Get back! I have a butter knife and I’m not afraid to use it… You! Get back, or I will spread you, I am not joking~!
The show returns to what it indisputably does best: being hilarious about Western European history. And there was much rejoicing. (yaaaaay.)
In this episode:
Song: Victorian Inventions — Ben and Alice as a music-hall act
Ready, Steady Feast — Captain Ned Low’s taste for cruelty
Historical Dragon’s Den — Victorian Britain
Words We Get From the — Saxons
Bob Hale — The [English] Civil War Report (OK, that’s definitively established then, timey-wimey scholars: Rattus and the HHTV crew are operating in the same timeline.)
HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — from the Battle of Marston Moor (“Yes, I’m afraid I’m going to die — OF THIRST! Hahahah!”)
Dodgy War Inventions — No.79: Romans Invade East Anglia on Stilts
Historical Wife Swap — Celts vs. Romans (All you really need to know: Simon as the primitive Celtic husband, Mat as the sophisticated Roman)
Measly Middle Ages
Feudal Family Feud — Back before authoritarian fathers had prize Cadillacs to trash… their angsty sons still had swords. (“No! Zat is my peas-ant!”)
Joan and the Angel (imagine spot) — “Sweeping up and darning socks I can do — military leadership, not so much!” “Well, He definitely said… I mean, I wrote it on my hand and everything…”
Captain Cutiebeard — As it turns out, pirate tactics for luring ships in close involved frilly lingerie. In related news, the ongoing ‘pirate -vs- ninja’ Net debate just got REALLY interesting.
New! Saxon Sign of the Cross — Sanitation via genuflection: sometimes, history is frankly about being impressed that the human race made it out alive…
Dance ‘Til Something Drops — … Case in point. Social life in the Middle Ages: being unable to tell whether your friends were happily boogying down or flailing around in the throes of ergotism-induced gangrene.
- If you’ll excuse a moment’s nostalgic digression… My first encounter with HH the TV-verse was in late 2010, via BBC Kids, a Canadian cable channel that picks up much of CBBC/CBeebies’ programming. So this was the very first full-length episode I ever watched, and — being at that time, for various reasons, in dire need of a wholly uncomplicated laugh — where I began to watch the show with real interest. I’ve obviously learned to appreciate the rest since, but in some important ways the back half of S2 will always be the definitive Horrible Histories for me…
- … *blinks as mists clear* …And thus here I am, lo these years later, speculating on just exactly how a stick insect might get so closely — not to say spectacularly — in touch with his inner homicidal cannibal. Seriously, either they sent Lawry on a three-day bender, gave him a 5AM filming call and filmed the result (definitely without telling Dominique)… or I suddenly really feel the need to apologise for any and all snarky Lewin-related remarks to even date. Um, including that one I just now made. Shoot. I’m willing to upgrade him to praying mantis, would that help?
- In a way, I’ve been setting up for these reviews from the start. BBC Kids has always been careful to air the show after 6pm — as was also traditional for the Muppet Show when I was a kid — with a ‘content may be disturbing to some’ disclaimer. So I’ve never assumed HH was designed for anything but an all-ages family audience, as defined by the Henson troupe, and so have watched with the same assured expectation of adult reward… and the show, it must be said, has rarely failed to deliver.
- Hence, when confronted here with Cap’n Mat the Fabulous, all decked out in bustle and rouge and basically way more detail than needed to pull his ruse off from a distance, my natural instinct is not to giggle at the over-the-top clowning, but at the possible connection to his breakdown from the previous sketch. Not that I’m here to judge, mind; those long voyages, the freely available rum, the underlings who’re really into their poncy little sword routines… I understand.
- What I’m really saying is, I kid because I loved this tiny perfect collection of all the (male) troupe’s signature schticks at first sight. In fact, if I do have a major complaint from this point forward, it’s that the pirate sketches will pretty much fall off the radar. Given that ninjas — and indeed robots — are non-starters as sketch ideas, also that only a few, clean outtakes make it onto each DVD, we’re losing a valuable source of pure playfulness here. (Yeah, there are still cowboys, but those accents… somehow it’s just not the same.)
- Still, we’ll always have knights. Here, specifically, Ben and Mat turning out to be entirely adorable — and rather interestingly convincing — as father-son squires. And there is always the possibility they will be French, which accent will never get off the collision course with HH whackiness. Especially not when you haul Willbond the ‘accspert’ into the mix … also, suspiciously familiar staging over the castle ramparts. Quick, dad, distract him with an argument about swallow velocity! Fetchez la vache!
- … Right, sorry, focussing — Oh look, Mat’s disarming Larry! Repeatedly! (“Arm or leg?” “Well, arm, I guess…” — slays me every time.) Not even trying to pretend anymore that normal is the expected result when these two collide, are they? Besides which, fun bonus material in comparing/contrasting Mat’s more formal command of pantomime twitchiness with Larry’s intuitive take — he does have a couple season’s worth of Bob Hale under his belt, after all.
- So the ergotism sketch is the most openly goofy, ie. kid-friendly, of the lot. But if we’re talking the place where contextual subtlety definitively goes to die, I’m all about Mat as the Roman husband in the Wife Swap sketch – being so ridiculously sweet and charming and obviously green-lighted with the sadistic notion of finding out exactly how far they could mess with adult hormones while still claiming innocence… Pretty damn far, as it turns out, on account of you’re reading this.
- Incidentally, now that it’s officially OK to believe anything of the production team, is anyone else getting the idea that the inevitable ‘fainting wife’ role in the WS bits was being used as a sort of ‘”let’s see what they’re made of” initiation for the female cast? Just me then? Yeah, figured. Still, it led to a very pleasant line of thought re: more possible HH hazing rites, up to and including the ultimate test: sharing a sketch with Simon for thirty full seconds without cracking.
- His turn here as the Celtic ‘furball’ (hee!) would’ve been ideal; just when the pledge thinks they’re ready for anything enigmatically menacing, not to say unpredictably crazy… he abruptly shifts over to bluntly loveable straight man, and turns that into a full-on festival of irresistible giggles. All kidding about cast feels aside, when he goes to whistle up the finest in canine medical care, I really, sincerely just want to give him a huge hug.
- Then, I will give another to Larry, for a generally wonderful B.Hale Report and for specifically describing Richard Cromwell as ”About as much use as a jelly pickaxe”. And finally, I will award one to the Angel Jim. I have a private theory that he is the sole BAFTA winner of the troupe out of three tries simply because — regardless of natural voter sympathy towards the younger nominees — it proved impossible to disregard Howick playing a celestial messenger who’s written the Holy Message on his hand “and everything”. (Although they were probably just a touch disappointed that the writing isn’t actually glowing. I know I was.)
- The whole Joan of Arc sketch is remarkable much more for its casting than its hackneyed construction — of all the angles to approach one of the most impossibly romantic, implausibly literal melodramas in all of history, the feminist was easily the most limiting (if, yes, also the most accessible to the small fry). Still, Alice is her usual appealingly convincing presence, while Ben — amusingly, still wearing the armour from the previous French sketch — just about manages to rescue the obvious from itself. Well, him, and the hilarious ‘heavenly’ music playing over his darning.
- Basically, the above re: casting applies more or less intact to the song — albeit of course with less heavenly Howicks. Which frankly is kind of a shame. I’m not a huge fan of these nationalistic ‘we invented!’ lists, for reasons discussed under S01E12 (and even less lucidly, if possibly more entertainingly, in the relevant YouTube comment sections.) To cite a specific problem here, I’m thinking Swedish subject Alfred Nobel, for one, would be a bit startled to discover he invented dynamite under the auspices of the British monarch.
- It does have value as one of the few chances for direct comparison with Series One, ie. the song ‘We Are Greek’ — except of course, it’s no real comparison at all. There’s more care lavished on a single costume here than there was in nearly the entirety of S1’s musical efforts. Ben’s voice hasn’t improved much since then, but damned if he hasn’t got that Harrison-esque talk-singing thing nailed. He’s more inclined to generic smug than real showmanship, but that’s a small nitpick in comparison to the authenticity of the whole production.
- My affection for our Willbond has always had a touch of academic awe mixed in; he is so exactly what North Americans have been trained (at least, in visual media; music’s something else entirely) to think of as ‘British’, and is so effortlessly able to lever his self-awareness of same through an entire PD James novel’s-worth of stock types. Also, every now and again he is able to bounce something like the ‘butter knife’ bit here off the cliches, and for a fleeting moment… no, still not quite huggable. But impressive, very.
- OK… who named Mat ‘Sir Widebelly’? (‘Nathaniel Twonk’, on the other hand, I am so going to borrow if I ever get another hamster.) Seriously, I very much like the Dragon’s Den both as a concept, and a creative way to refresh the *ahem* overworked child-labour theme. It’s another pleasing sign of how far thought and care has advanced since S1.
- In particular, I love how it’s the same Oliver-esque fantasy kid every time; really, the child actors on this show are something special. So… in amid all the nice authentic touches… why would you leave in such a distractingly modern broom?
- So, Jeanne d’Arc. Yes, she really was an illiterate peasant girl, whose claimed first ‘vision’ (speculated to have actually been a result of migraine, epilepsy or similar) did indeed happen when she was somewhere between twelve and fourteen — again, it didn’t occur to anyone to record her birthdate at the time, so accounts vary, but fourteen is the traditionally accepted age — and whose first sally forth into the history books happened when she was around 16.
- As the entire relevant portion of the Net has not failed to mention, the circs surrounding her death are a lot more… complicated, let’s say, than a kids’ show could possibly squeeze into one thirty-second visit with a puppet rat. She was initially captured by the technically French but then-independent Burgundian dukedom, who in turn sold her to the English Duke of Lancaster — the new French King Charles VII meanwhile ostentatiously twiddling his thumbs and hoping that if he kept quiet everybody’d just forget the whole ‘totally owed his throne to a peasant girl’ thingy.
- Thus Joan was hauled off to a prison tower in English-occupied Rouen, where — despite several determined escape attempts — she fell into the hands of the French Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais, who was all about appeasing his current masters the Brits, so just sort of went ‘Ehhh, I have jurisdiction here, I think. Probably,’ and proceeded to show-trial the nineteen-year-old girl’s butt to the stake — but not before she had totally owned him under interrogation.
- Per Wiki: “Asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she answered: ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”…Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have convicted herself of heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt… George Bernard Shaw found this dialogue so compelling that sections of his play Saint Joan are literal translations of the trial record.
- Hey, you know Captain Ned Low? The psychotic bastard renowned for getting into piracy mostly because land-based crime didn’t give him enough of an outlet for his sadistic urges? His flagship, the pride of whatever remained of his heart, was named the Rose Pink. Seriously. Also, I forgot to mention last ep, Blackbeard’s flag did indeed include hearts. Granted, they were being stabbed by a skeleton, who — the show rather interestingly doesn’t mention — is holding a wineglass in his other hand, raising a toast to the Devil.
- OK look, I don’t really have to explain that the stinging nettles would’ve been soaked and beaten to their component fibres, thus removing any stings, before actually being made into underwear, right? You in the back? Right, just checking. While I’m on, it’s worth noting that ergotism — otherwise popularly known as St Anthony’s fire — has been suggested as the possible cause of every convulsion, tic or twitch-based phenomenon throughout much of Western history, including witchcraft as mentioned last series and dancing mania as mentioned in the next.
- When you come to think of it, in real life stilt-wearing never seems to go well outside Founders’ Day parades. Some things you figure would be obvious from the start… At any rate, the concept of centurions tottering through the fens while the natives snickered all but compelled me to try and find more info — which didn’t go all that well. I’m willing to take the show’s word for it, but would not be entirely shocked if it’s based mostly off legend and inference.