.
  • Strictly considered as a production it is an engaging mix of brightly enthusiastic and handsomely lavish, and the song is a right rousing example of its kind — a Gilbert & Sullivan version of Horatio Hornblower, substituting energetic clutter for the choreography and sporty posturing for the chest-pounding. Even if you’re not familiar with the parody source, it’s all endless amounts of good, verging on genuinely witty, fun. No surprise (esp. if you follow him on Twitter) to learn it was co-written by Greg Jenner…
  • …however I was a bit startled to discover the cute l’il mute peasant so far indulging his dark side as to force Jim to sing about how ‘the [Arsenal] Gunners are my team!’. American viewers: Jim is a diehard Tottenham Spurs supporter, making this the NFL equivalent of trapping a Chicago Bears fan into belting out ‘The Packers are my team!’ in front of many thousands. With a huge smile on his face. What the hell, Greg, did he steal your red stapler or something?
  • It’s all not quite enough to make it onto the list of true HH classics — although it should be noted in connection with same that I’m speaking from entirely outside the football ethos. Regardless, it does something that in the moment is even more precious: it captures the pure essence of the matter perfectly, all four ridiculously amazing years of it. Certainly, there is still Series Five to go… but for me at least, an oddly satisfying sort of closure had already been achieved.

95% Accu-rat:

  • The really annoying thing about the insistence on the Greek inventions stuff (OK, besides Ben’s hair) is that, as noted back in S01E12, it’s based on a deeply shaky premise: that any one civilization, specially in an era prior to reliable recordkeeping, can claim the ultimate discovery of anything… and yeah, trust me, where national pride is concerned, even who gets to claim the yo-yo can become a YouTube battleground.
  • Henry VIII’s weight, also a rather deceptively complex issue. Sure, he was a big eater of more or less all the wrong things, as was pretty much every other upper-class type at the time — the Renaissance had by then revealed many strange and wonderful things to the medieval European mind, but the existence of cholesterol was not one of them.
  • First time I’ve heard the ‘vegetables carry disease’ thingy, though… not sure how they proved that one, given that logically  the entire human population would’ve been long decimated by then, but moving on…
  • The thing is, the Tudor royal diet wasn’t always the problem. Besides being well over six feet and strongly-built with it, in his youth Henry was actually quite the handsome strapping athletic type, renowned across the entire continent as the very model of princely perfection in both mind and body. (Think Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, only actually doing the accent.) Under these circs, the vast appetite was merely one facet of his enthusiastic efforts to live up to the part.
  • It wasn’t until some years into the production, with age and accumulated injury — jousting alone was pretty much guaranteed to turn you into a modernist sculpture of yourself — that the more familiar image of ‘Bluff King Hal’ started to take shape. In particular, one fall from a horse had left him with severely ulcerated legs. Basically? Ugly, perpetually inflamed, incredibly painful running sores that due to their location (and the fact that the Renaissance hadn’t been much help with medical hygiene, either) refused to heal.
  • So yeah, eventually his only princely consolation was sitting around having banquets, so there was less than nothing to stop all that athletic musculature from rapidly dissolving into slouchy fat. By the time he’d reached the point shown here — near his death, at only 55 — he wasn’t only being helped up stairs but winched onto his horse in armour with a 50-plus-inch waist. (Also, marrying wife No.6, Catherine Parr, almost solely for her manner beside the bed, not in it. If the drift is clear.)
  • Finally, no. 31457 in the You Probably Weren’t Wondering But Too Bad, It’s Interesting files: how the approximately 25m/80ft (just low enough to warrant those executioners) Tarpeian Rock got its name. Turns out it was perfectly in keeping with the general pathetic-ness:
  • According to early Roman histories, when the Sabine ruler Titus Tatius attacked Rome after the Rape of the Sabines (8th century BC), the Vestal Virgin Tarpeia, daugter of Spurius Tarpeius, governor of the citadel on the Capitoline Hill, betrayed the Romans by opening the city gates for the Sabines in return for ‘what they bore on their arms.’ She believed that she would receive their golden bracelets. Instead, the Sabines crushed her to death with their shields, and her body was buried in the rock that now bears her name.
 
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Posted by on August 26, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E11

Normally, I’d say you’re through over my dead body. But for fear that you might slice the bottom off my dead body and then eat it, we are saying you’re through to the next round. Or rather, Roland is…
*squibbbbrgugurk* *urrrghhh*
…Congratulations.

The quest for all-ages appeal nears its logical conclusion, featuring some old standby concepts reinterpreted with a newly assured comedic edge…

In this episode:

Song: William Shakespeare — Mat as a smoothly soulful Bard sings about his influence on the English language; with Ben, Jim, Martha and Larry as his one-night only backup, The Quills.

Recurring sketches:

Historical Masterchef — Crusader Knight and his Old Crone (“I have literally – no – idea – what – I’m – talking – about!” “I – enjoy – eating – beef!“)

Historical Dentist — Ancient Egypt (“Must be something to do with the worms…” “What worms?!” “Oh, we Egyptians believe that mouth-worms are the cause of dental decay. Anyway, open up and say ‘Ra!”‘)

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

Raven (Mad) Observation — Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed’s lofty scientific ambitions are being frustrated by some very mundane realities, and anything-but-mundane Charles II isn’t… exactly… helping. (“I’ll build you a new observatory at Greenwich.” “Oh, thank you, your Majesty! You are truly dedicated to science and the pursuit of knowledge!” “Big time. And it’s a great excuse for a massive opening party!”)

Dr.Culpeper’s Health Spa — For treatment that is truly bizarre! “We’re equipped to deal with any number of health problems. From coughs, chronic indigestion and stomach worms to a splitting headache! Whatever the ailment, an intensive course of smoking tobacco will really do the trick!”

Nasty Knights

My Husband Went to the Crusades… — …and all he brought me back was a daffy lot of spices, perfumes, fruit, home furnishings, shawls and just generally everything but gold. Oh, and a weird fixation on something he calls ‘juggling’.

Terrible Tudors

The News in Tudor Criminal Slang — All who suspected it’d sound even more convoluted and nonsensical than the Victorian version, raise your hands… Great, you’re already doing better than the onscreen translator. (“And now over to Carl, our Soothsayer, with the headlines in groundless superstition.” “Auuuggghhh! We’re doomed! Doooomed!” “Thanks for that, Carl.”)

Spelling Bee — Non-standardised spelling in the Middle Ages means we’re really lucky even to be able to read Shakespeare’s plays… said no modern student, ever.

Measly Middle Ages

King John Online — How the most inept autocrat in English royal history single-handedly brought the concept of absolute monarchy to its knees, as retold via modern social media. Complete with Mullions XP, MaceBook, Twaddler… and of course woodcut LOLcats. “I can haz roast swan?”

Awful Egyptians

New! Egypt 2000 BC Hair Dye — Is he or isn’t he? Only his hairdresser knows… besides anybody within a ten-kilometre radius possessing a functional sense of smell. Now with a special ingredient: putrid donkey liver!

Vile Victorians

A Manner of Life or Death — A suitor’s efforts to save his beloved’s dear papa risk mortally offending him anyway. (“Well, you certainly have a cheek!” “So do you, sir, and it is on fire!“)

House (sic) Hunting — The good news: we’ve finally moved on from Victorian child labour. The bad news: we’ve now become fixated on Victorian slum conditions. Of course, for the shabby-genteel poor of the time, it was no joke at all…

Field Notes:

  • Right, despite everything (and, OK, the kitchen sink) technically this is still a children’s series. By now, I’m feeling the need to mention that as a sort of public service announcement, for I am confronted here with a really breathtaking display of ‘all-ages comedy’, an episode in which the kiddy-centric silliness is actually almost entirely — and clearly very deliberately — composed of all the adult inflections children wouldn’t possibly be able to grasp.
  • Of course, on most levels this is great. It’s this series’ ambitions fulfilled, a uniquely remarkable cross-demographic fusion achieved, and not incidentally this project validated for another series’ worth of reviews. Thing is, I’m also a bit discombobulated by the fact that slack still needs to be cut for less mature sensibilities… or does it? When confronted with evidence of CBBC viewer-level expectations, do I complain about the lack of artistic merit, or should I be frankly grateful we haven’t gotten around to actually butchering dead bodies on camera yet?
  • Look, why don’t we just sort of ease in slowly, with the miracle of mildly inappropriate hilarity that was my first encounter with ‘described audio’. See, I didn’t realise that was the version I’d downloaded until I had happily flipped to the song first thing… only to be confronted with Random Disembodied Soothing Voice: “He steps onto the stage.” *song* “He steps off the stage.” Even once I peeled myself off the ceiling, this did not strike me as all that helpful, somehow.
  • Ooh, and hey, did you know Ben can juggle? Because he so can. Yeppers, Benjamin Willbond’s mad juggling skillz, everybody! I know, I’m far too easily amused by the juxtaposition of uber- British-ness and non-sequitur party tricks. But that this combo should turn up twice in the same episode… *snerk*… Strangely, however, there is no audio description in either case. Someone at the BBC is slacking. (“He picks up the potatoes.” “He moves the potatoes around his head in a controlled motion.”)
  • *ahem* Back to stuff actually designed for my enjoyment. Like, for instance, cliched Shakespeare quotes reinterpreted as big-band standard tuneage. This is so much my idea of pop-cultural mashup bliss that my first thought on hearing of it was: ‘Oh shoot, Mat has to sing that, doesn’t he?’ Sure enough, he doesn’t *quite* have what it takes to run with the Rat Pack, and there evidently proved to be no way to mash up what he does have with Jim’s voice, so it’s the first time I can hear Baynton consciously imitating, rather than simply inhabiting, a genre.
  • Mind you, I also have the genre-sensitive ears of someone with a babysitting auntie who figured, if she had to listen to Sesame Street for hours at a time, we had to demonstrate like reverence for her Sinatra collection. Once I consciously re-calibrated critical expectations using S3’s Stone Age jazz, ‘William Shakey’ proves worth the listen. He’s having a great time with a concept that he could’ve sung off-key from start to finish and still hardly have screwed it up, and he’s by no means screwing it up. The quiet bits in fact are genuinely lovely.
  • I say ‘listen’ instead of ‘viewing’ because nothing’s going to get my instincts around how no-one else — least of all the Quills — even bothers to try for the stylish, snappy unison you’d think would be fundamental to the parody. As mentioned, sort of a bad time to beg sympathy for childishness, there, show. Although, again, I’m not quite sure what I’d suggest doing about it, since I’d likewise hate to lose their respective interpretations — esp the way our Benny there continues to prove to me that it’s possible to love cricket and have soul at the same time. Just full of surprises, that man.
  • (Larry, contrariwise, seems content merely to provide eye candy, which in this context at least is a trifle disappointing. Possibly the BBC censors had a little talk with him re: the Boast Battle business?)
  • It should come as no surprise whatsoever by now, in any HH milestone of edge-sharpening, to discover a perfectly-coiffed Baynton right at the heart of it all — you can tell they’ve really upped the ante this time, because he’s also wearing a beauty-spot. Thus this episode of HMasterchef turns out to be easily the most memorable of them all, featuring Mat the diva-esque knight finally taken to his disturbingly logical extreme. Yeah, boyo, you work that hair… and that, uh, tongue, and… oh, right, the dysentery, I’d hate to deprive you of your big showstopping party piece. Although not for the first time I am left wondering what it’s like, having a career in which you melodramatically suffer violent gastrointestinal upset and the audience is going “What, *again*?”
  • The really amazing bit is that this all isn’t just a performance, it’s a theme. Sort of what’d happen if they did one of those things where other artists interpreted HH their own way, and Masterchef wound up in the hands of, ooooh, say, Adam Lambert. The gentle foodie satire somehow now features croquettes de corpses’ bottom, and from there devolves into Ben discussing his own bottom being sliced and served, all the while never changing his usual expression. All amid the suddenly-blatant sexual harassment of Saxon Larry. My newly savvy British media sense would suggest the whole thing as the inevitable next level for the reality-show sketches, except my North American instincts are too busy blinking.
  • Mat’s ability to keep a straight face in the midst of all the coif-centric vamping just about holds out through the later Egyptian hair dye advert, so the really unsettled viewer is free to assume this is all a Zoolander-esque fantasy happening in some dim model’s head backstage at the fashion show… or, y’know, whatever location suits your settling needs. Me, I’m kind of vamped out at this point and would rather dwell on Charles II.
  • Who’s seen here at his most absolutely, infuriatingly charming… possibly because this is the first time Mat’s been given a chance to perform him opposite Jim. The sketch itself is based on no more than a whimsical little legend (see below), but I can see why it’d be far too good to pass up — even besides the poo jokes. Uniquely lively, intelligent stuff, in much the same key as the earlier Columbus sketch, and a minor triumph of the writers’ ability not only to work the troupe’s chemistry but keep it fresh.
  • Totally apropos of which, when Mat’s long-awaited Biggest Silliest Character Moment Ever finally does arrive, it amusingly finds him partnered with Larry expanding the straight and subdued act. In fact, that our Laurence makes such a convincingly sweet, dignified old-timey suitor turns out to be much the more satisfying suprise characterisation…
  • …. since when his biggest, etc. moment does arrive, Mat looks (and sounds) disconcertingly not so much like he’s performing anything as that he’s having a sort of grand mal seizure. Clearly, he and I had been operating on slightly different definitions of ‘biggest and silliest’, here. At any rate, I’m still more impressed by Tsar Peter, not to mention most everything else he’s played this series.
  • The same sketch is also trying to pass off Martha as Mat’s daughter, which I’d suggest is taking the whacky casting hijinks just a tad too far (*tsk*, typical, just when you want Simon, he’s nowhere to be found). Despite it all, though, I’m glad they finally found a nifty way to get across this uber-obvious but tricky material. That they’ve worked their way up from trying to be subtle about in-your-face gross stuff to being totally in-your-face about repression, I find sort of adorable all by itself.
  • And with Larry around, it’s not like there’s ever going to be a shortage of authentic over-the-top silliness. Dr. Culpeper’s skit rests solely on the Rickardian weird, and… man, I’d forgotten exactly how seriously he takes that kind of challenge. Revenge re: being stuck in that HHospital bed for two series might have something to do with it too, come to think of it. At any rate, he fully succeeds in single-handedly making this routine medical sketch into the natural followup to …whatever’s going on with HMasterchef. Featuring forlornly logical Jim as the perfect foil in both cases: “We could just open a window…?”
  • Both the medical malevolence — psycho Larry, now with bonus access to drills! — and the factual repurposing from S1 continue into the HDentist installment. Thus I must conclude that the writers are just that desperate either to avoid losing their tooth-phobic psychodrama or the chance to put the male cast in civilian dress.Or both. Watching Sarah hotfoot after that mouse while Civilian Jim desperately negotiates with a guy wearing Tutankhamen’s hat, I am… less inclined to blame them for any of this than I was last week.
  • Jim’s really big moment this episode is of course the latest Net sketch… well, not all that big a moment technically, since as per usual these bits have opened the floodgates of writerly snarkiness. In between the above-noted plus Macrosoft Tax Raiser, “Ooh, that is a lot of capital letters, he is not a happy man…” and (especially) the Magna Carta as the ultimate in ‘oh, nobody reads the terms and conditions’, all Jim really has to do is hang on for the ridiculously engaging ride.
  • Mind, he does get another crack at the Hey Nonny Nonny a Family Member’s Dead schtick, which is by definition never a bad thing. The whole thing is basically a clinic in how to do adult-level Information Age comedy without actually resorting to ‘adult’ online references. Not forgetting of course Simon, Mat and Larry all having an absolutely wonderful time entertaining themselves on the margins… the kind of stuff that makes you more impatient for Yonderland than all the special f/x going.
  • Speaking of margins, the little throwaway bits here do a lot to keep the anticipation going too, also. Esp. Martha in the other Crusader bit, making the most of her big chance to get in on the ‘long list’ act. None of it’s incredibly original, but really well written and executed, and a nice way to get the point across re: how quickly the exotic becomes mundane… not forgetting Ben’s *snerk* *snicker*  juggling.
  • OK, so the ‘Tudor Criminal Slang’ bit is basically a massively pointless overworking of a joke that was only mildly amusing to begin with… but I do like how solemnly Simon takes his job, complete with the formal little gestures… and Carl is just all kinds of awesome. If we really had to revisit this format, how come we couldn’t’ve just redone the ‘Forecast via Superstitions’ bit, that was genuinely fresh, amusing and interesting?
  • The other Victorian bit… I’m not sure how to take it, honestly. Part of me enjoys the familiar huckster schtick, realises anew how the sheer earnestness of Ben’s attempts to play a common type makes them that much more watchably endearing, and revels in  the chance to see Dominique again…
  • …,and the other part always insists on constructing an elaborate backstory wherein these two’ve been thrown out of their just-barely-respectable homes when he got a black girl pregnant and she decided to stay with him, and now they have to go live in their own filth, and as you can imagine this all provides a rather harsh reminder that enjoying adult implications comes at a price. So, uh, mission accomplished I guess?

95% Accu-rat:

  • I am pleased to report that Dr. Nicholas Culpeper — despite being descended from the family that also included Thomas, famed Tudor bonker of Queen Catharine Howard — was not, in fact, the seventeenth-century’s version of Dr. Doom. In fact, he seems more to have been the equivalent of that one self-described ‘holistic naturopath’ at the health food shop who stocks Deepak Chopra and otherwise spends most days lecturing customers on how ‘Big Pharma’s just in it for the money, man, they don’t care about the people…’ As you can imagine, this all has gone over very well with like-minded folks to this day. Including evidently the editors of his Wiki page, which formally describes him as a ‘botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer’.
  • Mind you, back in his day he had a much better point, given that the contemporary equivalent of Big Pharma involved charging fat fees and quoting extensively in Latin for things like blood-letting and having their patients send random urine samples in to be examined in their stead.  Essentially Culpeper was fascinated with natural cures — eventually compiling an exhaustive herbal — and notably vocal about their benefits as a means of actually helping the patients, as opposed to making their prescribers wealthy. All of which noble motive, as the sketch notes and a quick skim of the chapter on ‘English Tobacco’ confirms, should be held distinct from the accuracy of his conclusions. Especially the part about the ‘integration of astrological principles’.
  • I often feel like a total killjoy in these notes, and never more than now, but yeah, the thing with Charles II and the ravens, most likely an apocryphal legend (one that occasionally features His Merry Majesty as the one peeved at the droppings, and Flamsteed as the one urging him not to banish the ravens because “if you do that, you will lose your kingdom, having only just got it back!”). A close examination of the records indicates that the first evidence of captive ravens showed up in the mid-nineteenth century, possibly propagated by a noble family with a thing for ancient raven gods… and you thought Wikipedia was boring!
  • Which is not to say the current UK powers that be — the same people, you’ll recall, who consider a Swan Master essential to the national well-being — aren’t right on this whole preventing-the-kingdom-from-falling thing. To this day, there’s a nice healthy raven population (six adults plus spare, plus fledglings on their way up) kept constantly at the Tower, under the… wait for it… Raven Master. Who has to work for his beer and skittles, don’t think he doesn’t. You ever spend time with a raven? They’re big. And mean. And smart. I am not of course suggesting this whole gig sounds exactly like something they’d’ve come up with to prank the pink hairless apes… I am just suggesting.
  • I’m pretty sure the whole saga of the Magna Carta (Latin for ‘Great Charter’) is on the finals in most UK history classrooms, so won’t get into the details here except to confirm that the sketch manages to bung in quite an impressive number of them, in the right order more or less, and as an excuse to provide the link to this lovely interactive British Library guide that allows the visitor actually to read the original document.
 
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Posted by on August 19, 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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S04E05

You know, that’s actually quite offensive. Neolithic man was nearly as evolved as you are now, so our language was actually quite sophisticated.
Right, sorry. I wasn’t… you know… Lots of my friends are cavemen!
…Just try to ignore him, Nug. I do.

Let us now take a moment to celebrate the HH troupe’s ability to reel off massively factoid-laden monologues. Actually, several moments… OK, would you believe an entire episode?

In this episode:

Song: Mary Seacole — Dominique as the other selfless, courageous, innovative (but not, it must be admitted, pie-chart-inventing) nursing pioneer of the Crimean War. (Parody of: Beyonce, Single Ladies)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Masterchef — Stone Age (“People make food, and we eat the food!” “That is the format as I understand it!“)

Bob Hale — The Renaissance Report (“[Da Vinci] comes up with designs for the calculator! Solar power! Military tanks! And helicopters!… Though, obviously, not helicopters. But then — hm? Oh… apparently he did come up with helicopters. Knew that one’d come back to bite me one day…”)

Oh Yea! Magazine — Royal Rage Special (“Buy it now, while necks last!”)

One-offs:

Savage Stone Age

How Cities Were Invented — Neolithic man takes his first whack at planning a civilization without actually whacking anyone… cue subsequent invention of despotic dictatorship in three, two… (“What if you’re good at everything?” “I don’t think you need to worry about that, Craig.”)

Wild Warriors

Snakes on a Ship (movie trailer) — Hissstory has never been more terrifying… Yep, ancient General Hannibal has about had it with these Carthaginian Romans on this Carthaginian ship, so he fires snakes at them. While speaking in what I have a terrible suspicion is Jim’s interpretation of Ebonics. Best if we all just go with it, he also has the…

Elephants on a Plain — Under a ten-ton elephant, no-one can hear you scream. “I’m gonna take the elephants over the mountains and crush the Romans on the plain! I mean, literally crush them! When I fight, I fight Carthaginian dirty, y’all!”

Radical Renaissance

The Da Vinci Problem — In which the great man’s omnidisciplinary genius pushes Mona Lisa right out to the limits of her enigmatic. (“Can we finish this argument tomorrow? I have a very important mathematical problem I need to solve…” “Tomorrow, tomorrow! You’re a procrastinator!” “Maybe I do something about being a procrastinator tomorrow!”)

Awful Egyptians

Egyptian Make Show — Today we’re going to learn how to create great works of art, still revered by the foremost museums of the world to this… oh, who am I kidding? Time to learn how to make a mummy, kids. Again. (“First off, we’re going to need a dead body. Here’s one that died earlier!”)

Mummification! The Ancient Egyptian Board Game — Yes, fellow Gen-Xers, this is Operation! with bandages… which actually looks like a really good idea, come to think of it.

Terrible Tudors

Words at Ten Paces — William Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language, Prologue: enabling him to win a battle of wits without even once mentioning yo’ mamma… should really have looked out for that tavern wench, though.

Vile Victorians

Plotting a Disaster (imagine spot) — The military leaders responsible for the Charge of the Light Brigade revel in their incompetence, stupidity, and really shiny buttons, roughly in that order. (“You see, these are all the advantages of having the Army commanded by a small group of upper-class twits!”)

Field Notes:

  • So yes, this episode’s theme can be succinctly summed up as ‘long lists and even longer monologues’. And let us all just take a moment to appreciate the special hell that must’ve been those rehearsals, not to mention multiple takes… also, to feel frankly disappointed that some low-level studio functionary hasn’t gotten on the ball and covertly recorded them for posterity, a la the Star Trek blooper reels.
  • Admittedly teaching of this type is exactly what a children’s show should be doing, and something the cast has proven they can (eventually) do with real style, from a long while back — see S01E08, ‘Causes of WWI’. An occupational hazard I suppose of no longer having surefire historical one-liners to fall back on (save, apparently, “Elizabeth I had a temper! Har! …*sigh*). So hang on, everyone, it’s about to get… educational. Carthaginian educational.
  • Because the show has also decided, in the midst of all this elaborate explanatory stuff, to bung in a two-part movie-trailer parody of Snakes on a Plane. More specifically, the only things anybody ever remembers about that movie, ie. that there were snakes and Samuel L. Jackson was Carthaginian annoyed about it. That’s it, nothing more to see here, the pinnacle has been reached and the only thing left to do with HH is to put it in adult prime-time.
  • OK, look, seriously. I want to love this idea, so badly. I want to just sit here and tell it how hilariously, adorably audacious it is basically forever, if for no other reason than so that the troupe having live freaking pythons thrown among them might not be in vain. Also: the ‘under a ten-ton elephant…’ tagline — and the fact that the entire ‘Roman Army’ can fit under said ‘elephant’, so that for once problems with the f/x budget work to enhance the comedy. They’re obviously going for a straight re-creation of the original’s knowing camp…
  • …except, and this is the key bit that cannot be stressed enough, in the original that was handled by Samuel L. Jackson, exuding badassery. While here we’re featuring Jim Howick, inadvertently inducing Deliverance flashbacks. Kids, don’t ask your parents. What I am basically saying is that, much as I love Jim, every time they cut back to him trying to make his Colonel Sanders impersonation from S2 sound all tuff — menacing, even — it’s just so, so completely not happening.
  • Especially since elsewhere, the show is so effortlessly demonstrating how you do it right. Really, I can’t say enough about Dominque’s debut musical performance — except that damn, show, what the Carthaginian hell have you been thinking up to now? Maybe I’m just particularly cranky at the moment thanks to one too many Desperately Ethnic Willbonds, but honestly. All this time spent even animating that damn pyramid, you could’ve been simply devising new and exciting ways to use all that voice, wit, presence — in short, cool
  • At least they make full use of it all here, and give it a convincing Jamaican accent to boot (“and I t’ink it my destiny, child / to be a war medic!” — cute touch that). Seeing as I’ve stepped into it this far, it’s only fair to note that musical inspiration, HH-style, means Mary Seacole gets to skip right over the pedestal-heavy preachiness and expand her story with all the sass and spirit of simply knowing it’s deserved… yep, right down to the constipation treatments… while simoultaneously taking the mickey not only out of Beyonce but the skewed idol-making system that spawned her.
  • By contrast — on several levels — how completely forgettable was the first series’ music? Say hello to the mummy-making process all over again, kids. In fact, I think Jim may even be wearing the same makeup. As noted — and as Ben is demonstrating with distressing thoroughness — this is kind of a bad time to expect the (adult, at least) audience to laugh off the goofy ‘ethnic’ f/x, there, show. While I can see why they wanted a Willbond particularly in the part, ultimately it’s not worth it… mind you, Jim trying desperately to keep a straight face at his efforts, that might be worth it.
  • It’s especially… odd… given that Historical Masterchef has evidently decided to apologise for four series’ worth of ugga-bugga caveman cliches all at once, and this after a similarly conscientious update on Neanderthal brain size just last ep. Wonder what inspired this particular sudden attack of conscience? There can’t be much of a Stone Age anti-discrimination lobby, unless I suppose you count those Geico caveman adverts.
  • But I kid the earnest children’s edutainment series. Nug the not-so-primitive chef is likely merely about playing with expectations — shades of Simon the Hippie Pirate from last series. Y’know, the most interesting thing about these reality-TV parodies is how intelligently the HH writers can now integrate the history. Blending surreal with factual on their own unique terms has quietly become an absolutely seamless process, to the point where you can forget what a real challenge to their skill it actually was, and one they’ve risen to magnificently…
  • …”My favourite dish is rotten seafood sick!” … OK, so ‘magnificently’ in HH terms is relative. And often involves a sewer rat. Oddly though, other than that notably TMI moment, Our Bewhiskered Host has been pretty sedate this series… ever since he’s had that portrait of Gram and Gramps staring down at him, come to think of it. It probably came with a teeny little lecture re: exactly when he’s going to do something with his life. “Why can’t you be more like that nice Remy, he won an Oscar and everything!”
  • The incidental host comedy this series mostly comes from the cartoon intro characters, thanks apparently to the cast getting bored again. Seriously though, by now they’ve developed their own little personalities and catchphrases and everything, and it really is very cute.
  • As you can tell by my viewing notes for the Shakespeare verbal duel bit — yes, the one that features Mat effortlessly pulling off every high school senior’s ultimate nightmare English assignment, which somehow still didn’t win him the BAFTA, but I digress. Anyway, my notes here read in their entirety, verbatim: “Awww, little Tudor lady, you’re the bestest! Awww, drunk fluffy-haired pretty-costume-wearing Jim, you’re the second-bestest!”
  • That reminds me ….guys, just how long have you been at this ‘Terrible Tudor’ thing now? Setting aside the fact that even by your own notoriously repetitious standards Liz’ temper isn’t exactly news, c’mon now. When Shakespeare wins an insult battle it’s completely awesome, gets the full-tilt Beauty and the Beast-esque staging and cheering extras and everything, but when Liz uses (probably some of the same) words in the exact same way, it’s a shrewish spectacle worthy of endless mockery?
  • Right, where was I? Oh yes, elegantly complex comedy… *sigh* Fine, show, you put magenta undies on the statues in the Renaissance Report instead of the standard white ones, your cooky’s in the mail.
  • Maybe I’m better off just concentrating on the explanatory stuff after all. Especially since it appears Bobsy’s new meds have merely rechanneled his ambitions, so that he’s gone from manic to epic. The impressiveness of which is clearly to be tacitly understood as constituting the full entertainment value for this Report, and I am frankly impressed enough to be OK with this. Even if an entire world-defining, century-spanning cultural concept is a long, long way to go, just for one helicopter joke. You can definitely discern both the interest and the intimidation behind the writing, on this one.
  • And just incidentally, if you’re me — or maybe just a North American of the right age — you can also, during the ‘perspective’ bit particularly, have deeply pleasing flashbacks to Sesame Street’s iconic demo on Near and Far. I rather suspect ‘loveable, furry ol’Grover’ and Bob H. would have a lot to talk about generally, did they ever end up hanging out somewhere in Children’s TV Heaven…
  • Right, OK, so elegant explanatory cleverness, I know I left it around here somewhere… oh, yes, here we are: the ‘Stone Age City Planning’ bit. Wherein the surreal/factual fusion works so smoothly that it becomes the closest thing we’ll ever get — ‘family’ DVDs being what they are — to the guys just sitting around on set, randomly being endearing. While wearing caveman costumes. It’s just possible I may have overthought this, but at any rate don’t spoil it for me, ‘k?
  • Especially given that it’s getting distinctly difficult not to notice how sweet quiet dream-to-work-with Mat’s somehow also always the one everyone’s on eggshells around in these ensemble things, complete with sotto voce murmurs of rebellion. Taking into account optional accessories including but not limited to boredom, access to costumes and just how hard and fast the early-start caffeine must hit that spindly frame, you have a very nice do-it-yourself mental DVD extra kit, right there.
  • Which brings us round nicely to the absolute rightness of his turn as Da Vinci… not surprisingly, this closely resembles his turn as Darwin, except with new! bonus stupid accent. I’m just as happy that they didn’t try for anything more authentic; it would’ve wrecked the sweetly surreal vibe entirely. As it is, they’ve got waaaaay too much invested in the Mona-Lisa as complete shrew gag — see, she doesn’t have eyebrows, just like the painting! Huh? Hey? Hmmm? — but Mat’s delicately endearing counterpoint, along with the lovely set (borrowed from concurrent CBBC series Leonardo, perhaps?), manages to save at least some of the transcendent charm of the original.
  • A lack of saving genius is on prominent display in the ‘Light Brigade’ sketch; I say, even with Simon the Military Chucklehead in the highly capable lead this is a bit heavy on the point, what? Somebody was massively motivated by the sheer injustice of this one — understandably, but as frequently happens, self-righteousness tends to get in the way of the clever comedy. Although in a weird way the sheer effective adorableness of the troupe doing elderly grumps works to salvage things a bit — you’re so absorbed in the ‘Awwww…” that remembering what it led to hits with that much more of a sickening thud.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, so as I recall from the discussion around this ep on first airing, apparently the show is having some serious issues with the pronunciation of ‘Skara Brae’. Which discussion is also the reason why I’m frankly way too intimidated to attempt to correct it here. I can however report that the show’s newly-discovered fascination with its strikingly-advanced Stone Age inhabitants is mostly authentic, save for this amusingly awkward bit:
  • Huge quantities of limpet shells were found, but these may not have been a staple part of the Skara Brae diet. Through the centuries, limpets were generally regarded as an “emergency” food in Orkney, used only when there was nothing else available. Instead, they were harvested for bait, something that probably explains the quantities found in Skara Brae. The tanks within the houses could have been used to soak the limpets, softening them up before being used.
  • If anyone even so much as asks if the real Mona Lisa really didn’t have eyebrows, be it known right now that I am going to punch them SO HARD. (Besides, as several culture nerds pointed out at the time, the portrait does, in fact, have eyebrows. They’re just really faint now against the darkening tint of her skin.) In reality, Lisa del Giocondo — aka Lisa Gherardini, Lisa di Antonio Maria (or Antonmaria) Gherardini and, eventually, Mona Lisa, established definitively in 2005 as the subject of the portrait, seems to have been essentially pretty boringly bourgeois, pace Wiki: Little is known about Lisa’s life. Born in Florence and married in her teens to a cloth and silk merchant who later became a local official, she was mother to five children and led what is thought to have been a comfortable and ordinary middle-class life. Lisa outlived her husband, who was considerably her senior.
  • As for her portrait itself, yes, it did take around three years to finish (from 1503 to roughly 1506), went through several revisions, and is thought by some to be incomplete even now. This article gives some fascinating background on the artistic process and significance of the work, including a glimpse at what the painting would have looked like before the varnish started to go all enigmatically yellow.
  • I said above that the Mary Seacole song gives her a praiseworthy chance to tell her story accurately and unadorned from the ground up, not from atop a pedestal, and I’m sticking to that down here… except that the one point where they do dip slightly into monument-raising illustrates the dangers of same nicely.
  • Without getting into the finer points of why Florence Nightingale and supporters actually turned her down — those I covered in her first appearance, in S02E06 — the question of her racial self-identification is in reality a complex, and rather interesting one, shedding some valuable light on the likewise fraught nature of nineteenth-century social attitudes. From Wikipedia’s highly-recommended article:
  • Seacole… called herself a Creole, a term that was commonly used in a racially neutral sense or to refer to the children of white settlers. In her autobiography… she records her bloodline thus: “I am a Creole, and have good Scots blood coursing through my veins. My father was a soldier of an old Scottish family.” Legally, she was classified as a mulatto, a multiracial person with limited political rights… Seacole emphasises her personal vigour in her autobiography, distancing herself from the contemporary stereotype of the “lazy Creole”. She was proud of her black ancestry, writing, “I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related—and I am proud of the relationship—to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns.”
  • Yes, OK, Good Queen Bess in reality had a ferocious temper. All the Tudors did — even Henry’s ‘little Eddie’, briefly Edward VI, is on record as in a fit of frustration tearing a hunting falcon apart in front of his startled courtiers, saying as he did so to his governors that he likened himself to the falcon, whom everyone plucked; but that he would pluck them too, thereafter, and tear them in four parts. Of course, this is coming from the Imperial Ambassador, who was relaying court gossip to his master, so stands a good chance of not having actually happened. History… gotta love it.
 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E03

Well, I’ve eaten a goose filled with the Holy Spirit, and now a goat filled with the Holy Spirit… I must be morbidly obese with divine wisdom!

Having firmly established to their new and age-improved audience that the hype was deserved, the show takes a moment to let the familiar take centre stage…

In this episode:

Song: Hey, Hey, We’re the Thinkers — Socrates [Ben], Plato [Jim], Diogenes [Larry] and Aristotle [Mat] warble witty and wise (Parody of: The Monkees, feat. Theme and The Beatles, feat. Help!… with a bit of assistance from MP’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year”)

Recurring sketches:

Dominic Duckworth: HHTV Investigates — Religious Relics (“For a small donation, I’ll let you rub one of Saint Appolonia’s teeth — as knocked out by the Romans, before they burnt ‘er alive!” “That’s an awful lot of teeth…Are you sure they’re all hers?!” “Oh yeah, ‘course. She had a big gob on ‘er.”)

Historical Dentist — Saxon (“I have been trained… We’ll just put this boiled holly leaf into the saucer — now, if you could just yawn for me?” “…were you trained by Dr. Saxon, by any chance?”)

Historical Masterchef — Saxon (“Five munuts!” “Eleven minutes!!” “…You literally never learn, do you?”)

Shouty Man — New! Great Western Railway — “The Victorian Transportation Revolution!” (“It”s not great!” “It is great. Ignore him.” “It isn’t!” “Yes it is.”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The King Canute Project (“King Dumb and Queen Dumber! It’s a sequel!”)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

The Crusade is Thataway — Wannabe subject of heroic ballads Emicho of the Rhineland sets out to conquer the Holy Land! and bring back Jerusalem as a prize for his fair lady!… all without a map. And for some reason the Holy Spirit-imbued livestock are no help either. (“Well, I never thought I’d become part of a walking metaphor, but that really was a wild goose chase…”)

Groovy Greeks

The Rescue of Socrates… Why? — “But I don’t want to be rescued!” “Why?” “Oh, don’t you start…!” “Look, no real philosopher fears death. If you rescue me, people will still find me really annoying, and I’ll end up in prison again.”

Terrible Tudors

Elizabeth I Online — In which good Queen Bess follows in her dad’s footsteps… to the dating services, if not necessarily the actual dating. (“The truth is, I am already married…” “Oh yes, your Majesty?” “…To England.” “Ah. Well-said, m’um…. *clik* Yep, she’s really lost it.” “I’M STILL HERE, CECIL!”)

Vile Victorians

Great Victorian Institutions: The Postal Service — Y’know, as much as we modern types complain how slow and inefficient the mails are, I’m not sure we’d’ve been able to handle the Victorian solution… (“Why won’t you leave me alone?!” “Well, that’s the joy of [it], madam. Up to twelve deliveries a day, come rain or shine, and all at a reasonable charge!”)

Vicious Vikings

New Home Abroad — In which Chipper Host Mat’s efforts to relocate a Nordic couple to English climes are hampered by even more than a ridiculous feathered ‘do… yes, even more than the bright red puffer jacket, sorry, forgot to mention that one. (“Whoa whoa whoa, guys! Don’t kill them!” “You are right. Perhaps we have been a little hasty… After all, we’re going to need a couple of slaves!”)

Field Notes:

  • Every now and again, when I’m at a bit of a loss re: the current review, I go back and reread the previous ones for inspiration. Then I decide to do a bit of editing ‘as long as I’m here’, and the next thing I know it’s several hours later and deadline’s looming so I just bung whatever down and hope for the best. Which thus will still, eventually, need editing. So it’s kind of a vicious cycle really.
  • Until today, when I realised that hey, I’ve pretty much done all the editing, on account of I’ve been at this for forty reviews now. Which led to the real epiphany: it is past time simply to pause and realise just how far the show had come in four series. I mean, I’m perusing S01E05, wherein I was totally all ‘ooh, great episode!’ and it didn’t even have a song. It did have Caligula, also auto-squealing pork insulting Simon Cowell… but seriously now.
  • So this right here is what ‘ooh, great episode!’ looks like in Series Four: all the way from live-action kiddy book cartoon to clever, complex — adult, basically — exploration of the possibilities. As you can tell from the above, I had a real struggle with this one not to just quote the whole thing and call it a week.
  • I only regret to report there is no Simon Cowell… oh, who am I kidding? Never understood that one. Not that I understand the obsessive need to take shots at the Masterchef hosts that well either, but as per last ep’s review I do not care, just as long as it inspires the writers to these heights of intricate hilarity.
  • Of course, if your sketch stars Ben and Jim together, you’re half-way there already. Also, the playing-with-food shtick has literally been around since Episode One, albeit back then called Ready Steady Feast, so by now, you’ve got the possibilities down. And as the cherry on top, if you like, you have Larry, who here gets to show off a rather startlingly effective noir side that usually gets lost amid the random goofiness. The generally snide vibe of the HM bit has been very good to him generally.
  • So has the Viking getup, for which our blue-eyed boy discovered an affinity in S2 and never has looked back. Unfortunately he also discovered an affinity for dopey accents around the same time, which he has since tried to explain as a deliberate effort to invoke the ‘when in doubt, go over-the-top’ principle of comedy. All I know is, here it comes off as his having maybe once spent a weekend in Minnesota. Possibly with Martha. Which sort of simoultaneously enhances the jokes and distracts from the… other stuff. I do unreservedly enjoy the mad gleam in Ms. Howe-Douglas’ eye upon realising she’s gonna need some slaves, though.
  • In a similar vein, the ring of triumph in Shouty Man’s voice signifies his return to the Victorian era, scene of his S1/S2 glory days. He’s never more at home than when gleefully exposing the discomforting realities under the veneer of civilization, and the mock-travelogue is an inspired, ah, vehicle, with Ben once again his natural foil. This sketch is fully Shouty Classic… including, I notice, full (if rear) views of the outdoor gents, which I guess counts as a daring adult update of that squirting coffin doll last series.
  • Speaking of daring, so there’s lots of modern civilian Mat in this one… no, that’s not the daring bit. At this point it’s the equivalent of giving the audience an extra helping of dessert before they’ve asked. Which yes, means that feathery ‘do represents the icky cheap frosting on the cake. Also, the daring bit, because frankly I have a feeling that if anything could make a man reconsider starring in a wildly popular TV series, looking in the mirror after that particular styling session would be it.
  • The Historical Dentist, meanwhile, is unreservedly great, albeit not for cosmetic reasons (a pink pullover automatically disqualifies on those grounds). I know describing anything about this show as ‘subtle’ is just inviting snickers, but seriously, imagine a HH writer trying to capitalise on his dentist phobia in S1… wait, you don’t have to, they already covered the ‘stuff in half a dead mouse in loving close-up’ five short eps in.
  • Since then, they’ve learned the value of leaving things to the audience’s imagination. Sure, it helps a lot that they’d previously learned their audience isn’t exclusively eight, but still, nicely handled all ’round. Especially by Sarah, who more than anyone can appreciate the difference. Even Mat and Simon have learned when to dial back the loopiness… sort of… hence the lovely little ‘silent scream’ bit.
  • Which brings us round to Emicho of the Rhineland, who stars in what’s occasionally my favourite HH sketch ever. It’s basically what became inevitable once the writers got a good look at the ‘Nasty Knights’ sketch from last series, and Mat clearly didn’t need much convincing to help them up the stakes. Damn but he enjoys these mock-chivalric posturings… which would, come to think of it, be kind of an interestingly effective way to deal with self-image issues, when you look like a fairy-tale character to begin with.
  • At any rate, everyone else somehow manages to match him with appropriately profound gravitas, so that the sheer ludicrousness can be savoured as it gradually builds. That there is serious comic skill, folks. (Excepting the ‘morbidly obese’ crack, which is more just the natural result of these people having been hanging around each other far too long.) Also, serious animal-wrangling skill, especially on Simon there. Trust me, fluffy feathers or no, hanging onto a goose is never going to be the best part of your day.
  • No, I haven’t forgotten the song. Nooooooo. The song is central to my thesis; you’ll recall that while S01E05 doesn’t have a song, S01E12 most definitely does… yeah, OK, you’re excused for not remembering it. The Greek thinkers’ song that doesn’t merge the iconoclasts of ancient times with their equally iconic modern counterparts in a way that actually makes the irreverence feel fresh and the respect sincere.
  • Aka the one in which Aristotle isn’t totally on speed, and also doesn’t have a beard, which may or may not be related. While I can appreciate excitement making it difficult to fine-tune his face — that must be a chore on the best of days — Mat isn’t so much communicating ‘endearingly kooky’ here as he is ‘climactic freakout of the After-School Special’. Then again, it’s the 60’s, this isn’t exactly unrealistic (or un-educational, come to that). Also he’s onscreen a lot with Jim, so, y’know, precedent.
  • More seriously, like all the most engaging HH musical productions, the seeming effortlessness of this one actually rests on a delicate balance of perfect understanding… you can tell, because this is also the song in which Our Larry the Perpetually Accent-Challenged somehow pulls out a note-perfect takeoff on Ringo. Also Ben contrives to genuinely get in the groove for the first time since that one S2 song with the monks, and this time in full daylight. So I am inclined generally to assume that whatever was in the ether that day, it was good, man.
  • This extends to the intro sketch to the above. Only Willbond’s smug could be simoultaneously annoying enough that people would fully support his execution and yet charming enough that this sketch is a classic… albeit I must admit that Mat and Simon’s frustration looks pretty damn realistic. The result of several run-throughs too many, perhaps? (In other news, there’s something about adorable weasely little Jim beneath that huge helmet plume that tells me the plushie just picked up another accessory.)
  • Hey, speaking of whom, Dom Duckworth! Who is actually starting to really grow on me. Between having stumbled on an excellent subject for this sort of sketch — and a nice complement/followup to the Dissolution last sketch to boot — for once Dom’s on a roll. Which makes the ‘state of the streets’ running gag a really clever idea, because, not to put too fine a point on it, otherwise Jim as hard-nosed reporter would become less and less convincing.
  • Ah, Lawry, every once in awhile I realise why they keep you around… because you can snivel really really convincingly, is what I’m thinking here, so this may not actually be a compliment, sorry. Meantime, Simon’s native ability to slide into that hard, grasping Northern stereotype (shades of Palin and Swamp Castle) has evidently been well under-used up to now.
  • The Elizabeth I Online bit, on the other hand, makes full use of previous funny, so that all the little seemingly throwaway gags in her dad’s original tech foray reappear. It’s just incredibly endearing to me that they’re not only keeping continuity with these details, but expanded on them, so you’ve got this whole totally coherent parody narrative that opens with ‘Mullions XP’ and winds up with Elizabeth changing her relationship status to ‘married… to England’ while Cecil fails utterly to understand the ‘mute’ button.
  • The show has now basically created an entire sitcom around Tudor marital troubles as filtered through modern social media, and frankly, why the hell not? Despite some serious messing with the actual timeline (see below) I am still fully onboard with the sheer on-point cleverness of it all. The individual characterizations are great… much love esp. for Martha, who gives what may be her finest prose performance of the series, esp. when reacting to Amy Dudley’s death.
  • And thus we swing back around to the present, and the LoG… and my ongoing delight. Sorry, kids, I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I really am trying my best; I know they’re increasingly alien to the HH milieu, I know (now) that the concept’s a shameless ripoff — but somehow, the fundamental humour centres of my brain just refuse to be irritated.
  • Really. Confronted full-on with the realisation that that Reece there on the end would ordinarily have us planning to throttle him right through the screen by now, the humour centres just sort of went ‘Ehhhh…’ and gave me an apologetic shrug. Then they pointed out that these bits enable us to fully appreciate Vaguely Swishy Barbarian Jim without actually having to watch the ‘Danke Magazine’ sketch, and what could I do but give in?

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, according to YouTube, the current segment of the Icelandic population with too much time on their hands would like a few words with this episode’s producers re: the characterization of their homeland. Starting with the animated-map-makers who heard ‘Viking’ and went ‘Norway!’ and now will never hear the end of it, ever.
  • On the other hand, Emicho of the Rhineland (more formally Count Emicho of Flonheim, “sometimes incorrectly known as Emicho of Leiningen”, because apparently there was a difference): In this case the Net fully agrees with Rattus, this was one bad dude. Basically he seems to have gotten jealous of the popular Crusade movements of the day — ie., 1096 — and decided to announce that Christ had not only appeared to him in a vision, but offered to make him Emperor of the World and everything once everyone was converted, so there nyah.
  • This being the Dark Ages, this managed to impress some few thousand people (including the ones who worshipped the Spirit-stuffed goose and goat) who promptly marched up and down the Rhine in his name forcibly converting Jews. Or, more often, simply murdering them upon refusal and confiscating their valuables, because apparently Christ had left the question of financing the Second Coming a bit vague, and Emicho was just that kind of go-getter.
  • Right! *cracks knuckles* As noted above, there’s some serious temporal tinkering happening within the Elizabeth I sketch. The actual timeline of major events mentioned (which should give an even better idea of how intricate the sketch itself is) goes like this:
  • 1558: Twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth ascends to the throne, appoints ‘special friend’ Robert Dudley her new Master of Horse (with the right to ride next to her at all times, wink-wink-say-no-more) and immediately starts taking grief from Cecil and her Privy Council — aided and abetted by Parliament — about the whole marriage-and-heirs thing. This is seen as a religious as well as a political duty, and divinely appointed ruler or no, no 16th-century male is about to trust a woman with her own reproductive powers.
  • Elizabeth, in response, immediately starts dangling her eligibility in front of the other great powers of Europe… playing them off one another… spinning out prospective courtships as long as she can… gaining all the favours and concessions that implies. This will eventually evolve into history’s only full-fledged foreign policy based almost entirely around a womb, and will net her even Cecil’s grudging respect, if not approval.
  • 1560: Amy Dudley, wife of Robert, dies under suspicious circs, having been found at the foot of a staircase at her home just hours after insisting all her servants leave her to attend a local fair. Elizabeth acts with characteristic decisive ruthlessness to avoid scandal and preserve her throne, ordering a full inquiry and banishing Dudley from court for the duration.
  • It’s eventually decided that brittle bones caused by advanced breast cancer was enough reason for her to have fallen and broken her own neck — also, the whole ‘advanced cancer’ thing meant there was no real reason to kill her in the first place — but by then Robert Dudley will have already acquired the faintly sinister rep that will follow him throughout history.
  • 1578: Having finally realised that Elizabeth really really meant that whole ‘I will never marry’ thing she first threw at him when they were, like, five, Dudley — now Earl of Leicester — defiantly hooks up with her cousin Lettice Knollys instead. Liz is furious, but just can’t quit her Robert, so takes revenge by banishing Lettice from court while requiring her man there constantly.
  • 1584: Leicester’s stepson, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, comes to court under stepdad’s sponsorship (in much the same way William Cecil is concurrently grooming young son Robert to take his place). By now Liz is of course well past marrying age, but still, evidently, highly susceptible to handsome young silver-tongued courtiers.
  • 1588: Leicester dies. A grieving Queen takes further steps to set Essex up in his place, naming him the new Master of Horse and granting him his stepdad’s lucrative patents, as well as sending him out on military expeditions, notably to Ireland. That the vain, arrogant, rash youth deserves none of it will take a few more years yet to sink in.
  • 1591: Sir Walter Raleigh does not, in fact, ask the Queen before he marries Bess Throckmorton, hence spends his honeymoon  in the Tower. It’s generally conceded that this likely had a personal component.
  • 1601: Essex, having arrogantly, rashly etc. made a hash of his Irish assignment and further disobeyed orders not to return until it was fully straightened out, is deprived of his privileges and patents. Desperate, he decides to foment rebellion against the evil advisors he’s certain must be poisoning the Queen’s mind against him. This largely consists of Essex wandering the streets yelling ‘To arms! To arms!” and then being all kinds of surprised when exactly nobody flocks to his banner. He’s eventually arrested and executed.
  • 1603: Elizabeth dies age 70, by all accounts still a virgin. It was one hell of a ride.
 
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Posted by on July 1, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S03E11

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…

Recurring sketches:

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…”)

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

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…

Putrid Pirates

Pirate Weather Forecast — Even talking about the weather is more fun when you add pirates. Kind of hard on the black cats, though.

Field Notes:

  • 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.

95% Accu-rat:

  • 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.
 
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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Series Three

 

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