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S05E09

The sacred chicken has spoken! We’re doomed! Auuuggghhhh!

In which we pause in the headlong rush to the finale to fully appreciate some of the more sweetly offbeat efforts to overcome the content crisis… and in the process wrap up more than a few plot threads.

In this episode:

Song:  Henry VII: The Original Tu-Tu-Tudor — Mat as the famously dour founder of the melodramatic dynasty decides to upgrade his image with the help of modern glam rock. Featuring Larry and Simon on mandolins and Jim on drums.

Recurring sketches:

Wonders of the Roman Universe — “That’s actually quite impressive, that you knew all about the planets–” “Ooh, but they’re not just planets, they’re gods! Giant beings who played games deciding the fates of everyone in the world! It’s Ancient Roman scientific fact!” “Yeah… it always starts so well, doesn’t it…”

Historical Wife Swap — Egyptian (Pharaoh Rameses II and Queen Nefertari swap with a peasant family: “I am the great Pharaoh! Born of Ra, chosen of Ra. For powerful is the truth of Ra. Half-king, half-god, master of all I survey, Rameses II, glory be to my name, yada yada yada. Right, and you are?” “Susan.”)

Photographic Monthly Chronicle — Pioneering photographer William Henry Fox Talbot reveals the good reasons why nobody’s smiling in old-timey portraits; also post-mortem photography, a real live craze re: remembering the dead. (“And we’ve got all the very latest accessories! These rigid neck irons and body braces make movement blurs a thing of the past, don’t they?! …he’s trying to nod.”)

Words We Get From the… — Stone Age. No, really.

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

Plague, Plague, Who’s Got the Plague? — Pretty much everybody in London by this point, meaning that victim-finder recruitment came with some major occupational hazards… “Can I be your apprentice?” “Sure, why n–errrkk! *thud*” “Well, you can see the problem…”

Ye Olde Starbuckes — Charles II’s attempt to discourage anti-government plotters leads to Cavalier hipsters–and you just know there were a lot of them–having some difficulty in securing a hot beverage. (“What’s your name, I’ll just write it on the mug?” “I’m the only person in the shop…?” “Right, TheOnly... *squeek* *squeek*…” “…and you’re making that noise with your mouth.”)

Rotten Romans

Playing Chicken — The great naval Battle of Drepanum hinges on the predictive powers of a sacred, and not incidentally profoundly land-based, barnyard fowl. No, really. (“O Sacred Chicken! Show us our fate!” *…* “Think she might be a bit seasick…”)

Measly Middle Ages

Middle Ages Antique Roadshow — The renowned experts of which are called upon to assess the value of an, erm, well-traveled lump of medicinal metal… and an even more unsettling recipe for gold… yeah, you know the drill by now. (“Bleaaarrghh…!” “‘Ere, now, that jar’s an antique!”)

New! Middle Ages Magic Set — Makes creating your own miracles so easy, the whole family can do it!… And probably did, in a whole lot of cases. Warning: Performing magic in the Middle Ages could get you executed!

Terrible Tudors

Bosworth Bollocks — So apparently the last great deciding battle of the epic, century-spanning Wars of the Roses came down to one Lord Stanley dithering over which side to enter on while the battle was already in progress.  (“…On the other hand, Henry Tudor’s royal bloodline does stretch back to Edward III — and let’s not forget, I am married to his mum. If I side with the other guy, well, you can imagine how awkward Christmas is gonna be…”)

Vile Victorians

Ahoy-hoy, Mr. Edison — The Wizard of Menlo Park makes a fundamental adjustment to Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention… just possibly not the one you were expecting. (“Mr. Edison! Telephone for you!” “Thanks… wait, what does that even mean?”)

Savage Stone Age

An Historical Place in the Sun — Moving on up and out of the cave for the first time comes with some unique stumbling-blocks. (“What ‘home’ mean?” “OK, well, a home is somewhere you live, it’s a permanent dwelling…” “Per-ma-berm-dwellin?” “…this is gonna take awhile.”)

Field Notes:

  • Well, isn’t this nice. Remember back a few reviews ago, when I brought up the Viking Poetry bit? (Pause for public service announcement: if you still haven’t seen that sketch, and its inexplicably total absence from Tumblr et al suggests that’s likely, get thee back to my S01E11 review immediately for all the reasons why you should. Ben in pigtails, people!)
  • Anyway, it turns out that the gently fragile surreality I thought was unique back then has ended up as a fairly common side effect in S5. It’s located right at the intersection of the new content vibe–in which quirky is totally the new anarchistic–and the consequences of leaving the cast alone to cope with the same material as they will. You know how [spoiler alert] Yonderland is constantly balancing between knowingly raunchy and wide-eyed innocence? Welp, this here HH episode will help you understand where the latter came from. (Hmmm? The former? Ah, this must be your first-ever contact with British comedy, congratulations. Go look up some Monty Python on YouTube, love, and do let me know how it all works out.)
  • In fact, I’d suggest the Wonders of the Universe sketches owe a very direct debt to the VP bit; at least, the nagging question of why Ben’s perpetually-bemused producer character seemed so familiar to me is now definitively answered. Even down to the hair, which is only getting more hilariously implausible. Clearly, somebody in makeup had a film-school relationship they needed closure on.
  • The whole concept really is shaping surprisingly well. Lawry is operating on a level of comedic sophistication unusual both for him and the entire series (I can tell, because it has now become flatly impossible for me to keep a straight face when watching the real Prof. Cox). Ben is likewise invested to a much more subtly impressive degree than is lately typical for him, possibly because for once he’s being forced to create the smarter character.
  • The whole makes marvelous capital out of the one key bit of meta-wit that prevented the Scary Stories from taking off properly: here, it’s not about Ben’s character constantly snapping, but how far Lawry can get before Ben finally snaps, thus giving the viewer real incentive to pay attention to some really interesting factoids. Amazing!… no, really.
  • So is the song, and in some of the same ways. It had my interest built in right from the get-go; there’s something deliciously, even mesmerizingly unsettling about Mat as Henry VII even before the pop-art psychedelia kicks in. It’s hard to pin it down exactly, but something in the way he’s so right for the part feels quite incredibly wrong–a further dark spin on his icily authentic aristocratic aura from S4’s wig debate.
  • Musically, meantime… well, 70’s glam rock has never been my thing exactly, but I am onboard with its basic desire to show me a good time, and on that level this song is fully awesome. The overall theme is so lovingly re-created the ironic distance from Henry’s ‘audience’ evaporates and it starts to feel like you’re enjoying it on exactly the same level. Not coincidentally, our Mathew by now has the genre mimicry down to the point where you only realise how uncanny-verging-on-genius it is when you consciously think about it, and you’re enjoying the result so much you never do think of it until it’s over, so.
  • And because I know you’re all waiting for the Tudor nerd explosion: there won’t be one. Really, for once accuracy isn’t a problem–in fact, major props are deserved for recognizing the subtle but stone cold potential in VII to begin with. OK, so I may have allowed myself just a minor wry grin at how dour Dad’s the one all dolled up in bling while ‘exciting’ Henry VIII is sitting there in, yep, the “sweatshirt” and floppy cap, but this need not concern us here, on account of it is VIII’s last (regular-series) appearance after all *snif*. Besides, by now I am convinced that it must be a deliberate joke. Only I’ll be damned if I can figure out what’s so funny.
  • Much easier to figure out the funny–and the Baynton–in the Stuart-era Starbucks bit. Mat as coffee-shop hipster parody… right, yeah, not a whole lot of Method preparation required for that one, obviously. What we’re looking at here is entirely believable as a Mathew Baynton from an alternate reality in which he’s a failed theatre major who hangs around Starbucks all day with his guitar, telling himself it’s a performance piece… featuring Jim as his snarkily neurotic barista foil… OK, I feel bad fanfic coming on, best we move along now.
  • As a deliberate bit of satire, on the other hand, it’s frankly wonderful. Largely because it never makes the mistake of trying to be pointedly clever on a done-to-death parody subject, so is free to take advantage of Mat and Jim’s near-genius-level penchant for sweetly charismatic silliness instead (also, possibly, Jim’s ongoing eagerness to begin rehearsing his big opening scene in the Yonderland pilot). Thus it manages to stretch a barely interesting factoid to full sketch-length satisfaction. This is what constitutes creating a classic bit, this series.
  • Besides: costuming, even more a happy-making thing in the Stuart bits than the Victorian. I do love me those big plumed hats… well, basically, I just like the idea that at one point in human history it was plausible to walk down the street dressed like a panto production of the Three Musketeers, waving your sword about whilst swopping the latest gossip re: the King’s new mistress. Feels like it would make up for quite a lot, really.
  • So does the knowledge that the Romans consulted oracular chickens. Yes, in theory this isn’t all that far removed from the whole ‘Ericho follows the Spirit-infused livestock to the Holy Land’ hilarity last series, thus I should’ve been expecting at least some level of sublime ridiculousness… but as it turns out there is really no way to prepare for the fact that, and I cannot stress this enough, the Romans consulted oracular chickens.
  • Every history text you’ve ever read or written on the glory of Rome, every epic sword-n-sandal movie you’ve ever seen, you now suddenly can’t unsee the fortunetelling fowl lurking somewhere just off camera. Cleopatra seduces Caesar: cue the ominous clucking. Freakin’ Richard Burton, solemnly marching off to find Christ and his destiny in The Robe: probably checked in with a banty hen beforehand. Best. HH. Fact. Ever, is what I am saying here. Bet there were near-fistfights in the writer’s room over it.
  • Whomever won the day, I congratulate them hugely on not over-thinking the result and simply following in the direction the material leads; in this case, Farnaby biting the rigging in blind panic. And the wildly fake prophetic poultry itself–shades of S2’s Viking navigation raven–it’s all just deeply, deeply appreciated, guys.
  •  I also think I can officially call this now: cuddly little bearded Jim makes for a funnier reversed-expectations military officer spoof than skinny awkward-looking Mat–although, you level the field re: facial hair and the gap closes quite a bit, on account of Mat having much the more spoof-worthily heroic chin to begin with. On the other hand, Jim usually has Ben to bounce off of, which automatically wins you all the things. We get what must be the full spectrum of epic Willbondian exasperation here, and it is as unabashedly glorious as anyone ever suspected. In particular, the being actively intimidated by the chicken. Lovely.
  • And not all, by a long shot. The team of Willbond and Howick then definitively wrap up their dual act by successfully pulling off an Abbott & Costello-type routine whilst trying desperately to hang onto American accents–any American accents, they’re clearly not picky. That’s it, the final summit of the demo-duo charisma has been explored and conquered, much hilarity has been had, closure has been achieved. Seriously, the only thing they could’ve topped it with in S6 would be an actual rendition of “Who’s on First”… and now, see, I have all the fuel I need to imagine it regardless. Once again, I declare myself content.
  • Especially, as usual, with Jim, who makes a surprisingly convincing Edison. However my real appreciation here is reserved for Ben, on the other hand being totally unable to keep the random RP inflections out of what is evidently supposed to be… some sort of a… possibly Midwestern twang… with occasional overtones of the Bowery? Yeah. Somebody may have been just a teeny bit unduly influenced by the traditional Hollywood sidekick archetype, here.
  • Unexpectedly charming closure corollary: Awww, little Cartoon Victorian Gentleman Guy finally loosens up and makes with the puns! I always knew he had it in him.
  • There’s another definitive apex being reached over on Wife Swap, and indeed the whole class struggle plot thread: inasmuch as even given this show’s determination to beat the unfairness of it all into the ground, there’s literally nowhere to go from a Living God/common labourer matchup.
  • Thanks to the aforementioned beating, though, not much else going on here of note; in fact the format is so creatively stalled out by now it’s to the performers’ real credit I didn’t consider that until I’d finished watching. Technically, Pharaoh Simon should’ve probably had a herald/slave to recite that whole schpiel for him, but I do not care, because damn, way to combine the teachable moment with the hysterically funny. Farnaby the Politely Clueless Aristocrat, I have missed you.
  • Say what now? No, no, I totally also noticed the Return of Bald Cap Sarah. It’s just that after Simon’s not only gone over the top but run off with it, any other surrealism in the vicinity inevitably gets reduced to a purely logical development. By that point, I was more interested in how much younger- and cuter-looking a deviation Nefretari is from her old Museum Matron look in S1. In other mildly pique-worthy casting news, Mat in that wig, being a matter-of-fact peasant, is somehow still much more pathetic than he was as a flamboyantly bitter French revolutionary.
  • Speaking of which, it’s past time for my annual (and rather sheepish) confirmation that the latest guy I thought wasn’t around all that much actually turns out to have been around quite a bit, or at least fairly prominently. Evidently, and rather intriguingly, they didn’t so much randomly delete Mat from S5 as choose his spots with elaborate care. Which as previously noted I find myself totally OK with, as a means of fulfilling my minstrel-eyed-spark-related needs. Especially when it’s accompanied by the chance to reuse the accent from last series’ Tudor archery SD, that’s a major plus.
  • So is the photography sketch itself. A bit overtly ‘Internet factoid’-esque precious, yet well and memorably presented… y’know, having now spent this much time with S5 in closeup, overall I’m starting to think they were developing more of a plausible handle on their newly slight, quirky identity than I’ve previously been willing to give them credit for. Still not enough to make me actively long for S6, but definitely a bit more intrigued by what might’ve been. In particular, Prince Albert being tripped up by an insistence on smiling of all things–a tiny perfectly-worked sample of the pure HH everyone raves about, right there.
  • Back here in the present, I must assign more bonus points to Unexpected Corpse Greg. A real old-fashioned trouper to the end, that lad… in particular, I am seriously, and quite sincerely, impressed by the totally keeping the straight face–let alone body–when Martha abruptly pulls out that idiotic voice.
  • And as if to reward me for all this Baynton-related fortitude, oh look, it’s the return of carefully-insouciant Civilian Host Mat! Yeah, I know, Gross Designs, but somehow it’s just not the same without the elaborately casual outerwear and ridiculously over-fluffed ‘do. Besides which, awwww, Martha and Jim the cozy couple! That chemistry will never get old… erm, in a manner of speaking. It’s such an solid, purely sweet-natured asset within the troupe that it’s a shame Yonderland is structured so it can’t happen.
  • And while we’re on the subject of civilian fluffiness… Alice the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ lady, thank you so much for not being shrill and blonde right now. No, really, I mean that. I do have something of a prejudice against your taste in sweaters, but given the parody subject, I can deal.
  • Particularly since I have other costuming distractions to think about. Did they just hustle Jim straight off the Sorby Institute set to this one? If so, awesome. I could stare fascinated at that check suit all day, it’s the professional version of Ben in a sweater-vest. The rest of the sketch doesn’t quite live up to it, but the concept has enough untapped potential to make me rather wistful (at the least, I could’ve been watching the suit instead of the Top Gear crew re-imagined as demonic troll dolls) and is pleasantly predictable in its own way. As per the Whiffy Jar, the pure grossout stuff’s been rare enough this series that it actually starts to seem warmly nostalgic.
  • Also, the random threats of brutal violence, likewise weirdly heartwarming, especially since the Vikings went all fuzzy-wuzzy on me. Thus I am left with the ethical intricacies of medieval magic tricks, and save for possibly a few seconds’ wondering where D.Duckworth has got to I am totally OK with this. Unexpectedly dark, rather impressively complex stuff—I must continue to give the new fact-finding team their due, they’ve got a fully refined eye for a fascinating anecdote…
  • …Which then proceeds to be severely if not entirely undercut by all the unnecessarily goofy over-playing onscreen. Mat’s got something of an excuse, as this seems to be his go-to ecclesiastical characterisation (at least here he’s not speaking in rhyme) but look, Farnaby, we just saw you biting the rigging, nobody’s buying the cutesy stuff, OK?
  • There`s more of the same–well-handled noir vibes, not cutesiness, thank goodness–in the plague-finder bit, aka a nice subtle riff on the Pythonic ‘Bring out your dead’. Yes, HH is now all but explicitly confirming the accuracy of Holy Grail scenes. I feel like a comedic circle of life has just come full round, here, somehow. That, and in the annals of stock HH schticks, ‘plague victims abruptly falling about like ninepins’ has never not been strangely hilarious. And the finale of this sketch, particularly if you’re familiar with Larry’s history as the perpetual patient, could be read as a rather pleasingly noir admission of ultimate futility on the whole topic.
  • Over in the annals of the English Civil War, meantime, we’ve finally reached Bosworth Field… and it’s all so incredibly exciting that my major concern is to determine whether the Tudor velvet flat caps have had a luxe upgrade. Otherwise, uh, yeah, so it turns out Lord Stanley had a perfectly viable, reasonable, definitely non-Horrible dilemma going there, and I still mildly enjoyed the show’s attempt to turn it to account. Forget the Wife Swap, I’m thinking this may represent the final final apotheosis of the cast’s ability to rescue a sketch.
  • Well done turning the car park business to advantage, though–the perfect way to wryly acknowledge the show’s part in the controversy without presuming on more than necessary for a silly comedy.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, yes, Henry VII, forcible founder of the Tudor dynasty.  As noted, the show for once gets a Tudor monarch exactly right: not so much boring as the most sane Bond villain prototype ever. Quite a guy, all things considered… and as the expression in that portrait suggests, either you considered them, or you discovered what it feels like when a real-life version of Machiavelli’s Prince comes down on your butt.
  • This is a man who clawed his way to the English throne despite a ‘claim’ that looked like this: Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, fourth son of Edward III, and his third wife Katherine Swynford. Katherine was Gaunt’s mistress for about 25 years; when they married in 1396, they already had four children, including Henry’s great-grandfather John Beaufort. In theory, the Portuguese and Spanish royal families had a better claim as descendants of Catherine of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt and his second wife Constance of Castile.
  • Wiki is, as usual, understating. In medieval terms, that one wheat farmer who seceded from Australia and now makes a living selling dukedoms to tourists had more of a shot at being taken seriously as royalty. Realistically, all Henry had going for him was his genuinely formidable Mom, a leading Lancastrian intellect of the day. Lady Margaret bore her only son when she was 13, was widowed shortly thereafter, and–despite eventually marrying a prominent Yorkist leader–never wavered in her commitment to her boy’s royal ambitions past that. Trust me, Lord Stanley wasn’t kidding about Christmas.
  • It also helped that the young Henry had his native wits sharpened by long exile due to his dynastic pretensions. In France, traditional hangout of disaffected English nobles waiting for a political shift, and thus also the first last and only time anybody’s ever going to draw a parallel between ol’Happy Harry here and Charles II.
  • The former, frankly, had much better things to do than lounge around Gallicking it up. For one thing, Mom had meantime engineered his massively-throne-claim-strengthening engagement to Elizabeth of York, noted beauty and much more importantly sister to the Princes in the Tower… meaning it can’t help but be interesting that she and Henry enjoyed by all accounts not only a long but unusually happy marriage. During which she produced four children that survived at least to adolescence, including two whole sons–a feat of future-securing the Tudor clan would never quite manage again…
  • …What? Oh, sure. Before Prince Henry VIII there was Arthur, Prince of Wales, original husband of VIII’s noted future wife/victim /inexplicably never an HH subject Catharine of Aragon. Named in, yep, a shameless attempt to cash in on the aura of the single most belovedly English hero ever. I said Henry was cunning, I never said he was subtle about it.
  • While Arthur’s death at fifteen was a blow to Dad’s dynastic hopes, it was no means a fatal one. He raised his kids strictly, thanks in part to his renowned miserly streak; it’s thought VIII’s uber-boisterousness as King was partly the result of finally being let of the short paternal leash. But VII also revered and reflected his mother’s respect for education to the extent that the entire clan would eventually be renowned for their intellect (yes, even VIII–that’s the key part that’s rather frustratingly missing from Ben’s characterization).
  • Speaking of the original Champagne Charlie, meantime: Yes, as yours truly pointed out aways back in S02E09, he really did try to ban the newly hip London coffee houses for awhile, on the grounds (har) that people just, like, sat around and gossiped about the King and his government in them (given that laptops hadn’t been invented yet, and it’s already hard enough to look cool while using a quill pen without introducing delicately-balanced hot beverages into the mix). Because, y’know, his subjects obviously must’ve been fomenting rebellion. I mean, it’s not like their King was a literally larger-than-life character with the single most flamboyantly juicy private life since Casanova, or anything.
  • Finally… ever wonder what exactly happened to Publius Claudius Pulcher, the great and powerful Roman consul who got crossed up by the seasick chicken? Well, yes, he lost the battle and everything, but what’s really sad is what happened next: He was recalled to Rome and ordered to appoint a dictator; his nomination of his subordinate Marcus Claudius Glicia was overruled. He was tried for incompetence and impiety and was fined, and died soon afterwards, possibly by suicide. So basically the guy’s whole entire illustrious life was ruined by one lousy befuddled fowl. Which, yes, is still completely hilarious, but that’s not the point. Geez, people.
 
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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S04E10

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

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

Groovy Greeks

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

Smashing Saxons

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

Putrid Pirates

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

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

Terrible Tudors

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S03E07

…Like Marcus, my pet flea, is in ‘thrall’ to me. He does whatever I tell him — Marcus, stop that — Marcus! I’ll have a bath! I will!

In which the show hauls out their ultimate weapon against mid-series lull… no, not Nazis, Farnaby. And a wind machine. It may not sound like much now, but just wait…

In this episode:

Song:The Evil Emperors’ Song — Simon as Caligula, Mat as Elagabalus, Ben as Commodus and Jim as Nero. (Parody of: Michael Jackson, Bad)

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — New! Ushabti Coffin Dolls (“These beautiful handcrafted figurines will magically turn into actual servants to look after your every need in the afterlife! And there’s hundreds of different ones to collect!”)

HHTV Sport: Twisting the Cow at the Highland Games — Wherein the Scots compete to, yes, be first to twist all four legs off a dead cow… and if you think that’s sick and disturbing, just wait ’till you hear the post-match puns.

Horrible Points of View — Stuart (“So next time you’re watching Hannah Montana, be thankful you’re not in the Stuart era, or she’d be played by a bloke!”)

Stupid Deaths — Moliere (Took a fatal coughing fit while performing in his own play: The Hypochondriac.”Hah! I might die laughing!… no, wait, I’m dead already, aren’t I?”)

Historical Wife Swap — Vikings (“ARRRR!” “Don’t growl, dear.”) vs. their Thralls (“EEEK!” “Don’t be alarmed, I’m just very ugly.”)

Bob Hale — The American Report (“Home of the brave and land of the free! And you know what else is free? Yes, it’s this fantastic Bob Hale action figure, which is FREE when you buy my incredible new Book of Interesting Facts!”)

One-offs:

Awful Egyptians

The Secret of Tombs — Keeping the Pharaoh’s treasures safe for the next life eventually trumped the showy display of them in this… problem is, of course, the Pharaohs were still operating in this. (“OK, fine. Here’s your bonus.” “…There’s nothing there?” “Oh, but there is — you just can’t see it! Hah!”)

Gorgeous Georgians

A Failure to Communicate — George I’s English is about as good as Robert Walpole’s German, which poses a serious problem when trying to run the country… or does it?

Awesome USA

Paul Revere’s not in any way Effective All-American Toothpaste — The historic connection between sugar and tooth decay: clearly, not as incredibly obvious as you might think. (“Because teeth are over-rated!”)

Rotten Romans

Caligula is Grateful — Handy rule for dealing with mad emperors, No.326: Never, under any circs, assume they won’t take you literally. Especially when offering your life in exchange for theirs…

Field Notes:

  • So, you’re no doubt all breathlessly wondering when we get to the less interesting stuff, as mentioned in my S03E01 review — what? Oh. Well, shoot, then we’re all going to be disappointed. Or possibly not. Because to paraphrase the Mythbusters, I think there’s something a bit off about this boring stretch; I’m standing right in it, to the best of my recollection, and I’m not bored yet.
  • Not that it hasn’t threatened lately — and if I do remember correctly, looms more ominously still just ahead. But it must be conceded that I’ve since become more realistic about the ability and/or responsibility of a children’s show to keep an adult interested… and noticed that despite which, every time adult ennui does loom, things abruptly veer off into adult-level quirky. Or, in the case of this episode, just cuts to Farnaby in (surprisingly attractive!) drag. Well played, show, very well played indeed.
  • Not that this is by any means their only ol’Dandelion Head-related dodge. In what I can only suggest might have been a deliberate attempt to help mitigate the by-now-near-absence of Baynton, they’re also featuring crazy Scots Simon, Georgian Simon, of course Simon as Death… and, in a move that demonstrates just how serious they were about it all, Simon as Caligula: now with bonus song-and-dance action.
  • This last was I suspect a fairly hefty factor in the decision to re-re-recap the evilness of Rome’s rulers, although I can’t totally discount the chance to finally exploit the fact that the “killed the priest instead of the beast” anecdote rhymes. Hey, they managed to find the one Caligula story that’s both mildly catchy and PG-rated, they’ve earned a little celebration. So yes, here it is in all its glory, folks! Revel in a lisping Farnaby boogeying down before purple curtains!
  • No, seriously, he attacks his first big musical role with real aplomb. As of course do they all, even Ben, because it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself doing a takeoff on old-school King of Pop-style posturing. Which means the viewer feels like a right old grump for complaining not only about any staleness but the lyrical/scanning dodginess (“You only got the Emperor job cos you were chosen by your dad!” — well, yeah, isn’t that how  it usually works?) I do though appreciate Elagabalus’ unexpectedly thoughtful admission that ‘Could argue I was sad’.
  • In the end, despite all the eyerolling from my common sense, I fell in love with the evil emperors — at least on mp3…. and that was the day I learned that some earworms are more socially acceptable than others. Protip: absently humming “In a good mood today, so I won’t slit your throat!” will get you looked at funny in most places, but especially Sunday services.
  • I am not quite as fond of the video. On rewatch, I can pick out lots of individual really funny moments, most involving Mat and either the wind machine or the chance to very obviously recreate his dorky  teenage Saturday nights at the disco — at least, I hope those moves date from his teen years. There is also how they use Dutch angles to make Ben look like he’s delivering an authentic rap. But… somehow… they’re focussed in too hard on those individual scattershot bits. Sort of a creative missing the forest for the trees effect.
  • On the other hand, I do really appreciate the chance to slow down, take a break from the warrior stereotypes and scan a few Viking… uh, peat bogs, or whatever that is ‘at the bottom of the garden’ that’s turned their servants into road-show Hobbits. Honestly I’m rather disappointed in the makeup team; as they’ve proven by now, they could’ve put a LOT more effort into making Jim & Katy really ugly. Didn’t want to scare the kiddies I guess, although it seems a weird time to start being concerned about that.
  • Seriously though, this is an unexpectedly charming slice of Viking home life, and an encouraging sign that they’re aware of the dangers of stagnation on at least some level. (Except in re: the fainting thing, unless we want to call it an official running gag, which nnnghhh… not so much.) Just sharp, clever writing that actually uses the cliches as a springboard, rather than the point, and so feels genuinely fresh & funny. Basically, yet another indication of how far they’ve come in three series.
  • Speaking of which, it’s also a nice unusual treat to see one of the other two Georges getting some play. And of course Ben — in that sweetly ineffectual mode that to my mind is criminally underused — getting another chance to show off his German, not to mention Simon proving that he can play restrained as effectively as he can do anything else. The net result is fragile, funny, and enormously charming; one of those lovely offbeat things that always seem to result when these two are paired (see also S1’s very similar-in-spirit ‘Viking Poetry’).
  • Along those lines, it’s really odd that Larry’s quirky-but-impressive knack for mimicking American used-car salesmen hasn’t really been exploited since episode two… but then he opens his mouth, and you realise that Paul Revere wasn’t actually Texan, and you think maybe it all worked out for the best, pretty much. Great hair, though. And the smile, he’s got that right down, which does help quite a bit in a toothpaste ad. Maybe he just watches Mad Men for all the wrong reasons, this is my latest theory.
  • The same rather clumsy grasp of Americana is reflected in his Bob Hale report. This is mildly disappointing, because I was really psyched to get the wry, incisively satirical British take on trans-Atlantic jingoism, and instead I got… the jingoism, more or less. It appears Bobsy was for once so tied up in self-promotion that, after the smallpox blankets, he just grabbed a few additional facts out of another interesting book without noticing it was published circa 1955.
  • He does however get major unintentionally-amusing-foreshadowing points for scornfully hilighting that one Pilgrim who brought all those shoes instead of survival gear (oddly, 139 pairs here). “Now there are some very weird priorities!” Oh, do tell, Larry?
  • Shouty Man, meanwhile, is in the midst of a fully hilarious creative comeback that of course involves showing up at a dying king’s bedside to enthusiastically hawk coffin dolls, including a butt-wiper that squirts… yeah, never gonna see the outtakes from that one in a million years, sadly enough. I’m also really enjoying this new angle where Shouty’s interactive with his customers, which seems to be what the writers are going with in order to keep the gag fresh. On account of, y’know, they were even then in the process of being nominated for a BAFTA. No, not specifically for the butt-wiper doll, but still.
  • These are also the people, and no this cannot be emphasised enough, responsible for sticking Simon in front of a camera hefting a cow’s hindquarter and spouting completely indefensible puns. (In fact, it’s not at all unlikely it’s meant to be the same guy from S2’s ‘Scottish Wedding’ bit.) Although, weirdly, the makeup team again totally misses a prime opportunity to exercise their random-body-fluid-simulation skills. Pure and total essence de Farnaby, this one, regardless.
  • As is of course the non-singy Caligula. Frankly I’d much rather they’d been obsessing over this whole sadistically hilarious ‘you offered your life for me, so pay up!’ business instead of the priest/beast, but I suppose it’d be a bit more difficult to condense into a snappy anecdote and/or rhyme. They do a pretty good job of it here, though, including the nice Blackadder-y touch implying his victims more or less deserved it. In fact these two are among the more entirely unpleasant HH characters ever — even Jim can’t save this guy.
  • Elsewhere, though, Jim gets a chance to use a slightly modified — no, wait, this is pretty much exactly how George IV would’ve reacted to the invisible-tomb thing, if he were Egyptian. Which lends a nicely surreal note to an otherwise fairly routine sketch. Unfortunately nobody seems to have thought of thus rescuing the Stupid Death, which has an oddly rushed aspect to it, as of potential unfulfilled.
  • On the subject of surreal — to the point of vaguely unsettling, really — we’re also treated to an ombudsman Mat whose quiet despair has been apparently augmented both by what sounds like a sinus infection and a fascination with Disney sitcom heroines. I’m sorry, I know it’s a kiddy comedy, but there are some things that a grown man references it’s just gonna get him glanced at askance, and Hannah Montana is one of them. Especially given the sketch ends really abruptly after that.
  • Hey, a presenter role for Dominique that does not involve weirdly ruffled polyester. I am wholly onboard with this — with anything that gets me more Dominique on my screen, really. There’s something about the snarky smarts that always seem to be lurking just behind the perky cute that keeps me compulsively watching, and for that matter had me wondering first go-round if the show really understood what it had in her… which of course they did; like Giles Terera — but even more inexplicably — it just took four series to fully kick in.
  • Although, it must be admitted: I actually kinda like the bagpipes. Yes, I’m aware this makes me weird. Used to it.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes, the Scots Highland Games did apparently at one point include the cow-twisting business. The good news is it seems to have been discontinued long, long ago… at least, I think it’s good news. When various modern HG websites — remember, these are still people who proudly train for the title of ‘guy who can throw the telephone pole the farthest’ — use phrases like ‘Luckily for us’ and ‘Thankfully…’ in describing the demise of an event, you can’t help but be sort of simoultaneously glad and sorry it’s gone.
  • Ah. OK, inspired by the comments below I’ve done a bit of poking into the story of would-be Jamestown colonist William ‘Original Shoe Fetish’ Mullins. Apparently the discrepancy between the two totals given by Bobsy and in the S4 New World song has to do with the fact that he also brought 13 pairs of boots to go with the 126 pairs of shoes. Larry’s obviously using the combined total. As for the rest of Mullins’ tragicomic story… well, hey, I have to save something for S4.
  • Meanwhile, George I. Theoretically, at least, a fully-fledged ladies’ man and star of some fairly exciting scandals, which may indicate the German accent of the time was considerably sexier than the modern version. At any rate, as ‘Born 2 Rule’ notes, he quite literally only gained access to the throne of Great Britain in the first place on account of the fifty-six closer candidates all being Catholic.
  • (In case you’re wondering, yes, they did make the attempt to ask at least several of them if they’d convert. They said no.)
  • Having thus basically won the World Superpower Lottery, George… did not see why he should bother upping the formality (or sociability) level beyond his prior life as Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg. Which predictably earned him quite a few snickers among the British aristocracy, because, you know, those stupid Germans, with their crude manners and weird food and hefty women! Har! No wonder the poor guy spent about a fifth of his time back in his beloved Hanover.
  • He did, however, apparently have much less difficulty making himself understood to his new underlings than this sketch indicates; remember, the common language of Europe’s glitterati at the time (ie. not only George but most of his ministers) was actually French, and by the time his reliance on Walpole had grown to the extent shown here — actually much later in his reign — George’s English had also become fairly decent.
  • It must be conceded that the American Report did a pretty good job of covering the basics of the American revolution; it’s only that Bob had such a brilliant chance to introduce newer and more intriguing details. Just for starters, Columbus of course didn’t ‘discover’ anything, no more than did the approximately 54274 other nations/races who claim they got there first (including but not limited to the Vikings, Polynesians, Japanese, Egyptians, Irish and Chinese).
  • What he and subsequent Western European would-be colonists really did was show up and announce to the current owners, “Nice place!… We’ll take it. On account of us being all superior and civilized and stuff. Har!” Right, so irony: not a huge feature of 17th century political thought. Although, how much of the Native decimation via disease was actively intentional is less obvious than indicated here. We do know the idea of Judas-gifting them smallpox-infested blankets was at least discussed, and from there it’s easy enough to imagine it being carried out, but to what extent is unclear.
  • OK, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin aka Moliere, yes, he really did take his fatal coughing fit during a production of what would be more accurately translated as The Imaginary Invalid. However it might just be pointed out that this wasn’t quite the fully cosmic co-incidence the show is implying, given that the playwright already suffered — as was practically de rigueur for your seventeenth-century sensitive artiste — from pulmonary tuberculosis. The coughing fit actually caused a haemorrhage in his already frail lungs. Still, one suspects the comedian in him probably totally approved Fate’s choice of backdrop.
 
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Posted by on May 12, 2013 in Series Three

 

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S03E05

I am a king! Reduced to the state of a bum!
*snerk*
…Don’t laugh at ‘bum’, Terry. It demeans us both.

In which we visit, if are not precisely amazed by, some of the more unique corners of the series to date… also, the fully amazing Cleopatra.

In this episode:

Song: Ra Ra Cleopatra — Martha as the legendary (Fashion) Queen of the Nile; Ben as Caesar and Mat as Mark Antony (Parody of: Lady Gaga, feat. Bad Romance)

Recurring sketches:

Stupid Deaths — Griffith ap Llewellyn (Escaped from the Tower of London on a rope of bedsheets… that turned out to be just ten metres too short. “You’re through to the afterlife… Ooh, hey — mind how you go, there’s a bit of a drop...”)

Historical Hospital — Dr Galen, Roman physician (“Hail patient!”)

Shouty Man — New! Criminal’s Head (“Cures just about anything!”* *except death)

Historical Wife Swap — Special Royal Edition: Louis XVII & Marie Antoinette vs. Mr & Mrs. French Peasant (“You don’t expect me to eat grass! Do you think I look like a cow?” “…Serious question?”)

Historical Fashion Fix — Pete the Tudor Peasant Joins the Aristocracy (“Are you ready, Pete?” “…no.” “Then let’s get started!”)

Bob Hale — The Pharaoh Report (“Then Tutankhamen’s daddy became a mummy, which is a very complex operation.”)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Nice Exile if You Can Get It — Deposed Scots King John Balliol is distraught over his imprisonment in the Tower with only his family… and his luxurious trappings… and his servants, and his musicians, and his freedom to hunt… “I mean, you wouldn’t keep an animal like this! It’s inhumane!” “Fruit, sire?” “Agh! I don’t like grapes!… You see what I mean?!”

Frightful First World War

But Where Are the British Forces?! — A well-deserved reminder that the combined Commonwealth corps also included… erm, based on the accents, somewhere close to something resembling Canada, Australia and South Africa. More or less.

Ladies’ Tights Beneath Your Kilt — Because you’re worth it… and they do seriously help prevent chemical warfare burns, also of course generalised chafing… and, when the ‘so that’s what’s under there!’ gags start, they did also assign you a gun.

Terrible Tudors

The Queen of Picky-Faces — In which the seventeenth-century equivalent of impressing your friend with the latest iPad equates to giving Elizabeth I a little teeny clock on a strapwhich seems enviably simpler, until you realise that next year she was probably demanding one that “didn’t keep stopping because of her weird body chemistry!”

Fashion Follies (animated) — Wearing platform shoes in manure-filled streets was an excellent way of keeping your clothes dry… but watching where you were going was even better.

Field Notes:

  • Being the lone woman in a six-member historical comedy troupe has its advantages — yes, ones besides being able to work with the five guys, although as Martha is only human I bet that does make for some really smug online browsing sessions. The ones I was thinking of just at the moment, though, have to do with ‘getting to be a pop star’, as  the lady herself once put it in an interview.
  • The thing is, while everyone gets a chance to sing, only Martha gets that chance in the context of a conscious spotlight on the fiercest icons of herstory. Meaning she’s about guaranteed a sassy, sexy musical character whose song is all about how incredibly awesome she is — and it will be real awesome, not the manufactured kind your actual pop stars rely on these days.
  • Excepting of course those few who are shrewd enough to work the system, so that the awesome is a carefully-judged mix of real charisma and deliberately cultivated legend… Why hello there, Pharaoh Cleopatra, who would undoubtedly have worn a dress made out of meat or anything else edible did she think it would thrust her further into the spotlight. This is what her song is about, basically: to convince us that being the Lady Gaga of the ancient world — with, OK, some bonus total vicious amorality — was enough to propel her right to the brink of ruling the known universe.
  • That she does, absolutely, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this musical number — and about Martha’s musical instincts.The performance is the female equivalent of what Mat does to fuse Adam Ant with Dick Turpin, and combined with some seriously clever, witty songwriting it becomes one of my all-time favourites.
  • Besides that… well, there’s the whole special French Revolutionary Wife Swap thing… in which the show pulls the same $@#$^ stunt as they initially did with the Tudors and bases the comedy around the more convenient but much less accurate legend. I am disappoint. My one big chance to see Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette brought to life, by the people who’ve just so skilfully interpreted Cleopatra… and Charles II… and oh right, the Lady Jane Grey thingy, that probably should’ve been a clue not to get my hopes up too far.
  • Rant re: the historical is below (enter at your own risk) but up here I will just point out that this version of Versailles is kind of completely freaking missing the approximately fifty-seven billion courtiers, servants and random people who rented swords at the gate… many who would be even then peeing in stairwells… oh, and the dogs, can’t forget those. Versailles was basically Trafalgar Square without the pigeons, is what I’m saying here, and I can’t even actually rule out the pigeons.
  • While Alice is at least everything Marie Antoinette should be physically — love those big floaty picture hats! —  Ben’s altogether too… well, Ben to be the Louis who said of his wedding night “Oh, I always sleep well after a good supper.” Not to mention that it is really, really hard to take Mat seriously as a pitiful peasant, not to say angry revolutionary, when he’s using that particular accent. Sure, he gets full cred for that mouthful of presumably real grass, but it’s not quite the same thing.
  • The rest of the recurring bits are also something of a mixed bag. Death does some more noir bonding with the corpse (at least, I’m assuming that last ‘drop’ gag wasn’t a hidden crack about ending up in a hot place). It’s not quite as engaging this time, as it’s also a curious one-off experiment in hilighting the stupid consequences of the death, rather than the circumstances — live-action Looney Tunes. Which, while I can see where it’d be fun for the f/x team , it mostly just makes me glad the show’s visual style doesn’t generally borrow from the cartoon-filled books that closely.
  • Elsewhere, Shouty Man makes a valiant, if not rather desperate, attempt to recapture his Victorian glory days by gaily swinging a severed head around (“Is there nothing you can’t do?!” — yeah, don’t even ask). Let us just say that in the process another HH viewer milestone has been reached: we are now at the point where a bug-eyed little man relentlessly hawking a severed head is only as exciting as speculation re: whether it’s the same head that played Raleigh earlier can make it. That is, not very.
  • On the other hand, the Bob Hale report… LARRY I OFFICIALLY LOVE YOU MARRY ME. Seriously, if he’d done nothing else on this entire show, that crack about ‘daddy’ becoming ‘mummy’ is enough to earn his legend.
  • Lesson hopefully learned: our Bobsy is much better off when he sticks to wholly fact-based, quantifiable reports, wherein can roam free his trademark ability to make hilariously huge comedy capital out of small fiddly details… such as random incest… and his Nan’s birthday… yeah, OK, we can skip the wedding, but I definitely wouldn’t say no to a few drinks. Especially if there was a dancefloor nearby… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
  • I’m sort of torn re: the Fashion Fix bits; they’re definitely getting repetitious, but then again, the direction they’re getting repetitious in is… oh, hi Bob. And Bob. (So tell me again, how there’s a ton of evidence for Mat and Ben, and not for Mat and Jim…?) Suddenly it’s a Historical Hospital episode, and I am cool with this, because although the real HHospital bit here is decently clever as they go — the ‘did you hear anything?’ bit is a fully effective use of the Howick creepy-cuddly mojo — the overall idea by now could really use some freshening up. By mashing the two concepts together you get just about enough novelty to be going on with.
  • Meantime, Ben is off being… well, Scots again. It’s official, there’s something about that accent just brings out an entirely new — and not at all unappealing — side of our Benjamin. Sort of roughens up his edges a bit, in a way that’s almost… familiar. Y’know, I joked about this last ep, but quite seriously, put Scots Ben in a plaid flannel shirt, give him a snowmobile and he could totally star in a Molson’s beer commercial — those of you who have Canadian relatives, ask them how seriously we take our beer commercials…
  • … whaddaya mean, ‘what about the actual sketch’? I don’t recall a sketch being attached to this character, so much as a single joke being heroically stretched to sketch-length almost solely via his efforts (Mat’s are also fairly heroic, but somehow fall a bit flat, largely I think because his character really should’ve known all this already). Although there were some chuckle-worthily mournful skirling bagipes over Balliol’s big ‘heartfelt’ speech, I do remember that.
  • Ben of course will always come off best in the accent sweepstakes — which is not very, in this particularly hilarious-for-all-the-wrong-reasons WWI sketch, but then even the most accurately ersatz Australian does have that tendency to sound like a Paul Hogan movie of itself.
  • What’s most impressive — not to say a bit weird — to me is that Mat isn’t doing a particularly horrific job of the Quebecois accent. He gets all the props at least for recognising it as distinct from European French, and a few more for evidently having picked it up from somewhere other than Pierre the lumberjack on the late-night movie. Larry the South African, on the other hand… yeah, well, they hired him to write, not be a walking Berlitz.
  • OK, yeah, yeah, so more mondo Lawry. New silver lining: he’s not actually meant to be filling in for Simon, this time. Because I am totally OK with the not having to see Lawry’s legs in tights, thank you very much indeed.
  • It has always struck me as sort of weird that they cast Simon as Leicester. From the portrait, and the fact that he was in reality much closer to the Queen’s age — well, not to put too fine a point on it, but you’d think it the one Tudor role Mat was born to play. At any rate, I like the direction the Tudor sketches are headed; Blackadder-style funny redefined as a rather nicely subtle way of getting across the real-life court tensions.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right! *cracks knuckles* Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. The Wife Swap here is actually a weird admixture of obscurely accurate details and wildly obvious missteps.
  • For starters, popular legend aside — no she did not say ‘let them eat cake’, that was something Rousseau had vaguely attributed to another princess twenty years earlier — Marie Antoinette was personally a kind, generous, enormously charming woman who was actually very sympathetic to the poor… at least when their plight was brought immediately into her view, as ironically is the very point of this sketch. I spent the entire first viewing convinced she was about to adopt these two and set them up in her royal model peasant village, as would’ve most likely happened in real life.
  • And just incidentally, no she would never have casually self-identified as Austrian at this point, let alone to her subjects. She had been the Queen of France for nearly two decades, was the mother of the Children of France, and, although the Austrian imperial family never hesitated to make use of her in a diplomatic crisis, is on record at several points throughout her reign as considering herself a proud Frenchwoman — especially given her enemies used her foreign birth as one of their foremost weapons in the propaganda war.
  • Meantime, her husband. In comparison to his vivacious bride, yeah, he was a bit of an oaf. He was obese, rather slow on the uptake, and very shy, and his relentlessly plebian tastes — he loved to hang out with the workmen when the palace was being renovated, and his foremost hobby was making locks — were a source of constant exasperation to Antoinette. Like many socially-inept types, his sense of humour did tend toward the loud and broad. In addition to the trouser-dropping he would scamper around his dressing room eluding his valets, that kind of thing.
  • But none of it would ever have happened in a public place, and never in front of a woman — he was a lump, but he was by no means a stupid lump. In fact he was quite cultured, a devotee of philosopher David Hume among others, and likewise personally sympathetic to the plight of the poor. In fact, during one of the first assaults on Versailles during the revolution, he ended up charming the peoples’ representatives with his quite genuine empathy.
  • But hey, it’s not all bad news: the bonnets rouges, or ‘liberty caps’, totally a thing, as shown adopted by the revolutionaries as their distinguishing symbol. OK, in reality they were Phyrgian-style caps, and so really should’ve had a peak, but hey… I don’t want to get all anal about accuracy here. I mean.
  • Still, as long as I’ve got a good satisfying pedantic worked up anyway: Henry VIII certainly didn’t try to hide his girth, and if he had it wouldn’t have involved a ratty grey bedsheet.
  • In fact, quite characteristically, he did the absolute polar opposite: when he could no longer wow with his athletic physique (thanks in fact largely to a series of old sports injuries reducing his mobility), he simply swathed what eventually became a 50″+ waist with the richest possible fabrics, added as much fur and/or bling as he could cram on there and turned it into an opportunity to outshine everyone else with his Royal magnificence instead. (Oh, and the little hat to go with? Covering up the bald spots.)
  • Funnily enough, as I mentioned, the show’s take on Elizabethan politics is by contrast quite impressively accurate. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and William Cecil really didn’t get along all that well. As the queen’s pre-eminent advisor on matters of state, Cecil basically distrusted Leicester’s influence as her pre-eminent advisor on matters that sent the Queen veering dangerously close to open scandal on more than a few occasions. (That, and the Earl happened to be the son of the John Dudley who’d been executed a traitor after failing to put Jane Grey on the throne, so.)
  • Both, of course, were devoted to the lady in question, who in her turn was genuinely fond of both of them. She called Cecil her ‘Spirit’ (in honour of his tireless work alongside her for the good of the country) and Leicester her ‘Eyes’ (ie. he was as intimately precious to her as her sight).
 
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Posted by on April 28, 2013 in Series Three

 

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S01E09

Why would I pray to the goddess of the sewers?
Soldiers get very nervous before a battle, General. If fifteen thousand men decide to go to the toilet at the same time, I’m not clearing it up.

Sports teams call it ‘playing out the string’ — the point in the season at which the outcome’s been decided, so might as well give whatever’s left a shot. Although there still may be individual bright lights…

In this episode:

Song: It’s Not True! (Mat as Random…Historical Cop?, Martha as Random Teacher)

Recurring sketches:

Fractured Fairy Tales — Thumbelina, the Tudor version (Wherein she takes a wrong turn into the city and drowns in a gutterfull of poop)

Shouty Man — New Victorian Child (“And you can really see it working!”)

Words We Get From the — Vikings (No, not called that yet, but close enough)

Historical Wife Swap — Athenians vs. Spartans (“Hi, I’m a playwright!” “I’M – A – WARRIOR!!”)

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From plague-riddled 1665 London

Ye Sun Magazine: Great Plague Special — “Read it before you die!”

Ready, Steady Feast — Thomas Farriner, the man who started the Great Fire of London

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

Tudor Forecast — Poo. Lots of it. Next!

Vile Victorians

Uncool School Punishments — Demonstrating why very few alumni showed up for the class reunions, in Dickensian London.

Rotten Romans

Roman Gods Direct — Because frankly if they can’t smite the guy why stole your lunch out of the office fridge, what good is a divine pantheon anyway?…

Gotta Hail ‘Em All — …Seriously though, you ever wonder if the ancients eventually started inventing petty deities just to mess with each other? I probably would’ve.

Vicious Vikings

No Horns Here (animated) — Because contrary to nerdlore, not everything ancient warriors did was based on how badass it looked.

Field Notes:

  • So yeah, now entering the phase in every HH series at which things start to feel something less than wholly inspired… the difference between this and later series being that, in the latter, said phase usually only lasts an ep or two. Given the additional lack of a song special (albeit if this ep has taught us anything, it’s that we need not waste time mourning that) Series One is effectively one episode longer. More space and much less memorably funny stuff to fill it: ladies and gentlemen, a situation in which six total minutes of blandly reiterating that ‘Medieval streets were awash in poo!’ is considered viable television.
  • Also: Simon dressed up as vaguely-possibly-sort-of Mercury, the hell? The whole ‘Roman Gods Direct’ sketch is a distressingly detailed example of the pitfalls awaiting even a decent — and surprisingly adult, even given what’s gone before — sketch idea when it comes time to commit to film. Should really have set this one aside for when the show’s comedic commitment and costuming budget kicked up a notch, and let the much more succinctly funny followup (have I mentioned how well Mat & Jim play off each other yet?) stand on its own.
  • Oh, and the song. Ordinarily when confronted with the memory of ‘It’s Not True!’ I quietly change the mental subject as soon as possible; being aware that there are HH fans who have never watched Barney, and thus do not twitch uneasily whenever chipper music starts up in a cheap schoolroom set. However, for this project I’m determined that everything should have a fair and objective watch. Therefore it is with newly empowered confidence that I now can say: boy, this musical sequence sucks. On toast.
  • Even making the standard allowances for creative bumbling, budget etc; it’s literally hard to believe that the same people behind the 4 Georges also greenlighted these desperate dance moves. Basically this, right here, is what HH would’ve looked like were it really ‘just a children’s series’, with expectations lowered accordingly from ‘challenging and creative’ to ‘bright and cheerful’…
  • …Sorry, I’ll work on the dosage. Meantime, have an unquestioned bright spot: introducing Mike Peabody, HHTV News’ Man on the Scene, and the perfect (not to say rather impressively sophisticated) face for their campaign to wring media cliche out of historical chaos. I like to think of Mike as a sort of expatriate grand-nephew of Bob & Ray’s Wally Ballou: outfitted with newer tech (and/or stylists) but likewise entirely sure only that he is a Journalist and his job is therefore to Get the Story. The stonefaced bemusement with which Ben greets every deviation from same is pure gold.
  • Elsewhere the Shouty Man’s most excellent mercenary adventures take a sinister turn, as he moves up from hawking dead bodies into more-or-less creating them, in a sharply improved second draft of the ‘Chimney Sweep’ sketch from a few eps ago. Rather sadly, this and the companion ‘Victorian Maid’ bit will represent Shouty’s apotheosis; not to say that it’s all downhill from here, since Jim’s adorable amorality is a wonder in-and-of-itself, but the sharp and multileveled satire will dissipate into more generic comedy.
  • The above stuns Rattus into genuine sympathy again. That little puppet can look more convincingly moved than most human actors. Besides which this ep marks the debut of his teeny little temporal accessories — all carefully and cleverly designed to seem jury-rigged from stuff he’s found down sewer. Clearly, someone in the props dept is as smitten by miniatures as is this reviewer, who is self-banned from a certain dollhouse store in Toronto for fear of impulsively buying all their stock at one go. I warn you now: there will be squee.
  • OK… I truly don’t want to keep harping on Mat’s physique, or lack thereof. Besides being boringly shallow, it has no bearing on his talent… except, oh shoot, he’s starring in a historical sketch show, and they keep casting him not only as a Roman general but as a Spartan warrior. Apparently merely to save a bit of money on the fake tan. Bless the man, he’s doing everything short of banging his head on the table to convey menacing toughness, but honestly. If he wasn’t left out for the birds at birth, then these Spartans were clearly just big softies at heart.
  • Great sketch, this Wife Swap, though. The feminist angle feels a bit too obviously shoehorned in — an early indication of how the producers intend to deal with the relative dearth of available herstory — but the fight/vote thing is a nice touch, and it’s nice to see Martha getting a chance at a really meaty comic role for the first time in awhile.
  • Oh, and a couple other *ahem* interesting notes: a few eps from now Athenians will claim in song that ‘[their] physiques were not weak”. The next ep will give us a Spartan warrior — played by guess who? — flatly refusing to fight. And at the end of this sketch, as is standard, we get a teaser… for the Restoration WS, which aired awaaayyy back in S01E03. Whoops.
  • Now I will make up for all the ragging by pointing out again that Mat is a great comic performer, and in this ep alone does a fantastic job both of rapidly disintegrating reverence and total charming-morning-show-host obliviousness to flaming carnage, which is not something even the finest comedians are routinely accused of (unless possibly they are already dead of massive drug overdoses).
  • Then, I will complain that he is also doing the least convincing ‘elderly man’ I have ever heard. This will improve rapidly of course (helloooo, Darwin), but for now, the ‘School Punishments’ sketch is mostly making me wince at what that voice must be doing to his throat. Also, giving some interested thought to Simon as Mark Twain impersonator, and wondering if there’s any correlation between Ben’s Russian studies and his ability to make ersatz-Wackford Squeers here so convincing… yeah, sometimes you just have to keep yourself entertained however you can.
  • Finally, for once, I must give props for a really clever use of the magazine format: that is one great  two-edged slogan that I can totally imagine real tabloids borrowing in like crisis. Also, hi Larry the perpetual patient — it’s almost over, dude. Really.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Another fun little bit of fridge brilliance from the Wife Swap sketch: Spartans really were renowned for their dry humour! In fact, the word ‘laconic’ is a direct homage to Laconia, the actual name of the city-state of which Sparta was the principal city. So there you go, the whole “You will be going to a funeral” exchange is more accurate than the retelling of the fairy tale.
  • Because, and yes I realise this isn’t actually historically controversial, unless we’re talking messing with my treasured childhood memories, which hey, it’s my blog — Thumbelina, the original, never tried to make it in the big city. That’s kind of the whole point, she hangs out with animals the whole time. Danish animals, that is, because she’s actually a Hans Christian Andersen creation. So there. Nyahhh.
  • Ooh look, an indication that science actually existed back in the (not-so-) Dark Ages times — well, OK, in the Renaissance (the microscope first appeared in the Netherlands, 1590) but still, good going, show! Further evidence that it wasn’t all filth-gathering and funky smells, from Cracked.com’s highly recommended (to grownups) article on medieval myths:
    The church… started establishing universities to foster the preservation of knowledge. You may have heard of a few of them: Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Paris (not to mention pretty much every other top school in Europe). The universities… translated into Latin guys like Aristotle and Plato, which effectively made the Renaissance possible.
    Around the same time… the Crusades were bringing Europeans into contact with advanced Muslim ideas of science and technology. Ideas like the compass and the astrolabe came to the West via Muslim Spain and came in handy during the later Age of Exploration.
  • I gather “No horned helmets” is sort of the “no wire hangers” of HH lore. Which is sort of understandable, given — as the sketch hints — the tradition requires believing that one of the most dedicated warrior races of all time really wore heavy, conveniently-graspable handles either side of their cranial region. One good enemy twist and yipes, suddenly we’re celebrating the not-so-glorious demise of Sweyn the Chicken-Necked. According to Wiki, the spiky imagery is all the fault of those derned Swedish Romanticists: The popular association probably arose in the 19th century… possibly by misattribution of Bronze Age images such as the Grevensvænge figurines. (Which, I’d like to suggest, also explain a lot that’s incomprehensible about Ikea textiles.)
 
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Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E06

Now, remember what I told ya…
“Try not to die”?
Yeah, that’s the spirit!

A gently nondescript little midseason interlude… mostly.

In this episode:

Song: A Gorgeous Georgian Lady (Martha as Random Noblewoman)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Wife Swap — Georgian Noble vs. Peasant (“Hello, we’re very, very rich.” “Hello, we’re very, very, very hungry!”)

Stupid Deaths — Franz Reichert (personally tested ‘coat-parachute’ from the 1st level of the Eiffel Tower — “Well, at least the ‘coat’ part worked! Ha!”)

Dodgy War Inventions — No.7: The Roman ‘Onager’ Catapult

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, the WWI version (See, soldiers would wee on their boots to soften the leather, so…)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Flagellants — With Europe a mass of festering plague sores, a God who’d demand you whip yourself raw suddenly started making total sense…

The Made-Up Planet (animated) — You laugh, but frankly zoology was lots more fun before it started insisting on stuff like ‘eyewitness accounts’ and “reality”.

Vile Victorians

Victorian Claims Direct — Being a small, defenseless kid during the Industrial Revolution sucked. The end.

Chimney Sweepstakes — Because they had to get the inevitable “something stuck up the chimney, guv!” gags out of the way… and I honestly thought that was a joke, right up until Santa fell out of there.

Rotten Romans

Row, Row, Row Your Galley (Or We’ll Kill You) — Because they also urgently had to get shot of the ‘mess with the rowing rhythm’ gags. Trust me, we’ll all feel better later.

Frightful First World War

Good Luck Charms — You laugh, but they didn’t wear them to the recruiter’s office and just look what happened.(“…lucky penny… lucky rabbit’s foot…” “Where’d you get that?” “From the lucky regimental mascot. Got hit by a bomb.”)

Groovy Greeks

Greek Myth Talk: Cronus Eats His Own Children — The origin story of the Olympian pantheon. Remember that, next time someone claims the Greeks had all the really cool gods.

Field Notes:

  • Yeppers, just a quiet, peaceful little episode… not much to see here… right up until the unabashed infant cannibalism kicks in. Yes, I really should be used to this by now, but… but… everyone’s covered in mucus and/or has comically awful facial hair and/or sliced-off ‘dangly bits’… (Yet people still look at me funny when I tell them this show will never air in America.) Basically, the Cronus sketch is the last and most vivid reminder that at this point in the show’s history, devoting precious time and resources to the equivalent of the Brothers Grimm + genital mutilation + Jerry Springer seemed like a great idea.
  • To the point that this is the only “chat show” sketch to feature an actual studio audience, containing more members than were present for freaking Charles I’s execution a few eps ago. Granted, the former probably brought their own costumes, but still. It’s like looking at what would’ve happened had the show actually applied its growing cleverness to that juvenile grossout mentality they like to play up in the marketing — frankly unpleasant now to watch, and I don’t think would’ve earned them near the success. Of course, it should always be kept in mind that I’m not British, and neither am I an eight-year-old boy.
  • In happier news, the music’s back!… Sort of. At least I can usually remember this one, albeit largely because the score reminds me of the ‘Perfect Nanny’ number from Mary Poppins… assuming that movie to have been made on a BBC props budget recently gutted by mucus procurement. Seriously, they couldn’t even afford a painted backdrop? Basing historical comedy off fashion foibles anyway requires more delicate handling than the show is thus far capable of, even were they not still convinced that awkward makeup application = one-way ticket to Wackyland.
  • Ironically enough the song also unintentionally falls into the same trap as the scripted one Rattus elsewhere trips over, re: belief in medieval monsters vs. modern Loch Ness devotees. Similarly, leave it at “Har har! Mouse-skin eyebrows!” and the next thing you know some snotty Georgian is all snorting and going “Yeah, well you lot put metal spikes through your tongue!” (Granted, this tends to work out better when the potential snorter is long dead. Still, you get the drift.)
  • The Georgian Wife Swap installment teased at the end of the Restoration ditto also crops up here, and also is a distinct letdown, coming as it does right after sublime proof that the ‘reality show’ sketches work best when they involve clashes of culture and belief — below-surface stuff that really enables character comedy. Here, once they’ve established the ‘rich vs. hungry’ cliches, they’ve literally got nowhere else to go…
  • …save perhaps inspiring viewer sympathy for Jim, who is always being cast as the hopeless serf in these things (this is especially urgent, after hearing his pathetic screeches in the ‘Flagellants’ sketch). Oh, and to speculate re: just how Lord Posh managed to nab that wig second-hand from one Dr. Fuzzlepeck… You’re welcome, fanfic authors.
  • Ideas the HH Producers Fell in Love With Early On, vol.287: the horrors of Industrial Revolution-era child labour. This will eventually account for easily two-thirds of the Vile Victorian sketches (plus one actually lavishly produced song), most of which will work a whole lot better than this one. Yet another high-concept gag that goes not a whole lot of anywhere, along with the WWI good luck charms, and the Roman galley, and… yeah, worryingly big episode for those, come to think of it.
  • On the bright side, Simon having so recently, and firmly, established that anything is liable to happen when he’s onscreen — plus having a hugely charming native accent — helps greatly to rivet viewer attention. both as the aforementioned flagellant and the chimney sweep. (The latter of whom especially is forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting in his sketch, because protip: slapping flashing SANTA! signs on a gag older than Saint Nick himself does not, in fact, act as magical humour Febreze.) Even Death finally seems to be getting with the program, cheerfully twitting the Corpse du Jour in much the more familiar manner.
  • Minuses: weirdly miscast Mat as the butler. Dashing WWI officer Mat isn’t working either, somehow. Not just physically (they did at least give him a coat this time) — they’re trying to shoehorn him in as the stock effortlessly aristocratic type, and he’s not, exactly. None of the eventual core troupe is, although you give Ben a magnificent enough hairdressing job and he can fake it very acceptably. So I do have to give him that, also the ‘orchestra, play something sad’ bit, because he’s just having way too much fun with it at that point. And Jim… well, hey, Jim really does have a knack for those pathetic little woobie types, doesn’t he! Won him a BAFTA and everything. So, um, yeah, yay Jim.
  • Gotta hand it to the littlest cast members, too, and quite seriously. The show benefits greatly from an unusually solid core of child actors, able to switch convincingly from snark to pathos as needed — a skill never to be underestimated, in onscreen rugrats. To my shame I never have learned all their names; according to Twitter the blond one is Bertie Gilbert, who once almost made it into a Harry Potter movie, then eventually grew up to be a YouTube star. Thus becoming the only person ever named ‘Bertie’ to do that, so good for him.
  • Starting to feel like I should be saying something about the fairy tale bits, especially since from the debut press release forward, these were clearly intended as the crown jewel of recurring HH sketches. Death gets the cardboard desk, while Storytime Lady has a cozy chair and lavishly produced standalone tales to narrate, as a reminder that a) Meera Syal was a huge casting coup for the fledgling kiddy series and b) Shrek was still vaguely relevant in 2009.
  • The real trouble is it’s all basically the same tale, or at least the same punchline, and that of a kind the show was rapidly outgrowing even before these sketches first aired. They resemble nothing else about the finished series, or for that matter HH’s generally relentless insistence on the real story, so there was just nowhere for them to go. Ave aqua vale, Meera; you gave it your best shot in a situation where you really, really didn’t have to, and for that you have my respect. Just not my interest.

95% Accu-rat:

  • For all I rag on the animations — you must understand, I wasn’t raised on the HH books or anything — I do like the Medieval Bestiary very much, because, frankly, Dark Ages biology is just endlessly hilarious. As conclusive evidence I give you the beaver, pace Gerald of Wales: When he finds he cannot save himself from the pursuit of the dogs who follow him, that he may ransom his body by the sacrifice of a part, he throws away that, which by natural instinct he knows to be the object sought for, and in the sight of the hunter castrates himself, from which circumstance he has gained the name of Castor; and if by chance the dogs should chase an animal which had been previously castrated, he has the sagacity to run to an elevated spot, and there lifting up his leg, shews the hunter that the object of his pursuit is gone.
  • WHOA YOU GUYS, VIDEO OF FRANZ REICHELT’S FALL TOTALLY EXISTS. He invited the Press and everything. Now I feel even worse for the poor guy… although that’s still not very, because according to the full story this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment leap to glory; his friends spent quite some time begging him not to try it himself, and he just blew them all right off. If the Grim Reaper ever decides to hold a Stupid Deaths Masters or somesuch, Reichelt’s a shoo-in.
  • So… Cronus. On top of everything else, not actually a god: he was a Titan, and yes this is an important distinction, because… well… I’m pretty sure the paper I wrote in grade nine Ancient History explains it all, just as soon as I get around to digging it out of storage. He was for certain a pretty bad dude, anyway, having already castrated his dad Uranus at the behest of his mum Gaia (the Furies, Giants and some nymphs rose where Uranus’ blood hit the ground). Greek mythology… overall, I’m kinda glad HH quit while they were ahead.
 
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Posted by on January 4, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E03

She’s old and warty and looks a bit evil, don’t you think?

In which the show finally and completely abandons all pretense of having been designed for children… that, or the producers out themselves as sadistic bastards willing to ride the nightmares of innocents for ratings, whichever.

In this episode:

Song: How to Make a Mummy (Jim as Random Embalmer)

Recurring sketches:

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Frog Prince, the Stuart version (turning a frog into a person must = witchcraft!)

Historical Wife Swap — Cavaliers vs. Puritans (“Restoration’s here! Party on!” “Fun is sinful!”)

Shouty Man — All-Purpose Ancient Egyptian Mummy (“And it won’t cost you an arm and a leg!”)

One-offs:

Wicked Witches

Witchfinders Direct — Your Stuart-era tax dollars at work: “Do you have a cat?” “Yes…?” “Then thou art a witch!”

Slimy Stuarts

HHTV News Live: Charles I Gets the Chop — But (fear not, Baynton fans!) not before fathering an uncannily look-a-like son…

Measly Middle Ages

Middle Ages (Witch)Craft Show — The nerdy kid gets revenge, with help from Witchfinders Even-More-Direct. Because they didn’t have IBM to grow up to become head of back then.

Vicious Vikings

Top Three Weird Viking Beliefs (animated) — In which we learn that ancient Norse religious tradition, like most others, wasn’t very fond of giants… but was surprisingly enlightened re: cross-dressing.

Viking Names: Eric Blood-axe vs. Ascot the Clumsy — I’m not entirely sure of that last one; I just like the mental image of a Nordic warrior in a little bowtie.

Viking Heaven & Hell — Yes, they really do call it ‘hell’ (complete with just the cutest little Up/Down infographics…). In case you’ve ever wondered what horrified a people whose idea of heaven was an eternal barroom brawl.

Potty Pioneers

Race to the South Pole — Lowlights from the “We will conquer Nature with our superior Britishness!” era of exploration.

Awful Egyptians

The Model of a Modern Mummy — Turns out it took awhile to come up with the classic B-movie monster archetype. Because they didn’t have Brendan Fraser to menace back then.

Rotten Romans

Christians by Candlelight — No clever way to put this, kids: Occasionally, Nero tied Christians to posts, doused them in tar and set them alight. Sweet dreams!

Man vs. Lion (imagine spot) — Let’s face it, gung-ho sports reporters… if you held post-savaging interviews with Christians in the arena, they’d sound exactly like this.

Field Notes:

  • Seriously, this is easily the darkest episode ever. There are individual sketches upcoming that might cause significant shivers (hint: Nazism hasn’t shown up yet) but here the nightmare-fuelled bases are covered with a thoroughness that strongly suggests it was the point. Witches and mummies and beheadings and burning alive and lion attacks and doomed explorers and serpents dripping poison and freezing in Hell while drinking goat’s urine… do they even have ‘child development research’ in the UK, or is it just about finding ever-more efficient ways to winnow out the wimpy ones?
  • OK, admitted, all of it is expertly done, in the actual great — if much more adult — UK tradition of history as savage self-deprecation. And thus for the most part is honestly funny, especially the over-the-top hubris of Scott and crew (‘Agonizingly hard boots?’ “Just put them on, sir! I’ve got blisters already!’ — the chipper little thumbs-up slays me every time). Still, by the time we get to Nero’s ‘Roman candles’ even Rattus looks as authentically shellshocked as is possible for a fuzzy puppet, which turns out to be quite a bit.
  • It doesn’t help that His Imperial Majesty is for the first and last time a platinum blond, kicking off a carousel of imperial hair colour changes and thus, in hindsight, adding a creepily banal touch to the evil. “Notes for party — 1. Find some helpless innocents to torture — unique’n’fun centerpieces! 2. Get roots touched up.”
  • Speaking of grooming: Egyptian Matron Sarah turns out to look a lot like the display-mannequin ditto in the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), where I spent a ton of my formative free time. This poses some obstacles to my full enjoyment of the sketch; despite an intriguing premise and a great turn from Javone as the mummy salesman (insofar as he had time to develop a signature schtick, this was it), my inner child keeps bouncing around going ‘Ooh, can we hit the gift shop after?”
  • Re: that last bit of Viking hellishness…why goats, particularly? Reindeer urine, say, would be A-OK? Their own effluent, they could handle? I’m willing to take the show’s word for it (read: not willing to have it in my search history), just seems a bit random is all.
  • Also incidentally, this won’t be the last time in the series that wannabe manly men are insulted as ‘big girls‘. I’m assuming this is mostly just offhand for ‘sissies’, but even then… a rather incongruous note in a series that celebrates the likes of Elizabeth I and (later) Boadicea, eh what, chaps?
  • Thank goodness there’s a song!… I think there was a song… [glances up at notes]… Oh, right, forgot there for awhile: The first series contains music largely because (as per the now-inevitable onscreen lyrics) it’s what conscientious edutainment shows do, no matter how many rhymes they have to force in the process. And good ol’ Whatever It’s Called here is Exhibit A. Despite Jim’s utter inability to perform anything without suffusing it with charm and humour, it’s so nondescript that the whole process of mummy-making will be covered again from scratch in a later series sketch.
  • OK then, thank goodness for the Restoration! There’s no room for blame and lots to praise in the show’s ongoing fascination with the English Civil War (especially as an alternative to more goat’s urine); it’s the comparatively simple, colourful, relateable-for-all-ages conflict that will just keep on giving, and it kicks off here in really fine and clever style, with Simon especially contributing a robust turn as the uber-Cavalier.
  • Come to that, there’s a satirical shrewdness starting to make itself felt through all the sketches, regardless of tone. Besides being, y’know, British, the writers are clearly becoming more comfortable with using the historical fact as a springboard for the funny, rather than as an end in itself. This intuitive shift in focus from the Horribleness to the human flaws behind it will eventually become the difference between the book and TV universes, and the key to unlocking all-ages credibility.
  • As the next overt salvo, we’re introduced to HHTV, the sleek modern news crew doing their damnedest to reduce messy past-time traumas to soundbites, and providing multiple satisfying satirical outlets in the process; here in particular, the concept of live beheadings (“…and let’s hope for a nice clean cut…”). Also the Shouty Man lets his initial success go to his head — see notes re: Jim’s endless charm, above — and just flat-out loses whatever cares he had to give in the first place. And it is awesome.
  • One especially nice facet of this new sophistication is the ability to smoothly shift emotional gears. They may not be interested in toning the horrible stuff down, but to their enormous credit they can and do acknowledge its impact — and they have the perfect archetype of reluctant-yet-fuzzily-reassuring humanity to filter it through to the audience: Rattus. Really, you know you’re doing black comedy right when the puppet mascot has launched his own mini-character arc by the third episode: “Well, whaddaya expect? It is ‘Horrible’ Histories!” (Or, more commonly: “It’s horrible, but it’s true!”)

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, so the Puritans really weren’t all that bad. The dour, divinely-named killjoys portrayed here were pretty much the radical minority, as is common in most religious traditions today — and even then, they weren’t totally against fun; they turn out to have had a pretty relaxed view of the marital bed, for example. And as the show itself will admit later, they also didn’t wear those hats as a regular thing.
  • Along the same lines, while the Stuart-era hunt for witches was indeed deadly serious business, actual burnings were rare (some argue nonexistent) in England and/or the Americas — it was more a Continental thing apparently, especially in Germany. Which will come as exactly no surprise to anyone who’s ever read the Brothers Grimm.
  • The market for mummies was very real, and not something you want to read about if you’re a) an archaeology major and/or b) would like to preserve an image of exotic royal remnants lovingly protected by individual curses. In fact, the hapless modern Egyptians were snowed under not only with mummified peasants but cats, birds and various other things that had obviously gone to whatever after-life long since, so why not make a buck off them in this one? The trade led to such odd offshoots as truckloads of mummified cats being plowed up for fertilizer, and a few industrial urban legends revolving around smallpox caught from reused wrappings.
  • It seems a bit nitpicky to complain about sparse execution attendance on a BBC costuming budget, but really, back then even the hanging of your average Joe Pickpocket drew huge unruly crowds, so you can imagine the utter chaos that would’ve been Charles I’s actual death scene. Also in real life, Charlie Senior was as unlike his son as it’s possible to be — a probably-overcompensating shortish stutterer who went to the scaffold fully nurturing one of history’s most infuriating stubborn streaks. (pace TVTropes: Charles made a difficult situation worse by… refusing to accept the inevitable in the face of defeat, or compromise to head off trouble down the road. Like his father, he was an instinctive autocrat who had no intention of surrendering any of his power. Unlike his father, he had no understanding of how power actually worked, seemingly sincerely believing that the English people were required to succumb to his will.)
 
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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Series One

 

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