Man-child! Do you want to be a gallant hero?!
Then you must wee on that man’s head!
The revolution hits its stride… which, as is becoming traditional, involves disgustingly decadent Emperor Nero, vicious religious persecution, and happily blatant homoeroticism… all in different skits. Apparently I’m finally getting used to it, because it’s also all freakin’ hilarious.
In this episode:
Song: Spartan School Musical — Mat, Jim and Larry as Spartan High students; Ben as their teacher. (Parody of: Disney’s High School Musical franchise)
Ave! Magazine — Profiling Spiculus, most famous gladiator in all of Rome
Historical Paramedics — Middle Ages (“Nigel, treacle!” “Yes, honey?” “No, no, get the treacle!”)
Scary Stories — The Children of Woolpit (“I grew a goatee for this!”)
Stupid Deaths — Tudor entertainer (The Great Stab-Proof Man… who one day forgot to rig up his stab-proofing)
Cliff Whiteley, Historical PR Agent — Billy the Kid & Wyatt Earp meet Pearl Hart… let the celebratory gunfire commence. (“Right, I’m gonna start chargin’ for that ceiling.”)
I’m a Christian, Get Me Out of Here! – Y’know that one Star Trek: TOS episode where the Romans had TV? That, reality-show division.
Love You to Death (movie trailer) – Nero’s love life: so not covered by Hallmark. “I need a sign! Something to show that you love me now, and not her!” “Right!… uh, something more than grapes? Because I’ve got loads of grapes!”
Athenian Student — Who would later grow up to write plays and participate in ‘Wife Swap’, apparently.
Surely, You Jester – OK, so How They Broke the News of Queen Katharine’s Adultery didn’t really go anything like this. But dammit, it should have.
Savage Stone Age
Coming of Stone Age – In which the prospective glory of hunting megabears and sabretooths becomes the key moment in… the discovery that turtle soup is delicious.
The Caveman Workout — “Stay in shape — and you too could live to the ripe old age of thirty!”
Pony Express to Nowhere – The riders of the Old West are literally replaced by machines… provided they survived that long.
- So yes, in a surprise move, I will not be making much of the blatant adult-ness of this episode’s content, since every time I do work up a good North American-style “won’t someone think of the children?!” a helpful British reader pops up to assure me that it’s really no big deal at all over there. To the extent that I’m starting to get really interested in what would be considered the difference between adult & children’s comedy in the UK. Best I can figure is 1. Don’t swear (a lot) and 2. Don’t actually show the genitalia. That’s about it.
- Meaning I will be entirely ignoring the Fisher-Price ‘My First Village People’ set that is the Spartan School Musical. It is, after all, the show’s mission to present accurate and/or educational satire; therefore not a peep shall I utter, despite severe reservations that the real Spartan cult of male love involved quite so much giggling, flirting, posing (with-or-without bullwhip) and Mat… uh… existing. I may have given a few especially disbelieving snorts when presented with Larry’s proto-jheri-curls, but that need not concern us here.
- Anyway, for all that – and in several cases, because of all that – I still like it enormously. Even if the specific reference is a bit past sell-by at this point, the squeaky American accents will always most excellently make the point, and the few odd Britishisms (“lashings of good fun”?) in no way detract from its overall snarkiness.
- Besides, the Christians-being-tortured sketch? Was all set to work up some prime aghast re: that one — had the thesaurus out and everything — until I realized that this is what many modern faithful think is happening every time someone tells them ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. Given the choice between the two forms of bad taste, I think I’ll go with the one that’s intentionally shooting for black comedy.
- It helps that Jim’s hosting; not that he doesn’t continue to develop a nice line in cheerily amoral reality-show hosts, but c’mon, it’s Jim. You just sort of subconsciously assume there’s a mattress under that torture tree he’s describing.
- Albeit Mat & Lawry are both too realistically vulnerable for comedic comfort. Apropos of which, fully not buying Lawry as a champion gladiator, either. At least Mat usually contrives to sound dangerous.
- Jim also effectively works the awww-give-Uncle-Slimy-Sociopath-a-hug on (newly brunet) Emperor Nero, and I wish I could decide if I approved or not. Seriously, every time I watch this sketch, I giggle like a complete maniac from beginning to end, then hate myself in the morning. On this last run-through, however, I have about concluded it’s worth it. Because grapes. (Also, Alice doing a satisfyingly tempestuous temptress.)
- Speaking of — AAAHHHH THE HISTORICAL PARAMEDICS! TOO MUCH SQUEE BRAIN ALL SPLODY… erm, translation: I’d forgotten that Geoff & Nigel’s manic multi-era medical adventures would be showing up this early, and they just make my sense of humour happy all over, inasmuch as they contain the distilled and combined essence of Mat, Jim and Larry (their author) at their most engaging. Meaning they may be the closest the show has ever come to intelligent comic anarchy without actually ripping Python scenes off wholesale; at least they merge historical fact with funny more deftly than most any other sketch.
- Oh, and can’t forget kudos for the ‘patient’, remaining heroically unconscious through all that, uh, stuff. Not real, no — but imagination can be a powerful thing, when your eyes are closed…
- … or sometimes even when they’re not, as the not-so-glorious-except-where-the-funny’s-concerned Stone Age hunt demonstrates. The deliberate application of modern disbelief to nostalgic past-time glamour is something the show will play with more and more as they gain comedic confidence (and concurrently care less and less about being earnestly educational), and as comedy it will never not work beautifully.
- On the other side of the ‘will it work’ thing… the (not-so) Scary Stories. Hrm. Well. The milieu evokes rampant affectionate tolerance in this reviewer, due to its resemblance to a beloved sketch comedy of her youth, the Hilarious House of Frightenstein, which featured a very similar concept (using nursery rhymes, if she remembers correctly). But she is fully aware this is a minority POV.
- Truth is, it’s always hard to integrate Big Names into an established sketch show in general, and the heavily stylized, character-driven HH format in particular. Hence, usually, these self-contained ‘presenter’ roles wherein the BNs can safely do what made them famous. And David Baddiel, bless him, is already working it like there’s no tomorrow.
- Which there really isn’t — because there’s literally nowhere for him to go within the concept, save to storm off the set for good, and it’s odd that the veteran HH writers didn’t realise it. For now, though, Vincenzo Larfoff and his power fez merely represent some of the more sophisticated character comedy in the show’s history. Besides which his delusional pretensions will shortly hack off his f/x crew, so that’ll be good for a further couple segments’ worth.
- Stupid Deaths, on the other hand, is the crowd-pleasing satire that just keeps on giving – especially to producer Caroline Norris, whom (I forgot to mention earlier) gets a cameo as the sooty-faced woman in the expanded titles. We’re also treated here to one of Death’s most endearing traits: his ability to appreciate real cleverness on the corpses’ part. It’s not personal, or anything; just cosmic business. To paraphrase the Reaper himself, I do love that level of detail, I really do.
- Related question: given that the skeletons were clearly a last-minute add-on, does that mean Simon’s interactions with them – and, it follows, potentially everyone else — are ad-lib? At any rate, yes, the bony sidekicks are back, albeit their wigs keep switching and changing colour. No idea where that’s coming from, unless they’re supposed to be rotating guest judges…
- …did I just try to explain why the skeletons’ wigs aren’t consistent? I may have been at this too long.
- On the other hand, the historical patchwork underlying the Will Somers sketch, (see below), is very much worthy of comment; one of the few times the show outright works facts into a fictional frame. Reality may well be stranger, etc., but it’s never quite this pat to the purpose. Great, great sketch, though — like Nero’s probably one of the best of the series, and well-matched with it. “Skilful use of the tension inherent in a comedian working to get a laugh to illuminate the insecurity of the ruled under the ruler, as expressed in fart noises”; if I ever write a masters’ thesis, that is so the first header.
- ’Awesome USA’, huh? Right, while I’d advise not encouraging them too far, it does fit the rhyming scheme, so still not complaining… except that I think we’ve discovered Willbond the accent ‘spert’s Kryptonite, and it is wearing a cowboy hat. And we won’t even discuss the effect on Jim and Mar… oh, screw it, they’re having entirely too much fun to stop now, and so am I to care what they sound like. Ben does make a surprisingly convincing Billy the Kid otherwise.
- Cliff Whiteley is an interesting concept, albeit a tad over-produced for the value. It also has a built-in credibility problem, given the need to position Cliff as an experienced, streetwise historical shyster whose actual knowledge of history would nevertheless be dubious on a primary-grade level — swallowing Wild Western myth-building whole, for instance, or (in an unaired segment) unaware that the Royal Family has German roots. Especially is all this worrisome since — as a later segment will indicate — Horrible Histories, the TV show, very much exists in the Whiteleyverse.
- Right, so, seriously, Spartan love. The song fudges a little (about the only part of the production that does); what was ‘banned until you’re thirty’ was marriage, as in to the opposite sex, to provide children to keep the State strong and thriving. Until then… well, they spent their entire adolescence through young manhood cooped up in close proximity with other young men they were taught to rely upon absolutely as comrades-in-arms; you do the math.
- Much has been written regarding the general Greek attitude to homosexuality, and in particular pederasty (and thanks to the Alexandria sketch much has likely been looked up prior to this), so I’ll just say here that the Greeks regarded love of all kinds much as they did anything else: as not so much a question of morality as artistic expression. Also, that actual sex didn’t necessarily have anything to do with it.
- On the subject of the Tudors, as ever, I can provide details. Let’s break this down: a) Yes, Henry VIII had a famous jester named Will Sommers (or ‘Somers’), who could get away with an awful lot in the royal presence — although he once nearly lost his head at the royal hand for daring to be rude about Anne Boleyn. b) Yes, Queen Katharine — the otherwise wholly unremarkable, giggly young result of Henry’s midlife crisis — did sleep around, although apparently with only the one man after her marriage. c) Yes, life was a job lot simpler for everyone nearby when Henry was in a good mood.
- And d) this is the important bit — no, a) didn’t break the news of b) to c). What actually did happen was Archbishop Cranmer (a prominent Protestant in opposition to Katharine’s powerfully Catholic Howard family) wrote a letter, and placed it where Henry would find it after evening prayers. Whereupon Henry did call for Katharine’s execution; that is, understandably humiliated and furious with it, he burst into tears and started yelling for an axe. They finally calmed him down enough to let it go through proper investigative channels, but he never did see her again.
- That crazy Wyatt Earp, always playing fast and loose with the truth — possibly including, as it happens, when telling Cliff Whiteley what ‘really’ took place at the OK Corral. The details of that day, from the motives of the participants up to and including who had guns when, are still very much in dispute, and even scholars of the period agree the real story will never be known. (I’d *ahem* suggest the really excellent The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn to those interested in an in-depth overview of the Earp clan in general and their antics at Tombstone in particular.)
- Oh, and Pearl Hart: also absolutely worth reading up in detail. Not just because — as I just discovered myself — she was Canadian-born, only a couple hours down the road from where I’m typing this (actually, the next village over from my hometown). Quite the fierce and resourceful participant in not only the Wild West but the general female mythos of her time, was our Pearl.
- On the other hand, yes, the Pony Express, in reality much more evanescent than the romantic ideal — a characteristic it shared with pretty much all the ‘wildness’ associated with the western USA in the 1880’s, wherein the guiding principles weren’t the romantic notions of personal freedom, but the prosaic realities of money and political power.
- Meaning this particular aspect of it wasn’t particularly mourned at the time, either, because frankly, as shown here, you couldn’t come up with a less efficient postal system if you’d actually set out to make all the lousy-service cliches come true in one stroke. As per Mystery Science Theatre 3000: “The Pony Express: When it absolutely, positively has to be there in… three-four months or so.”
- The Nero sketch is accurate as far as it goes… which is to say, just a little bit too far for most viewers’ stomach contents. Although, interestingly, one contemporary historian suggests Poppaea Sabina was really a rather nice, thoughtful lady, who urged her Imperial husband to show mercy to the Christians.
- But hey, it’s Emperor Nero. You just know he’s not going to delegate a detail like kicking his wife to death (and why would you specify ‘kicking’ to your hitman anyway?); he’s going to do it himself. In the stomach. While she’s pregnant. Usual disclaimers about sourcing apply, especially to whether it was intentional and/or how remorseful Nero actually was… none of which make it a pleasant story by anyone’s account.