Me, I would`ve been more at home in a zoo…
The pilot is launched… and lands not only in the lap of a delighted juvenile nation but straight between the eyes of their parents. Four King Georges sing, pirates pontificate, good-looking men cavort at funerals, and a valuable lesson is learned about the perils of basing opening credits on Windows95 screensavers.
In this episode:
Song: Born 2 Rule (The 4 Georges: I [Ben], II [Mat], III [Simon], & IV [Jim])
Ready, Steady Feast — WWI Shortages & Substitutions
Computer Game: Warrior! — Vikings vs. Monks
Historical Hairdressers — Viking Ear Spoons
Fractured Fairy Tales — The Three Little Pigs, the Georgian version (the brick house walls were blanked to avoid the window tax, so the third little piggy never saw his brothers coming…)
Funeral Fight Club — How the Romans elevated tacky graveside behavior to a legendary sport.
High School Confrontational — What if “The Gladiators” weren’t just the mascots? The first of several imagine spots courtesy Rattus, complete with wavy dissolve cut and “Oooh, I’m imaginin’ it… I’m imaginin’ it!”
Frightful First World War:
Lice Warfare — Life in the trenches was so gross it requires a closeup of Jim’s cartoon-vermin-ridden stomach to explore fully.
The Black Spot(s) — No, really, apparently this was an actual thing. Because obviously if you’re just gonna show up and put a knife into someone, then what’s the point of being a pirate?
The Pirate Rulebook — Arrrr, maties, now this is more like it!… sort of. The dreaded Captain Black Bart abruptly drops the timber-shivering to explain that on his ship, there’s no fighting, everyone has a vote and bedtime’s at 8pm sharp.
Savage Stone Age:
Sharp Stone, Blunt Stone — Now you too can own the (literal) cutting-edge cave tech! …Relentlessly adorable pitchman not included.
Stone-Age Burial — We know not with what rites the cavemen buried their dead, but we’re pretty sure it… didn’t go anything close to like this. (“And a little extra something to confuse the archaeologists who dig him up in years to come…”)
Window Tax — A short explanatory bit carrying on from the fairy tale, featuring the cartoon noblewoman from the title card and more live-action/animation interaction (thankfully no longer involving Jim’s stomach).
How to Vote in a Georgian Election — In which same is dissected with frank and funny (if mildly inadequate) outrage.
- Seriously, those opening titles are so eye-sporkingly not working as intended, which out of charity I will assume was to evoke the bright, cartoony feel of the book layouts. I do have an alternate and I think plausible theory involving quietly moving some extra $$ into the costume budget by outsourcing the F/X to somebody’s nephew who ‘fools around with that Photoshop thingy all the time’.
- The theme tune, on the other hand, kicks all kinds of inappropriate-for-minors butt, basically turning a list of book titles into simoultaneous raw anticipation for the kiddies and mounting horror for their parents.
- The general idea was clearly to impress a much older audience; except the ‘Ready Steady Feast’ skit of course, which was purely and patently designed to send same — including me! — running to the loo, thereby cementing it in children’s minds as THE MOST AWESOME TV SHOW EVER. Or whatever kids are using to mean ‘awesome’ these days, it suddenly occurs to me I don’t know. Have I mentioned I’m forty? At any rate, whatever it is, that’s what they were calling it.
- For a pilot, though, generally the sophistication is impressive. Front-loading the first ep of a new series with the critical bait would actually become something of a tradition, and in keeping, this one resembles a later ep much more than anything to come in the first series, right down to the proto-music video. The few overtly kiddie/educational elements — the random animation segues and strict “era sketch-quiz-sketch” structure — were the only ones later abandoned.
- In related news, for some reason cartoon German lice are red, thus ruining a perfectly good Communist lice joke opportunity for future WWII sketches.
- Fun with media realities: In the press release for the series debut, none of the eventual main cast are mentioned. In the actual series debut, the Two Really Hot Ones are blatantly front-and-centre in nearly every sketch, with able support from… whatever wildly-inappropriate thing Jim’s doing in the ‘Sharp Stone’ sketch. (My viewing notes at that point read “relentlessly eye#@!-ing the camera?!”, and frankly I can’t find a better way to put it.)
- Funny all round, how many of their signature schticks arrived fully-formed — Ben even gets to exclaim “Oh look! Sausages!” in a campy German accent. Besides which I do love me some Incongruous Yuppie Ben… also Pirate Mat, despite some very questionable facial hair.
- Meanwhile, Larry’s off enjoying a rare lead role in a sketch. You can already tell he doesn’t expect this front-of-the-camera gig to amount to much, because his gladiator school instructor is simply Cleese’s drill sergeant in “Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit,” with the serial numbers just barely filed off.
- Somehow, Mat in a WWI trench sketch always makes me really uneasy, in a sort of “things must be massively bad if they let HIM past the physical” way. I spend the whole sketch — even the ones where he’s not actually dying of exposure — imagining him dying of exposure ten minutes later.
- Something else that always startles me a little in this ep is the flat-out political ranting, Gleefully exposing stupidity will of course become a hallmark in future but I don’t ever recall it being this specifically angry.
- “Born 2 Rule” got a lot of attention for its audacity and attention to detail (specially Mat’s), and deservedly so. But in retrospect, it’s clear the music took centre stage because of it, not before. The set is minimal, the choreography is offhand at best (compare the snappy, complex moves in “The Few”, three series later), and, well, Ben and Simon are singing lead. Frankly we’re all really lucky they didn’t put up the bouncing-ball lyrics (again, look critics, sophistication, always sophistication!)
- Still, it’s taken on a whole new level of loveliness, watching the four of them together and realising it’s just the first step of the journey. And what a long, strange trip it would be…
- The obvious bloopers in the song — ie., ’twas George II actually died on the loo, and George III was in reality his grandson — are legendary by now. All the props to the producers, though, for very publicly correcting themselves in the Prom Special.
- There was a [REDACTED] paragraph in here complaining about the Black Spot being an entirely fictional concept, prior to the show’s historical consultant informing me personally that it’s been ‘attested to prior to [Robert Louis] Stevenson’. Not that I could find, but will be shutting up now in keeping with my new policy: Don’t Argue With the Man Who Reads History Books for a Living.
- On the other hand, the ‘Pirate Rulebook’ is a deservedly classic example of sorting the stranger truth from the fiction — although the ‘8pm bedtime’ rule apparently in reality went “The lights and candles should be put out at eight at night, and if any of the crew desire to drink after that hour they shall sit upon the open deck without lights“. This distinction became very important one morning when Captain Bartholomew Roberts’ crew were still too drunk from a victory celebration the night before to repel an enemy boarding party… exit Black Bart, unceremoniously.
- Somehow, everyone manages to work their panties into an unprecedented bunch over Georgian elections without (audibly) mentioning the most egregiously corrupt aspect of the whole thing — the ‘rotten borough‘, basically an electoral district with few-to-no actual inhabitants, controlled as shown by the nearest aristocratic family. The hapless sole landowner in the sketch would in reality have long since realised his vote was the merest formality.