So the Normans built a huge wooden tower for a witch to curse the Saxons, and show them her bottom. The Saxons got revenge by burning the tower down… hence the old saying: Red sky at night, witches’ bottom alight!
The annual late-series lull is enlivened by long-overdue time spent with some of the show’s most memorably enigmatic characters… just not necessarily quality time.
In this episode:
Song: Bloody Mary — Sarah solo as that most angsty of anomalies: a pathetic Tudor princess. (Parody of: Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights)
HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From just off the coast of the Isle of Ely, last Anglo-Saxon stronghold, 1071 (“So I presume there’s a Plan B, Your Majesty?” “Yes, of course there’s a Plan B!” “Which is?” “Right. But I think one witch ought to do it, don’t you?”)
Stupid Deaths — Pythagoras (Killed when his religious beliefs prevented him from escaping assassins through a beanfield… no, really. “Well, you’ve been stupid… or, rather, you’ve bean stupid! Hah!”)
Historical Wife Swap — Victorian Britain: The Tombleby-Pumblechooks of Mayfair (“Oh, dash it all, Parkins! We have guests, and there’s a crease in the newspaper!“) -vs- the Smikes of the London slums (“An’ if we kick the dead body out of the way, we’ll have somewhere for you to kip for the night!”)
Historical Dating Service — Saxon (“Can I ask a personal question?” “Sagittarius.” “Noooo, not that one. Do Saxons ever… bathe… at all?”)
Measly Middle Ages
Normanopoly — “The board game that lets you invade England alongside William the Conqueror!… and the great thing is, you can just make up the rules as you go along!” (“Well, I better build another church, I’m about to do something… reeeeeeaaaaallly bad! Heh heh heh…” “…You need to work on your evil laugh, boss.”)
Diogenes and Me — In which the most famously crusty of ancient thinkers reveals the extreme unlikelihood of his philosophy of honesty and simplicity ever hitting the best-seller lists… (“Hey! Whaddaya think you’re doing?” “Oh, sorry, mate, I had no idea there was a naked man in that barrel… wait, why is there a naked man in that barrel?!”)
Don’t Go Into the Woods — “OK, then… we must journey through the rocks!” “Are you insane? We can’t go through the rocks! Giants live in the rocks!” “Have you seen one?” “No… but I’ve seen things they built! Big, huge things!” “What, you mean the… rocks?” “Speak not of them!”
New! Keelhauling: The Ultimate Exfoliating Experience — The pirate skin care revolution!... Sharp barnacle-studded ship keel not included… but the introductory lashing is free!
HHTV Cribs: Inside Blackbeard — The legendary badass of the seven seas somehow decides to celebrate this by appearing on an MTV parody more frequently associated with the likes of Justin Timberlake. Truly, the Time Sewers work in mysterious ways.
Whipping Boy — How do his teachers punish a Prince when they’re all commoners? Why, find a commoner to punish instead, of course.
- So here we are once again at that inevitable little valley in every HH series, into which the producers basically dump off all the stuff that just was never going to make the BAFTA hilight reel. By now it’s practically become a tradition in and of itself — and it can be equally interesting, in its own way.
- Especially so in this series full of elaborate experiments, wherein creative failure translates mostly to the pieces that rely too much on the tried-and-true schticks. Which obviously isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Most everything here would’ve quite possibly been the hilight of, say, mid-Series Three — but now, when the standard is soaring to new heights, they fall with a clunk… one not un-reminiscent of a fake snowball, in fact.
- Thus it’s kind of ironic that ‘Bloody’ Mary I as interpreted by Kate Bush, ie. the ultimate in potential misfires, is the one thing in the episode that not only works but succeeds amazingly well. Both in style and substance — features some of the best pure songwriting of the series, in fact. And a great performance from Sarah… no, really. As it is the flailing gets a bit tiresome toward the end, imagine what could’ve been had she not thrown herself into it and made it work.
- The execution is nice, too. Kind of a shame Alice couldn’t have had a crack at the vocal though, since real-life Mary had a much deeper, almost gruff voice. She was also renowned for her love of rich fabrics and bling; granted they’d be much harder to flail in, but it still would’ve made a nice accurate textural wrinkle, so to speak, and…
- OK, fine, mostly what we’ve learned here is that I’m never going to be happy. But the more I listen, the more I’m convinced by the pure visceral rightness of the creative response at least. They’ve finally developed some real, delicate sensitivity where the Tudors are concerned. Not only limiting themselves to only the one brief maniacal smile re: the burnings, actually giving Mary a chance to hint at the moral complexity behind them! Good show! Have a cooky.
- Giving William I depth and nuance, on the other hand, not so much on the agenda. Understandably, since having Farnaby’s grasp of non-sequitur loopiness around means you always want to get your money’s worth… and boy howdy, do they get it here. Even though I kind of miss the original magnificently elaborate costuming, not to mention Greg the loyal squire.
- Anyway, sticking Gallic Simon front and centre has in turn has resulted in Ben having all kinds of trouble keeping a straight face, to the extent that it rather spoils the Peabody effect. Can’t blame him much for that, I’m sitting here tickled all over myself. And he does contrive eventually to get himself trapped in a burning tower with a witch showing her bottom, thus neatly and completely fulfilling all my MP needs for oh, say, ever.
- It’s the sketch that has everything, in fact, except any real creative stretching. Besides which, it could plausibly be argued, a lot of potential for wild, dark, spooky weirdness in the atmosphere is going to waste. But again, an executive decision has been taken in favour of adorable quirkiness… and I still can’t complain. Esp. not about Martha in the pointy hat being all awkward at the camera. Damn but this troupe is good. Or charming. Or good at being charming.
- Even were I inclined to grumble, the Normanopoly bit is up next, and it features Simon just full-on channelling Dr. Evil while Larry critiques, so. It’s the one sketch here that really deserved a showcase shot, being one of those lovely little clever cockle-warmers that result when the team — in this case most definitely including the f/x team — knows they’re onto a can’t-miss parody idea. As always in the case of the board-game spoofs, in several directions at once. (“How come I always have to be the wild pig?”)
- The Victorian Wife Swap does dive full-tilt into the melodramatic atmosphere. It’s essentially a redo of the Georgian version as augmented by the producers’ enduring love for Victorian detail, as expressed via their much more detail-worthy budget — on three whole sets, yet! Throw in Martha’s beautiful water-blue costume and what we have here is at least a very acceptable Anne Perry-style pastiche. They even (finally) feature Ben as a butler, and Lawry coming perilously close to showstopping as a Devil’s Acre scrapper — what I was saying about road-show Dickens, last ep? Pretty sure I got your Ben Sikes right here, folks. Might have to feed him up a bit, but still.
- All meaning that it’s a genuine shame that the Georgian WS was based around a wholly one-note concept that there’s no way even their new sophistication can upgrade. Mind, re: the Horrible effects of class division, they’ve definitely upped the ante; in fact, it could be very plausibly argued that this is what the S1 concept should’ve been, had not — I’m imagining — ‘ironing the newspapers’ lost out to ‘private orchestra’ in a very close vote, back in the original writer’s room.
- Alas, past that you run into sociopolitical and/or philosophical territory that’s impossibly far out of the series’ scope, and the net result here is a historical edutainment getting all dressed up to deliberately run itself into a brick wall. I would suggest, from the comedy perspective, that when “Ewww, a poor person has touched this!” is still your surefire go-to punchline on the subject after four series, it just may be time to assume that you’ve done all you can and move on.
- …Which of course the rat then basically does. Ohai Rattus, glad to have your snarky self back. I was starting to worry a little there… and am now just a teeny bit melancholy, instead. You know we’re coming to the natural end of the HH concept when Ol’ Excited Paws here feels confident enough to mock his own tact — and even more so when the audience is sitting there fully expecting him to do it.
- Welp, that’s about it for the really bold experiments… oh, sure, there’s also Larry naked and pooping in a barrel, but it could be plausibly argued that’s just Larry in his element. Albeit with slightly improved accent I will admit. Anyway, my enjoyment here is in a great bit of verbal jousting between two guys not only obviously enjoying the chance to come out of the, uh, box for a bit, but the chance to do so with each other. Like the Armada bit, only, as Shouty would put it, slightly more cleverer.
- Speaking of which, the Stupid Death meantime is featuring a dose of classic Willbondian complacent prissiness with a few extra sprinkles of random, which is cool… but is also the only redeeming thing about it. Much as with Bobsy Hale last ep, the show’s outsmarted itself with this segment to the point where the standard death-embarrassment-pun routine just isn’t cutting it for me anymore. Yeah, I know, it isn’t actually called ‘Fun With the Grim Reaper’, but really now. With the flowered apron, a standard has been irrevocably set.
- By the way, hope you enjoyed that last bit of Jim being peed on, because the rest of the episode — save the ‘keelhauling’ interlude, which appears merely to result from somebody hastily grabbing off the Standard Sketch Ideas pile to meet Friday deadline — is dedicated to discovering just how long Howick can monologue in weaselly mode, before even his most devoted fans start wondering uneasily if they couldn’t maybe cut this review viewing short for once…
- Look, it’s Jim. Of all the troupe, I can totally understand the producers over-relying on this sure thing, and for said sure thing to willingly co-operate with the compliment… except for the part where the ‘sure’ refers to ‘basically whinged his way to a BAFTA’. You want to make sure you have a smart, snappy context for something that’s otherwise going to remind you of that kid in third grade with the perpetual snot drip hanging off his nose, is basically what I am trying to get across here.
- So the ‘Saxon fears’ business is overlong, equally over-stuffed with esoteric facts and comedy cliches, and over-reliant on things it shouldn’t be… considering all of which, for an impressively long time it also manages to be very funny. Thus incidentally demonstrating why I’m hugely excited about the troupe’s new projects: they aren’t typecast yet, exactly, but it’s definitely far past time they had the chance to see what they can do unfettered by heavily stylised expectations.
- Like, for instance, Historical Dates. Which is somehow still a thing, despite the writers evidently — if completely inexplicably — having run out of fascinating historically romantic hijinks within only two segments, which is a record even the HPet Shop can’t touch. But boy howdy, folks, can those office tarts file… yes, both their nails and their folders, thanks for asking. OK, show, ‘fess up now, who’s been watching the Lifetime Original movies?
- So it’s once again up to Jim as our latest hapless historical bozo on the make, who can’t even impress the lady who was all set to snog a Viking last time. Because, see, Vikings take baths once a week, whereas in Western Europe around the same time people didn’t, so much. You thought I was exaggerating, about the relying too much on the weasiliness to make a point? Hah. Also, feh.
- Although, I suppose it’s nice to have a reminder that our Howick can play several different kinds of hopeless loser. Horrible Histories: the only children’s TV show wherein throwing a bit of sleaze into the mix represents positive character development.
- Throwing a bit of random MTV-ness, however… Well, it’s likewise encouraging for both Jim and his audience to revisit his one major badass character in the midst of all this showcase snivelling. Under any normal circs, the swashbuckling-pirate-goes-Totally Radical schtick would be amusingly apt; however this is HH, and we’ve already seen Blackbeard the viciously menacing light-opera fan — also, the ‘You’ve Been Artois’d!’ sketch. Another vaguely melancholy realisation of creative end times approaching: the inability to compete with your own past inspiration.
- Mind, I was cheered up not a little by the sign reading ‘Booty Room’ — also, by the much more characteristically engaging little ‘ow!’. Wonder if that was ad-libbed?
- Devoted readers — and by this point I am fully defining ‘devoted’ as ‘willing to put up with my ongoing Tudor obsession’ — will recall, or at least be willing to go back to check, that the actually sad, rather poignantly strange career of Bloody Mary I has been covered herein on-and-off throughout the Series Three reviews, most specifically in S03E02, 03 & 12. There’s an awful lot of Horribleness within the poor girl’s career, basically.
- It wasn’t always thus. Back when Henry VIII was still hopeful of giving her a few brothers by her mother Catherine of Aragon, pretty, dainty, precocious little Princess Mary was his avowed ‘chieftest jewel’. By which he mostly meant ‘marital bargaining chip’ — she was betrothed within both the French and Spanish royal families before she was ten.
- Queen Catherine, meanwhile, took a more personal approach, seeing to it that her daughter was educated according to the very latest — and surprisingly enlightened — theories, commissioning curricula from the likes of Vives and Erasmus. Always meanwhile ensuring that Mary also grew up a good daughter of the Catholic aka ‘True’ Church — which back then of course wasn’t a problem, given that her dad was busy earning the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ from the same source.
- Aaaaaand then he met Anne Boleyn, and the Happy Families thing just went all to hell in a handbasket. This is where the over-the-top angstiness of Kate Bush becomes an inspired stroke, because for Mary, emo was about to become a full-blown lifestyle. By then in her teens, she staunchly supported Mum during the famously messy divorce proceedings. For which dear old Dad — never more creatively tyrannical than when avenging what he saw as betrayal — had her declared illegitimate, stripped her of her household, downgraded her to ‘Lady’ Mary, and forced her not only to take La Boleyn’s vicious insults (including death threats) but actually to serve as lady-in-waiting to her infant sister Elizabeth.
- This went on for some few years, during which Mary the promisingly vivacious marital prospect faded into a sickly, sad, frustrated woman whose sole comfort was her faith. As mentioned in the song, she did indeed try to be good; it was rumoured that she was actually entirely innocent. (There’s a story of her father — after she’d been restored to court thanks to the good offices of Queen Jane Seymour — sending a courtier over to whisper naughties in her ear to test this theory, and hugely enjoying her subsequent panicked blushes.)
- Trouble with all this was, as the song also effectively conveys, she also entirely lacked the instinctive knack for reapolitik that characterised her clan. Again relying on Mum’s example, she preferred to be guided by her conscience, which was in turn influenced by the conviction that God had kept her alive solely that she might someday bring England back to the True Church.
- Which subsequently, as you might imagine, helped seal the fate of the around 300 Protestant ‘rebels’ who burned at the stake during her eventual reign. Back then, far from being a sign of homicidal mania, this was considered fully compatible with a pious, even generous conscience. See, the poor deluded wretches were headed to eternal burning anyway, so facing them with the prospect was considered a kind warning — or, if they stubbornly persisted on their way, a warning signpost for others.
- Pythagoras and beans, on the other hand, probably a sign of mental instability… although with your brilliant mathematician types, you can never tell. The details are fuzzy, but he did set himself up as the leader of what was imaginatively known as ‘Pythagoreanism’ — cult-founding being considered something of a fashionable hobby, in ancient Athens — and its commandments did indeed include being extra-finicky about the Fabaceae. Although his actual death by legume avoidance isn’t anywhere close to authenticated, not least because it sounds more like it was grabbed off the reject pile of O.Henry-style irony.
- The really fun part is looking this all up and discovering that modern scholars are fully locked in a hot dispute over why, exactly, the lien on lentils. Seriously. Their papers include lines like this: In a recent scholium Professors Robert Brumbaugh and Jessica Schwartz argue that the Pythagorean prohibition of beans is best understood as a commonsense injunction aimed at preventing acute hemolytic anemia in individuals with a hereditary deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase in their red blood cells.
- Given all of which, I’m pleased to report that the consensus among cooler heads is pretty much what you were thinking: beans are kind of… incompatible… with keeping your mind on noble motive and higher thought. Y’know, the musical fruit gets a bit distracting. It’s even been proposed that the Pythagoreans feared that they might, uh, expel their souls with the rest of the gas, so to speak.
- Blackbeard, also covered in previous installments, ie. S02E06. I did just think to check on something the skipping of which has been bugging me since then: but I regret to report I can confirm only ‘three brace’, or six total, pistols of the twelve, and then only in times of battle. As consolation I offer this delightful little tome by Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, from Their first Rise and Settlement in the Island of Providence, to the present Time [ie., 1724]. Blackbeard is chapter III. The facing illustration is not to be missed.
- Edward VI’s whipping boy (formally ‘proxy for the correction of the prince’) was in reality Barnaby Fitzpatrick, son of the Irish Baron of Upper Ossory. As shown, they were good enough buddies that the threat of proxy whippings actually worked on Edward. Barnaby was a sunny-natured type who held no grudges, and in fact seems to have been a nice balance for the priggishly pedantic prince in more ways than one. A charming fragment of their correspondence survives, with Edward writing:
- “Shortly we will prove howe ye have profited in the french tongue, for we will write to you in french. For women, as far as ye may, avoid their company. Yet, if the French King command you, you may sometimes dance. Else apply yourself to riding, shooting or tennis, with such honest games, not forgetting sometimes your learning, chiefly reading of the Scripture…”
- To which Barnaby replied: “Ye make me think the care ye take for me is more fatherly than friendly…” Yep, there’s a total Tudor buddy movie in here somewhere.