“Stay calmer when you want to harm a llama — call a llama farmer!”
Poking about in the more diverse corners of their mandate, the show turns up a wealth of good fun… also, seriously, more than you ever wanted to hear about llamas.
In this episode:
Song: We’re the WWII Girls (Original Girl Power) — Alice as a factory worker, Martha as an ‘Air Force miss’ and Katy as a Land Girl.
Historical Hospital — Islamic healer vs. European ‘doctor’: who’s the dangerous alien now? (Hint: probably the one calling the other “You crazy Arabian hippie!”)
Stupid Deaths — Humphrey de Bohun (took a pike up the bum while fighting his way through the Battle of Boroughbridge)
Scary Stories — The Cabinet of Mystery (“I don’t want to do a show called ‘Boring Stories’. I did that last year for the other channel, and frankly it sank like a stone.”)
Historical Shopping Channel: Inca Hour (“And remember, these drums are made from real human skin — so you can go on beating your enemy all day long!”)
HHTV News — Jack Sheppard, Escapologist Extraordinaire: Will He Cheat the Gallows Again? Spoiler: No.
HHTV Sport — Trojan War Special: Hector vs. Achilles, literally for all the marbles. (“And who’d’ve thought that Achilles’ Achilles’ heel would be his Achilles’ heel?”)
Dodgy War Machines (animated) — No.14: Greek War Elephants
The Legendary Lord Nelson — Luckily, when you have big honking cannons, being personally imposing is optional… and no, that’s not a euphemism. (“How did you lose your legs, sir? They seem to be cut off at the knee…?” “Psst, no he really is that short…”)
Llama Sacrifice-a-rama-lama-ding-dong – Of the livestock, the viewer’s sanity, whichever.
Tapeworm Trap — “I once caught a tapeworm this long!”
New! Victorian Beer — Tastes better than the water! Less likely to fill you with loathsome diseases! There’s just one itty-bitty problem…
Woeful Second World War
Churchill Plans D-Day – All you really need to know about this take on the Great Bulldog’s workaholic tendencies: “…So we can continue this meeting in our jim-jams!”
- Great rejoicing in camp: The show has finally come flat out and acknowledged the existence of Horrible Herstories — well, the process really started last episode, with Pearl Hart, but it reaches full flower here. And speaking as a fully representative female, let me tell you, it is about damn time. Just a marvellously catchy, upbeat, accurate song, neither too strident nor too apologetic, beautifully performed in honour of entirely deserving subjects.
- Now, I ordinarily don’t like to get too excited about deep cultural significance in goofy comedy. Esp since there is maybe a fraction too much emphasis here on how icky hard and uncomfortable it all was — “manual labour hurts!” is uneasily reminiscent of that ‘Math is hard!’ Barbie of the ’90’s. But I still can’t help it, it’s just that amazing to think of little girls being taught to consider these women as cool – as their role models even – as opposed to… right, yes, that’s another blog entirely.
- Interestingly, this same episode also hauls in British comedy’s incomparable Vaguely Ethnic Middle-Aged Guy, Alexi Sayle, to play the, well, middle-aged ethnic guy. This is a vast improvement on the usual, and not only because you just know option B was Mat in a turban. As the Arab healer in a sketch whose strident — if fully justified — political correctness is the point, Sayle gracefully transcends same to create a character I’m genuinely sorry to leave. It’s a wonderfully innovative use of the Big Name, and I find myself desperately wishing they’d explored the possibilities further. Surely Lenny Henry, say, would be open to persuasion?
- As a side note, Lawry as a helplessly cranky patient has finally found a role I can totally believe him in. One who even has the good sense to object to amputation — not to the extent of getting up off the bed and running for his life, or anything, but then Mat’s French accent is hypnotic like that.
- Meanwhile, David Baddiel is still gamely making it work. This is probably the definitive Scary Story, both in terms of actual content and auxiliary hissy-fits (bonus: now with 75% more awkward f/x!). Did it end right here I’d be complimenting the writers on another fun and effective use of the Big Name and moving on. As it stands, however… I’ll probably just be moving on. Except in re: chronicling the various snipes at his ‘producers’, as per above, that will never not be mildly amusing. (‘Other channel’ — wonder who that’s directed at?)
- Elsewhere in the Great Ethnographic Adventure: the Incan sketches, maybe a bit too blandly authentic, and cliched, for their own good. Albeit again, probably much less so to a European audience which hasn’t also assimilated, say, Handy Manny. To me it just all comes across a trifle… unimpressive, let’s say, alongside the fierce and nuanced celebrations of diversity going on elsewhere. Ben especially could not be less convincingly Hispanic if he’d actually attended Oxford and played cricket and — oh, wait. Yeah, this is clearly another cultural discrepancy I need to get used to.
- Mind you, where the makeup’s concerned bland represents a massive step forward for international goodwill all by itself (stupid and unfortunately permanent Lego-block hairdo on Martha notwithstanding). All the bonus points besides for bunging real live llamas in there — that’s appreciated more than I can say, given my near-total certainty that none of the cast or crew has experience as a South American camelid wrangler. (I have learned to assume nothing where Simon is concerned.)
- I can also acknowledge that, once having come up with the ‘stay calmer if you want to harm a llama’ slogan, the only way short of exorcism to remove it from the writer’s head would’ve been this sketch. And even then, the poor man, having to write it…! (I picture him eventually grabbing producer lapels and whispering, Alien-style, “Help me… oh God get it oooout…”) More seriously, it’s a nice offbeat note in what’s increasingly becoming the homogenous in-house comedy style. Especially the lovingly detailed bouncy cartoon llama, which is just begging for accessory status in an HH toyline.
- Oh, and speaking of which… OK, I guess the idiot-chav thing has a continuity excuse this time (albeit if so, what happened to all the blonde curls? Was the pinnacle of Greco-Roman civilization really the discovery of L’Oreal?) Everybody appears to be enjoying themselves so much in the latest Illiad takeoff, in fact, that the viewer can’t help but do the same. It works really well as a sports segment, too; with Larry around, the offbeat always has context.
- Also: extensive bonus material for non-UK viewers, who get to envision street toughs calling each other “You flannel!” with apparent deep sincerity; in fact entirely as though they have, sometime in the recent past, been totally disrespected by plaid pyjamas. Trust me, this is appreciated even more than the llamas.
- And oh, speaking of animal adventures, also my general policy of saying something nice about the animations whenever I can, even if I’m not totally proud of myself for admitting it: the image of flaming charging pigs is about 1000x funnier than it has any right to be. Come to that, why pigs, specifically? First time I’ve ever heard of elephants being particularly spooked by pork. I suppose mice wouldn’t last nearly as – oh God, I’ve been spending far too much time with these people, so sorry, really…
- Larry generally continues to solidify his position as star player in the Non-Sequitur Theatre that clearly is his imagination (seriously, if you’ve not subscribed to his Twitter feed yet, now’s the time.) In this latest installment, he unveils a note-perfect drunk act, which is never quite as easy to make funny as you’d think… although [insert joke about it likely being easier for British comedians here]. Fully three of the six-member HH troupe have now demonstrated remarkable proficiency at it, is all I’m gonna say. Meanwhile, Ben plays a perfect counterpoint: a veritable masterclass in how desperately trying to keep a straight face can usefully pass on-camera as real discomfort.
- Elsewhere, Mat’s boyish cute and Ben’s unctuous streak both get a good workout in the otherwise rather disappointingly pointless Nelson sketch (see below). And Jim… doesn’t look or sound like Winston Churchill at all, really, but is somehow still so utterly convincing that the equally dubious ‘workaholic’ sketch — seriously, the toothpick business is lifted straight from 1940’s cartoons — is raised to positively classic heights. (Apropos of which, have I also mentioned how much I love Ben in WWII uniform? “That’s not funny, sir. There is a war on!”)
- Oh, and yay! brief glimpse of classic crazy Simon! (“You sir [Mat]! You look like you have a tapeworm!” — oh, hardy-har-har). Come to that, pretty sure there’s a brief glimpse of Sarah as well. Possibly to make up for the tapeworm crack, Mat also gets a lovely gurgly death scene that’s sure to delight the kiddies no end… although the brighter of them may wonder along with their parents why nobody — up to and most definitely including Death Scene Guy — doesn’t just pull the trap out via the damn string still dangling from his mouth.
- Still, it’s amusing to see how comfily the show’s settling into the groove where Mat is concerned. The Jack Sheppard bit is a nice parody matchup once again, effectively recreating the seventeenth-century equivalent of tween Twitter accounts even without access to emoticons. On the other hand: “Thousands of people have turned out for [his execution]”?! Jessica, love, there aren’t enough trick camera angles in this life or next to make that happen.
- Wow, turns out there were actually a lot of Humphrey de Bohuns running around out there in the Middle Ages, just generally being all heroic and knightly and stuff. Only one seems to have got it up the bum, though. Our Humphrey is actually the IV on the list, and so should probably be pronouncing it ‘Boon’ (although Ben’s version here is an acceptable later variant). At any rate, yeah, on the scale of Romantic Knighthood, if not actually seated at the Round Table, still fairly well up there. His Wiki article, which includes a graphic description of the fatal ambush, is worth scanning in full — including the usual notation that said Stupid Death may-or-may-not have actually happened. Medieval historians: sucking the fun out of grade-school history since basically forever.
- Medieval Islamic medical practices: like most of their scholarly knowledge a firm corrective to stereotype both then and now. Although the full story inevitably involves a lot more intercultural exchange and subsequent advancements in learning on both sides, Arab physicians seem to have been much more effectively able to sort the spiritual out of of the physical than their Western contemporaries. Thus they not only were free to apply basic common sense, but were able to experiment in directions that the latter held as taboo. (‘Anatomizing’ corpses, for instance, which up to the nineteenth century the Western world saw largely as horrific desecration, to the extent that it helped spawn Burke & Hare.) The resulting classic Muslim medical texts thus read as strikingly modern to our ears.
- What’s specifically retold here — albeit with a much more upbeat ending than the original — is a famous anecdote from an Arabic healer describing his visit to a Christian European hospital. Which after much searching I regret I’m unable to find online, but check your appropriate HH book, I’m sure it’s in there somewhere. Meantime, have this similarly charming scoff from one of Dr Ossmer’s contemporaries: It is a foolish custom to have blood let out of the body when it is not needed… The expert physician has no need to choose times for blood-letting. To test this with horoscopes is a vain idea.
- HH’s ability to highlight amazing achievements that would otherwise remain obscure is one of the most endearing aspects of the concept. Exhibit A: Dr. John Snow — and even more so when you realise he jammed all that pioneering work in hygiene and epidemiology into only a couple short decades, dying a true sciencey-type hero at the tender age of 45. Not from cholera; he pointedly boiled and drank the local water to the end of his life. Although he did eventually relax his temperance stance after some years to the extent of taking meat and wine for his health.
- Meanwhile, as Wiki points out, the wholesale consumption of ale didn’t actually result in an entire nation of dipsomaniacs, albeit… [insert joke about possible ancestry of English football fans here]. Although the hard stuff certainly existed, what’s described here was basically the forerunner of Bud Light, brewed with other considerations in mind entirely: Ale, along with bread, was an important source of nutrition… particularly small beer, also known as table beer or mild beer, which was highly nutritious, contained just enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and provided hydration without intoxicating effects.
- Small side addendum: The favourite tipple of your average slum drunk, which Ms. Guttersnipe’s clearly supposed to be representing here, would be gin, not Guinness. Much less expensive to produce and hence to purchase; important considerations because, y’know, Victorian slums. The denizens therein weren’t picky about how they escaped from it, just as long as it was fast and cheap.
- Besides the Nelson sketch’s highly questionable premise, especially for this particular ep (wow, a legendary naval hero’s taken some damage from all the important battles he’s fought, how whacky! /sarcasm) I’ve never been quite sure where Mat is supposed to fit into the naval scheme of things as it existed at the time. He’s a bit old to be a rookie midshipman (the standard entry-level position), and even if he is, if he’s meeting the great Nelson on his first day he should definitely have a much posher accent.
- On the other hand, there’s no question Jack Sheppard was as real, and as entertaining, a phenomenon as you like — well, the entertainment value might vary a bit depending on your stance re: the human tendency to idolize unworthy celebrities, but at the very least he gave more value for glitter than, say, your average Kardashian. This lovely page has lots of pictures testifying to the enormous hold he had on the popular imagination. (Oh, and it also mentions the 200,000 people that turned out for his final execution attempt. I’m thinking HH might just want to leave actual figures out of their execution-scene scripts from now on.)