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S05E13: Savage Songs

In an attempt to write a heartfelt finale song of his own, Rattus seeks inspiration from one last selection of sublime (and, as always, chronologically sorted) videos from the previous series. Which lead him merely–and inevitably–to the conclusion that there’s nothing he can sing that the HH crew hasn’t pulled heartstrings with already…

In this episode:

Alexander the Great (from S05E06)

“Alexander is my name, Macedonia’s most famous
Commander, history calls The Great but I prefer The Greatest
A king aged only twenty when my dad assassinated
Advisers called for calm but frankly peace is over-rated…”

Where I’d rank it: 6th

One of the nicer little subplots of the HHTV Experience is the fact that fully half of the core sextet have small offsprings of their own, thus the upcoming chance to introduce their works to same. While Simon and Mat will likely have some serious ‘splainin to do in order to achieve unbridled inter-generational admiration (especially given that, if Family Ties has taught us anything, it’s that Bo Baynton is inevitably due to grow up into the next Alex P. Keaton) all Ben has to do is cue up the ol’.vob file of this song and turn to his son with an air of quiet triumph…

…at which point, yes, Willbond Jr will most likely barely lift his eyes from the latest CGI-intensive blockbuster and snort “Geez, Dad, you guys used to, like, use actual makeup to look younger?” But once he ‘accidentally’ destroys the kid’s Xbox, Ben will have a clear shot at Coolest Parent Ever, is the important point here.

It’s important because, alas, I don’t see this becoming one of the all-time HH music video classics otherwise, clever arena-rock satire or no. One has to be intimately familiar with Willbond’s usual HH personae to appreciate what an amazing piece of work it really is. And it doesn’t help that instead of swirly-cape-intensive romanticks, Benjamin’s big Highwayman Moment, so to speak, is all-too-thoroughly muffled under relentlessly dry exposition and those dubious blond curls. Also, there’s the bit where his best friend is now Jim in that beard. Still, though, definitely worth as many viewings as it takes to get past it all…

Crassus: Minted (from S05E04)

“Smashed the slaves, it got real gory
But then Pompey stole my glory
To show it was me that crushed the horde
Nailed up the slaves like on a billboard!”

Where I’d rank it: 5th

Someone on YouTube pointed out that this is easily the most expensive-looking music video HH ever produced. While I remain sceptical re: actual $$ involved–to me, those effects look very much like the ones Sesame Street used to seem hip’n’happening on a public broadcasting budget back in the mid-Seventies–I will concede that they were put to excellent use boosting Farnaby’s shot at musical-comedy immortality. Like Ben… except, y’know, sort of crossed with Larry the lead Aztec priest… anyway, in full keeping with the what-the-hell spirit of S5–Simon gets handed a non-sequitur showcase and told to go nuts.

Whereupon, being Farnaby, he quite literally does. And it’s a magnificent thing. Never mind if you love or loathe hip-hop; so generously, hilariously authentic is Farnaby’s unexpected emergence as Grime God that–in a manner interestingly reminiscent of Charles II–you’re swept along regardless on a wave of purely joyful noise. It doesn’t hurt that the producers had the wit to schedule same immediately after the delicately erudite masterpiece that is Dickens/Morrissey, thus achieving a sort of afterparty-at-the-Animal House effect for the under-twelve set. Not the kind of treat your average SS episode can provide.

Vikings and Garfunkel (from S05E02)

“Think we’re scary? No, don’t flee
Conquered Saxons would find we
Settled and lived in harmony…”

Where I’d rank it: 4th

Apparently this particular bit of sublime musical silliness was the net result of Jim and Mat, the show’s self-proclaimed enfants terrible, relentlessly begging for a Simon & Garfunkel-themed spoof (because when you’re trying to terrorise the producers of a children’s show who hand you the Sex Pistols parodies as a matter of course, you have to get creative). Y’know, in case you were wondering where to send the therapy bills for those wigs–or, for that matter, the petal-strewing Rickards.

It’s this emphasis on frolicsomeness–both follicular and literal–that got it bumped down a notch in these rankings. (Well, that and the possibly-not-unrelated fact that up closer it’s lyrically one of the weaker songs of the series.) I have no brief against unbridled joy, but I do also adore S&G past all reason, and thus every time I hear those uncannily faithful harmonies start up I cannot quite get past the realisation that conditions were perfect for a much more sharply-focussed satire.

Instead, we got the HH crew merely out lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy, and just to repeat, I am not at all complaining about it. I’m not even sure how one would go about complaining, because every time I try to figure it out a petal-strewing Rickard dances in from stage left. I am merely saying, I had one chance in my whole entire lifetime of ever hearing anyone redo The Sounds of Silence with Valhalla references, and it’s gone.*tiny, wistful sigh*

Joan of Arc (from S05E05)

“So I did it like a dude, cut my hair
Gave up wearing dresses, bought a pair
Of trousers

No blouses
Said I wanna fight Angleterre!”

Where I’d rank it: 8th

Yeah, so in the original review I said I was willing to forgive the fluffy affectations as a means to get Saint Joan across effectively to a younger audience, and I stand by that here… but man, the subsequent listens are making it harder. Not so much Martha’s performance, that holds up unsurprisingly well; albeit so does my reservations re: costuming. Accurate or no, damn it’s hard to keep up with the fine details of Joan’s military prowess when you’re baffled by fleur-de-lys-covered pantaloons. That Ms. Howe-Douglas even makes it possible easily keeps this video out of last place.

What lands it in next-to-last place is–well, look, I can appreciate a song that’s solely about the catchy hook as well as the next Eighties kid. But ye gods, kiddies, in my day the hook at least involved Ghostbusters. The only creative upside to the current vapid frothiness, or frothy vapidness, or whatever, is that it fully manages to give the trial sequence the weight it deserves by comparison. For a lovely moment, it all springs to real, appealing life… and then Bishop Mat starts dancing along, and I conclude once again that I would be the single worst person to watch Eurovision with, like, ever.

Henry VII: The Original Tu-Tu-Tudor (from S05E09)

“I didn’t agree with King Richard III
So I fought him at Bosworth Field and won
Victory!
How cool does it sound, that I’m the king who found 
Richard’s crown in a hedge on the winning battleground?”

Where I’d rank it: 7th

What strikes me most on rewatching this one is how much sheer fun everyone’s clearly having filming it–no, more than usual. A lot more, actually. More as in they appear to be still playing the half-schnockered party animals from the Crassus video, except I think here they may actually be half-schnockered. As Exhibit A I present the huge beaming isn’t-this-just-the-best-thing-EVER grin on Jim. Apparently even playing Richard III pales in comparison with the chance to back Henry VII, to the point where it starts seeming vaguely treasonous.

The good news is, every bit of all this unbridled joy is justified… save perhaps the far end of Larry’s, but we should all be used to that by now. This is altogether the most charming of S5’s second-tier musical experiments, coming in below Alexander’s here only because Willbond is playing so much more against type than Mat.

But in all other ways, the comedic logic that starts with giving dour Henry VII a glam-rock makeover and ends up with Baynton kicking ass and taking names on both counts–in falsetto!–is seamlessly and unassailably smile-worthy, in an un-self-conscious manner that recalls the very best of S2. Come to think of it, everybody looked idiotically happy to be celebrating Pachacuti, too…

Transportation (from S05E08)

“We were creative, inventive
Progress our incentive
Always searching for a solution
We took some steel and a wheel
Made a plane, car and train and created a revolution!”

Where I’d rank it: 9th

OK, two things: a) Yes, of course this should be the Owain Glyndwr song. I have no idea why it isn’t, save perhaps the desire to avoid further irritating the Welsh grammar police. On the other hand, in this song there is b) Benjamin T. Willbond, attempting to sing, keep up with doo-wop choreography, maintain an American accent and wear a nineteenth-century suit, all at the same time. Given the gushing I’m about to do in the next couple entries, I feel I should note here that comedic achievement comes in many and diverse forms.

Really, as noted in the original review this is no more than the boys’ charisma having a grand day out, and as such would be impossible to dislike even if it didn’t give me the odd feeling–also noted in the original, and reiterated here to indicate that I am totally not kidding–that I’ve suddenly just got home from grade school and turned on American PBS. There’s something about the the combination of a guileless salute to the iconic transportation pioneers and a Greased Lightnin’ parody that once again just screams Sesame Workshop… And no, I still haven’t worked out if that’s a compliment or not.

Charles Dickens (from S04E03)

“In my life, felt shamed by poverty in childhood.
Wrote about sadness, suffering and fears
Also wrote about people with funny names
Bumble, Smallweed, Scrooge, Uriah Heep
And Wackford Squeers…”

Where I’d rank it: 2nd

Because duh. Sorry once again, poor dear Richard III, but the title of ‘most perfect piece of musical comedy HH has ever produced’, bestowed on your showcase video in the S3 edition of this article, must formally be slipped to a new and more virally successful candidate. You’ll always have the children’s drawings, but Dickens-via-Morrissey here has the swinging gladioli. Q.E.D.

Honestly, the subject/parody fusion this time is so ridiculously, brilliantly perfect down to the smallest sparkling facet–not forgetting the wonderful backup shrewdness from Jim, Larry and even Al “Mutton-Chops” Murray–there’s literally nothing left to say. So you’ll excuse me if I take the opportunity instead to do something I generally try to avoid, on account of not trusting my own objectivity.

But here we are at the very last, I’ve got Slate magazine on my side, and so for once I’m going to flat-out fawn over Mathew Baynton’s onscreen charisma when filtered through his obviously heartfelt ease within music. If not actually genius, the boy’s gift for genre mimicry does a damn good impression of it; at their best, his HH musical turns are delicately, authentically sophisticated in a way that provokes unusually sharp disbelief that they’re part of a children’s show. Thus, Robert Knox, the King of Bling, Dick Turpin, Charles Darwin, Henry VII, and now Dickens, among many others: Take a bow, indeed.

Rosa Parks: I Sat on a Bus (from S05E01)

What act of mine caused havoc to ensue
How come I caused such fuss?
What shocking behaviour did I do?
Well…
I sat on a bus.”

Where I’d rank it: 3rd

And then there is Dominique… well, I’ve already gushed about that, and indeed this song, at full length in the relevant episode review, and can only add here that both become more so with each repeat viewing. Short version: the decision to lead off the last-ever series premiere with this video, regardless of Dickens and the Hippie Vikings also on tap, is entirely understandable.

…Also, I have the nagging feeling I should be saying something profound about diversity and the show finally breaking out of the Dominant White Male ideology with a vengeance and all that. I dunno. What I feel needs to be celebrated above all, on that score, is how effectively the HH format breaks down any ideology to its component humanity–exposing same as flawed and foible-ridden, yes, sometimes disturbingly so, but as a corollary making the moments when it rises above stand out as that much more precious.

Thus no-one has ever been placed on a pedestal while the show demanded they be admired solely because they happen to fit the latest politically correct fashion in whatever form; they’ve simply presented human beings worthy of real, relateable consideration, whether that leads to contempt or admiration. Trust me, folks, this is something to be cherished. Don’t ever, ever discount it.

We’re History (Finale) (from S05E12)

“Together, we made the world
A little bit grim
We’re history–
Could be fairly… dim.'”

Where I’d rank it: 1st

Yeah… so… yeah… this… um…

*snif*

…Y’know what, I think I’m just gonna let the tears raised in my eyes at the sheer sweet rightness of it all–even after two years and approx. thirty-seven thousand viewings later–stand as my last tribute to this video, and to all of Horrible Histories. Thank you once again, all of you. It’s been one hell of a ride.

********************************************************************

P.S. — To the ‘new team’ behind what now appears certain to be a sixth series–which, from patching together hints on social media, does not involve Caroline Norris, Greg Jenner or any of the core cast, but does for some reason involve Lawry (there’s an AfterM*A*S*H joke in there somewhere, if I could only figure out how to make it)–anyway, I wish you nothing but free and open goodwill.

P.P.S.– But if you screw with this finale song in any way, shape or form, I will [insert Liam Neeson’s Taken speech here]. Yes, I know I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. Trust me, I’ll figure it out.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E12

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

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

Words We Get From the — Greeks

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

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

Awful Egyptians

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

Measly Middle Ages

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

Woeful Second World War

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

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S05E11

Poland! Perfect… we’ll agree to protect them, and maybe they’ll repay us in the future with reasonably-priced builders…

For one last time, the show bounces back with the traditional series-ending leave-’em-wanting-more episode… or in this case, leaving the viewer terribly grateful it’s going away soon before it has a chance to spoil. Yep, still trying to tell myself that, and sometimes it even works.

In this episode:

Song: Australia — Martha recounts the famously Horrible antedecents of everyone’s favourite sunshine-intensive barbie-shrimp-slippers, with help from Simon and Ben… but not, surprisingly enough, from the wildlife. (Parody of: Kylie Minogue, feat Can’t Get You Out of My Head and I Should Be So Lucky)

Recurring sketches:

DI Sergeant Bones: Historical Crime Road Traffic Accident Squad — The Bikers and the Baffling Velocipede (“You mean to tell me you ride around on this thing with four wheels, two seats, a drawing board and a sunshade, but no brakes?!” “Why, yes!” “…Note to self: I. Quit. That’s it. I’m gonna write that novel.”)

Stupid Deaths — Pliny the Elder (Was trapped in a toxic gas cloud while trying to rescue a friend from Vesuvius’ eruption… “Hah, ‘fortune favours the brave’! Volcanoes favour the cowardly, mate! Ooh, I am on fire today! Erm, no offense…”)

Historical Apprentice — Team Maximus and Team Minimus vie to create and exploit a celebrity gladiator in some very creative ways… and discover that where gladiators are concerned, it’s possible to get a bit too creative. (“Can I just say, ‘man -vs- beast’ was actually his idea?” “Yeah, well, I didn’t mean a tiger, did I? I meant like a badger or something!”)

DVD set — Winston Churchill: Britain’s Wittiest Man (Britain’s wartime genius is also a comedy genius. Yes, really! “A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you–fails–and then asks you not to kill him!”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

New! My Little Pit Pony — Less with the sparky rainbow friendships, more with the grinding labour and choking toxic dust… and it fits perfectly in its special Coal Mine playset! (“Careful, Lily dear, you don’t want your My Little Pit Pony to get hurt in a rockfall, or an explosion in the mine!” “Don’t be silly, Mummy! …That’s just what happens to pit ponies!”)

Awful Egyptians

Don’t Tell the Corpse — Even before they got to the Land of the Dead, Egyptian funeral planning involved approximately fifty-seven zillion small details. (“At the top end, you can have the deceased’s intestines removed by a professional embalmer; and at the bottom end–so to speak–we can have his guts dissolved with the injection of cedar oil. You know, right up the–” “Yeah, thank you…”)

Hieroglabble — It’s the word-based board game that’s fun for the whole literate priesthood only! Warning: Hieroglyph combinations may take years to learn. “And coming soon, new Advanced Hieroglabble, with all the glyphs from the later Greco-Roman period–meaning you can play with up to 5,000 tiles!” “We’re gonna need a bigger board…!”

Gorgeous Georgians 

Pity Port Jackson — The arrival of a British relief fleet on the shores of the first Australian colony only complicates the question of who’s meant to be relieving who. (“Well, we’ve got to sort this out, man! Without food supplies, more people are going to die!” “*erghkkk* *thud*” “My point exactly!”)

Woeful Second World War

Neville Chamberlain Online — The Historical Desktop sketches literally go out with a bang, as the beleaguered architect of ‘peace for our time’ (#humblebrag) logs on to discover just how temporary it’s going to be… (“What’s this, then? ‘InvasionAdviser.com review of Czechoslovakia by AHITLER33’… OK, no need to panic, Neville; a lot of these invasion reviews are fake…”)

Measly Middle Ages

Great Historical Country Walks — The Norman conquerors’ subsequent ‘harrowing’ of the Northern countryside wasn’t nearly as pleasant as it sounds… unless you’re really, really into homonym-type puns. And even then, sort of disturbing. (“OK, so York is over there, by that massive bonfire… wait a minute, I think York is that massive bonfire…!”)

Sophisticated As — In which the new post-1066 fad for French words elevates dinner-party small talk into entirely new realms of awkward. (“Is there any more pig?” “Oh, really, Laurence! Zut alors!”)

Field Notes:

  • Damnit, they’ve done it again. For one last time, the show has pulled off its neat and nifty trick of immediately following up a disappointing episode with one of such clever, insinuating charm you’re fully reminded why you started watching in the first place.
  • And it gets worse… that is to say better, except the part about being, y’know, Episode 11 of Series 5. Because it also fully honours the tradition of ending each series with a further flourish of all the things that make it most endearing. Basically the sketch-comedy equivalent of a cliffhanger, designed to make you realise not only exactly what you’re going to miss but just how much. Now, I don’t want to actually accuse the producers of setting up this next-to-last-ever episode with that in mind as well–they’re usually not that sadistic unless Mat’s particular charms are concerned, and—
  • *looks down sketch list* …Oh, crud.
  • So yeah, as a side-effect of serving as the prose finale (the producers perhaps realising, correctly, that in the literal final episode all anybody would be anticipating was the song) this episode collates the remnants of the casting experiment that gave S4 so much of its peculiarly sweet, vivid appeal: namely, Let’s Throw Baynton Over the Top and Film What He Finds on the Other Side. How sniffle-worthy it is to rediscover that particular meme at this late date will of course be dependent on how fond you are of Ol’Minstrel Eyes in particular; for me, it makes it very poignant indeed.
  • I think I’ve made it clear throughout this project that I have great affection for every member of the starring cast; but having also spent the same project dropping hints will formally admit here, where it seems to be appropriate, that Mat is far and away the only one whose departure would’ve made me reconsider watching altogether. Although the thought of losing Larry, Jim or Simon has at various times also made me twitch noticeably. Also sometimes Ben, usually when he’s onscreen with Jim or Simon. And Martha, in WWII mode… oh, and that whole Boudicca deal… Well, hell, it never did happen (and I suspect I only brought it up in the first place to delay the inevitable) so let’s move on.
  • Should anyone accuse me of waxing melodramatic about the above production motives re: rebounding or anything else, however, may I just point out that the very first thing the viewer is confronted with here is Baynton as DI—or whatever–Bones lolloping up to an accident scene making siren noises… then being pitched right to the outer edge of his Leslie Nielsen by Jim and Dominique as scatterbrained Victorian lovers. In the course of which he’s both literally and figuratively blown away by a [magically intact, but hey] parasol. Rebound nothing; I don’t think the show has pulled off this level of pure comic joy since Baynton as the Victorian HParamedic imitated a tapeworm.
  • Even making allowances for the usual attention paid to the Victorian bits, the dour DI—or whatever–in fact gets a more elaborately thought-through sendoff than pretty much any other of the show’s recurring stalwarts, up to and including Death and the Shouty Man (yes, if anybody’s wondering, I still have dibs on that band name). To the extent that someone was actually commissioned to execute a fully recognizable, detailed pencil portrait of Jim–which I do hope they gave him to take home–rather than resorting to either generic daisies or a gag copy of the Mona Lisa. Between which and the earlier papier-mache elephant, the gallant-to-the-last f/x team is definitely owed a bow.
  • Someone evidently really, really believes in this whole concept of melodramatic Mat as an *ahem* vehicle for police drama satire, is what I am saying here. And on the off-chance they occasionally Google their audience’s reaction, I would just like to not only offer them a hug of full validation, but once again throw out the suggestion that the material (also likely the performers) are available and the format beyond perfect for an ongoing standalone series of shorts. Trust me, I’ve had the Kickstarter copy written long since.
  • In other clearly-I’ve-been-a-really-good-fan-this-year news, the Historical Desktops also get a joyously worthy sendoff. Featuring not only the return of Jim’s Churchill (who finally gets to really show off that famous wit) but the full redemption of Prime Minister Simon, so badly wasted last ep. That single little #humblebrag hashtag, in that moment, is as absolutely perfect a bit of comedy as the show has ever produced.
  • Really, the whole thing is almost painfully wonderful, to the point where, as usual with these bits, it’s difficult to coherently explain why. All I know is, favourite sketch hell, it just officially became my Favourite Satirical Concept Ever. So many juicy comedic threads intertwined so cleverly, character, plot and matching reference, and never a false step; in fact, the skill level actually keeps climbing as each sketch progresses, and the best part is you can never tell what form it’ll take next, because it’s mostly in the tiny throwaway asides. Here, for instance: that pic of Dali on RateMyTache.com… “Have you tried our sister site, RateMySide-Whiskers.com?”… Churchill bragging about having ‘the top score on Minesweeper in the Foreign Office’…
  • ….and as the sprinkles on the top of the sundae of endearingness, the mummy judge makes a triumphant comeback on Stupid Deaths! I have no idea why I should be so ridiculously happy about this, but come to think of it, let the fact that I am stand as an appropriate final testament to just how much sheer engaging the show has achieved with this segment.
  • In particular this is another massively satisfying old-style SD, even if the death, once again, is much more unfortunate than genuinely idiotic. Evidently—and rather interestingly–aware of this, Mat contributes a performance that fully manages to salvage Pliny’s dignity while still fulfilling all the requirements of the surreal silliness.
  • Speaking of salvage, the show has also finally righted the HApprentice ship, producing a segment that’s decently clever re: both satire and subject. If the funny’s still not quite hitting the lavishly witty heights of last series, it’s at least back to not involving charts. In their place are some really genuine side pleasures, including more hilariously sweet “isn’t this all just so much fun?!” from Greg, more vamping from Simon, more intriguingly grrrl-powered Martha, and of course more cringing amoral schmuck Larry. Funny how I don’t mind Rickard whingeing in the slightest, but when Lawry does it… well, Lawry isn’t otherwise in this delightful final wrapup episode at all, as it happens, and we’ll just leave it at that.
  • There is however one last nicely sophisticated use of the Hadland crazy-eyed brittleness, or crazy brittle-eyed-ness, or whatever it is. Having never previously heard of Abigail’s Party, of which fandom agrees the Norman dinner party bit is supposed to be a piss-take, my viewing notes here continue “… nice ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’-esque tension she and Larry set up, anyway.”
  • Ordinarily I’m not a fan of novelty naming, but the ‘Laurence’ conceit is for once actually reasonably novel, and in fact has me musing over other notably missed boats in that line. Matthew Arnold, anyone? Martha Washington? Benjamin Franklin? Simon Bolivar? James… pretty much every other male born in Western Europe from 1700-1956?
  • Meanwhile, in all the kerfuffle over Sarah and the bald cap, it further occurs to me that something should be said for the almost equally inexplicable “stick Jim in a Dutch-bob wig to indicate exotic antiquity” trope, which makes a typically non-sequitur appearance in the Egyptian funeral sketch, alongside its (slightly more understandable) cousin ‘Mat in artfully disheveled shoulder-length tresses’. I dunno, I just have much more trouble imagining either as the go-to ‘do for the happening historically accurate North African male than as the go-to method of keeping the makeup team amused.
  • Anyway, one of the few longform sketches of S5 pays off handsomely regardless, in terms both of a satisfyingly logical, detailed followup to last series’ ‘Duat’ bit and allowing Baynton and Howick one last surreal romp together. They’re the one intra-troupe pairing that right to the end I’ve never known what to expect; save that, as here, it will be both gloriously and uniquely adorable.
  • Up to and including, in this case, Mat’s accent I have no idea what it is, and don’t want to know, because frankly that’d spoil everything… oh, and the gestures, can’t forget those. Altogether, assuming he’s not actually mimicking someone specific, this is one of the single best characters he’s ever created for the series–perfectly skimming his own unique line between irresistibly childlike silliness and razor-sharp adult satire.
  • Also, somewhere in there he and Simon throw out a small celebration of the show’s decision to finally cover some Australian history, in the form of finding time to pull off a freakishly expert mimicry routine. The technical term for the amount of rehearsal required to achieve the apparent offhand ease with which they speak in unison in the Port Jackson sketch is “one hell of a lot.”
  • In tandem with Simon’s reliably thick-headed bureaucratic schtick (which the writers are still enjoying as much as ever) this just about makes me not amazed that this much creative effort would be invested in a slight throwaway bit that doesn’t even have the side bonus of making Ben miserable… um, depending on how closely he was paying attention the day they taught ‘falling’ in drama class.
  • It’s altogether funny, really, how Australia of all civilizations has been so thoroughly overlooked in the HH canon up til now. The sketches about a country founded literally as a side-effect of punishing people who stole handkerchiefs and impersonated Egyptians (per Bill Bryson) seem like they’d pretty much write themselves. I’d been assuming the lack of same was the result of the notorious Aussie sensitivity to what they term the ‘stain’ of their convict heritage, except we now have a whole entire song crammed in here in a clear effort to make up for lost time.
  • And it is… well, as a prelude I should mention that Kylie Minogue is known in N.America primarily as “that Loco-Motion remake girl”, and that when this song was first aired surprise at learning she was still relevant anywhere sent me to Wikipedia. Where I was chastened, but not all that enlightened. Except inasmuch as that it’s clearly an apt (if not actually obvious) parody match, and definitely a nice step up, sophistication-wise, from the relentlessly banal adherence to novelty of our previous entry. Martha contributes her usual effective vocal, and the songwriting does an excellent job of playing peppy plastic synthpop off relentlessly earthy reality–quite a nice sharpish touch about it, really, if you listen closely enough.
  • That proved a bit difficult, on account of the video having some uncharacteristically severe problems with holding my interest. When your biggest visual achievement–in support of a song set in one of the most famously charismatic ecosystems on the planet–is speculating whether Ben losing his hat was accidental or not… yeah, a biggish boat got missed somewhere, and I don’t think it contained Egyptian impersonators this time. What’s left is I suppose charming enough, depending on your appreciation for a behatted Benjamin; but overall much more reminiscent of the first-series musical ethos than the last.
  • There’s also the rather uncharacteristically glib little swipe at the Aborigines, that appears to have much more to do with the chance at a winking reference (the general conviction that bare namedropping = cute enough to kiss these last couple of eps is rather worryingly suggestive of songwriter burnout) than any type of desire to convey the reality of early colonist/native relations–again, a touchy subject, and not really suited for indepth comedy treatment, but let us just say the latter likely have a much different perspective on who turned out to be the ‘bad neighbors’.
  • It looks especially odd alongside the effortlessly snarky My Little Pit Pony business. Which turns out to be everything sweetly and slyly subversive that the earlier Spartan Girl advert should have been, starting with the pitch-perfect logo art, and delights me exceedingly in consequence. The more so because I have no particular investment in the parody subject; I think I must’ve been born without the ‘little girls=love ponies’ gene. Thus am all the more free to enjoy how this sketch skewers the moral blindness of the Victorian upper-middle-class more effectively in thirty seconds than in the entirety of last series’ uber-elaborate Wife Swap.
  • I also like the snarkiness of country-walking Martha trying to switch gears upon encountering rampant horrific death and destruction, except she’s wearing a pink puffer jacket. Altogether it’s one of the niftier throwaway bits of the series, although y’know, honestly, maybe it’s different in the UK, but when I hear ‘harrowing’ my first thought is the more disturbing meaning.
  • There’s likewise a lot of pop-cult parody goodness to be had in the Heiroglabble advert, which admirably maintains the board-game spoofs’ gentle-but-multidirectional satire right to the end, and throws a rather surprisingly low-key final cameo from Deary into the bargain. On the other hand, there is Simon, who in his relentless quest to find something unique in every character he has ever been given has finally been driven to pulling out his Death voice and hoping that nobody recognizes it without the makeup. Pretty darn effective in the moment, mind you (especially when combined with the ongoing ‘random Jaws homage’ thingy), but still… one more little sign that they all gave it up just in time.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, so velocipedes. Actually the collective name for all human-powered wheeled vehicles (the term itself comes from the Latin for ‘fast foot’). Of which the bicycle is one, and the more outlandish ‘quadracycle’ shown here another. There were and are also, of course, unicycles, tricycles and something called a dicycle, wherein the two wheels are side-by-side rather than sequential. All of them went through endless permutations beginning in the early nineteenth century, as inventors vied not only to come up with more sophisticated pedaling mechanisms but, seemingly, new ways to cull the thrill-seeking herd.
  • Nobody tell poor Bones, but he encountered one of the more stable setups all told. By contrast, Darwin probably heartily endorsed the original ‘bicycle’, the famous (if in reality very short-lived) penny-farthing, which left the rider wobbling on a tiny saddle atop an enormous front wheel. As ludicrous as it seems now, the p-f was intended then as an improvement on the boneshaker, first developed in the late 1860’s and what children’s books of the period mean when the bratty rich kid brags about his ‘velocipede’.
  • The joke’s on him, see, because they got their common name from the harsh ride that resulted from the inflexible wrought-iron frame and wooden wheels. Thus the model we know and love, first introduced around 1880 or so, was initially called the ‘safety bicycle’… because it had a braking mechanism.
  • OK, Neville Chamberlain deservedly takes a ton of flak for the whole deeply unnecessary ‘peace in our time’ grandstanding, but let’s not crucify the poor guy just yet. More sympathetic revisionist historians have suggested that our Neville was a lot cannier than he traditionally gets credit for. After all, signing that treaty with Hitler did buy the erstwhile PM the time he needed to quietly get the UK on a proper war footing, without which, frankly, Churchill wouldn’t have had a nation to inspire in the first place. It’s only in hindsight that these boring backroom policy details get obscured by the whole, y’know, “YOU SIGNED A TREATY WITH #%@$%-ING HITLER?!” thing.
  • Meantime, over on the other side of the world: Australians, as noted just a little tetchy about the whole ‘originally a penal colony’ concept. The rest of the world, meanwhile, is all “Are you kidding? An entire country of badass thieves and murderers and stuff? That’s, like, so cool!
  • Needless to say, the rest of the world is indulging in serious wishful thinking. These were not cunning master criminals; these were mostly hapless slum-bred pickpockets and drunks and tavern brawlers and (no, seriously) Egyptian impersonators and suchlike, precisely none of whom had any skills whatsoever that might help upon being plonked down on the other side of the world and told to recreate something resembling a civilised existence. The lovely (at least in hindsight) Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson is available for the curious.
  • Short version: everybody got off the boat and immediately began randomly bumbling into such Colonisation 101 roadblocks as what to plant when and which end of a cow you get milk from (that’s assuming they could even find a cow, given that most of the herd promptly escaped into the wild on arrival) and how to store food supplies so bugs don’t get in and, um, whoops, bugs are good to eat, right?… all, it must be assumed, while coping with the native wildlife’s tendency to viciously murder them for no apparent reason. (Ohai, cute little cone-shaped shell just lying there on the beach! I think I’ll just pick you up and squeeze you and —OHGODOHGODTHEPAINOHGODMAKEITST*erk*)
  • This is not even mentioning the native human population, who despite the song’s assertion were basically OK with and even seemingly amused by the palefaced newcomers… except for those occasional times when they also decided to viciously murder them for no apparent reason.
  • All this, as the sketch here indicates, was not doing wonderful things to the already-high stress levels of those stalwart representatives of Queen and Country tasked with reducing some type of order out of this inexplicably colourful chaos. They’d just unmasked the one convict who’d faked being a botanist in order to get special privileges (among various other similar scams), and here’s the Second Fleet shows up not with desperately needed supplies, but with plenty more of those damned convicts. So yeah, the original Australians: in the most literal sense, not happy campers.
 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E10

So why should you vote for me, ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton? ‘Cos I’m an ordinary guy, just like you!
…I mean, yes, I set myself on fire when I’ve got the hiccups. Who doesn’t? And like you, I also enjoy riding bears!

A couple further flashes of newly quirky brilliance can’t hide the fact that the steam is running out awfully fast, now… by which I mean, the sketches are starting to involve actual steam. With diagrams. And the ABBA references may-or-may-not be helping…

In this episode:

Song: Matilda(s) and Stephen… and Henry — Alice, Martha, Larry and Jim battle it out for the English throne in the medieval power struggle known as the Anarchy… as retold via, yep, ABBA references. Because that literally makes as much sense as any other attempt to explain it.

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — New! Roman Baths (“After a hard day of watching your slaves do all the work, why not de-stress in a range of temperature-controlled baths?!” “Oi, you’re starting to get annoying now, mate…” “Yes, I get that a lot!”)

Stupid Deaths — Emperor Domitian (Killed by an assassin exactly at the time predicted, after his attendants lied about the hour to protect his paranoia… “Come on out, mate, we haven’t got forever!… well, actually we have, but that’s not the point.”)

Historical Apprentice — Team James Watt and Team (Spinning) Jenny vie to see who can maximise textile production. No, nobody’s taken a vow of silence this time …because there’s “what/Watt’ jokes instead. (“With the help of the Watt steam engine, the factory business has produced three hundred kilos of textiles…” “So what’ve you got to say about that then, Team Mary?” “Jenny, Lord Sugar.” “What?” “Aye?”)

HHTV News — Live from a schoolboy strike in Llanelli, Wales, 1911 (“And what exactly are your demands?” “Two-four-eight-six! We want more math-e-mat-ics!” “Shush!” “…sorry.”)

Real Tudor Hustle — Demonstrating how market day scams exploited the greedy and gullible… ie, pretty much Times Square on any given Tuesday, but with way more sweet velvet caps.

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

Victorian Undercover Proprietor — A mill owner investigates the squalid conditions his workers toil and live under and–surprise!–does not decide to have them flogged for insolence into the bargain. (“I knew it! I knew that were a disguise, as soon as I saw that daft fake beard–” “OW!” “…so sorry.” “…s’alright.”)

Measly Middle Ages

The War of the Bucket — Which the participants therein are understandably less than impressed to discover is an actual thing. (“Well, a couple of guys from Modena stole our town’s bucket… so in order to get it back, the Pope has insisted we launch a full-scale war.”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Political Party — Move over, Monster Raving Loonies, “Mad Jack” Mytton is in the house. And if you and/or his constituents are lucky, he won’t actually ride off with it. (“But that’s not all! If you vote for me, I guarantee I will go naked duck hunting–at night!”)

Troublesome Twentieth Century

Suffragette Express — When you absolutely, positively need to annoy the socks off the powerful in three-four days or so.

Terrible Tudors

“P” For… — Why a forehead brand has never been recommended as an icebreaker at a job interview… yes, it’s almost over. (“The ‘P’ doesn’t stand for ‘perjurer’, it stands for… erm… ‘Perfect Employee’!”)

Field Notes:

  • Wow. I urgently need to apologise to S03E10, which up to now is what I confidently thought was the least impressive HH episode I had ever or would ever see. Unfortunately, as has been proven repeatedly throughout this review project, I suck at predicting things, and the existence of our current subject episode is no exception.
  • Yes, sure, it has a great, fully classic Stupid Death, and an equally lovely unexpected roundoff to the Victorian labour thread, and a party-animal politician… oh, and can’t forget the bit with people being incredulous that they’re fighting a holy war over a ceremonial bucket. It’s just that the rest of it is so… so…
  • OK, story time: During this series’ filming, some of the most intriguing spoilery leaks concerned a space-race-themed sketch in which Ben would play legendary Soviet Premier Nikita “Don’t Tell ME I’m Not Going to Disney World!” Khruschev. Later, one of the cosmonaut extras (they apparently imported authentic Russian actor/models, which unusually lavish expense suggests this was planned as one of the hilights of the series at the time) tweeted a shot of the finished sketch that also showed Mat in a supporting role as a dorky young apparatchik.
  • Well. Words cannot express how much I was looking forward to all this. I was almost as excited about Nikita Willbond & His Great Space Adventures as I was about my sparklier version of the Twilight/Byron takeoff. Then came the finished series and both just sort of… never happened. The Russian sketch in particular had evidently been wholly scrapped, without trouble or trace (and also evidently without reference to the poor tweeting extra).
  • Thus, to recap: No additional exciting space-race stuff. No Benjamin-as-Khruschev. No adorkable Mat  or hunky cosmonauts. None of that was thought worth keeping… but the suffragette sketch that only makes sense if somebody mistook the opening scenes of Mary Poppins for a documentary, that made it through.
  • So did various other bits so desperately uninspired that even Larry couldn’t salvage them. So did a sketch centering round a random schoolboy strike, which to add insult to idiocy somehow does not feature Mike Peabody having rocks bunged at his ankles by beanie-wearing rugrats. It does feature Alice the newsbimbo being menaced by Lawry in full psychotic mode as the Dickensian schoolmaster, which is appreciated, but that’s not the point
  • “But… but,” you have for some time been sputtering frantically, “there was a song! ABBA references! Nobody can ever possibly be unhappy when there’s ABBA references!”
  • Yeah… about that. Something else we need to get clear before going much further: I have never understood the ABBA phenomenon, and am now more confident than ever that I never will. Mind you, I am perfectly OK with them as purveyors of catchy dance-pop; I just don’t understand how same rates their subsequent elevation to shining icons of fluffy campiness. Or, for that matter, the whole European concept of fluffy campiness to begin with. And I am having further real trouble understanding how all this equates to regal Middle Ages infighting. I would be a really lousy person to watch Eurovision with, is I guess what I am saying here.
  • Thusly, despite the song relentlessly bunging knowingly ironic winks at me like somebody just remembered they have to use their remaining stock up before show’s end, I remain stolidly unenchanted. (On the other hand, suddenly previous failures to work the musical melodrama correctly, as in “The English Civil War Song”, now make total sense.) It doesn’t help that from what I can tell, some genuinely good satirical elements are going to waste in the general slavish desperation to the theme…
  • …One of which, unfortunately, is not Larry attempting a straight vocal lead. The Rickardian musical weird, as it turns out, needs the scope and breadth of campiness that only disco can provide in order to flourish properly. The difference between his Aztec vocal and this one, in fact, serve as a neat gauge of the relative effectiveness of the two productions. Here, I’m imagining a pre-production meeting in which someone defends casting Larry by mentioning all those singularly non-musical types in the Mamma Mia! movie, and everyone else goes along just to avoid having to think about warbly Pierce Brosnan anymore.
  • Right, fine, getting to the good stuff. Martha and Alice can never not be musically awesome either apart or together, so that their delicately regal catfight actually does come close to making the insistent references fun and/or relevant… and Jim in the background, just sort of hanging out being Jim, makes a most excellent foil. Special bonus points for when he does get a couple solo lines, and the entire cotton-candy overlay is effortlessly blown aside by his serious talent. But none of it particularly resonates with the historical subject, so that the whole never rises above a random novelty.
  • This disconnect between style and substance is especially noticeable when one has just finished marvelling at the Victorian Undercover Boss bit. Not so much creatively; on that end, it’s merely another case of surefire casting–and facial hair–paying off accordingly. I might just congratulate Alice on noticeably upgrading her slum-class cred since S3, but man, it’s hard to figure out how to phrase that as a compliment.
  • The real kicker is the subject matter–the Establishment trying to do the right thing in the face of the proletariat’s ignorance and prejudice–and what it represents. After years of loving elaboration on the themes of class struggle in general and Victorian drudgery and squalor in particular, the show has somehow not only realised that a perfect plot-twisty finale in terms of both subject and creative choice lay on the other side, but managed to explore the murky spaces between without missing a beat re: either fairness or poop jokes.
  • …Or, yeah, somebody just noticed a most excellent excuse for poop jokes and the entire sensitivity thing’s an elaborate rationalisation from there. However, as further evidence of deliberate and intriguing exploration of the grey areas, I suggest a compare-and-contrast in evident motivations between S1’s righteously outraged ‘How to Vote in a Georgian Election’ and the current profile of actual outrageous Georgian political candidate “Mad Jack” Mytton, which… well. You just can’t up and use Simon Farnaby to tell the story of a man who randomly rode bears without understanding the consequences re: implied awesomeness, any more than you can doll up an ‘unromantic’ highwayman in guyliner and plead innocence.
  • Taken all-in-all, it’s very hard indeed to avoid the conclusion that we’ve moved on from tweaking Terry Deary’s beloved anarchistic sensibilities to quite deliberately pulling them right the hell out from under him. Quirkiness nothing, this is mutiny… which would explain why such such an interesting and entertaining milestone ended up in this far outpost of episodic irrelevance to begin with: they were really hoping Deary wouldn’t notice. At any rate, I doubt the proposed revival series will continue this particular maturation process (although Horrible campaign tactics generally represent a potentially fertile sketch source that hasn’t yet been mined nearly as thoroughly as it might).
  • The revival series will also not have Death and/or the Shouty Man, or at least–suddenly realising I don’t know who ultimately owns the characters–not these versions. As this particular edition of Stupid Deaths demonstrates, this is going to be a serious handicap. Unless of course they can find another guy who’s not only willing but able to ad-lib an entire wildly satisfying comedy experience into being simply by telling a skeleton “No, pine nuts.”. Somehow I find this a little hard to imagine.
  • Especially since the show clearly not only agrees with me that SD is closure-proof, but is now actively handling it like it’s Series Two and there’s still a world of possibilities… as, of course, in the case of human self-destruction, there always will be. Given what the writers have had to work with elsewhere this series, sheer delighted giddiness on realising that afresh isn’t hard to understand.
  • The result is an SD that fully honours all the best happy-reviewer-brain-making traditions,while also rather cleverly playing around with the stupidity–something that’s been neglected in the last couple seasons, as the focus shifted to Death and his bourgeois Purgatory. Not that I am complaining… just a little sad to have another tiny window into what could’ve been open at this late date. For the moment, though, as noted, I am wholly happy. Larry maybe comes up a bit short in the regal department again, but that’s OK. I always liked him much better as the random (and non-singy) schlub corpses anyway.
  • Over in the other sendoff for an icon, things aren’t going nearly so well. I was sceptical to begin with of the Shouty Man needing any further farewells after Jim doing everything but disappear into the sky on a wave of his own hot air, Oz-like, last episode. But I was also–briefly–hopeful, because I do love me some hapless Willbond being dragged around in the wake of Shouty’s enthusiasm
  • …in related news, I hate it when sketches get my hopes up like that. In the event, the happy huckster’s last hurrah turns out to be merely a (scarily close to literal) fig leaf applied to the producers’ dignity after one of two things were said in a pitch meeting : “Hey, been awhile since we could blatantly imply nudity, hasn’t it?” or “We should totally do an upgrade on S1’s Roman toilet sketches!”
  • Either way, despite some typical cleverness, ultimately Jim’s just going through the motions while the audience oohs over Ben having a chest or Larry pooping or whatever other marginally more novel thing is currently happening in the foreground. Even the tiara looks tired, by now. Ah well, ave aqua vale anyway, Shouty; you and your single joke were there at the very beginning and you both made it to the end not only intact but deservedly beloved. Nice work.
  • After all that, as noted, things get sort of desperate. And strange. And sometimes strangely desperate. Albeit none of the above is necessarily a problem in the War of the Bucket bit, whose premise alone is almost enough to make me OK with the fact that the commander isn’t Simon. Which is really, truly saying something, because of all the places in this whole damn show that Simon should be, it is in this sketch not being Lawry. Especially not Lawry with icky Breaking Bad-extra hair. Sheez. Also, blech.
  • Luckily for us both, there is the sudden welcome infusion of Mat and his vivid vulnerability–for once well-handled in a military sketch; there is another useful compare-and-contrast in the effortless grace with which this is accomplished here vs. the plastic nose icicles in S03E10. The current piece continues on in the promisingly loopy vein of the ‘sacred chicken’ business last ep–and for that matter, all the way back to S2 and the megabear hunt: just find the past-time ludicrousness and let the gang react to it in their own inimitably enlightened  fashion.
  • A little odd that this attitude hasn’t been combined with similar military surreality (also see, for instance, the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”) long since; humans tend to self-destruct even more stupidly in groups than they do individually.
  • *ahem* Speaking of which–no, seriously, something’s got fundamentally off-balance in the HApprentice skits. Apparently the writing team have finally fallen so in love with skewering their latest parody/dartboard target–the sheer offhand skill of Jim’s impersonation undoubtedly, and understandably, being just that seductive–that they’ve lost track of integrating the historical element. To put it kindly. Thus you’ve got a theoretical comedy sketch that in practice requires actual technical diagrams, and meantime everybody’s doing broadly ‘funny’-name-based humour, and it’s just generally all kinds of weirdly pointless up in here.
  • Yes of course, because it’s this troupe, there are always compensations regardless of how far out of context they stray; thing is, by this late date whether they’re novel enough to be worth extracting has become a perpetually open question, and the answer here is mostly ‘not so much’. Ben doing a mashup of his big-dumb-lug voice with his Scots voice does easily have more pure entertainment value than the entire song, but, well, see above re: the song. I’m a little more impressed with Larry’s ‘sweet sensitive artisan’ act (see above re: his skill with hapless schlubs) complete with hilariously appropriate hair, and Simon… is paired with Ben, so gets a pass on residual goodwill alone.
  • As for the rest of it… I dunno really, it all just sort of muffles together in my head. Like one of those Big Balls O’Random Violence you see in cartoons, except this is a Big Ball O’Blandly Amusing and it’s speckled with occasional chuckles instead of “ow!”s. I do vaguely remember being impressed again with Larry… it was Larry, right? Let’s go with Larry, because checking would take thirty seconds out of my life that could be more profitably employed in matching odd socks.
  • …*returns from sock drawer* Anyway, so probably-Rickard gets props for even managing to extract something in the remote vicinity of plausible wit out of the forehead-branding bit. Also, the Tudor Hustle makes me feel sort of guilty for ragging on last series’ Victorian version–the one that was based around Mat’s Fagin impersonation, which I thought was sort of lazily cheating at the time, but am now realising was the comparative height of creative innovation.
  • I did perk up some for the suffragette and school strike sketches. Mostly because they both seemed so determined to shoot themselves in the creative foot–and in precisely the same ways–that I had to conclude it was all the deliberate work of one author, and thus spent a fun few minutes playing yet another round of What the Hell Were They Thinking? The leading theory as of even date involves humouring somebody’s nephew desperate to break into comedy-writing, possibly on account of the real writers taking off early for drinks.
  • I mean really now, show. Took me about ten seconds to come up with a more plausible, ie. Peabody-intensive, premise for the strike stuff (it starts with him arriving on the scene not realising the strikers are little kids…). As for the self-addressed suffragettes… just so we’re all clear, these are meant to be the ‘fierce girls’ from S3, yes? The ones whose struggle you were so conscientiously spotlighting? And yet you couldn’t think of a single plausible thing to have them say here, thus deliberately creating the implication that they approached a potential audience with the Prime Minister with all the finesse of karaoke night at the biker bar? And here I thought I was kidding about the drinking starting early…

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, Emperor Domitian. Whether or not it had anything to do with the odd resemblance to Neil Patrick Harris, according to his very comprehensive Wiki article he was one of the more admirable and popular (ie. not insanely depraved) rulers of Ancient Rome: Domitian’s government exhibited totalitarian characteristics; he saw himself as the new Augustus, an enlightened despot destined to guide the Roman Empire into a new era of brilliance. Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality, and by nominating himself perpetual censor, he sought to control public and private morals. 
  • …Why all the above makes it even funnier that it’s Larry in the role, I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, so yes, the poor man had but one serious chink in his self-esteem, and it was that pesky prophecy of his untimely death. He tried setting up Minerva (aka Athena) as his protector deity, only to have her appear in a dream a few days beforehand to explain that whoopsie, Jupiter/Zeus had disarmed her, so yeah, good luck foiling that elaborate assassination plot involving several of your closest associates and the Praetorian Guard. That no, she apparently didn’t think it was worth telling him about or anything… not even the bit about being first stabbed in the groin. This is what ‘the entire universe is against me’ literally looks like, kiddies.
  • I am delighted to report that the War of the Bucket was indeed an actual thing, and in outline at least follows the description General Icky-Locks Lewin gives here. I am slightly less delighted to explain that it wasn’t actually a random event, but a minor blip in a 300-plus-year conflict. See, starting around 1175, much of Italy divided off into factions supporting the political ambitions of the Holy Roman Emperor  and the Pope respectively–yes, the Pope had political ambitions, because Middle Ages. At any rate, eventual bucket-nabbers Modena were in the former camp, and bucket-owners Bologna the latter–in fact, were personally led by the Pope.
  • This all festered until the early 1300’s, at which point the rival regions started up in earnest with the border incursions and destroying each others’ fields and yada-yada-yada-standard-Middle-Ages-regional-hostility-cakes. Things got so tense, in fact, that all it would take was a little thing like, ooh, say, stealing a ceremonial bucket to set off a major conflict. Albeit apparently said bucket was filled with ‘loot’ from previous raids, so, y’know, slightly more badass. But not by much.
  • Anyway, so then everybody had the big fight over it shown here–more formally, the Battle of Zappolino–and for a brief shining moment this whole mess registered on the international stage… right up until the vastly outnumbered Modenans still managed to handily route the Bolognese, and thus by implication the Pope (in case you were still wondering if God has a sense of humour). And, yes, they kept the bucket. After all, it was the principle of the thing.
  • The whole phenomenon of the schoolboy strikes of 1911 was a similarly wide-ranging one in comparison to its treatment here, and (as you might have intuited already) considerably less adorable with it. Essentially, it pitted working-class students against their comfily middle-class masters, thus becoming the juvenile offshoot of a much more comprehensive set of issues surrounding unions and the perceived exploitation of the poor. From the link:
  • The strike spread locally by word of mouth, across the country courtesy of the press and even, in London, through flying pickets (moving from Shoreditch to Islington). In Swansea, the pickets locked the school gates; in Edgehill near Liverpool, the strikers smashed the glass in the lamp posts as they marched; in Montrose, the schoolboys demanded shorter hours, potato-lifting holidays, no strap, and free pencils and rubbers; at Darlington, the main demands were for attendance payments and an extra half day holiday…
  • …I suddenly feel much less proud of that time we convinced Mrs. Andrews to let us spend recess inside on cold days.
  • OK, in partial mitigation of the show’s handing of the suffragette incident I must just note that the reason they showed the ladies babbling incoherently may have been because, in real life, they didn’t say anything to the PM at all. On account of they never actually met him, having been foiled by the very bureaucracy they had tried to exploit. According to this wonderfully solemn description of the incident, from the British Postal Museum’s blog:
  • On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the East Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union. 
  • This of course raises a whole new set of questions re: why the show bothered to dramatise the incident at all, and why they didn’t bother taking the opportunity to compose a really cutting speech for their luckier fictional counterparts… but I think it’s beyond time we moved on, now.
 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E09

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

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

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

Rotten Romans

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

Measly Middle Ages

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

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

Terrible Tudors

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

Vile Victorians

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

Savage Stone Age

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S05E08

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

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

Vicious Vikings

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

Potty Pioneers

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

Shocking Scotland

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

Woeful Second World War

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

Rotten Romans

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S05E07

 Edward’s project may be controversial, but you’ve got to admire his scale and ambition… although his plans to build a further extension in Scotland have come to a halt, due to a dispute with neighbor William Wallace–

YOU MAY TAKE OUR LIVES!

…but you will never get planning permission to build loads of castles in Scotland. Yep, really. Not gonna happen.

In which the show resorts to anchoring their increasingly ephemeral content, like cobwebs, on sturdy fenceposts of nostalgia (also, the bald cap thingy), and ends up with something nearly as charming.

In this episode:

Song: Owain Glyndŵr: First Prince of Wales — Jim as the proudly undaunted (and practically unpronounceable) Welsh national hero sings of his tumultuous career, with Ben, Mat and Simon on…backup. Or something. (Parody of: Tom Jones, feat. Delilah and Kiss)

Recurring sketches:

Lambert Simnel: Who on Earth Are You? — Hint: probably not one of the lost Princes in the Tower. Or any other threat to his throne “Royalty Expert” Henry VII didn’t already have under iron control.

Bob Hale — The Second World War Report (“Yes, it’s twenty years since Germany lost the First World War, and had a load of land taken off them. And their leader, Adolf Hitler–yup, that one–decides he wants it back. So he just takes it! I know! He’s like that.”)

Gross Designs — Edward I (“So just how big is this extension of yours going to be?” “About eight thousand miles, give or take…” “Wow. And what would you call that: a conservatory? Garden room?” “Actually, I call it ‘Wales’.”)

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Don’t Look Behind You —  “…Might we not be ambushed by barbarians, sir?” “Why on earth would you think that?!” “Well…one, this dense Teutoburg Forest is the perfect place for barbarians to ambush a Roman legion. And two, a spy has warned us of barbarians going to ambush a Roman legion. Specifically, us.”

Augustus: The Movie (movie trailer) — He found Rome a city of brick… and left it a city of marble. Well, with some help from Whatshisname.  The epic, empire-spanning tale of how an Emperor became a legendary hero largely because the guy who actually did all the work heroically refrained from strangling him. (“Erm… Arthur?” “Agrippa!” “Bless you.”)

Terrible Tudors

All-New! Tudor King Lift — The ultimate mobility aid for tubby monarchs! In which we continue to completely ignore the ugly leg ulcers that were the actual major reason why Henry VIII eventually needed to be hoist up the palace stairs. Because the half-eaten turkey leg bit was just so damn hilarious the first thirty-seven thousand times, after all.

Gorgeous Georgians

Ecclesiastical Antics — The oddities of absent-minded Reverend Harvest make for oodles of heartwarming sitcom-esque fun… of course, whether or not that includes forgetting his own wedding is up for dispute. With his bride.

Georgian Showbiz News — Showcasing the fuller spectrum of Georgian celebrity eccentricity: clearly, reality-TV isn’t quite as modern a scourge of civilization as popularly supposed.

Awful Egyptians

Ruthless Rogaine — Ancient cures for hair loss: definitely more trouble than they were worth… and that’s only mentioning the snarky pharmacist. (“Hello! Have you got anything to help with this?” “With what, there’s nothing there?” “Oh ha-ha, that’s really funny…” “I know!”)

New! Only For Men — What a lavish makeup kit turns out to be… well, technically, anyway. Actually, it’s more sort of a totally blatant excuse to show off Simon vogueing shamelessly in eyeliner (and not much else) because why not it’s the last series shut up.

Field Notes:

  • Well, now that we’ve got that all cleared up–well, save for possibly a few freshly-reopened fandom wounds–past time to get back to the windup of what I suppose must henceforth be known as Horrible Histories: The Original Series. Where boy howdy, do we have your soothing balm of nostalgia needs covered and then some.
  • The bad news is, that’s sort of all we have at this point. We’ve already hit the annual late-season lull, and it isn’t even the late season yet. This episode represents a wall of content-related desperation that even S1 didn’t hit until Episode 9, and S1 didn’t have Simon in eyeliner… I don’t think. It’s been awhile, may have to go back and check. There was naked Javone–remember him?–and KISS-groupie sheepskin wigs, I do recall that (memo to self: never buy the cheap brain bleach again). Oh, also wildly earnest revisionist colonialism and Nazis in back-to-back episodes. New bright side just discovered: We’ve definitely moved past the wildly earnest Nazis, here in Series Five.
  • OK, OK, kidding… at least, about the Nazis. More seriously, the show has moved past a whole lot of things in five years, and the results–hell, Bob Hale all by himself, let alone Jim sniggering at Ben in a bald cap–are more than up to the task of making the End Times genuinely not-embarrassing. What’s really endearing, though, is that they haven’t stopped there; the same canny creative resourcefulness that’s swept them from randomly gleeful kiddy grossology to credible all-ages entertainment is very much still on the go. Like I said about S1: the experiments may not all have worked, but the great thing is they never stopped trying.
  • Mind you, they’ve also by now got a much better handle on what works, and not many combinations of idea or performer left that haven’t been thoroughly exploited, so the really offbeat bits of S1 don’t exactly have a corollary here. However, the bunging of neurotic underling Lawry and Proper Military Chucklehead Farnaby into the same skit… well, it’s not Viking Warrior Simon and Ben in pigtails debating poetry, but it is a very acceptable poor man’s substitute.
  • Enough anyway to elevate a very predictable bit into something endearing enough to accept the ‘formidable Roman legion’ composed of three whole legionaries as merely part of the gently surreal vibe. Well, that, and the script called for PMC Farnaby to say ‘poppycock!’ a lot. Or (more likely) Farnaby got bored and decided to say it a lot regardless. Either way, colour me thoroughly charmed.
  • I am considerably less wowed by the episode’s other major attempt to hitch up a sketch to the Farnabian originality/Lewin neurosis and see what happens, ie. the case for Lambert Simnel. As with CDWM, the idea is to retool a proven reality-show parody format; thing is, the initial “Who on Earth Are You?” parody was designed in the service of the subject matter, not the other way around. Thus it does not help much of anything at all that drunk George IV desecrating his ancestors’ bones has been swopped out for Little Actor Who Isn’t Bertie merely standing around scowling blankly at the adults. (Presumably for stuffing him into that costume, which you can just imagine what it’s doing to his playground cred.)
  • Although… see above re: shrewdly marshalling resources, nostalgic and otherwise, of which this is a truly heroic example. For instance, isn’t that also the little guy from the Victorian Dragon’s Den? The one who was all the inventions? Regular fifth-year kindergarten reunion we’ve got going here, which is sort of adorable. Meantime, Simon’s characteristic determination to remain divorced from reality takes on an amusing life of its own and Mat as frighteningly pragmatic “royalty expert” (hee!) Henry VII is genuinely inspired casting, of which much more in a couple eps.
  • There is also a weird… fascination-type-thingy… inherent the way this seasoned team so utterly fails to realise that Sir Guesswork’s entire raison d’etre was the prospect of him being confronted with putrefying corpses. Thus here stranding Lawry in a performance vacuum so complete the viewer’s sympathetic wincing almost works him back around to plausibility. But the whole game and generous collection together is never enough to cover the fact that there’s nothing viably comedic going on, and all concerned finally go down to a rare heroic defeat.
  • So evidently Farnaby’s being used as the go-to coping mechanism in this time of daffiness drought. This isn’t in and of itself a bad idea; after all, it worked out rather well in S3, so it’s possible to understand the impulse to level up from there… which is about all the explanation you’re going to get for the leg-hair removal gags, folks. Except maybe for the fact that it’s pretty obvious even Larry wouldn’t have been able to provide enough leg, or hair for that matter, to make it worthwhile.
  • Seriously, this is what ‘par for the course’ looks like in HH terms: First they put Simon in tights, next in drag as a Stuart-era ‘actress’, now he’s full-on vogueing in beads and eyeliner. If you’re not entertained by even the possibilities of that by now, I am assuming the kids stole the remote while you napped, and the SCREEM when the tape ripped off is what woke you up… and now you’re here just hoping that the universe will eventually make sense again. My condolences. Still, you might just want to stick around for a bit, although I do recommend replenishing your pint glass before we get to the Delilah references.
  • Total auxiliary nostalgia alert: waaaaay back in that first sketch-length look at Egyptian male beauty rituals–in S01E05, featuring Javone doing basically the same schtick except the makeup budget didn’t stretch to beads at that point–I made a joke about how the depilatories must’ve been impressive. Now, at the last mention of the same beauty rituals, five years on, they show off: a truly impressive depilatory! Awwww… *goes all misty-eyed at the mere mention of fly dung*
  • Right, time to move on to more modern sophisticated coping mechanisms. In other words, hellloooo, Gross Designs… which turns out to be actually not much more than yet another excuse for Mat to react to Simon’s crazy. Did I mention that this is also what ‘inevitable’ now looks like in HH terms?
  • Except the crazy here is actually inherent in the lack of it, if that makes any sense. Either we’ve reached the point in his newly-burgeoning career as troupe frontman where even Simon can’t figure out how to make yet another character uniquely offbeat, or he’s pulling a double-reverse fakeout and the (comparative) normalcy is the quirk.
  • Which if true is a rather clever bit of self-awareness, given the loopiness available elsewhere in the piece. Ohboy, Larry goes Welsh! There’s a nice rare one! *checks another box off the Butchered Accents Bingo card* Oop, bonus W.Wallace cameo!… and speaking of double-reverses, the determination to thoroughly meta-mock that song is still running strong, I see. Welp, far be it from me to begrudge you any means of keeping yourself entertained, folks.
  • Seriously though, the GD concept overall really did turn out to be most excellently watchable, all round–the naturally sophisticated evolution of an entire series of similarly engaging longform conquest/land-themed sketches, come to think of it. Funny thing to fixate on under the circs, but it paid off handsomely.
  • On the further subject of self-entertainment value: the cast’s realisation that they can now get away with almost anything has, inevitably, extended to the music. I am not entirely sure how I feel about this coinciding with Jim finally getting  another solo, let alone a Tom Jones pastiche. In the annals of things I never knew I desperately wanted until I heard them announced, that there is a doozy, and I would rather it not be marred by self-indulgent clowning, thank you very much anyway. In particular, Mathew… well, I’m not sure which music video you think you’re in, but trying to figure out what that might be is distracting the hell out of me, and for once in not a good way.
  • And once started with the non-sequitur cutesiness, nobody seems to know quite where to stop. I’d only just managed to definitively refocus off Jim’s hair and his outfit and his sidekicks to the song when suddenly wham! cue the half-hearted hip-hop. These are review notes you probably don’t want to be inspiring in the middle of a kiddie-show tune, no matter how clever you consider yourself: “Ohhhh, Prince! Got it. Har har…uh, except now Howick is all mixed up with my teenage fascination with the When Doves Cry video, and that’s sort of not helping here, folks. Like, at all. Although Mat’s still there too, and that’s a marginal improvement…”
  • In the end, it’s the same fundamental problem as they had with the West Side Story parody: they’re just not believing in the campy melodrama as completely as they should be, and so the result never rises above self-consciously precious. Mind you, despite it all, the central conceit is still strong; it even manages to come across as appropriately epic, thanks almost entirely to Jim’s performance. Which, by sharp contrast with the surrounding antics, represents probably the closest thing to solidly reliable entertainment HH has available by now. Time to bust out the mp3 again, looks like.
  • I know what you’re thinking, and I would absolutely put Bob Hale on the solidly-reliable train as well, except the excesses of last series still have me wanting to quickly double-check his tickets. That, and I couldn’t concentrate properly on his latest until about a third of the way in, because Creepy Disembodied Winky Hitler Head is creepy. Like, bucket-of-chopped-heads from the French Revolution Report creepy. .. or, for that matter, debut-of-Bobsy’s-geriatric-makeup creepy. There’s just something about the childish semi-animation that massively over-enhances the horror factor for, well, this grownup at least.
  • Even after getting a firm grip and a few viewings I’m not quite ready to pronounce this one of the great Reports–largely because everything that might’ve made it truly memorable was entirely, ah, verboten from the get-go. It’s simply a good, solidly entertaining romp in the fine old Hale tradition, which under the circs is quite enough to be going on with. In particular, there is not only a ‘Drama-O-Meter’ but a “Country-O-Meter… or a ‘map’, as some people call it.” There is also the pointed swipeage at Pearl Harbour: The Movie, aka Rickard’s inner action-film buff making a special guest cameo.
  • The format- and film-parody-induced warm fuzzies also abound in the latest movie trailer. Up to and including more lovely satirically surefire gilded titling; very DeMille, guys, well done. Also, more classic casting in the form of Inexplicably Campy Ancient Military Leader Mat… you know, the S1 300 takeoff where Leonidas keeps asking if his hair is OK? Yeah, that. I couldn’t figure out how to summarise it any better, but it’s just as ridiculously funny now as it was then.
  • Even if Larry wouldn’t necessarily be my first pick to fill M.Peabody’s shoes as his foil–in part because now I’m suddenly all wondering exactly where Mike’s got to, in all this rampant glory-day-reliving. Rickard is really close to perfecting that stunned disbelief/resigned frustration combo, though.
  • Another reason to be mildly grateful–or possibly not–at the gang’s refusal to return for S6: at the rate Ben and Jim are going, entire sketches would consist of nothing but the two of them giggling uncontrollably at the sight of each other’s face. (The outtakes of this one, in fact, consist of exactly that.)  Still an’all, I like it. All the gentle funny, uncharacteristic for the later series, yet makes for a most excellent level-up from the old ‘bizarre makeup rituals’ stuff that was such a staple of S1–and despite everything another excellent demonstration of how perfect, almost offhand, the inter-troupe timing has become.
  • There’s more of the same to be had in the Reverend Harvest bit, and thank goodness for small mercies, because otherwise we’ve strayed so far off the Horrible path we’re verging dangerously on the blandly saccharine. To paraphrase a long-ago wit, it is such a mistake to attempt Wodehouse when you don’t succeed.
  • Still, it’s Jim, and he can pull this sweetly eccentric stuff all day as far as I’m concerned… and again, Ben his saner foil, never not watchable. Also, not to be shallow about it or anything–if for no other reason than she’d likely clock me upside the ear for my trouble–but pretty bride Alice is totally kicking in all my feminine wedding-fascination instincts.
  • Martha, on the other hand… Oh, god, I’ve finally found something more viscerally reach-through-the-screen-punchable than Alice as a blonde newsbimbo, and it is Ms. Howe-Douglas as the blonde UK… I think?… equivalent of an Entertainment Tonight hostbimbo. No, the fact that she’s so signally failing at playing dumb only heightens the irritation.
  • Thanks to judicious application of fast-forward, however, there are yet minor rewards to be had. Jim teaching unlikely animals to fetch is now firmly enshrined in the annals of Amusingly Random Minor Casting Fetishes, right alongside Mat and mouthfuls of strange foods… and we probably should add dangerous-animal-trainer Larry in there with them, come to think of it.
  • And finally, as always, there is Henry VIII. Whom I herein leave to the end to demonstrate that I am totally not massively bitter about this whole Return of His Gluttonous Majesty thing, or anything… *heavy sigh of resigned realization that it’s the final series after all* Then again, it might just still be worth pointing out that they’ve somehow have never bothered to make Ben’s face look any heavier, or for that matter, even remotely ravaged by years of luxe living. Yes, I know exactly why, but that’s not the point. 

95% Accu-rat:

  • Ah… totally not arguing with you about the quality of the movie, Bobsy, but Pearl Harbor the actual address isn’t an island. As the name indicates, it’s an Asian-facing lagoon harbor off the real Hawaiian island of Oahu, uniquely deep and broad enough that the American military could maintain a plausible naval base as of 1899. Thusly providing the Pacific Fleet with a headquarters while also solidifying their presence in the then-newly American territory of Hawaii… and, oh yeah, keep an eye on the suddenly aggressive Japanese. Just in case they got any cute ideas about world conquest, fnurr fnurr snort…
  • No, contrary to popular belief American President Roosevelt almost certainly didn’t have advance warning of the attack, thus didn’t callously let his own soldiers die (possibly in cahoots with the British High Command) in hopes of stirring up pro-war sentiment. What is certain, though, is that when word of the attack did finally filter through on the Sunday morning of, the entire American chain of command was too busy demonstrating the downside of setting your base in a tropical vacation paradise to respond effectively, what with the lie-ins and hangovers and all.
  • So going by the online reaction Jim is blithely and repeatedly butchering every last bit of Welsh he attempts in the course of the song, deliberately and not, starting with fussing Prince Owain’s own name to more easily fit the rhyme scheme…
  • …And despite constructing it entirely of randomly inflected grunts the Welsh are still somehow shocked, shocked! when outsiders mangle their language. Don’t get me wrong, I can understand miffed when a national hero let alone several centuries’ worth of sheep jokes are involved, but  really, have you people even heard what they’ve done to French over four series? The intentions here by (violent) contrast were demonstrably of the best, ie. when Larry tries out the Welsh accent he immediately gets a sword up it. S’all good.
  • Yes, that Whole Weird Thing with Lambert Simnel really happened, just as shown… well, except they skipped the part where John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln and Richard III’s designated successor, decided to get back into the kingmaking game in about the weirdest damn way possible. I mean, the show is not kidding, there is absolutely no way anybody with half a brain could’ve plausibly concluded that little Simnel–assuming that was even his real name–however handsome or carefully educated he was reputed to be, was royalty.
  • And as it turns out, nobody did, probably. The Yorkists were simply in just that dire of a need of something to regroup around after Bosworth Field, and hapless little Whatshisname was it. Lincoln worked up a magnificent story of the heroic youngster’s escape from Tudor tyranny, rallied a whole bunch of (presumably very bored) Irish and Flemish troops to his flag, docked them off Lancashire, and they had the battle of Stoke Field…
  • ….which went about as well as you’d expect, given Henry VII was the original pro at seizing the throne on flimsy genealogical pretexts and was getting really tired of dealing with amateurs. Lincoln was killed and Simnel, in one of the saner moments in the annals of royal rebellions, was finally left alone to be ordinary again: King Henry pardoned young Simnel… and gave him a job in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner. When he grew older, he became a falconer. Almost no information about his later life is known… He seems to have married, as he is probably the father of Richard Simnel, a canon of St Osyth’s Priory in Essex during the reign of Henry VIII.
  • Hey, check it, Mental Floss magazine has an article on 14 of History’s Craziest Baldness Cures (our Egyptian pals’ recipe gets a mention at #1), because apparently mankind has been struggling with the loss of their locks since approximately forever. One would think that a nice smooth scalp would actually be an asset in baking Northern Africa/Mediterranean climates, but then again I haven’t dared look up their ideas re: sunscreen yet. Anyway, the ancient idea was that follicle volume = direct tie-in with your strength and virility (think Samson). Keeping people from whispering about your, erm, prowess would explain the willingness to subject themselves to a lot of these recipes, come to think of it:
  • When Julius Caesar’s dome started to thin, Cleopatra suggested he cook up a lotion of ground up mice, horse teeth, and bear grease. Another Roman recipe: 1) take the genitals of a donkey, 2) burn them into ash, 3) mix the ash with your urine, and 4) apply liberally! 
  • …Seriously though, you ever wonder if people eventually started making this stuff up just to see if their friends would actually do it? I probably would.
 
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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Series Five

 

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