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S05E12

In fact, only twelve people have set foot on the moon, and no-one has been there at all since 1972; a tragic oversight that I’m going to rectify right now. Yes, it’s time to take one small step for Bob Hale, one giant leap for the good people at Bob Hale Space Rocket Industries. Good-bye Sam, I’ve always loved you… will you wait for me?
…No!
Well, I’m not going then! Fine! *storms off*

So yeah, we’ve finally reached the very last regular-issue Horrible Histories episode ever, and and a bunch more iconic recurring characters and/or sketches say farewell, and there’s a Big Damn Finale Song, and … erm… ah… *snif*…

…Right, this isn’t going to go very well at all, is it?

In this episode:

Song: We’re History (Finale) — In which the entire troupe plus most of the supporting add-ons revisit every major era the show ever featured, via stock footage from across all five series… featuring cameos from pretty nearly every beloved character the show ever created, right down to Mat’s little pathetic medieval peasant… oh, god… *snifsnif* *sob!*

Recurring sketches:

Good Day Magazine — Profiling “Little Giant” Isambard Kingdom Brunel (“Oi! Not so much with the little! I’m six foot if you include the ‘at!”)

Words We Get From the — Greeks

Wonders of the Greek Universe — (“It was us that worked out that the rainbow is a natural phenomenon, and not the work of the gods! They’re not made of magic, they’re natural! Like waterfalls, and hamsters!” “Well… fine then, thanks Brian!” “Ooh, and I almost forgot–we also believed that the planet Earth is floating in water! “…Right, lads, you know what to do.”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Rameses II Project (“So is ‘King Tut’ just a nickname, or…?” “No! I ruled Egypt for sixty-six years! King Tutankhamun died when he was only eighteen!” “A boy Pharaoh–I like it! We could give him a pet, like a talking Sphynx…” “Is Robin Williams available?”)

Bob Hale — The Space Race Report (“And just one year later, America is ready to do what mankind has always dreamt of: Teaching a pig to tapdance!… Hrm? Oh, right, the moon landing. Yeah, that makes more sense, what with all this other stuff…”)

Stupid Deaths — John of Bohemia (Surnamed ‘the Blind’… which unfortunately didn’t stop him tying himself to his bodyguard’s horses and charging full-tilt into the heat of combat. “Ooh–‘sorry I’m late for the battle, I got a bit tied up!’ Hah! You know, cos you, and the reins, and…” “Ah… we weren’t late?” “Whatever!“)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

She (Doesn’t) Sell Seashells — Pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning discovers that it’s actually pretty handy, when dealing with patronizing male colleagues, to have a lot of sharp objects collected by the seashore…

Awful Egyptians

Labour Issues — A prospective pyramid-builder is dismayed to learn Pharaonic architecture wasn’t all about raising majestic monuments… (“Horse toilets!?” “Yeah, it’s where horses go to the–” “I know what it is, mate!”)

Measly Middle Ages

Making It in the Middle Ages — “An’ showin’ us how it’s done is my main man, all the way from Italy, Bernard de Trevisio! Bernie, tell us about yourself, man?” “Well, I’ve travelled ze vorld, and spent my entire fortune, studying ze ancient art of alchemy.” “So whazzat, some kinda hocus-pocussy–” “It’s a Middle Ages science.” “OK, we cool, bro…!”

Woeful Second World War

Staying Dry For Your Country (animated) — How total was Britain’s war effort? It even managed to cut into pool time at the Carlton Ladies Club.

Homefront Gardening — Expert landscaper Alan Smallbog attempts to demonstrate some further typical wartime sacrifices, while evading the wrath of the typical wartime housewife… (“You can’t plant carrots and turnips in my ornamental flowerbed!” “You’re not wrong, Margery. Best just dig them all up…” “But that’ll look horrible~!” “That’s as may be, but the country needs food, and you can’t eat chrysanthemums…” “Are you sure? Cos you’re going to eat these!”)

Field Notes:

  • Well, here we are: the final regular-format HH episode review… and I’m honestly not sure what to do about it.
  • I mean, sure my inner Sensitive Writer Person has absolutely no doubt that the best way to handle it is running around in circles screaming maniacally, but that’s a little hard to coherently translate to the printed page. The closest possible transcript I could come up with would be something like “I DID IT!! *gabblegabblesoproud!gabblethesheerrelief! gabblegabbleNEVER HAVE TO  #^&#$%& SPELL ‘MEASLY’ AGAIN!!!”
  • So it’s probably best that I instead direct you back to the little farewell post I wrote when this episode first aired, which seems to cover it pretty well, also, and has the distinct bonus of punctuation besides. As noted therein, I didn’t bother writing a more lengthy tribute to the show then–and will not now–because I’d already definitively done so via this blog.
  • Which isn’t a blatant attempt at encouraging archive-bingeing (*psst!* maybe start with the Savage Songs posts, they’re shorter) so much as it is a literal inability to think of how else I might put it at this point: Everybody connected with this production has earned a lifetime supply of all the coolness points ever. From producer Caroline Norris and ‘tyrannical pedant’/ sometime corpse Greg Jenner through John “Rattus Rattus” Eccleston right on down to… well, whomever created those faux wasp stings in S01E12, because no I will never get over that.
  • In particular, the starring troupe. On the off-chance checking for review-blog updates hasn’t yet become part of your daily routine (*psst!* handy ‘follow blog’ button, just there on your top right! Get in now, before the Yonderland recaps start!) here’s a brief rundown of the major themes I’ve been developing on this subject, therein. In alphabetical order only–and leaving out the question of physical attractiveness, because c’mon now:
  • I adore Mat for that peculiarly charismatic mix of very adult implications and equally childish clowning that may-or-may-not be comic genius, but is most definitely fascinating.
  • Simon, for his complete lack of comedic inhibition, and lavishly surreal inventiveness in applying same.
  • Martha, for the wonderfully total, authentic self-belief that she brings to every character, no matter how bizarrely deluded.
  • Jim, for his ability to combine huggably adorable with the fully mature, not to say scarily-precise, talent required in any given creative situation.
  • Larry, for his genuine wit and willingness to embrace the oddest of comic corners, both as a writer and as a performer.
  • Ben, for being not only quite incredibly British but self-aware enough to leverage same to extremely sophisticated, occasionally really surprising comic effect.
  • In their own ways they’re all perfectly suited to smartly blur the lines between adult and children’s comedy, and put all together that’s something not only endearing but genuinely intriguing. I intend to keep following their adventures via this blog as long as they keep working together.
  • But for now… well, look, as I mentioned last review there’s only one reason why anybody was paying attention to this episode, and it wasn’t to find out what happened to the Carlton Club pool. So let’s just get it out of the way right upfront: the finale song is utterly, wonderfully perfect in every last respect. So much so, that it becomes one of two excellent explanations (the other is [spoiler alert] the WWI special) for why so much of this last series feels so unusually offhand: they were busy expending all that creative energy, all the lessons learned and all the experience gained, on getting the stuff that really mattered just right.
  • They succeeded brilliantly in both cases, but especially here, where the expectations of their audience were so high. They fulfilled those, while at the same time remaining ferociously true to their own idiosyncratic take on comedy, the universe and everything. The charity-single parody format allows fully for sentiment while neatly and characteristically avoiding sentimentality; the song itself gets the point across while staying out of the way of the purpose; and the performers, freed to thus simply get on with saying goodbye, do so with the effortless warmth of five years’ worth of understanding that they were on to something really, really good
  • …Yes, absolutely, I’ve spent an entire series worth of reviews insisting the show ended when it had to, and I stand by that. But the sheer unadulterated awesomeness of the whole that the song conveys is still powerful enough as to be almost unbearably poignant.
  • Besides which, multiple viewings do turn up a few specific critical pleasures. Notably, the realisation of how neatly the whole has been knitted from various aspects of the current series’ production. This isn’t nearly so obviously a cut-n-paste job as the Monarchs’ Song video, but it’s similarly about taking advantage of the materials at hand. It’s possible to identify several characters and sets lifted wholesale from the previous eleven episodes–and a couple more from the new specials, which [spoiler alert] is also how Cleopatra comes to be standing front and centre at the end there. A few others have been recreated from previous series, like Mat the peasant, who quite fittingly (in several respects) gets the last word.
  • Also, because this is the finale and nobody’s worrying about buzzkill-y details like singing ability, Ben gets a couple surprisingly decent solos and Lawry… gets decent context for his off-key bellowing. I particularly enjoy how he switches from fully psychotic Viking warrior to hapless monk victim literally shot-to-shot.
  • Elsewhere among my own little throat-lump-raising moments: Jim and Martha get one last shot as the cozy couple; Mat puts a final flourish to his Latin accent; Larry takes the weird for one last medieval spin; Ben and Mat together do a hilariously blatant Grecian spoof on five years’ worth of fanfic; and–I think this might be my favourite touch of all–Giles Terera, in pointedly 20th-century attire, ends up directly in the camera’s line of sight on “Thought we were amazing–” just in time to give an exquisitely knowing nod to “–though you may quibble…!”
  • Before all this, of course, there was an episode. You can be forgiven for not recalling it in much detail, composed as it is mostly of the odd leftover bits from an entire series of them, but there are a few reasons to rewatch it with the prose sketches in mind.
  • Notably, there is the final Bob Hale Report. In which he at last brings his eccentric take on the past up to the present, and for one last time finds it not exactly what he was expecting… nor does the audience, quite frankly. Of all the HH regular characters, Bobsy deserved a chance to go out in a real no-holds-barred blaze of goofy glory, and he doesn’t quite achieve that here–although, now having watched the WWI special and hence realising where his creator’s priorities actually were at the time, that becomes much more forgivable.
  • Let us just say here, then, that Bobsy’s genuinely glorious finale is still to come. Meantime, this Report is a solidly pleasing romp that manages a few really nifty moments, which when you come to think of it a fine way regardless to crown his endlessly inflated expectations.
  • Sure, Sam’s rejection is harsh, but look at it like this: according to the comic logic of the Hale universe as established over five series, she literally couldn’t have done anything else but turn him down. And the fact that Larry, and by extension the show, is more concerned with honouring that than any sentimental farewell scene is a tiny perfect microcosm of why both are universally beloved in the first place.
  • On the other hand… oh look, we’ve finally got a handle on Chipmunk-Faced Guy from the credits, and it’s… Lawry the Wonders of the Universe whacko, in seriously unfortunate ‘swarthy’ makeup, randomly babbling about hamsters. Welp, gotta give this one to you, show, that’s quite literally the last thing I would’ve thought of.
  • Yep, the WOtU series gets a deservedly elaborate finale, a really clever bit of self-aware expectation-playing as an appropriate roundoff to what’s indisputably been S5’s contribution to the really great recurring bits…or at least this is what I’m telling myself to avoid the conclusion that it’s really all just one more symptom of the show’s ongoing obsession with the scientific/engineering superiority of Ancient Greece.
  • Cos otherwise, I don’t wish to dispute your facts here, production team I’m assuming contains at least one person who’s a tad bit defensive about the viability of their Classics degree, but you’re starting to come across like the dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Except you’re British, so it’s all just sort of weird…
  • …even without the fact that your supposedly proudly Hellenic character is suddenly rocking the totally non-sequitur brownface last employed on Incan Shouty Man back in S02E01. The f/x team started the “Whoo! We’ll never have to simulate bodily fluids ever again!” party just a tad early, apparently.
  • Ooh boy, major inadvertently-poignant-reference bomb incoming in the last LoG bit. Just for the record, I would in fact watch the living daylights out of Robin Williams as a talking Sphynx.
  • Otherwise, the trio go out on their own characteristically skillful, surreally crass terms; there’s no shortage of idiocy to be mined from the Hollywood experience, so of course no reason why they should ever cease having fun with it, and to all appearances they never did–or for that matter, given that Shearsmith’s still retweeting random photos from the HH experience lo these many months later, have ever done.
  • Thus the final burst of the irrepressible manic glee that’s developed on Gatiss’ face over two series is all the finale this segment needs. Props also to the writers for keeping up the quality of the concept to the very end. Simon’s Rameses fully deserved another airing, and he continues to bounce exactly the right touch of exotic fantasy off the less-than-legendary reality.
  • Speaking of which, ohai I.K Brunel–aka “Horrors That Defy Description” Guy from the credits, which in sharp contrast to the above turns out to be a pretty decent joke. It was great to…. sort of… get to know you for, like, thirty whole seconds. Yep, yet again, the show tosses up another impossibly charming eccentric genius (complete with awesome Howick plushie accessory) just in time to say farewell. Accompanied by one last fun little flourish with Rattus. Damnit, show, you’re going to make me sorry there won’t be a proper S6 if it kills you, aren’t you?
  • Then again… Jim, just where the hell did you get that pseudo-Hollywood-Cockney accent, and does it have anything to do with that same viewing of Mary Poppins I mentioned a couple reviews ago? Seriously, I know accents aren’t much more your thing than Larry’s, but of all the things starring in a history-themed comedy for five series should’ve enabled you to pull off…
  • Still though, you have learned a really nice line in MTV mimicry. Remember back when I said I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to see in these last eps? Check that: I just realised that I really, really wanted to see Chavvy Jim present a sketch on alchemy. The ‘also starring Mat and his Italian accent, roughly in that order,’ that’s just gravy; tasty, rich brown gravy, such as makes poutine the food of the gods. Basically I’m just so happy that my finale memories contain one last Howick/Baynton collaboration that it’s entirely critic-proof. Particularly the ‘look me in the eye’ bit with the sunglasses.
  • Oh, and on the subject of surefire happiness, there is also the final Words We Get From the… , featuring B.Willbond evidently just then realising that he’ll never, ever have to have pythons thrown at him again–until round about Yonderland‘s third series, probably. Meantime, I’m rather pleased they took the trouble to give this segment a proper finale. Ongoing evidence of the Ancient Greek obsessiveness aside, it’s an appropriately meta-affectionate windup to what’s been a surprisingly durable source of gentle chuckles over all five series.
  • And then there is the final Stupid Deaths, because of course there is. Another HH icon goes out on a cheerfully effortless example of their best: Death and his skeleton pals, forever squabbling over the mundane bourgeois details of the afterlife, as occasionally interrupted by odd but equally snarky corpses. You simply can’t improve on perfection–save perhaps by ensuring that I also get one last wonderful Willbond/Farnaby collaboration–and again, it’s to the show’s *ahem* eternal credit that they didn’t try.
  • They did, however, try a few other things, to the extent that I am at last compelled to call no-fairsies. Because Jim in a top hat is one thing, but introducing Ben as a beachcomber, in that blouse, and then wandering off into a mundane sketch like nothing at all resembling a marvelously intriguing codicil to this series’ surreal running gags was just introduced in the last half of the very last episode, is plain dirty pool.
  • Or, OK, it could also be that the random flourish was introduced because the Mary Anning sketch itself isn’t precisely what you’d call funny, or subtle, or anything. It’s more or less a Tumblr post given animation, and that mostly in the form of the show’s newfound conviction that Martha throwing things at men–also on view here in the gardening bit–is a seriously hi-larious way to enact social justice. Which… well, let’s just say it loses something when castle ramparts aren’t involved. 
  • Even so, thanks to her aforementioned fundamental self-assurance–not to mention that, whew, when Mat decides to use that sweetly playful charm for evil, he does not fool around–they come impressively close to pulling off something powerful. All the bonus points besides for working cophrolites in there.
  • There are no comparably exciting diversions in the Homefront Gardening sketch–it being one of those parodies I’m pretty sure I’d be considerably more amused did I only recognise the source. Best I can do under the circs is awww, they finally got Mat into the sweater-vest! Score! Also the cuffs, those are lovely.
  • So, come to that, is chipper housewife Martha and her almost unbearably pretty little cottage garden. I am at least heartened by the strong evidence that rural Britain as N.Americans think of it actually once existed outside Rosamund Pilcher novels.
  • So… well, yeah, so here we are, at the very last bit of regular-series commentary I’m ever going to type… once I get over being all wibbly in my insides for some reason. Look, why don’t you lot just imagine a fanfare or something for a few seconds, OK? I feel like there should be trumpets, at least.
  • *several deep breaths later* Right, yes, the pyramid-building business. Well-written, original, generally intriguing way of getting the unique majesty of it all across without sacrificing the Horribleness of the hard labour required… although possibly could’ve sacrificed Mat back in ‘inexplicably failed to be left on a mountaintop as a baby’ mode, especially since the Egyptians didn’t actually do that and it was still the first thing that sprang to mind.
  • Also, just incidentally: the heck with the eternal riddles of the Pyramids, I’m more interested in getting in touch with the mysteries of the all-purpose sweat-stain-removing laundry detergent these lowly peasants clearly had access to.
  • But never mind. It’s over, and they managed to end it with all the grace and dignity and charm and sheer, satisfying intellectual bravado that five years of one of the most remarkable experiments ever in children’s TV fully deserved. Whatever the proposed new Series Six attempts–and I’m not saying it mightn’t be something watchable enough–this crew’s achievement will stand untouched. They’re history–and they made it Horrible.

95% Accu-rat:

  • …wait, does anybody actually care at this point?
  • Well, OK, for both of you still reading, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (Apparently Dad was French, which makes me feel at least a bit better about the given names.) So basically yes to the short, and the probably compensatory top hat, and the generally cocky attitude, and the engineering genius to back it up… yep, even the emergency upside-down coin-removal surgery, all absolutely kosher.
  • In fact, having but skimmed his lengthy Wiki article, I’m now a little sad that I will never have the chance to encounter him at cocktail parties. Or, for that matter, live in an era in which “Ooh, Mr. Brunel, do tell us all about your scheme for a railway using atmospheric pressure to suck the cars along the tracks?” counts as any kind of plausible conversation starter.
  • Also, John of Bohemia‘s bizarre battle tactics, not a thing wrong with that little anecdote either. In fact, according to Wiki at least, “to fight like John of Bohemia” used to be a common euphemism for ‘to charge in blindly”. This seems to have been the closest anyone ever got to suggesting his Majesty might have been just a teensy bit, y’know, ill-advised to enter the battle after having been sightless (due to an unspecified inflammatory disease) for a decade–what? Oh, did I not mention he was in reality a noticeable few years older than Ben by then?
  • Anyway. it seems he was originally just going to give the enemy the one *ahem* pointed sword-stroke–sort of a “The old man’s still got it, damnit!” gesture–but, well, one thing led to another, as they had a habit of doing in confused, noisy pre-industrial foot battles, and the next you know JoB and escort were right in the middle of the main battlefield, and, well. They were romantic like that, in the Middle Ages.
  • It feels appropriate that the last entry in this series go to Mary Anning. The good news: the sketch slightly over-exaggerates her exclusion from scholarly circles; like most female scientists of her day, she was excluded from the Royal Societies and had to have papers published under a man’s name and whatnot–which of course was bad enough. But unlike most, her work was unofficially widely recognised and admired, if only because, hot damn, there was a lot of it. Female, working-class poor religious Dissenter she may have been, still, in order to blow off our Ms. Anning you’d have to ignore the entire cutting-edge of paleontology at that time.
  • On the other hand… the show is notably not exaggerating the poverty thing. Poor Mary really was reduced to selling off her valuable fossils for pennies to continue her work, and never did attain to the fame and fortune she so richly deserved before she died of breast cancer at only 47. So yeah, history…definitely could be just a little bit Horrible, at times.
 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E08

Transport was duller– We added colour! …Well, as long as it’s black.

More silliness, more magnificent facial hair, more everyday heroines, more Caesar… more farting. You know, just your typical midseason good times. Surprisingly enough.

In this episode:

Song: Transportation — Mobile pioneers George Stephenson (Simon), Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Jim), Henry Ford (Ben) and the Wright Bros. (Mat and Larry) boogie down to a celebration of their relentlessly innovative genius. (Parody of: Greased Lightnin’, from the musical Grease) 

Recurring sketches:

Stupid Deaths — Diane de Poitiers (Swallowed a teaspoonful of gold leaf every day for years as a beauty treatment… until she died of heavy metal poisoning. (“Ooh, hey — let’s hope they don’t play any heavy metal music in the afterlife… *to Louis the skeleton* What did you think? ‘Comedy gold‘? Rats, I was going to say that…”)

Shouty Man — New! Runic Alphabet (“The simple angular letters can be quickly carved* into any wall, rock or twig! Making ‘writing things down’ the new ‘not writing things down’!” *Caution: carving may not actually be quick.)

HHTV Sport — Profiling Lily Parr, only female inaugural inductee into the Football Hall of Fame, 1951 (“Listen mate–I’ve played against men, and I’m tellin’ ya now, I’ve got a harder shot than any of ’em.” “Ha-hah! Well, this is Tony Codger, reporting for HHT–THUNK!  awwwk!… she’s not wrong… owww…”)

DVD set — Celebrating the best of Joseph Pujol, Le Pétomane (Why, yes, that does translate to ‘The Fartomaniac’. You were surprised? It’s the sellout show that’s now touring the biggest theatres in Europe! Every performance is a blast!)

Gals’ Magazine — Yankee Crazy! Comparing the (very) average British squaddie with a shiny-new American GI. (“Wow, you really can dance! What’s that funny thing you’re doing with your mouth?” “I’m chewin’ gum.” “Wow…!”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Julius Caesar Project (“So then I hired a fleet of ships–” “So you wouldn’t miss hanging out with your friends the pirates! That’s our happy ending!” “No–so I could hunt them down and torture them to death. Which I did. Pretty brilliant twist, right?” “Yeeeaahhh… See, the whole ‘torturing to death’ thing, it plays quite badly with families…”)

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

I Had (Not) Forgot the Fart — Edward de Vere, Earl Oxford, learns the hard way that Elizabeth I really doesn’t care for odd smells. (“Cecil! What is the punishment for passing wind in front of the Queen?” “We don’t have one, Your Majesty; no one has ever dared do such a thing before.” “Or if they did, they at least had the decency to cover it up with a well-timed cough!”)

Vicious Vikings

Strictly (Religious) Business — A merchant hawking fake Old Norse sacred relics has to do some even faster thinking to cope with the introduction of Christianity.

Potty Pioneers

The Father of the Railway — Tireless Georgian–and very Northern–transport advocate George Stephenson makes his case to some very skeptical politicians. (“People are gointa be carried up to twenty miles an hour!” “But how would they even survive travelling at such astounding speeds?!” “Why, I imagine their eyes would get sucked from their very skulls!”)

Shocking Scotland

The Lady’s Not For Surrendering — “Black Agnes”, Countess of Moray, single-handedly defends Dunbar Castle against the Earl of Salisbury’s siege, because awesome. Also, Scots. (“We cut off your food supply five months ago! You must be starving!” “Och aye, I haven’t eaten since, oh, at least eleven… Oop, did I forget to mention our secret entrance?”)

Woeful Second World War

Who Wants to Be a German Millionaire? — Between-wars economic hyperinflation made that a much trickier question than you might suspect. Especially if you happen to be in the market for a wheelbarrow…

Rotten Romans

Wall of Doubt — What his subjects were facing after Emperor Hadrian decided to set up the barbarian-repelling battlements smack dab through their farm fields. (“We’re calling it ‘Hadrian’s Wall’.” “Working title.”)

Field Notes:

  • So yeah, this episode the show unveils a new–and not completely unpromising–tactic in the ongoing Content Crisis: be really loud and jolly and have Martha throw things at people a lot and just generally hope that the more emphatically you insist that nothing is wrong, the more people will believe it. Sort of like the way your Uncle Harold deals with family Thanksgiving dinners, only British, so less actual turkey. Possibly similar amounts of alcohol consumption, though, assuming you’re talking about the producers.
  • Alcohol also features in one of the several theories about Jim’s performance I started formulating a few seconds into Shouty Man’s penultimate pitch. Slightly more plausible ideas include Howick i) taking bets with the other guys on the sidelines re: just how much he could get away with by then, to which the answer unsurprisingly was “pretty much everything”; and ii) having just been told that Yonderland was a go and his longtime dream of playing a batty old broad about to be fulfilled, this inevitably morphed into less Shouty’s final fling and more the Crone’s eager debut.
  • On the other hand, this is also how you can tell–well, after three-four attempts to concentrate, the final one of which was audio-only–that the writing is honestly terrific, still much sharper and funnier than Shouty’s segments have been for a long while: you’re actively willing to put up with all of this. Well, OK, that and the by-now-rampant nostalgia… also the wholly unexpected continuity bonus in the form of infant Shouty Junior. No, evidently no-one’s particular sprog this time, or at least nobody’s ever owned up to same.
  • I have rather mixed feelings about this plot twist, honestly. The concept of Shouty as a sort of ancestral huckster spirit from a long line of same is a deeply appealing one, right up until you realise that that means his adorable offspring is due to grow up into whomever invented spam emails, and you involuntarily start to replay key moments from Twelve Monkeys in your head.
  • In desperation for a distraction, I started wondering if I shouldn’t start keeping track of these poignant final moments already… then I had to stop that too, partly on account of my brain started sarcastically picking out the songs for the YouTube tribute soundtrack and partly because, given the onscreen evidence, nobody else seems to have bothered with it either. At, least not as any sort of conscious theme. It’s really hard to blame them for wanting to avoid the hassle… or [spoiler alert] coming up with a characteristically self-aware route around it.
  • It’s anyway a tricky thing to expect anything like linear resolution from a sketch comedy. Personally, I’ll feel much better once Chipmunk-Faced Guy has been identified, and am still nursing a slight irk with Stone Age man for not providing material for more Caveman Art Show bits, but otherwise I can’t think of anything I’m truly anxious to have happen in the next four eps. Maybe have Larry duck out of the way of the poop for once? Organise some sort of historical baseball game and have one of Jim’s sweet little woobie characters make the big catch?
  • One thing I did not need was for the LoG to finally ink a movie deal. When I first heard that Julius Caesar (of course) would be the first, I actively avoided watching it for some time, on the grounds of massive disappointment that comedy genius had been so thoroughly sold out. In related news, I am an idiot who has apparently learned nothing whatsoever from this review project, and two series’ worth of seemingly random snarking actually pays off in a burst of utterly satisfying comedic logic.
  • Yes, including even Ben’s non-sequitur nasal accent, which somehow plays quite brilliantly off Caesar’s relentlessly matter-of-fact brutality because, I dunno, Willbond or something. Since Alex the Great I’ve given up trying to figure it out. The deliberately ‘lofty’ lighting and camera angles help, at any rate.
  • Meantime, over at Stupid Deaths… well, we already had the obvious plot twist, and otherwise the whole concept is predicated on the fact that there’s no way to resolve it without going full-on Bergman parody. I would not be averse to a little chess-playing with the skeletons (I bet Louis cheats), but otherwise am content to let SD exit on its own sweetly, smartly surreal terms. Mind you, this does not prevent me from wondering why we’re randomly reviving the ‘paperwork’ gag from S1 for no particular reason, but then again there’s no way to resolve that which doesn’t involve questions about why I’m blogging about a children’s comedy and why don’t we all just move on now…
  • …Well, we might just pause to note that–in common with many of the show’s beauty-treatment spoofs–it’s hard to work up a satisfying snort of disbelief at those crazy pre-L’Oreal types when even today gold leaf is a luxury menu item. Regardless, playing Diane de Poitiers is a fine way to kick off a rare–now that I think about it, actually the only–showcase ep for Martha. Meantime, Death on eggshells opposite her hauteur is giving me pleasing flashbacks to his similarly subtle underplaying in S4…
  • …Sorry, brb, just indulging in one more tiny ‘grrrrrrr’ that they didn’t figure all this out until after the Ivan the Terrible bit. Because fluffy pink pen. Thank you.
  • Speaking of flamboyantly offbeat characters, man, show, took you long enough to introduce Le Pétomane already. There’s got to be an entire chapter devoted to him in at least one of the books, and I’ve been wondering why you haven’t found it since forever… OK, more like ‘cringing in resigned anticipation’, but you get the idea.
  • And you know, I was all set to make some smart remark about how of course it’s Larry in this role, when I realised: no joke, this actually is a significant step forward in flatulence-related artistic refinement from the merely common or garden-variety Rickardian fart solo, as seen in S2’s Cowboy Song. Which in turn must represent a purely unique achievement in television–nay, media–history. So yeah Laurence, take a bow, you deserve it. I’ll just be over here applauding madly… waaaaay over here. Whilst remaining carefully upwind, and with my hand firmly off the rewind button.
  • In all other respects this is emphatically Martha’s Big Showcase, and all you really need to know about the results is that the Liz I sketch is the weakest of the lot. Granted these bits have never been exquisite masterpieces of staggering subtlety, but this is as far as I can remember the first time they’ve concentrated so hard on the shrewishness that they completely ignored the actual punchline. For the record, that actually happened after Earl Oxford returned seven years later, hoping against hope that the Queen had forgotten his gaucheness, only to have her comment brightly “Ah, my lord! I had forgot the fart!”
  • In other words, Liz in reality thought it was all a great joke (as was her wont), and de Vere voluntarily banned himself, and thus any potential for a grand finale for an HH icon rapidly devolves into a more-than-usually anti-climactic round of Let’s Turn Good Queen Bess Into a Roald Dahl Villain, Because I Dunno, Blackadder or Something.
  • Luckily, nostalgia has enhanced my already long and intricate practice in extracting whatever enjoyment I can from the Tudor sketches to the point where I can sincerely appreciate the goodwill–not to say, probable desperation–inherent not only in the original rationale for using this material (“Say, let’s remake the S3 Silly Laws sketch that everyone loves so much, only with rude noises!”) but the impressiveness of the production details.
  • Like for instance, how Martha by now has Her Majesty’s over-the-top hauteur absolutely nailed, to the point where the offhandedness of it actively enhances the characterization… also, there is the really gleeful way Ben attacks Cecil’s sly cleverness, it having become–I’m guessing–something of an outlet after spending so much time in royal doofus mode. Also mildly intriguing: in the promo photos and the [spoiler alert] finale song, it’s Larry wearing de Vere’s costume… and under the circs this does seem like *ahem* much more his type of role. Last-minute performer switchout, perhaps?
  • I am much more definitively pleased by the return of gorgeous WWII Martha… not to say intrigued by the tonal misstep inherent in her presence in the ‘Yankee Crazy’ bit. At least, I think it’s a misstep. The adult rom-com parody is so neatly done that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intentional, which leads to speculation re: who was supposed to get what out of it. It’s very hard not to conclude that the show deliberately decided to for once gross out the little ones (all that icky giggly flirty stuff, blech!) in the service of creating a fun light trifle for the grown-ups.
  • Speaking as a certified adult critic person, then, may I just say: schwing. Especially the entirely too much fun Ben is now having, enacting the British concept of an All-American Boy. I am really hoping that isn’t a coincidence that it so neatly matches up with the same concept as enacted in Christie, Conan Doyle and other classic UK pop-lit–which, knowing Willbond, it totally isn’t–but either way, it’s really freakin’ hilarious.
  • Also: Mat’s waifishness finally used in a military sketch in a way that doesn’t make me want to slit my wrists over the bleak unfairness of it all. Yes, closure comes in many forms, folks.
  • There’s more interestingly subtle maturity on display in the Norse relics bit… wait, don’t blink, you’ll miss it. Specifically, we’re back on the gently satirical commentary on Christian-vs-pagan belief systems, which continues to be both pleasing and intriguing enough, but even Simon and Larry combined can’t provide it with a sketch-length hook this time. Although, granted, Simon’s little pendant switcheroo comes pretty damn close.
  • A sudden attack of educational conscience over all this might explain the weirdness in the Lily Parr profile. And no, I’m not talking about the Howe-Douglas adventures in Lancashire dialect, although I am assuming the only thing preventing the producers looking into dubbing options with Sarah H. was the characteristically authentic toughness Martha is also projecting. I similarly have no problem with Jim’s blandly mid-century sportscasting unctuousness; in fact he does a fine enough job of it that I might just have to add ‘will never get to hear his Howard Cosell’ to the list of regrets.
  • Trouble is, no sooner does he get duly humiliated for his casually typical-of-his-age sexism than the show inexplicably begins to patronise Ms. Parr all over again. Unprompted and clearly unmeditated, so much so that it’d be almost funny, if they weren’t so awfully in earnest. “Silly Lily,” intones the puppet rodent who makes pets of his fleas and openly gloats over eating filth, in the tone he more usually reserves for the details of genocide; she (grasp!) “smoked lots of cigarettes.”
  • Ah… yeah. Setting aside the fact that duh, mid-twentieth-century, everybody smoked lots of cigarettes, because nobody knew any better than that they were good for you… it might be time for a reminder that ultimately you’re still Horrible Histories, show. Either you retroactively attach a similar disclaimer to pretty much every post-eighteenth-century character you’ve ever created, female or male, or you kindly knock it off.
  • Come to think of it, something of the same uncharacteristically PBS Kids-type vibe also hangs over the song. The idea of celebrating great transport pioneers is not at all unpleasing, but it’s also entirely missing the extra level of shrewd snarkiness that’s the HH hallmark. The whole thing is ephemeral as all hell, in fact, constructed almost entirely of small incidental pleasures.
  • Of which, it must be admitted, there are quite a lot. As for instance Ben trying earnestly to simoultaneously follow doo-wop choreography and maintain a Midwestern accent, Jim effortlessly pulling off the same moves while under that top hat, Larry being all pleasantly twinkly-eyed in a flat cap, and Mat… evidently off in his own little private Chaplinesque universe again just as soon as he got a look at himself in that moustache.
  • None of which, unfortunately, ever quite adds up to a memorable music video, and the choice of parody genre… well, again, probably much more daringly novel to you lot, for whom Grease was likely not the go-to pseudo-edgy choice of high school dramatic societies for decades. Thus despite some amusingly clever staging, this takeoff merely slides smoothly in one N.American ear and out the other. Save perhaps for the final beats spotlighting Ben–if nothing else as a nice apt reward for all his good-sportitude.
  • The old and new comedic sensibilities mingle much, much more happily in the Black Agnes sketch; no actual bodily fluids being flung, but no comedic prisoners being taken, either (let alone Martha’s Scots accent, which is greatly improved by all the bellowing). Just a bunch of old hands luxuriating in the rare surefire bit of business in their various endearingly surefire ways, no more and no less. Which really is an awful lot, up to and including Mat indulging his knightly schtick to the hilt. Once again, I am reminded that Merlin blew a prime casting opportunity.
  • But when it’s over, I find my thoughts drifting toward the props more than anything else. Specifically, did they just have a whole bunch of those drumsticks made up ahead of filming, or are they a standard of the BBC props cupboard, or…? And now I’m imagining the little paper labels: ‘Turkey, 3/4 eaten’, ‘Chicken, roasted, one bite’ etc etc. Once again, the question of whether the f/x masters on this show have the best or worst job in the world is left wide open.
  • The costumers, on the other hand, not a question. Besides all the sartorial pretty-pretty, the Stephenson bit is another decently satisfying good time… except I can’t ever quite relax and enjoy it fully, on account of Rickard-as-Wellington still isn’t giving me any reason to believe he’s not about to make with the jigging any moment. Hell of a time to suddenly rediscover your commitment to character creation, there, show. We’ve blithely recast Pompey, Hephaestion and Saint Joan, but nobody thought that just maybe Larry and his ludicrous pot’o’gold posing might need a break? You really are just using the man for your own entertainment now, aren’t you?
  • The (much) better news is, they do have the excellent sense to give Simon and his Oop North stylings free reign, both here and at Hadrian’s Wall (also: the momentary return of Mat’s Gross Designs wig, whooo!). There’s just something seriously loveable about northern types mocking their own stereotypes–see also Michael Palin at several moments in the Python films… wait, maybe I’m just into uniquely loveable Northern types to begin with. A valid argument I believe nonetheless.
  • Meantime, Larry recoups magnificently as the hapless victim of hyperinflation. I will not claim I didn’t spend the entire first run-through idly wondering once again where Willbond had got to (he totally deserved a bit of Teutonic indulgence after being such a good sport over the song), but I can also see where the giving Mat and Larry another dual shot at the dark undercurrents paid off in spades. There’s something uniquely intriguing in the way these two understand each other, and the result gets the grim reality of between-wars Germany across more effectively than I think was strictly intended.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Seems a shame to complain about such lavish costuming, but it is after all what I do: Diane de Poitiers’ signature colours were black and white. She went to the extent of having the chateaux her ‘boyfriend’ Henry II gifted her completely done in b/w monochrome, which was a much more impressively eccentric luxury back before IKEA was invented, and it would’ve been a cool note to reference in the SD. Although, in their defense, the show’s costumers were likely working off this portrait, so we can call it even.
  • (Albeit, just incidentally… fine, show, I can see the educational point of swopping out ‘mistress’ for ‘girlfriend’ if I squint. Better to avoid introducing the concept of condoned adultery to impressionable young minds. I am still not quite convinced that it’s an improvement to leave the kidlets with the impression of say, Diane here and Henry fumbling with each others’ underwear while Justin Bieber’s latest blares in the background.)
  • Yep, she was quite the character, our Diane. A minor provincial noblewoman who rose to prominence as lady-in-waiting to several previous queens, she was one of the greatest of the legendary French royal mistresses, renowned not only for her beauty, poise and style but charm, wit and intelligence–the absolute ideal of classical femininity as taught to chivalrous youths of the time. So much so, in fact, that Francis I asked Diane to school his ten-year-old second son in courtly manners. She was a good enough teacher that by the time Henry was sixteen and Diane thirty-five, they were a couple and would remain so until his death 24 years later.
  • Alright, yes, they were basically living a late-night Cinemax flick, complete with the occasional nude portrait (mildly NSFW). The thing is, thanks to Diane’s uncanny sophistication it comes across as much, much classier than that. On her lover’s accession to the throne she invariably used her huge influence for the good of the State, even co-signing the royal correspondence, and acting as an enthusiastic patron of the arts.
  • Most famously, she not only approved his marriage but actively nudged him out of her bed and into his new wife’s, all to ensure his duty to France. In due time Diane was put in charge of the numerous heirs’ education. Including, just incidentally, preteen Mary Queen of Scots, who was concurrently being raised in the French royal household and cannot have helped being influenced by this extraordinary example of self-assured womanhood.
  • Other examples of self-assured womanhood were less impressed. Henry’s nominal queen, the small, outwardly unassuming (and also fourteen at the time of her marriage) Catherine de’Medici, was notoriously jealous of Diane. Specially given it took Catherine quite awhile to get started on the aforementioned heir-producing, which one can only assume had something to do with Henry yelling out the wrong name in the bedroom more than once. What is certain is that, while the King lay slowly dying of an agonizing brain injury, Queen Catherine absolutely forbade Diane to see him, although Henry continually called for her. And that’s how you earn your reputation as one of the great villainesses of history, kiddies.
  • While we’re on the subject of purely remarkable females: The tale of Agnes Randolph, Countess of Moray, and the siege of Dunbar Castle turns out to be heartwarmingly close to 100% accu-rat (the “sure you can hang my brother, I’m his heir!” bit is hung up on the reality that she wasn’t his heir at all). Granted, as noted above Agnes had something of a head start on the feistiness thing, hailing as she did from the land where even today they greet terrorism by kicking it in the nuts while it’s on fire, but still. To paraphrase Churchill, on Britain’s similarly resolute resistance to a much larger threat: some lady, some story. “Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.
  • Bad tobacco habit or no–apparently, she actually insisted on being paid in Woodbines at one point–turns out Lily Parr. was likewise everything advertised, and then some. Noting her disdain for dollies and tea sets from an early age, her older brothers (who strike me as pretty damn awesome themselves) happily taught her not only football but rugby. In her non-sporty time, probably to work off some excess epicness, Parr served as a nurse and in a munitions factory during WWI, where an inter-office match first brought her to professional attention. According to the book A League of Their Own, she never looked back, remaining active in one way or another from 1919-1951:
  • “Standing almost six feet tall, with jet black hair, her power and skill was admired and feared wherever she played.  She was an extremely unselfish player who could pin-point a pass with amazing accuracy and was also a marvellous ball player.  And she was probably responsible in one way or another, for most of the goals that were scored by the team…”
  • …But yeah, Rattus, the smoking thing, that’s the main point after all. /sarcasm.
  • And this in a show that’s just finished spotlighting Joseph “Le Pétomane” Pujol, a humble Marseilles baker who, as shown, fashioned an entire wildly successful stage career out of social inappropriateness. (Possibly Wiki’s greatest sentence ever:  [His] profession is also referred to as “flatulist“, “farteur”, or “fartiste”.)  The really endearing part, though, is that by all accounts Pujol wasn’t about a license to ill; he was a genuinely sweet guy who voluntarily worked up a “family-friendly” (less noisy, basically) version of his act and retired outright in horror at the outbreak of WWI. He just happened to also have a unique physical quirk that allowed him to, uh, both suck and blow from the same orifice.
  • Which explains why his audiences weren’t issued gas masks, or for that matter shields: he would merely take in water or air via his rectum and immediately expel it–no mess, no fuss. Enough practice and the whole process was under such fine control that Pujol  was the toast of Europe. Unfortunately no sound recordings seem to exist (probably referencing that whole “wildly socially inappropriate” thingy again) but Wiki has managed to turn up this silent film short, apparently recorded at the Moulin Rouge. Yes, that Moulin Rouge. You may now commence being unable to unsee him sharing the stage with Nicole Kidman.
 
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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E06

No, no, I’m not Amundsen either! I’m Ernest Shackelton!
So you weren’t first or second?
Actually… my team never made it at all.
Oh, great. Because films about massive losers who never achieve anything make such big hits!

We’re half-way closer to the finale and the show’s creative flailing has finally settled down into… whatever this is. Given that ‘this’ is sometimes clever, mostly charming and always unpredictable… and, not incidentally, has some kickass music… it’s possible to be very good indeed with that.

In this episode:

Song:  Alexander the Great — Ben as the original all-conquering hero decides his massive ego can only be expressed via the majesty of stadium rock. Featuring his all-star backup: Larry as Ptolemy on lyre, Jim as Hephaestion on bass, and Mat… on drums.

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — New! Roman Dog (“The cuddly companion who puts the’ fur’ into multi-furpose!” “Um, the wart’s still there…?” “It’s a very small dog, mate.”)

Come Dine With Me — Georgian (“The Prince Regent’s guests have arrived and are ready to eat. Although King George III is having trouble parking his invisible kangaroo.” “Whoaaaa there, kangaroo! Down, boy!”)

Historical Grimefighters — Alexander Fleming’s lab, 1928 (“Extraordinary!” “Not really mate, that’s what happens when you go on holiday and leave your dirty dishes…”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Ernest Shackelton Project (“Ohhh… then you must be Amundsen, they guy who got there before Scott! …Apparently, he used dogs to pull the sledges.” “Were these talking dogs?” “Lady and the Tramp go skiing?! It’s a yes from me!”)

CD Set — Now That What Me Call Music! (Available at last from Neanderthal Records! Featuring the first-ever musical notes played on the first-ever instrument… “Including the ground-breaking Three Notes in Any Old Order… and the smash hit, Smash Hit!”)

HHTV Sport — Live from the Pirate Races, monk-riding event final (“Pirates are a twisted lot, they take particular pleasure in tormenting these religious men…” “Oop, and Brother Carlos has trod on a nail! There goes his vow of silence…”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

We Are Amused… Unfortunately — Queen Victoria’s theoretically solemn coronation hits some less-than-dignified notes in practice. (“I now pronounce you Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland… the Duke of Ancaster and the Duke of Cornwall.” “…Really?” “It’s what it says ‘ere…”)

Facial Feud — Meanwhile, Prince Albert’s moustaches are of course just unspeakably ridiculous–until they become the fashion after facial hair saves lives in the Crimea. No, really. (“Do I look like an idiot to you?!” “Um… little bit… around the lips…?”)

Rotten Romans

Chou d’Amour — Ancient medicine: how to become a revered, wise elder statesman and convinced that cabbage is the ultimate universal cure-all simoultaneously.

Groovy Greeks

Alexander the Great: The Board Game — Play it until no one will play it with you anymore! Why yes, it does come with multiple expansion packs, which Alex insisted be played one after another…after another… and another… (“Wait guys, don’t go home yet!” *unveils Conquest of Persia pack*  “Are you sure? I mean, it’s getting a bit late…?” “Yeah, maybe we should quit while it’s still fun?” “Well, I’m still having fun–and It’s. My. Game. *snif snif*“)

Savage Stone Age

Historical Springwatch — ‘Excitable wildlife enthusiasts’ explore the hidden lives of Pleistocene-era wildlife… mostly, the part where they get eaten by Pleistocene-era man.  (“Oi, you there! Did you never stop to think that people in the future might actually want to see giant panthers, giant sloths, even giant sabretooth tigers…” *grrrrrrrrrrrowllll* “…Er, actually you have my permission to kill this one, heh heh. Wait, where are you going?!”)

Putrid Pirates

Translating from the Pirate (is a Bad, Bad Idea) — Yes, the fabled buccaneer dialect involved more than just howling “Arrrrr!” every three seconds. No, learning that still doesn’t make your drunk self any less annoying on Talk Like a Pirate Day. (“Arrrrr! Paul, sew ‘is mouth up!” “Translation, please?” “… ‘sew-his-mouth-up’?” “…” “Well, ah…shiver my timbers. I think I’ve just filled my keel with bilge.”)

Field Notes:

  • Right, here we are then: the half-way mark. Only six more half-hours left to go, and… I’m finding myself increasingly OK with this, honestly.* (*Future Shoe: Yeah, yeah, hindsight’s 20/20. Just you wait until she has to revisit the finale song…)
  • …Sorry, did anyone else just feel a vaguely portentous temporal breeze? Hm. Anyway, thing is, nothing so far has happened to convince me that the cast–and their quite frankly exciting potential as a comedy troupe–weren’t the only things really worth salvaging from what’s become a very familiar story of failed redefinition. (Albeit the fact that it’s nearly two years later and you lot still haven’t elevated Howick into an adorably neurotic sidekick in a hit sitcom–at the very least–is doing bad things to my estimation of the British comedy scene, let me tell you.)
  • The one interesting corollary I’ve discovered on closer inspection is that the cast themselves–having already set Yonderland in motion–were very likely themselves deep into the Acceptance stage of grief. Further, that the rest of the creative team were probably also mostly uninterested in putting in the work that would’ve been required to either recapture the gleefully anarchistic HH vibe (by then being handled very competently by the stage shows anyway) or to transform the new, more quixotic sensibilities into something viable. The seemingly random giddiness of S5 becomes much more understandable–not to say pleasantly watchable–when you realise it very likely emanates straight from everyone’s huge relief at having finally admitted all this to themselves.
  • It certainly helps to explain the music, if nothing else. Yes, I may be saying that sheer what-the-hell giddiness was responsible for the decision to definitively anoint Willbond as a hard-rock legend, because c’mon, Willbond. Sure, there was William Wallace, but there was also the distinct possibility that that was the one day Starbucks accidentally served Ben the dark roast. Unless they were first about to dramatically unveil evidence that Alexander the Great was actually Glaswegian, I was sceptical.
  • And I was also, as you may have already guessed, completely wrong, and pleased I am to admit it. The revelation that Willbond the Prince of Pickup Truck Radio was totally not a fluke hit my delighted-amazement centres with a solidly satisfying thunk. And in all that extra ‘youthful’ eye makeup, yet. (Must admit, though, they managed to make him look much more convincingly… well, not youthful exactly. Much less likely to distract the audience with the attempt to make him look youthful, let’s leave it at that.) Anyway, well done, Benjamin. I feel that something valuable has been taught and received about cultural prejudices here, and you’ve got my support for a co-starring role in a Russell Crowe film anytime you need it.
  • The critical centres, meanwhile received more sort of a thud. Alex has a lot more hard, dry fact to get through in his song–also, not nearly as deserving of a finale-joke-worthy death–bogging it down somewhat in strict comparison with the savage abandon that was Wallace romping through the English corpses. On the other hand, the staging here totally represents a clear awesomeness upgrade on the Wallace video. As does the neat balance between authentic larger-than-life heroism and Tom Clancy-esque campiness that suddenly makes me realise I should’ve known Ben was capable of this all along.
  • The rest of the casting, however, not so much with the revelatory excitement. So that wasn’t Hephaestion Mat was playing in the previous sketch? They took him off guitar and Jim off drums, just to gratuitously switch that up? Ooookay, show, your call. And I can totally see where Mat’s ability to keep a straight face at key musical moments was valuable elsewhere. It’s just that… um… Jim’s your considered pick as the bestest buddy of the all-conquering world-bestriding legendary military genius for the ages, huh?  In that beard? No no, just a little ouchie on the suspension of disbelief there, nothing fatal, carry on.
  • So yes, this whole thing was very likely initially designed around a callback to That Thing Where Ben Sniffed Mat, and no, I’m not as appreciative of this as I probably should be, even given the inherent (splendid, if intentional) sly meta-wit involved in switching exquisite young Baynton out for cuddly bearded Howick. As discussed in the S01E04 entry I’m the one fan who wasn’t all that… excited… by the original follicular violation (if it wasn’t obvious by now, my Willbond feels tend to run in a very different, more *ahem* cultural direction). I did enjoy it a lot as an intriguing moment of real menace–sexual or otherwise–in the midst of silly comedy; which of course is the one aspect that’s utterly destroyed by turning it into a running gag.
  • On the other hand, they are still fully invested in the lively, multilayered parody typical of the board game sketches, so I was actually going along just fine with the whole thing right up until I had to watch Ben and Jim trying to hold it together long enough to re-enact The Snuffle-ening. Besides, as it turns out, all that over-the-top hissing I thought was merely Ben laurel-resting last series was actually entirely self-aware, and is growing on me accordingly.
  • On a related note, I think I’ve just realised why Shouty Man suddenly looks oddly flushed from some angles; evidently Jim had just come from this bit, and there wasn’t time to break out the fully industrial-strength orange remover. See, um, Baynton at least already has olive skin, makeup team I am now thinking may have been subbing for the regulars and lost their list of reminders first thing. Or maybe, to be fair, that’s the makeup for the dimly lit video being reused for economical reasons. Even so, you’d think “When it comes to fake tan and pleather armour, bright white lighting is so not your friend!” would’ve made it onto a warning poster or something at film production college. I dunno.
  • Or, OK, maybe everyone was just distracted by the darling doggie. Hi Tumblr, if you aren’t already totes ded from all teh kitteh adorablez, it’s time to meet Eric the mini-Dachshund puppy. The little guy is nominally the pet of line producer Caroline Norris but is clearly–and correctly–convinced the entire world must be at his feet, working the camera like a seasoned pro. He only fails to steal the show completely because he and the human are an even more perfect double act.
  • Howick having playtimes with the ickle bitty puppy, well, what I was saying last week about his coming with insulin trigger warnings? This here would be Defcon Level Five. Not to mention the plushie just found himself a cute animal companion for the deluxe edition, name and all.
  • That said, I must spare a hug for the writer on this particular SM bit for smartly playing the adorable off the pragmatic snarkiness until the whole ratchets back up onto a level of purely entertaining marketing satire Shouty hasn’t visited for some time now, apparently being too distracted by the tiaras and whatnot. Very satisfying indeed to have you back on target, Jim. Even if we’re likewise back insisting that WARTS BE HIDEOUS ABOMINATIONS THAT MUST INDUCE  SHAME IN ALL WHO SUFFER THEM, which trend has got me mildly concerned I must admit. Is this a localised phobia, or another cross-cultural thing? Did I miss a bit of the Saint George story, and it turns out the dragon had eczema?
  • …Oh hey, look, everybody, I made a clever segue! You know, because there’s Georges in the new Come Dine With Me, and… fine, I’ll just be over here in a corner with the rat, he’s having a great time. No, really. I don’t know what was holding him back until now, but hellloooo, S3-era standup-wannabe Rattus and–among many other things–your frankly hysterical fit of bishop-phobia. Did Eccleston ever fancy himself a Spitting Image-esque satirist? ‘Cos he’s just made a slam-dunk audition tape right there.
  • *ahem* Right, yes, still a responsible adult critic person, and–Awwww, Simon finally gets his shot at the beef tree and kangaroo gags–basically, at being George III again, outside the Prom. Now there’s a callback I can absolutely get behind.
  • However I am still here to critique, so must admit that creatively the whole Georgian CDWM is a wee bit lazy–as neatly encapsulated by the suddenly all matchy-matchy crazy royalty. The luxe blue velvet is a nice costuming upgrade, but there’s just no way in hell IV as lovingly established up to now would show up to dinner in the same fashion as Dad, or stay there if Dad showed up in the same fashion as him… and having now carefully thought same through, with appropriate mental images, I’m sort of sad that I’ll never get to see IV’s freakout scene for real.
  • Although… there is something genuinely clever, not to say even more heartwarming, in the way IV hands off all his dynasty’s born-to-rule boorishness to the steadily more inclusive future — in the form of an extra plate of curry, because of course. On the further subject of which, unnamed but actual actor of colour playing Dean Mahomed adds a welcome touch of novelty among, um, other things. Well, no, I didn’t really think they’d do Mat up in a turban this time, but… yeah.
  • Sublime costuming distractions are of course among the standard incidental pleasures of the Victorian sketches, and they’re all fully on the go in the latest glimpses of court life. Besides which, the return of Al Murray and his muttonchops (…roughly in that order), maintaining the likeability even if he is still a bit too over-excited from filming the Dickens video to bother actually getting into character or anything. Nice economical use of the guest star, there–actually, come to consider it, the convenient existence of those ‘chops are a nice plausible explanation for the existence of this whole bit.
  • Another good one: Ben turning hideously awkward exposition into a wince-worthy burn whilst wearing the uniform jacket from a road-show Nutcracker production. Really, the Willbondian mojo’s making quite the flamboyant comeback this episode. Besides which: silly-ass Larry smearing cake on himself. Yeah, totally worth it.
  • Other smile-making goodness: Simon’s ecclesiastical gravity, back where it belongs. Although, you know what, Lawry’s take would’ve probably worked even better here… *ahem* never mind, no sense looking a gift Farnabian cleric in the mouth. Especially one whose accent is apparently the result of one boring run-through too many. Also, welcome back Mat’s nigh-on-forgotten genius for falling down. And at the centre of it all there is Martha the marvellously petulant Young Victoria, accept no substitutes. She may do many variants of this same character elsewhere, but it in no way distracts from the sheer rightness of the original.
  • Speaking of Martha’s reliable line in haughtiness… and isn’t that a bullet point every actress would kill to have on their CV… anyway, so I was already dying at Simon in the fully-copied-off-a-classical-bust ‘do, and then he goes and presses a cabbage against his ‘noble’ brow while Ms Howe-Douglas watches in utter disbelief… well, sure, it doesn’t sound like much now, but damn you should’ve been there when I was watching it.
  • Oh, and incidentally, want irrevocable proof of that new niceness I’ve been rambling on about? They went through, like, three whole minutes of a cabbage-centric sketch and only made one little offhand smell reference at the end! No sound effects or anything! *is honestly awed*
  • On the other hand, the Stone Age musical stuff… nnnnggghhh not so much with the charming moment-ness. Yes, it’s more of a decent parody of a modern rocker and his groupie than it had any right to be, thank you once again Larry and Martha… it just feels like they could’ve used the concept more profitably as the basis for an actually sophisticated sketch. (Compare the equally slight base on which last series’ hilarious-in-all-possible-satirical-directions “domesticating wild dogs” bit rests, for instance.)
  • The Historical Grimefighters bit, contrariwise, started out with my not expecting very much at all and proceeded to explode into… well, not quite my newest Most Favourite HH Sketch Ever, because I did pinky-swear on the Royal Society. Man, though, if any aptly clever, endearingly snerky, smartly  multileveled HH parody could make me seriously rethink the validity of my childhood vowing rituals, working-class Simon yacking at wide-eyed Dr.Howick about proper sanitation when making world-shattering medical discoveries would totally be it.
  • The LoG, meanwhile, with the help of a really interesting historical character choice–which I would be saying even if I wasn’t relieved to finally figure out what that bizarre costume of Jim’s was for, out of all proportion to its actual significance–take one more hilariously witty, original step towards [spoiler alert] a fully amazing payoff to all the seemingly random world-building.
  • By contrast, I have a feeling I’d be enjoying the Springwatch bit (yes, up to and including that turtleneck) a whole lot more were I familliar with the parody target. Even so, I have found some solid grounds for objective  amusement: ‘Cave artist’s impression’, har har har. More importantly–do you lot really pronounce it “Slothes“? ‘Cos Mat, I was just about to congratulate you on for once managing to keep hold of your Northern accent at least 75% of the time, but that strikes me as just a tad much.
  • Check it, Ben gets back into the marquise wig–well, sort of–after all! And having Lord Posh (nope, I’m accepting no substitutes, lalalala can’t hear you!) get captured by pirates ends up being a whole lot more satisfying than just having a few stuffed cats chucked his way. Seriously,  this is a welcome original spin on the traditional pirate stuff, with the great benefit of Larry doing the translating, and in the process making the unusually subtle most of a rare turn as the straight man. Meanwhile, Pirate Simon now comes with bonus Robert “Quint” Shaw impression? Welp, that’s settled then, I can die content.
  • Especially since we’ve got Giles Terera back again! Hi Giles!–oh, so we’re also back to pretending he has no potential whatsoever except in a bare set behind an empty desk? Hmph. Well, I like his intro better than the following sketch, so there.
  • Not that it’s a bad sketch exactly, mind. In fact, it’s fascinating stuff, in which the unusually dark adult implications are handled with the usually unerring tact and discretion… the thing is, they’re also handled more-or-less completely straight, without the usual fig leaf of sweet-natured silliness. Yeah, sure, there’s lots of suave civilian Ben, and he’s paired with Jim, but for once I’m too uneasy to appreciate any of it. (I can, however, appreciate the second shot at vow of silence funny; now, guys, that wasn’t so hard, was it?) Overall it’s about as close to seriously age-inappropriate as the show ever veered, and call me a milquetoast, but I’m not sorry the experiment wasn’t repeated.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, just to repeat from S01E04, as a public service to potential fanfic readers everywhere: No, Alex the G.–aka Alexander III–though pretty darned good-looking (if apparently somewhat slighter) in real life, didn’t actually make a habit of sniffing his subordinates as a means of keeping them in line. Or if he did, it’s not likely anyone in ancient Greece thought it outre enough to record. Yeah, for the 312694th time, the Hellenic concept of love and/or sexuality: complicated. Very.
  • Alex did, however, drive his men nearly to mutiny with his ruthless insistence on constant campaigning. The whole world-bestriding accomplishment gets even more mind-boggling–from both ends–when you realise it only took like eight-or-so-years total. And it all started back when young Prince Alexander of Macedon(ia) was just a tiny proto-despot, getting lessons in world-bestriding–or at least, Ancient Greece-bestriding–from dad Philip II, who is not fully renowned for his conquering prowess today only because he passed most of it onto his son.
  • Also, he hired the one-and-only Aristotle to be the young prince’s personal tutor… meaning adult Alex would’ve gone into battle not only with a headful of advanced military strategies the likes of which the ancient world had never seen, but the firm conviction that men had more teeth than women. The bits covering philosophy and logical thinking, much more helpful.
  • At age twelve, Alex had already managed to tame the supposedly un-breakeable horse Bucephalus– which sounds like something out of a nineteenth-century Boy’s Own Paper but did apparently really happen… or, well, at least Alex owned a horse named Bucephalus who carried him into battle to the end of his master’s life, which is quite Black Beauty-esque enough to be going on with.
  • To complete the picture, dad was abruptly assassinated when son Alex was only 20; cue the world-bestriding. At least for a little while. Despite marrying twice in the course of his adventures, Alexander produced only the one son… and little Alex IV was assassinated not long into his co-rule with his uncle, Philip III. Who was also assassinated, and then there were these four generals (ohai, Ptolemy!) who after much bickering divvied the whole empire up among them, and yeah, the ancient Hellenic concept of loyalty, also complicated.
  • The episode’s other major Alexander, Dr. Fleming, not so much with the instantaneous heroics. Yes, the discovery of what would eventually become penicillin happened very much as shown here (save perhaps with fewer smartass janitorial staff hanging around)… the thing is, it didn’t magically zip from his lab straight into the arms of needy patients. Far from it. The ‘Accidental discovery’ subsection of Dr. F’s Wiki article is studded with interim frustrations like this:
  • Fleming published his discovery in 1929, in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, but little attention was paid to his article. Fleming continued his investigations, but found that cultivating penicillium was quite difficult, and that after having grown the mould, it was even more difficult to isolate the antibiotic agent. Fleming’s impression was that because of the problem of producing it in quantity, and because its action appeared to be rather slow, penicillin would not be important in treating infection.
  • So eventually, after a decade of this, Fleming still hadn’t managed to find a chemist interested in mass-producing the stuff–and if you take a look at his picture in the same article, this is clearly not a man whose hobbies included hopelessly pursuing pipe dreams. He finally gave up on the Quest for Penicillin entirely in 1940… only to have several other researchers pick it up, get the government funding needed to produce it in bulk, and hey presto, wonder drug of the century. Luckily, they were nice enough to share the Nobel Prize with Fleming, and he was in turn modest enough to give them most of the credit. The general public, on the other hand, knew a good story when they heard it, and the legend of Fleming the Accidental Founder of Modern Antibiotics was born.
  • Then there is Sake Dean Mahomed, who was not quite as much of an all-conquering hero, but you lot do indeed owe him a spare thought next time you pick up your nigh-ubiquitous takeout curry. Bengali by birth, Muslim by faith, a soldier, businessman and writer of travelogues and memoirs, this extraordinary character opened the Hindoostane Coffee House in 1810. According to this lovely Telegraph piece on Mahomed in particular and the British fascination with yummy spiciness in general: The Epicures Almanak of the day described [Mahomed’s restaurant] as a place “for the nobility and Gentry, where they might enjoy the Hookha with real Chilm tobacco and Indian dishes of the highest perfection”.
  • Wowzers! Real Chilm tobacco! May I be the first to exclaim: Wheeeee. And indeed, rather sadly, it appears that this initial foray into fiery foodstuffs was well ahead of its time. By 1812, the restaurant had closed and a bankrupt Mahomed was forced to advertise as a valet… only to shortly thereafter see his career revive spectacularly along the lines Rattus describes: he [opened] special treatment baths in Brighton, where he became “shampoo surgeon” to the dandyish Prince of Wales, George IV, and then to William IV. He published another book, Shampooing or Benefits Resulting from the use of Indian Medical Vapour Bath, in 1822, which became a bestseller. 
 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E03

You’re not going to bite my neck and suck the blood out, are you?
Ha ha! No, I am not vampire.
You’re not some crazed killer! Heh heh…
Mmm… well, I’m not vampire, anyway.

Wherein we settle into as close to the mainstream as this series will ever get with the solid help of some old friends… and one unexpected, completely effervescent arabesque of musical excellence.

In this episode:

Song: Charles Dickens — Mat as the great man of English literature relates the tumultuous relationship between his real life and fiction in the equally tumultuous style of the Smiths — complete with swinging gladioli. Also, the help of Jim and Larry plus special guest Al Murray.

Recurring sketches:

I [Heart] Cats Magazine — Everything the Egyptian cat lover needs to know! …And some things they probably didn’t. (“I can haz mummification?”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Robert the Bruce Project (“Nay, the spider thing never happened! It’s just a story people tell to explain why I never gave up…” “What if he got bitten by the spider, and turned into a superhero?” “Spider-Guy~!” “Spider-Guy II!” “Now we’re getting somewhere!”)

Come Dine With Me — Greek thinkers (Of course, including Diogenes… and Aristotle, serving up a “duck, a goose, an octopus and a swan!” “Sounds delicious…” “Oh, I’m not serving them, I’m just chopping them into bits to see how their bodies work. Hummus?”)

Bob Hale — The Mary, Queen of Scots Report (“Whoops, Darnley’s dead too–killed in a very weird explosion. The kind of “weird explosion” that also strangles you and dumps your body in the garden. Which, if we look at the Suspicious-Death-O-Meter–yup, highly suspicious.”)

Gross Designs — Vlad the Impaler (You know what the Ottomans will say when they see the bodies of 20,000 of my own people spiked on the border?” “You’re insane!” “Exactly!”)

Stupid Deaths — Ivan the Terrible (The most flamboyantly fearsome of all the great Russian emperors died… while playing chess. “Alright, laugh it up, Skeletor…” “So who won? Or was it a dead heat? Ha!” “…I once killed my jester, remember?”)

One-offs:

Awful Egyptians

The Purr-fect Weapon — Persian general Cambyses uses the Egyptians’ feline fetish as inspiration for a clever, not to mention cuter, variant on a human shield… now he just has to convince his troops. (“Warriors! I present our ultimate weapon!*meow* “…Does it explode?”)

Shocking Scotland

A Bonnie Escape — Poor Prince Charlie: he may not have won Culloden, but a resourceful peasant woman is ready to ensure that his flight into exile will be truly fabulous. (“Can you imagine anything more humiliating, a man of royal blood having to skulk around the moors like… Right, apparently you can.”)

Savage Stone Age

Stone Age Invention No.28: Wearing Clothes (animated) — Amid the wails of disappointed fangirls, strictly cartoon cavemen explore the profits and perils of wearing furs.

Historical Top Gear — Next up on the parade of small innovations with world-changing consequences: the bit and bridle. “And next week, we’re going to have a look at how the boffins are getting on inventing the wheel… Well, that’s not gonna work, I mean, how are they going to fit it on the horses’ legs?”

Vile Victorians

Victorian Word Battles — Or, ‘Words We Get From the…’ goes way upscale: Charles Dickens -vs- Lewis Carroll to see who can make the most quixotic contributions to the English language.

Terrible Tudors

New! Francis Walsingham’s Royal Postal Service — Absolutely, positively, 100% not having your mail read by government spies since 1569. Really. (“Hold on, by denying we’re using spies, it’s pretty clear that we are using spies, isn’t it…”)

Field Notes:

  • So there’s an important corollary to the series progression thesis I elaborated upon last week… no, not that I’ve got far too much time on my hands, we’ve established that long since. To paraphrase Death, keep up mate, keep up.
  • The corollary I had in mind was the one where the music inevitably is one level of creative badassery up on everything else in its respective series. Essentially, they figured it out in the very first episode, and if the bulk of Series One was spent bumbling back along to that point, the subsequent series picked up the ball and never looked back. The sketches were all “Yay! Possibilities! Let’s see how this works, or maybe this!”; meanwhile the music videos are like “Yeah. Charles II as Eminem. Any questions?”
  • Which is why it was a bit of a disappointment to me that S4’s music actually slid sideways a bit. By then they knew what to do just a bit too well, if that makes any sense; found solidly amazing parody mashup concepts and then just… sort of… did a solidly amazing job with them. Some vital spark of gleeful innovation, the kind that had produced both George IV and Pachacuti, was missing…
  • …and then in S5 the sparks suddenly exploded all over the damn place. I’m not saying the results were uniformly wonderful, but they were all intensely watchable, if only to see what firework might go off next. It’s the closest I will ever come to mourning what might have been in S6.
  • This episode’s example in particular… right, what else is there to say after it got picked up by the Washington Post’s online Slate magazine, the LA Times and was retweeted by not only the usual scholarly types but American actor/musician Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Clearly, a universal chord of comedic imagination had been struck.
  • And at the centre of it is easily the finest thing Mat’s ever done for the show — the absolutely logical followup to Charles II and Darwin, combining the former’s exquisitely cheeky charm with the latter’s playful erudition… and, let us not forget, those gladioli. Neither Dickens or Smiths parodies are anything novel in and of themselves, so it’s entirely to the show’s credit that this piece fully sails above the standard to become… well, whatever it is Mat’s been becoming since he started this whole adventure in combining children’s comedy with adult clowning. Yes, up to and including the Muppet voice. And it is glorious.
  • Meanwhile, the rest of the production matches him note for sweetly smart note, building on what they learned with the Natural Selection video about showcasing the central Victorian jewel in an expertly flattering setting. Including, of all people, the guy whom Wiki tells me is best known for a game show called Compete for the Meat. I don’t know much about Al Murray, honestly, but hey, he’s clearly having a ball and he fits into the mutton-chop-intensive mileu perfectly. Besides, I like meat. Welcome aboard, Al.
  • So… yeah, there was also an episode, which will hereinafter be enshrined in HH lore as The One With the Cats. Specifically, they’re the best part of an altogether rather odd remake of the S3 ‘Nasty Knights’ sketch. Presumably the idea was that the itteh bitteh warrior kittehs would act as adorableness-themed wallpaper over the mismatched comedic seams.
  • This… well, I’m not saying it wasn’t a fairly productive strategy (having them be all black was a particularly nice touch). It’s just not quite enough to prevent me from noticing that basically all involved in this elite army–all, like, four of them–have kicked on the autopilot and taken a little vacation from being shrewd comedy veterans. Thus explaining the failure to realise that the whole ‘stick the skinny guy in armour and hope it’s funny when he yells’ thing in particular was never all that showstopping to begin with. I am also a trifle dubious about the armour itself, which looks a lot more like Calvin Klein’s fall collection with the belts swopped out.
  • In the end, all I can say is… thank heavens for good ol’ Rattus and the ‘moment to think about all those dead cats’! …No, really. I’d seriously been starting to worry he was losing his edge, especially after the J.K Rowling crack. We can get back to the awful puns anytime now, fuzzy little pal.
  • Luckily, everyone gets back on the comedy-veteran job ASAP, all nice and rested and with a pretty decent tan. Especially is this noticeable–both metaphorically and literally, come to think of it–in the Come Dine With Me bit, which this series has been shrewdly retooled to focus back on the foibles of the diners rather than their food, and thus become the ideal vehicle to reintroduce great characters from series past. The relief at–nay, sheer joy in–having such surefire stuff to put onscreen is palpable. I give them special props for recognizing that Pythagoras and his non-sequitur spirituality still had much comedy goodness left to give.
  • Also, Larry seems to have located his perfect Ringo impersonation again. Also also, Mat’s still got the beard and the vaguely unsettling air of having just blown in from a PSA on the dangers of speed. Somehow the fact that whatever Aristotle’s cutting up bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of the animals the narrator mentions just makes me very happy. On the other hand, I think we can all agree that we have definitively wrung every last, erm, drop of comic potential from Diogenes’ austerity philosophy now, kthx. Yes, even for the twelve-year-old demographic. Sheez.
  • In other surefire recurring entertainment news: Yay, Bob Hale has finally sorted his meds and is back to his… well, at least mildly-manic self! (By contrast, Sam’s blouse… man, those ruffles just get more and more implausible, don’t they?) Really, a fully splendid recovery from last year’s tendency to rest on his catchphrase-laden laurels–not one catchphrase of which is uttered here, interestingly enough. I dunno where Larry went to get re-inspired, but it was a good place. You can tell right off, because the old-age makeup has gotten much less existentially terrifying. I suppose it was either that or equip the poor guy with a wheelchair and laser pointer, which– *aaaaghh* Bad brain! Stop that!
  • …Sorry, rapid-aging phobia kicked in there for a sec. But man, yes, time to admit I spent the off-season uneasily anticipating the Rickardian interpretation of senility as goofy comedy. Instead, we get a  classically bright, clever, notably accurate and and just generally one of the all-time great Bob Reports, wherein the inspired running gag is seamlessly kicked up notch-by-notch into an actual meta-satirical comment on the entire show’s attitude to history, and by extension, the entire discipline’s methods. Well done Bobsy, and even better done his creator.
  • Over at Stupid Deaths, by contrast, it’s becoming unfortunately clear that the re-inspiration wad may well have been shot with the ‘Boring Deaths’ business. Hang on, let me just go back and check… yep, that would in fact be ol’ Ivan the T’s signature among Death’s pre-existing collection of autographs from great villains of history, all the way back in S2’s Draco sketch… and yes, the fact that I not only remembered that but spent some time being miffed over having my newfound SD continuity summarily destroyed only an episode later is only the latest indication that I may need a vacation myself.
  • Still, it really is an awful shame that the potential for the callback wasn’t picked up. Just imagine how the fearsome Tartar Emperor, as envisioned by a production team who clearly needs to back off the Game of Thrones Netflix bingeing, would’ve reacted to that fluffy pink pen? Which is in fact rather inexplicably visible throughout this sketch? By contrast, the angle they did go with is so clunky that the whole thing winds up only being novel inasmuch as it proves that it is, in fact, possible for comic surrealism to not take flight in the vicinity of Farnaby’s performance tics.
  • Not that there aren’t still rewards inherent in Ben’s big chance to show off his Russian. I would be saying this anyway, out of sympathy for what appears to have been six hours straight in the makeup chair, but it is so regardless. Albeit it takes a couple viewings to appreciate, or frankly even realise there’s a Willbond in there, under those eyebrows. (Seriously. The “Uhhh… that is him, right?” reaction online when this bit first aired was priceless.) One of those creative decisions you feel like watching film of them being made–or, for that matter, executed–would be far more entertaining than the results.
  • On the other hand: Benjamin, you totally ad-libbed that ‘Skeletor’ line, didn’t you? If so, it’s the closest I may ever get to wanting to give you a great big hug.
  • Simon gets far better served on the nostalgia front in the Movie Pitch sketch–even if it does involve cheerfully tossing William Wallace the hard-rocking rebel legend under a bus without, apparently, much in the way of second thoughts at all. Interesting bit of insight into the show’s dedication to the facts, that.
  • Anyway, I have long been anxious to see how Farnaby’s full-on crazy bounces off the LoG’s be-suited smarminess … wonderfully as ever, as it turns out. It’s been far too long since he’s had the chance to thus let loose, also since the trio had a really worthy opponent, and the results are fully classic all the way ’round. Meantime, I continue to enjoy how the same trio are developing their own little world of Hollywood cluelessness; it still doesn’t have much to do with HH, but it’s a joy to watch regardless. Like, right in the middle of the historical stuff, the kiddies are being treated to an extra-credit clinic in comedy development. Complete with the face paint.
  • On the further subject of fascinating makeup decisions: For the first time, based solely on Mat’s look as host of the new ‘Gross Designs’ bit, I was motivated to look up the source material. And I was mightily pleased… well, not so much in that direction, although it’s a decent bonus, as that it’s a nice clever idea for a recurring concept with lots of potential. Sort of a more sophisticated take on the old ‘Location Location Location’ bits, which I also always liked.
  • OK, so it turns out to be kind of unnecessarily goofy in the execution. Simon’s evident idea of Eastern Europeans goes a long way towards explaining his later decision to sign on as presenter of Man Vs. Weird. (It’s more fun listening to him provide the mundane explanation of ‘Dracula’ in that pantomime accent than in the whole of his SD performance, though, must admit that.) Not to mention that the ‘impala’/’Impaler’ thing is officially the furthest the show’s ever reached for a joke, and this is a show that contains Death’s puns on a regular basis. But Mat’s comparatively subtle symphony of growing unease just about makes up for everything.
  • Except maybe why he’s not playing Bonnie Prince Charlie, thus breaking his frankly magnificent streak of sassy royal Stuart portrayals. I mean, if we’re going to play around with casting, why couldn’t that have been Lawry instead of Mat as the kitty-obsessed Persian general… no, wait, that actually wouldn’t’ve worked any better, would it… OK, how about Mat here, Ben as Cambyses over there and Lawry as the guy with the derpy sneeze? But that leaves Simon… ah, geez, now I’m all confused up in here.
  • Of course, the ridiculous over-the-top squeeky stuff at the beginning of his bit does suggest the doomed-but-Bonnie Prince was specially written with the whinge specialist in mind. I’ll also grant there’s a certain wit in using that same guy in a sketch that’s all about underlining the ultimate futility of Charlie’s regal ambitions; in particular, he plays the quoted line really well. Otherwise, this little interlude is notable mostly for underlining how good Martha really does look in blue… which you can tell, because it distracts from her Scots accent.
  • I am by contrast not at all sure how well the Historical Top Gear spoof was thought through, beyond the writers’ understandable need to change their pop-culture dartboard picture every now and then. Masterchef has run its course, and the Apprentice while loaded with other possibilities isn’t nearly as satisfying a mickey-taking outlet, so it’s obviously time to move on to… ‘Jeremy Clarkstone’ and ‘James Clay’? Ah, guys? Exactly when did this turn into the Flintstones?
  • …Fine, ‘Stone Age Stig’, that’s mildly amusing. Points also for the business at the end with the wheel, and indeed for James Clay’s asides throughout, primarily because ‘sophisticated’ Cave-Willbond being baffled by basic technology can never not be hilariously endearing.
  • But really guys, this experimental thing is getting a little out of hand. Mind, I do not wish to seem like I’m ready to jump on every role Lewin gets this series; I am just saying that after being confronted with this one I felt it necessary to immediately study pictures of the real-life Jeremy Clarkson with great care, not to say concern. And while I gather he’s something of a noted curmudgeon, there’s no indication whatsoever he’s an eldritch abomination drawing on the dark hearts of those 90’s troll dolls to return specifically to eat children’s souls. Somebody seriously needs to cut the makeup team’s Red Bull supply.
  • But not before I congratulate them on managing to make Mat look more like Dickens than anyone approximately thirty years younger has a right to. The ‘Word Battle’ thing with Ben as Lewis Carroll is another weirdly underthought sketch idea, but I do not care, because awwww. Somebody clearly just wanted to reignite the competitive spark in these two after the Greatest Composer thing at the Proms, and how do you argue with that?
  • Besides, they did a brilliant job of following through, or at least the performers did. The chemistry inherent in the creative tension–ie. Dickens’ obsessive need for moral justice and order vs. Carroll’s overt refusal to give a damn about anything but being clever–is even better matched than the original, and handled with subtly elegant intelligence by both men (never mind that in real life, the ebullient, verbose Dickens would’ve totally overwhelmed the shy, gauche, introverted Dodgson).
  • Honestly, Ben should by all rights not be this convincing as Carroll, but he is. Largely by focussing in on what popular imagination thinks the author of Jabberwocky must have been–edge of inspired lunacy and everything. Shades of what I’ve been complaining about missing from his signature characters lately, come to think of it. At any rate, “Personal recitation of Carroll’s poetry” just got added to my list of weirdly off-brand Willbond fantasies.
  • Jim meanwhile is a bit out of things in this episode full of magnificently outsized characters; he’s here only to be upstaged by a magnificently indifferent feline and to all-too-briefly recreate Francis Walsingham, one of his most intriguing roles exactly because one of the few–possibly only, come to think of it–that’s  not the universe’s go-to chew toy. Unfortunately this latter is stuck in another one of those little scraps of anecdote that never quite gets around to an actual punchline, or anything, but the sheer novelty of seeing Howick play so against type–and his almost offhanded skill in the execution regardless–makes it worth a  watch anyway.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Completely self-indulgent feline footnote and incidental proof that I do have a life, since I’m also in the middle of polishing up the domestic cat breed articles on Wiki… wait, that didn’t come out quite as intended… Anyway, that’s a very lovely blue-point Siamese being used in the magazine sketch. Which breed is a) not even close to originating in Egypt (as the name indicates, it’s native to Siam, ie. modern Thailand) and b) ironically enough is among the few breeds of cat that can be taught to fetch. Given enough owner patience, anyway.
  • I said above that this Bob Report is notably accurate, and I stand by that down here — because I’m exploiting a loophole that says the background goofiness doesn’t really count. Still, in this case it would’ve been nice had they got the right French King Francis; the animation here is clearly based off the famous portrait of Francis I, actually a contemporary of her Great-Uncle Henry VIII’s (devoted HH fans will remember him from S02E12 as the guy who tripped Henry up at the Field of Cloth of Gold).
  • Sadly, Mary’s Francis bore very little–make that ‘no’, actually–resemblance to his virile, handsome, cultured predecessor. The son of Henry II by Catherine de’Medici, Francis II, who ascended the throne at age fifteen after a freak jousting accident took out Dad, was a sickly,stunted kid who didn’t even have time to begin growing facial hair before dying ignominously of an ear infection at age sixteen… and let’s just say there were some seriously conflicting reports re: his potential for virility, too. It’s been suggested that this unsatisfactory early experience of marriage played a role in Mary’s later eagerness to get unwisely involved with unsuitable, but very virile, noblemen as Queen.
  • All of which ultimately led to the creation of Francis Walsingham’s postal service, ie. at least one cute little throwaway sketch that just got a whole lot more topical — though to be fair, Walsingham had a job lot more specific reasons for concern than the NSA. As Bobsy notes, the whole post office ruse was initially set up explicitly to foil Mary’s many attempts at rebellion by correspondence with the disaffected Catholics of the realm… and man, did it work brilliantly. Per Wiki:
  • Walsingham arranged a…  covert means for Mary’s letters to be smuggled in and out of Chartley [the castle in which she was being held] in a beer keg. Mary was misled into thinking these secret letters were secure, while in reality they were deciphered and read by Walsingham’s agents.
  • Meantime, over in Wallachia, or what would later become Romania with some of Hungary thrown in… meet Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad III Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. Not actually a monarch, but a Voivode, a sort of chief prince of the realm appointed by the boyars, or noble families. Although Vlad frankly despised his boyars (*tch* these nobles, always behaving like you owe them your throne or something) and by all accounts had a nastily fatal habit of letting them know it, he actually served three terms as Voivode; the sketch is set during the second, spanning approx. 1456-72.
  • Yep, turns out that even while his Turkish, German and Russian enemies were (understandably) busy spreading propaganda about his methods, in his own country Vlad was being, and thereafter continued to be, hailed as a conquering hero for holding them off — a dauntless David facing down the Goliath-esque Ottoman Empire.
  • If the assertions by Romanian historians found not only in this short but memorable overview of his career (warning! probably not safe to read while eating) but elsewhere are correct, Dracula is to this day revered in his homeland as a law-and-order legend, a man of the people whose knack of dealing, erm, sternly not only with outside threats but with corrupt nobles and criminals in his own realm is considered positively noble. All those stories of his wildly inventive cruelty, his fans insist, were exaggerated by his enemies. And–historical reality being the total buzzkill that it is–it’s probable they’re at least partly correct.
  • Because I know at least some of you are dying of curiosity: Ivan the Terrible, indeed the owner of some fairly impressive eyebrows, and an even more legendary temper. Like Vlad, though, he had a softer side; he was a talented muscian and patron of the arts, has been described as ‘devout’, and just generally might’ve been remembered mainly as a shrewd and effective politician save for that whole thing with the flying into rages and beating people… but still, there’s a small-but-vocal campaign out there to have him canonised as a saint.
 
1 Comment

Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Series Five

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

S05E02

We introduced some new words: husband, gasp, egg, awkward, nag, leg
More than fifty words to leave your lingo
To your liking, thank a Viking

The show settles down to establishing the parameters for the final series, and in the process we learn definitively that, in HH terms, closure’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

In this episode:

Song:  Vikingland (Vikings and Garfunkel) — Nordic invaders Jim and Mat explain how, on arrival in Britain, they gave up savagery for sweet harmony… and really stupid wigs.

Recurring sketches:

Dodgy War Inventions — No.92: The WWII Bat Bomb (Turns out attaching ordnance to something tiny with a tendency to escape into the hangar rafters is a bad idea, go figure.)

CD Set — Now That’s What They Called Greek Battle Music! (Beats to both unleash and strategically restrain your inner world-beater… “Buy now, while enemies last!”)

Historical Don’t Tell the Bride — Spartan (Transforming the bride into not only her husband’s dream but his double, for reasons… not more than demurely hinted at here. Which, given the existence of the Spartan School Musical, is hilarious all by itself.)

Stupid Deaths — Arthur John Priest (Actually escaped the Titanic… also, several other high-profile sinkings…. earning him the first ever one-way ticket back to the ‘long and boring’ Boring Deaths line. (“Listen mate, if you’ve only lost a couple of tootsies, you’re not going to impress anyone here, you follow?” *points to skeletons*)

Thou Hast Been Framed! — Botched Tudor execution special

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Mary Shelley Project (“Your story’s been made into a film already! There’s Frankenstein, Frankenstein, Frankenstein…” “…Young Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein…” “…Count Duckula…” “No, that’s the other guy.” “Oh, right.”)

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

The Happy Highwayman — Raffish rogue Claude Duval invents the inexplicable musical interlude a full two hundred years before Broadway. (“Stand and deliver!… by which I mean, stay seated and give me stuff.”)

Woeful Second World War

The Great Carrot Caper — The Allied cover story to hide their new radar systems translates to an unusual new diet for German pilots — and mealtime dismay for small children ever since.  (“Zhen zhere is only one thing for it: Ve must build a veapon to destroy ze vorld’s carrots!… and just to be safe, any other brightly-coloured root vegetable.”)

Troublesome Twentieth Century

A Titanic Disaster — The clueless crew of what’s about to become history’s  most famous marine tragedy gather for a cruelly revealing ‘safety check’.  (“Right then, I think I deserve a nightcap! Ooh, hey — anybody know where I can get some ice?”)

Vicious Vikings

Righteous Resolutions — Feuding warriors unveil their most fearsomely unexpected tactic ever: sober, reasoned… erm, negotiation? So being totally disappointed that it’s not  berserkers would make me a terrible person right about now? Right, figures.

Terrible Tudors

Ready for the Religious Switchover? — Henry VIII appoints himself Supreme Head of the Church: even more autocratic a monopoly than your cable company. Or at least, with more axes. “Just tick the box that says ‘I accept the supreme authority of the King’, and you’ll be able to carry on as normal. But if you refuse… then you can just talk to one of our special advisors about the other options available.”

Gorgeous Georgians

Twit Light — Brooding Lord Byron is forced to disillusion a breathless groupie: he’s not a vampire, merely an “incredibly pretentious poet”… so, basically, ye olde tyme teen girl’s  equivalent of a Stephanie Meyer vampire.

Field Notes: 

  • So I was re-reading my S4 reviews, just as a way of getting back into the groove, and was struck by the difference in tone between S04E01 and now. The different level of seriousness it demanded. Back then, and throughout that series as a whole, I was tossing around words like “elegant”, “subtle” and “complex” as if they were popcorn. By contrast, it’s only the second episode of S5, and I’m already writing things like “Texas Larry is channeling Mr T alongside Jim as a meditative Spartan in a Katy Perry wig”, then glancing into my lemonade with real concern. I mean, yes, I was the one last review fully applauding the decision to let the cast loose as a coping mechanism, but there are limits.
  • Clearly, there also needs to be a reassessment of my assumptions, last seen in S04E12, re: series progression. I had been under the impression that it was simple enough: even-numbered series were the creative leaps, after which the odd-numbered ones represented the perfectly stuck landings. So that S2 was a flat-out romp through possibilities unleashed, while S3 did in fact consolidate that. It solidified the show’s ambitions, and gave the creative team the ferocious confidence in their own sophistication that then, despite the rapidly encroaching issues with content, propelled S4 to new heights of purely elegant comedy…
  • …and now here we are in S5, and that sophistication train is still moving forward, but somewhere in the process (I would guess, right after they realised they’d be tossing out half their material even before production began) fluctuating confidence levels have turned it into a roller-coaster ride. Occasional positively  breathtaking arabesques of elegant complexity are underlaid by a sort of skittishness, as if all involved had only just looked down from the creative limb they’d crawled out on and realised the safety net–not only in terms of the books’ content, but equally surefire tone and delivery–was finally, irrevocably gone.
  • Meaning that the various attempts to deal with this on-the-fly identity crisis result in Series Five often coming across more as a replay of Series One. With a bigger budget, (much) better music and several more intriguing characters and concepts accumulated to experiment with… but also with the ever-present danger of Larry’s freeform redneck stylings.
  • Which is one of many reasons why it’s hilarious that Jim’s the one in the credits again under “horrors that defy description”… well, there is the Katy Perry wig, but oddly enough that’s not the clip in question. This one has somehow escaped my memory, despite the enormous top hat. I await developments with great interest.
  • Otherwise, the production upgrades have done that keep-up-with-the-budget-increase thing they do most excellently every year, to the point that by now there’s not a whole lot of interest here to note… except perhaps that Rattus has swopped out the homey portrait of the ‘rents for a more upscale Victorian ancestor complete with top hat. Which if you think too deeply about the circs under which that was painted you… have a pretty good idea for a children’s story, that I am now copyrighting, by the way.
  • Evidently the little guy has been seduced further (another teeny raise?) into semi-respectability this year, and has adjusted his demeanour accordingly. Understandable, but if he pulls out a teeny coffee mug at any point, I’m gonna be cranky.
  • Meanwhile, I am already deeply irked at the return of Henry VIII’s frankly stupid college-sweatshirt-and-strawberry-curls combo from S3. The sheer inexplicability of this outfit actually becomes something of an unintentionally hilarious punchline here, as Henry the Ratty-Ikea-Throw-Clad is required to hold up the famous portrait depicting what he really looked like at this point. Which is not nearly as fetching as strawberry-blond Willbond, I am willing to concede, but still. Geez, show, you go to the trouble of giving Cartoon Tudor Lady a whole new accent, but can’t give the King even a bit of bling?
  • (Along the same lines, we will not even get into how much that isn’t Sir Thomas More… and I’m not best pleased with Anne Boleyn, either, frankly. Warning: standard Tudor nerd rant oncoming below.)
  • Oh, and speaking of production peculiarities, there is also the debut of the Hadland in a Bald Cap saga: the single most surreally weird running gag in HH series history… and can I just mention one more time that the competition included Larry’s Texan accent? Thank you.
  • At that, it’s about the only possible thing Sarah H. could’ve done to have topped her run as Mandy the Historical Dental Assistant from last series, so, y’know, my respect for her dedication to the strange takes another significant step toward overcoming my disdain for her shrill little voice. I am fascinated by this particular manifestation because given the structure of the show’s production process, there is just no way that it wasn’t intentional.
  • It’s like it was one of those experiments I described above, where everybody sat down at a meeting and went “You know what would really help to distract from the ongoing slightness of our material? If we did this thing where the crazy-eyes lady constantly ends up bald.” That they were correct in no way distracts from the magnificent randomness of the thought process.
  • In this case, they may have been trying to distract from more than that. The convincingly rather sweet giggly little pre-wedding party vibe is cute and all, and bounces off the warrior stuff decently, but the really entertaining sketch possibilities are hidden in the more complex reasons behind the Spartan marriage customs. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your concept of parenthood) you’ll recall from the ‘love’s banned until you’re thirty’ fudge that even this production team occasionally develops cold feet… although the reference to “all me army buddies” does serve as a nicely subtle hint.
  • Another problem inherent in turning slight little footnotes into full-on what-the-hell hijinks: a tendency toward narrative overkill. Possibly I’ve been  reading too much Etiquette Hell, but frankly, guys, at least as you portray it: no,  the groom kidnapping the bride for some extra pre-wedding-night fun, not all that whacky.
  •  Of course, if there was ever an episode in which it’s possible to forgive the makeup team all the things (except maybe those wasp stings in S1) the one containing this song would be it. Mat and Jim as Hippie Viking Simon & Garfunkel is this season’s God Compare moment: it exists as its own, perfect quantum singularity of silly. Thus it’s frankly a good thing it’s not quite a perfect takeoff, or it would have torn a hole in the very fabric of creativity and we’d all have literally died laughing.
  • As it is, it comes dangerously close, thanks to HH’s most charmingly unpredictable comedy duo–and of course Larry their constant sidekick–doing it again. Technically, it’s a pure triumph; the vocals, esp the harmonies, soar beyond ‘loving tribute’ into the realm of the absolutely uncanny, and the little *trip* at the end is an almost achingly perfect act of mickey-taking. Plus, especially if you happen to have watched the Boast Battle just beforehand, Rickard’s enthusiastic petal-strewing is besides everything else the single funniest self-parody you will ever see.
  • All involved are, unsurprisingly, having just a tad too much fun to maintain S&G’s trademark  solemn, otherworldly intensity–albeit this may be unavoidably tied into sheer-wig-silliness levels, as Jim does the better job of it. Similarly, the focus on Richie Webb’s weaving in the musical cues is understandable given the new heights of brilliance achieved, but means the whole loses track of the contrast between the ethereally lovely melodies and sharp, often bleakly sarcastic lyrics that was the real heart of their style. A missed opportunity, really, given the subject matter…
  • …but by no means a fatal one. In fact, after several viewings’ practice at keeping a straight face, it’s possible to appreciate both song and preceding skit for the novelty interest alone. (Fun mirth-enhancing side project: imagine that’s the same thoroughly domesticated Wilbondian warrior from the Viking Wife Swap. For extra credit, go on to picture the whole thing as a Hanna-Barbera-esque anachronistic sitcom.) I’ve always enjoyed the show’s brief deviations into not-axe-intensive Viking culture… although, erm, about that whole thing with the feuding and the berserkers and whatnot in S2…? Wait, that actually ended with reasoned negotiation too, didn’t it. Shoot.
  • On the further subject of novelty and Willbond: Ben gets most of the credit for the latest oddball highwayman sketch, and rightly so, but for me there’s even more fun to be had in Simon the impatient holdup victim: he gets a rare (come to think of it, possibly unique) moment as the voice of reason, and they still manage to make it completely surreal.
  • Ben does make a ridiculously charming job of the kind of insouciance more usually reserved for Mat; it’s worth remembering he can do a killer French accent too… not to mention that sweetly low-key mode, a la George I. I’ll take any of that I can get, even an undertone. As usual, whenever he and Farnaby merge their comedic confidence–not forgetting Martha as their increasingly adept foil–the show gets effects that can legitimately be called enchanting.
  • No, I have absolutely no idea how everyone missed the carrot/radar business up to now either, but it”s easily one of the best obscure oddball nuggets the show ever turned up. The loopiness writes itself from there; all the performers have to do is take it even remotely seriously and they’re home free. Which… well, yeah, again, that’s the advantage of giving them free rein after all, they know how to maximise loopiness if nothing else. Thus the viewer need merely sit back and revel in both Ben and Larry’s particular uber-Teutonic stylings… and Mat’s epic melodramatic idiocy! Sheer comic luxury.
  • Interesting side effect of the new temporal format: the chance to finally dig into the between-wars stuff that’s technically always been within the show’s timeline but has fallen into a sort of semantic black hole before now. We really should’ve seen the Titanic in some context long since… albeit from a creative standpoint this particular context is so clunkily obvious that my first reaction on watching it was to snerk that maybe the guy who wrote the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ bit last series needs his Prozac dosage upped. As comes in handy on many media occasions, I blame James Cameron.
  • At any rate, my comeuppance came immediately upon watching–and I can tell the universe was homing in on me personally, because it’s Lawry who makes the surprisingly sane, decent, even touching straight man of the piece. Overall this is about as tactful and tasteful a take on comparatively recent tragedy as this show is capable of, even given Simon’s bizarrely no-holds-barred cross between a ship’s captain and a drunk suburban mall Santa Claus. It’s the latter who ends up selling the most excellent bit of slyly noir fun–the ‘ice for the nightcap’ business–thrown in at the end (a callback to real-life incidents that night).
  • I do keep forgetting that it’s ultimately about the kiddies, for whom obvious and laboured exposition in this case is most likely providing a real educational service. And meanwhile, any really bored adults can be staring at the snappy naval uniforms… not to mention Ben experimenting with a squeaky Cockney accent. They flipped the casting between him and Lewin deliberately just to see how Willbond would react, didn’t they?
  • Introducing one other intriguing minor side effect of the new 20th-century focus: a fascination with American achievements… and, inevitably, accents. Strap in, kids, it’s about to become a bumpy ride. Still, it’s good to have the Dodgy War Inventions back. Awwww, cute little bat bomb is…
  • <BOOM!>
  • …oh, damn you, producers. And your Russian anti-tank dogs, too.
  • Speaking of random animal-based factoids, I am entirely too entertained by the quiz preceding the Twilight parody sketch about Lord Byron’s exotic pets… yes, show, but did he have a team of zebras and dine with chimps, hmmm?
  • Otherwise, well, this particular parody certainly didn’t go the way I began  envisioning immediately it was announced early in the off-season. Let us just say my version involved considerably more Mat, a curling iron and red silk… also, sparkles. I can deal with the rest as a good joke on my own expectations, but I really do miss the sparkles.
  • Overall I am torn generally between being ready to applaud the show for managing to work the parody so cleverly and–in conjunction with the Avengers thing last episode–being uneasy about this budding willingness to pile on such obvious targets. Mind you, when I am watching it, the former mood always wins handily. Besides, they continue to have the wit to cast Sarah in the emo female parts, and juxtapose same with the bald-cap-wearing. So I guess we can call success, here.
  • *ahem* So anyway, it’s past time to check back in with Death and his ongoing bourgeois dream of purgatory. Though unsure as to why they’d spring it now instead of the finale, I thoroughly approve of the well-handled meta-plot twist. Not least because it proves that our Reaper did strike off to establish his own self-indulgent corner of the afterlife, exactly as suggested in S1. That the SD sketches have this level of detailed continuity makes me quite unreasonably happy.
  • Oh, speaking of which–except the happiness part–the mummy’s gone. Forced out unjustly after the afterlife equivalent of Perez Hilton broke the story of the affair with the skeleton, I will be assuming. Anyway, clever reverse-juxtaposition of the unusually upbeat SD with the earlier unusually bleak sketch — complete with nice (awesome, if intentional) creepy frisson in the form of Captain Smith having apparently seamlessly morphed into Death.
  • And awww, cute plucky working-class pajama-wearing Jim, squeeee! First item in my Howick plushie’s new optional wardrobe. Could’ve done without the overt ‘first time for everything’ bit, tho.
  • Hey, the Movie Pitch is back!… yaaaaayyyy. Right, for those of you just tuning in, yes I’m both an unabashed fan of these bits and well aware that that places me in the severe minority among the fandom. Still, I don’t see why both camps can’t appreciate how the LoG are making an unexpectedly nice smooth transition from brittle novelty to comfortably ongoing world-building. It’s clear they’re genuinely invested in making something three-dimensionally clever out of the kiddie series cameo, and I think that’s really damn cool of them. I think Martha’s affected aristocratic lisp is slightly less cool, but the sheer sympathy for her having to wear that costume more or less balances it out.
  • Anyhoo, you might as well settle in and enjoy, kiddies, because this and (spoiler alert) Historical Apprentice are about all that’s left of the richly detailed S3/4 reality-TV parody vibe. By contrast, you know how the tabloid parodies have always served as repositories for those little scraps of anecdote that won’t stretch as far as a full-length sketch? And how most of the time, that’s for a good reason? Welp, meet ‘Thou Hast Been Framed’, besides (spoiler alert) a boatload more tabloid parodies to come, because of course there’s a lot more of those anecdotal shreds floating around this series. Sigh.
  • Which doesn’t stop me from being rather unnecessarily pleased with myself over the bit with Margaret Pole’s execution, that I first mentioned as an intriguing story back in S02E11. Go me. Of course, they went for the “less well-documented” half of the anecdote, and thus transformed the whole thing with the “dignified and completely innocent elder stateswoman dies in a heartrendingly grotesque fashion on the whim of an increasingly paranoid despot” into an awful mini-mess of cheezy comedic desperation. Really, it…
  • *thinks back to Mat making saucer eyes under that Garfunkel wig while Larry prances in the background*…
  • …Ahhh, never mind, show, s’ok. I forgive you.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes, Spartan marriage customs, routinely popping up on lists of ‘Weirdest Wedding Rituals’ since pretty much ever. The thing is, the sketch here gets it right while somehow rearranging the details so as to avoid all the actual memorably awkward stuff. Which I can actually understand, because, according to contemporary historian Plutarch, the kidnapping bit in reality happened first, and then:
  • The so-called ‘bridesmaid’ took charge of the captured girl. She first shaved her head to the scalp, then dressed her in a man’s cloak and sandals, and laid her down alone on a mattress in the dark. The bridegroom – who was not drunk and thus not impotent, but was sober as always – first had dinner in the messes, then would slip in, undo her belt, lift her and carry her to the bed.
  • …OK, some backstory is in order. Spartans weren’t any more convinced of the inherent value of the female than any other Greek society; but–as addressed in that S1 Wife Swap–as long as the ladies held the keys to population growth, which in turn was the key to Spartan security, the state was sure as hell going to make sure they were capable of birthing and raising real warriors.
  • Thus, unlike any others in Greece, Spartan girls were educated, participated in sport and just generally hardened from early childhood right alongside the boys. There’s evidence that young women even trained in the nude, right alongside those same young men. (If you’ve ever wondered what would really shock an ancient Greek historian, well, there’s your answer.) Given all of which, marriage didn’t happen until they were eighteen or so–in contrast to the Athenian custom of equating marriage availability to a girl’s first period.
  • Meantime, the men had gone off to military training, as, erm, detailed in the S2 song. That is, they spent years in close companionship with other young males, whom they were taught to rely on absolutely as brothers-in-arms… but there was still that pesky question of ensuring State security, and that was the one thing his brothers just couldn’t help with.
  • So marriage was mandatory for all Spartan males at age thirty (although in practice the age limit was frequently handwaved, so long as nobody caught the underage groom slipping out of the barracks at night to visit his bride). And it’s not hugely surprising that, when convincing said adult male to voluntarily get it on with an (eeew!) girl, it was thought prudent to turn her into basically a facsimile of one of his ‘army buddies’, bung her into a dark room, and hope for the best. Interestingly, some scholars point out that this strictly regulatory attitude to procreation also acted as a curb on any heterosexual hormonal hooplah induced by the aforementioned co-ed nudity. Spartans: no matter how you slice it, still and always utterly unique.
  • Right-ho, past time for your scheduled Reasons Why the Show’s Handling of the Tudors Drives Me Nuts Rant, number… oh, gosh, must be a whole lot, because getting even the little details of Tudor history wrong is by now the historical-scholarship equivalent of misidentifying the occupant of Grant’s Tomb, and yet the show just keeps on doing it. Even when, once again, reality is much the more interesting. For starters, this is what Thomas More actually looked like at the time; an older, learned man, a statesman and one of Henry VIII’s best friends. Sort of what you’d expect to happen when an academic gets forced into public life. Even a bit naiively fanatical on the whole Catholic issue, maybe–but frail little blond wuss, he was emphatically not.
  • Second… even setting aside the fact that slight, naturally brunette Alice L. would’ve been much the better choice to embody her, the whole damn switchover from the Pope to Henry had Anne Boleyn’s enthusiastic approval, given that it was all about finally legalising the King’s divorce and making her Queen. In fact, her entire relationship with Henry was about her power over him; she knew he was a middle-aged, balding, tubby tyrant when she got into this mess, and she frankly did not care, because he was the King, and also did I mention he was working very very hard to make her Queen? It helps.
  • Speaking of revealing portraiture: Here’s Victorian artist William Powell Frith’s take on the highwayman sketch, or at least the anecdote that inspired it. You’ll notice quite a lot more cowering away from pistols and whatnot, but even so, a weirdly charming scene. Just generally, Claude Duvall (technically Du Vall, but really now) is a much more appealing candidate for inappropriate romanticisation than either Dick Turpin or James Hind. Certainly his legendary way with the ladies goes a long way towards explaining his popularity with Charles II in particular. And if Duvall’s epitaph is any indication at all, he kept it up to the very end:  Here lies Du Vall: Reader, if male thou art, Look to thy purse: if female to thy heart.
  • OK, I do know the misguided sensationalisation is part of the… fun… of the tabloid parodies. As a public service, though, I’d just like to point out that Mary QofS wasn’t actually a twelve-year-old waif at her execution — she was 45 (hence the wig, get it?), a middle-aged, corpulent figure wracked with rheumatism thanks to all those years shut up in Northern castles. Oh, and she went to the block wearing a bright red dress, as a final sign of Catholic defiance, and with her favourite little lapdog tucked somewhere among her voluminous skirts, because… damn it got dusty in here all of a sudden.
  • The Titanic sketch does as noted do a very nice job of getting the facts straight–as well it might, given that the disaster is rivalled only by the Tudors in exhaustive scholarly analysis. Yes, contrary to rather over-excited modern revisionists the ship was in fact touted as ‘unsinkable’ pre-maiden voyage, prompting impressive displays of passenger stiff-upper-lipped-ness that totally included guys wandering around with cocktails post-collision coolly snarking that they needed some ice, anyway.
  • All this confidence was fueled in part by the ship’s unique construction, featuring a specially-partitioned lower hull (the area our old pal Arthur Priest would’ve been working in) that was designed to prevent further flooding in the event one section of the hull was breached, rather like modern fire doors. Unfortunately, nobody pictured an impact that would rip open several sections all at once…
  • One other thing: Overconfident Captain Smith may have been, magnificently bearded he certainly was… but, by God, he went down with his ship just as the finest traditions of his day prescribed. (So, incidentally, did Lawry’s character, thus vaulting my usual sympathy for his pathetic types to heights I don’t think either of us ever considered possible.)
 
2 Comments

Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Series Five

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

S04E12

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

Words We Get From the — Greeks: Scholarly

Historical Mastermind — Ancient Greek scholar

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

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

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

Rotten Romans

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

Terrible Tudors

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

Smashing Saxons

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

Groovy Greeks

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S04E06

They beat [Becket] to death on the altar of Canterbury Cathedral! The holiest place in the whole of England!
I said I’m sorry…
Are we gonna do this now, Reg?
Yes, but I —
NO. Shush.

That moment at the midpoint of every HH series, in which, having conquered the heights of audacity, the show takes the opportunity to thoroughly enjoy the view…

In this episode:

Song: Victoria & Albert: A Love Ballad — Martha and Jim as the nineteenth-century’s ultimate celebrity couple.

Recurring sketches:

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Leif Ericsson Project (“Are you saying you discovered America before Christopher Columbus?” “Is this a fantasy film?” “Ooh! Are you Conan the Barbarian?!”)

HHTV News: Royalty Today — Live from Henry II’s pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, 1174 (“Is this some sort of initiative to make the Royal Family seem more down-to-earth? If so, I think you may have taken it a bit too far…!” “It’s penance. For I have done a terrible thing — well, if you include the terrible thing I did on the road near Gillingham, two terrible things…”)

Court of Historical Law — Tsar(evich) Peter III -vs- the rat who nibbled his toy soldiers (“… assuming you are a rat, and zat is not an elaborate disguise!” “Er… sorry, what would disguise itself as a rat?” “A mouse! With delusions of grandeur!” “…Good point.”)

Stupid Deaths — Hannah Twynnoy, Georgian barmaid (Thought it would be hilarious to repeatedly poke a menagerie tiger with a stick, thus becoming the first person in Britain to be killed by one. “Ooh, hey — Stupid Deaths are grrrrrr-eat! You know, like the tiger does in the advert?… *to mummy* Whaddaya mean, that joke’s a bit dated? Look who’s talking!”)

One-offs:

Potty Pioneers

Columbus (sic) Finds India (sic) — “Can’t you just admit for once that you’re wrong!?” “NEVER! I am Captain Christopher Columbus, the finest sailor and navigator on the planet, and if I go looking for India, India is what I find! Good day! “ “…Door’s over there.” “I know that. It’s my cabin.”

Measly Middle Ages

Cash My Sin — “Call 0-800-I’VE-BEEN-NAUGHTY now! It’s easy! It’s great value! And what’s more it means you won’t burn in the fires of hell for all eternity! It’s got to be worth it!”

Rotten Romans

Salted Payments — A Roman legionary is dismayed to discover that he’s on the wrong end of the controversy surrounding the origins of the word ‘salary’… also, that he’s in a live-action Asterix comic. (“Join the Roman army, they said… It’s a great career, they said… Get paid in salt, they forgot to mention!…”)

Just Deserter — “Ah, y’know what, I’d like nothing better than to spend the next ten years fighting in some God-forsaken corner of the Roman Empire — but unfortunately, look: no thumbs!” “I see… Well, you’re not going to believe this, but this is the third time this has happened today…”

God Compare — Gaulish warriors have difficulty deciding which of their pantheon to sacrifice a prisoner to, so… uh… something. Really, folks, if you haven’t already, you need to see this one for yourselves.

Savage Stone Age

The Early Show: Domesticating a Wolf — “What exactly is the point…?” “Well… they’ll be useful in hunting, they can warn you of danger… Oh, and if you throw a stick, they’ll fetch it and bring it back to you!” “But if you wanted a stick, why would you throw it away in the first place?” “…I don’t know.”)

The Not-So-Great Mammoth Hunt (animated) — So there’s these two cavemen, and they’re congratulating each other on the new hunting technique of driving a mammoth off a cliff, while standing right under a cliff… yeah.

Vile Victorians

Victoria and the Great Exhibition — “The problem with building our Crystal Palace in a park is that the local sparrows have taken to sheltering in the roof, which has caused a few issues, such as noise and –” *SPLAT* “EEEK!” “…I probably don’t have to finish that sentence.”

Field Notes:

  • So here we are at the half-way point already, and boy howdy it’s been quite a series thus far. Demographic shifts and legendary guest stars and ever-more-elaborate reality-TV parodies and… whatever that Snakes on a Plane thing was. Even the slow moments have been filled with impressive arabesques of monologue, also Spartans.
  • But for all that it’s been just a trifle difficult to locate…I dunno, the essential HH-ness. I miss the slight but singularly quirky, audaciously charming house comedy style I myself fell in love with, away back in Series Two (right around S02E10, to be exact). Back when they were still basically a little kiddy comedy taking big chances, y’know?
  • Until I get to this episode, and I realise all that is very much still there. For all the show-offy sophistication, at heart these are the same people who decided at the time that pinching matches and pistol-packing Reverends were the way forward to maturity… and are now further demonstrating their creative confidence by setting Jim and Martha (and their ridiculously potent couple-chemistry) up with a soft-focus love duet. Because catering to your core female demographic is nice, but frankly messing with their minds is fun.
  • Hence, the Victoria & Albert song, which if you listen closely is actually intended as a satire of your standard sugary-sweet pop duet. This alone would’ve been a fine rebuttal to The Young Victoria et al., had they not gotten a wee bit over-confident and attempted to also cram in celebrity cynicism *and* a parody of BBC costume dramas *and* oh yeah, the historical detail, all at the same time.
  • It’s all fairly clever, in the usual style (I specially enjoy Victoria’s pointed little ‘Called us Alboria, but I preferred Vicbert!”) but it never really gels, so eventually you just give up and go with the pretty soft-focus twirliness…
  • ….which turns out to be EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANTED YOU TO DO MUAH-HA-HAHHH WHO’S SOBBING HELPLESSLY NOW, CYNICAL CRITIC PERSON?… No, I’m not really, but damned if they didn`t expertly manipulate me right out to the edge. Despite, mind, my having just been sniggering happily at the Crystal Palace sketch… only breaking off to wonder at the sheer, erm, volume of the gag; to paraphrase Bill Bryson, that must’ve been one sick sparrow.
  • Even after all that (and Lawry), Martha still absolutely earns her poignant ending; everything that the Queen was mourning for all those years is all there in her face at the fadeout, even under all those prosthetics. Remarkable. *snif snif*
  • *ahem* Right! Resuming the zippy snarkitude now. In case you needed any further proof that the producers know their fandom entirely too well, I give you the Leif Ericsson sketch: three solid minutes of Larry Rickard standing there in full Tumblr fetish gear… and still basing his Scandinavian accent off the PA system at Ikea, but, y’know, details. Clearly the producers knew they’d face complaints re: the LoG bits, and scheduled accordingly. “Irrelevant? Annoying? Just WAIT UNTIL WE UNLEASH NORDIC LARRY MUAH-HA-HAHHH.”
  • Quite seriously, it cannot be a co-incidence that for once the LoG`s banter is noticeably downplayed in favour of petitioner closeups. I think I was probably the only fan — female or otherwise — for whom the ensemble comedy was still the main event. Just FYI, it was still pretty decent, and that`s even besides the gloriously broken American-ese. The reunion portion of this experiment, at least, is an unqualified success.
  • “But,” you have been impatiently waiting to protest, “where is Baynton in all this discussion of deliberate demographic-mind-messing? He must be included, but after the guyliner became an international sensation, what could they possibly have left for him to truly impress us with?”
  • Glad you asked. For starters, that would be our Mathew in the ‘Historical Law’ bit wearing a blond wig and speaking in a Russian accent. Shortly after which, he implied in an interview that he didn’t actually consider Peter III the ‘silliest and biggest characterization’ he’s ever done. Meaning that between this claim and the potential return of God Compare Guy I spent the rest of the series on full Threat Alert mode.
  • Truly though, if there’s a must-see performance in S4, this is definitely it. It had been far too long since Mat had been allowed to thus fully unleash his inner aristocratic whackazoid (scientific term), and the sketch is designed brilliantly around that opportunity. Including but by no means limited to Ben, who was quite literally born to play the Tsarevich’s foil… also, as it turns out, his accent coach.
  • Yep, I almost hate to spoil the magical mystery that is ‘How the hell did Mat learn to not sound like the low-rent gigolo stereotype in a bad Agatha Christie adaptation?’, but turns out Willbond once studied in Russia. So that when Mat hauls out the teeny little gallows, I’m assuming our Benjamin’s stunned expression is actually the result of the weirdest life-goal-reassessment angst ever.
  • Oh, and worth noting as well that Rattus is finally moved once again to protest the treatment of his brethren, and is still fully adorable in the process. Albeit somewhere the ghost of that skewered rat from S3 HMasterchef is probably now laughing hollowly and checking his haunting calendar for the first free Saturday.
  • Moving on from the ridiculous to the sublime, we find Cash My Sin, which is essentially the direct descendant of the ‘Roman Gods Direct’ bit from S1, only given all the creative and budgetary advantages Great-Grandpa Sketch never had. Mat blithely rechannels the camp into a sort of hyper-sincerity; just authentic enough to be absurd, and just absurd enough to neatly avoid stepping on his audience’s spiritual toes.
  • The only thing off… ish… is, once again, Ben’s place in all this. I’m willing to admit that he’s showing up a lot more than my memory initially suggested, but — I dunno, it’s as though they’ve swopped roles within the troupe. So that Ben’s now the spot performer, while Simon’s picked up the Impressive Leading Man ball… and neither quite seems like it was their idea.
  • As for instance, Simon as the theoretically-suave HHTV News reporter, basically reconfirming — in combination with the more characteristically wonderful military conscription bit — that he’s much better left alone to create a wholly unique character, rather than a specific parody like this. (The making Jim look like a doll of himself by contrast, not really optimal either.) I was squirming uneasily, right up until I realised that a) hey, at least Simon’s hair is making the most of the chance and b) he wouldn’t actually be replacing Mike P. but Alice’s newsbimbo, right? Never mind, forget I said anything, carry on.
  • So they did, and it is frankly wonderful. Mat, Ben and Larry, each playing their own precious version of the guy who got into knighthood mostly because of the cool uniform — how perfect a microcosm of the HH Experience is that? Specially Mat ‘eating’ the mic. Well-played, show, well played indeed… at least, right up to the contrived ‘rid me of this troublesome reporter!’ bit, which is where I started to suspect that Henry really knows exactly what he’s doing and just keeps the idiot knights around for plausible deniability.
  • Meantime, despite the Columbus sketch having rather obviously been written with Mat in mind — and the f/x team also having gone above and beyond — the real star, nay quite possibly hero, of that sketch is Jim. While Mat’s off discovering new and innovative heights of strung, Howick is by contrast clamping both hands firmly onto his big chance to be the voice of reason, not only off the coast of not-India but as Henry II and the Roman military recruiter, and stubbornly refusing ever to let it go…
  • …and still managing to get himself stomped all over, because c’mon, it’s Jim (and Mat, and Simon). Regardless, though, that exquisitely exasperated disbelief stuff, we can haz moar pls? Absolutely priceless.
  • What? No, of course I haven’t forgotten the God Compare bit. It’s only… I only…Yes, of course I giggled helplessly like everyone else when it first aired, but… Look, I even went back to the original parody subject to confirm, and it didn’t help either. The universe in which this concept can — or should — be coherently assessed is clearly at least a few down from the one I inhabit. So I mostly just spend subsequent viewings marvelling that they even got it filmed in the first place. Full-on obsessive desperation on Mat & Ben’s part, is my guess.
  • Come to think of it, I would not be surprised if the universe in question was Death’s, and on account of sheer surreal awesomeness overload is starting to leak. You can tell about the awesomeness thing because his sidekicks now have their own little spinoff psychodramas, complete with skeleton-on-mummy hand-holding. (Which, I like to imagine, in this universe represents a shockingly controversial inter-monster romance.) It was inevitable, really.
  • Meantime Martha gives an unexpectedly game, lively performance as the barmaid — to the point where you’re really disappointed (but still impressed) when she turns out to be easily the most stupid human being ever featured on the show. Sorry, the italics just pop out no matter how rationally I try to discuss this woman. Ginger really suits Martha, though, gotta give her that.
  • And on the further subject of unexpected yet hilariously effective characterizations… yeah, it’s kind of a niche topic, everywhere but where this troupe is concerned… Fine, Larry, you win. Or rather, Asterix for the win, always and forever. They just basically dropped a stack of the comics in front of you and Willbond and told you to have at it, didn’t they? And now I have to spend the rest of my life wondering wistfully what an entire live-action Asterix saga featuring the troupe would look like, don’t I? …yeah, you-all are just really lucky Ben looks that distractingly fetching in big-dumb-lug mode.
  • I’d been wondering where Larry’d got to during the God Compare bit, come to that… then realised he’d probably been a bit busy, what with the being chased by slavering prehistoric wolves and all. (Although as filmed it’s pretty obvious that those are actually trained dogs, ‘attacking’ on a command hidden by the jump cut.)
  • At any rate, I award him the Willbond Memorial Star of Merit for going above and beyond in a most excellent satirical cause, and Simon a cupcake for turning out to be a very quick study, where this suave host parody stuff is concerned. Everyone else, your gold stars are in the mail — plus extra sprinkles for whomever came up with the concept, because somehow it just makes me deeply, deeply happy.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes,the show is not exaggerating either the cashing in one’s sins, or the utter cynicism of the process. Although it might just be pointed out that it wasn’t really supposed to be that way. In Catholic theology, the idea of paying to escape punishment for sin, usually meaning shorten your time in purgatory — either for yourself, or, not mentioned here, any newly-deceased you might care about enough — is formally called an ‘indulgence’, and technically exists to this day.
  • Of course, technically it is, and was, supposed to take the form of so many dutiful recitations of a particular prayer, or maybe a nice sincere pilgrimage to the Vatican, or something noticeably non-profit like that. At the very least, the medieval Church formally insisted, any monies were to be accepted on the understanding that they only represented a short period of reprieve, and were furthermore to be used strictly for good — building cathedrals, organizing Crusades, like that.
  • Those paying attention over the last few episodes will not be surprised to learn that many lesser medieval spiritual authorities (or, eventually, anybody with writing skills and a suitably devout expression) got really bored with all this altruism real quick and cut straight to the chase. Hence literal little Get Into Heaven Free slips, duly authenticated by the Pope — proof? How dare you question a man of God! — good for centuries’ worth of reprieve, yet still available for just a trifling donation…
  • …the trick being, of course, that there was a built-in repeat market. All a monk looking to replenish the monastery’s cellars had to do was go forth and paint lurid pictures of poor departed loved ones, suffering miserably as they awaited their fate. Who wouldn’t willingly fork over to speed Mom on her way to celestial bliss? A monster who’d better break the piggy bank himself just in case, that’s who.
  • Eventually things got so bad that they inspired Martin Luther’s righteous — and famously public — indignation as nailed to that church door, and with the advent of the Protestant Reformation the Church realised it had better regain the moral high ground. In 1562, the Council of Trent finally clamped down for real.
  • There would be no such reprieve for Karl Peter Ulrich, son of a minor duke and eventually Peter III, Tsar of All the Russias. Yep, as it turns out he was actually German — merely a nephew of the formidable Russian Empress Elizabeth — and, whoopsie, had only been educated up to what everyone thought would be a purely ceremonial existence as King of Sweden. Hence the fascination with the trappings of military pomp and circs, with none whatsoever of the practical experience. He was overall probably what we would call developmentally-delayed, although whether this is a matter of nature-or-nurture is hotly debated.
  • At any rate, when he finally made the throne, his subjects got a serious taste of the obsessiveness displayed here. He not only passed a whopping 220 new statutes in the first few weeks — mostly about trifling stuff that made Oliver Cromwell look like, well, Charles II — but started in enthusiastically hero-worshipping the hated Prussians: Historians mark Peter III’s actions as disordered and unreasonable, and had no support in wider Russian society… His personality and policies were so bizarre that no one could guess what his next move would be. 
  • It wasn’t long before the only military supporters Peter had were three inches high. The inevitable coup attempts had the full support of Peter’s wife (and second cousin), Sophia Augusta Frederica, Princesse de Anhalt-Zerbst… better known by her Russian name, Catherine II, ie. the Great. As you can imagine she was not the type to put up with a mate who preferred his toys to her, let alone at bedtime. By skilfully positioning herself as a dignified (and very lovely) martyr to the disaffected generals, she easily earned their sympathy — and then loyalty. Exeunt Peter, exiled and probably assassinated shortly thereafter.
 
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Posted by on July 14, 2013 in Series Four

 

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