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S02E11

So he asks the Pope for a divorce, and the Pope says ‘no way, Jose!’… which is weird, because his name is Henry.

The inevitable late-series lull is beguiled along pleasantly enough by the application of funky monks, a narcoleptic General and mondo Rickard… also, the understanding that it’s only going to be one episode long.

In this episode:

Song: The Monks’ Song — Ben, Jim & Mat as more-or-less-men of God, and Terry Deary as their Bishop

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast — Egyptian peasant & pyramid builder (hope you have good strong teeth! Oh, plus a real affection for dates and baboons…)

Pyramid Weekly — “Free Gift: a large stone weighing two-and-a-half-tonnes! Buy Pyramid Weekly every week, and in just 442,000 years, you’ll have enough stones to build your own pyramid!… 70,000 labourers not included.”

Dodgy War Inventions — No.21: Union Ironclad Battles Confederate Ironclad… prior to the invention of armour-piercing artillery… for a long, long time.

Stupid Deaths — Draco, statesman of Athens (suffocated by the tributes of an adoring crowd — then faces an adoring Death. “Not the Draco! Ooh, can I have an autograph?… Two kissies! Yay!”)

Bob Hale — The Catholic Report

HHTV News — Anne Boleyn’s execution: Henry VIII’s reaction

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Caligula vs. Poseidon, pt 2: In which the legendary (also, newly blond and fey) Emperor of Loopy decides that if you want crazy done right, you just have to do it yourself… if mostly on account of you forgot to tell your troops about it.

Be the Best… or They’ll Kill You — In an inset to the above, a legionary (foot soldier) explains how the Roman forces were trained to unquestioning obedience, dedication, loyalty and of course fear of being thrown off cliffs.

Measly Middle Ages

The Plague Report — Lots of it. All over Europe. Next! (Seriously, what’s with the persistence of this format? Are weather reports some sort of revered feature of the UK television… wait, I think I may have just answered my own question.)

The Plague Comes North — Proudly-plaid-wearing raiders from plague-free Scotland head out to ransack the plague-weakened English. There’s just one eensy little problem… and for once it’s not the accents.

My Big Fat (Medieval Scottish) Wedding — And if this show has taught us anything, it’s that if your prospective father-in-law has a yellow ‘fro and a mad gleam in his eye, the wedding planning’s gonna be an uphill slog. (“Aye, that’s how we like to do things, in medieval Scotland!”)

Awesome USA

Stonewall Jackson — Now, this is how you pull off crazy and militarily competent at the same time!… possibly could do without the narcolepsy though. (“Yes, I suppose he does have his moments… Sir, he is dribbling on my tunic…?”)

Groovy Greeks

Spartan Parent/Teacher Night — The best bit is, you get to picture Larry here as father to jheri-curled Larry from the song… OK, not much, but at least it’s something. (“Alright… it is a Spartan school, so don’t, erm, cry…”)

Field Notes:

  • Yep, as discussed last time (see S01E10) into every HH series some less-than-inspiring material must eventually fall. Albeit the gentle inconsequence and/or lack of confidence on display this time isn’t anywhere close to the flat-out gasping and flopping characteristic of S1’s last moments, thanks largely to the producers having taken the decision to make S2E13 a clip show, in lieu of stringing out the originality any further than strictly necessary.
  • (The ‘best’ of the subsequently missing material is available on the DVD. Given that it involves yet another Scary Story [later reused for the Halloween special], a long meandering monologue on Roman military retirement and a recurring medieval medical bit that manages to completely ignore the perfectly serviceable existence of both Stupid Deaths and Historical Hospital, I’d say we dodged a rather impressive bullet here, frankly.)
  • As another side benefit to these mostly not being specific character pieces, we have lotsa Larry. We got your Larry the medieval warrior, Larry the shirtless Egyptian, Larry the long-haired Spartan, and of course Larry the, um, Bob Hale. My personal favourite is the wild-n-crazy Scotsman, although Bobsy shows off a nice tactfulness — if also a few minor inaccuracies (see below) — under all the bluster, and besides which the Religion-O-Meter is freakin’ hilarious.
  • Still, only the plague sketch gives us pants-under-the-kilt gags. Besides which, more entertainingly quasi-Scots bellowing (also featured prominently in the wedding sketch). Not to mention bonus comedy routines from the host rodent, who’s really been warming up to the possibilities of this emcee gig lately. “Me husband went to England, and all he brought me back was this lousy plague!” — yeah, what can I say? I’m a sucker for the excited little paws.
  • I’m also something of a sucker for the song, since clearly, I had severely underestimated the effect of a driving beat on the average cricket-loving Oxfordian. ‘Course, it’s not surprising that bright young males would react well on evidently being directed to ‘Make like your last great college party, only when you hit the floor start praying instead of puking’… but dang. Grandmaster Funk Willbond here gets so carried away he doesn’t even start watching his feet until he’s boogied half-way down.
  • So yeah, thank you very much dim lighting and oblique camera angles, but it’s impossible not to be charmed anyway by one of the more genuinely witty songs the show has ever produced. Like the Shouty Man bit last episode, this is a very adult historical concept that somebody noticed could be neatly justified under kiddy slapstick, and it’s a further demonstration of just how adept they’re getting at layering the satire to suit themselves.
  • Not to mention bringing out the best in one T. Deary, who would thus by now be enshrined in the pop-cult pantheon as a Really Cool Old Guy if he’d just please shut up himself already. It’s an honest shame that comments elsewhere have proven his HH stint has at this point much more to do with getting attention for himself than any sincere desire to please (or for that matter enjoy) his young readership.
  • For a look at what happens when the layering misfires…OK look, I ordinarily try hard to pretend they never even made a followup to one of the most neatly and completely brilliant sketches of Series One. However, they did, and I have contracted to be fair and just. *ahem* Here’s Mat as Caligula, trying to pull off a cross between Simon’s familiar mannerisms and Malcolm McDowell’s sheer hamminess, because… who the hell knows, really.
  • There’s no reason why Lawry couldn’t have twitched and squeaked here at least as effectively as he did for George III; more so, because, y’know, homicidal mania. I suppose Mat’s more visually in line with the McDowell film, but he doesn’t have anywhere near the weight of experience needed to anchor that level of camp — which yes, might be a good thing in a kid’s show, but for adults, the resulting aimless flouncing is annoying enough to make Lawry come across as likeably sane and grounded.
  • All the more so, because this also happens to be the ep the local Master of Ham himself reveals not only an affinity for kilts but that they have fluffy pink pens in the afterlife. (Wonder if this was the point at which the props master started looking thoughtfully at the blonde wigs?) Death the dictator fanboi — “Ah, cruel but popular. Me, too.” — is just completely awesomely fabulous, one of those things that really drive home the value performer individuality brings to the HH concept. It also incorporates a nifty callback to last series’ ‘Historical Law’ sketch.
  • Likewise Larry, clearly aware that all bets are off, happily grabs for whatever bits of leftover scenery he can. Then both he and Mat, wearing not much more than their perfect deadpans, team up as Egyptian peasants for a fine display of their own distinctively surreal chemistry. A bit distractingly random in this particular case — and the Rickardian physique turns out to rather obviously belong to a writer, if the drift is clear — but again, always hysterical. And all is right with the HH universe once again.
  • Which brings us round to the Stonewall Jackson sketch: literally when I woke to the realisation that this show had a lot more on the ball than your average kiddy edutainment, both in terms of comedy and facial hair. Once I stopped snickering madly, that is — which took up most of the sketch — but I went rushing off to Google “whether it was just me…?” immediately after the ‘arm longer than the other’ bit, I do recall that.
  • It’s kind of weird to realise I had absolutely no idea, back then; not even any names Just that the little plump dude was having an infectiously great time holding the Crazy Ball (for once, I can now add); so that even the way his accent kept fading in-and-out was funny. The big handsome one had a much better command of nineteenth-century American cadence… but I must now note with some alarm that it hasn’t changed much since moving south.
  • Overall, though, this is what the Nelson sketch should’ve been, given that General Jackson gets to effectively demonstrate his competence while being rather more gently ribbed. Even so, it will never earn the show many fans in the good ol’Awesome USA, where messing with heroes — particularly ones that routinely star in expensive hobby re-enactments — is looked upon as… well, with great confusion as to the point, basically. And probably Obama’s fault.
  • It might also be helpful to apply evil government conspiracy theories — possibly the ones involving the moon landing — to the theoretically multi-tonne pyramid stone that bounces happily into shot. But I don’t think it’d help the embarrassment much, especially with all those suspiciously styrofoam-shaped chips flying around. Kid then does a decent job of pretending it’s super heavy, though, I’ll give them that.
  • There’s much more attention to detail  in the HHTV News sketch, but unfortunately it’s mostly going the wrong way. Alice’s character is entirely too generic a blonde newsbimbo for my taste, and she’s cozying up to a much younger, slimmer and hairier Henry VIII than actually would’ve been the case at the time of Anne Boleyn’s demise — he already being 45 by then, only 10 years off his death.
  • That said, I’m willing to forgive a lot for Henry’s little happy dance of athletic heartiness — big episode this altogether, for Ben’s willingness to sacrifice dignity for the cause. I’d also hate to discourage any comparatively subtle way of getting Tudor horribleness across (including the fact that Henry was at Jane’s side immediately after Anne’s execution).

95% Accu-rat:

  • Actually, Bobsy, burning heretics at the stake was ‘being Catholic’ — or at least, had religious significance. As whacked-out as it sounds, those (like ‘Bloody’ Mary I) who embraced the idea of heretic-burning could also be extremely moral, upright people. The idea was that these poor deluded fools were going to hell anyway, so might as well give them a taste as a last-ditch effort to induce them back to the True Church — or, if they refused even then, a signpost to light the way.
  • So make up your mind, show: did King James take a dislike to Catholics before (as per the earlier Fawkes’ 13 bit) or after (as per Bob here) Guy Fawkes et al. nearly blew him up? A bit of research suggests the earlier sketch had it right: During the late 16th century, Catholics made several assassination attempts against Protestant rulers… until the 1620s, some English Catholics believed that regicide was justifiable to remove tyrants from power. Much of James I’s political writing was “concerned with the threat of Catholic assassination and refutation of the [Catholic] argument that ‘faith did not need to be kept with heretics'”.
  • The song, meanwhile, is as noted absolutely accurate. Being a Man or Woman of God in medieval Europe most often meant you didn’t have to alter your lifestyle one iota — given that back then nobody would ever think of questioning a servant of the Lord (the same one, you’ll recall, that was totally OK with turning you into a flamesicle). Also given that many, esp. those higher up so to speak, were from aristocratic families, leading to monastic life being considered more or less something to do when you weren’t in line for the money or an advantageous marriage.
  • As one of the more hilarious unforeseen consequences of this setup, Henry VIII was forced to turn down then-girlfriend Anne Boleyn’s request that her relative Eleanor Carey be appointed Prioress of an influential abbey. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help out, Henry hastened to assure his sweetheart; only that it’d look bad for both of them if Dame Eleanor, who among other things had two children by two different priests, was preferred by the Crown.
  • It’s a bit difficult to sort the historical Draco out from the fictional, in more ways than one — seriously, Rowling, you couldn’t have named your villain Aloysius or something? — at any rate, there’s not much to tell about the man who gave us one of the more satisfyingly melodramatic adjectives in history, except that he did indeed have a concept of absolute obedience to authority that involved the death penalty for anything but exemplary citizenship.
  • Oh, and the cloak thing… well, you know what I’m about to say re: sourcing, don’t you? Personally I’m a bit sceptical, given the number of cloaks etc needed to do the deed — the sort of thing that would be fairly easy to sidestep once it became clear that it was getting out of hand. However it does lead to lots of fun speculation on whether this ancient flash mob in reality accidentally killed him with kindness… or were *ahem* cloaking their more sinister motives.
  • Meanwhile, the moral implications of casting General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as a buffoonish doofus aside — except on the YouTube page, where masochists are fully invited to take their fill — it can’t be denied that the man really was that, uh, picturesque. Writing in A Walk In the Woods, Bill Bryson (himself an American) confirms, then elaborates at length on, the idiosyncracies shown here:
  • He was hopelessly, but inventively, hypochondriacal… at the Battle of White Oak Swamp, his lieutenants found it all bit impossible to rouse him and lifted him, insensible, onto his horse, where he continued to slumber while shells exploded all around him. He was unquestionably brave, but in fact it is altogether possible that he was given that nickname not for gallantry and daring but for standing inert, like a stone wall, when a charge was called for.
  • Fans of watching Jim suffer with extreme adorableness — which apparently includes his current employers — will be cheered to realise that the Highlander notion of marital martyrdom was even more thorough than shown: [Creeling] required the bridegroom to carry a large basket (a creel) filled with stones on his back. He had to carry this weight from one end of the village to the next and continue carrying it around the town until his intended bride came out of her house and kissed him.
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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E07

Get back! I have a butter knife and I’m not afraid to use it… You! Get back, or I will spread you, I am not joking~!

The show returns to what it indisputably does best: being hilarious about Western European history. And there was much rejoicing. (yaaaaay.)

In this episode:

Song: Victorian Inventions — Ben and Alice as a music-hall act

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast — Captain Ned Low’s taste for cruelty

Historical Dragon’s Den — Victorian Britain

Words We Get From the — Saxons

Bob Hale — The [English] Civil War Report (OK, that’s definitively established then, timey-wimey scholars: Rattus and the HHTV crew are operating in the same timeline.)

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — from the Battle of Marston Moor (“Yes, I’m afraid I’m going to die — OF THIRST! Hahahah!”)

Dodgy War Inventions — No.79: Romans Invade East Anglia on Stilts

Historical Wife Swap — Celts vs. Romans (All you really need to know: Simon as the primitive Celtic husband, Mat as the sophisticated Roman)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Feudal Family Feud — Back before authoritarian fathers had prize Cadillacs to trash… their angsty sons still had swords. (“No! Zat is my peas-ant!”)

Joan and the Angel (imagine spot) — “Sweeping up and darning socks I can do — military leadership, not so much!” “Well, He definitely said… I mean, I wrote it on my hand and everything…”

Putrid Pirates

Captain Cutiebeard — As it turns out, pirate tactics for luring ships in close involved frilly lingerie. In related news, the ongoing ‘pirate -vs- ninja’ Net debate just got REALLY interesting.

Smashing Saxons

New! Saxon Sign of the Cross — Sanitation via genuflection: sometimes, history is frankly about being impressed that the human race made it out alive…

Dance ‘Til Something Drops — … Case in point. Social life in the Middle Ages: being unable to tell whether your friends were happily boogying down or flailing around in the throes of ergotism-induced gangrene.

Field Notes:

  • If you’ll excuse a moment’s nostalgic digression… My first encounter with HH the TV-verse was in late 2010, via BBC Kids, a Canadian cable channel that picks up much of CBBC/CBeebies’ programming. So this was the very first full-length episode I ever watched, and — being at that time, for various reasons, in dire need of a wholly uncomplicated laugh — where I began to watch the show with real interest. I’ve obviously learned to appreciate the rest since, but in some important ways the back half of S2 will always be the definitive Horrible Histories for me…
  • … *blinks as mists clear* …And thus here I am, lo these years later, speculating on just exactly how a stick insect might get so closely — not to say spectacularly — in touch with his inner homicidal cannibal. Seriously, either they sent Lawry on a three-day bender, gave him a 5AM filming call and filmed the result (definitely without telling Dominique)… or I suddenly really feel the need to apologise for any and all snarky Lewin-related remarks to even date. Um, including that one I just now made. Shoot. I’m willing to upgrade him to praying mantis, would that help?
  • In a way, I’ve been setting up for these reviews from the start. BBC Kids has always been careful to air the show after 6pm — as was also traditional for the Muppet Show when I was a kid — with a ‘content may be disturbing to some’ disclaimer. So I’ve never assumed HH was designed for anything but an all-ages family audience, as defined by the Henson troupe, and so have watched with the same assured expectation of adult reward… and the show, it must be said, has rarely failed to deliver.
  • Hence, when confronted here with Cap’n Mat the Fabulous, all decked out in bustle and rouge and basically way more detail than needed to pull his ruse off from a distance, my natural instinct is not to giggle at the over-the-top clowning, but at the possible connection to his breakdown from the previous sketch. Not that I’m here to judge, mind; those long voyages, the freely available rum, the underlings who’re really into their poncy little sword routines… I understand.
  • What I’m really saying is, I kid because I loved this tiny perfect collection of all the (male) troupe’s signature schticks at first sight. In fact, if I do have a major complaint from this point forward, it’s that the pirate sketches will pretty much fall off the radar. Given that ninjas — and indeed robots — are non-starters as sketch ideas, also that only a few, clean outtakes make it onto each DVD, we’re losing a valuable source of pure playfulness here. (Yeah, there are still cowboys, but those accents… somehow it’s just not the same.)
  • Still, we’ll always have knights. Here, specifically, Ben and Mat turning out to be entirely adorable — and rather interestingly convincing — as father-son squires. And there is always the possibility they will be French, which accent will never get off the collision course with HH whackiness. Especially not when you haul Willbond the ‘accspert’ into the mix … also, suspiciously familiar staging over the castle ramparts. Quick, dad, distract him with an argument about swallow velocity! Fetchez la vache! 
  • Right, sorry, focussing — Oh look, Mat’s disarming Larry! Repeatedly! (“Arm or leg?” “Well, arm, I guess…” — slays me every time.) Not even trying to pretend anymore that normal is the expected result when these two collide, are they? Besides which, fun bonus material in comparing/contrasting Mat’s more formal command of pantomime twitchiness with Larry’s intuitive take — he does have a couple season’s worth of Bob Hale under his belt, after all.
  • So the ergotism sketch is the most openly goofy, ie. kid-friendly, of the lot. But if we’re talking the place where contextual subtlety definitively goes to die, I’m all about Mat as the Roman husband in the Wife Swap sketch – being so ridiculously sweet and charming and obviously green-lighted with the sadistic notion of finding out exactly how far they could mess with adult hormones while still claiming innocence… Pretty damn far, as it turns out, on account of you’re reading this.
  • Incidentally, now that it’s officially OK to believe anything of the production team, is anyone else getting the idea that the inevitable ‘fainting wife’ role in the WS bits was being used as a sort of ‘”let’s see what they’re made of” initiation for the female cast? Just me then? Yeah, figured. Still, it led to a very pleasant line of thought re: more possible HH hazing rites, up to and including the ultimate test: sharing a sketch with Simon for thirty full seconds without cracking.
  • His turn here as the Celtic ‘furball’ (hee!) would’ve been ideal; just when the pledge thinks they’re ready for anything enigmatically menacing, not to say unpredictably crazy… he abruptly shifts over to bluntly loveable straight man, and turns that into a full-on festival of irresistible giggles. All kidding about cast feels aside, when he goes to whistle up the finest in canine medical care, I really, sincerely just want to give him a huge hug.
  • Then, I will give another to Larry, for a generally wonderful B.Hale Report and for specifically describing Richard Cromwell as ”About as much use as a jelly pickaxe”. And finally, I will award one to the Angel Jim. I have a private theory that he is the sole BAFTA winner of the troupe out of three tries simply because — regardless of natural voter sympathy towards the younger nominees — it proved impossible to disregard Howick playing a celestial messenger who’s written the Holy Message on his hand “and everything”. (Although they were probably just a touch disappointed that the writing isn’t actually glowing. I know I was.)
  • The whole Joan of Arc sketch is remarkable much more for its casting than its hackneyed construction — of all the angles to approach one of the most impossibly romantic, implausibly literal melodramas in all of history, the feminist was easily the most limiting (if, yes, also the most accessible to the small fry). Still, Alice is her usual appealingly convincing presence, while Ben — amusingly, still wearing the armour from the previous French sketch — just about manages to rescue the obvious from itself. Well, him, and the hilarious ‘heavenly’ music playing over his darning.
  • Basically, the above re: casting applies more or less intact to the song — albeit of course with less heavenly Howicks. Which frankly is kind of a shame. I’m not a huge fan of these nationalistic ‘we invented!’ lists, for reasons discussed under S01E12 (and even less lucidly, if possibly more entertainingly, in the relevant YouTube comment sections.) To cite a specific problem here, I’m thinking Swedish subject Alfred Nobel, for one, would be a bit startled to discover he invented dynamite under the auspices of the British monarch.
  • It does have value as one of the few chances for direct comparison with Series One, ie. the song ‘We Are Greek’ — except of course, it’s no real comparison at all. There’s more care lavished on a single costume here than there was in nearly the entirety of S1’s musical efforts. Ben’s voice hasn’t improved much since then, but damned if he hasn’t got that Harrison-esque talk-singing thing nailed. He’s more inclined to generic smug than real showmanship, but that’s a small nitpick in comparison to the authenticity of the whole production.
  • My affection for our Willbond has always had a touch of academic awe mixed in; he is so exactly what North Americans have been trained (at least, in visual media; music’s something else entirely) to think of as ‘British’, and is so effortlessly able to lever his self-awareness of same through an entire PD James novel’s-worth of stock types. Also, every now and again he is able to bounce something like the ‘butter knife’ bit here off the cliches, and for a fleeting moment… no, still not quite huggable. But impressive, very.
  • OK… who named Mat ‘Sir Widebelly’? (‘Nathaniel Twonk’, on the other hand, I am so going to borrow if I ever get another hamster.) Seriously, I very much like the Dragon’s Den both as a concept, and a creative way to refresh the *ahem* overworked child-labour theme. It’s another pleasing sign of how far thought and care has advanced since S1.
  • In particular, I love how it’s the same Oliver-esque fantasy kid every time; really, the child actors on this show are something special. So… in amid all the nice authentic touches… why would you leave in such a distractingly modern broom?

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, Jeanne d’Arc. Yes, she really was an illiterate peasant girl, whose claimed first ‘vision’ (speculated to have actually been a result of migraine, epilepsy or similar) did indeed happen when she was somewhere between twelve and fourteen — again, it didn’t occur to anyone to record her birthdate at the time, so accounts vary, but fourteen is the traditionally accepted age — and whose first sally forth into the history books happened when she was around 16.
  • As the entire relevant portion of the Net has not failed to mention, the circs surrounding her death are a lot more… complicated, let’s say, than a kids’ show could possibly squeeze into one thirty-second visit with a puppet rat. She was initially captured by the technically French but then-independent Burgundian dukedom, who in turn sold her to the English Duke of Lancaster — the new French King Charles VII meanwhile ostentatiously twiddling his thumbs and hoping that if he kept quiet everybody’d just forget the whole ‘totally owed his throne to a peasant girl’ thingy.
  • Thus Joan was hauled off to a prison tower in English-occupied Rouen, where — despite several determined escape attempts — she fell into the hands of the French Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais, who was all about appeasing his current masters the Brits, so just sort of went ‘Ehhh, I have jurisdiction here, I think. Probably,’ and proceeded to show-trial the nineteen-year-old girl’s butt to the stake — but not before she had totally owned him under interrogation.
  • Per Wiki: “Asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she answered: ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”…Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have convicted herself of heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt… George Bernard Shaw found this dialogue so compelling that sections of his play Saint Joan are literal translations of the trial record.
  • Hey, you know Captain Ned Low? The psychotic bastard renowned for getting into piracy mostly because land-based crime didn’t give him enough of an outlet for his sadistic urges? His flagship, the pride of whatever remained of his heart, was named the Rose Pink. Seriously. Also, I forgot to mention last ep, Blackbeard’s flag did indeed include hearts. Granted, they were being stabbed by a skeleton, who — the show rather interestingly doesn’t mention — is holding a wineglass in his other hand, raising a toast to the Devil.
  • OK  look, I don’t really have to explain that the stinging nettles would’ve been soaked and beaten to their component fibres, thus removing any stings, before actually being made into underwear, right? You in the back? Right, just checking. While I’m on, it’s worth noting that ergotism — otherwise popularly known as St Anthony’s fire — has been suggested as the possible cause of every convulsion, tic or twitch-based phenomenon throughout much of Western history, including witchcraft as mentioned last series and dancing mania as mentioned in the next.
  • When you come to think of it, in real life stilt-wearing never seems to go well outside Founders’ Day parades. Some things you figure would be obvious from the start…  At any rate, the concept of centurions tottering through the fens while the natives snickered all but compelled me to try and find more info — which didn’t go all that well. I’m willing to take the show’s word for it, but would not be entirely shocked if it’s based mostly off legend and inference.
 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E06

As I was just saying to the Prussian Ambassador here..
That is a pot-plant, your Majesty.
Oh… so ’tis. Well, as I was just saying to this pot-plant here…

Part two of the chipper midseries skip through Georgian madness, pirate antics and American accents… now with 75% less oddball earnestness… not to mention 100% fewer llamas.

In this episode:

Song: Blackbeard’s Song — Jim as Captain Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach; Larry, Ben, Mat and Chorus as his crew

Recurring sketches:

Ready Steady Feast — George III and the Beef Tree

Stupid Deaths — Clement Vallandingham (Apparently ‘make sure the pistol is unloaded before conducting the demonstrations’ took awhile to make it onto the American legal curriculum…)

Dodgy War Tactics — No.23: The American Civil War Battle of the Crater (Apparently ‘setting off mines underground makes for a really big hole’ took awhile to make it onto the American military-school curriculum…)

Cliff Whiteley — Mary Seacole vs. Florence Nightingale: Both swept aside gender barriers, saved lives, and established an enduring legacy of selfless heroism; but only the white one… um, invented the pie chart. (“Shut it, Lampy Knickers!”)

One-offs:

Gorgeous Georgians

The Madness of King George’s Doctors — Eighteenth-century medicine: a genuine tossup between suffering the cure or enduring the disease… unless you’re too valuable to have the choice. (“STOP BEING MAD! GET BETTER!!” “STOP BEING WEIRD ALL THE TIME!!”)

Rotten Romans

Elagabalus’ Romo Lottery Millions — In which it is doubtful which suffered more under the rule of a teenage Emperor: the crowds who got serpents chucked among them… or the English language. (“Play my game, and you could be well minted!… but not as much as me.”)

Something’s Fishy in Capri — And if your guess was anything other than ‘The Emperor’s sanity’, you have so not been paying attention.

Smashing Saxons

Saxon Weather Forecast — “Good news up in Scotland however, where we’ve seen some red sky at night! So expect calm weather there… assuming it wasn’t actually a monastery on fire, after a Viking raid.”

Ghostbuster, Crop Duster — Burning all your fields to ward off ghosts: possibly the ultimate in ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ (“Well, at least when I die of starvation, I won’t be able to haunt anyone! Heh-heh…?”)

Anglo-Saxon Famine Solutions — Lose your will to live now, save serious time later. (“What’s in the stew?” “It’s a, uh… family recipe.”)

Savage Stone Age

Trepanadol — “Now, here’s the sciency bit: At the first sign of a headache, get a totally unqualified colleague to knock a small hole in your skull…”

Stone Age Family Fortunes — Hey, actual  fascinating non-llama-intensive comedy involving South America! Way to go, show!… um, wait, West Side Story really isn’t a great substitute, characterization-wise…

Vile Victorians

Repeat After Me — See, this was why Victorian schoolmasters had all those fearsome punishments. It was kind of a vicious circle, really.

Field Notes:

  • Well, somebody’s on a roll. Exactly one episode after creating the ultimate spineless ball of useless, Jim here makes such a cheerfully badass pirate captain that he elevates Blackbeard’s Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired song, as a creative decision, entirely past ‘duh!’ into something really delightful. Especially is this impressive since the makeup team weren’t nearly as inspired by the name — I suppose an authentically bushy beard would hamper his performance, but lemme personally assure you, guys, the reflexive viewer wincing when he sets those comparative wisps on fire isn’t helping any either.
  • Leaving out my particular neuroses, though, it’s a really nifty song, full of a gentle non-sequitur playfulness that marries the two comedy genres together beautifully. Much of which is provided by the rest of the troupe shamelessly hamming it up in the background… specifically, now that I think about it, Ben taking the brunt of Jim’s random whims yet again.
  • While elsewhere, we have Mat very deliberately intimidating Larry, likewise yet again. Anybody else noticing a curiously unnerving yet entertaining pattern here, or is it just me? (And that’s not even getting into the whole poor-man’s Nicholas Cage thing with Jim and bees.)
  • Speaking of which, also of delicious helpings of scenery: helloooo Mat, breaking out at his most brilliantly, charmingly disturbing…ly still unconcerned by what Elagabalus is potentially doing to preteen hormones with access to Wikipedia. More seriously, that turn as the Georgian doctor hilights the intense watchability inherent in the intersection of his refined physical and offbeat creative charisma. This angle is one of my favourites, a purely elegant psychosis — essence de Gorey illustration, if you like — that, just to emphasise the brilliance yet again, is capable of squelching Larry.
  • Nobody ever accused Lawry Lewin of elegance — least of all me — but I must concede that his twitchy squeaky take on George III is… well, not growing on me, exactly. More like being forced to hear somebody running nails down a chalkboard yet being irresistibly funny at the same time; not comfortable, but still worthy of credit. (Albeit at least some of that credit should go to the writers, who’ve scripted lines a block of wood couldn’t screw up.) Too, Lawry was probably much easier to convincingly wrestle into a chair than Simon… sorry, I’ll be quitting while I’m marginally ahead now.
  • After all, I get more than my fair share of hilariously Loopy!Farnaby — now with extra-wonderfully inexplicable Italian accent — in the ‘Titus on Capri’ sketch. It’s just lovely to have Simon and Mat reunited for one of these Roman bits, and while Jim is missed, Larry’s sort of meta-introduction as the new guy on the block is appreciated. (“Yeah, crazy emperors are crazy, you get used to it…”)
  • Oh, and interestingly… well, not really, I just wanted an excuse to mention it… anyway, Ben makes a much more convincing Italian peasant than he does Incan priest.
  • Which reminds me, y’know how I complained they’d used up all the really good stupid deaths in Series One? Well… not quite. Beautiful mock-nineteenth-century American oratory there from Ben, just beautiful — cut off a bit short, but great while it lasts. I think Simon is really, honestly laughing at this one, and I so can’t blame him.
  • On the further subject of nifty throwaway turns, Jim and Martha as a couple fully continue to deserve their own sitcom. Meantime Mat as the Saxon weatherman is an appealingly clever parody — again, seriously, I hope the writers at least got fresh muffins in the break room after this episode, with extra jam for the one who came up with the ‘unless you’re lazy and a nun’ bit.
  • Also, bonus offbeat Baynton in the form of that thing where his voice randomly jumps about six octaves every other word… which is sort of how I imagine perky friendliness coming across in a Batman comic.
  • I love Dominique, for all the considerable force of her charm, comic timing and honestly cool ability to pull off a Jamaican accent without sounding like she’s either a Marley groupie or overdue for bobsled practice. She brings the same welcome breath of bright normalcy to the Ready Steady Feast sketches as in the HHospital. All of which makes it extra-sad that she’s stuck in that tangerine blouse for the duration. Is there some rule that says the ruffle quotient of British female presenters’ wardrobes must be in direct proportion to their personal attractiveness?
  • While we’re discussing f/x… there are two unavoidable possibilities inherent in the Saxon ‘sell yourself to the Lord of the Manor’ bit: either those are Jim’s actual feet, with possibly a bit of *gag* suitable camera enhancement; or somebody in the makeup dept worked really really hard to bring that horror to fruition, as the obvious culmination of a lifelong fascination with… I don’t know, Lovecraft’s eldritch abominations come to mind as a suitable starting point. Either way, I will now be forgetting that this sketch ever existed, kthx — OH GOD THOSE MUMMIES CAN’T UNSEE AHHHHHHHH.
  • Ahem. Yeah, so, this Cliff Whiteley sketch, this is the level of intelligent controversy they all should’ve been about. Just all the different kinds of awesome. Not quite enough to make me fall in love with the concept all over again, mind, but — honestly, have I mentioned how much I love Simon? Enough to overcome the ridiculously annoying sound effects, is how much, which is a whole lot. Besides which Dominique’s habit of full-on attacking whenever she gets a shot at a really meaty character is impressing me even more than all that other stuff.
  • Oh, is that what Family Feud looked like in the UK? Neat. Well, as noted the ethnic awkwardness continues to be awkward, but I’m getting used to that. Rather surprisingly, Ben does a nice daytime-gameshow-hosty schtick — especially when accidentally dismembering Granny. Clearly I’m not the only one who appreciates a good Willbond -vs- rotting limbs gag.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Not a historical note per se, but just occasionally the show throws up an idea, like weather reporting via superstitions, that I can totally picture myself watching for real. The Newfoundland forecast alone would be worth it.
  • Arrrrrr! Because one can never have too many fun pirate factoids, matey, here’s some more fascinating detail about the man behind everybody’s favourite ebon whiskers. Which as it happens he never actually set alight — suicide being generally incompatible with swashbuckling — preferring instead to fake it with firecrackers etc. This wasn’t quite the comforting distinction you might think; as per the link: Before battle, he would dress all in black, strap several pistols to his chest and put on a large black captain’s hat. Then, he would put slow burning fuses in his hair and beard. The fuses constantly sputtered and gave off smoke, which wreathed him in a perpetual greasy fog. He looked like a devil who had stepped right out of hell and onto a pirate ship and most of his victims simply surrendered their cargo rather than fight him. 
  • Say, have you lot seen the Madness of King George, yet? I’d recommend it, great movie. Basically the film-length version of this ep’s take on poor George III, who ordinarily was really a decent if rather boringly prudish old stick, popular among his subjects for his unashamedly bourgeois tastes… which was why everyone was so completely freaked when he abruptly began jabbering himself hoarse, to literally anyone who’d listen.
  • This would go on until he was bright red and foaming, which sort of put a crimp in his chances with the Queen’s ladies even if he hadn’t also been randomly grabbing them and whispering lewd nothings (one of his victims, novelist Fanny Burney, later recorded his telling her — repeatedly — “They say I am mad, but I am not, I am nervous. If you must know what is wrong with me, I am nervous…”). At one point he flat-out threw the future George IV against a wall mid-argument, which might make their Prom relationship a bit more understandable.
  • The character Mat is supposed to be playing is the Rev. Dr. Francis Willis, not actually a court physician but the master of a Lincolnshire sanitorium of some renown. His theories did indeed involve uncompromisingly disciplining the madness into submission, hence the tactics shown here (albeit the mustard’s supposed to be in a plaster, ie. a sort of cloth pocket). Conversely, though, so long as the patient ‘behaved himself’ he was accordingly treated much more humanely than in your average asylum. At any rate, His Majesty did snap out of it at least for awhile, held no grudges, and Willis became one of the great physicians of the age.
  • Clement Vallandingham… quite a life, for all its awkward end. You have to realise, this was nineteenth-century America, men were bumbling around simultaneously being romantically dramatic and owning firearms more or less constantly. From his home state’s POV, he’s the heroic statesman who opposed the Civil War and eventually came to support abolition (if mostly for political reasons), all of which was tragically cut short by one weensy, understandable little lapse of concentration.
  • Although again, it’s one of the niftiest things about HH, that they can bring these types of hidden heroes to light — and  in this case, become their champion — the life and times of Mary Seacole are also a little murkier than the HH format allows. Although there very likely was a racial component (back then, even those sympathetic to ‘Negro’ rights could be absolutely horrified by the idea of one treating white soldiers), her rejection seems to have been as much a matter of her rather dodgy qualifications as anything else. Once she got out there and settled down to work, though, nobody of any shade or class was complaining…
  • …except, yep, ol’Lampy Knickers. Characteristically obsessed with raising the (incredibly poor) reputation of the nursing profession as much as healing the sick, Florence N. expressed her concern that Seacole ‘did much good for the poor soldiers’ primarily in the sense that she was running a sort of brothel, where she ‘made many drunk’. This wildly-unfair prejudice meant Nightingale did all she could to avoid anyone on her team being associated with her rival’s British Hotel — thus depriving history of one of its most spectacular potential mashups, and helping create a controversy that rages on to this day.
  • The Chico and the Man rejects featured on ‘Family Fortunes’ are supposed to be members of the Chinchorro tribe, fishermen who lived in and around what’s more recently the coastline of Chile and Peru, and they did indeed expend a lot of effort on reconstituting their dead as far as clay and sealskin would let them. This lovely article gives a much more rounded picture of a genuinely remarkable culture.
 
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Posted by on March 10, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S01E10

He’s-a my brother, innit? I conquer ze country, I give-a him ze crown. I can’t buy him socks anymore — he’s got a wool allergy!

In which the show digs down deep… finds one last rich vein of historical comedy… and it’s in Sparta?

In this episode:

Song: The Plague Song (Ben as Corpse Collector, Mat, Sarah and Larry as Corpse Chorus)

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast — Tudor Diets: Peasant vs. Aristocratic

Historical Hairdressers — Tudor Beauty Treatments

Computer Game: Warrior! — Roman Legionary vs. Celtic Warrior

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Middle Ages version (See, they were in the middle of a plague epidemic, and rats carry plague…)

This is Your Reign — Napoleon Bonaparte

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — from the Battle of Thermopylae

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Sponge on a Stick (two parts) — On the bright side, we’ve moved up from animal to human toilet habits…

New! Viper Deodorant — “Do YOU smell like a barbarian died in your armpit?”

Vile Victorians

Genuine Victorian Slang — Surprisingly enough, not actually made up by Charles Dickens. (Bonus educational tip, kids: try listing this sketch in the bibliography of your next paper on Oliver Twist! Your teacher will love it!)

Great Victorian Inventions: The Car (animated) — True story: at one point engineers were seriously concerned that ‘horseless carriages’ would suffocate their riders, as the air was rushing by them too fast to breathe. That is, once they hit roughly around 30mph. Really.

Cut-Throat Celts

Better Homes & Severed Heads — You do have to admit, nuked-noggin decor probably cut way down on annoying Celtic telemarketers.

Groovy Greeks

This! Is… Wait! — Detailing how actual, normal humans would’ve reacted to being sent to Thermopylae… in other news, nobody ever accused Spartan warriors of being normal.

Field Notes:

  • Oh thank goodness, it was only temporary. Also, my profound thanks to Ben and Katy Wix, not forgetting Larry and Martha later at the Prom. The evolution of HH musical genius gets right back on track this ep, with what to this day is still one of the most offbeat, interesting musical things the show has to offer. So just imagine what it feels like when you’ve only been reviewing the first series for six weeks straight.
  • Seriously though, the Black Death as Danse Macabre…how awesome is that? Possibly not the most original staging idea ever, but — and this is very much the point — a brilliantly apt way to both be a historical comedy and avoid making light of 25 million agonizing deaths. (Also, to shoehorn zombies in there. I have a lot of fun imagining the potential outtakes from this one. “Brainnnnsss…”) In the annals of HH’s revelatory “Hey, we really could be a whole lot more than the source material!” moments, this one’s a doozy.
  • ‘Doozy’ is also a good way to describe Ben’s performance in the prep-for-Thermopylae sketch, although “I think I’ve figured out which script they used to get him to sign on” works too. Honestly, I’m not sure the man even realises he’s supposed to be giving a comedy performance here, or for that matter cares; he’s off in his own private 300, living the dream, rocking the Gerald Butler ‘do… except opposite Larry and Mat instead of comely servant wenches. Thus handily explaining why he also seems so convincingly ticked whenever they speak… or not, depending on just how deep into the Spartan experience he is.
  • It also helps the offbeat vibe to remember, when watching Mat’s final freakout, that as per what the show has just established ‘Mommy’ will be clocking him upside the ear and throwing him right back out into the battle. I would be making further snarky comments about how Mat’s continued failure to have been left out on a mountaintop at birth undermines everything the show is trying to establish about Spartans… but I’m too busy smiling at the aforementioned mental picture.
  • So yes, wow, Spartans, obviously still pretty darn cool in 2008-ish, when all of the writing would’ve started going down… shortly after which the writers, much like the rest of us, found the testosterone-crazed warriors increasingly hard to take seriously. By the time we arrive at Thermopylae, in company with ever-credulous Mike Peabody, they’re ready to have a whole lot of fun with the same phenomenon they straight-up celebrated just last ep. Watching Mike repeatedly being forced to assure Hellenic generals that their hair looks fine, this is another thing that makes my brain grin all over.
  • In this sketch even Mat’s unconvincing armour-wearing works in context — of course the pretty boy with the great hair is the king in this reality! And this reality is hilarious! So, hell, why not try the combo out in other realities too? In short, it’s taken awhile, but relentlessly earnest warrior-next-door Mat finally has a campy, adult archetype of his very own. This will become a trifle more obvious in the next series — as will a lot of other adult implications surrounding Mat — but for now, it’s just seriously funny.
  • Speaking of jacking up the adult content… erm… look, generally, I like the Historical Hairdressers sketches, I really do. Martha works the first of several feisty modern blue-collar gals with all the verve they demand (I gather her native accent is considered kind of annoying, but I rather like it). However… how do I put this… meth, is it a thing in the UK? At least, you do watch Breaking Bad? ‘Cos I’m looking at Shelly’s sore-covered face post-‘treatment’, and I’m not seeing ‘standard, if slightly gross, HH gag’, I’m seeing ‘convincingly authentic PSA’.
  • On the further subject of convincing… DAMMIT LARRY THAT IS THE MOST EMBARRASSING PSEUDO-IRISH THING I HAVE EVER SEEN SINCE THE TIME BOB THREW UP THE GREEN BEER AT THE GREEK RESTAURANT. Sorry, this one’s been building up through several viewings. I realise the man was likely excited at being upright onscreen for the first time in ages, but really, watching Lucky Charms commercials does not count as research. Mind, Jim and his Eye-talian accent aren’t far behind — you lot are just lucky the sketch itself is generally cute enough to dim the memory of Tudor Traitors on Parade. And that Rattus gets a darling little brocade armchair of his own. Squee!
  • I will refrain from commenting on the Roman toilet sketches, on account of I can figure out no way to do so without sounding like, well, a puritanical old poop. Just not my thing, kiddies, sorry. I’m a cranky grownup who takes much more glee in noting that the 2nd bit here was obviously meant to follow on from the main ‘communal toilet’ sketch — which doesn’t happen until epIsode 13.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, the naked Celtic warrior? Totally a thing. The reasons are disputed, and the frequency probably exaggerated by Romans interested in painting the enemy as wild irrational freaks in dire need of the civilizing Latin influence, but they did really charge into battle in the nude… so yeah, point goes to the Romans here, mostly.
  • Contrariwise I couldn’t find much info re: deadly snake as Roman man-grooming staple, but this recipe for a depilatory is intriguing: Resin, pitch, white vine or ivy gum extract, asses’ fat, she-goat’s gall, bat’s blood and powdered viper. Apparently the belief was that the viper, or asp, made its nest in lavender plants, which as a rationale for cosmetic ingredients is at least up there with “hey, this musk deer gland smells great!”
  • This isn’t a scientific forum I know — and very grateful I am for it usually — but the Plague Song lyrics always make me go ‘hmmmm?’ right around “Bites the rat and gives it germs…” In the interest of biological clarity, shouldn’t that be “bites the rat and picks up germs?” Otherwise, we’re missing a step in the transmission. I think. Yes, I’m a hopeless nerd.
  • According to most sources “half the people on the Earth/are simply blown away!” seems to be a rather massive exaggeration — although this was undoubtedly one incredibly, horrifically huge Very Bad Thing That Really Happened, so I doubt there’s much point in anyone being offended at a little post-millennial artistic license intended to get that across. The (impromptu?) revision to “Half the children...” in the Prom version probably helps though.
  • Speaking of exaggeration to make a point… the Tudor diet wasn’t actually that sharply divided along class lines, or at least not along the lines suggested here. A peasant diet would be much more veg-intensive, but the nobles did eagerly eat veggies too. In fact Henry VIII was known to have grown artichokes at Hampton Court palace. The real difference was that the upper-class had the ability (from which our modern notion of haute cuisine descends) to spend time and money on making food snazzy instead of merely sustaining. Hence more sophisticated preparations, like delicate salads and cabbage boiled with spices.
  • On the other hand, bunging random poisonous substances on your face (or, in the case of Victorian ladies and arsenic, in your face): totally the province of the rich, or at least those who wanted to appear so. The coveted clear, luminous pink-and-white complexion indicated not only aristocratic birth — ‘blue-blooded’ likely refers to the veins visible under a truly delicate skin — but innocence, femininity and purity: the historical Holy Grail of womanhood. (Olive skin was dismissed as ‘brown’ and thought of as a major defect — was one of the objections to Anne Boleyn, in fact.)
  • Right, not to put too fine a point on it, but: Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Aka the ‘Iron Duke’. Not a dude prone to breaking into jigs in public. (Although as the hero of all the papers after Waterloo he did star — along with his sons — in the Brontes’ earliest juvenile writings… which were more or less romantic fanfic. Seriously.)
  • That sketch’d overall be a lot more fun if they skipped the comic-opera accents and told the real story: according to my Treasury of Royal Scandals (don’t leave home without it!) the ‘Battling Bonapartes’ would, in fact, have made fabulous modern reality-show fodder. The only thing this clan could agree on is that their Nap was doing it wrong. Whatever it was. He thought he was running a realpolitik empire; they pictured it more as a sort of extra-glittery Mafia, in which everybody’s honour was being offended at once.
  • Oh, and Josephine — aka the ‘Great Whore’ — not impressed with her either. In fact, ‘strong-willed’ Meré Bonaparte and her daughters, in a move familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to plan a wedding reception, refused to attend the Imperial coronation over their fear of being one-upped by the scandalous (and middle-aged, yet!) Empress.
  • Everybody else spent Napoleon’s reign haughtily (and in at least one case, insanely) miffed that their baby bro was now treating them as mere puppets in his empirical schemes, to the point of wholesale refusal to take their advice, breaking up inconvenient marriages and/or abandoning them in the face of rebellious natives. Napoleon, on the other hand, was understandably ticked at what he saw as their ingratitude for his raising the whole dysfunctional, spendthrift, sexually irresponsible lot to the First Family of Europe. Something to remember, next time you start wishing you had a nice normal family like everyone else…
 
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Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E08

Leader of the Gaulish hordes — so deadly, he could wear pigtails and still look hard!

The road to credibility goes back to being uneven, but the awesomeness of being children’s TV writers and performers with unbridled access to adult comedy inspiration remains…

In this episode:

Song: Caveman Love (Sarah as Random Lonely Cavegirl, Mat & Ben as Cave Backup Singers)

Recurring sketches:

Stupid Deaths — Edmund II (took a Viking dagger up the bum while squatting in a latrine pit)

Ready, Steady Feast — Stone Age Special

Historical Hairdressers — Saxon Hair Treatments

One-offs:

Vicious Vikings

Valhalla Tours — Burning and pillaging your way through Ancient Britain: because even if you’re a Viking, you’re sure as hell not going to come for the sun and sand.

Rotten Romans

Caesar vs. Vercingetorix — Proto-French barbarians give ‘fighting style’ a whole new meaning… also, possibly, “French accent”. (“Us Gauls don’t fight in ze rain! Ve’re orff!”)

Roman Decimation — OH HAI ‘BIGGUS DICKUS’ SCENE FROM LIFE OF BRIAN DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE.

Smashing Saxons

Have Yourself a Stinky Little Christmas — In which a few more painfully obvious gags get (literally) aired… on several demographic levels. (Kids: “Ha ha! They said ‘poo’!” Adults: “… still beats dealing with Aunt Millie’s candy-cane eggnog.”)

Gorgeous Georgians

This is Georgian Food — And perfume-style adverts don’t get any more comprehensible when they switch out Brad Pitt for maggots.

Georgian Dentistry — Ow. Also, ewwww. More entertainingly, also explaining the reason why George Washington is so tight-lipped in all those official portraits.

Frightful First World War

Causes of WWI — Had PG Wodehouse ever decided to write realistic drama (and, naturally, had a nervous breakdown in the attempt) it probably would’ve gone a little something like this…

Fly the Unfriendly Skies (animated) — Here’s the wannabe WWI Flying Ace trying out his new prototype planes… which, sadly, didn’t include a red doghouse.

Measly Middle Ages

Wat’s the Peasant’s Rebellion — Things were so desperate for serfs during the Dark Ages, their leaders had to resort to having really stupid names just to eke out a little comedy.

I’m Not a Knight After All — “The peasants are revolting!” “Yeah, pretty much…”

Field Notes:

  • Well, the revelatory excitement may have gpne off a bit… possibly a lot…  but this episode is good value anyway. By now, the only people still completely committed to HH the kiddy series are the editing team, who continue to randomly shuffle the animated segues around at a rate that strongly suggests the amphetamine dosage needed to at least be halved. Other stuff happens that I don’t think was ever repeated before or since; what works really works, and what doesn’t is still quirky fun. Even the little details, like Rattus vs. the invisible director and the Georgian dentist’s windowless office, are on point.
  • Also, more two-part tuneage. I can see where the song-sketch-song split appealed as a way to cram in more details without losing interest, but it’s a clunky one in a half-hour show and I’m not crushed it was dropped. (They have Bob Hale for that, after all.) Of course, what’s really becoming noticeable is that the problem of memorable music was solved in the very first episode, absolutely irrefutably nailed, and since then we’ve been watching the inevitable bumbling trial-and-error along the way back to that point.
  • This one’s about half-way along the timeline. We have achieved the idea of genre parody, but are not yet 100% sure what to do with it, nor even whether or not to care. Also: first-series budget. They’ve clearly just hauled everyone over as-is from the other Stone Age bits (Jim still in saucer-eyed “Sharp Stone” pitchman mode, explaining why for once he’s the boyfriend and Ben’s the backup). Thus if nothing else giving the whole a pleasingly offbeat ‘Hey guys, let’s put on a show!” vibe — Andy Hardy meets 10,000 BC. We’ve even got Mat (aka Grunt) winking again — don’t hear near as much about this wink, though. Can’t imagine why.
  • Something else they hadn’t quite thought through yet, priority-wise: messing with the male casts’ faces. Dirt, beards, scars etc can all be made to enhance fanservice under the right circs, but appliances… well, let us just say that, however historically accurate it may have been, Future Julius Caesar’s noble and much-blogged-about visage will be entirely missing the huge putty honker. (Doesn’t help that Ben’s using a remarkably non-nasal voice for someone theoretically carrying about five extra pounds on his face.)
  • In other ‘Hey we’re still wearing this stuff so what the hell’ action, great to see more of Steve Punt in the followup ‘Knights’ sketch — wish he’d stuck around generally, he bounces off the regular gang really well. Makes the throwaway sketch into almost more of a hilarious treat than the song. Good for Ben, too, getting a look-in in on the noble action; it just wouldn’t have been a properly sly subversion of romanticized machismo without him… uh, yeah, that’s supposed to be a compliment. Really.
  • The ‘Causes of WWI’ sketch… ohhhhh boy. The genuinely hilarious part is that it might actually be the most technically impressive sketch of the entire show — worth watching again just to appreciate how masterfully they keep it all straight while also keeping a straight face. Especially Ben (whose awe-ful knack for convolution will be further exploited later). It also gets some unexpected cred for — intentionally or not — referencing anime hit Axis Powers Hetalia, in which anthropomorphic amour between Austria and Germany is totally a thing. (So is Blenkinsop/Maltravers slashfic, despite strong evidence that neither would be able to manage even the basic act without a manual.)
  • Death continues to discover new and cruelly hilarious possibilities in his corpse parade — although this is a rare case in which the stupid totally wasn’t the dead man’s fault, poor — ooh, ooh! The poofy royal robes from the Saxon Family Feud sketch are back! Sorry, Edmund, at least you look so exactly as my inner child has always been convinced royalty should: fairytale luxury, as run past the Muppets, with just a dash of grandma’s La-Z-Boy recliner (mini-me always worried about how hard those thrones looked). Further happifying evidence that sometimes, budget limitations aren’t a bad thing.
  • This episode also treats us to the fabulous debut of Mat’s just-authentic-enough-to-be-hilariously-terrible French accent — later to be recycled as his equally baroque Spanish accent — which, along with his distinctively Mediterranean colouring, will ensure his future prominent presence in every Iberian Penisula-set sketch (not to mention nearly every Egyptian/Mesoamerican sketch). Hey, the French don’t get their own regular segment until Series Three, so this still counts as praiseworthy cultural restraint. Also, this particular Gallic sketch may have helped inspire the ‘Armada’ one in Series Four, which earns it all the bonus points.
  • The colouring thing may also help explain why the producers seem determined to stuff Mat into Roman armour, which it is past time to concede will never, ever look convincing. I do have to admit, though, he musters a very decent wooden-headed military haughtiness; of course, there’s not much excuse for any British comedian not to be able to channel the Life of Brian on command. It’s a bit too distractingly blatant a ripoff, honestly, but it’s a ripoff of the best, and Mat’s also got Jim around to ensure the mutual chemistry and timing does it justice. (“Troops! You will stay after battle every day this week!” “…That’s detention.”)
  • Also gotta admit, I really like the WWI plane prototype animated bit, specially since Ben’s narration sounds like he’d come straight from the ‘Causes’ sketch. There’s something about the combination of dashingly heroic and goofily whimsical that just works no matter what… as Charles Schulz discovered around fifty years ago. Given which, bit unsporting to throw in the ‘but you did just hit a dog!” gag, eh, old chaps? (Oh, also: lawn darts… FROM HELL!)
  • Ideas the HH Producers Fell in Love with Early On, Vol. 457: Marauding Vikings steamrolling over helpless English monks. This one will provide just endless opportunities for gore-intensive hilarity — which, as you may recognise by now, ranks in the HH Scale of Writer Gleefulness just below fart jokes — all on the helpfully obvious premise outlined here. I would complain about the repetition, but it will go on to spawn an all-time classic song, and rather surprisingly turns out to contain absolutely no mutilated genitalia references. Reviewing Horrible Histories: some days, all about deciding where to pick your battles.

95% Accu-rat:

  • One of the major reasons I can’t fault the ‘Causes of WWI’ sketch is that I myself got interested in the challenge of explaining it during HS history — rather as you would memorising pi to umpteen places — so I can both sympathise with the HH gang and verify that yes, that is not only the correct explanation but the most concise version of same you’re ever liable to hear. It helps to realise that at the time the entirety of Europe was more-or-less locked in a military-industrial game of chicken, just waiting for any excuse to rev up their shiny new war toys (what media romanticizations of the ‘Gilded Age’ tend to leave out is that an era of unparalleled possibilities & progress includes arms designers, too.) So… yeah, the adult version of schoolyard politics, pretty much.
  • As per previous notes, this week’s knightly sketch gets their actual attitude to chivalry across much more accurately — especially the part about it really only applying to fellow nobility. Frankly pausing to consider anything but their own bloodlust would be unusual for real medieval serf-oppressors, given that in the Dark Ages the sociology basically boiled down to ‘Yo, you’re a stinky vermin-ridden hellhole-dwelling starving serf ‘cos it’s God’s will, so anything I do to keep you there is totally your own fault.” (See also: The Crusades, rationale for.)
  • Neither actually invented the practice (as is shown here), but there’s much more evidence that ‘Decimation’ was revived in the ‘modern’ Roman era by General Crassus, not Pompey. Still, hey, they presumably all used it at some point, and a lot more people recognise the latter’s name (if only as way easier to make sound dirty in primary-grade history.) In real life, of course, they used a blind ballot (like blackballing) to get the thing done, and afterward everybody else got to sleep outside the encampment and eat nasty sour barley instead of wheat. Thus ensuring that if nothing else the troops would be more terrified of their own leaders than the opposition.
 
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Posted by on January 13, 2013 in Series One

 

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S01E04

I liked that arm! That was my favourite!

So there’s this sketch where Ben sniffs Mat’s hair, and some other stuff… helicopters.

In this episode:

Song: We’re Tudors (Martha as Elizabeth I, Ben as Henry VIII)

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast – Dr. William Buckland: Famed eater of weird things

Stupid Deaths – Matthew Webb (tried to swim the rapids under Niagara Falls)

Dodgy War Inventions – No.16: Zeppelin Airships

Historical Hospital – Hippocrates, Father of Medicine

Bob Hale – The Roman Report

Oh Yea! Magazine – Tudor execution special

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

Saxon Family Feud – “Like Eastenders, but with lots more blood!”… so apparently Eastenders makes a regular thing out of Saxon kings running around in poofy robes ineffectually demanding weregeld? I may need to start watching again.

Anglo-Saxon Ghost Hunt —  Essentially, if you’re in pre-Norman Britain, you’re living the Blair Witch Project 24/7. Except with Vikings.

Frightful First World War

TNT Hair Dye – Yep, how to become a literal blonde bombshell…

Groovy Greeks

Alexandria – In which Alexander the Great’s advisor Hephaestion learns that challenging the ego of a world-conquering tyrant and keeping your dignity is a distinctly either/or proposition.

Rotten Romans

Caligula’s Speechwriter – “So you’re saying, lose the whole chopping-necks thing completely…?” “I wouldn’t start with it.”

Terrible Tudors

Elizabeth the Nicknamer — Yeah, you know that one really, really non-PC co-worker who insists you’re all one big family and so keeps demanding $10 for random baby showers? Bess here was the royal equivalent.

Field Notes:

  • Aaaaaand welcome to the episode that launched a thousand fanfics — also, to be fair, quite a few other essential components of HH canon, including Bob Hale, Caligula and Elizabeth the First, albeit surprisingly petite-nosed compared to later appearances. Moot point now of course, but somebody may just want to explain to the makeup dept, the notion of people’s noses growing longer as they get older? Not really a thing.
  • Oh, and Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild, known with varying degrees of fondness in HH lore as The Guy Who Drove Zebras Through London, Har Har Har. That is, I’m not particularly fond of him, and I haven’t really met anyone else who counts him as integral to their fandom, but damned if the producers aren`t head-over-heels for this mildly eccentric aristocratic zoologist. Or possibly just don`t keep track of the random mentions. I’ve counted four separate ones, which frankly would be about three past interesting even if they didn`t all reiterate the exact same details. (Along the same lines, get real used to Caligula’s story about killing the priest instead of the sacrificial beast…)
  • Speaking of benign eccentricity… time to meet Bob Hale, HHTV Special Correspondent and Larry Rickard`s very own shining comic achievement. Confined to a bad suit in front of what I think was originally supposed to be the weatherman’s map, forced to cover all the boring details the other sketches skip over, Bob`s legend will nevertheless grow into a wonderful Wonka-esque medley of catchphrases (“BUT NOT FOR LONG!”), whimsical asides, clever cartoons, Thing-O-Meters and of course helicopters. His enthusiastic cluelessness reaches Bob & Ray levels of endearing… yes, I know, but trust me, I’m paying Larry a huge compliment.
  • So… really expecting the kiddies to get the Eastenders reference, were we, children’s show?… Actually, y’know what, never mind, after last episode I’m thinking you might. Except that later on, Liz’s French suitor, the Duc d’Alencon, is fudged into a `friend’. So now I’m just totally confused.
  • Wildly inappropriate implications aside (most of them, according to himself, contributed on-the-spot by one B.Willbond) the Alexandria sketch is well-put-together, and — even given the need to accept Ben as ‘barely twenty-six’ — our lush leads a whole whackload more plausible than Colin Farrell. I especially like that the armour Alex is wearing ends up being the same Caligula digs up a few sketches later. All hail continuity!
  • I think my own fan instincts must be a bit cracked, because honestly my major Ben feels here come from the Ghost Hunt sketch. “The spirits like to have a little natter…” I dunno, I just love the way he says that. Really, rewound it a few times. If I ever had a chance to have him repeat a line just for me, that’d be the one.
  • Much love also for the Saxon Family Feud, the niftiest outcropping to date of the sophistication discussed last entry; the funny has an unusually complex internal logic, almost like a mini-sitcom episode. (”You’re, like, so much sweatier in person!” “Well, I’ve just run up a hill, haven’t I?”). I’ve never understood why it doesn’t get more appreciation among the fandom; containing as it does, besides Mat & Jim being Mat & Jim, the same sweetly ineffectual Ben from the Ghost Hunt. Not an archetype he pulls out very often, and again, call me daffy, but I like it better than Alexander. (Now, Hephaestion, we can discuss).
  • OK, held off the negative as long as I can, but… The Tudors song. Yes, fine, it’s catchy (despite some annoyingly juvenile and/or forced rhymes), the details are mostly accurate, Martha does a decent vocal job, and some of the staging is interesting. Still, the overall tone — if you need a refresher on my sensitivity where the Tudor clan is concerned, you may want to head back to S01E02 & mentally add ‘but even more so’ at the end of each sentence. Otherwise… *deep breath* NO THE HISTORY BOOKS DID NOT REVIEW THEM AS ‘ROTTERS AND BIG BRUISERS’! THIS SORT OF CARTOONISH PANDERING TO IDIOTIC SOAP OPERA STEREOTYPES IS COMPLETELY…
  • …*takes several more deep breaths*…
  • …OK, better now. Will air out my similar frustrations with the ‘Oh Yea!’ bit in the historical notes below. But really — I don’t even get the fig leaf of a charming Henry VIII in this song, on account of it’s all but been specifically designed to expose Ben’s vocal limitations (I’m assuming it was written prior to his, or at least Henry’s, being cast). There is nothing at all engaging about watching an actor you respect being hung out to dry in living colour. I haven’t done this much wincing since Mom brought home those Best of the Dean Martin Show DVDs.
  • Right, back to the positives…for instance, erm, Caligula. Whether or not ‘Little Bootikins’ (no really, look it up) was in reality all that bad is debatable, but in Simon’s hands he’s the definition of utterly random hilarity, less a characterisation than an outlet. Seriously, I’m willing to let a lot pass just because without something this juicy to play with, I’m not sure we’d still have a Farnaby round to enjoy, lo these several series later. Keeping that kind of crazy bottled up would’ve done some serious damage.

95% Accu-rat:

  • As a takeoff on the tabloid tendency to unfairly exaggerate details out of context, the “Oh Yea!” Tudor piece is fabulous. As a vehicle for getting the actual facts across… well. Yes, Elizabeth signed the death warrant for her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. What’s not mentioned is that i) Mary had become not only a focus for disaffected Catholics, but a willing and eager participant in their schemes; and ii) despite all of which, Elizabeth agonised over signing that warrant, and eventually did so only because her closest advisors insisted. Not so much out of family feeling — they’d never actually met, after all — as deep-seated qualms, both ethical and practical, about executing royalty. After all, if the ‘divine right to rule’ could be breached in one case, what about all the others? Especially *ahem* the arguably-illegitimate daughter of a Protestant king whose marital history was murky at best…?
  • One other probably-just-me thing that’s always irked re: the song: yes, Liz adored her father — and she also cared deeply for her brother. They were more or less raised together, studied together, and were told of their father’s death at the same time, whereupon they sobbed inconsolably together. Even when I’m determined to get into the spirit of the thing, hearing this version of Elizabeth dismissively refer to ‘sickly little Eddie’ just bounces me right back out.
  • After all of which it’s only fair to note that the ‘Nicknamer’ sketch gets a lot of the small stuff exactly right. The Duc did in fact demand a nickname, albeit mostly because he was actually there to convince our Bess to marry him. Unavoidable casting limitations (ie, not hiring disabled people solely to snigger at them) prevent an accurate visual of ‘Pygmy’, but Robert Cecil — son and carefully-groomed successor to Sir William — did in reality fit the bill: “A slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature, but with a face not irregular in feature, and thoughtful and subtle in expression, with reddish hair, a thin tawny beard, and large, pathetic, greenish-coloured eyes…”
  • So… Caligula. Right. As noted above, I’m a bit more forgiving here; frankly it’d be downright cruel to insist the show wholly overlook the motherlode of historical horror. Still, as one unusually sensible YouTube commenter put it, fair compromise with fact would merit at least a disclaimer from Rattus, re: the really outre stuff being based largely on one or two hostile sources with an axe to grind. (Luckily, there’s no way in even Viking hell most of that same stuff is usable for a family audience). The Wikipedia page does a good job of summarizing specific controversies.
  • OK, you’ve probably already looked this one up, but in the interests of promoting fanfic accuracy it’s worth reiterating: yes, Alexander and Hephaestion were very likely lovers, but in a very different context from the modern, arising naturally out of their lifelong friendship.
  • Meanwhile — he’s not nearly as adorable granted, but Dr. William Buckland: genuinely quite a guy. Absolutely willing to chow down on the heart of a king, too… albeit sources are a little unclear whether it actually was or not, which spoils the effect a little. I do strongly recommend looking him up, though; the full bat urine story alone is worth it.
 
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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Series One

 

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S01E01

Me, I would`ve been more at home in a zoo…

The pilot is launched… and lands not only in the lap of a delighted juvenile nation but straight between the eyes of their parents. Four King Georges sing, pirates pontificate, good-looking men cavort at funerals, and a valuable lesson is learned about the perils of basing opening credits on Windows95 screensavers.

In this episode:

Song: Born 2 Rule (The 4 Georges: I [Ben], II [Mat], III [Simon], & IV [Jim])

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast —  WWI Shortages & Substitutions

Computer Game: Warrior! — Vikings vs. Monks

Historical Hairdressers — Viking Ear Spoons

Fractured Fairy Tales — The Three Little Pigs, the Georgian version (the brick house walls were blanked to avoid the window tax, so the third little piggy never saw his brothers coming…)

One-offs:

Rotten Romans:

Funeral Fight Club — How the Romans elevated tacky graveside behavior to a legendary sport.

High School Confrontational — What if “The Gladiators” weren’t just the mascots? The first of several imagine spots courtesy Rattus, complete with wavy dissolve cut and “Oooh, I’m imaginin’ it… I’m imaginin’ it!”

Frightful First World War:

Lice Warfare — Life in the trenches was so gross it requires a closeup of Jim’s cartoon-vermin-ridden stomach to explore fully.

Putrid Pirates:

The Black Spot(s) —  No, really, apparently this was an actual thing. Because obviously if you’re just gonna show up and put a knife into someone, then what’s the point of being a pirate?

The Pirate Rulebook — Arrrr, maties, now this is more like it!… sort of. The dreaded Captain Black Bart abruptly drops the timber-shivering to explain that on his ship, there’s no fighting, everyone has a vote and bedtime’s at 8pm sharp.

Savage Stone Age:

Sharp Stone, Blunt Stone — Now you too can own the (literal) cutting-edge cave tech! …Relentlessly adorable pitchman not included.

Stone-Age Burial — We know not with what rites the cavemen buried their dead, but we’re pretty sure it… didn’t go anything close to like this. (“And a little extra something to confuse the archaeologists who dig him up in years to come…”)

Gorgeous Georgians:

Window Tax — A short explanatory bit carrying on from the fairy tale, featuring the cartoon noblewoman from the title card and more live-action/animation interaction (thankfully no longer involving Jim’s stomach).

How to Vote in a Georgian Election — In which same is dissected with frank and funny (if mildly inadequate) outrage.

Field Notes:

  • Seriously, those opening titles are so eye-sporkingly not working as intended, which out of charity I will assume was to evoke the bright, cartoony feel of the book layouts. I do have an alternate and I think plausible theory involving quietly moving some extra $$ into the costume budget by outsourcing the F/X to somebody’s nephew who ‘fools around with that Photoshop thingy all the time’.
  • The theme tune, on the other hand, kicks all kinds of inappropriate-for-minors butt, basically turning a list of book titles into simoultaneous raw anticipation for the kiddies and mounting horror for their parents.
  • The general idea was clearly to impress a much older audience; except the ‘Ready Steady Feast’ skit of course, which was purely and patently designed to send same — including me! — running to the loo, thereby cementing it in children’s minds as THE MOST AWESOME TV SHOW EVER. Or whatever kids are using to mean ‘awesome’ these days, it suddenly occurs to me I don’t know. Have I mentioned I’m forty? At any rate, whatever it is, that’s what they were calling it.
  • For a pilot, though, generally the sophistication is impressive. Front-loading the first ep of a new series with the critical bait would actually become something of a tradition, and in keeping, this one resembles a later ep much more than anything to come in the first series, right down to the proto-music video. The few overtly kiddie/educational elements — the random animation segues and strict “era sketch-quiz-sketch” structure — were the only ones later abandoned.
  • In related news, for some reason cartoon German lice are red, thus ruining a perfectly good Communist lice joke opportunity for future WWII sketches.
  • Fun with media realities: In the press release for the series debut, none of the eventual main cast are mentioned. In the actual series debut, the Two Really Hot Ones are blatantly front-and-centre in nearly every sketch, with able support from… whatever wildly-inappropriate thing Jim’s doing in the ‘Sharp Stone’ sketch. (My viewing notes at that point read “relentlessly eye#@!-ing the camera?!”, and frankly I can’t find a better way to put it.)
  • Funny all round, how many of their signature schticks arrived fully-formed — Ben even gets to exclaim “Oh look! Sausages!” in a campy German accent. Besides which I do love me some Incongruous Yuppie Ben… also Pirate Mat, despite some very questionable facial hair.
  • Meanwhile, Larry’s off enjoying a rare lead role in a sketch. You can already tell he doesn’t expect this front-of-the-camera gig to amount to much, because his gladiator school instructor is simply Cleese’s drill sergeant in “Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit,” with the serial numbers just barely filed off.
  • Somehow, Mat in a WWI trench sketch always makes me really uneasy, in a sort of “things must be massively bad if they let HIM past the physical” way. I spend the whole sketch — even the ones where he’s not actually dying of exposure — imagining him dying of exposure ten minutes later.
  • Something else that always startles me a little in this ep is the flat-out political ranting, Gleefully exposing stupidity will of course become a hallmark in future but I don’t ever recall it being this specifically angry.
  • “Born 2 Rule” got a lot of attention for its audacity and attention to detail (specially Mat’s), and deservedly so. But in retrospect, it’s clear the music took centre stage because of it, not before. The set is minimal, the choreography is offhand at best (compare the snappy, complex moves in “The Few”, three series later), and, well, Ben and Simon are singing lead. Frankly we’re all really lucky they didn’t put up the bouncing-ball lyrics (again, look critics, sophistication, always sophistication!)
  • Still, it’s taken on a whole new level of loveliness, watching the four of them together and realising it’s just the first step of the journey. And what a long, strange trip it would be…

95% Accu-rat:

  • The obvious bloopers in the song — ie., ’twas George II actually died on the loo, and George III was in reality his grandson — are legendary by now. All the props to the producers, though, for very publicly correcting themselves in the Prom Special.
  • There was a [REDACTED] paragraph in here complaining about the Black Spot being an entirely fictional concept, prior to the show’s historical consultant informing me personally that it’s been ‘attested to prior to [Robert Louis] Stevenson’. Not that I could find, but will be shutting up now in keeping with my new policy: Don’t Argue With the Man Who Reads History Books for a Living.
  • On the other hand, the ‘Pirate Rulebook’ is a deservedly classic example of sorting the stranger truth from the fiction — although the ‘8pm bedtime’ rule apparently in reality went “The lights and candles should be put out at eight at night, and if any of the crew desire to drink after that hour they shall sit upon the open deck without lights“. This distinction became very important one morning when Captain Bartholomew Roberts’ crew were still too drunk from a victory celebration the night before to repel an enemy boarding party… exit Black Bart, unceremoniously.
  • Somehow, everyone manages to work their panties into an unprecedented bunch over Georgian elections without (audibly) mentioning the most egregiously corrupt aspect of the whole thing — the ‘rotten borough‘, basically an electoral district with few-to-no actual inhabitants, controlled as shown by the nearest aristocratic family. The hapless sole landowner in the sketch would in reality have long since realised his vote was the merest formality.
 
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Posted by on December 16, 2012 in Series One

 

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