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S02E13: Savage Songs

I love this band…

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

In this episode:

Spartan School Musical (from S02E03)

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

Where I’d rank it: 6th

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

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

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

Boudicca (from S02E10)

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

Where I’d rank it: 4th.

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

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

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

The Viking Song (Literally) (from S02E01)

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

Where I’d rank it: 2nd.

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

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

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

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

Do the Pachacuti (from S02E12)

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

Where I’d rank it: 8th

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

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

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

Charles II: King of Bling (from S02E02)

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

Where I’d rank it: 1st.

Duh.

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

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

Blackbeard’s Song (from S02E06)

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

Where I’d rank it: 7th.

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

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

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

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

Where I’d rank it: 3rd.

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

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

Real Live Cowboys (from S02E09)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victorian Inventions (from S02E07)

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

Where I’d rank it: 9th.

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

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

We’re the WWII Girls (Original Girl Power)

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

Where I’d rank it: 5th

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

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

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

Encore: Born 2 Rule (from S01E01)

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

Where I’d rank it: 1st…

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

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

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Posted by on April 7, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E12

Ah! We were reading every word before the punctuation! You see: “Please – prepare – the – old – goat – for – wedding.”
Why on earth would I say that?!
Well, we were rather confused…
As was the goat. 

Having long since cemented their place in media coolness, the show casually took a moment to make sure that it would seem a very, very long wait for Series Three…

In this episode:

Song: Do the Pachacuti — Mat as the Incan warlord, Martha and Alice[?] as his backup dancers

Recurring sketches:

DI Bones: Historical Crime Squad — The Caveman and the Really Big Bear (“Never mind the afterlife, love, I’m trying to work out what sent him there!”)

Caveman Art Show — Cave Painting

Stupid Deaths — Diodorus, the not-so-hunchback (submitted to having his spine crushed back into position — “and when I opened my eyes, I was cured!” “Oh, too bad…” “…Unfortunately, I was also dead.” “Hurray!”)

Words We Get From the — Saxons

One-offs:

Woeful Second World War

Code Name: Goofy — What might happen were the British intelligence service just a little too clever for their own good… which apparently wouldn’t have taken much. (“‘Trapped in Paris — please send help!’ — Now, what is he trying to tell us?” “There’s a message in there somewhere…”)

Spy Gadgets — Featuring a truly impressive arsenal of Bond-esque ingenuity… not to mention one of the best vehicles for getting the historical exposition across ever. “Wait a minute — you come all the way to German-occupied France to tell me I need a bath and to brush my teeth?!” “Of course not!… although…”

Rotten Romans

Dumb Muscle — A gladiator keeps misunderstanding his trainer’s motivational metaphors (“You want me to lick him?”) to the point where it becomes very obvious indeed why he’s handed a blindfold…

Smashing Saxons

Bag-O-Swallow-Chick-Stomach-Stones — Explaining how the contents of baby-bird intestines cured headaches… possibly caused by infomercial pitchmen. Or, y’know, Vikings.

Good Luck Piggy — Shockingly, decorating your helmets with effigies of pork somehow failed to make you sword-proof. (“Oooh, that is nasty. Tell you what, I’ll get you a refund…” *whumph* “…now, where’d he go?”)

Terrible Tudors

Horrible Histories World Wrestling: Live from the Field of Cloth of Gold — Henry VIII and Francis I’s goodwill embassy really did founder on a wrestling match… but I’m guessing the inspiration for this one was more ‘Ben vs. Mat and see what happens.’

Henry VIII Online (imagine spot) — What would happen if Henry VIII had both succession issues and access to the Internet? …Yeah. Even besides the dating services… and StartThineOwnChurch.com. (“Why has God forsaken me with only ladybabies?!”)

Incredible Incas

Francisco Pizarro’s (Very) Rough Guide 1526 — “This program is all about visiting Peru.” “And stealing all of their gold.” “Pedro, please…!”

Field Notes:

  • So here we are, at the end of the rollercoaster ride. Which frankly I never saw the point of that cliche, ‘cos any rollercoaster rides I ever took were spent with my head buried under my dad’s arm. But I’m willing to assume that the fun I’ve had sorting through this series firsthand is a decent approximation of what I’ve seen in the Canada’s Wonderland commercials.
  • Certainly it’s easy to see how a besotted media phenomenon-making machine got the idea. Series Two is the telly equivalent of the best friend everyone wishes they had: vivacious, fun, witty yet down-to-earth, game for anything, and just generally so damn charming — not to say well-meaning — you can’t even hate them when they screw up and start spouting racial cliches.
  • Quite literally, as it turns out. Because the Pizarro sketch reads exactly like, after that cringey ‘Live Like an Inca’ business, everyone sat down to figure out how to recoup, and — after also being reminded of the near-blackface makeup thing — Ben and Jim were picked in a heroic last-ditch effort to try and blatantly adorable their way out of it, and it worked.
  • I don’t even care that in actuality the thing’s probably about as self-aware as a Speedy Gonzales cartoon (as proven shortly thereafter by the return of the dopey animated pyramid). Just try listening to Jim chirping ‘Hola!’ or Ben’s uber-assured ‘Easy peasy, squeeze di lemon’, and tell me you’re not ready to forgive everyone involved all the things. Including ones they haven’t actually done yet.
  • The charm assault continues through the cute ‘n’ catchy tune about vicious cadaver mutilation, which goes so far as to self-parody their previous earnestness in the form of little bouncy lyric-following skulls. As a solo lyricist, Larry… proves he wasn’t the one in charge of making sure ‘Literally’ scanned properly (although, ‘but violence helped the most!’ — nice characteristic touch there). This one’s classic status is all on Mat, relentlessly working every facet of engaging he can think of, up to and including briefly channeling a Muppet.
  • As if to prove that that randomness isn’t a fluke, we also get Mat doing an appealing takeoff of… what, your typically 70’s police procedural? At least over here it’d be the 70’s. ‘Course, over here the crime drama parody would currently need to involve a pair of sunglasses and a really annoying meme, so maybe we should just drop the whole discussion of genre subtlety right there.
  • More seriously, DI Bones became the last of the really great, durable recurring concepts for a reason, and it isn’t just the floppy hair — although that helps. (So does the ‘runs like a girl’ thingy, as later to be demonstrated in Spy.) But mostly it’s about hilighting Mat’s very precise take on genre parody, which reminds me a little of Leslie Nielsen’s: he doesn’t interpret so much as exactly duplicate the cliches.
  • Speaking of interesting… also amusing, engaging, adorable and pretty much every other warm ‘n’ fuzzy adjective I’ve used in these reviews to even date: NEW CAVEMAN ART SHOW. ALL THE HAPPIES.
  • …Excepting of course the part where this is the last one. Again, I understand the lack of material to sustain an ongoing series — although I still have the grudge against actual Early Man for not getting off his hairy butt and into watercolours — but damn, this concept, or perhaps more accurately Mat and Jim’s interpretation of it, was just so much purely inspired surreal awesomeness. Some of which will eventually be translated into the Historical Paramedics, but still… in my heart they’ll never quite replace Grunt’s desperate efforts to figure out what’s hitting him.
  • Apropos of which… look, I don’t wish to out the production team as total sadistic bastards (again) or anything here, but Mat’s reaction to horking up the paint, and Jim’s equally realistic-looking concern, at least strongly implies a future BAFTA nominee very nearly kicked the bucket while dressed as a Neanderthal, and nobody even bothered to turn off the cameras. I really, really hope they at least gave Mat an extra draw in that year’s Secret Santa, is all I’m saying.
  • Of course, they did give him the coveted role of Guy Who Gets to React to the Wedding Goat in the ‘codebreakers’ sketch — seriously, guaranteed there were potential fistfights on first run-through over that one. I have no idea how Ben didn’t come out the victor — possibly they gave him a little lecture on sharing nicely that involved the phrase ‘Henry VIII is about to discover the internet’ — but it’s hard to see how he could’ve topped Mat’s take anyway. Esp. since the latter looks hilariously like he’s just returned from being chased by the really big bear.
  • Really though, the majority of the many laughs in this sketch belong to Larry and Jim and their clear mastery of (besides keeping straight faces) that so-silly-it’s-clever stuff that only the British can ever make work properly. And that for some reason — possibly ‘Allo ‘Allo-related — only ever shows up in the World War sketches. In case you’re still wondering whether this was deliberate, note the reference to ‘Agent Blenkinsop’, which should make fanfic writers looking for poignant endings very happy.
  • Oh, and while we’re on about the wartime sketches, they also function as a way to let Martha be feisty and fabulous at the same time, and let me be the first to suggest she’s earned that little perk. At first glance it seems remarkable that she wears red lipstick, high-heeled pumps and a chic little updo in such authentic style… until you realise that after having played Elizabeth I in full costume, pulling off gravy stockings is merely so much, well, gravy.
  • Elsewhere in gently endearing reminders of how far the troupe has come in a series, Ben finally finds a practical (ie., non-Caesar-related) use for that ‘dumb’ voice — and leather armour; Larry spends some more time perfecting his working-class Everyman; Simon bumps Death’s amorality a little further over the top; and the ‘Saxon words’ bit lets Lawry blow off some steam from the previous sketches…
  • …yeah, Lawry may have grown on me just a teeny-tiny bit, over the last little while. He’s a good egg. Or insect. Whichever.
  • So, the Tudor wrestling skit: not all that well-thought-through. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cute and reasonably clever way to get across the image-vs-realpolitik dichotomy of the Field of the Cloth of Gold ‘celebrations’… but really now, show. I realise you got excited about the success of the monastery party time, but that’s no reason to conclude that every adult indulgence just naturally makes for great historical parody.
  • Besides… you’ve gone to all the trouble of not only a totally period-appropriate Henry VIII but a strikingly accurate copy of Francis I’s most famous portrait (oh-so-helpfully enhanced by Mat’s accent and/or little victory jig)… you’ve got the graphics rolling, you’ve just got finished elaborating on the many hundreds of people Henry alone has with him, and the glittering tent he’s built to house them in…
  • …and so naturally you figure this would be a good time not to augment your crowd scene with more than five extras. Or even drape a few yards of velvet and lame across the backdrop. Or, for that matter, give Francis an accurate personality (see below). So… basically the word ‘wrestling’ was spoken to the props department, everybody went “Yessss! Rawrrrr!“, and it all just went downhill from there, right?
  • When the word ‘Internet’ was spoken, on the other hand… wow. I don’t even know exactly why these online sketches should be so hysterically funny — on the surface of it, it’s so obvious: ‘Trype’, ‘Mullions XP’, har har har. But somehow, still, even my technophobe Mum was doubled-over in knowing giggles all the way through. It’s all so instantly recognisable as human, and so completely incongruous when applied to remote historical figures.
  • The torrent of tiny perfect details this dichotomy produces is just… you can’t stop listing them: @houseoftudor.co.uk, the woodcut desktop wallpaper, the cutesy animated birth notice, the ‘Yebo’ cameo from Henry’s first mistress Bessie Blount… (We both completely lost it at the dating service: ‘Protestant lady seeks rich, ennobled husband for good times and lots of male heirs. Likes beards’.)
  • So… onwards to Series Three. Which is going to be a whole different sort of rollercoaster, because we’re out of my familiarity zone. Shortly after it was introduced in Canada, we switched cable setups to one that doesn’t include BBCKids, meaning I’ve only actually seen most of the S03 eps once or twice. I have a confused idea of sophistication building laterally instead of upwards, more on lush production values than comedy innovation. Except, of course, for the music…

95% Accu-rat:

  • So seriously, this blindfolded gladiator thing was entertainment? Apparently, yes — but not quite the kind the show implies. Although there were enough different types of specialised gladiators (gladioli?) — generally based on such niceties as types of weaponry — that the Wiki page starts to resemble your average NFL draft-day chart, turns out the Andabatae weren’t so much specialised as they were really, really screwed.
  • Mostly, they were untrained criminal types whose deaths were tossed in basically as filler in-between the more serious matches — a bit like those halftime things where a fan is brought out to see if he can kick a field goal or shoot from the half-court line, only very much without the new SUV. As one unnervingly matter-of-fact Italian website on the Colosseum explains: These fights would have been fought for the amusement of the crowd… A morning event. Not in the same league as the gladiatorial combats which were the highlight of the day.
  • Francisco Pizarro: In real life, not all that hilariously adorable. Also not actually raised by pigs, but certainly raised among them, as an illegitimate — and eventually illiterate — son of a military officer and a peasant woman. So yeah, lots of possible compensation issues happening there, to go along with, y’know, the gold thing (like most of the great conquistadores, he was ultimately inspired by the legend of El Dorado).
  • The sketch also fudges a little with respect to his initial encounter with the Incan Empire; the happy-go-lucky flower children pictured were actually the Tumpis, a satellite people of northwestern Peru — conquered under Pachacuti, as it happens — and they were happy mostly on account of they weren’t of any strategic importance whatsoever. Except in terms of confirming for their ‘Children of the Sun’ that the great and gold kingdom they sought was definitely real… which eventually did lead to the collapse of the entire empire. Boy, hindsight, huh?
  • So, yeah, the Field of the Cloth of Gold (in reference to the material used for the tents and whatnot) was the ultimate definition of much ado about nothing; rather like the modern Olympics, only without the lasting goodwill or useful sports arenas. It’s also worth noting that in real life Francis I, while more prominently enshrined in history as one of the all-time great lovers — and renowned for his patronage of the arts besides — also fancied himself quite the fighter.
  • Not that he was any good at it, mind you, but he did insist on his prowess as a warrior prince, personally leading his troops into battle and everything. As for that matter did Henry. Your Real Renaissance Man was in fact equally devoted to the arts and to the art of war, as both were considered essential components of manliness.
 
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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Series Two

 

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S02E11

So he asks the Pope for a divorce, and the Pope says ‘no way, Jose!’… which is weird, because his name is Henry.

The inevitable late-series lull is beguiled along pleasantly enough by the application of funky monks, a narcoleptic General and mondo Rickard… also, the understanding that it’s only going to be one episode long.

In this episode:

Song: The Monks’ Song — Ben, Jim & Mat as more-or-less-men of God, and Terry Deary as their Bishop

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast — Egyptian peasant & pyramid builder (hope you have good strong teeth! Oh, plus a real affection for dates and baboons…)

Pyramid Weekly — “Free Gift: a large stone weighing two-and-a-half-tonnes! Buy Pyramid Weekly every week, and in just 442,000 years, you’ll have enough stones to build your own pyramid!… 70,000 labourers not included.”

Dodgy War Inventions — No.21: Union Ironclad Battles Confederate Ironclad… prior to the invention of armour-piercing artillery… for a long, long time.

Stupid Deaths — Draco, statesman of Athens (suffocated by the tributes of an adoring crowd — then faces an adoring Death. “Not the Draco! Ooh, can I have an autograph?… Two kissies! Yay!”)

Bob Hale — The Catholic Report

HHTV News — Anne Boleyn’s execution: Henry VIII’s reaction

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Caligula vs. Poseidon, pt 2: In which the legendary (also, newly blond and fey) Emperor of Loopy decides that if you want crazy done right, you just have to do it yourself… if mostly on account of you forgot to tell your troops about it.

Be the Best… or They’ll Kill You — In an inset to the above, a legionary (foot soldier) explains how the Roman forces were trained to unquestioning obedience, dedication, loyalty and of course fear of being thrown off cliffs.

Measly Middle Ages

The Plague Report — Lots of it. All over Europe. Next! (Seriously, what’s with the persistence of this format? Are weather reports some sort of revered feature of the UK television… wait, I think I may have just answered my own question.)

The Plague Comes North — Proudly-plaid-wearing raiders from plague-free Scotland head out to ransack the plague-weakened English. There’s just one eensy little problem… and for once it’s not the accents.

My Big Fat (Medieval Scottish) Wedding — And if this show has taught us anything, it’s that if your prospective father-in-law has a yellow ‘fro and a mad gleam in his eye, the wedding planning’s gonna be an uphill slog. (“Aye, that’s how we like to do things, in medieval Scotland!”)

Awesome USA

Stonewall Jackson — Now, this is how you pull off crazy and militarily competent at the same time!… possibly could do without the narcolepsy though. (“Yes, I suppose he does have his moments… Sir, he is dribbling on my tunic…?”)

Groovy Greeks

Spartan Parent/Teacher Night — The best bit is, you get to picture Larry here as father to jheri-curled Larry from the song… OK, not much, but at least it’s something. (“Alright… it is a Spartan school, so don’t, erm, cry…”)

Field Notes:

  • Yep, as discussed last time (see S01E10) into every HH series some less-than-inspiring material must eventually fall. Albeit the gentle inconsequence and/or lack of confidence on display this time isn’t anywhere close to the flat-out gasping and flopping characteristic of S1’s last moments, thanks largely to the producers having taken the decision to make S2E13 a clip show, in lieu of stringing out the originality any further than strictly necessary.
  • (The ‘best’ of the subsequently missing material is available on the DVD. Given that it involves yet another Scary Story [later reused for the Halloween special], a long meandering monologue on Roman military retirement and a recurring medieval medical bit that manages to completely ignore the perfectly serviceable existence of both Stupid Deaths and Historical Hospital, I’d say we dodged a rather impressive bullet here, frankly.)
  • As another side benefit to these mostly not being specific character pieces, we have lotsa Larry. We got your Larry the medieval warrior, Larry the shirtless Egyptian, Larry the long-haired Spartan, and of course Larry the, um, Bob Hale. My personal favourite is the wild-n-crazy Scotsman, although Bobsy shows off a nice tactfulness — if also a few minor inaccuracies (see below) — under all the bluster, and besides which the Religion-O-Meter is freakin’ hilarious.
  • Still, only the plague sketch gives us pants-under-the-kilt gags. Besides which, more entertainingly quasi-Scots bellowing (also featured prominently in the wedding sketch). Not to mention bonus comedy routines from the host rodent, who’s really been warming up to the possibilities of this emcee gig lately. “Me husband went to England, and all he brought me back was this lousy plague!” — yeah, what can I say? I’m a sucker for the excited little paws.
  • I’m also something of a sucker for the song, since clearly, I had severely underestimated the effect of a driving beat on the average cricket-loving Oxfordian. ‘Course, it’s not surprising that bright young males would react well on evidently being directed to ‘Make like your last great college party, only when you hit the floor start praying instead of puking’… but dang. Grandmaster Funk Willbond here gets so carried away he doesn’t even start watching his feet until he’s boogied half-way down.
  • So yeah, thank you very much dim lighting and oblique camera angles, but it’s impossible not to be charmed anyway by one of the more genuinely witty songs the show has ever produced. Like the Shouty Man bit last episode, this is a very adult historical concept that somebody noticed could be neatly justified under kiddy slapstick, and it’s a further demonstration of just how adept they’re getting at layering the satire to suit themselves.
  • Not to mention bringing out the best in one T. Deary, who would thus by now be enshrined in the pop-cult pantheon as a Really Cool Old Guy if he’d just please shut up himself already. It’s an honest shame that comments elsewhere have proven his HH stint has at this point much more to do with getting attention for himself than any sincere desire to please (or for that matter enjoy) his young readership.
  • For a look at what happens when the layering misfires…OK look, I ordinarily try hard to pretend they never even made a followup to one of the most neatly and completely brilliant sketches of Series One. However, they did, and I have contracted to be fair and just. *ahem* Here’s Mat as Caligula, trying to pull off a cross between Simon’s familiar mannerisms and Malcolm McDowell’s sheer hamminess, because… who the hell knows, really.
  • There’s no reason why Lawry couldn’t have twitched and squeaked here at least as effectively as he did for George III; more so, because, y’know, homicidal mania. I suppose Mat’s more visually in line with the McDowell film, but he doesn’t have anywhere near the weight of experience needed to anchor that level of camp — which yes, might be a good thing in a kid’s show, but for adults, the resulting aimless flouncing is annoying enough to make Lawry come across as likeably sane and grounded.
  • All the more so, because this also happens to be the ep the local Master of Ham himself reveals not only an affinity for kilts but that they have fluffy pink pens in the afterlife. (Wonder if this was the point at which the props master started looking thoughtfully at the blonde wigs?) Death the dictator fanboi — “Ah, cruel but popular. Me, too.” — is just completely awesomely fabulous, one of those things that really drive home the value performer individuality brings to the HH concept. It also incorporates a nifty callback to last series’ ‘Historical Law’ sketch.
  • Likewise Larry, clearly aware that all bets are off, happily grabs for whatever bits of leftover scenery he can. Then both he and Mat, wearing not much more than their perfect deadpans, team up as Egyptian peasants for a fine display of their own distinctively surreal chemistry. A bit distractingly random in this particular case — and the Rickardian physique turns out to rather obviously belong to a writer, if the drift is clear — but again, always hysterical. And all is right with the HH universe once again.
  • Which brings us round to the Stonewall Jackson sketch: literally when I woke to the realisation that this show had a lot more on the ball than your average kiddy edutainment, both in terms of comedy and facial hair. Once I stopped snickering madly, that is — which took up most of the sketch — but I went rushing off to Google “whether it was just me…?” immediately after the ‘arm longer than the other’ bit, I do recall that.
  • It’s kind of weird to realise I had absolutely no idea, back then; not even any names Just that the little plump dude was having an infectiously great time holding the Crazy Ball (for once, I can now add); so that even the way his accent kept fading in-and-out was funny. The big handsome one had a much better command of nineteenth-century American cadence… but I must now note with some alarm that it hasn’t changed much since moving south.
  • Overall, though, this is what the Nelson sketch should’ve been, given that General Jackson gets to effectively demonstrate his competence while being rather more gently ribbed. Even so, it will never earn the show many fans in the good ol’Awesome USA, where messing with heroes — particularly ones that routinely star in expensive hobby re-enactments — is looked upon as… well, with great confusion as to the point, basically. And probably Obama’s fault.
  • It might also be helpful to apply evil government conspiracy theories — possibly the ones involving the moon landing — to the theoretically multi-tonne pyramid stone that bounces happily into shot. But I don’t think it’d help the embarrassment much, especially with all those suspiciously styrofoam-shaped chips flying around. Kid then does a decent job of pretending it’s super heavy, though, I’ll give them that.
  • There’s much more attention to detail  in the HHTV News sketch, but unfortunately it’s mostly going the wrong way. Alice’s character is entirely too generic a blonde newsbimbo for my taste, and she’s cozying up to a much younger, slimmer and hairier Henry VIII than actually would’ve been the case at the time of Anne Boleyn’s demise — he already being 45 by then, only 10 years off his death.
  • That said, I’m willing to forgive a lot for Henry’s little happy dance of athletic heartiness — big episode this altogether, for Ben’s willingness to sacrifice dignity for the cause. I’d also hate to discourage any comparatively subtle way of getting Tudor horribleness across (including the fact that Henry was at Jane’s side immediately after Anne’s execution).

95% Accu-rat:

  • Actually, Bobsy, burning heretics at the stake was ‘being Catholic’ — or at least, had religious significance. As whacked-out as it sounds, those (like ‘Bloody’ Mary I) who embraced the idea of heretic-burning could also be extremely moral, upright people. The idea was that these poor deluded fools were going to hell anyway, so might as well give them a taste as a last-ditch effort to induce them back to the True Church — or, if they refused even then, a signpost to light the way.
  • So make up your mind, show: did King James take a dislike to Catholics before (as per the earlier Fawkes’ 13 bit) or after (as per Bob here) Guy Fawkes et al. nearly blew him up? A bit of research suggests the earlier sketch had it right: During the late 16th century, Catholics made several assassination attempts against Protestant rulers… until the 1620s, some English Catholics believed that regicide was justifiable to remove tyrants from power. Much of James I’s political writing was “concerned with the threat of Catholic assassination and refutation of the [Catholic] argument that ‘faith did not need to be kept with heretics'”.
  • The song, meanwhile, is as noted absolutely accurate. Being a Man or Woman of God in medieval Europe most often meant you didn’t have to alter your lifestyle one iota — given that back then nobody would ever think of questioning a servant of the Lord (the same one, you’ll recall, that was totally OK with turning you into a flamesicle). Also given that many, esp. those higher up so to speak, were from aristocratic families, leading to monastic life being considered more or less something to do when you weren’t in line for the money or an advantageous marriage.
  • As one of the more hilarious unforeseen consequences of this setup, Henry VIII was forced to turn down then-girlfriend Anne Boleyn’s request that her relative Eleanor Carey be appointed Prioress of an influential abbey. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help out, Henry hastened to assure his sweetheart; only that it’d look bad for both of them if Dame Eleanor, who among other things had two children by two different priests, was preferred by the Crown.
  • It’s a bit difficult to sort the historical Draco out from the fictional, in more ways than one — seriously, Rowling, you couldn’t have named your villain Aloysius or something? — at any rate, there’s not much to tell about the man who gave us one of the more satisfyingly melodramatic adjectives in history, except that he did indeed have a concept of absolute obedience to authority that involved the death penalty for anything but exemplary citizenship.
  • Oh, and the cloak thing… well, you know what I’m about to say re: sourcing, don’t you? Personally I’m a bit sceptical, given the number of cloaks etc needed to do the deed — the sort of thing that would be fairly easy to sidestep once it became clear that it was getting out of hand. However it does lead to lots of fun speculation on whether this ancient flash mob in reality accidentally killed him with kindness… or were *ahem* cloaking their more sinister motives.
  • Meanwhile, the moral implications of casting General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as a buffoonish doofus aside — except on the YouTube page, where masochists are fully invited to take their fill — it can’t be denied that the man really was that, uh, picturesque. Writing in A Walk In the Woods, Bill Bryson (himself an American) confirms, then elaborates at length on, the idiosyncracies shown here:
  • He was hopelessly, but inventively, hypochondriacal… at the Battle of White Oak Swamp, his lieutenants found it all bit impossible to rouse him and lifted him, insensible, onto his horse, where he continued to slumber while shells exploded all around him. He was unquestionably brave, but in fact it is altogether possible that he was given that nickname not for gallantry and daring but for standing inert, like a stone wall, when a charge was called for.
  • Fans of watching Jim suffer with extreme adorableness — which apparently includes his current employers — will be cheered to realise that the Highlander notion of marital martyrdom was even more thorough than shown: [Creeling] required the bridegroom to carry a large basket (a creel) filled with stones on his back. He had to carry this weight from one end of the village to the next and continue carrying it around the town until his intended bride came out of her house and kissed him.
 
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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Series Two

 

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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

 

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S02E09

So one Incan generation would tell it to the next, who would tell it to the next, who would tell it to the next. Just like I’m telling it to you right now — but without the rather fetching tie.

That point in all the best HH series when you realise you now recognise nearly every scene in the opening credits… and are made melancholy at the implications.

In this episode:

Song: Real Live Cowboys — Ben, Larry and Nathaniel Martello-White, ridin’ the range

Recurring sketches:

Historical Hospital — Stuart physician (“Now, let’s get those pigeons in here — come on, let’s encourage them! coo! coo! … they’ll be here soon!”)

HHTV Sport: Viking Family Feud — Which turns out to have been conducted along the standard Hatfields -vs- McCoys model, except with fewer star-crossed lovers and way more berserkers. ie., exactly as it should be.

Stupid Deaths — WWII Businessman (On the train home in a blackout, got off at the wrong stop… over a railway trestle! “Ohhhh, I see! … or rather I don’t! Hah! Keep up guys, keep up!”)

Bob Hale — The Incan Report

Victorian EastEnders — The Cost of Penny School (“Right! Chastity! We’d like to talk to you about your school attendance!” “Yes, Dad?” “It seems you’ve been going!”)

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

Tea for New — Well, somebody’s clearly seen Bob Newhart’s ‘Raleigh introduces tobacco‘ routine…

Vicious Vikings

Savage Sendoff — “And the ceremony would not be complete without a moving Viking poem: Ragnar the Brave/Has lost his head/We Vikings aren’t sad/We party instead!”

Woeful Second World War

Anderson Home Bomb Shelter — Getting weirdly cozy with infomercial pitchmen: only one of the many perils to be guarded against during the Blitz…

The Farm — … Like being evacuated to the country, for instance. “There’s nothing to be scared of, Charley. They’re just farm animals.” “AAAAAAHHHHHH…!!!”

Incredible Incas

Incan Telephone Messaging — Which was even more confusing prior to the invention of the actual telephone.

Vile Victorians

The Welsh Not — OK, so sure, you’ve been forcibly deprived of your native language and humiliated in front of your peers. But at least they’re not telling the sheep jokes yet!… I don’t think.

Awesome USA

New! Multi-Purpose Bandanna — Probably the least Horrible excuse for a sketch in the entire canon… unless they’re thinking ahead to it being co-opted by hefty bikers for sweat shields, in which case, carry right on!

Field Notes:

  • You know how, when you go to watch a rerun of a series, it’s always one or two particular episodes? Well, these next two episodes of HH are what I saw every time… and for a year or so there S1-S2 was running on an infinite loop, several times a week, so I saw them a lot. Familiarity, as it turns out, is not quite the helpful spur to commentary that you’d think: every time I try to start having deep meaningful insights, my critical faculty just goes “It’s Horrible Histories! Duh!”
  • ..And then it gets to the cowboy stuff, and it shorts right out. Seriously, I feel like there’s no way for me to comment thoughtfully on this, ‘cos I’ve no way of knowing just how far tongue is supposed to be into cheek in the first place. The media cliches being referenced here were on this side of the pond last unconditionally bought into — even by children — in about the ’60’s at the latest. By now our deconstruction process has become so routine it’s spawning things like Cowboys and Aliens, which frankly didn’t do all that well.
  • Given that the song expects kidlets to get a reference to John Wayne, I will assume the mythbusting is meant to be at least partially serious, even if they are trying to position Ben (and Martello-White, come to that) as the explicitly scrawny, nondescript ‘real live cowboys’ in question. Unless that idea is supposed to be conveyed through Ben’s singing and dancing, in which case, definite result. Yes, they’ve simplified the choreography as far as possible, but even so this is a man clearly concentrating hard on not looking at his feet.
  • At any rate, silly little throwback to S1 or no, the song is mostly accurate (albeit somehow leaves out most of the really interesting details) and the Wild Western fantasy is one of those things that it’s impossible not to smile when grown men indulge… albeit here, again, it really would’ve been helpful if they hadn’t actually attempted the accent. I would much rather have been asked to buy British riders on the range than drawls that have all the hallmarks of someone having taken not only The Duke but The Dukes of Hazzard seriously.
  • At least, most of the drawls. Where Larry’s coming from I as usual can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure it’s something unhealthy involving Pat Buttram. Mat, meanwhile, is working off… maybe the Toy Story movies? Seriously, while he’s physically the most convincing of the lot, this bandanna-wearing business could not be more clearly missing from his childhood-fantasy repertoire. (Oh, and guys? ‘Oven glove’ = ‘oven mitt’ in American.)
  • Ben, on the other hand, is just totally living all the dreams. Besides Wayne — with possibly a touch of Rhett Butler mixed in — he gets to be a Viking warrior and spank Alice Lowe…what? Oh, sure, they’re just handing the fanfic scenarios up as a hobby by now. Do not wish to smirk unduly re: who was responsible for this one, but Willbond (and Baynton) do still appear in the writing credits for this series.
  • Ben also gets to play his usual briskly hysterical Historical Hospital doctor, which prospect always seems to cheer the performer involved up no end, as an unlimited license to camp. Meantime, it sets me to wondering why nobody ever asks before tasting things in this universe. Seriously, it’s really starting to interfere with my enjoyment of the joke. There’s no way that by now it wouldn’t be a reflex.
  • The Viking bit, by contrast, is played with puzzling comedic sedateness — yep, we’ve reached the point in HH history where a funeral involving immolating a slave girl, followed by poetry and then a free-for-all-brawl, can be considered ho-hum. The ‘Sigurd the Bitter’ touch only confirms that the rest was written on autopilot… which in this case likely means “If we don’t give Willbond a chance to cosplay an unironic warrior on a regular basis we’ll never get him into that sweater-vest again.”
  • In other linguistics-related news, the voices for the little cartoon intro characters (which are mostly done by the cast) have suddenly been messed with, for whatever not-very-compelling reason — sheer boredom comes to mind. The major difference is a weirdly downwardly-mobile accent for Cartoon WWII Officer Guy, who now sounds like one of his own cartoon grunts. Somehow I keep picturing MP’s Colonel writing a stern letter to the BBC about this.
  • The Bob Hale reports have officially entered their iconic heyday — you can tell, because the animations are little mini-treats all on their own. Also because, besides debuting an admirably succinct yet child-friendly approach to incest (“Ew”), Bobsy totally throws up the rock’n’roll devil horns. Confirmation of my previous theories re: what Bob had to do to get his historical expertise, and Larry his hair-metal ditto, all aside… I feel like this might be a good time to mention that ‘Rickards’ brand beer is a thing in Canada.
  • And speaking of ‘ew’, I think Jim in the sport sketch may have accidentally invented Bieber hair. Thanks a lot, Howick. Also, as noted, someone — quite possibly someone cleaning out the closet after their knitting auntie left after Christmas — felt the need to revisit the Ben-in-dorky-sweater-vest gag (and even provide a mini-me version in the farm sketch!), which proves, erm, much less plausible when the character isn’t supposed to be fully socially inept.
  • Oh, and that reminds me, Mat as the salesman in the same bomb-shelter bit… so I’m really hoping the vaguely creepy is just me having been thinking about this stuff way too long. Because it’s a bit hard to concentrate on historical funny when all you’re really anxious to learn is whether that poor couple asked for his ID.
  • On the other hand, Mat doing a Cockney accent is made of pure awwwww. Homaging his forebears no doubt (and even sneaking a bit of mime in there). No wonder that for the first time Death seems sincerely pleased with the corpse —  a curiously touching, and realistic, bit of bonding over the black humour of it all. It isn’t a turn I’d ever like to see these sketches take permanently, and indeed it’s never repeated to the extent it is here, but as a one-off it works.
  • While the pastel shirts in the sport sketch continue to be hilariously appropriate, I do wish they’d ramp it up a bit — add proper HHTV Sport blazers with the logo on the lapel, and maybe a few Olympic pins. Otherwise, this sketch is all that comedy-loving heart could wish, a perfect marriage of subject and parody. They can even get away with the uber-goofy ‘watching a monitor as the action plays out two feet behind them’, just because the dichotomy between actual and imagined media importance continues to be so expertly played.
  • Unnerving shared taste in knitwear aside, that no-one ever thought (that I can recall) of casting Ben and young Bertie Gilbert as father and son seems like a definite missed opportunity… oh right, sorry, let me start again: OMIGAWD IT’S BERTIE!!! Or something. I’m just going by Twitter here, I haven’t actually seen his podcast thingy yet. But he’s a cute kid, and has been at least sensible enough to realise that his acting career probably wouldn’t have outgrown his cuteness. Excellent set of lungs he has, too.
  • Meantime, the casting in the tea sketch is… interestingly atypical. I’m not sure who it should be exactly; only that it probably shouldn’t be Simon and/or Jim. Or at least it probably shouldn’t be Jim sounding like the chance to impress his friends with leaves is the only thing standing between him and leaping off Tower Bridge.
  • The whole sketch has that sort of un-thought-through air — like they just listened to the Newhart bit, went ‘We can so use that!’ and then never got around to an actual script. This apparently results in Simon deciding to ad-lib, which I have a feeling could’ve led to a much better — if less historically conscientious — sketch.
  • I really enjoy the ‘Victorian EastEnders’ bits. An unusually fine, and plausible, mix of fact and funny — and, in keeping with the theme, entirely convincingly-accented turns from both Jim and Martha. If it weren’t for the geography, I’d swear they were parodying Catharine Cookson, which is quite the ambitious goal for a single-joke throwaway bit to pull off. While, it must be noted, pulling off a niftier-than-usual little parental bonus… at least for parents that are secretly twelve-year-old-boys (hee hee! The sixteenth daughter is named ‘Chastity’!).
  • We haven’t seen the Incas in awhile, so let’s head over to the local quarry… um, South American mountain plain, right. The sketch itself isn’t helping any, although I’ll admit the ‘telephone’ game was never my favourite to begin with. Your average grade-school kidlet probably chortled happily throughout. Still, glad Rattus mentioned the really intriguing knotted rope communications system… he’s being unusually helpful and interesting generally this ep, come to think of it.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So again, I have no idea of knowing how serious you lot are about the cowboy cliches, or for that matter how invested you are in them — and this frankly kind of goofily highbrow dissection of the ‘international mythology’ isn’t really helping me much. (Except to give me a queasy glimpse of what I might sound like when I start dissecting your cultural concepts…)
  • Anyway, yeah, cowboys. Of course, the basic ‘guy who works with cattle’ thing has been with us since someone first looked at said enormous hunk of tasty on hooves and decided they could put up with it being really stupid. The specific cow-icon being dissected here (the one with the hat, boots and inexplicably embroidered shirts) was brought to North America by the Spanish, who introduced the vaquero into Mexico apparently mostly to care for the herds kept at various missions. Which explains the shirts, sort of. Also the stringed instruments.
  • Like much of the real American West — of the real America, come to that — the guiding power principle wasn’t freedom, but politics and commerce. As the West was won, and subsequently linked to major commercial centres back East via railroads, it was swiftly realised that the combination was perfect for providing the red meat needs of a nation. The product would even walk itself to the processing plants — the only thing was to keep them all walking in the same direction at more-or-less the same time.
  • Thus from about 1860-1880 (after which the ‘open range’ was finally too fenced in to move through profitably), the great cattle drives pulled in… well, basically, whoever they could find that could ride a horse. The romantically lawless cliches were limited to Arizona Territory, specifically in and around  (surprise!) Tombstone. Everywhere else the roster was much more practically- than criminally-minded about the job, as witness it including Indians, newly-freed slaves, and just generally everybody but the Marlboro Man.
  • See — as the show points out lyrically, if not visually — being on a horse literally all day, days at a time, spang in the middle of several thousand mooing slabs of total unconcern for your welfare, hurts. Both you and the horse. You needed to be small, light and dextrous to have any chance of making it a career — think Mat, only a lot shorter, on account of probably being a malnourished orphan. And generally way too busy dealing with acres of moronic manure-spouts to stare flinty-eyed off into the distance.
  • The Stuart writing-on-the-thumbs cure sounded intriguingly reminiscent of those Stone Age medicinal tattoos from S1, and thus I am kind of crushed that I couldn’t find more info. Historians — at least online ones — seem to be totally obsessed instead with this ‘Black Death’ or something, I dunno. Also, Google kept insisting I must mean ‘BlackBerry Thumb’ (which, FYI, apparently you treat with ice and rest).
  • Mind you, this doesn’t mean that Stuart medicine generally wasn’t a prime source of hilarity. Until the Historical Paramedics return to demonstrate, have this interesting general overview of the subject. Also, this genuinely disgusting overview of how leeches and maggots are making a spectacular comeback in the modern world of medical care.
  • Similarly, about all I could find on the subject of bananas and tea was that they were first introduced in Stuart times. No record of how they were received (or whether they actually pronounced it ‘ba-NA-na’), except that the whole thing was part of the general Age of Exploration, so yeah, exciting culinary times, at least if you were wealthy enough to enjoy them. In fact, tea particularly was popularised by Queen Catherine of Braganza, possibly as a way to salvage her self-worth while husband Charles II was off banging everything else in skirts.
  • Incidentally, turns out Charlie himself wouldn’t be anywhere near as at home in a Starbucks: By 1675, there were over 3,000 coffee houses in England. Merchants and professional men met in the new coffee houses, to read newspapers, talk politics, do business and gossip… Charles II later tried to suppress the London coffee houses as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”, but people flocked to them.
 
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Posted by on March 24, 2013 in Series Two

 

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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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S02E07

Get back! I have a butter knife and I’m not afraid to use it… You! Get back, or I will spread you, I am not joking~!

The show returns to what it indisputably does best: being hilarious about Western European history. And there was much rejoicing. (yaaaaay.)

In this episode:

Song: Victorian Inventions — Ben and Alice as a music-hall act

Recurring sketches:

Ready, Steady Feast — Captain Ned Low’s taste for cruelty

Historical Dragon’s Den — Victorian Britain

Words We Get From the — Saxons

Bob Hale — The [English] Civil War Report (OK, that’s definitively established then, timey-wimey scholars: Rattus and the HHTV crew are operating in the same timeline.)

HHTV News: Mike Peabody Live — from the Battle of Marston Moor (“Yes, I’m afraid I’m going to die — OF THIRST! Hahahah!”)

Dodgy War Inventions — No.79: Romans Invade East Anglia on Stilts

Historical Wife Swap — Celts vs. Romans (All you really need to know: Simon as the primitive Celtic husband, Mat as the sophisticated Roman)

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

Feudal Family Feud — Back before authoritarian fathers had prize Cadillacs to trash… their angsty sons still had swords. (“No! Zat is my peas-ant!”)

Joan and the Angel (imagine spot) — “Sweeping up and darning socks I can do — military leadership, not so much!” “Well, He definitely said… I mean, I wrote it on my hand and everything…”

Putrid Pirates

Captain Cutiebeard — As it turns out, pirate tactics for luring ships in close involved frilly lingerie. In related news, the ongoing ‘pirate -vs- ninja’ Net debate just got REALLY interesting.

Smashing Saxons

New! Saxon Sign of the Cross — Sanitation via genuflection: sometimes, history is frankly about being impressed that the human race made it out alive…

Dance ‘Til Something Drops — … Case in point. Social life in the Middle Ages: being unable to tell whether your friends were happily boogying down or flailing around in the throes of ergotism-induced gangrene.

Field Notes:

  • If you’ll excuse a moment’s nostalgic digression… My first encounter with HH the TV-verse was in late 2010, via BBC Kids, a Canadian cable channel that picks up much of CBBC/CBeebies’ programming. So this was the very first full-length episode I ever watched, and — being at that time, for various reasons, in dire need of a wholly uncomplicated laugh — where I began to watch the show with real interest. I’ve obviously learned to appreciate the rest since, but in some important ways the back half of S2 will always be the definitive Horrible Histories for me…
  • … *blinks as mists clear* …And thus here I am, lo these years later, speculating on just exactly how a stick insect might get so closely — not to say spectacularly — in touch with his inner homicidal cannibal. Seriously, either they sent Lawry on a three-day bender, gave him a 5AM filming call and filmed the result (definitely without telling Dominique)… or I suddenly really feel the need to apologise for any and all snarky Lewin-related remarks to even date. Um, including that one I just now made. Shoot. I’m willing to upgrade him to praying mantis, would that help?
  • In a way, I’ve been setting up for these reviews from the start. BBC Kids has always been careful to air the show after 6pm — as was also traditional for the Muppet Show when I was a kid — with a ‘content may be disturbing to some’ disclaimer. So I’ve never assumed HH was designed for anything but an all-ages family audience, as defined by the Henson troupe, and so have watched with the same assured expectation of adult reward… and the show, it must be said, has rarely failed to deliver.
  • Hence, when confronted here with Cap’n Mat the Fabulous, all decked out in bustle and rouge and basically way more detail than needed to pull his ruse off from a distance, my natural instinct is not to giggle at the over-the-top clowning, but at the possible connection to his breakdown from the previous sketch. Not that I’m here to judge, mind; those long voyages, the freely available rum, the underlings who’re really into their poncy little sword routines… I understand.
  • What I’m really saying is, I kid because I loved this tiny perfect collection of all the (male) troupe’s signature schticks at first sight. In fact, if I do have a major complaint from this point forward, it’s that the pirate sketches will pretty much fall off the radar. Given that ninjas — and indeed robots — are non-starters as sketch ideas, also that only a few, clean outtakes make it onto each DVD, we’re losing a valuable source of pure playfulness here. (Yeah, there are still cowboys, but those accents… somehow it’s just not the same.)
  • Still, we’ll always have knights. Here, specifically, Ben and Mat turning out to be entirely adorable — and rather interestingly convincing — as father-son squires. And there is always the possibility they will be French, which accent will never get off the collision course with HH whackiness. Especially not when you haul Willbond the ‘accspert’ into the mix … also, suspiciously familiar staging over the castle ramparts. Quick, dad, distract him with an argument about swallow velocity! Fetchez la vache! 
  • Right, sorry, focussing — Oh look, Mat’s disarming Larry! Repeatedly! (“Arm or leg?” “Well, arm, I guess…” — slays me every time.) Not even trying to pretend anymore that normal is the expected result when these two collide, are they? Besides which, fun bonus material in comparing/contrasting Mat’s more formal command of pantomime twitchiness with Larry’s intuitive take — he does have a couple season’s worth of Bob Hale under his belt, after all.
  • So the ergotism sketch is the most openly goofy, ie. kid-friendly, of the lot. But if we’re talking the place where contextual subtlety definitively goes to die, I’m all about Mat as the Roman husband in the Wife Swap sketch – being so ridiculously sweet and charming and obviously green-lighted with the sadistic notion of finding out exactly how far they could mess with adult hormones while still claiming innocence… Pretty damn far, as it turns out, on account of you’re reading this.
  • Incidentally, now that it’s officially OK to believe anything of the production team, is anyone else getting the idea that the inevitable ‘fainting wife’ role in the WS bits was being used as a sort of ‘”let’s see what they’re made of” initiation for the female cast? Just me then? Yeah, figured. Still, it led to a very pleasant line of thought re: more possible HH hazing rites, up to and including the ultimate test: sharing a sketch with Simon for thirty full seconds without cracking.
  • His turn here as the Celtic ‘furball’ (hee!) would’ve been ideal; just when the pledge thinks they’re ready for anything enigmatically menacing, not to say unpredictably crazy… he abruptly shifts over to bluntly loveable straight man, and turns that into a full-on festival of irresistible giggles. All kidding about cast feels aside, when he goes to whistle up the finest in canine medical care, I really, sincerely just want to give him a huge hug.
  • Then, I will give another to Larry, for a generally wonderful B.Hale Report and for specifically describing Richard Cromwell as ”About as much use as a jelly pickaxe”. And finally, I will award one to the Angel Jim. I have a private theory that he is the sole BAFTA winner of the troupe out of three tries simply because — regardless of natural voter sympathy towards the younger nominees — it proved impossible to disregard Howick playing a celestial messenger who’s written the Holy Message on his hand “and everything”. (Although they were probably just a touch disappointed that the writing isn’t actually glowing. I know I was.)
  • The whole Joan of Arc sketch is remarkable much more for its casting than its hackneyed construction — of all the angles to approach one of the most impossibly romantic, implausibly literal melodramas in all of history, the feminist was easily the most limiting (if, yes, also the most accessible to the small fry). Still, Alice is her usual appealingly convincing presence, while Ben — amusingly, still wearing the armour from the previous French sketch — just about manages to rescue the obvious from itself. Well, him, and the hilarious ‘heavenly’ music playing over his darning.
  • Basically, the above re: casting applies more or less intact to the song — albeit of course with less heavenly Howicks. Which frankly is kind of a shame. I’m not a huge fan of these nationalistic ‘we invented!’ lists, for reasons discussed under S01E12 (and even less lucidly, if possibly more entertainingly, in the relevant YouTube comment sections.) To cite a specific problem here, I’m thinking Swedish subject Alfred Nobel, for one, would be a bit startled to discover he invented dynamite under the auspices of the British monarch.
  • It does have value as one of the few chances for direct comparison with Series One, ie. the song ‘We Are Greek’ — except of course, it’s no real comparison at all. There’s more care lavished on a single costume here than there was in nearly the entirety of S1’s musical efforts. Ben’s voice hasn’t improved much since then, but damned if he hasn’t got that Harrison-esque talk-singing thing nailed. He’s more inclined to generic smug than real showmanship, but that’s a small nitpick in comparison to the authenticity of the whole production.
  • My affection for our Willbond has always had a touch of academic awe mixed in; he is so exactly what North Americans have been trained (at least, in visual media; music’s something else entirely) to think of as ‘British’, and is so effortlessly able to lever his self-awareness of same through an entire PD James novel’s-worth of stock types. Also, every now and again he is able to bounce something like the ‘butter knife’ bit here off the cliches, and for a fleeting moment… no, still not quite huggable. But impressive, very.
  • OK… who named Mat ‘Sir Widebelly’? (‘Nathaniel Twonk’, on the other hand, I am so going to borrow if I ever get another hamster.) Seriously, I very much like the Dragon’s Den both as a concept, and a creative way to refresh the *ahem* overworked child-labour theme. It’s another pleasing sign of how far thought and care has advanced since S1.
  • In particular, I love how it’s the same Oliver-esque fantasy kid every time; really, the child actors on this show are something special. So… in amid all the nice authentic touches… why would you leave in such a distractingly modern broom?

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, Jeanne d’Arc. Yes, she really was an illiterate peasant girl, whose claimed first ‘vision’ (speculated to have actually been a result of migraine, epilepsy or similar) did indeed happen when she was somewhere between twelve and fourteen — again, it didn’t occur to anyone to record her birthdate at the time, so accounts vary, but fourteen is the traditionally accepted age — and whose first sally forth into the history books happened when she was around 16.
  • As the entire relevant portion of the Net has not failed to mention, the circs surrounding her death are a lot more… complicated, let’s say, than a kids’ show could possibly squeeze into one thirty-second visit with a puppet rat. She was initially captured by the technically French but then-independent Burgundian dukedom, who in turn sold her to the English Duke of Lancaster — the new French King Charles VII meanwhile ostentatiously twiddling his thumbs and hoping that if he kept quiet everybody’d just forget the whole ‘totally owed his throne to a peasant girl’ thingy.
  • Thus Joan was hauled off to a prison tower in English-occupied Rouen, where — despite several determined escape attempts — she fell into the hands of the French Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais, who was all about appeasing his current masters the Brits, so just sort of went ‘Ehhh, I have jurisdiction here, I think. Probably,’ and proceeded to show-trial the nineteen-year-old girl’s butt to the stake — but not before she had totally owned him under interrogation.
  • Per Wiki: “Asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she answered: ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”…Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have convicted herself of heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt… George Bernard Shaw found this dialogue so compelling that sections of his play Saint Joan are literal translations of the trial record.
  • Hey, you know Captain Ned Low? The psychotic bastard renowned for getting into piracy mostly because land-based crime didn’t give him enough of an outlet for his sadistic urges? His flagship, the pride of whatever remained of his heart, was named the Rose Pink. Seriously. Also, I forgot to mention last ep, Blackbeard’s flag did indeed include hearts. Granted, they were being stabbed by a skeleton, who — the show rather interestingly doesn’t mention — is holding a wineglass in his other hand, raising a toast to the Devil.
  • OK  look, I don’t really have to explain that the stinging nettles would’ve been soaked and beaten to their component fibres, thus removing any stings, before actually being made into underwear, right? You in the back? Right, just checking. While I’m on, it’s worth noting that ergotism — otherwise popularly known as St Anthony’s fire — has been suggested as the possible cause of every convulsion, tic or twitch-based phenomenon throughout much of Western history, including witchcraft as mentioned last series and dancing mania as mentioned in the next.
  • When you come to think of it, in real life stilt-wearing never seems to go well outside Founders’ Day parades. Some things you figure would be obvious from the start…  At any rate, the concept of centurions tottering through the fens while the natives snickered all but compelled me to try and find more info — which didn’t go all that well. I’m willing to take the show’s word for it, but would not be entirely shocked if it’s based mostly off legend and inference.
 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Series Two

 

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