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S05E13: Savage Songs

In an attempt to write a heartfelt finale song of his own, Rattus seeks inspiration from one last selection of sublime (and, as always, chronologically sorted) videos from the previous series. Which lead him merely–and inevitably–to the conclusion that there’s nothing he can sing that the HH crew hasn’t pulled heartstrings with already…

In this episode:

Alexander the Great (from S05E06)

“Alexander is my name, Macedonia’s most famous
Commander, history calls The Great but I prefer The Greatest
A king aged only twenty when my dad assassinated
Advisers called for calm but frankly peace is over-rated…”

Where I’d rank it: 6th

One of the nicer little subplots of the HHTV Experience is the fact that fully half of the core sextet have small offsprings of their own, thus the upcoming chance to introduce their works to same. While Simon and Mat will likely have some serious ‘splainin to do in order to achieve unbridled inter-generational admiration (especially given that, if Family Ties has taught us anything, it’s that Bo Baynton is inevitably due to grow up into the next Alex P. Keaton) all Ben has to do is cue up the ol’.vob file of this song and turn to his son with an air of quiet triumph…

…at which point, yes, Willbond Jr will most likely barely lift his eyes from the latest CGI-intensive blockbuster and snort “Geez, Dad, you guys used to, like, use actual makeup to look younger?” But once he ‘accidentally’ destroys the kid’s Xbox, Ben will have a clear shot at Coolest Parent Ever, is the important point here.

It’s important because, alas, I don’t see this becoming one of the all-time HH music video classics otherwise, clever arena-rock satire or no. One has to be intimately familiar with Willbond’s usual HH personae to appreciate what an amazing piece of work it really is. And it doesn’t help that instead of swirly-cape-intensive romanticks, Benjamin’s big Highwayman Moment, so to speak, is all-too-thoroughly muffled under relentlessly dry exposition and those dubious blond curls. Also, there’s the bit where his best friend is now Jim in that beard. Still, though, definitely worth as many viewings as it takes to get past it all…

Crassus: Minted (from S05E04)

“Smashed the slaves, it got real gory
But then Pompey stole my glory
To show it was me that crushed the horde
Nailed up the slaves like on a billboard!”

Where I’d rank it: 5th

Someone on YouTube pointed out that this is easily the most expensive-looking music video HH ever produced. While I remain sceptical re: actual $$ involved–to me, those effects look very much like the ones Sesame Street used to seem hip’n’happening on a public broadcasting budget back in the mid-Seventies–I will concede that they were put to excellent use boosting Farnaby’s shot at musical-comedy immortality. Like Ben… except, y’know, sort of crossed with Larry the lead Aztec priest… anyway, in full keeping with the what-the-hell spirit of S5–Simon gets handed a non-sequitur showcase and told to go nuts.

Whereupon, being Farnaby, he quite literally does. And it’s a magnificent thing. Never mind if you love or loathe hip-hop; so generously, hilariously authentic is Farnaby’s unexpected emergence as Grime God that–in a manner interestingly reminiscent of Charles II–you’re swept along regardless on a wave of purely joyful noise. It doesn’t hurt that the producers had the wit to schedule same immediately after the delicately erudite masterpiece that is Dickens/Morrissey, thus achieving a sort of afterparty-at-the-Animal House effect for the under-twelve set. Not the kind of treat your average SS episode can provide.

Vikings and Garfunkel (from S05E02)

“Think we’re scary? No, don’t flee
Conquered Saxons would find we
Settled and lived in harmony…”

Where I’d rank it: 4th

Apparently this particular bit of sublime musical silliness was the net result of Jim and Mat, the show’s self-proclaimed enfants terrible, relentlessly begging for a Simon & Garfunkel-themed spoof (because when you’re trying to terrorise the producers of a children’s show who hand you the Sex Pistols parodies as a matter of course, you have to get creative). Y’know, in case you were wondering where to send the therapy bills for those wigs–or, for that matter, the petal-strewing Rickards.

It’s this emphasis on frolicsomeness–both follicular and literal–that got it bumped down a notch in these rankings. (Well, that and the possibly-not-unrelated fact that up closer it’s lyrically one of the weaker songs of the series.) I have no brief against unbridled joy, but I do also adore S&G past all reason, and thus every time I hear those uncannily faithful harmonies start up I cannot quite get past the realisation that conditions were perfect for a much more sharply-focussed satire.

Instead, we got the HH crew merely out lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy, and just to repeat, I am not at all complaining about it. I’m not even sure how one would go about complaining, because every time I try to figure it out a petal-strewing Rickard dances in from stage left. I am merely saying, I had one chance in my whole entire lifetime of ever hearing anyone redo The Sounds of Silence with Valhalla references, and it’s gone.*tiny, wistful sigh*

Joan of Arc (from S05E05)

“So I did it like a dude, cut my hair
Gave up wearing dresses, bought a pair
Of trousers

No blouses
Said I wanna fight Angleterre!”

Where I’d rank it: 8th

Yeah, so in the original review I said I was willing to forgive the fluffy affectations as a means to get Saint Joan across effectively to a younger audience, and I stand by that here… but man, the subsequent listens are making it harder. Not so much Martha’s performance, that holds up unsurprisingly well; albeit so does my reservations re: costuming. Accurate or no, damn it’s hard to keep up with the fine details of Joan’s military prowess when you’re baffled by fleur-de-lys-covered pantaloons. That Ms. Howe-Douglas even makes it possible easily keeps this video out of last place.

What lands it in next-to-last place is–well, look, I can appreciate a song that’s solely about the catchy hook as well as the next Eighties kid. But ye gods, kiddies, in my day the hook at least involved Ghostbusters. The only creative upside to the current vapid frothiness, or frothy vapidness, or whatever, is that it fully manages to give the trial sequence the weight it deserves by comparison. For a lovely moment, it all springs to real, appealing life… and then Bishop Mat starts dancing along, and I conclude once again that I would be the single worst person to watch Eurovision with, like, ever.

Henry VII: The Original Tu-Tu-Tudor (from S05E09)

“I didn’t agree with King Richard III
So I fought him at Bosworth Field and won
Victory!
How cool does it sound, that I’m the king who found 
Richard’s crown in a hedge on the winning battleground?”

Where I’d rank it: 7th

What strikes me most on rewatching this one is how much sheer fun everyone’s clearly having filming it–no, more than usual. A lot more, actually. More as in they appear to be still playing the half-schnockered party animals from the Crassus video, except I think here they may actually be half-schnockered. As Exhibit A I present the huge beaming isn’t-this-just-the-best-thing-EVER grin on Jim. Apparently even playing Richard III pales in comparison with the chance to back Henry VII, to the point where it starts seeming vaguely treasonous.

The good news is, every bit of all this unbridled joy is justified… save perhaps the far end of Larry’s, but we should all be used to that by now. This is altogether the most charming of S5’s second-tier musical experiments, coming in below Alexander’s here only because Willbond is playing so much more against type than Mat.

But in all other ways, the comedic logic that starts with giving dour Henry VII a glam-rock makeover and ends up with Baynton kicking ass and taking names on both counts–in falsetto!–is seamlessly and unassailably smile-worthy, in an un-self-conscious manner that recalls the very best of S2. Come to think of it, everybody looked idiotically happy to be celebrating Pachacuti, too…

Transportation (from S05E08)

“We were creative, inventive
Progress our incentive
Always searching for a solution
We took some steel and a wheel
Made a plane, car and train and created a revolution!”

Where I’d rank it: 9th

OK, two things: a) Yes, of course this should be the Owain Glyndwr song. I have no idea why it isn’t, save perhaps the desire to avoid further irritating the Welsh grammar police. On the other hand, in this song there is b) Benjamin T. Willbond, attempting to sing, keep up with doo-wop choreography, maintain an American accent and wear a nineteenth-century suit, all at the same time. Given the gushing I’m about to do in the next couple entries, I feel I should note here that comedic achievement comes in many and diverse forms.

Really, as noted in the original review this is no more than the boys’ charisma having a grand day out, and as such would be impossible to dislike even if it didn’t give me the odd feeling–also noted in the original, and reiterated here to indicate that I am totally not kidding–that I’ve suddenly just got home from grade school and turned on American PBS. There’s something about the the combination of a guileless salute to the iconic transportation pioneers and a Greased Lightnin’ parody that once again just screams Sesame Workshop… And no, I still haven’t worked out if that’s a compliment or not.

Charles Dickens (from S04E03)

“In my life, felt shamed by poverty in childhood.
Wrote about sadness, suffering and fears
Also wrote about people with funny names
Bumble, Smallweed, Scrooge, Uriah Heep
And Wackford Squeers…”

Where I’d rank it: 2nd

Because duh. Sorry once again, poor dear Richard III, but the title of ‘most perfect piece of musical comedy HH has ever produced’, bestowed on your showcase video in the S3 edition of this article, must formally be slipped to a new and more virally successful candidate. You’ll always have the children’s drawings, but Dickens-via-Morrissey here has the swinging gladioli. Q.E.D.

Honestly, the subject/parody fusion this time is so ridiculously, brilliantly perfect down to the smallest sparkling facet–not forgetting the wonderful backup shrewdness from Jim, Larry and even Al “Mutton-Chops” Murray–there’s literally nothing left to say. So you’ll excuse me if I take the opportunity instead to do something I generally try to avoid, on account of not trusting my own objectivity.

But here we are at the very last, I’ve got Slate magazine on my side, and so for once I’m going to flat-out fawn over Mathew Baynton’s onscreen charisma when filtered through his obviously heartfelt ease within music. If not actually genius, the boy’s gift for genre mimicry does a damn good impression of it; at their best, his HH musical turns are delicately, authentically sophisticated in a way that provokes unusually sharp disbelief that they’re part of a children’s show. Thus, Robert Knox, the King of Bling, Dick Turpin, Charles Darwin, Henry VII, and now Dickens, among many others: Take a bow, indeed.

Rosa Parks: I Sat on a Bus (from S05E01)

What act of mine caused havoc to ensue
How come I caused such fuss?
What shocking behaviour did I do?
Well…
I sat on a bus.”

Where I’d rank it: 3rd

And then there is Dominique… well, I’ve already gushed about that, and indeed this song, at full length in the relevant episode review, and can only add here that both become more so with each repeat viewing. Short version: the decision to lead off the last-ever series premiere with this video, regardless of Dickens and the Hippie Vikings also on tap, is entirely understandable.

…Also, I have the nagging feeling I should be saying something profound about diversity and the show finally breaking out of the Dominant White Male ideology with a vengeance and all that. I dunno. What I feel needs to be celebrated above all, on that score, is how effectively the HH format breaks down any ideology to its component humanity–exposing same as flawed and foible-ridden, yes, sometimes disturbingly so, but as a corollary making the moments when it rises above stand out as that much more precious.

Thus no-one has ever been placed on a pedestal while the show demanded they be admired solely because they happen to fit the latest politically correct fashion in whatever form; they’ve simply presented human beings worthy of real, relateable consideration, whether that leads to contempt or admiration. Trust me, folks, this is something to be cherished. Don’t ever, ever discount it.

We’re History (Finale) (from S05E12)

“Together, we made the world
A little bit grim
We’re history–
Could be fairly… dim.'”

Where I’d rank it: 1st

Yeah… so… yeah… this… um…

*snif*

…Y’know what, I think I’m just gonna let the tears raised in my eyes at the sheer sweet rightness of it all–even after two years and approx. thirty-seven thousand viewings later–stand as my last tribute to this video, and to all of Horrible Histories. Thank you once again, all of you. It’s been one hell of a ride.

********************************************************************

P.S. — To the ‘new team’ behind what now appears certain to be a sixth series–which, from patching together hints on social media, does not involve Caroline Norris, Greg Jenner or any of the core cast, but does for some reason involve Lawry (there’s an AfterM*A*S*H joke in there somewhere, if I could only figure out how to make it)–anyway, I wish you nothing but free and open goodwill.

P.P.S.– But if you screw with this finale song in any way, shape or form, I will [insert Liam Neeson’s Taken speech here]. Yes, I know I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. Trust me, I’ll figure it out.

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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S04E13: Savage Songs

Meanwhile, down in the Time Sewers: Rattus has agreed to babysit his feisty, googly-eyed and generally-all-too-reminiscent-of-a-certain-troublemaking-Great-Dane-puppy nephew, ah, Scrappus. Luckily, Uncle Rattus has the perfect way to keep the teeny terror entertained and out of trouble… well, that and the cage.

In this episode:

Hey, Hey, We’re the Thinkers (from S04E03)

“Not everyone loved smarties though, even Socrates had his foe
When tried for treason he simply said “Why?
They sentenced him to drink hemlock
He said “You know, if I take stock
I
am annoying, I’ll take that and die…”

Where I’d rank it: 3rd

Here’s one of a rather disappointingly few genuine attempts to build on the smartly witty S3 musical vibe. Like the sketches, the S4 musical parody concepts, while almost uniformly brilliant, tended to the less surefire and more subtly esoteric in the comic details. Unlike the sketches, this meant the actual songwriting slid a bit sideways amid the general rush to upgrade everything else — and very nearly gets upstaged by a thimble-sized snip of fur in its own showcase.

(Although my inner severely conscientious critic person does think you could’ve bunged the Borgia Family or Georgian Navy in there instead of the rat-com stuff without loss of credibility, show… *watches teeny Scrappus bounce gleefully about a teeny wingback armchair*…not that you have to listen to it or anything.)

Anyway, as noted, this is an exception and then some — ‘some’ here referring mostly to Larry’s unexpectedly Ringo-riffic tones. The generally intelligent — not to say obsessive — attention to the finer details of both subject and satire (and facial hair!) may well explain why everyone looks so incredibly up for performing what must in UK terms be Oh God, Not Yet Another Beatles Takeoff. Although, when you think about it, at this point a children’s series is already the perfect venue to recapture the freshness of the original irreverence. I mean, look at Mat — it’s either that or high-test amphetamines.

Bloody Mary I (from S04E10)

Mary the First, that’s me
Called the ‘Bloody Queen of England’
Not what I intended, tried to be

Good, you see
But history only remembers, I was a catastrophe…”

Where I’d rank it: 6th

No, I’m not just rewarding them for finally getting it more-or-less right after ragging on their Tudor coverage for the last three series. They already got their cooky back in the original review, and that’s as much as they deserve for that. Besides, I’m still a trifle off-put at the total lack of rich sartorial bling, which back in the day actually had meaningful implications. Basically they’ve dressed Mary as a pointedly demure Protestant maiden to have her make the crazy eyes over executing same. The irony, it, uh, burns.

However they also had the great wit and sensitivity to match Mary’s uber-angsty adventures to Kate Bush, making it uniquely thoughtful among HH tuneage even as same also now includes classical philosophy. Thus compelling not only my great respect as a Tudor nerd, but the wholesale putting aside of my deep and ongoing issues with Sarah Hadland’s shrill little voice in order to keep this on my iPod playlist. Which frankly more than anything else convinces me they’re onto something here.

William Shakespeare (from S04E11)

I was the greatest, I was ace
To find a better writer, that’s a ‘wild goose chase’
I was truly brilliant, which is why I sing
‘You can’t have too much of a good thing’–
‘If music be the food of love, play on’…”

Where I’d rank it: 7th

I said I’d forgiven this song for grating, on my hyper-sensitive genre expectations, like the aural equivalent of a lovely summer drive taken over a pothole-filled road… and I have. Really. Hence the ranking here. I mean, besides everything else (ie., Mat, also Ben doing that finger-snapping thing in the background), it continues this series’ endearingly meta-quirky musical celebration of the power of knowledge. So what if today’s particular lesson is in how to tell when the universe hates you, personally?

OK, maybe there’s a bit of lingering bitterness. Besides, the cheekily made-up rhymes thingy, the composers keep doing that this series, and I do not think it means what they think it means (ie. a clever shortcut for days when you just don’t feel like being an innovative genius songwriter). But fear not, kiddies: Every now and again, the universe relents and throws you a shred of light and hope… ie., the ‘if music be the food of love’ bit. For just a moment there, Mat is back in his element, and all is once again well with the world.

It’s a New World (from S04E04)

Couldn’t land on the sand
A month later, though
We made it. New Plymouth, man, we claimed it
The natives said not
But ran when we shot…”

Where I’d rank it: 9th

Because it represents the widest possible gap between having a great concept and … well, someone then had to have thought “Sticking Willbond with making sure the verse about the Pilgrim hats has real street cred, that’ll totally keep our Jay-Z takeoff fresh,” and I can’t decide whether that’s more frustrating as a conscious decision or the result of sheer comedic hubris. “Look, we’re Horrible Histories, are we not? We have Larry punning, do we not? Slap some pretty video filters on, and there’s no way this can fail!”

Yeah… no. Still, there is some inherent wit — at least, while Mat and Martha are performing it — in using lazily glossy pop/rock to retell the standard American origin story, given that as usual that translates to ‘skimming over all the really interesting details’. Or at any rate it does over here. The “Cowboy Song” interlude does suggest the novelty value still covers this sort of thing across the pond. And hey, while we’re resolutely finding the positives, Larry didn’t actually get a fart solo…

Luddites! (from S04E08)

Machines meant the workforce shrunk
You think you’d see us settle?!
When bosses said, Let’s junk each punk
And replace you… with heavy metal?!”

Where I’d rank it: 4th

Ironically enough, the very definition of solid rather than spectacular entertainment. Sure, a kiddy show riffing off the Sex Pistols is theoretically wildly outrageous, but this is HH, and… well, it’s organic outrageous. Unlike, say, forcing Jim to play badass action hero, the cross-generational audacity here is so profoundly logical, and so predictably well and/or enthusiastically executed from there, I literally can’t do anything constructive but enjoy it. When I caught myself going ‘awwww!’ at Jim-as-Johnny-Rotten, I knew it was time to throw in the critical towel entirely.

So have some fun tangentially-related facteage instead: some of the Luddites’ most violent, desperate rioting fell within Patrick Bronte’s parish — well prior to his becoming patriarch of the most famously moor-laden literary family in history, but recalled to them vividly enough that Charlotte’s Shirley uses it as the central conflict. As for Dad, for the rest of his life he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow, prudently discharging the unused shell out his window every morning. Pretty much all the HH version is missing, really.

Victoria & Albert: A Love Ballad (from S04E06)

“The press watched every smile and flirt
Called us Alboria, but I preferred Vicbert!
Or you can call me Al…”

Where I’d rank it: 8th

… Y’know, I hadn’t even noticed the Paul Simon reference in there. I am now working on the theory that this song was written explicitly to see how many separate layers of pop-cultural satire could be crammed into three minutes. Why this was undertaken I would not like to speculate, especially in re: people apparently convinced that a spoof of The Young Victoria could be improved with Paul Simon references, but do feel that a mild psychotic break after being handed the blues take on the Stuart dynasty cannot be ruled out.

TL/DR: It’s a really, really good thing that Jim and Martha are as good at leveraging their adorable as they are, because it just saved them one spot at least in my rankings (yes, I’m sure they’re thrilled). Oh sure, there’s also the ‘both enormously musically talented’ thing, but spending an entire kiddy-show video in schmaltzy soft focus and still making you feel enough to sniffle at the end — not to mention, be reasonably fine with the fact that Jim didn’t get a solo this series — is another level of chemistry entirely.

Mary Seacole (from S04E05)

Me name Mary Seacole, famous nurse
To de Crimean boys
No, me not Florence Nightingale!
Dat mix-up, me annoys…”

Where I’d rank it: 5th

More things that make a HH reviewer go ‘hmmmm’: weighing the relative merits of a note-perfect Jamaican accent vs. apt Clash references. In the end, the latter won out by the barest smidge (’twas “We fought the law/and the law won!” that finally did it) but credit must be given to the songwriters here too. You can just imagine how good pulling off “I t’ink it my destiny, child/to be a war medic!” must’ve felt, under this series’ musical circs. “See, that Plantagenet thing wasn’t a fluke! So there! *sob* ” (This mood may also explain the frankly weird dancing-wounded chorus, come to think of it.)

Fundamentally, though, this is a solo triumph, resting on the sheer verve, wit and style that is Dominique seizing her day at long last. As she’s made clear in past series and will demonstrate even more awesomely in the next, our Miss Moore has no interest whatsoever in being merely a tick in the diversity box. The hell with academic debate, Mary Seacole’s got business to take care of, and that business is quite possibly curing constipation. Both ladies — and the entire HH production team — deserve all the honour for it.

Natural Selection (from S04E02)

Every species’ new mutation
Had a perfect explanation
It seemed the world’s inception
Must predate common perception…”

Where I’d rank it: 1st

On the Origin of Species, reinterpreted in the classic British children’s book tradition. Complete with eccentric old bewhiskered professor type, faithful right down to the debatably-mad gleam in his eye… all set to an uncannily elegant David Bowie parody, with his loveably goofy gorilla sidekick on drums. If you haven’t been inspired to rush right out and find the video by the end of that description, I’m not sure what else to tell you, other than maybe that your ability to experience pure delight is past due for a tuneup.

…Or, OK, you’re a biology major. That last verse especially may have outsmarted itself just a tad, even with older viewers. In the end, though, thanks to Mat’s intuitive understanding, picking up details can at any age willingly be excused as secondary to how effectively the whole production conveys the sheer tumultuous epic-ness of intellectual discovery. You too could change the world, kiddies, starting from only a stuffed finch. Sure, maybe you won’t find a drumming gorilla pal in the process…. maybe you will, is the point.

The Few (WWII RAF Pilots) (from S04E02)

We flew in tough conditions
Lucky to survive five missions;
Not that I’m complaining
But I’ve had just ten hours training…'”

Where I’d rank it: 2nd

It’s all about the impact — not quite enough to bump it above the sheer intelligent creativity (and facial hair) that is Darwin, but otherwise unassailable. After all the breathless anticipatory buildup to the new series of Horrible Histories, aka The One With the Boyband Spoof and Wasn’t That Clever, the show debuts with: Another Boyband Spoof, only IN A PLANE! And everyone has UNIFORMS! And there are DANCE MOVES! All in the service of a shameless celebration of one of the most unabashedly glorious moments in the nation’s history, complete with CHURCHILL QUOTE!

‘Take that, Hitler!’, indeed. This is a display of ante-upping not seen since pretty much the actual war, when it involved Pearl Harbor. Never mind that it’s such a determined satire of boy-band shallowness that it starts producing actual winces of annoyance; if you accept all the OTT flourishes as the point — which over several viewings I have, mostly — it does it brilliantly from start to finish. Concentrating on the fun little authenticities happening in odd corners helps quite a lot, I find… OK, also Ben in uniform. Far too little of that, lately.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S03E13: Savage Songs

Gotta request coming in right here! It says “Please shut up and play the next song!”
… oh.

The series is over and the music’s had a massive awesomeness upgrade, so Rattus likewise busts out the turntables and the ‘tude — sort of — for a truly Horrible (also, once again chronological) farewell bash…

In this episode:

The Ages of Stone (from S03E11)

“Then Neanderthals were wiped out by the Ice Age horrific —
After which the Neolithic Age was terrific!”

Where I’d rank it: 8th

One of the most under-rated tunes in the show’s history — except by the show itself, which keeps bunging it onto these best-ofs and into the Prom and whatnot in the obvious hope that someone will appreciate it as the minor artistic triumph that it is…. or at least as remarkable for something other than “is he or isn’t he wearing anything under that tunic?!”

Yes, it could well be argued that in that case they shouldn’t’ve made that the single most compelling visual marker in the entire production. Given however that both jazz/swing and Flintstones reruns were ubiquitous throughout my childhood — and thus I can uniquely understand how difficult the former was to get right and appreciate that the latter was avoided — I’m feeling generous. Go forth and be appreciated, show. You may just want to lose the dancing cave paintings before you nominate it for a Grammy, though.

Ra Ra Cleopatra (from S03E05)

“For I am Cleopatra, Egypt’s royalty —
The ruling Pharaoh, don’t you dare-o mess with me
My poker face smiles only when I see
A man who takes my fancy like — Ooh! Marc Anthony!”

Where I’d rank it: 4th

Here’s a fun fact I totally forgot to include in my E05 notes: Cleopatra VII Philopator, not actually all that physically attractive. Other contemporary media confirms the Queen of the Nile as a short, rather stocky figure with a plain face and a nose that was legendary, all right, but not for the reasons popularly supposed. (Oh, and as the last of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs, she didn’t speak Egyptian, either, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

Yep, not to put too fine a point on it, but the satirical parallels between Lady Gaga and the Lady of the Two Kingdoms just took a major level in hilarious accuracy. The CBBC lesson for today is that pure charismatic showmanship can take you a long, long way, kiddies. Especially when it’s allied to unusually slick visuals and nigh-impossibly catchy pop-rock — and since this is HH, you don’t have to hate yourself for being manipulated by any of it in the morning.

Celtic Boast Battle (from S03E12)

“Yeah you got a brain but you just got one
I got five on my belt from the battles I’ve won
In a rage, on a rampage
I’ve killed more men than old age…”

Where I’d rank it: 7th

Damn, but the pure songwriting was brilliant in S3. At any rate, here’s No.7 on my list, the throwaway flourish tacked onto the last episode, and… well, last year’s equivalent was Do the Pachacuti. You take my point. Richie Webb and Dave Cohen — whose musical genius I have celebrated for forty-odd reviews now without once, to my shame, mentioning your name — please accept this ranking, and indeed large chunks of this blog, as tribute.

Visually, on the other hand… not much has changed re: either musical production or my affection for the culprits here. Such is the failsafe nature of the HH cast’s chemistry at this point that the pitch meeting for this one likely went simply ‘OK, so we’re thinking Mat with sweet facial hair, and Jim painted blue, and hands up who wants to see the result?’ Thus a classic of HH adorableness was born… also of course Larry, by now that’s classic too.

William Wallace: Scottish Rebel (from S03E03)

“Celebrated Stirling Bridge, another Scottish win
By decorating my sword with the English general’s skin!”

Where I’d rank it: 6th

So as discussed at the time and confirmed via many listens since, Ben somehow rips off the authentic equivalent of any hard-rock vocal I’ve ever heard… while still visually coming across the equivalent of any Canadian beer commercial I’ve ever seen. Really, it’s uncanny. He’s howling his undying defiance at the heavens (probably the ones he just sent all those Englishmen to, right after somebody explained the theological mix-up) and I’m all, “Yeah, that Leafs/Bruins finale, I hear you, brother.”

Mind you, I do not wish to dash our Benjamin’s fond action-hero dreams outright. First of all, did I mention there was beer? Secondly, and more important, a moment to consider the alternatives. See, I was last deep into hard rock circa around 1985. As hard as I was on the video, and the ranking here does reflect that, I will concede that ratty plaid flannel is an acceptable alternative to being reminded that I used to be impressed by ripped zebra-print tank tops.

Oh, and two-word bonus: Mountie uniform. You’re welcome.

Aztec Priests’ Song (Ain’t Stayin’ Alive) (from S03E09)

“We do this if you haven’t guessed
By getting something off your chest
Your heart would probably be best
Or else your head…”

Where I’d rank it: 5th

Because this is about as close as we’re ever going to get to HH: the fully adult version. Not so much because of the content itself, but that somebody just went “OK, we said they’re gonna sing full-on Studio 54-style disco and by God that’s what’s gonna happen. WITH SPRINKLES.” And that happened. It may-or-may not be a coincidence that Rickard was in the vicinity at the time, but I like to imagine a further conversation that went “We’re giving Larry the lead in this song because…” “I LIKE SPRINKLES.”

Right, I may be subtly hinting that illegal pharmaceuticals were involved in the making of this video. But I would totally be kidding my favourite children’s series, because I have been up close and personal with it now for nearly a year, and in that time I have learned that if they had simply decided to give their comedic inhibitions the day off, this is exactly what it would look like. Except maybe the tooth-licking. I think we’re all better off not thinking too closely about that one.

The Truth About Richard III (from S03E06)

“Thomas More wrote a history, said I murdered Edward’s boys
Shakespeare said their death was an evil ploy
But I say those two are historical vandals!
They’ve ruined my image — I mean, what a scandal!”

Where I’d rank it: 3rd

You think maybe somebody noticed the George IV success story from last series? And that they might have had OCD? At the least, clearly the producers understand to a scarily-fine degree of precision what they’ve got in Howick, and planned each detail accordingly. I sometimes wonder what it must feel like to encounter this video not knowing that. “Why is the little man on the YouTube dressed as Winnie-the-Pooh and holding children’s drawings giving me wildly inappropriate feelings?”

…Anyway, this is very likely the most perfect piece of musical comedy HH has ever produced. You can tell, because as mentioned in the original review, it took finding the actual king under a frickle-fracking parking lot somewhere in Random Part of England That Isn’t London (actual North American terminology) to put scuff marks on it enough to rank it below infinity. Yes, Richard, yes, the universe does in fact have it in for you. If it’s any consolation — and I like to think it would be — it makes for some truly amazing telly.

Dick Turpin, Highwayman (from S03E01)

“You think life is one big antic
My profession is romantic
Hate to be pedantic
But it ain’t…”

Where I’d rank it: 2nd

Just for fun I decided to take another shot at what I chickened out on in the S03E01 review, ie. concentrating on all the other stuff going on in this video besides That Performance:

The setting is gorgeous, a perfect complement to the expertly swirling camerawork. The troupe does a very nice job of the melodramatic, scowly menace; either deliberately or as a result of the realisation — achieved probably just after Mat stepped out of makeup — that they’re stuck in those tight pants and/or corsets and nobody’s ever gonna care, I’m not here to judge. (I do particularly like how Martha’s full-on Boudicca bitchface is accented by that little mandolin dealie.) Postie Ben triumphantly savouring his moment, also good value…

…yeah, OK, and there’s also this incredibly magnetic, playfully erotic, perfectly inspired takeoff of Adam Ant happening somewhere in there. All done on what looks rather like an offhand whim. I can’t help imagining the mixed feelings this must perpetually evoke in Mat: very few of us get to have our prime of youth and vitality thus recorded for millions to fawn over… and even fewer do so wearing Michael Jackson’s hair and eyeliner.

Work, Terrible Work! (from S03E04)

“We try not to get caught in spokes
Or trap our hands in gauges —
To stop machines and get you out
Will cost you a week’s wages!”

Where I’d rank it: 10th

Did I mention I don’t like peppy Broadway numbers? Check that: I don’t mind peppy Broadway numbers when they’re absolutely the only thing on offer. Like, it’s really late at night and I can’t sleep and I desperately need something to snark on (snark cravings, much like leftover-curry ditto, tend to strike often in the wee hours) and, I don’t know, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the red-eye special on AMC…

…We conclude this episode of Too Much Information Theatre with the footnote that I am obviously an evil flint-hearted joy-despising critic person who — for instance — spends the entire video wondering why this lot of pathetic pint-size belters doesn’t just walk out and form a music-hall act already. (I bet Capitalist Villain Mat is secretly just dying to manage them.) So you should absolutely feel free to enjoy the living daylights out of this beautifully and authentically produced number… but just in case, can I also recommend the guys’ sideburns as a fantastic distraction in a pinch?

The Suffragettes’ Song (from S03E08)

…threw myself under a horse
To try and make our case
Became a famous martyr, how did men react?
‘We can’t give women votes if they’re so stupid they’ll do
that!‘”

Where I’d rank it: 9th

Sorry, kids, I’ve had another few listens, and I’m still not convinced. Then again, I was never particularly convinced by, say, ABBA either, and you lot seem to take that whole thing pretty seriously, so as noted in the original review, quite possibly this is more about cultures clashing anything else. When people self-identify as ‘fierce’ over this side of the pond, it’s not so much a sign of their undying support for basic human rights as that they’re about to show you their navel piercing.

The one thing that prevented it from coming in dead last — and incidentally spared you lot my ramble about how despite their song being a sloppy mess the Evil Emperors at least conveyed real passion and commitment — were Alice’s solo bits, particularly the one quoted above. The blunt effectiveness of the male responses aside, if there’s one thing Series Three has taught us, it’s that we really don’t want to get Alice angry.

The English Kings and Queens (from S03E02)

“William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John — Oi!
Henry, Ed, Ed, Ed, Rich II, then three more Henrys join our song
Edward, Edward, Rich the Third,
Henry, Henry, Ed again
Mary I, Good Queen Bess, Jimmy, Charles, then Charles again —
Jim, Will, Mary, Anna Gloria,
George, George, George, George, Will, Victoria!
Edward, George, Edward, George VI —
And Queen Liz II completes our list!”

Where I’d rank it: 1st

‘That show with the song about all the kings and queens’, that’s basically what HH is going to be fondly referred to in the years to come. Because sometimes, it’s worth reminding myself every now and again, it’s not about how cool it is to the adults. Although, in this case, it still is very cool, round-robin chorus and all. In fact, despite the blatant reuse of stock footage and costuming, it’s the one thing that keeps me from snickering when the producers start in on how seriously they take their educational mandate.

I believe them because, despite it all, I remember how ridiculously amazing it felt, as a little kid watching Sesame Street — the pre-Elmo edition of which is the closest American TV will ever come to recreating the HH vibe — that these grownups were so invested in doing this for me, that they’d put this much effort and interest and excitement into firing my imagination while still respecting my intelligence. Showing me what knowledge could be if I only cared enough. The gang making HH does care — and thanks to this song, now so do thousands of other little kids. Respect, guys. Totally.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2013 in Series Three

 

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S02E13: Savage Songs

I love this band…

To celebrate his employers’ decision to remain purely awesome, Rattus throws the ultimate disco dance part-ay. Featuring — with help from the animated intro characters — some suspiciously familiar (and, cleverly enough, chronologically sorted) videos…

In this episode:

Spartan School Musical (from S02E03)

“Everyone’s a jock here, there are no Spartan nerds –
The weedy kids were left to die, as breakfast for the birds!”

Where I’d rank it: 6th

I said I liked this one enormously,  and that’s absolutely true. However I must admit that this is increasingly less about the actual production and more about my dark-hearted delight at any means of exposing Disney’s relentless kiddy media machine as the soulless, sanitized, wholly vapid abomination it is…

…what? Yes, I’m a bit obsessive about this. Were your pop-culture engine insistently shoving the daughter of Billy Ray ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ Cyrus in your face daily for years, you too would cackle with especially fervent glee at the squeaky little American accents in HH… which, right, is what we were actually talking about. Sorry.

So this clearly isn’t a healthy state of mind to maintain for any length of time, and otherwise, this video — which, let’s face it, was never particularly nuanced to begin with — tends to slip the memory a bit. In fact, despite the heartwarmingly all-out efforts of everyone involved, it’s not difficult at all to get along without it for quite long stretches. Sic transit gloria Mouse, guys…

Boudicca (from S02E10)

“Gonna cause a stink
Won’t be the first to blink
I’m not who you think
Don’t mess with me, I’m Boudicca!

Where I’d rank it: 4th.

I spent some time second-guessing my thoughts as to the classic-ness of this one, as defined in the initial review. While I still have nothing but unqualified praise for Martha as the lead… in my affectionate fervour to find subtle nuance I may have, for instance, totally discounted the police siren.

Still an’all, the affection remains, and  not just because of the fantastic beat and floofy dancing (although I do cherish the latter deeply.) While most stories of this type — up to and including Pixar’s recent Brave — approach this story from the self-conscious POV of a girl rebelling against her ‘female’ role, this one is about a woman who was motivated to take a stand for herself because she was frankly mad as hell, for reasons easily understood whether you also have girl parts or not.

Boudicca’s gender cheerleading thus is earned as human, not obliged as a construct. And it is so incredibly badass that you can’t help but cheer it along. Regardless of viewer perspective, what’s not to love?

The Viking Song (Literally) (from S02E01)

“Let me in now, won’t you please
We’re here to raid your monasteries…”

Where I’d rank it: 2nd.

“So were these guys, like, rock stars or whatever before?… Is that how they got to do this?”
my Mum, after listening to this song.

…which pretty much sums up everything important you need to know, yes?

Going by their respective solo careers, I’d guess the (fully brilliant) central concept belongs to Larry, who then brought Mat on to ensure it worked as an actual song — the idea perhaps being for Rickard to have more time to perfect his smouldering-yet-icy blue gaze. At any rate, he clearly left our resident Angsty Artiste a free hand. The net result resonates with an unironic musical sophistication unique among HH tunes.

Really in terms of my pure enjoyment this one and ‘King of Bling’ are more-or-less a tie; only that one is about the sublimely clever parody, and the other about perfect (albeit mildly embarrassing) familiarity with the parody subject. Mat is always gonna be more convincing as royalty than he is in armour, but otherwise, y’know… in the one Ben juggles, in the other he plays an axe. Details.

Do the Pachacuti (from S02E12)

“’The rocks they are my warriors,’ I then used to boast,
And that little lie helped us win wars – but violence helped the most!”

Where I’d rank it: 8th

Let’s be honest: this is not a great song. Oh sure, it’s a great concept — if anything too successful; as I may have mentioned previously, there are perils inherent in mimicking stupid too closely. I wouldn’t call this a definitive example… only that it doesn’t help anything either that as a solo lyricist, our Larry is a wonderful writer of prose sketches that aren’t required to scan.

(Although the characteristically non-sequitur lyric above still ranks with the best. You can never keep a good British comedy writer down for long.)

On other plus sides: little bouncy lyric-following skulls. All the points. They go very well with bouncy Mat, who is working this video as though he’s been convinced it’s his ticket to Clown Heaven — and looks pretty good in war paint besides. As the show’s treatment of Mesoamerica goes, this is a sterling example of tact, taste and (what especially sneaks it past No.9) accuracy.

Charles II: King of Bling (from S02E02)

“I love the people, and the people love me
So much that they restored the English monarchy!
I’m part Scottish, French, Italian, a little bit Dane – but one hundred per cent party animal (Champagne?)”

Where I’d rank it: 1st.

Duh.

No, really. If you can’t find something to be charmed by somehow in this sweetly sophisticated, souffle-light hip-hop romp, you might want to check your medical history for cybernetic replacements, esp. in the chest cavity. Either that, or you’re the sort of hopelessly cross-grained grump who enjoys hating on rap as an occasional diversion from ordering those derned kids off your lawn.

…In either case, why are you watching Horrible Histories to begin with? (You can keep reading my blog, though. I’m not that picky.)

Blackbeard’s Song (from S02E06)

“And I loved to escape detection, and to win my crew’s affection…
(Which was nothing to do with the twelve guns he wore, on his belt, that were for protection!)”

Where I’d rank it: 7th.

Basically because I find the antics of the background chorus here much more entertaining than the ones in the Pachacuti song, and because I’m just a wee bit more impressed with Jim doing a complete 180 from useless to badass in the span of two episodes than with Mat shaking his nonexistent booty.

It does lose a few points for the redundant “captive’s lovely ring that shone like a jewel in the night”, tho. Because yes, I am just that frustratingly pedantic. Look, I’m writing a review blog about a children’s comedy series; any sense of literary proportion I had went out the window a long time ago.

George IV: Couldn’t Stand My Wife (from S02E05)

“Great palaces I did design —
Buckingham was one of mine.
Art and fashion, I so rated!
(And wives?)
That’s more complicated…”

Where I’d rank it: 3rd.

As frequently discussed in these pages, one of Jim’s great creative gifts is his ability to convey the ultimate in what TVTropes calls a Jerkass Woobie. Essentially, he’s what would happen did that one unpleasantly spoilt brat in every grade-school class grow up resolved to use his sniveling powers for good – oh, and had a really extraordinary singing voice besides.

…so yeah, when it came time to record a lite-FM attempt to make Georgian self-pity simoultaneously hilarious and touching, nobody was really startled when he turned it into a classic on all the demographic levels. Again, not a rampantly fabulous song per se, but it’s tight enough to get the point across, and damn is it funny. (Especially in the Prom version, wherein Simon’s George III retakes his rightful place.)

Real Live Cowboys (from S02E09)

Where I’d rank it: 10th… or, if I had my druthers, not at all.

We’ve never held up banks at all
We’re poorly paid
And kinda small
If you still wanna be a cowboy
Stick with me!”

I was looking back over my review of E09, and how I was having real trouble telling how far this song was in earnest, and the logical rational part of my brain — always something of a swot — piped up “Y’know, the extended fart solo might be a clue that it`s not actually meant as a thoughtful consideration of Old West mythmaking.”

Whereupon my primal reactionary brain went “What extended…?” and bustled over to YouTube.

And lo, memory returned. The universe had somehow been ensuring that I’d been distracted nearly every time that sequence threatened. Clearly, it agreed with me that it isn’t worth having my eyeballs re-seared with stupid over cliches already routinely mocked in in salsa commercials. Sorry again, Larry — you’ve been outvoted.*

*More soberly: Sure, this was a fun novelty for UK kidlets, who are of course the target audience here. But from a creative standpoint either of the two missing tunes — Learn Your Hieroglyphics (from S02E08) or The Monks’ Song (from S02E11) would’ve been much the more deserving choices.

Victorian Inventions (from S02E07)

“There’s just one little oversight…
WHOOMPH!
…we invented *koff!* dynamite.”

Where I’d rank it: 9th.

The production values are undoubtedly amazing. And the song itself is cute ‘n’ catchy, giving Alice a well-deserved showcase spotlight and Ben a chance to show off his talk-singy flair… yeah, OK, ‘flair’ might be pushing it a bit. ‘Smug with style’, though, absolutely.

Unfortunately, all this is expended in the service merely of remaking S1’s hugely forgettable We Are Greek: shoehorning a random list of accomplishments into an artificial, misleading, and frequently-disputed set of parameters. In effect, this is a song with the YouTube arguments consciously built in. Not the most point-ful creative decision ever made.

We’re the WWII Girls (Original Girl Power)

“When the war is over though
We’ll be proud cos we will know
Thanks to us is due, girls
Came to the rescue, girls
We’re the World War Two girls
Original Girl Power!”

Where I’d rank it: 5th

This is where I pull feminist privilege… also, my privilege as a human being to just, y’know, really like something a whole lot. These ladies aren’t just strong role models, they’re appealing personalities. This seems to be a standard by-product awesomeness of the HH format: focussing on the flaws of their subjects means they most often default to their well-rounded humanity.

Is their song a bit unnecessarily heavy on the “geez, this man-work is hard!” stuff? Yeah. But hey, that’s part of being human too. The really important thing, as the song points out, is that they did it. And when that’s allied to a catchy, sassy, triumphant tune, as performed to the hilt by modern women obviously fully invested in the spirit of the thing…

…um, something kind of… gets in my eyes, right around that last stanza. Every damn time.

Encore: Born 2 Rule (from S01E01)

“I vas the sad vun!
And I was the bad one…
I was the mad one!
And I was the fat one…”

Where I’d rank it: 1st…

…among the Series One songs, and as the one that started this whole journey. Kind of a Year Zero thing, really. It’d have been even cooler had they thrown the Plague Song and Burke & Hare in there, to show the progression.

Still, what a lovely chance to revisit the moment when it all began — and realise that they pretty much had it exactly right, from the first. Give the 4 Georges production values to match George IV’s solo, and I’m not sure they wouldn’t give Charles II a serious run for his charming.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2013 in Series Two

 

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