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
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
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!”)
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…?”)
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…”)
- 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).
- 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.