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Epilogue: The specials

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a popular and beloved children’s TV series is, at some point, going to spawn offshoots. Since the universe inexplicably continues to fail at taking up my idea of a DI Bones spinoff–just like Elmo’s World, except with Larry in place of that stupid bowtie dude!–for Horrible Histories this largely took the form of holiday/event specials.

The catch was that these were full-length episodes that had to somehow be squeezed into a production schedule already padded out to the edge of impossible. Thus the reasons why I’m not treating them as individual episode reviews: a) they’re largely composed of recycled material and b) most bear unmistakeable hallmarks of having been shoved out the door on a shoestring.

(If you do have a need for the sketch-by-sketch rundown, no worries; the List of HH Episodes Wikipage has your oddly specific-yet-adorable OCD covered.)

All of which does not, however, mean that they’re not decent value, and in a few cases much more…

2010: Horrible Christmas

The ‘Christmas special’ is a bit more elaborate a concept in the UK than in countries whose TV seasons consist of more than six-eight episodes per. Under those circs, being handed an entire bonus full-length episode is considered both an honour for the creators and a real treat for their audience. Thus, HH’s only holiday special to consist near-entirely of new and elaborately produced material.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that, as Britons, they had access to several centuries’ worth of snarkily hilarious dichotomy between the spiritual nature of this particular holiday and the earthy traditions arising therefrom. Nor that this exploration happened right around S2, the point at which creative confidence had hit its first and arguably most audacious peak.

The resulting hilights include several traditional carols rewritten from a more, ah, realistic POV (the truth behind not-so-Good ‘King’ Wenceslas is not to be missed) and a recreation of the last moments of the famous WWI Christmas Truce football match; powerfully moving if only because this silly children’s comedy series is trying so hard to do it justice. There is also a much more typical interlude featuring a jester named Roland the Farter, a fun riff on weird holiday cards, that one regular-series bit where Oliver Cromwell has his relatives arrested for daring to wish him the compliments of the season, and–a personal favourite–a proto-HMasterchef segment in which Our Bemused Hosts learn that Tudor palace cooks routinely worked in the nude (to cope with the heat of huge open fires)…

…Oh, and a Victorian prison celebration that includes the jailer telling Mat, “I think I can speak for all the lads when I say that you’re our favourite prisoner!” Because yes, they totally saved the blatant nudity and sodomy jokes for the Christmas special. Happy Holidays, kiddies! Be sure to revive your parents in time for turkey!

2011: Horrible Histories’ Big Prom Party

The next creative peak: “Music from Horrible Histories” being chosen as the theme for the summer 2011 children’s ‘Prom’ concert at the world-renowned Royal Albert Hall. (Non-UK types: you can tell this was a big honking honour, because it more usually goes to Doctor Who.)

Now, first things first, non-attendees–there are recordings of the original BBC Radio Three broadcast out there, which you need to hear at some point, and preferably before you see this special. If you can’t find the audio download, I’ll happily Dropbox you a copy. Those wondering what I’m on about: this unedited version includes among many other things a rendition of the Plague Song led by Larry and Martha. Yes. Also, bonus Mat as George II.

…Right, that’s all set? Good. So eventually the BBC got round to repurposing that ninety-ish-minute concert as an hourlong special, largely by cutting out all the classical interludes (along with most of the in-character badinage surrounding them) and substituting specially-shot inset sketches in their place. Because this was immediately post-S3 and everything was running just that smoothly, all of these sketches are authentically clever and funny, especially Mike Peabody’s excruciatingly typical efforts to turn this into a News Event and Shouty Man hawking the RAH for your all-purpose concert needs. Even a slight surfeit of Georges III and IV is mitigated by the sheer joy of having Simon back where he belongs.

Still… the downside of hearing the audio first is how very annoyed you’re going to be at the video editors, upon realising just how much they left out. But it will not matter in the end, because it is all equally brilliant. All the musical favourites through S3 are here, save Dick Turpin–given the extended yelp that accompanies Mat’s signature wink in “Born 2 Rule”, this is perhaps not surprising–and all are done full justice…

…Almost. Clearly the the (otherwise splendid) Aurora Orchestra never quite figured out how to transpose “King of Bling” and compensate by speeding it up slightly, leaving poor Mat audibly losing the race in bizarrely insult-to-injury-adding company with generic Solid Gold-esque dancers. Thus handily demonstrating just how far you can climb up the cultural ladder in the UK before nobody’s heard of Eminem.

July 2012: Sport Special

Return with me now to those halcyon days of Summer 2012, when London hosted the Olympìcs, magenta was suddenly the colour of the moment and the world was equally delighted by awesome sporting feats and the sight of the British–owners of a dazzlingly implausible number of those feats–for once in their collective lives unabashedly, unashamedly, almost deliriously happy and proud. While surrounded by magenta, did I mention that?

Something of that sweet giddiness is captured in the HH Sport Special, aired as part of the runup to the Big Event. It’s a kaleidoscopic mix of old and new, demonstrating clearly that creative coherence had become a luxury the specials couldn’t afford. Still, the old sketches are cleverly chosen–the Cow’s Hindquarter Twist from the medieval Highland Games and the Roman funeral fight sketch, in particular–and the new are, if not quite as thoughtful as of old, still very engaging. (Also interestingly, because so flamboyantly, willing to ignore timelines; there is a casual reference to a marathon cheating scandal from 1999.) The special Olympic edition of the Movie Pitch featuring the Baron de Coubertin, ie. Ben in Poirot moustaches with appropriate accent, is worth the watch all by itself. Almost unbearably precious.

Besides which there is the really delirious new music video, “Flame (It’s Gonna Burn Forever)”–ie. the reason why I’m so cranky, in later episode reviews, that they stuck Giles “Jesse Owens” Terera back behind that stupid bare HHTV Sport desk afterwards. (Although it should be noted that he does a fine job in the anchorman role here, hosting the programme alongside Rattus.) The song itself is not an overt masterpiece but the video is just relentlessly freaking hilarious, showcasing everything they’d learned about non-sequitur silliness to that point… which turns out to be more than even diehard fans would’ve suspected.

October 2012: Scary [Halloween] Special

Right, so they were actually two full-length specials produced alongside S4, and… erm… well, let us just say that it is deeply ironic that of the two—or of any, come to that — this is the only one currently available on DVD.

Of course it stars Simon’s Grim Reaper, and yes, he pulls out all the preternaturally charming stops for a countdown of his top twelve(?) all-time scariest things. That’s where the problems start, because the list has so clearly just been hastily Frankensteined together out of whatever came to hand. There are only two new pieces included, and one of those is a Scary Story. The few genuinely intense prose moments in show history (Nero and his Christian ‘candles’, for instance) are entirely, and revealingly, missing.

Oh, and there’s a new song, “Death’s Favourite Things”, which is marginally watchable thanks to a Thriller-esque zombie chorus… also the revelation that Sound of Music parodies aren’t yet self-recursive in the UK. In-between times—as evidently inspired by the random bourgeois vibe that ran through S4’s Stupid Deaths–we get a look at the Reaper’s home life; turns out he really is just a suburban slacker, still living with his mom and taking scythe deliveries from the British equivalent of FedEx! Har har!

Yeah… so at least the kiddies will get a comprehensive lesson in how much better it can be to leave things to the imagination. The patented HH wit does shines through on occasion—as per the inclusion of the Disco Aztecs, and Ma Death as a chintz-intensive riff on Mrs. Bates—but by and large it’s a half-hour’s struggle to recapture what any SD segment pulls off effortlessly in three minutes. And those are available on YouTube for free.

February 2014: Valentine’s Day Special: Rotten Romance

There were also two specials commissioned alongside S5, and this is also pretty clearly not the one anybody considered top priority. On the plus side, though, lessons have been learned; the laboured framing devices have been replaced by simple-but-surefire interludes with Rattus, a la the Savage Songs episodes. Here he’s preparing for a romantic dinner with his new girlfriend Ratalie (which name amuses me far more than it deserves, esp. considering she’s the exact same rat puppet in earrings).

Also, there’s obviously a bit more care been put into the sketch selection; in particular, any excuse to revisit the Countess Nithsdale’s Great Escape plot is welcome, also both Victorian bits from S03E01. On the other hand, I really could’ve done without the arch hint that Elizabeth I’s temper was the reason why she never married. The couple of new segments are likewise higher quality, starting with an *ahem* reframing of the Anne of Cleves/Henry VIII debacle as a dating-themed game show. Henry’s still deep in generic-doofus mode, but at least, y’know, Anne of Cleves! I’d been hoping to see her on the show for ages.

The only letdown—for me anyway–is the new song: the Cure’s Love Cats reimagined as “Love Rats”, featuring a handful of the usual suspects recounting their notably rocky love lives, plus Mat as equally rock-headed romantic Edward VIII. It’s a cute parody idea, and well-executed–save of course the parts that are Ben attempting smooth jazz. It’s just that it’s largely the same old characters recounting the same old information we literally just saw in the same old sketches. At this point, it all can’t help but be something of a buzzkill. Ah well; at least we’ll always have Rattus. “You’re never alone with a thousand lice”, indeed.

August 2014: Frightful First World War Anniversary Special

…So that’s where it all went.

Longer version: It’s not actually required that you be deep into review-blogging Series 5 to fully appreciate this special 45-minute commemoration of the anniversary of WWI’s kickoff… but as it turns out, it sure doesn’t hurt. Specifically, it definitively explains where all the really elegant, subtle, generally adult-level sophisticated comedy vibes went after S4–both in terms of choosing and executing the material–and thus also why so much of mainstream S5 feels so offhand. For once, obviously, everyone’s attention was focussed on the special instead.

This is not actually surprising. For starters, it had been given a slot on the BBC’s daylong WWI retrospective schedule, and as you can imagine, this was not an atmosphere in which the audience would be in the mood to forgive ill-timed fart jokes. Especially not after the Diamond Jubilee debacle, as part of which BBC coverage the troupe was pegged to perform a few sketches on Tower Bridge. Due officially to time constraints, the only one actually to air, stripped of any context, was Bob Hale’s Thames Report… yeah. Cue quite a lot of post-event crankiness to the editors about the random babbling idiot in inexplicable old-age makeup.

There were no such complaints after this tribute to the Great War aired, even though the framing device consists almost entirely–and inspired-ly–of an extended Bob Report, as he gives a year-by-year overview of the war’s progress with Rattus chiming in on specifics. Nobody objected to any of the considerable amount of new material, nor of the choice of the old (in very likely related news, none of the latter involved plastic nose icicles). There was more than one comment from reviewers that the entire thing conveyed the Great War’s mix of black comedy and bleaker tragedy better than any adult program of the day.

All of which a roundabout way of saying, folks, this thing is brilliant. In many ways it’s more of an appropriate finale than the actual final episode, the absolutely triumphant culmination of everything anyone ever loved about this version of Horrible Histories, and you should go and watch it RIGHT NOW. Whether you’ve already seen it or not. It opens with the sublimely silly ‘Causes of WWI’ sketch, ends by shamelessly ripping the viewer’s heart out (yes, that involves Mat too, like I always knew it would), and in-between treads that razor-fine line with all the practiced grace of a ballet dancer… or of a children’s comedy show that’s been practicing ever since they featured Adolf Hitler in S1.

Seriously, this is pretty much HH’s Carnegie Hall. You can tell, because Bob and Shouty Man and HMasterchef and Girl Guide spies and Charleston-happy Tsars manage to co-exist right alongside the Christmas Truce sketch, the desperation behind letting children and women into the ranks and a blunt summary of the Somme disaster (Bobsy: “The funny thing about that is… nope, sorry, I’ve got nothing.”) Somewhere in the middle there is Simon as a note-perfect Red Baron and plucky Private Larry trapped in a wardrobe with Germans outside. There is also the Suffragettes’ Song, but even that benefits from the extra context, and is anyway basically just tacked on at the end, probably to pad out the timing, so is very easily ignored.

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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in The specials

 

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S03E10

Do you know, if I’m honest, I’d rather just do the funnies. Can we not get a badger or something to do the serious stuff?

The annual late-series bundle of awkward oddities this time takes a rather alarming turn into the morbid — and then swings back again into ballet-dancing Roundheads… even when this show entirely misfires, it seems, it’s a unique experience.

In this episode:

Song: The English Civil War Song — Mat as Charles I, Lawry as Cromwell, Jim and Ben as their respective sidekicks (Parody of: Cool, from West Side Story)

Recurring sketches:

Historical Masterchef — WWI foot soldier (“Whomever wins this competition, it will change – their – lives.” What – he – said.”)

Bob Hale — The Anglo-Saxon Report (“So England gets over-run with Angles and Saxons, making it: Anglo-Saxon! Yes! And you thought we just made that term up.”)

Words We Get From the — Normans

Scary Stories — The Mystery of Motecuhzoma (“Right, let’s clear this up once and for all: Ghosts: scary. Vampires: scary. Spanish blokes on horses: Not. Scary.”)

Computer Game: Warrior! — Aztec Warriors vs. Spanish Conquistadores

Danke! Magazine — Barbarian Fashion Special (“Free with every ten dead Romans!”)

One-offs:

Frightful First World War

(Not) Keeping Warm in the Trenches — The more details the show gives re: life at underground level in this war, the more impressed you are that they managed to pull off an entire global conflict in the first place… wait, that didn’t come out right.

Smashing Saxons

Mud and Matilda (movie trailer) — William I approaches courtship with the same splendid disregard for odds that won him Britain… also, probably a lot of the same tactics. Coming soon to a cinema near you: a tale of loving… and shoving.

Gorgeous Georgians

HHTV Entertainment Today: Live from Bedlam — How bad was it before TV, kiddies? So bad that a fun and fashionable day out often consisted of going to the famous mental hospital to gawk at the inmates… no, that does not sound kind of fun! Geez.

New! Solomon’s Live (not very) Long Water — “It’s the mercury that lends it that unique metallic taste… and we Georgians are pretty sure it’s good for you. The loss of sight, hearing, balance, sensation and occasionally life are just a coincidence.”

Rotten Romans

Barbarians in Charge — When the Goths take over Rome, they plan to destroy it… except of course for the arenas, the aqueduct, the houses, and the art. And before they can get around to smashing any more small jugs, they really need to to tidy up in the Roman baths…

Slimy Stuarts

Battlefield Medicine — Dr. William Harvey takes his search for fresh corpses to anatomize to the source, and demonstrates that yes, to be a pioneer you have to be a little bit crazy. If not actually psychotic.

Field Notes:

  • Huh. Well.
  • So here we are, finally at the definite epicentre of the dull patch — the episode I not only immediately dubbed ‘Least Favourite Ever’ but watched again later that night just to make sure. The one, in fact, on whom the chance to vent actually helped inspired this project…
  • …and on rewatch now, I’m not at all certain why the fuss.
  • I mean, fine, so they did bundle all the morosely inappropriate stuff — and gosh there’s a lot — into this one ep and try to pass it off with the rat’s help as a fun little theme. Which somehow includes a Scary Story. And easily the stupidest makeup job in the entire show. And then they just bunged the awkward musical stepchild on top of the lot…
  • …OK, so it’s still not that great an episode. Pretty typical of late-season HH awkwardness, in fact. However I am forced to conclude once and for all that my past S3-related contempt had a basis less in reality and more in… well, call it burnout, a year’s infinite loop of daily episodes later. At any rate, I was getting pretty hard to impress. “Look, show, if I don’t get some quality icicle-free Baynton time soon, I’m deleting the entire series record, you get me?”
  • The qualifier is there because while Baynton is definitely here, he’s just a little busy fulfilling every single one of my worst fears for the WWI sketches. Because, having access to three husky, healthy males (given that Jim had more than served his time as a military-flavoured Slushee), the producers of course decided to star the skinny, big-eyed, waifish one as Random Schmuck Freezing to Death for a Really, Really Stupid Cause. Larry’s too moved even to take advantage of their hug, that’s how authentically pathetic Mat is coming off here.
  • The whole thing is such a tonal misfire — well, OK, as a lost scene from Saving Private Ryan it’s potentially brilliant, but this is HH, so I’m still left wondering how it made it into an episode. There’s no use suggesting they didn’t know, because they went to the one-off extreme of hanging a plastic icicle off Mat’s nose in a clear attempt to lighten the mood. So great, now he’s dying and he has a stupid prop on his nose. Way to rob the guy of his last pitiful shred of dignity, there, guys.
  • Speaking of misfires… I’ll admit I’ve watched the whole Civil War song a few times now, but only to convince my brain that I wasn’t making stuff up the first time. “Suuuurrre,” my brain is wont to snort. “Tell me again about the ballet-dancing Roundheads.” So I try to explain that the intense, edgy melodrama of the underprivileged that is West Side Story is now supposed to be a framework for daffy dancing toffs, featuring not only Ben but Lawry boogyeing down Broadway-style, and it just shuts right down on me. I can’t get any work done for hours.
  • What they’ve done, evidently — and uncharacteristically — is just wildly miscalculated the campiness of the source material. Which is a shame, because there’s enough real romantic melodrama in the English Civil War to have pulled it off, had they cared at all to match the two note-for-note. I can see where — especially to a British mindset — it might’ve been difficult to believe all that finger-snapping street passion was in earnest, but it was; and authoritatively enough that this fluffy, facile parody, while technically fairly smooth, inevitably still feels merely amateurish.
  • “With Greg deloused, it’s time to find out what Ernie will be serving up!”… ah, now, this is more like it. Historical Masterchef, I have missed you. Definitely the high point of this episode. Also something of a personal high for Larry, who gives the closest thing he ever has to an acting-type performance — a character, not just his usual coherent collection of eccentricities. Impressive, even if it was copied note for note off the Plucky Comic Relief Guy (frequently the Cook, come to think of it) in every single war movie ever.
  • “Hot sausage!”… and a legend is born. It’s not quite as impressively clever as the Masterchef, but even back when I was revving up to full-on unload on this episode, the ‘Conquering Barbarians’ bit was my major exception. One of those skits you just cannot dislike: a lovely hilariously charming summation of all HH creative strengths discovered to date, brilliantly well constructed and played to the hilt. The laughs are more than honestly earned, and not to keep harping on it, but in this episode, that’s saying something.
  • Meanwhile, so yeah, turns out there was still one more Scary Story floating around out there — plus the unused one, which will later rise from the grave, so to speak, in the Halloween Special. By now this particular recurring bit has acquired some overt zombie-esque traits, is what I am trying to clumsily hint here. Even Baddiel is obviously just going through the motions by now…
  • …with the (OK, possibly unintentional) exception of the common Aztec syllable ‘tit’. You think you could emphasize it a bit harder, there, David? Even after the three straight repetitions, I don’t think the innocent young minds in the back quite caught it.
  • Anyway, get in all the gleeful sniggering while you can, kiddies, because this is where the morbid kicks in for real. Suddenly the hitherto throwaway game sketches are revving up like the moral equivalent of Chuck Norris: they have come here to splat rats and convey the horrifically sad and futile reality of mass genocide, and they are all out of rats… except of course the one who now wants to hand off to a badger.
  • But I kid our resident Python-riffing rodent. In fact, I think it’s rather sweet of him — and by extension the show — to thus tacitly acknowledge that they haven’t been in this far over their head since trying to convey the realities of Nazism. There are just certain aspects of history that are impossible to make funny, and there is equally no way for a show that is just about to cut to shamelessly Zoolander-ing barbarians to adequately explain why they are sad.
  • This same sheer comedic pointlessness applies to mercury poisoning through medical ignorance, and the Grand Guignol theatre of the mind that was formerly Bedlam. Again, it is extremely obvious that these things are Horrible, but once that’s been said, there’s literally nowhere to for a comedy series to go.
  • So they end up consisting mostly of confirming that a) even in huckster mode Larry is not actually funny just standing there; and even more so that b) the shrill authenticity of Alice’s blonde newsbimbo character just really, really makes me want to throw things at the screen, which tends to get in the way of the moral outrage a bit.
  • Fine, then what can we do to get back on the comedy train? I know, how about a good old-fashioned round of Homerotic Barbarian Fashion Tips! Or something. Seriously, while I appreciate a winkingly ironic take on hyper-masculine archetypes as much as the next Net nerd, the sheer enthusiasm here is just a trifle bewildering… and involves frankly disturbing speculations re: possible inspiration gained from certain aspects of the actual German magazine industry, so I’ll just be moving on now.
  • Still, despite it all, it is kind of reassuring to see the gang back manning the bastions of gleeful bad taste, not to mention outrageous Teutonic accents. Mat of course can pull this stuff off in his sleep, Ben gets… many points for the valiant attempt to let his hair down (so to speak), and Jim gets all the points — not to mention most of the best lines — for simply rolling with it all. (“I’ll show you how to keep your horse warm — with this designer blanket made from the skin of your enemies! Mm… smells good!”)
  • I am not entirely certain where Larry had gotten to during the aforementioned, but there was also a Bob Hale report, so that… uh, has nothing to do with it really. Still, it’s a nice enough consolation prize anyway. Not one of Bobsy’s masterpieces, mind, but you do get to find out the origins of ‘Anglo-Saxon’, which has been on my personal List of Vague Wonderings for years.
  • Meantime, the chance to spend quality time with Simon’s William II is always welcome — and awww, Greg the random knight/secretary/squire/attache’s back! So cute! As you can see, this episode by now has left the viewer in such dire need of a teddy bear to hug, however metaphorically, that even though the skit’s point is how adorable it is that this enormous man is physically bullying a tiny woman into a relationship, I am still inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Yeah… so the whole thing with the Aztecs, the conquistadores and smallpox, excruciatingly awful – with accent on the excruciating. Looking up the contemporary accounts of the plague (involving victims too weak to move encrusting themselves to their straw mats with their own weeping sores) is not recommended if you ever plan to experience joy again.
  • However. In the interest of entire sociological equity, it might just be pointed out that the Spanish, while undoubtedly stupid with greed and their own interpretation of God, were not actually responsible for the smallpox thing.  As pointed out, the Aztecs simply had no resistance to their germs… which the conquistadores naturally interpreted as a sign from the Deity that He really did like them best, and was furthermore obviously helpfully clearing out the savages so that civilization — ie., fear of Him — could flourish.
  • Something similar happened a few decades later, when the first English colonists to the Americas showed up further north. Basically, anytime you catch yourself wondering about the advantages of modern medical science, you might just want to reflect on the mental picture of pompous Pilgrims: tromping enthusiastically through the ruins of a once-great civilization, raiding entire empty villages of their treasures and giving devout thanks to heaven all the while.
  • (Oh, and if you’re into political irony, you might also want to note that among their neighbors, the demise of the Aztec Empire was greeted by roughly the same amount of respectful grief as Margaret Thatcher’s. There was after all that little matter of the hundreds of heart-rippings yearly.)
  • Yes, it’s incredible, but as hideous misunderstandings of the natural world go, accidental mercury poisoning isn’t even in the top ten. You may want to check out Cracked.com’s co-incidentally recent list of “Six ‘Harmless’ Fads That Caused Widespread Destruction”, including such gems as ‘Radium glows in the dark, it must be a life-giving tonic!’ and ‘Hey, let’s paint this wallpaper with green dye made from arsenic, and sell it to millions of quietly respectable Victorians!’… Y’know, never mind complaining how little time we might have left — let’s all just be ridiculously grateful that we, as a species, made it this far.
  • There’s actually sort of good news on the ‘William bullies his tiny bride’ front… unless possibly you’re Terry Deary, and you have *ahem* unwisely shot your mouth off about the same libraries that have for years helped in large part to promote your books into classics, stinging actual scholarly historians into responses like this.
  • Worth reading in full, but this is the relevant bit, about Matilda’s height as mentioned in The Stormin’ Normans and parroted by the sketch here: You say that William’s queen, Matilda, was only 127cm tall. This is a modern myth caused by misreporting. The French archaeologists who examined her partial remains actually concluded she was 152cm (about 5’).
 
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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Series Three

 

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S03E03

“Stone him”?!
It’s fine. We simply lay a large stone upon his belly. One upon which the sun has never shone!… we get them mainly from Scotland.

Time to give the floor to the tried-and-true, who deliver a solidly entertaining episode… perhaps just a wee bit too solid. Still: helicopters.

In this episode:

Song: William Wallace Scottish Rebel — Ben in the Braveheart kilt; Larry, Jim, Simon & Mat as his hard-rocking rebel posse

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — New! WWI Wee-Wee (“The multi-purpose liquid revolution!”)

Scary Stories — The Tale of Evil Edmund (“Right: I’m not doing this anymore. I played Macbeth, you know! I gave a semi-competent performance! And that’s not me talking — that’s the Wolverhampton Gazette.”)

Historical Paramedics — Stuart (“Nigel, go and get Flossy!” “What’s Flossy?” “I think you mean, ‘Who’s Flossy’?” *baaaaaa!*)

Stupid Deaths — James II of Scotland, son of James I of Scotland, father of James III of Scotland (Killed during testing of his ‘shatterproof’ cannon — but never mind, “what you lot need is Death’s Big Book of Baby Names! Over two copies sold!”)

Bob Hale — The French Revolution Report (“…What? Nope, pretty sure I didn’t say helicopters…”)

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — From the French invasion front in… Fishguard, Wales? (“Bonjour Maman!” “Look, can you not do that, please? The waving thing? Very irritating…”)

One-offs:

Frightful First World War

Life in the Trenches — I don’t care how naiively patriotic you are, if you get down there and a certain gruff-voiced redhead is giving you instructions, desertion suddenly becomes a viable option… which goes double if the rats start talking back. (“Just for the record, Billy: rats aren’t ‘disgusting’! Unsavoury, maybe, but not disgusting!“)

Smashing Saxons

Invasion, Invasion, Invasion — Ancient real-estate deals tended to involve a slightly more literal interpretation of ‘cut-throat’. “Negotiations over further land have got a bit out of hand. In fact, they’ve turned into an all-out war. And Horsa has been forced to pull out of the deal.” *erk* *thud* “Told you I was a better fighter than him!”

Terrible Tudors

Queen for Nine Days — “Day Seven: Relax and take in the luxurious surroundings!” “Like I could be any less relaxed…” “Ma’am! Our armies have been defeated in Cambridge by Mary Tudor! She says she’s the Queen now, and she’s marching on London!” “OK… so now I’m less relaxed.”

Not By a Tudor Mile — The question ‘Are we there yet?’ takes on frankly terrifying levels of annoying in an era prior to standardised measurements.

Field Notes:

  • Awesome, this is the one with the William Wallace song. How coo… wait, why does this look like the bumbling whitebread dad from those Tide commercials spent too long at the party from those Molson’s commercials? Isn’t this that kickass authentic hard-rock vocal I fell in love with over mp3?
  • As it happens, yes. I’d forgotten how long it took the audio track to overcome my scepticism after initially viewing the video. It did, though, and I now consider it honestly one of the great vocals in HH history, containing more than enough passion, cynicism, rage and grim humour to bring the Wallace legend to something resembling accurate life in three minutes on children’s TV.
  • It becomes even more impressive when you realize that was achieved a) without benefit of Gibson’s actual crazy and b) with benefit of ‘not!’ jokes. (Oh, and: “Sent Englishmen to heaven”? That is one spiritually generous — or, hopefully, massively sarcastic — homicidal maniac.) All I can figure is that Ben’s effectively internalised all those Thick of It scripts over the years, and maybe Billy Connolly routines during the breaks…
  • …and the HH creative types then just set it down in a random field, put it in plaids that are ‘worn’ like that old comforter on your basement couch and held a meeting re: staging that clearly went “Eehhh, Scots, Vikings, close enough.  Say, are those bourbon cremes?” It does pick up some towards the end, thanks to the fairly clever application of fake flames in the foreground and eccentric Larry in the background (he — and Jim — have experience in this sort of thing, after all; see S02E11)… but it at all times is hampered by the disconnect between vocal and visual Benjamin.
  • Now, I suppose it’s possible that even this show might balk at exposing kiddies to the filthy, visceral reality of medieval guerrilla warfare — or, knowing this show, assume that the kiddies have already seen Braveheart. Also, I don’t know, maybe my cultural bar is set a bit high here; versions of HH Wallace, triumphantly upraised arms and all, can be found in any Canadian suburban man-cave over any hockey playoff weekend. Mostly cleaner-shaven and maybe a bit lacking in imagination re: kilts, but at least they usually think to put on some face paint.
  • Whoa, Bob Hale’s life-force is draining away fast now, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I like Bobsy immensely, but I also have always had a bit of an irrational phobia re: those time-lapse things where they age a person thirty years in as many seconds. So at this point, while Bob’s up there being oh-so-whimsically clever, my imagination keeps insisting on creating scenarios involving phrases like ‘slow descent into the madness of the alligator-haunted void’, which is kinda getting in the way of my ability to appreciate the adorable. (And the big ol’animated basket of ghostly-pale severed heads is not helping.)
  • But I kid our resident eccentric history maven!… sort of. Anyway, he does a fairly decent job here of explaining the French Revolution by stringing together its child-friendly aspects. Although it still seems like there’s at least thirty seconds or so of THEY CHOPPED OFF AAAAALLLLLL THE HEADS that could’ve been used instead to more effectively summarise the revolutionaries’ philosophical rationales… erm, yes, I’ve done almost as much reading on this subject as I have on the Tudors. Apologies in advance.
  • More Scary Stories? What, seriously, show? As mentioned previously, I don’t actively hate the concept – and I can see where if Baddiel says he’d like to come back, you’d feel a bit silly turning that down – I’m just genuinely baffled at how such a veteran creative team figured it was worth labouring on a single mediocre joke this long. Maybe they spent more on the set than they could recoup in one series? Come to think of it, the fez looks custom.
  • Well, I’ll be damned. The maternal parent used to be a huge fan of Location, Location, Location (mostly for all that unabashed rural scenery porn). The very British take on high-stakes real estate – as Mum eventually began to wonder openly, “So… they spend the whole time catering to these people, and in the end they don’t sell them anything, and everyone’s OK with this?” — turns out to be a great satirical vehicle for historical land claims & conquests; bit disappointing that they didn’t carry it further. Imagine what they could’ve done re: Native vs. colonial Americans, for instance.
  • It’s also a neat way to kick off Mat’s new go-to parody role as your cynically wholesome reality-show host… which, amazingly enough, will require he spend quite a lot of time standing around looking fetchingly tousle-haired in civilian dress… nahhh, I’m sure it’s all about how perfectly he can mimic middle-aged real estate agents. At any rate, in this event his accent’s not quite comfortably urbane enough, to my ear, to really pull it off. The hand gestures look fairly familiar, though.
  • On the other hand, Simon’s Scandinavian accent… yeah, just all the usual happies, with a couple extra thrown in while he’s conscientiously setting the table for the treachery. Larry can totally get away with just standing there randomly inflecting vowels, that’s how ridiculously hilarious they are together. Funny that no-one’s ever thought of pairing them before; they clearly understand each other perfectly, in some much more happily eccentric universe just next door to this.
  • Love also for Ben’s quick little up-and-down before accepting Rowena — and for Martha’s reaction. By now it’s clear that regardless of which demographic the material’s aimed at, the whole troupe are, as they will shortly begin insisting to an increasingly interested media, ‘just making a comedy series’ —  increasingly abetted by both knowingly assured casting and these longform sketches, designed to give them the chance to play with comic subtleties the quick ‘ewww!’ bits don’t.
  • Ohai military Lawry in the Shouty Man sketch… now with bonus precious catchphrase? Is he supposed to be parodying anyone in particular? Anyway, it serves to liven up one of Shouty’s less memorable outings… if almost literally nothing else. OK, yes, I have a problem: the WWI bits are always set outdoors, in what always looks like grim November, and — well, sure, the less-than-fit guys in the trench-based bits are all part of the joke, I get that; I just always have the uneasy feeling the joke’s about to become a whole lot more morbid than necessary.
  • For now, though, I must admit Jim looks almost unbearably cute in his little granny glasses. Like that kiddy comic character — what’s-his-name — Billy Bunter? At any rate, clearly, my Howick plushie will be needing accessories. Besides which the WWI sketches mark the beginning of a series-long running gag involving Rattus actively protesting rodent prejudice – evidently the newfound confidence in the creative possibilities encompasses even the puppet.
  • Thus it’s frankly kind of weird that the same, usually remarkably sensitive — and no, I don’t believe I’m typing this either – sewer rat, or more to the point his handlers, can’t work up even a bit of sombre for a sixteen-year-old girl about to have her head chopped off for something she was railroaded into to serve the selfish ambitions of those she should’ve been able to trust the most. It’s really a shame they ignored the truly Horrible potential in Jane Grey’s story (see below) to go with such a glib, misleading overview.
  • As per Bobsy above (and Joan of Arc last series), I can totally understand the need to make complicated adult motives and/or philosophies accessible to the younger set… I’m just mildly paranoid that it’s crossing the line into routinely lazy writing. Doesn’t help that while Alice does a truly great line in angry petulance, thus far this series it’s the exact same line every time. It’s making me really want chipper, capable Lowe from the S2 songs back now.
  • …So I’m just on the verge of working up all this really satisfying cranky, and they go and toss me a Historical Paramedics bit. and… and… the huge red crosses on the hats… and Jim’s little wink… *dies*
  • *determinedly picks self back up again* Yeah, so, after that Tudor measurement bit I’m really starting to be concerned that they’re getting sloppy, and… and the sheep named Flossy… and… “It’s no good, there seems to be a massive stone on him!”…  *dies*… and Rattus’ wee shiny little trophy… *dies*…
  • …Death with a baby-name book… *dies* OK, OK, show, you win, for now at least. Besides giving us our first glimpse into the afterlife’s enchantingly fussy suburban trappings — also, more of Mat’s Scots accent, not to mention his increasingly entertaining tendency to equate ‘quick character development’ with ‘how far to widen the eyes’ — there’s something all sort of satisfyingly cosmic, man, in the notion of Death having heard pretty much every name possible throughout history.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK… Lady Jane Grey, the full story. Hold on, folks, this is about to get ugly…
  • Jane wasn’t ‘vaguely’ related to Henry, at least not in succession terms. She was his great-niece, the daughter of his younger sister Mary’s daughter Frances, later Duchess of Suffolk. More than close enough for a dying, spiritually desperate Edward VII to notice — with some pointed help from his chief advisor John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who may-or-may-not have turned away at intervals to twirl his moustache and cackle evilly — that she was the only officially legitimate, Protestant heir in his generation. He made a will altering the succession accordingly.
  • Fifteen-year-old Jane, of course, only found out about all of this later — specifically, when she noticed all the bowing and scraping suddenly having moved to her vicinity post-Edward’s deathbed. Even from her formerly strict (and, she claimed, abusive) parents. You’d think their earlier having married her to Guildford Dudley, son of Northumberland, would’ve provided a clue, but Jane was a famously bookish, erudite sort with no interest in politics. So yes, the ‘discovered reading’ thing here is one, if pretty much the only, nice touch.
  • In reality she had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the throne; how literally is disputed, but it is at least clear that she held out against the assembled great and powerful adults for some time, insisting that Mary Tudor was the rightful Queen. She only accepted the crown, in fact, literally after checking in with God. She begged for a sign, got nothing, and interpreted that as the Divine go-ahead. After all, it must be remembered, she was as fanatical a Protestant as Mary ever was a Catholic, so the idea of His choosing sides made perfect sense… to both, as it later fell out.
  • The rest of it follows pretty much as shown, although it was actually her dad the Duke who broke the news of her de-queening, tearing down the cloth of state and bluntly telling her she’d best get used to civilian life now, kthxbai. Then he and the rest of Jane’s supporters entirely abandoned the teenage girl in their rush to be the first to explain to Queen Mary that they’d been totally intimidated by that nasty Northumberland, and were so her loyal subjects forever, and much more along the lines of ‘Queen Jane? What Queen Jane?”
  • Frances Grey claimed the same, and — thanks to ‘Bloody’ Mary actually being, as discussed previously, another political naif with a conscience — actually succeeded in getting her family mostly off the hook. This would’ve eventually included Jane… were it not for Jane’s dad continuing to be a selfish idiot. He supported the later Wyatt rebellion, upon which the Spanish ambassador informed Mary that her fiance Philip II couldn’t possibly be sent over until his security was assured… exeunt Jane, one of the most distressing victims of realpolitik ever.
  • Meanwhile, you know the whole ‘Hengist gives his daughter to Vortigern in exchange for Kent’ thing? Well, the real story also turns out to be a lot more exciting… OK, also a lot less true, even than Rattus implies, but still, check this Wikipassage out: [Rowena] is first mentioned in the 9th-century Latin Historia Brittonum as the lovely unnamed daughter of the Saxon Hengist…. At her father’s orders, Rowena gets Vortigern drunk at a feast, and he is so enchanted by her that he agrees to give her father whatever he wants in exchange for permission to marry her (possibly by bigamy—the fate of Vortigern’s first wife, Sevira, is not specified). The text makes clear that the British king’s lust for a pagan woman is a prompting by the Devil… According to the Historia Brittonum, Vortigern “and his wives” (Rowena/Rhonwen is not named directly) were burned alive by heavenly fire in the fortress of Craig Gwrtheyrn (“Vortigern’s Rock”) in north Wales.
  • On the other hand, the Battle of Fishguard was totally a real thing… it’s just the whole ‘began and ended with a bunch of peasant women’ bit that’s a fraction dodgy. The really moronic French mistake was made when they allowed the fort at the harbour to raise the alarm, despite having it completely outgunned. Even the town’s official site, as linked, concedes that not only a 400-plus-member militia but pretty much the entire civilian population then promptly turned out to beat off the invaders.
  • It does appear though that local cobbler Jemima Nicholas, at least, was not a lady to be messed with: H.L. Williams, who was present as a member of the Fishguard Volunteers, went on to describe her actions: “On her approach she saw in a field, about twelve Frenchmen; undaunted she advanced to them, and whether alarmed at her courage, or persuaded by her, she conducted them to and confined them in, the guard house in Fishguard Church.”
 
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Posted by on April 21, 2013 in Series Three

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

S02E10

Colchester, London, St Albans!
Everybody talk about — dead Romans!

One of the truly classic episodes, a marvelous marriage of inspiration and experience that — probably not coincidentally — debuted right around the time everyone started insisting they’d been intending to make a ‘family show’ all along…

In this episode:

Song: Boudicca — Martha as the legendary warrior Queen of the Iceni, Ben, Mat & Jim as her chorus-slash-stooges, Larry as a Roman centurion

Recurring sketches:

Victorian EastEnders — A Name for Seventh Child (“How’re we going to top this for his next birthday?” “Well, he’s going to be cleaning out the cogs in the new machine at the factory, so I don’t actually think we need to worry about his next birthday…”)

Shouty Man — New! Victorian Maid (“Make someone else do it, and the job is done! …And if your Victorian Maid should become ill, old, pregnant, lazy or otherwise problematic, we’ll replace it with a younger model! For the same low, low price!”)

Scary Stories — The Freaks (“I turned down a film premiere to do this, y’know…”)

Historical Fashion Fix — Celtic Farmer Readies for Battle (“I’m working my way into a Celtic warrior battle frenzy! I go absolutely bananas and then kill everything in my path!!” “Not. On my show. Sister.“)

HHTV Sport — Georgian Pinching Match (“I’m sure, long after people have gone off football, they’ll still be into pinching matches and greased goose grabbing.”)

Historical Hospital — Dr. Isis, Egyptian not-quite-mad-scientist (ie., they got to him before he hauled out the fresh mouse halves.)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

News at 1066 — As told via Bayeux Tapestry… *insert still-a-more-reliable-source-than ___ gag here* (“I must apologise for the time delay, but these scenes have taken awhile to embroider.”)

Bertran de Born: Now That’s What I Call Miserable! Vol.3 — Y’know, “I’ll turn their heads into a mush of brains mixed with links of mail…” isn’t really all that bad a lyric. Although I prefer his later work: Simon Cowell, Simon Cowell/Your trousers are too high, and everybody prefers Cheryl…

Slimy Stuarts

Royal Wedding by Proxy — “I now pronounce you… friend of the husband, and somebody else’s wife.” Just be grateful they left out the bit where the stand-in groom put a ceremonial leg in the bride’s bed.

Pistol-Packing Reformation — How simultaneously tough and incomprehensible are the Scots? Let’s have a minister try to introduce new C of E prayer books, and find out! (“Yer nae guid yoo! I’m no’ happy!”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Georgian Army Life — In which we learn they switched to picking up drunks from tavern floors after the failure of their previous campaign: ‘Be All That You Never Wanted to Be!’

Awful Egyptians

Cleopatra’s Beauty Regime — Which pointedly doesn’t include either wax cones or KISS-groupie wigs. Result! (“Because beauty is skin-deep… and has a beard.”)

Field Notes:

  • The familiarity-fest continues, and so, concurrently, does the inability to snarkily critique grow. Honestly, if I could somehow sum up this episode with a great big hug of affection and appreciation, I would…
  • …but that would make for a short article, not to mention those animated emoticon thingies are really annoying. Besides, it’s still interesting. Series Two can feel at times rather like watching an eager novice juggler; the shiny new ideas and sophisticated ambitions were there from the outset, but it took awhile for everyone — the writers especially — to get it all balanced right and clicking smoothly along.
  • This episode, basically, commemorates the moment at which that light bulb went off, and what we now consider the characteristic HH house style kicked in… and in case you doubt it, five little words: Larry the Historical Hospital doctor. Yep, they really had come a long way — all the way through to Series Four, when it’ll be time to make another leap forward.
  • For now, we begin — as all great epochs in HH creative history tend to — with the song, which has the distinction of being what tipped my interest in the show from casual to full-bore PVR series record. Not coincidentally, it works in much the same way as the ‘King of Bling’ does: inspiration flows into understanding flows into parody, all interlocking so neatly that the resulting brilliant cleverness comes across as essentially just a splendidly satisfying bit of entertainment.
  • Anchored by a debut lead vocal from Martha that can only be described as triumphant. All the more so, because very honestly, I had no idea she had it in her… although in hindsight, I bet that Historical Hairdresser does wield a mean curling iron. Still, up till now the really brassy stuff had all been handled by Sarah. But we’ve got Alice round to make capable work of the dainty feminine stuff since then — as demonstrated later on in this same ep, as it happens.
  • Having once got her way clear, Martha proves admirably deft in the handling — the accent hovers dangerously on the verge, but hey, details. Together with the songwriters, she injects real human credibility into the grrl-power cliches, and thus creates a character through whom viewers of all ages get a reminder that such basic aspects of badassery as the desire for freedom, fair play, courage and leadership… not to mention wielding a cool battle-axe… are entirely gender-neutral.
  • Interestingly enough, this ep is also — as per Tumblr — THE ONE WITH (theoretically) NAKED WILLBOND. Complete with “the flower [tattoos] were my idea” followed by strategic pastel watering can. The whole sketch is a sweetly naughty hoot like that. While never quite enough to overcome my initial amazement at the implications of such a scene in a kiddy show, the view’s certainly nothing a man pushing forty need apologise for. Especially once he loses what in North American would be defined as ‘the ultimate ’70’s pornstache’.
  • What I find even more fascinating now is that, while Ben’s proven previously to be entirely OK with sniffing and spanking, the getting (almost) naked is clearly terrifying the tattoos right off him. Then again, given that here it’s Mat who first sniffs the shoe, then sniffs Ben… the latter might merely be reacting to offstage discussion of ‘how best to shoot the scene’, featuring odd silences whenever he approached.
  • And this also happens to be the ep in which Shouty Man — whom, as you’ll recall, has already been inspired to the heights of creative shamelessness by this particular era — tosses his New! Victorian Maid onscreen. Blithely offering to replace ‘it’, should ‘it’ become inconvenient in any way. At which point I am a) reminded that the producer of this show is female and thus b) pretty damn sure the entire sketch selection is intentional. This is a (completely wonderful) adult satire concept that somebody noticed could be (barely) decently layered under kiddy knockabout comedy.
  • There’s something of the same flavour in the second EastEnders sketch, which carries on the unusual thoughtfulness from the first. Clearly somebody on the writing staff either did Dickens for their English degree (with a minor in Swift), or maybe just spends a lot of time in front of classic Doctor Who. Either way, it’s just nice to see the focus deepened a bit past the standard for once; rather the same pleasing effect Series Three will get by delving into Viking home life.
  • It doesn’t hurt here that Mat has a natural knack with kids that shines through even when he’s supposed to be being harsh with them, which here is made extra-engaging by another decent turn from the young actor in question — Bertie may be blonder, but this little guy has him soundly beat for sheer talent. It all sets up an effective backdrop of familial affection for the savage satire.
  • And speaking of effective… love, love love all around for Ben the pistol-packing Reverend, which can still make me laugh aloud lo these many viewings later. I’m never quite sure whether I should add or deduct points for this new trend of picking up an isolated incident and implying it’s characteristic of the larger picture… but damn, I’m so not willing to lose either Rev. Benjamin turning the page with his teeth or Mat’s Scottish accent. (Could probably dump Martha’s without tears, though.)
  • Pinching matches: Owwww! And also sort of… weirdly compelling. (Ooh, speaking of which, Jim’s got a blazer now! Very nice.) Did the contestants really wear the all-white ensembles? ‘Cos that’s kind of distractingly creepy, actually. Like, great, there’s still schoolyard bullying in the afterlife. Of course, they couldn’t show an actually authentic match, given where the real-life pinchers would’ve homed in on first go… still, I’m with Blazer-Wearing Jim; in a modern world where pro arm-wrestling is a thing, I’ve no idea why there aren’t entire pinching leagues.
  • Hee! Knew adding the BBC News package to the cable would pay off in parody content!… well, maybe not, but having the reference really does enhance the funny on the Bayeux Tapestry bit, which almost justifies the fee hike this month. Seriously, it’s just such a fun sketch, an unusually imaginative parody idea that effectively lightens the mood actually does work surprisingly well as a modern newscast… when I’m not being distracted by the hair.
  • Or Simon Cowell. So what, the gag is he somehow hung around medieval France scoping out the local talent? Would explain a lot about Il Divo, I guess, but still, kind of gratuitously weird. Otherwise, the minstrel sketch is all kinds of hilarious both on its own and as the unexpected-but-entirely natural payoff of all Mat’s performance experience to date. He really brings what could’ve been a stupidly goofy disaster to perfect, elegant life.
  • On the subject of subtle: Lawry is surprisingly not-annoying, not to say convincingly French, as Charles I’s stand-in… or maybe that’s just my relief at his sanity’s return talking. The concept of royal proxy marriage is not, actually, as Horrible as they clearly seem to be convinced it must be, but via generous helpings of modern logic — and of course Larry — they manage to turn it into a really funny, nimble festival of surreality.
  • The ability to skew historical normality through current perspective is one of the most powerful comic weapons the show has at its disposal… they just need to remember to use it wisely, perhaps.
  • “You horrible little man!” — yep, they’ve also learned how to milk Jim’s woobie-ness for maximum watchability. At least, I find this whole Georgian Army sketch adorable out of all proportion to what it deserves, esp. given the suspiciously clean, bright uniforms as compared to the icky food. At any rate, take heart, our Jim! At least your therapist will be able to make that yacht payment this month.
  • As a nifty adjunct to the gender-based interestingness… also, if you ever want to seriously compare sophistication levels between this series and last… just compare the two Egyptian beauty sketches. Martha looks genuinely great in the exotic makeup… but why are they suddenly making like they’ve never shown the false beard before? Not actually the kind of thing you need to hammer home over and over for fear it’ll be missed…

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, Queen Boudicca — or Boadicea, which frankly I always thought was the much cooler spelling, but from my researches appear to have been soundly outvoted. The song does an excellent job of summarising the main facts of the case, although it’s actually not clear whether the lady really did poison herself in captivity.
  • Also, in keeping with the general policy of bowdlerizing most Horribleness associated with sexual violence and/or perversion, it tactfully doesn’t go into detail re: the ‘answer’ the Romans are thought to have made to her request to retain her kingdom: stripping and flogging Boudicca herself, and raping her daughters. Yeah, ‘turned this sister into one angry chick’ works pretty damn well.
  • General awkwardnesses aside, this particular Scary Story is working awfully hard for not much. Although the legend of the ‘pig-faced woman’, while almost forgotten now, was remarkably persistent back in the day — to the extent that it inspired one of my very favourite Wiki articles — the reality of existence for most ‘freaks’ was pretty mundane.
  • They weren’t necessarily, or even usually ‘made’ to exhibit themselves — most embraced it wholeheartedly, as a way to maintain their independent dignity and earn enough to keep themselves in comfort. (See Sarah Biffen for an excellent example.) Yes, this correctly strikes our modern ideals re: the disabled as horrifically misguided, but then it’s only very recently that their choice was something other than exploitation or starvation.
  • Which leads nicely into Bertran de Born. Actually a minor nobleman of the Limousin province of what would eventually be France, circa around 1178… which may explain why he wasn’t all that sanguine about existence generally; a nihilistic streak was pretty much de rigueur for the Dark Ages. Compared to Grimm’s tales, for instance, the Baron de Born sounds positively high on sunshine. At any rate, he developed his uniquely, uh, personal interest in battle poetry thanks to the shenanigans of Henry II Plantagenet in and around the region.
  • What makes all of this even remotely remarkable is Dante’s decision to immortalise him in the Inferno: According to his later vida (a romanticised short biography attached to his songs), Henry II believed Bertran had fomented the rebellion of his son Henry the Young King. As a result, Dante Alighieri portrayed him… as a sower of schism, punished in the eighth circle of Hell (Canto XXVIII), carrying his severed head like a lantern. So, uh, take that, Cowell!
  • Not that I’m condoning firing on your parishioners, but it’s indisputable that the medieval Scots — here seen being inspired to become ‘Covenanters’, ie. formally opposed to any head of the church but the Christ — handled religion within the same unique interpretation of ‘love thy neighbor’ that they brought to anything else. Apparently, a more famous incident in the prayer-book rebellion involved one Jenny Geddes flat-out hurling her folding-stool at the pulpit: “Daur ye say mass in my lug!” (Dare you say mass in my ear!).
  • So yeah, this whole thing with Charles I’s wedding is simply proxy marriage — a very routine part of aristocratic life at a time in which royal marriage contracts were extremely formal alliance-sealing things that also involved the transaction of huge dowries, and travel between countries was concurrently a huge honking peril-filled deal.
  • As noted, the big showpiece ceremony could always be held when the bride arrived; and of course the proxy ceremony would be held with all possible dignity, including the pretty dresses and whatnot. But the really important business was the fulfillment of that contract, leading to some extremely obvious indications that this was all purely realpolitik. At Marie Antoinette’s quasi-marriage, for instance, her older brother Ferdinand played the part of the groom.
  • It’s not exactly a secret either that being a Victorian-era maidservant wasn’t a bed of roses. There did exist a sort of hierarchy in which it was possible to gain some status; a personal ladies’-maid, for instance, was expected to be well-bred enough to know how things were done among the aristocracy, and perhaps to engage her mistress in conversation on same (similar to a male valet). Parlourmaids, being the first aspect of the home visitors saw, were routinely chosen for their beauty.
  • But if you were just another random house skivvy… yeah, your day began with ironing the family newspapers at 5:30 am and went downhill from there. Your whole life depended on the whim of your employers, because dismissal without a ‘character’ (in this case meaning ‘able to keep her mouth shut, up to and including that time my son got drunk and decided it would be fun to rape something’) meant you were effectively unemployable.
  • Finally… I regret exceedingly that I was unable to find anything further on either pinching competitions or greased goose grabbing. The closest I came was this rather more disturbing article on ‘goose pulling’ — basically the same thing, except with the goose alive ‘n’ honking. At least, erm, initially. Which actually makes a lot more sense when you consider it from a sporting perspective… and did indeed survive to the present day.
  • Albeit not, I hasten to add, in England, where it appears to have been in the process of dying out even as our sport-jacketed pals poked each other. Either that, of course, or those involved simply rechanneled their homicidal urges into inventing rugby.
 
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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Series Two

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

S02E08

But I need some new things! My boots… zey have so many holes in zem I… I don’t feel like I am vearing any!
Well, ah… you are not vearing any.
Huh? Oh… well, zat vould explain it.

More solidly reliable laughs — and of course winces — abound, as the revolution finally settles into ongoing reality…

In this episode:

Song: Learn Your Hieroglyphics — Mat as the Teacher

Recurring sketches:

HHTV Sport — Tudor Football

Dodgy War Inventions — No.28: Russian WWII Anti-Tank Bomb (“Woof!”)

Shouty (Wo)man — New! Georgian Fan (“The latest in mobile communications technology! Everyone should have one!… Except you, ‘cos you’re a bloke.” “Right, terribly sorry.”)

Fashion Fix — Georgian Peasant Becomes a Nobleman (“Well, at least I can’t look any more ridiculous!” ” “…I stand corrected.”)

Stupid Deaths — Sir Arthur Aston, Stuart army officer (Beaten to death with his own wooden leg… “Oooh, hey — I bet you were hopping mad!”)

Scary Stories — The Terror of Tedworth (“What is this, Scooby-Doo?”)

News of the Empire — Caesar Assassination Special (“A cracking good read!… Although it is all in Latin.”)

One-offs:

Vicious Vikings

Made-Up Marauders — An ancient raiding party discovers there’s more than one way of using face paint to terrify…

Attack on Lindisfarne — Vikings -vs- monks, round oh-gosh-an-awful-lot: in which a moment of clarity is achieved… for a moment. (“No, wait! I’ve just remembered… killing is really fun, and taking stuff from monks is very easy!”)

Terrible Tudors

Polite Mugging — Setting a monetary limit on which has predictably unpredictable consequences.

Woeful Second World War

Winter at Stalingrad — “Well… I sink you are in luck. I got zese boots in zis morning — good quality too, zey are Russian!” “How do you know zey are Russian?” “Zere was a Russian in zem.”

Gorgeous Georgians

The Eternal (Fan) Dance — The ‘latest in mobile communications technology’: apparently, propelling sitcom romance hijinks since 1785.

Rotten Romans

Crimewatch BC: Caesar’s Assassination — “No, really we want to kill them and burn down their houses, but I don’t want to say that in public, just in case they run away…” “See ya!” “…me and my big mouth.”

Field Notes:

  • So, here we are in the phase of reviewer’s nostalgia I like to call Holy Crap, That Song is Totally Schoolhouse Rock… followed closely by Wait, They Have Schoolhouse Rock in the UK?!
  • Sadly, no. However you lot were learning basic educational concepts in my childhood, it clearly didn’t involve adorable animated characters cavorting to fun, catchy, clever contemporary tunes. But damned if this isn’t exactly how Bob Dorough et al. would’ve approached hieroglyphics had they been on the curriculum… and, y’know, Mat’s entire onscreen persona is more-or-less being a cartoon character… so it all never fails to totally bemuse me every time.
  • Once I do eventually get around to appreciating it on its own merits, I’m captivated all over again. The song is impressively tight lyrically, and the kids are professionally adorable without once sliding into obnoxiously precious — I cannot emphasise this enough, as a rare luxury for an adult watching a kid’s show. And, yes, despite some rather obvious disconnect between the robust vocal and the visual, Mat performs the authentic living daylights out of an entire jazz/rockabilly number dressed only in a towel and some fake eyebrows, and I’m honestly not sure if the first or last part of that sentence is more impressive.
  • But seeing as it’s fast becoming a potential elephant in the reviewing room: Frankly, I’ve never seen the appeal of HH au naturel, regardless of who’s currently going topless. They’re all, well, people I’ve spent months writing a blog about, but if they’re going to act as spurs to the *ahem* imagination, I generally need a bit of extra costuming to get well started. Will say, though, that Mat’s physique is neither grotesque or alarming; he simply has no surplus body fat whatsoever, which I do actually find more aesthetically interesting than your standard six-pack. Really.
  • Also, it totally enables him to be an absolutely hilarious parody of your typical fashion guru, which, given the self-parody already inherent in the genre, is no mean trick let me tell you. Gok Wan isn’t really a thing over here, but my leftover neuroses (from a brief-but-tumultuous stop in a fashion buying office) say thank you anyway, show, for taking such a satisfyingly satirical whack at the industry. And I do mean satisfying, on all the levels. One other lovely aspect of Mat’s physicality: his entirely un-self-conscious ease within its ambiguity.
  • Oh, and he can write funny, too. So can Ben. Their collaboration on the Lindisfarne sketch is an intriguing experiment; being simoultaneously more sophisticated humour than your standard HH outing and less adept at merging the facts into same. Interesting too that it’s clearly coming from the performer POV — everyone gets their chance to shine — but isn’t adapted to anyone’s specific schticks as established thus far, not even their own. This frankly is not at all how I would’ve imagined them writing themselves, but hey, it works, and that remarkably unselfishly. In sum: your effort shows real promise, boys, I’ll keep it on file and look forward to seeing more.
  • Ben is less successful as a full-on cosplay-at-the-Comicon-style Badass Viking Warrior, just because, well, Ben. It’s going to be a few more episodes at least before the image of him threatening to ‘spread’ the enemy clears my brain. S’okay, though, it’s not like it was a wildly innovative sketch to begin with or anything. Except that Lawry appears still to be stuck in psycho berserker mode…
  • …ie. the sort of mode you really don’t want to be telling someone who’s in it that they’re also highly convincing as a circus clown. Which really, I hasten to add, doesn’t have to interfere with the other at all. Makeup and balloons and little squirty buttonhole and just possibly a machete… or, oh yeah, the bloody Caesar-assassinating knife from the Beware the Ides of March business… oh boy. Can’t sleep, Viking clown will maraud me.
  • But enough of all this chipper playfulness. It’s been nearly a season-and-a-half since anyone — in this case meaning ‘Jim’ — froze to death in the unforgiving wastes, so time to visit everyone’s favourite award-winning wuss in Stalingrad. Seriously, if he’s really freezing, why the hell is he making such a fuss? Especially over a fur coat? What, they don’t have thrift shops in Germany? I’m willing to excuse a lot when Ben and Jim are together onscreen (the little ‘vacation’ thing has all the hallmarks of another Willbond improv bit, and if so, all the points), but in this case the funny’s so obviously out of sync with the reality it undermines both aspects of the sketch.
  • Still, even taken at face value, you’ve gotta give the producers massive credit for sticking to their commitment to more character-based comedy this series, even when going for the noir jugular. That Horrible doesn’t just mean gross is as important a lesson as any for the kiddies to learn — that, and of course the sheer fabulousness of a German accent, thank you Benjamin. The languages degree was not in vain!… although if you find your parents getting a little cranky over it at Christmas dinner, this might be why.
  • Not even kidding, though: we are witnessing an HH linguistic milestone on the order of Mat’s Gallic stylings, here, and it will be just as rewarding, if not even more so. Because boy howdy, does this man love his his Teutonic vowels, and all the gloriously unctuous implications inherent therein. You can practically see it glowing off him through the snow and everything. (It’s not the first time he’s broken it out, of course, but the full effect got a little obscured previously on account of NAZIS! and so on.)
  • Oh, and speaking of uncompromising bleakness… Animated or no, I notice they didn’t make-believe the dog survived that Russian bomb project. I do not wish to go all PETA-particular on the reality, but geez, show, it might once in awhile be worth remembering that you’re aimed at a segment of the population who probably haven’t yet dealt with the death of a hamster, let alone adorably oblivious Old Yeller here. Come to that, their parents likely aren’t gonna be too happy with you adding to the therapy bills either.
  • Meanwhile, Jim totally redeems himself in the Tudor Football bit — later remade of course for Sport Relief, but I must confess to much preferring the original, just because Jim’s determined-athlete face continues to be just that hysterically realistic. If I hadn’t already known he was a football fanatic in real life, I’d so be able to tell, especially as played off Larry’s perfectly-judged media importance.
  • Overall — just as a suggestion, you understand — great stuff to whip out on YouTube next time your ‘Merican pals get especially boring re: how sissy European football is compared to the NFL. I know I was very nearly impressed enough to stop snickering every time a European player starts feigning ULTIMATE VIOLATION at a feather touch… kidding! I swear!
  • Not exactly devastated, I must admit, that the Shouty Woman concept wasn’t repeated. Martha does her level best — and so, bless him and his solemn silliness once again, does Larry — but this bit works mostly as proof that the concept owes its success as much or more to what Jim brings to it, as the idea itself. Mind, it also works nicely as an audition tape should Martha ever decide she wants to star in a Georgette Heyer adaptation. That is some pro fan-fluttering, right there.
  • You can tell it’s a talent, because Katy doesn’t pull it off quite as naturally in the followup bit. (All concerned do however fully pull the sketch itself off, in a manner that indicates a firm grounding in ancient ‘Britcoms,’ as still being rerun over here on PBS). Where she really excels, costuming-wise, is in wearing that gorgeous steel-blue Tudor ensemble; I have no idea how authentic it is, but regardless it’s my favourite female outfit of the entire series. Of course, I have a soft spot for the Tudor costuming generally. Those flat velvet tam-y things the men wear: DO WANT.
  • Stupid Death sidekick watch: we’ve gotten as far as the X-Factor idea, but not the actual skeletons. We’ve also gotten to the point at which the corpses are freely allowed to talk back, argue, and just generally comment along the lines of actual audition hopefuls. Which means we’re basically just having lots of totally random Simon and friends interacting every few episodes or so. I approve.
  • Lots of love also for the Crimewatch BC sketch; obvious enough, but with some real cleverness tucked in around the edges of the execution. “Kirsty the Younger” — nice touch that, as is the ‘forensic’ bust. Also, yep, absolutely gonna be checking under my bed for rampaging Lawrys tonight…

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, I have finally been inspired to check into this business with Julius Caesar and his supposedly huge honker once and for all. The consensus of a quick Google Image search appears to be that it was indeed as ‘Roman’ as all get-out — what today is more commonly described as ‘aquiline’ — but not hilariously massive or anything. Let’s face it, when attempting to get yourself nominated as Dictator-for-Life of the known Western Hemisphere, ordinary-looking might have passed, but ‘adenoidal goofball’ would’ve been a major handicap.
  • Although a relevant passage from Shakespeare doth portray a man perhaps a mite slow on the uptake: Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue shriller than all the music cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear. Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March. Caesar: What man is that? Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March. And while we’re on the subject of Mr. ‘Not lazy with the phrasey’, it turns out ‘Et tu, Brute?’ was shamelessly fudged from the reported ‘Kai su, teknon?‘ [You too, my child?]. That is, if he said anything at all, which is doubtful…
  • At any rate, for the really interested here’s an excellent scholarly summary of the reasons why Caesar had to die, and in the process gives an idea of the ancient version of a preventable tragedy: Later that night, his wife Calpurnia dreamed of his body streaming with blood and tried to prevent him from leaving the house. The priests (haruspices), too, found the omens to be unfavorable. Caesar hesitated [to go to the Senate] but was persuaded by one of the conspirators… Even as evidence of the plot became known, there were attempts to inform Caesar, but either they were too late or ignored.
  • Things I love about the Internet, vol. 3214: you’re never more than a quick Yahoo Answer away from someone who not only has clearly researched the concept of Viking war paint, but tried a potential recipe out on himself. Sounds pretty much the equivalent of what’s shown here — a sort of eyeblack meant to throw the warrior’s gaze into deep, ominous shadow, thus at the very least anticipating the covers of death metal albums by several centuries. Mind you, it turns out the classic ‘whiteface’ clown dates away back to Ancient Greek comedy… I dunno, folks, I just don’t know.
  • At least there are no Bozo derivatives in the full version of the Terror of Tedworth; unless of course you count the folks who fell for it at the time. Basically it appears to have been the seventeenth-century version of the Amityville Horror, glaring red-eyed apparations and all.
  • You know the most humiliating lack of foresight in the Soviet anti-tank dog deployment? (Yes, of course Wiki has an entire indepth entry on the whole project.) Even more so than the story as given here, which specifically involves the wannabe four-footed ordnance picking up on the distinctive smell of the Soviet petrol, among several other obvious signs that this was a Really Bad Idea? They left themselves wide open not only to German sneers that the Russian soldiers were so afraid to fight they sent dogs in their place, but the accompanying propaganda photos of cute mutts the Germans claimed to have rescued from becoming squishy shrapnel.
  • On the other hand, damned if it didn’t work, sort of: There are however documented claims of individual successes of the program, with the number of damaged tanks usually being within a dozen. For example, at the front of the 160th Infantry Division near Hlukhiv, six dogs had damaged five German tanks; near the airport of Stalingrad, anti-tank dogs destroyed 13 tanks. At the Battle of Kursk, 16 dogs disabled 12 German tanks which had broken through the Soviet lines of defense near Tamarovka, Bykovo… Apparently it really was a dog’s life, out there.
 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E05

I had just ten years on the throne — do you remember that?
No, all that you remember is…
I was really fat.

An episode-length lesson in the ways well-intentioned ambitions can be memorable for all the — awkward — reasons. Luckily, that also happens to be a pretty good description of King George IV…

In this episode:

Song: George IV: Couldn’t Stand My WifeJim as the Prince Regent/King George IV, Lawry as King George III

Recurring sketches:

Historical Shopping Channel — Pirate Hour

Computer Game: The Real Tomb Raider (“NO zombies! NO mummies coming back to life!” …and more to the point, no Harrison or Angelina.)

Scary Stories — The Curse of Tutankhamun (“I mean, if it’s not a real ghost story, why not get John Barrowman? Or Ant & Dec?!”)

Bob Hale — The Crusades Report (“We apologise for the technical hitch we appear to have with Bob today…”)

One-offs:

Putrid Pirates

Unexpected Treasure — Things that don’t come up often on Talk Like a Pirate Day: once you’ve hauled in the loot, yo-ho-ho, how did the fifteen men  divvy it up?

Incredible Incas

The Incan Family Players: Live Like an Inca — Or, y’know, sort of a rough approximation of an Inca. With a few pieces inexplicably borrowed from nearby cultures. Also, those hairdos. But hey, did we mention they had llamas?!

Incan Rites of Passage — Oh look, it involves a llama sacrifice! And by this point, most of the audience is probably helpfully volunteering to hold the knife!

Gorgeous Georgians

Congratu-very-lations at Last — ‘George IV learns of his father’s death’ is one ride-the-pony move away from a world-storming dance video… until his butt gets involved. (“Um… you know what might help, what if you wore a corset?” “I AM WEARING A CORSET!!“)

Measly Middle Ages

New! Old Crone — “You’ll wonder how you ever survived on a Crusade without one!” (Warning: Old Crone is very old and may not even survive the journey. Always read the label.)

Awesome USA 

Awesome Agent Moses — Sometimes, the life-or-death fight to keep the flame of humanity and equality alive just really requires you carry around a chicken.

Rotten Romans

Poop for Sale — Roman toilet cleaners out to make some extra cash… which goes about as well as you’d expect. (“No thanks, I make me own.”)

How to Behave at a Roman Dinner Party — In which the ‘very height of civilization’ turns out to resemble that of your average four-year-old — only with even more strategic upchucking. (“Well done… that’s my feet, but well done.”)

Field Notes:

  • So… in one of life’s fun little co-incidences, we’ve reached the part of Series Two when I get to be the cultural insider. (No, I’m not American myself, but trust me on this. As we Canadians like to put it, when there’s a elephant in bed beside you, you’re naturally aware of his every move.)
  • Starting with with the ongoing — and, judging by the quality of the execution, hastily-slapped-together — conceit that the Mesoamerican content is an exotic, alien interloper, being beamed from… some sort of pyramid… somewhere… via powerful Von Daniken-esque antennae. All of which leads me to wonder — why include the South American continent at all, exactly? Even if we concede the attempt to widen horizons past Western Europe, then why the Incas/Aztecs?
  • Again, given the unquestioned conscientiousness of the HH production team, I’m willing to assume there’s some sort of obvious connection to Mesoamerica I’m missing here, which some thoughtful UK reader will no doubt explain to culturally-ignorant me at length shortly after post date. But until then, I’m going to go with the theory that somebody on the same production team has an ungovernable llama fetish and figured this was the safest way to work it out. ‘Cos really now, guys.
  • Then there’s their take on the antebellum American South. Which is… a bit harder to wax sarcastic over. Sure it’s not incredibly nuanced, but then trying to work the funny closer to the reality — as per Series One’s experiment with Nazism — would…it just… nobody wants to deal with that. (Hence why Quentin Tarantino won an Oscar.) So the bumbling-but-right-hearted cartoonishness here can be easily excused, especially given that Harriet Tubman’s story is undeniably the most kickass angle possible to approach it from — also that our Dominique is clearly determined to be far more than the local token of diversity, and more power to her.
  • Still… Jim, we can probably get along from here without your Colonel Sanders impression, ‘k? Your average plantation owner may have been morally blind, but they were capable of noticing when being fooled twice by the same damn woman within thirty seconds. Your slaves also need to hitch up their American-ness a bit — I’m still onboard re: dropping the then-authentic-now-unfortunate dialect, but staying within the same continent should’ve been doable. (Protip for any freshly-inspired future UK screenwriters: ‘brilliant!’, in America, has no use except as shorthand for ‘British!’. Go with ‘great!’ instead.)
  • As for the third controversial point raised within this ep: Lawry as George III does not and could never measure up to Simon’s version. Not open for discussion, folks. Not that this diminishes the value of Lawry’s performance; he’s pulling out every tic and twitch at his disposal, which is actually pretty true to the reality of poor George’s affliction, and thus under ordinary circs would be… entirely adequate, and even charming.
  • It’s only that he’s up against Simon’s particularly extraordinary command of crazy, which is like trying to dispute Einstein’s theory of relativity; it’s possible to have fun in the speculation, but the weight of reality itself is against you in the end. Literally, as it happens, given that there exist recordings of the Prom version of this episode’s song, not to mention the inset sketches produced specially for it.
  • Now that that’s settled, we can get on to the stuff universally acknowledged to be wonderful, ie. that same song. Or more specifically, Jim’s performance thereof — and in the lead-in sketch, in which we meet the Prince of Whales in all his sniveling, superficial yet strangely poignant glory. Just when you’re starting to worry, the show offhandedly reminds you that they have available a performer, and vocalist, able to turn what could’ve been one-note childishness into a full-on festival of fun comic nuance. And you instantly resolve to never, ever doubt them again…
  • …of course, you’re also pretty sure they’ll be easing off the llama obsession from here, which also helps a lot. (As do the clever little homages to Indy and Angelina/Lara Croft in the computer game). But mostly, it’s about the comic-nuance thing. I especially like the detail paid in re: making the song just Lite-FM enough for satirical comment, yet substantial enough for the genius to shine through. Lyrically it’s maybe a bit too heavy on the ‘I did design‘ –type forced scanning, but I suppose for once that’s true to the period.
  • Basically George IV represents the apotheosis of Jim’s talents in the same way Charles II did for Mat earlier… you can tell, because the Happy Dance of Hey Dad’s Dead. Improvised of course, because no scriptwriter could possibly have seen that coming, let alone what appears to be a very authentically nonplussed Ben. You can just see him mentally resolving to never work with children, animals or inspired Howicks ever again.
  • Apropos of which… now five of the six have an iconic royal alter-ego, and Lawry has Cromwell. Meanwhile Larry has: Bob Hale. This tells you everything you need to know about our Bobsy, really. Except that he’s received the first, and most dramatic, of his annual age-lifts… which in turn coincide/contrast with his level-ups in manic irrelevance. Since meth is a non-starter, my theory involves Bob’s selling his soul for his historical expertise, on the installment plan (I have a lovely sub-theory in which he finds the contract while lost looking for after-shave in Wal-Mart), and gradually becoming ever-more-aware that he’s got nothing left to lose.
  • In related speculations, I note that his creator — as an offshoot of his role as go-to for all generic types — has somehow also become The One Who Inevitably Works With Children and Animals. Oh, and can’t forget being slathered with poop, because the writers sure won’t; which becomes several different types of amusing when you remember Larry is one of the writers. Not saying a decently-accessible masochistic streak is helpful re: working on HH… I’m just saying.
  • The general extent to which everyone’s personality quirks are starting to shine through is also on loving display in the ‘Pirate Treasure’ sketch. As is is the general level of fun everyone had, being healthy young males wearing swashbuckling costumes and yelling ‘Arrrrrrr!’ a lot. The ending is a bit of a letdown — it feels bizarrely like Mat actually did cop out, leaving the rest unsure how to fill the gap — but s’ok, the pirate sketches are still the gold standard for the HH format: intrinsically fun, funny and interesting. (Especially Mat clearly putting some thought into whacking Larry, in light of the ‘no need to bully me today’ scene in the Series Three outtakes…)
  • One minor weirdness, as per the ‘Pirate Shopping’ bit: forget it, show, that is so not Black Bart. Or if it is, I fail to see why his reputation needs to be stomped all over just because you couldn’t be bothered to respect your own continuity. Therefore, I hereby dub this guy ‘Captain Fancypants’, and now feel much better about him being snaffled by someone named ‘Cutlass Liz’.
  • Apropos of fun, Ben’s having way more of it than you’d expect starring in his own private laundry-detergent advert. I totally approve of this, also note with interest that those are one more thing both sides of the pond have in common… along with (of all things) 50’s social conditioning through hokey filmstrips. Could’ve made a great recurring thing out of that, esp. with Larry as host.

95% Accu-rat:

  • OK, Rattus, it’s an easy mistake to make, but just so everyone’s clear prior to embarrassing themselves at their next pretentious gallery opening: Agent Moses = Harriet Tubman, incredibly awesome hero of the abolitionist movement who would occasionally motivate her terrified ‘cargo’ with a loaded pistol, telling them they would ‘be free or die.’ Grandma Moses = Anna Mary Moses, incredibly cute little old lady who became an American folk-art sensation at age 78.
  • Oh, and Tubman’s newspaper distraction? It worked because everyone knew she couldn’t read, not the other way around. A white Southerner of the period, however easily amused by poultry, would never take a ‘negro’ woman for an ‘educated lady’.
  • Right, the Incans… without further editorial comment, may I just point out that:
  1. Their average day did not, in reality, consist entirely of finding new and increasingly mundane reasons to sacrifice llamas.
  2. The beer (called chicha, and still brewed among many South American peoples to this day) was not made of human spit, it was made with human spit, ie. they would — and occasionally still do — chew up some corn to kickstart the fermentation process. A seemingly subtle distinction, but an important one, given that the alcohol thus produced would naturally kill off any residual ick. Think of it as the way the American political process eventually killed off any residual Todd Akin; in both cases the way is now much clearer re: enjoying a refreshing beverage.
  3. The mass heart-ripping — as the show will concede next series — was the Aztecs’ schtick, and to a lesser extent the Mayans’, not the comparatively peaceful Incans’. Ironically, in making that mistake the show missed the chance to hilight the uniquely horrific nature of Incan sacrifice, which involved literally fattening small children up prior to leaving them on a mountain to die of exposure.
  • On the other hand, the show is if anything massively understating the loathing George IV felt for his consort. Caroline, Princess of Brunswick was actually his first cousin, and their home ties were extremely important to the elders of the House of Hanover. The kids, on the other hand, were frankly enjoying the English scenery — especially the giggly, good-natured part of it wearing low-cut blouses.  So yeah, the whole thing started as “Son, why don’t you settle down and marry a good German girl?” and deteriorated from there.
  • It was and is generally conceded that Caroline was not the world’s most loveable personality; it has been suggested that she suffered from a mild version of whatever afflicted Uncle George III. Her escort to England, Lord Malmesbury, recorded that she lacked judgment, decorum and tact, spoke her mind too readily, acted indiscreetly, and often neglected to wash, or change her dirty clothes. He went on to say that she had “some natural but no acquired morality, and no strong innate notions of its value and necessity. Or, as my Treasury of Royal Scandals puts it, a ‘crude, foul-smelling exhibitionist’, whose hobbies — after her inevitable separation from her royal husband — included sending ‘obscene and harassing’ letters to her new neighbors.
  • Regardless of all of which — and a lot more she never bothered to hide — the public inevitably took her side in every effort her husband made to rid himself of her for good, simply because they couldn’t bear to think of taking the Prince of Whales’ part in anything. Jane Austen, summing up the general theme, sniffed in a letter: Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman and because I hate her Husband. (Which incidentally became a problem when the object of her hatred revealed himself as one of her *ahem* biggest admirers, for which etiquette demanded Emma be dedicated to him.)
  • The show’s portrayal of George IV is an exaggeration based on that perception: as the man himself claims, despite his pathological self-indulgence, he was neither unintelligent, uncultured nor unkind… and frankly was quite the ‘stunning show pony’ for much of his life. As time wore on, however, it became increasingly harder to find any of it under all the chomping, slurping and… other stuff. The famous Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion by James Gillray about sums up the result — note that among the bottles are remedies for venereal disease.
  • Yeah, the Curse of Tutankhamun, pretty much entirely discredited for the reasons outlined. I mention it here mostly as an excuse to share this even more hilariously OTT cursed-mummy story, which is of about the same vintage and hauls in the Titanic for good measure.
  • The Real! Tomb Raider business rather overstates the case, inasmuch as in the real reality, you’d have a brace of native labourers to do most of that grunt work for you. Your job would be basically to stand around barking directions and generally being all White Man’s Burden-y until there were signs of a significant discovery being made. At which point poor dear you also took on the wearisome business of taking all the credit and becoming an international celebrity. (One thing you would probably not be doing is wandering around in full formal dress — even Victorians knew not to wear black-tie in the desert!)
 
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Posted by on March 10, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E04

“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.

Recurring sketches:

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

One-offs:

Gorgeous Georgians

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…”)

Incredible Incas

Llama Sacrifice-a-rama-lama-ding-dong – Of the livestock, the viewer’s sanity, whichever.

Vile Victorians

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!”

Field Notes:

  • 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.

95% Accu-rat:

  • 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.)
 
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Posted by on February 24, 2013 in Series Two

 

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