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Epilogue: The specials

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

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

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

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

2010: Horrible Christmas

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

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

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

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

2011: Horrible Histories’ Big Prom Party

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

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

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

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

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

July 2012: Sport Special

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

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

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

October 2012: Scary [Halloween] Special

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

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

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

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

February 2014: Valentine’s Day Special: Rotten Romance

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

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

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

August 2014: Frightful First World War Anniversary Special

…So that’s where it all went.

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in The specials

 

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S05E12

In fact, only twelve people have set foot on the moon, and no-one has been there at all since 1972; a tragic oversight that I’m going to rectify right now. Yes, it’s time to take one small step for Bob Hale, one giant leap for the good people at Bob Hale Space Rocket Industries. Good-bye Sam, I’ve always loved you… will you wait for me?
…No!
Well, I’m not going then! Fine! *storms off*

So yeah, we’ve finally reached the very last regular-issue Horrible Histories episode ever, and and a bunch more iconic recurring characters and/or sketches say farewell, and there’s a Big Damn Finale Song, and … erm… ah… *snif*…

…Right, this isn’t going to go very well at all, is it?

In this episode:

Song: We’re History (Finale) — In which the entire troupe plus most of the supporting add-ons revisit every major era the show ever featured, via stock footage from across all five series… featuring cameos from pretty nearly every beloved character the show ever created, right down to Mat’s little pathetic medieval peasant… oh, god… *snifsnif* *sob!*

Recurring sketches:

Good Day Magazine — Profiling “Little Giant” Isambard Kingdom Brunel (“Oi! Not so much with the little! I’m six foot if you include the ‘at!”)

Words We Get From the — Greeks

Wonders of the Greek Universe — (“It was us that worked out that the rainbow is a natural phenomenon, and not the work of the gods! They’re not made of magic, they’re natural! Like waterfalls, and hamsters!” “Well… fine then, thanks Brian!” “Ooh, and I almost forgot–we also believed that the planet Earth is floating in water! “…Right, lads, you know what to do.”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Rameses II Project (“So is ‘King Tut’ just a nickname, or…?” “No! I ruled Egypt for sixty-six years! King Tutankhamun died when he was only eighteen!” “A boy Pharaoh–I like it! We could give him a pet, like a talking Sphynx…” “Is Robin Williams available?”)

Bob Hale — The Space Race Report (“And just one year later, America is ready to do what mankind has always dreamt of: Teaching a pig to tapdance!… Hrm? Oh, right, the moon landing. Yeah, that makes more sense, what with all this other stuff…”)

Stupid Deaths — John of Bohemia (Surnamed ‘the Blind’… which unfortunately didn’t stop him tying himself to his bodyguard’s horses and charging full-tilt into the heat of combat. “Ooh–‘sorry I’m late for the battle, I got a bit tied up!’ Hah! You know, cos you, and the reins, and…” “Ah… we weren’t late?” “Whatever!“)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

She (Doesn’t) Sell Seashells — Pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning discovers that it’s actually pretty handy, when dealing with patronizing male colleagues, to have a lot of sharp objects collected by the seashore…

Awful Egyptians

Labour Issues — A prospective pyramid-builder is dismayed to learn Pharaonic architecture wasn’t all about raising majestic monuments… (“Horse toilets!?” “Yeah, it’s where horses go to the–” “I know what it is, mate!”)

Measly Middle Ages

Making It in the Middle Ages — “An’ showin’ us how it’s done is my main man, all the way from Italy, Bernard de Trevisio! Bernie, tell us about yourself, man?” “Well, I’ve travelled ze vorld, and spent my entire fortune, studying ze ancient art of alchemy.” “So whazzat, some kinda hocus-pocussy–” “It’s a Middle Ages science.” “OK, we cool, bro…!”

Woeful Second World War

Staying Dry For Your Country (animated) — How total was Britain’s war effort? It even managed to cut into pool time at the Carlton Ladies Club.

Homefront Gardening — Expert landscaper Alan Smallbog attempts to demonstrate some further typical wartime sacrifices, while evading the wrath of the typical wartime housewife… (“You can’t plant carrots and turnips in my ornamental flowerbed!” “You’re not wrong, Margery. Best just dig them all up…” “But that’ll look horrible~!” “That’s as may be, but the country needs food, and you can’t eat chrysanthemums…” “Are you sure? Cos you’re going to eat these!”)

Field Notes:

  • Well, here we are: the final regular-format HH episode review… and I’m honestly not sure what to do about it.
  • I mean, sure my inner Sensitive Writer Person has absolutely no doubt that the best way to handle it is running around in circles screaming maniacally, but that’s a little hard to coherently translate to the printed page. The closest possible transcript I could come up with would be something like “I DID IT!! *gabblegabblesoproud!gabblethesheerrelief! gabblegabbleNEVER HAVE TO  #^&#$%& SPELL ‘MEASLY’ AGAIN!!!”
  • So it’s probably best that I instead direct you back to the little farewell post I wrote when this episode first aired, which seems to cover it pretty well, also, and has the distinct bonus of punctuation besides. As noted therein, I didn’t bother writing a more lengthy tribute to the show then–and will not now–because I’d already definitively done so via this blog.
  • Which isn’t a blatant attempt at encouraging archive-bingeing (*psst!* maybe start with the Savage Songs posts, they’re shorter) so much as it is a literal inability to think of how else I might put it at this point: Everybody connected with this production has earned a lifetime supply of all the coolness points ever. From producer Caroline Norris and ‘tyrannical pedant’/ sometime corpse Greg Jenner through John “Rattus Rattus” Eccleston right on down to… well, whomever created those faux wasp stings in S01E12, because no I will never get over that.
  • In particular, the starring troupe. On the off-chance checking for review-blog updates hasn’t yet become part of your daily routine (*psst!* handy ‘follow blog’ button, just there on your top right! Get in now, before the Yonderland recaps start!) here’s a brief rundown of the major themes I’ve been developing on this subject, therein. In alphabetical order only–and leaving out the question of physical attractiveness, because c’mon now:
  • I adore Mat for that peculiarly charismatic mix of very adult implications and equally childish clowning that may-or-may-not be comic genius, but is most definitely fascinating.
  • Simon, for his complete lack of comedic inhibition, and lavishly surreal inventiveness in applying same.
  • Martha, for the wonderfully total, authentic self-belief that she brings to every character, no matter how bizarrely deluded.
  • Jim, for his ability to combine huggably adorable with the fully mature, not to say scarily-precise, talent required in any given creative situation.
  • Larry, for his genuine wit and willingness to embrace the oddest of comic corners, both as a writer and as a performer.
  • Ben, for being not only quite incredibly British but self-aware enough to leverage same to extremely sophisticated, occasionally really surprising comic effect.
  • In their own ways they’re all perfectly suited to smartly blur the lines between adult and children’s comedy, and put all together that’s something not only endearing but genuinely intriguing. I intend to keep following their adventures via this blog as long as they keep working together.
  • But for now… well, look, as I mentioned last review there’s only one reason why anybody was paying attention to this episode, and it wasn’t to find out what happened to the Carlton Club pool. So let’s just get it out of the way right upfront: the finale song is utterly, wonderfully perfect in every last respect. So much so, that it becomes one of two excellent explanations (the other is [spoiler alert] the WWI special) for why so much of this last series feels so unusually offhand: they were busy expending all that creative energy, all the lessons learned and all the experience gained, on getting the stuff that really mattered just right.
  • They succeeded brilliantly in both cases, but especially here, where the expectations of their audience were so high. They fulfilled those, while at the same time remaining ferociously true to their own idiosyncratic take on comedy, the universe and everything. The charity-single parody format allows fully for sentiment while neatly and characteristically avoiding sentimentality; the song itself gets the point across while staying out of the way of the purpose; and the performers, freed to thus simply get on with saying goodbye, do so with the effortless warmth of five years’ worth of understanding that they were on to something really, really good
  • …Yes, absolutely, I’ve spent an entire series worth of reviews insisting the show ended when it had to, and I stand by that. But the sheer unadulterated awesomeness of the whole that the song conveys is still powerful enough as to be almost unbearably poignant.
  • Besides which, multiple viewings do turn up a few specific critical pleasures. Notably, the realisation of how neatly the whole has been knitted from various aspects of the current series’ production. This isn’t nearly so obviously a cut-n-paste job as the Monarchs’ Song video, but it’s similarly about taking advantage of the materials at hand. It’s possible to identify several characters and sets lifted wholesale from the previous eleven episodes–and a couple more from the new specials, which [spoiler alert] is also how Cleopatra comes to be standing front and centre at the end there. A few others have been recreated from previous series, like Mat the peasant, who quite fittingly (in several respects) gets the last word.
  • Also, because this is the finale and nobody’s worrying about buzzkill-y details like singing ability, Ben gets a couple surprisingly decent solos and Lawry… gets decent context for his off-key bellowing. I particularly enjoy how he switches from fully psychotic Viking warrior to hapless monk victim literally shot-to-shot.
  • Elsewhere among my own little throat-lump-raising moments: Jim and Martha get one last shot as the cozy couple; Mat puts a final flourish to his Latin accent; Larry takes the weird for one last medieval spin; Ben and Mat together do a hilariously blatant Grecian spoof on five years’ worth of fanfic; and–I think this might be my favourite touch of all–Giles Terera, in pointedly 20th-century attire, ends up directly in the camera’s line of sight on “Thought we were amazing–” just in time to give an exquisitely knowing nod to “–though you may quibble…!”
  • Before all this, of course, there was an episode. You can be forgiven for not recalling it in much detail, composed as it is mostly of the odd leftover bits from an entire series of them, but there are a few reasons to rewatch it with the prose sketches in mind.
  • Notably, there is the final Bob Hale Report. In which he at last brings his eccentric take on the past up to the present, and for one last time finds it not exactly what he was expecting… nor does the audience, quite frankly. Of all the HH regular characters, Bobsy deserved a chance to go out in a real no-holds-barred blaze of goofy glory, and he doesn’t quite achieve that here–although, now having watched the WWI special and hence realising where his creator’s priorities actually were at the time, that becomes much more forgivable.
  • Let us just say here, then, that Bobsy’s genuinely glorious finale is still to come. Meantime, this Report is a solidly pleasing romp that manages a few really nifty moments, which when you come to think of it a fine way regardless to crown his endlessly inflated expectations.
  • Sure, Sam’s rejection is harsh, but look at it like this: according to the comic logic of the Hale universe as established over five series, she literally couldn’t have done anything else but turn him down. And the fact that Larry, and by extension the show, is more concerned with honouring that than any sentimental farewell scene is a tiny perfect microcosm of why both are universally beloved in the first place.
  • On the other hand… oh look, we’ve finally got a handle on Chipmunk-Faced Guy from the credits, and it’s… Lawry the Wonders of the Universe whacko, in seriously unfortunate ‘swarthy’ makeup, randomly babbling about hamsters. Welp, gotta give this one to you, show, that’s quite literally the last thing I would’ve thought of.
  • Yep, the WOtU series gets a deservedly elaborate finale, a really clever bit of self-aware expectation-playing as an appropriate roundoff to what’s indisputably been S5’s contribution to the really great recurring bits…or at least this is what I’m telling myself to avoid the conclusion that it’s really all just one more symptom of the show’s ongoing obsession with the scientific/engineering superiority of Ancient Greece.
  • Cos otherwise, I don’t wish to dispute your facts here, production team I’m assuming contains at least one person who’s a tad bit defensive about the viability of their Classics degree, but you’re starting to come across like the dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Except you’re British, so it’s all just sort of weird…
  • …even without the fact that your supposedly proudly Hellenic character is suddenly rocking the totally non-sequitur brownface last employed on Incan Shouty Man back in S02E01. The f/x team started the “Whoo! We’ll never have to simulate bodily fluids ever again!” party just a tad early, apparently.
  • Ooh boy, major inadvertently-poignant-reference bomb incoming in the last LoG bit. Just for the record, I would in fact watch the living daylights out of Robin Williams as a talking Sphynx.
  • Otherwise, the trio go out on their own characteristically skillful, surreally crass terms; there’s no shortage of idiocy to be mined from the Hollywood experience, so of course no reason why they should ever cease having fun with it, and to all appearances they never did–or for that matter, given that Shearsmith’s still retweeting random photos from the HH experience lo these many months later, have ever done.
  • Thus the final burst of the irrepressible manic glee that’s developed on Gatiss’ face over two series is all the finale this segment needs. Props also to the writers for keeping up the quality of the concept to the very end. Simon’s Rameses fully deserved another airing, and he continues to bounce exactly the right touch of exotic fantasy off the less-than-legendary reality.
  • Speaking of which, ohai I.K Brunel–aka “Horrors That Defy Description” Guy from the credits, which in sharp contrast to the above turns out to be a pretty decent joke. It was great to…. sort of… get to know you for, like, thirty whole seconds. Yep, yet again, the show tosses up another impossibly charming eccentric genius (complete with awesome Howick plushie accessory) just in time to say farewell. Accompanied by one last fun little flourish with Rattus. Damnit, show, you’re going to make me sorry there won’t be a proper S6 if it kills you, aren’t you?
  • Then again… Jim, just where the hell did you get that pseudo-Hollywood-Cockney accent, and does it have anything to do with that same viewing of Mary Poppins I mentioned a couple reviews ago? Seriously, I know accents aren’t much more your thing than Larry’s, but of all the things starring in a history-themed comedy for five series should’ve enabled you to pull off…
  • Still though, you have learned a really nice line in MTV mimicry. Remember back when I said I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to see in these last eps? Check that: I just realised that I really, really wanted to see Chavvy Jim present a sketch on alchemy. The ‘also starring Mat and his Italian accent, roughly in that order,’ that’s just gravy; tasty, rich brown gravy, such as makes poutine the food of the gods. Basically I’m just so happy that my finale memories contain one last Howick/Baynton collaboration that it’s entirely critic-proof. Particularly the ‘look me in the eye’ bit with the sunglasses.
  • Oh, and on the subject of surefire happiness, there is also the final Words We Get From the… , featuring B.Willbond evidently just then realising that he’ll never, ever have to have pythons thrown at him again–until round about Yonderland‘s third series, probably. Meantime, I’m rather pleased they took the trouble to give this segment a proper finale. Ongoing evidence of the Ancient Greek obsessiveness aside, it’s an appropriately meta-affectionate windup to what’s been a surprisingly durable source of gentle chuckles over all five series.
  • And then there is the final Stupid Deaths, because of course there is. Another HH icon goes out on a cheerfully effortless example of their best: Death and his skeleton pals, forever squabbling over the mundane bourgeois details of the afterlife, as occasionally interrupted by odd but equally snarky corpses. You simply can’t improve on perfection–save perhaps by ensuring that I also get one last wonderful Willbond/Farnaby collaboration–and again, it’s to the show’s *ahem* eternal credit that they didn’t try.
  • They did, however, try a few other things, to the extent that I am at last compelled to call no-fairsies. Because Jim in a top hat is one thing, but introducing Ben as a beachcomber, in that blouse, and then wandering off into a mundane sketch like nothing at all resembling a marvelously intriguing codicil to this series’ surreal running gags was just introduced in the last half of the very last episode, is plain dirty pool.
  • Or, OK, it could also be that the random flourish was introduced because the Mary Anning sketch itself isn’t precisely what you’d call funny, or subtle, or anything. It’s more or less a Tumblr post given animation, and that mostly in the form of the show’s newfound conviction that Martha throwing things at men–also on view here in the gardening bit–is a seriously hi-larious way to enact social justice. Which… well, let’s just say it loses something when castle ramparts aren’t involved. 
  • Even so, thanks to her aforementioned fundamental self-assurance–not to mention that, whew, when Mat decides to use that sweetly playful charm for evil, he does not fool around–they come impressively close to pulling off something powerful. All the bonus points besides for working cophrolites in there.
  • There are no comparably exciting diversions in the Homefront Gardening sketch–it being one of those parodies I’m pretty sure I’d be considerably more amused did I only recognise the source. Best I can do under the circs is awww, they finally got Mat into the sweater-vest! Score! Also the cuffs, those are lovely.
  • So, come to that, is chipper housewife Martha and her almost unbearably pretty little cottage garden. I am at least heartened by the strong evidence that rural Britain as N.Americans think of it actually once existed outside Rosamund Pilcher novels.
  • So… well, yeah, so here we are, at the very last bit of regular-series commentary I’m ever going to type… once I get over being all wibbly in my insides for some reason. Look, why don’t you lot just imagine a fanfare or something for a few seconds, OK? I feel like there should be trumpets, at least.
  • *several deep breaths later* Right, yes, the pyramid-building business. Well-written, original, generally intriguing way of getting the unique majesty of it all across without sacrificing the Horribleness of the hard labour required… although possibly could’ve sacrificed Mat back in ‘inexplicably failed to be left on a mountaintop as a baby’ mode, especially since the Egyptians didn’t actually do that and it was still the first thing that sprang to mind.
  • Also, just incidentally: the heck with the eternal riddles of the Pyramids, I’m more interested in getting in touch with the mysteries of the all-purpose sweat-stain-removing laundry detergent these lowly peasants clearly had access to.
  • But never mind. It’s over, and they managed to end it with all the grace and dignity and charm and sheer, satisfying intellectual bravado that five years of one of the most remarkable experiments ever in children’s TV fully deserved. Whatever the proposed new Series Six attempts–and I’m not saying it mightn’t be something watchable enough–this crew’s achievement will stand untouched. They’re history–and they made it Horrible.

95% Accu-rat:

  • …wait, does anybody actually care at this point?
  • Well, OK, for both of you still reading, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (Apparently Dad was French, which makes me feel at least a bit better about the given names.) So basically yes to the short, and the probably compensatory top hat, and the generally cocky attitude, and the engineering genius to back it up… yep, even the emergency upside-down coin-removal surgery, all absolutely kosher.
  • In fact, having but skimmed his lengthy Wiki article, I’m now a little sad that I will never have the chance to encounter him at cocktail parties. Or, for that matter, live in an era in which “Ooh, Mr. Brunel, do tell us all about your scheme for a railway using atmospheric pressure to suck the cars along the tracks?” counts as any kind of plausible conversation starter.
  • Also, John of Bohemia‘s bizarre battle tactics, not a thing wrong with that little anecdote either. In fact, according to Wiki at least, “to fight like John of Bohemia” used to be a common euphemism for ‘to charge in blindly”. This seems to have been the closest anyone ever got to suggesting his Majesty might have been just a teensy bit, y’know, ill-advised to enter the battle after having been sightless (due to an unspecified inflammatory disease) for a decade–what? Oh, did I not mention he was in reality a noticeable few years older than Ben by then?
  • Anyway. it seems he was originally just going to give the enemy the one *ahem* pointed sword-stroke–sort of a “The old man’s still got it, damnit!” gesture–but, well, one thing led to another, as they had a habit of doing in confused, noisy pre-industrial foot battles, and the next you know JoB and escort were right in the middle of the main battlefield, and, well. They were romantic like that, in the Middle Ages.
  • It feels appropriate that the last entry in this series go to Mary Anning. The good news: the sketch slightly over-exaggerates her exclusion from scholarly circles; like most female scientists of her day, she was excluded from the Royal Societies and had to have papers published under a man’s name and whatnot–which of course was bad enough. But unlike most, her work was unofficially widely recognised and admired, if only because, hot damn, there was a lot of it. Female, working-class poor religious Dissenter she may have been, still, in order to blow off our Ms. Anning you’d have to ignore the entire cutting-edge of paleontology at that time.
  • On the other hand… the show is notably not exaggerating the poverty thing. Poor Mary really was reduced to selling off her valuable fossils for pennies to continue her work, and never did attain to the fame and fortune she so richly deserved before she died of breast cancer at only 47. So yeah, history…definitely could be just a little bit Horrible, at times.
 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E11

Poland! Perfect… we’ll agree to protect them, and maybe they’ll repay us in the future with reasonably-priced builders…

For one last time, the show bounces back with the traditional series-ending leave-’em-wanting-more episode… or in this case, leaving the viewer terribly grateful it’s going away soon before it has a chance to spoil. Yep, still trying to tell myself that, and sometimes it even works.

In this episode:

Song: Australia — Martha recounts the famously Horrible antedecents of everyone’s favourite sunshine-intensive barbie-shrimp-slippers, with help from Simon and Ben… but not, surprisingly enough, from the wildlife. (Parody of: Kylie Minogue, feat Can’t Get You Out of My Head and I Should Be So Lucky)

Recurring sketches:

DI Sergeant Bones: Historical Crime Road Traffic Accident Squad — The Bikers and the Baffling Velocipede (“You mean to tell me you ride around on this thing with four wheels, two seats, a drawing board and a sunshade, but no brakes?!” “Why, yes!” “…Note to self: I. Quit. That’s it. I’m gonna write that novel.”)

Stupid Deaths — Pliny the Elder (Was trapped in a toxic gas cloud while trying to rescue a friend from Vesuvius’ eruption… “Hah, ‘fortune favours the brave’! Volcanoes favour the cowardly, mate! Ooh, I am on fire today! Erm, no offense…”)

Historical Apprentice — Team Maximus and Team Minimus vie to create and exploit a celebrity gladiator in some very creative ways… and discover that where gladiators are concerned, it’s possible to get a bit too creative. (“Can I just say, ‘man -vs- beast’ was actually his idea?” “Yeah, well, I didn’t mean a tiger, did I? I meant like a badger or something!”)

DVD set — Winston Churchill: Britain’s Wittiest Man (Britain’s wartime genius is also a comedy genius. Yes, really! “A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you–fails–and then asks you not to kill him!”)

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

New! My Little Pit Pony — Less with the sparky rainbow friendships, more with the grinding labour and choking toxic dust… and it fits perfectly in its special Coal Mine playset! (“Careful, Lily dear, you don’t want your My Little Pit Pony to get hurt in a rockfall, or an explosion in the mine!” “Don’t be silly, Mummy! …That’s just what happens to pit ponies!”)

Awful Egyptians

Don’t Tell the Corpse — Even before they got to the Land of the Dead, Egyptian funeral planning involved approximately fifty-seven zillion small details. (“At the top end, you can have the deceased’s intestines removed by a professional embalmer; and at the bottom end–so to speak–we can have his guts dissolved with the injection of cedar oil. You know, right up the–” “Yeah, thank you…”)

Hieroglabble — It’s the word-based board game that’s fun for the whole literate priesthood only! Warning: Hieroglyph combinations may take years to learn. “And coming soon, new Advanced Hieroglabble, with all the glyphs from the later Greco-Roman period–meaning you can play with up to 5,000 tiles!” “We’re gonna need a bigger board…!”

Gorgeous Georgians 

Pity Port Jackson — The arrival of a British relief fleet on the shores of the first Australian colony only complicates the question of who’s meant to be relieving who. (“Well, we’ve got to sort this out, man! Without food supplies, more people are going to die!” “*erghkkk* *thud*” “My point exactly!”)

Woeful Second World War

Neville Chamberlain Online — The Historical Desktop sketches literally go out with a bang, as the beleaguered architect of ‘peace for our time’ (#humblebrag) logs on to discover just how temporary it’s going to be… (“What’s this, then? ‘InvasionAdviser.com review of Czechoslovakia by AHITLER33’… OK, no need to panic, Neville; a lot of these invasion reviews are fake…”)

Measly Middle Ages

Great Historical Country Walks — The Norman conquerors’ subsequent ‘harrowing’ of the Northern countryside wasn’t nearly as pleasant as it sounds… unless you’re really, really into homonym-type puns. And even then, sort of disturbing. (“OK, so York is over there, by that massive bonfire… wait a minute, I think York is that massive bonfire…!”)

Sophisticated As — In which the new post-1066 fad for French words elevates dinner-party small talk into entirely new realms of awkward. (“Is there any more pig?” “Oh, really, Laurence! Zut alors!”)

Field Notes:

  • Damnit, they’ve done it again. For one last time, the show has pulled off its neat and nifty trick of immediately following up a disappointing episode with one of such clever, insinuating charm you’re fully reminded why you started watching in the first place.
  • And it gets worse… that is to say better, except the part about being, y’know, Episode 11 of Series 5. Because it also fully honours the tradition of ending each series with a further flourish of all the things that make it most endearing. Basically the sketch-comedy equivalent of a cliffhanger, designed to make you realise not only exactly what you’re going to miss but just how much. Now, I don’t want to actually accuse the producers of setting up this next-to-last-ever episode with that in mind as well–they’re usually not that sadistic unless Mat’s particular charms are concerned, and—
  • *looks down sketch list* …Oh, crud.
  • So yeah, as a side-effect of serving as the prose finale (the producers perhaps realising, correctly, that in the literal final episode all anybody would be anticipating was the song) this episode collates the remnants of the casting experiment that gave S4 so much of its peculiarly sweet, vivid appeal: namely, Let’s Throw Baynton Over the Top and Film What He Finds on the Other Side. How sniffle-worthy it is to rediscover that particular meme at this late date will of course be dependent on how fond you are of Ol’Minstrel Eyes in particular; for me, it makes it very poignant indeed.
  • I think I’ve made it clear throughout this project that I have great affection for every member of the starring cast; but having also spent the same project dropping hints will formally admit here, where it seems to be appropriate, that Mat is far and away the only one whose departure would’ve made me reconsider watching altogether. Although the thought of losing Larry, Jim or Simon has at various times also made me twitch noticeably. Also sometimes Ben, usually when he’s onscreen with Jim or Simon. And Martha, in WWII mode… oh, and that whole Boudicca deal… Well, hell, it never did happen (and I suspect I only brought it up in the first place to delay the inevitable) so let’s move on.
  • Should anyone accuse me of waxing melodramatic about the above production motives re: rebounding or anything else, however, may I just point out that the very first thing the viewer is confronted with here is Baynton as DI—or whatever–Bones lolloping up to an accident scene making siren noises… then being pitched right to the outer edge of his Leslie Nielsen by Jim and Dominique as scatterbrained Victorian lovers. In the course of which he’s both literally and figuratively blown away by a [magically intact, but hey] parasol. Rebound nothing; I don’t think the show has pulled off this level of pure comic joy since Baynton as the Victorian HParamedic imitated a tapeworm.
  • Even making allowances for the usual attention paid to the Victorian bits, the dour DI—or whatever–in fact gets a more elaborately thought-through sendoff than pretty much any other of the show’s recurring stalwarts, up to and including Death and the Shouty Man (yes, if anybody’s wondering, I still have dibs on that band name). To the extent that someone was actually commissioned to execute a fully recognizable, detailed pencil portrait of Jim–which I do hope they gave him to take home–rather than resorting to either generic daisies or a gag copy of the Mona Lisa. Between which and the earlier papier-mache elephant, the gallant-to-the-last f/x team is definitely owed a bow.
  • Someone evidently really, really believes in this whole concept of melodramatic Mat as an *ahem* vehicle for police drama satire, is what I am saying here. And on the off-chance they occasionally Google their audience’s reaction, I would just like to not only offer them a hug of full validation, but once again throw out the suggestion that the material (also likely the performers) are available and the format beyond perfect for an ongoing standalone series of shorts. Trust me, I’ve had the Kickstarter copy written long since.
  • In other clearly-I’ve-been-a-really-good-fan-this-year news, the Historical Desktops also get a joyously worthy sendoff. Featuring not only the return of Jim’s Churchill (who finally gets to really show off that famous wit) but the full redemption of Prime Minister Simon, so badly wasted last ep. That single little #humblebrag hashtag, in that moment, is as absolutely perfect a bit of comedy as the show has ever produced.
  • Really, the whole thing is almost painfully wonderful, to the point where, as usual with these bits, it’s difficult to coherently explain why. All I know is, favourite sketch hell, it just officially became my Favourite Satirical Concept Ever. So many juicy comedic threads intertwined so cleverly, character, plot and matching reference, and never a false step; in fact, the skill level actually keeps climbing as each sketch progresses, and the best part is you can never tell what form it’ll take next, because it’s mostly in the tiny throwaway asides. Here, for instance: that pic of Dali on RateMyTache.com… “Have you tried our sister site, RateMySide-Whiskers.com?”… Churchill bragging about having ‘the top score on Minesweeper in the Foreign Office’…
  • ….and as the sprinkles on the top of the sundae of endearingness, the mummy judge makes a triumphant comeback on Stupid Deaths! I have no idea why I should be so ridiculously happy about this, but come to think of it, let the fact that I am stand as an appropriate final testament to just how much sheer engaging the show has achieved with this segment.
  • In particular this is another massively satisfying old-style SD, even if the death, once again, is much more unfortunate than genuinely idiotic. Evidently—and rather interestingly–aware of this, Mat contributes a performance that fully manages to salvage Pliny’s dignity while still fulfilling all the requirements of the surreal silliness.
  • Speaking of salvage, the show has also finally righted the HApprentice ship, producing a segment that’s decently clever re: both satire and subject. If the funny’s still not quite hitting the lavishly witty heights of last series, it’s at least back to not involving charts. In their place are some really genuine side pleasures, including more hilariously sweet “isn’t this all just so much fun?!” from Greg, more vamping from Simon, more intriguingly grrrl-powered Martha, and of course more cringing amoral schmuck Larry. Funny how I don’t mind Rickard whingeing in the slightest, but when Lawry does it… well, Lawry isn’t otherwise in this delightful final wrapup episode at all, as it happens, and we’ll just leave it at that.
  • There is however one last nicely sophisticated use of the Hadland crazy-eyed brittleness, or crazy brittle-eyed-ness, or whatever it is. Having never previously heard of Abigail’s Party, of which fandom agrees the Norman dinner party bit is supposed to be a piss-take, my viewing notes here continue “… nice ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’-esque tension she and Larry set up, anyway.”
  • Ordinarily I’m not a fan of novelty naming, but the ‘Laurence’ conceit is for once actually reasonably novel, and in fact has me musing over other notably missed boats in that line. Matthew Arnold, anyone? Martha Washington? Benjamin Franklin? Simon Bolivar? James… pretty much every other male born in Western Europe from 1700-1956?
  • Meanwhile, in all the kerfuffle over Sarah and the bald cap, it further occurs to me that something should be said for the almost equally inexplicable “stick Jim in a Dutch-bob wig to indicate exotic antiquity” trope, which makes a typically non-sequitur appearance in the Egyptian funeral sketch, alongside its (slightly more understandable) cousin ‘Mat in artfully disheveled shoulder-length tresses’. I dunno, I just have much more trouble imagining either as the go-to ‘do for the happening historically accurate North African male than as the go-to method of keeping the makeup team amused.
  • Anyway, one of the few longform sketches of S5 pays off handsomely regardless, in terms both of a satisfyingly logical, detailed followup to last series’ ‘Duat’ bit and allowing Baynton and Howick one last surreal romp together. They’re the one intra-troupe pairing that right to the end I’ve never known what to expect; save that, as here, it will be both gloriously and uniquely adorable.
  • Up to and including, in this case, Mat’s accent I have no idea what it is, and don’t want to know, because frankly that’d spoil everything… oh, and the gestures, can’t forget those. Altogether, assuming he’s not actually mimicking someone specific, this is one of the single best characters he’s ever created for the series–perfectly skimming his own unique line between irresistibly childlike silliness and razor-sharp adult satire.
  • Also, somewhere in there he and Simon throw out a small celebration of the show’s decision to finally cover some Australian history, in the form of finding time to pull off a freakishly expert mimicry routine. The technical term for the amount of rehearsal required to achieve the apparent offhand ease with which they speak in unison in the Port Jackson sketch is “one hell of a lot.”
  • In tandem with Simon’s reliably thick-headed bureaucratic schtick (which the writers are still enjoying as much as ever) this just about makes me not amazed that this much creative effort would be invested in a slight throwaway bit that doesn’t even have the side bonus of making Ben miserable… um, depending on how closely he was paying attention the day they taught ‘falling’ in drama class.
  • It’s altogether funny, really, how Australia of all civilizations has been so thoroughly overlooked in the HH canon up til now. The sketches about a country founded literally as a side-effect of punishing people who stole handkerchiefs and impersonated Egyptians (per Bill Bryson) seem like they’d pretty much write themselves. I’d been assuming the lack of same was the result of the notorious Aussie sensitivity to what they term the ‘stain’ of their convict heritage, except we now have a whole entire song crammed in here in a clear effort to make up for lost time.
  • And it is… well, as a prelude I should mention that Kylie Minogue is known in N.America primarily as “that Loco-Motion remake girl”, and that when this song was first aired surprise at learning she was still relevant anywhere sent me to Wikipedia. Where I was chastened, but not all that enlightened. Except inasmuch as that it’s clearly an apt (if not actually obvious) parody match, and definitely a nice step up, sophistication-wise, from the relentlessly banal adherence to novelty of our previous entry. Martha contributes her usual effective vocal, and the songwriting does an excellent job of playing peppy plastic synthpop off relentlessly earthy reality–quite a nice sharpish touch about it, really, if you listen closely enough.
  • That proved a bit difficult, on account of the video having some uncharacteristically severe problems with holding my interest. When your biggest visual achievement–in support of a song set in one of the most famously charismatic ecosystems on the planet–is speculating whether Ben losing his hat was accidental or not… yeah, a biggish boat got missed somewhere, and I don’t think it contained Egyptian impersonators this time. What’s left is I suppose charming enough, depending on your appreciation for a behatted Benjamin; but overall much more reminiscent of the first-series musical ethos than the last.
  • There’s also the rather uncharacteristically glib little swipe at the Aborigines, that appears to have much more to do with the chance at a winking reference (the general conviction that bare namedropping = cute enough to kiss these last couple of eps is rather worryingly suggestive of songwriter burnout) than any type of desire to convey the reality of early colonist/native relations–again, a touchy subject, and not really suited for indepth comedy treatment, but let us just say the latter likely have a much different perspective on who turned out to be the ‘bad neighbors’.
  • It looks especially odd alongside the effortlessly snarky My Little Pit Pony business. Which turns out to be everything sweetly and slyly subversive that the earlier Spartan Girl advert should have been, starting with the pitch-perfect logo art, and delights me exceedingly in consequence. The more so because I have no particular investment in the parody subject; I think I must’ve been born without the ‘little girls=love ponies’ gene. Thus am all the more free to enjoy how this sketch skewers the moral blindness of the Victorian upper-middle-class more effectively in thirty seconds than in the entirety of last series’ uber-elaborate Wife Swap.
  • I also like the snarkiness of country-walking Martha trying to switch gears upon encountering rampant horrific death and destruction, except she’s wearing a pink puffer jacket. Altogether it’s one of the niftier throwaway bits of the series, although y’know, honestly, maybe it’s different in the UK, but when I hear ‘harrowing’ my first thought is the more disturbing meaning.
  • There’s likewise a lot of pop-cult parody goodness to be had in the Heiroglabble advert, which admirably maintains the board-game spoofs’ gentle-but-multidirectional satire right to the end, and throws a rather surprisingly low-key final cameo from Deary into the bargain. On the other hand, there is Simon, who in his relentless quest to find something unique in every character he has ever been given has finally been driven to pulling out his Death voice and hoping that nobody recognizes it without the makeup. Pretty darn effective in the moment, mind you (especially when combined with the ongoing ‘random Jaws homage’ thingy), but still… one more little sign that they all gave it up just in time.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, so velocipedes. Actually the collective name for all human-powered wheeled vehicles (the term itself comes from the Latin for ‘fast foot’). Of which the bicycle is one, and the more outlandish ‘quadracycle’ shown here another. There were and are also, of course, unicycles, tricycles and something called a dicycle, wherein the two wheels are side-by-side rather than sequential. All of them went through endless permutations beginning in the early nineteenth century, as inventors vied not only to come up with more sophisticated pedaling mechanisms but, seemingly, new ways to cull the thrill-seeking herd.
  • Nobody tell poor Bones, but he encountered one of the more stable setups all told. By contrast, Darwin probably heartily endorsed the original ‘bicycle’, the famous (if in reality very short-lived) penny-farthing, which left the rider wobbling on a tiny saddle atop an enormous front wheel. As ludicrous as it seems now, the p-f was intended then as an improvement on the boneshaker, first developed in the late 1860’s and what children’s books of the period mean when the bratty rich kid brags about his ‘velocipede’.
  • The joke’s on him, see, because they got their common name from the harsh ride that resulted from the inflexible wrought-iron frame and wooden wheels. Thus the model we know and love, first introduced around 1880 or so, was initially called the ‘safety bicycle’… because it had a braking mechanism.
  • OK, Neville Chamberlain deservedly takes a ton of flak for the whole deeply unnecessary ‘peace in our time’ grandstanding, but let’s not crucify the poor guy just yet. More sympathetic revisionist historians have suggested that our Neville was a lot cannier than he traditionally gets credit for. After all, signing that treaty with Hitler did buy the erstwhile PM the time he needed to quietly get the UK on a proper war footing, without which, frankly, Churchill wouldn’t have had a nation to inspire in the first place. It’s only in hindsight that these boring backroom policy details get obscured by the whole, y’know, “YOU SIGNED A TREATY WITH #%@$%-ING HITLER?!” thing.
  • Meantime, over on the other side of the world: Australians, as noted just a little tetchy about the whole ‘originally a penal colony’ concept. The rest of the world, meanwhile, is all “Are you kidding? An entire country of badass thieves and murderers and stuff? That’s, like, so cool!
  • Needless to say, the rest of the world is indulging in serious wishful thinking. These were not cunning master criminals; these were mostly hapless slum-bred pickpockets and drunks and tavern brawlers and (no, seriously) Egyptian impersonators and suchlike, precisely none of whom had any skills whatsoever that might help upon being plonked down on the other side of the world and told to recreate something resembling a civilised existence. The lovely (at least in hindsight) Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson is available for the curious.
  • Short version: everybody got off the boat and immediately began randomly bumbling into such Colonisation 101 roadblocks as what to plant when and which end of a cow you get milk from (that’s assuming they could even find a cow, given that most of the herd promptly escaped into the wild on arrival) and how to store food supplies so bugs don’t get in and, um, whoops, bugs are good to eat, right?… all, it must be assumed, while coping with the native wildlife’s tendency to viciously murder them for no apparent reason. (Ohai, cute little cone-shaped shell just lying there on the beach! I think I’ll just pick you up and squeeze you and —OHGODOHGODTHEPAINOHGODMAKEITST*erk*)
  • This is not even mentioning the native human population, who despite the song’s assertion were basically OK with and even seemingly amused by the palefaced newcomers… except for those occasional times when they also decided to viciously murder them for no apparent reason.
  • All this, as the sketch here indicates, was not doing wonderful things to the already-high stress levels of those stalwart representatives of Queen and Country tasked with reducing some type of order out of this inexplicably colourful chaos. They’d just unmasked the one convict who’d faked being a botanist in order to get special privileges (among various other similar scams), and here’s the Second Fleet shows up not with desperately needed supplies, but with plenty more of those damned convicts. So yeah, the original Australians: in the most literal sense, not happy campers.
 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E10

So why should you vote for me, ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton? ‘Cos I’m an ordinary guy, just like you!
…I mean, yes, I set myself on fire when I’ve got the hiccups. Who doesn’t? And like you, I also enjoy riding bears!

A couple further flashes of newly quirky brilliance can’t hide the fact that the steam is running out awfully fast, now… by which I mean, the sketches are starting to involve actual steam. With diagrams. And the ABBA references may-or-may-not be helping…

In this episode:

Song: Matilda(s) and Stephen… and Henry — Alice, Martha, Larry and Jim battle it out for the English throne in the medieval power struggle known as the Anarchy… as retold via, yep, ABBA references. Because that literally makes as much sense as any other attempt to explain it.

Recurring sketches:

Shouty Man — New! Roman Baths (“After a hard day of watching your slaves do all the work, why not de-stress in a range of temperature-controlled baths?!” “Oi, you’re starting to get annoying now, mate…” “Yes, I get that a lot!”)

Stupid Deaths — Emperor Domitian (Killed by an assassin exactly at the time predicted, after his attendants lied about the hour to protect his paranoia… “Come on out, mate, we haven’t got forever!… well, actually we have, but that’s not the point.”)

Historical Apprentice — Team James Watt and Team (Spinning) Jenny vie to see who can maximise textile production. No, nobody’s taken a vow of silence this time …because there’s “what/Watt’ jokes instead. (“With the help of the Watt steam engine, the factory business has produced three hundred kilos of textiles…” “So what’ve you got to say about that then, Team Mary?” “Jenny, Lord Sugar.” “What?” “Aye?”)

HHTV News — Live from a schoolboy strike in Llanelli, Wales, 1911 (“And what exactly are your demands?” “Two-four-eight-six! We want more math-e-mat-ics!” “Shush!” “…sorry.”)

Real Tudor Hustle — Demonstrating how market day scams exploited the greedy and gullible… ie, pretty much Times Square on any given Tuesday, but with way more sweet velvet caps.

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

Victorian Undercover Proprietor — A mill owner investigates the squalid conditions his workers toil and live under and–surprise!–does not decide to have them flogged for insolence into the bargain. (“I knew it! I knew that were a disguise, as soon as I saw that daft fake beard–” “OW!” “…so sorry.” “…s’alright.”)

Measly Middle Ages

The War of the Bucket — Which the participants therein are understandably less than impressed to discover is an actual thing. (“Well, a couple of guys from Modena stole our town’s bucket… so in order to get it back, the Pope has insisted we launch a full-scale war.”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Political Party — Move over, Monster Raving Loonies, “Mad Jack” Mytton is in the house. And if you and/or his constituents are lucky, he won’t actually ride off with it. (“But that’s not all! If you vote for me, I guarantee I will go naked duck hunting–at night!”)

Troublesome Twentieth Century

Suffragette Express — When you absolutely, positively need to annoy the socks off the powerful in three-four days or so.

Terrible Tudors

“P” For… — Why a forehead brand has never been recommended as an icebreaker at a job interview… yes, it’s almost over. (“The ‘P’ doesn’t stand for ‘perjurer’, it stands for… erm… ‘Perfect Employee’!”)

Field Notes:

  • Wow. I urgently need to apologise to S03E10, which up to now is what I confidently thought was the least impressive HH episode I had ever or would ever see. Unfortunately, as has been proven repeatedly throughout this review project, I suck at predicting things, and the existence of our current subject episode is no exception.
  • Yes, sure, it has a great, fully classic Stupid Death, and an equally lovely unexpected roundoff to the Victorian labour thread, and a party-animal politician… oh, and can’t forget the bit with people being incredulous that they’re fighting a holy war over a ceremonial bucket. It’s just that the rest of it is so… so…
  • OK, story time: During this series’ filming, some of the most intriguing spoilery leaks concerned a space-race-themed sketch in which Ben would play legendary Soviet Premier Nikita “Don’t Tell ME I’m Not Going to Disney World!” Khruschev. Later, one of the cosmonaut extras (they apparently imported authentic Russian actor/models, which unusually lavish expense suggests this was planned as one of the hilights of the series at the time) tweeted a shot of the finished sketch that also showed Mat in a supporting role as a dorky young apparatchik.
  • Well. Words cannot express how much I was looking forward to all this. I was almost as excited about Nikita Willbond & His Great Space Adventures as I was about my sparklier version of the Twilight/Byron takeoff. Then came the finished series and both just sort of… never happened. The Russian sketch in particular had evidently been wholly scrapped, without trouble or trace (and also evidently without reference to the poor tweeting extra).
  • Thus, to recap: No additional exciting space-race stuff. No Benjamin-as-Khruschev. No adorkable Mat  or hunky cosmonauts. None of that was thought worth keeping… but the suffragette sketch that only makes sense if somebody mistook the opening scenes of Mary Poppins for a documentary, that made it through.
  • So did various other bits so desperately uninspired that even Larry couldn’t salvage them. So did a sketch centering round a random schoolboy strike, which to add insult to idiocy somehow does not feature Mike Peabody having rocks bunged at his ankles by beanie-wearing rugrats. It does feature Alice the newsbimbo being menaced by Lawry in full psychotic mode as the Dickensian schoolmaster, which is appreciated, but that’s not the point
  • “But… but,” you have for some time been sputtering frantically, “there was a song! ABBA references! Nobody can ever possibly be unhappy when there’s ABBA references!”
  • Yeah… about that. Something else we need to get clear before going much further: I have never understood the ABBA phenomenon, and am now more confident than ever that I never will. Mind you, I am perfectly OK with them as purveyors of catchy dance-pop; I just don’t understand how same rates their subsequent elevation to shining icons of fluffy campiness. Or, for that matter, the whole European concept of fluffy campiness to begin with. And I am having further real trouble understanding how all this equates to regal Middle Ages infighting. I would be a really lousy person to watch Eurovision with, is I guess what I am saying here.
  • Thusly, despite the song relentlessly bunging knowingly ironic winks at me like somebody just remembered they have to use their remaining stock up before show’s end, I remain stolidly unenchanted. (On the other hand, suddenly previous failures to work the musical melodrama correctly, as in “The English Civil War Song”, now make total sense.) It doesn’t help that from what I can tell, some genuinely good satirical elements are going to waste in the general slavish desperation to the theme…
  • …One of which, unfortunately, is not Larry attempting a straight vocal lead. The Rickardian musical weird, as it turns out, needs the scope and breadth of campiness that only disco can provide in order to flourish properly. The difference between his Aztec vocal and this one, in fact, serve as a neat gauge of the relative effectiveness of the two productions. Here, I’m imagining a pre-production meeting in which someone defends casting Larry by mentioning all those singularly non-musical types in the Mamma Mia! movie, and everyone else goes along just to avoid having to think about warbly Pierce Brosnan anymore.
  • Right, fine, getting to the good stuff. Martha and Alice can never not be musically awesome either apart or together, so that their delicately regal catfight actually does come close to making the insistent references fun and/or relevant… and Jim in the background, just sort of hanging out being Jim, makes a most excellent foil. Special bonus points for when he does get a couple solo lines, and the entire cotton-candy overlay is effortlessly blown aside by his serious talent. But none of it particularly resonates with the historical subject, so that the whole never rises above a random novelty.
  • This disconnect between style and substance is especially noticeable when one has just finished marvelling at the Victorian Undercover Boss bit. Not so much creatively; on that end, it’s merely another case of surefire casting–and facial hair–paying off accordingly. I might just congratulate Alice on noticeably upgrading her slum-class cred since S3, but man, it’s hard to figure out how to phrase that as a compliment.
  • The real kicker is the subject matter–the Establishment trying to do the right thing in the face of the proletariat’s ignorance and prejudice–and what it represents. After years of loving elaboration on the themes of class struggle in general and Victorian drudgery and squalor in particular, the show has somehow not only realised that a perfect plot-twisty finale in terms of both subject and creative choice lay on the other side, but managed to explore the murky spaces between without missing a beat re: either fairness or poop jokes.
  • …Or, yeah, somebody just noticed a most excellent excuse for poop jokes and the entire sensitivity thing’s an elaborate rationalisation from there. However, as further evidence of deliberate and intriguing exploration of the grey areas, I suggest a compare-and-contrast in evident motivations between S1’s righteously outraged ‘How to Vote in a Georgian Election’ and the current profile of actual outrageous Georgian political candidate “Mad Jack” Mytton, which… well. You just can’t up and use Simon Farnaby to tell the story of a man who randomly rode bears without understanding the consequences re: implied awesomeness, any more than you can doll up an ‘unromantic’ highwayman in guyliner and plead innocence.
  • Taken all-in-all, it’s very hard indeed to avoid the conclusion that we’ve moved on from tweaking Terry Deary’s beloved anarchistic sensibilities to quite deliberately pulling them right the hell out from under him. Quirkiness nothing, this is mutiny… which would explain why such such an interesting and entertaining milestone ended up in this far outpost of episodic irrelevance to begin with: they were really hoping Deary wouldn’t notice. At any rate, I doubt the proposed revival series will continue this particular maturation process (although Horrible campaign tactics generally represent a potentially fertile sketch source that hasn’t yet been mined nearly as thoroughly as it might).
  • The revival series will also not have Death and/or the Shouty Man, or at least–suddenly realising I don’t know who ultimately owns the characters–not these versions. As this particular edition of Stupid Deaths demonstrates, this is going to be a serious handicap. Unless of course they can find another guy who’s not only willing but able to ad-lib an entire wildly satisfying comedy experience into being simply by telling a skeleton “No, pine nuts.”. Somehow I find this a little hard to imagine.
  • Especially since the show clearly not only agrees with me that SD is closure-proof, but is now actively handling it like it’s Series Two and there’s still a world of possibilities… as, of course, in the case of human self-destruction, there always will be. Given what the writers have had to work with elsewhere this series, sheer delighted giddiness on realising that afresh isn’t hard to understand.
  • The result is an SD that fully honours all the best happy-reviewer-brain-making traditions,while also rather cleverly playing around with the stupidity–something that’s been neglected in the last couple seasons, as the focus shifted to Death and his bourgeois Purgatory. Not that I am complaining… just a little sad to have another tiny window into what could’ve been open at this late date. For the moment, though, as noted, I am wholly happy. Larry maybe comes up a bit short in the regal department again, but that’s OK. I always liked him much better as the random (and non-singy) schlub corpses anyway.
  • Over in the other sendoff for an icon, things aren’t going nearly so well. I was sceptical to begin with of the Shouty Man needing any further farewells after Jim doing everything but disappear into the sky on a wave of his own hot air, Oz-like, last episode. But I was also–briefly–hopeful, because I do love me some hapless Willbond being dragged around in the wake of Shouty’s enthusiasm
  • …in related news, I hate it when sketches get my hopes up like that. In the event, the happy huckster’s last hurrah turns out to be merely a (scarily close to literal) fig leaf applied to the producers’ dignity after one of two things were said in a pitch meeting : “Hey, been awhile since we could blatantly imply nudity, hasn’t it?” or “We should totally do an upgrade on S1’s Roman toilet sketches!”
  • Either way, despite some typical cleverness, ultimately Jim’s just going through the motions while the audience oohs over Ben having a chest or Larry pooping or whatever other marginally more novel thing is currently happening in the foreground. Even the tiara looks tired, by now. Ah well, ave aqua vale anyway, Shouty; you and your single joke were there at the very beginning and you both made it to the end not only intact but deservedly beloved. Nice work.
  • After all that, as noted, things get sort of desperate. And strange. And sometimes strangely desperate. Albeit none of the above is necessarily a problem in the War of the Bucket bit, whose premise alone is almost enough to make me OK with the fact that the commander isn’t Simon. Which is really, truly saying something, because of all the places in this whole damn show that Simon should be, it is in this sketch not being Lawry. Especially not Lawry with icky Breaking Bad-extra hair. Sheez. Also, blech.
  • Luckily for us both, there is the sudden welcome infusion of Mat and his vivid vulnerability–for once well-handled in a military sketch; there is another useful compare-and-contrast in the effortless grace with which this is accomplished here vs. the plastic nose icicles in S03E10. The current piece continues on in the promisingly loopy vein of the ‘sacred chicken’ business last ep–and for that matter, all the way back to S2 and the megabear hunt: just find the past-time ludicrousness and let the gang react to it in their own inimitably enlightened  fashion.
  • A little odd that this attitude hasn’t been combined with similar military surreality (also see, for instance, the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”) long since; humans tend to self-destruct even more stupidly in groups than they do individually.
  • *ahem* Speaking of which–no, seriously, something’s got fundamentally off-balance in the HApprentice skits. Apparently the writing team have finally fallen so in love with skewering their latest parody/dartboard target–the sheer offhand skill of Jim’s impersonation undoubtedly, and understandably, being just that seductive–that they’ve lost track of integrating the historical element. To put it kindly. Thus you’ve got a theoretical comedy sketch that in practice requires actual technical diagrams, and meantime everybody’s doing broadly ‘funny’-name-based humour, and it’s just generally all kinds of weirdly pointless up in here.
  • Yes of course, because it’s this troupe, there are always compensations regardless of how far out of context they stray; thing is, by this late date whether they’re novel enough to be worth extracting has become a perpetually open question, and the answer here is mostly ‘not so much’. Ben doing a mashup of his big-dumb-lug voice with his Scots voice does easily have more pure entertainment value than the entire song, but, well, see above re: the song. I’m a little more impressed with Larry’s ‘sweet sensitive artisan’ act (see above re: his skill with hapless schlubs) complete with hilariously appropriate hair, and Simon… is paired with Ben, so gets a pass on residual goodwill alone.
  • As for the rest of it… I dunno really, it all just sort of muffles together in my head. Like one of those Big Balls O’Random Violence you see in cartoons, except this is a Big Ball O’Blandly Amusing and it’s speckled with occasional chuckles instead of “ow!”s. I do vaguely remember being impressed again with Larry… it was Larry, right? Let’s go with Larry, because checking would take thirty seconds out of my life that could be more profitably employed in matching odd socks.
  • …*returns from sock drawer* Anyway, so probably-Rickard gets props for even managing to extract something in the remote vicinity of plausible wit out of the forehead-branding bit. Also, the Tudor Hustle makes me feel sort of guilty for ragging on last series’ Victorian version–the one that was based around Mat’s Fagin impersonation, which I thought was sort of lazily cheating at the time, but am now realising was the comparative height of creative innovation.
  • I did perk up some for the suffragette and school strike sketches. Mostly because they both seemed so determined to shoot themselves in the creative foot–and in precisely the same ways–that I had to conclude it was all the deliberate work of one author, and thus spent a fun few minutes playing yet another round of What the Hell Were They Thinking? The leading theory as of even date involves humouring somebody’s nephew desperate to break into comedy-writing, possibly on account of the real writers taking off early for drinks.
  • I mean really now, show. Took me about ten seconds to come up with a more plausible, ie. Peabody-intensive, premise for the strike stuff (it starts with him arriving on the scene not realising the strikers are little kids…). As for the self-addressed suffragettes… just so we’re all clear, these are meant to be the ‘fierce girls’ from S3, yes? The ones whose struggle you were so conscientiously spotlighting? And yet you couldn’t think of a single plausible thing to have them say here, thus deliberately creating the implication that they approached a potential audience with the Prime Minister with all the finesse of karaoke night at the biker bar? And here I thought I was kidding about the drinking starting early…

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, Emperor Domitian. Whether or not it had anything to do with the odd resemblance to Neil Patrick Harris, according to his very comprehensive Wiki article he was one of the more admirable and popular (ie. not insanely depraved) rulers of Ancient Rome: Domitian’s government exhibited totalitarian characteristics; he saw himself as the new Augustus, an enlightened despot destined to guide the Roman Empire into a new era of brilliance. Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality, and by nominating himself perpetual censor, he sought to control public and private morals. 
  • …Why all the above makes it even funnier that it’s Larry in the role, I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, so yes, the poor man had but one serious chink in his self-esteem, and it was that pesky prophecy of his untimely death. He tried setting up Minerva (aka Athena) as his protector deity, only to have her appear in a dream a few days beforehand to explain that whoopsie, Jupiter/Zeus had disarmed her, so yeah, good luck foiling that elaborate assassination plot involving several of your closest associates and the Praetorian Guard. That no, she apparently didn’t think it was worth telling him about or anything… not even the bit about being first stabbed in the groin. This is what ‘the entire universe is against me’ literally looks like, kiddies.
  • I am delighted to report that the War of the Bucket was indeed an actual thing, and in outline at least follows the description General Icky-Locks Lewin gives here. I am slightly less delighted to explain that it wasn’t actually a random event, but a minor blip in a 300-plus-year conflict. See, starting around 1175, much of Italy divided off into factions supporting the political ambitions of the Holy Roman Emperor  and the Pope respectively–yes, the Pope had political ambitions, because Middle Ages. At any rate, eventual bucket-nabbers Modena were in the former camp, and bucket-owners Bologna the latter–in fact, were personally led by the Pope.
  • This all festered until the early 1300’s, at which point the rival regions started up in earnest with the border incursions and destroying each others’ fields and yada-yada-yada-standard-Middle-Ages-regional-hostility-cakes. Things got so tense, in fact, that all it would take was a little thing like, ooh, say, stealing a ceremonial bucket to set off a major conflict. Albeit apparently said bucket was filled with ‘loot’ from previous raids, so, y’know, slightly more badass. But not by much.
  • Anyway, so then everybody had the big fight over it shown here–more formally, the Battle of Zappolino–and for a brief shining moment this whole mess registered on the international stage… right up until the vastly outnumbered Modenans still managed to handily route the Bolognese, and thus by implication the Pope (in case you were still wondering if God has a sense of humour). And, yes, they kept the bucket. After all, it was the principle of the thing.
  • The whole phenomenon of the schoolboy strikes of 1911 was a similarly wide-ranging one in comparison to its treatment here, and (as you might have intuited already) considerably less adorable with it. Essentially, it pitted working-class students against their comfily middle-class masters, thus becoming the juvenile offshoot of a much more comprehensive set of issues surrounding unions and the perceived exploitation of the poor. From the link:
  • The strike spread locally by word of mouth, across the country courtesy of the press and even, in London, through flying pickets (moving from Shoreditch to Islington). In Swansea, the pickets locked the school gates; in Edgehill near Liverpool, the strikers smashed the glass in the lamp posts as they marched; in Montrose, the schoolboys demanded shorter hours, potato-lifting holidays, no strap, and free pencils and rubbers; at Darlington, the main demands were for attendance payments and an extra half day holiday…
  • …I suddenly feel much less proud of that time we convinced Mrs. Andrews to let us spend recess inside on cold days.
  • OK, in partial mitigation of the show’s handing of the suffragette incident I must just note that the reason they showed the ladies babbling incoherently may have been because, in real life, they didn’t say anything to the PM at all. On account of they never actually met him, having been foiled by the very bureaucracy they had tried to exploit. According to this wonderfully solemn description of the incident, from the British Postal Museum’s blog:
  • On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the East Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union. 
  • This of course raises a whole new set of questions re: why the show bothered to dramatise the incident at all, and why they didn’t bother taking the opportunity to compose a really cutting speech for their luckier fictional counterparts… but I think it’s beyond time we moved on, now.
 
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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E08

Transport was duller– We added colour! …Well, as long as it’s black.

More silliness, more magnificent facial hair, more everyday heroines, more Caesar… more farting. You know, just your typical midseason good times. Surprisingly enough.

In this episode:

Song: Transportation — Mobile pioneers George Stephenson (Simon), Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Jim), Henry Ford (Ben) and the Wright Bros. (Mat and Larry) boogie down to a celebration of their relentlessly innovative genius. (Parody of: Greased Lightnin’, from the musical Grease) 

Recurring sketches:

Stupid Deaths — Diane de Poitiers (Swallowed a teaspoonful of gold leaf every day for years as a beauty treatment… until she died of heavy metal poisoning. (“Ooh, hey — let’s hope they don’t play any heavy metal music in the afterlife… *to Louis the skeleton* What did you think? ‘Comedy gold‘? Rats, I was going to say that…”)

Shouty Man — New! Runic Alphabet (“The simple angular letters can be quickly carved* into any wall, rock or twig! Making ‘writing things down’ the new ‘not writing things down’!” *Caution: carving may not actually be quick.)

HHTV Sport — Profiling Lily Parr, only female inaugural inductee into the Football Hall of Fame, 1951 (“Listen mate–I’ve played against men, and I’m tellin’ ya now, I’ve got a harder shot than any of ’em.” “Ha-hah! Well, this is Tony Codger, reporting for HHT–THUNK!  awwwk!… she’s not wrong… owww…”)

DVD set — Celebrating the best of Joseph Pujol, Le Pétomane (Why, yes, that does translate to ‘The Fartomaniac’. You were surprised? It’s the sellout show that’s now touring the biggest theatres in Europe! Every performance is a blast!)

Gals’ Magazine — Yankee Crazy! Comparing the (very) average British squaddie with a shiny-new American GI. (“Wow, you really can dance! What’s that funny thing you’re doing with your mouth?” “I’m chewin’ gum.” “Wow…!”)

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Julius Caesar Project (“So then I hired a fleet of ships–” “So you wouldn’t miss hanging out with your friends the pirates! That’s our happy ending!” “No–so I could hunt them down and torture them to death. Which I did. Pretty brilliant twist, right?” “Yeeeaahhh… See, the whole ‘torturing to death’ thing, it plays quite badly with families…”)

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

I Had (Not) Forgot the Fart — Edward de Vere, Earl Oxford, learns the hard way that Elizabeth I really doesn’t care for odd smells. (“Cecil! What is the punishment for passing wind in front of the Queen?” “We don’t have one, Your Majesty; no one has ever dared do such a thing before.” “Or if they did, they at least had the decency to cover it up with a well-timed cough!”)

Vicious Vikings

Strictly (Religious) Business — A merchant hawking fake Old Norse sacred relics has to do some even faster thinking to cope with the introduction of Christianity.

Potty Pioneers

The Father of the Railway — Tireless Georgian–and very Northern–transport advocate George Stephenson makes his case to some very skeptical politicians. (“People are gointa be carried up to twenty miles an hour!” “But how would they even survive travelling at such astounding speeds?!” “Why, I imagine their eyes would get sucked from their very skulls!”)

Shocking Scotland

The Lady’s Not For Surrendering — “Black Agnes”, Countess of Moray, single-handedly defends Dunbar Castle against the Earl of Salisbury’s siege, because awesome. Also, Scots. (“We cut off your food supply five months ago! You must be starving!” “Och aye, I haven’t eaten since, oh, at least eleven… Oop, did I forget to mention our secret entrance?”)

Woeful Second World War

Who Wants to Be a German Millionaire? — Between-wars economic hyperinflation made that a much trickier question than you might suspect. Especially if you happen to be in the market for a wheelbarrow…

Rotten Romans

Wall of Doubt — What his subjects were facing after Emperor Hadrian decided to set up the barbarian-repelling battlements smack dab through their farm fields. (“We’re calling it ‘Hadrian’s Wall’.” “Working title.”)

Field Notes:

  • So yeah, this episode the show unveils a new–and not completely unpromising–tactic in the ongoing Content Crisis: be really loud and jolly and have Martha throw things at people a lot and just generally hope that the more emphatically you insist that nothing is wrong, the more people will believe it. Sort of like the way your Uncle Harold deals with family Thanksgiving dinners, only British, so less actual turkey. Possibly similar amounts of alcohol consumption, though, assuming you’re talking about the producers.
  • Alcohol also features in one of the several theories about Jim’s performance I started formulating a few seconds into Shouty Man’s penultimate pitch. Slightly more plausible ideas include Howick i) taking bets with the other guys on the sidelines re: just how much he could get away with by then, to which the answer unsurprisingly was “pretty much everything”; and ii) having just been told that Yonderland was a go and his longtime dream of playing a batty old broad about to be fulfilled, this inevitably morphed into less Shouty’s final fling and more the Crone’s eager debut.
  • On the other hand, this is also how you can tell–well, after three-four attempts to concentrate, the final one of which was audio-only–that the writing is honestly terrific, still much sharper and funnier than Shouty’s segments have been for a long while: you’re actively willing to put up with all of this. Well, OK, that and the by-now-rampant nostalgia… also the wholly unexpected continuity bonus in the form of infant Shouty Junior. No, evidently no-one’s particular sprog this time, or at least nobody’s ever owned up to same.
  • I have rather mixed feelings about this plot twist, honestly. The concept of Shouty as a sort of ancestral huckster spirit from a long line of same is a deeply appealing one, right up until you realise that that means his adorable offspring is due to grow up into whomever invented spam emails, and you involuntarily start to replay key moments from Twelve Monkeys in your head.
  • In desperation for a distraction, I started wondering if I shouldn’t start keeping track of these poignant final moments already… then I had to stop that too, partly on account of my brain started sarcastically picking out the songs for the YouTube tribute soundtrack and partly because, given the onscreen evidence, nobody else seems to have bothered with it either. At, least not as any sort of conscious theme. It’s really hard to blame them for wanting to avoid the hassle… or [spoiler alert] coming up with a characteristically self-aware route around it.
  • It’s anyway a tricky thing to expect anything like linear resolution from a sketch comedy. Personally, I’ll feel much better once Chipmunk-Faced Guy has been identified, and am still nursing a slight irk with Stone Age man for not providing material for more Caveman Art Show bits, but otherwise I can’t think of anything I’m truly anxious to have happen in the next four eps. Maybe have Larry duck out of the way of the poop for once? Organise some sort of historical baseball game and have one of Jim’s sweet little woobie characters make the big catch?
  • One thing I did not need was for the LoG to finally ink a movie deal. When I first heard that Julius Caesar (of course) would be the first, I actively avoided watching it for some time, on the grounds of massive disappointment that comedy genius had been so thoroughly sold out. In related news, I am an idiot who has apparently learned nothing whatsoever from this review project, and two series’ worth of seemingly random snarking actually pays off in a burst of utterly satisfying comedic logic.
  • Yes, including even Ben’s non-sequitur nasal accent, which somehow plays quite brilliantly off Caesar’s relentlessly matter-of-fact brutality because, I dunno, Willbond or something. Since Alex the Great I’ve given up trying to figure it out. The deliberately ‘lofty’ lighting and camera angles help, at any rate.
  • Meantime, over at Stupid Deaths… well, we already had the obvious plot twist, and otherwise the whole concept is predicated on the fact that there’s no way to resolve it without going full-on Bergman parody. I would not be averse to a little chess-playing with the skeletons (I bet Louis cheats), but otherwise am content to let SD exit on its own sweetly, smartly surreal terms. Mind you, this does not prevent me from wondering why we’re randomly reviving the ‘paperwork’ gag from S1 for no particular reason, but then again there’s no way to resolve that which doesn’t involve questions about why I’m blogging about a children’s comedy and why don’t we all just move on now…
  • …Well, we might just pause to note that–in common with many of the show’s beauty-treatment spoofs–it’s hard to work up a satisfying snort of disbelief at those crazy pre-L’Oreal types when even today gold leaf is a luxury menu item. Regardless, playing Diane de Poitiers is a fine way to kick off a rare–now that I think about it, actually the only–showcase ep for Martha. Meantime, Death on eggshells opposite her hauteur is giving me pleasing flashbacks to his similarly subtle underplaying in S4…
  • …Sorry, brb, just indulging in one more tiny ‘grrrrrrr’ that they didn’t figure all this out until after the Ivan the Terrible bit. Because fluffy pink pen. Thank you.
  • Speaking of flamboyantly offbeat characters, man, show, took you long enough to introduce Le Pétomane already. There’s got to be an entire chapter devoted to him in at least one of the books, and I’ve been wondering why you haven’t found it since forever… OK, more like ‘cringing in resigned anticipation’, but you get the idea.
  • And you know, I was all set to make some smart remark about how of course it’s Larry in this role, when I realised: no joke, this actually is a significant step forward in flatulence-related artistic refinement from the merely common or garden-variety Rickardian fart solo, as seen in S2’s Cowboy Song. Which in turn must represent a purely unique achievement in television–nay, media–history. So yeah Laurence, take a bow, you deserve it. I’ll just be over here applauding madly… waaaaay over here. Whilst remaining carefully upwind, and with my hand firmly off the rewind button.
  • In all other respects this is emphatically Martha’s Big Showcase, and all you really need to know about the results is that the Liz I sketch is the weakest of the lot. Granted these bits have never been exquisite masterpieces of staggering subtlety, but this is as far as I can remember the first time they’ve concentrated so hard on the shrewishness that they completely ignored the actual punchline. For the record, that actually happened after Earl Oxford returned seven years later, hoping against hope that the Queen had forgotten his gaucheness, only to have her comment brightly “Ah, my lord! I had forgot the fart!”
  • In other words, Liz in reality thought it was all a great joke (as was her wont), and de Vere voluntarily banned himself, and thus any potential for a grand finale for an HH icon rapidly devolves into a more-than-usually anti-climactic round of Let’s Turn Good Queen Bess Into a Roald Dahl Villain, Because I Dunno, Blackadder or Something.
  • Luckily, nostalgia has enhanced my already long and intricate practice in extracting whatever enjoyment I can from the Tudor sketches to the point where I can sincerely appreciate the goodwill–not to say, probable desperation–inherent not only in the original rationale for using this material (“Say, let’s remake the S3 Silly Laws sketch that everyone loves so much, only with rude noises!”) but the impressiveness of the production details.
  • Like for instance, how Martha by now has Her Majesty’s over-the-top hauteur absolutely nailed, to the point where the offhandedness of it actively enhances the characterization… also, there is the really gleeful way Ben attacks Cecil’s sly cleverness, it having become–I’m guessing–something of an outlet after spending so much time in royal doofus mode. Also mildly intriguing: in the promo photos and the [spoiler alert] finale song, it’s Larry wearing de Vere’s costume… and under the circs this does seem like *ahem* much more his type of role. Last-minute performer switchout, perhaps?
  • I am much more definitively pleased by the return of gorgeous WWII Martha… not to say intrigued by the tonal misstep inherent in her presence in the ‘Yankee Crazy’ bit. At least, I think it’s a misstep. The adult rom-com parody is so neatly done that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intentional, which leads to speculation re: who was supposed to get what out of it. It’s very hard not to conclude that the show deliberately decided to for once gross out the little ones (all that icky giggly flirty stuff, blech!) in the service of creating a fun light trifle for the grown-ups.
  • Speaking as a certified adult critic person, then, may I just say: schwing. Especially the entirely too much fun Ben is now having, enacting the British concept of an All-American Boy. I am really hoping that isn’t a coincidence that it so neatly matches up with the same concept as enacted in Christie, Conan Doyle and other classic UK pop-lit–which, knowing Willbond, it totally isn’t–but either way, it’s really freakin’ hilarious.
  • Also: Mat’s waifishness finally used in a military sketch in a way that doesn’t make me want to slit my wrists over the bleak unfairness of it all. Yes, closure comes in many forms, folks.
  • There’s more interestingly subtle maturity on display in the Norse relics bit… wait, don’t blink, you’ll miss it. Specifically, we’re back on the gently satirical commentary on Christian-vs-pagan belief systems, which continues to be both pleasing and intriguing enough, but even Simon and Larry combined can’t provide it with a sketch-length hook this time. Although, granted, Simon’s little pendant switcheroo comes pretty damn close.
  • A sudden attack of educational conscience over all this might explain the weirdness in the Lily Parr profile. And no, I’m not talking about the Howe-Douglas adventures in Lancashire dialect, although I am assuming the only thing preventing the producers looking into dubbing options with Sarah H. was the characteristically authentic toughness Martha is also projecting. I similarly have no problem with Jim’s blandly mid-century sportscasting unctuousness; in fact he does a fine enough job of it that I might just have to add ‘will never get to hear his Howard Cosell’ to the list of regrets.
  • Trouble is, no sooner does he get duly humiliated for his casually typical-of-his-age sexism than the show inexplicably begins to patronise Ms. Parr all over again. Unprompted and clearly unmeditated, so much so that it’d be almost funny, if they weren’t so awfully in earnest. “Silly Lily,” intones the puppet rodent who makes pets of his fleas and openly gloats over eating filth, in the tone he more usually reserves for the details of genocide; she (grasp!) “smoked lots of cigarettes.”
  • Ah… yeah. Setting aside the fact that duh, mid-twentieth-century, everybody smoked lots of cigarettes, because nobody knew any better than that they were good for you… it might be time for a reminder that ultimately you’re still Horrible Histories, show. Either you retroactively attach a similar disclaimer to pretty much every post-eighteenth-century character you’ve ever created, female or male, or you kindly knock it off.
  • Come to think of it, something of the same uncharacteristically PBS Kids-type vibe also hangs over the song. The idea of celebrating great transport pioneers is not at all unpleasing, but it’s also entirely missing the extra level of shrewd snarkiness that’s the HH hallmark. The whole thing is ephemeral as all hell, in fact, constructed almost entirely of small incidental pleasures.
  • Of which, it must be admitted, there are quite a lot. As for instance Ben trying earnestly to simoultaneously follow doo-wop choreography and maintain a Midwestern accent, Jim effortlessly pulling off the same moves while under that top hat, Larry being all pleasantly twinkly-eyed in a flat cap, and Mat… evidently off in his own little private Chaplinesque universe again just as soon as he got a look at himself in that moustache.
  • None of which, unfortunately, ever quite adds up to a memorable music video, and the choice of parody genre… well, again, probably much more daringly novel to you lot, for whom Grease was likely not the go-to pseudo-edgy choice of high school dramatic societies for decades. Thus despite some amusingly clever staging, this takeoff merely slides smoothly in one N.American ear and out the other. Save perhaps for the final beats spotlighting Ben–if nothing else as a nice apt reward for all his good-sportitude.
  • The old and new comedic sensibilities mingle much, much more happily in the Black Agnes sketch; no actual bodily fluids being flung, but no comedic prisoners being taken, either (let alone Martha’s Scots accent, which is greatly improved by all the bellowing). Just a bunch of old hands luxuriating in the rare surefire bit of business in their various endearingly surefire ways, no more and no less. Which really is an awful lot, up to and including Mat indulging his knightly schtick to the hilt. Once again, I am reminded that Merlin blew a prime casting opportunity.
  • But when it’s over, I find my thoughts drifting toward the props more than anything else. Specifically, did they just have a whole bunch of those drumsticks made up ahead of filming, or are they a standard of the BBC props cupboard, or…? And now I’m imagining the little paper labels: ‘Turkey, 3/4 eaten’, ‘Chicken, roasted, one bite’ etc etc. Once again, the question of whether the f/x masters on this show have the best or worst job in the world is left wide open.
  • The costumers, on the other hand, not a question. Besides all the sartorial pretty-pretty, the Stephenson bit is another decently satisfying good time… except I can’t ever quite relax and enjoy it fully, on account of Rickard-as-Wellington still isn’t giving me any reason to believe he’s not about to make with the jigging any moment. Hell of a time to suddenly rediscover your commitment to character creation, there, show. We’ve blithely recast Pompey, Hephaestion and Saint Joan, but nobody thought that just maybe Larry and his ludicrous pot’o’gold posing might need a break? You really are just using the man for your own entertainment now, aren’t you?
  • The (much) better news is, they do have the excellent sense to give Simon and his Oop North stylings free reign, both here and at Hadrian’s Wall (also: the momentary return of Mat’s Gross Designs wig, whooo!). There’s just something seriously loveable about northern types mocking their own stereotypes–see also Michael Palin at several moments in the Python films… wait, maybe I’m just into uniquely loveable Northern types to begin with. A valid argument I believe nonetheless.
  • Meantime, Larry recoups magnificently as the hapless victim of hyperinflation. I will not claim I didn’t spend the entire first run-through idly wondering once again where Willbond had got to (he totally deserved a bit of Teutonic indulgence after being such a good sport over the song), but I can also see where the giving Mat and Larry another dual shot at the dark undercurrents paid off in spades. There’s something uniquely intriguing in the way these two understand each other, and the result gets the grim reality of between-wars Germany across more effectively than I think was strictly intended.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Seems a shame to complain about such lavish costuming, but it is after all what I do: Diane de Poitiers’ signature colours were black and white. She went to the extent of having the chateaux her ‘boyfriend’ Henry II gifted her completely done in b/w monochrome, which was a much more impressively eccentric luxury back before IKEA was invented, and it would’ve been a cool note to reference in the SD. Although, in their defense, the show’s costumers were likely working off this portrait, so we can call it even.
  • (Albeit, just incidentally… fine, show, I can see the educational point of swopping out ‘mistress’ for ‘girlfriend’ if I squint. Better to avoid introducing the concept of condoned adultery to impressionable young minds. I am still not quite convinced that it’s an improvement to leave the kidlets with the impression of say, Diane here and Henry fumbling with each others’ underwear while Justin Bieber’s latest blares in the background.)
  • Yep, she was quite the character, our Diane. A minor provincial noblewoman who rose to prominence as lady-in-waiting to several previous queens, she was one of the greatest of the legendary French royal mistresses, renowned not only for her beauty, poise and style but charm, wit and intelligence–the absolute ideal of classical femininity as taught to chivalrous youths of the time. So much so, in fact, that Francis I asked Diane to school his ten-year-old second son in courtly manners. She was a good enough teacher that by the time Henry was sixteen and Diane thirty-five, they were a couple and would remain so until his death 24 years later.
  • Alright, yes, they were basically living a late-night Cinemax flick, complete with the occasional nude portrait (mildly NSFW). The thing is, thanks to Diane’s uncanny sophistication it comes across as much, much classier than that. On her lover’s accession to the throne she invariably used her huge influence for the good of the State, even co-signing the royal correspondence, and acting as an enthusiastic patron of the arts.
  • Most famously, she not only approved his marriage but actively nudged him out of her bed and into his new wife’s, all to ensure his duty to France. In due time Diane was put in charge of the numerous heirs’ education. Including, just incidentally, preteen Mary Queen of Scots, who was concurrently being raised in the French royal household and cannot have helped being influenced by this extraordinary example of self-assured womanhood.
  • Other examples of self-assured womanhood were less impressed. Henry’s nominal queen, the small, outwardly unassuming (and also fourteen at the time of her marriage) Catherine de’Medici, was notoriously jealous of Diane. Specially given it took Catherine quite awhile to get started on the aforementioned heir-producing, which one can only assume had something to do with Henry yelling out the wrong name in the bedroom more than once. What is certain is that, while the King lay slowly dying of an agonizing brain injury, Queen Catherine absolutely forbade Diane to see him, although Henry continually called for her. And that’s how you earn your reputation as one of the great villainesses of history, kiddies.
  • While we’re on the subject of purely remarkable females: The tale of Agnes Randolph, Countess of Moray, and the siege of Dunbar Castle turns out to be heartwarmingly close to 100% accu-rat (the “sure you can hang my brother, I’m his heir!” bit is hung up on the reality that she wasn’t his heir at all). Granted, as noted above Agnes had something of a head start on the feistiness thing, hailing as she did from the land where even today they greet terrorism by kicking it in the nuts while it’s on fire, but still. To paraphrase Churchill, on Britain’s similarly resolute resistance to a much larger threat: some lady, some story. “Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.
  • Bad tobacco habit or no–apparently, she actually insisted on being paid in Woodbines at one point–turns out Lily Parr. was likewise everything advertised, and then some. Noting her disdain for dollies and tea sets from an early age, her older brothers (who strike me as pretty damn awesome themselves) happily taught her not only football but rugby. In her non-sporty time, probably to work off some excess epicness, Parr served as a nurse and in a munitions factory during WWI, where an inter-office match first brought her to professional attention. According to the book A League of Their Own, she never looked back, remaining active in one way or another from 1919-1951:
  • “Standing almost six feet tall, with jet black hair, her power and skill was admired and feared wherever she played.  She was an extremely unselfish player who could pin-point a pass with amazing accuracy and was also a marvellous ball player.  And she was probably responsible in one way or another, for most of the goals that were scored by the team…”
  • …But yeah, Rattus, the smoking thing, that’s the main point after all. /sarcasm.
  • And this in a show that’s just finished spotlighting Joseph “Le Pétomane” Pujol, a humble Marseilles baker who, as shown, fashioned an entire wildly successful stage career out of social inappropriateness. (Possibly Wiki’s greatest sentence ever:  [His] profession is also referred to as “flatulist“, “farteur”, or “fartiste”.)  The really endearing part, though, is that by all accounts Pujol wasn’t about a license to ill; he was a genuinely sweet guy who voluntarily worked up a “family-friendly” (less noisy, basically) version of his act and retired outright in horror at the outbreak of WWI. He just happened to also have a unique physical quirk that allowed him to, uh, both suck and blow from the same orifice.
  • Which explains why his audiences weren’t issued gas masks, or for that matter shields: he would merely take in water or air via his rectum and immediately expel it–no mess, no fuss. Enough practice and the whole process was under such fine control that Pujol  was the toast of Europe. Unfortunately no sound recordings seem to exist (probably referencing that whole “wildly socially inappropriate” thingy again) but Wiki has managed to turn up this silent film short, apparently recorded at the Moulin Rouge. Yes, that Moulin Rouge. You may now commence being unable to unsee him sharing the stage with Nicole Kidman.
 
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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E05

Hi, I’m Dr. Kenneth Mellanby. And here in this ordinary suburban house in Sheffield, I’d like to give you a horrible parasitic infection for which there is no known cure!

As is its wont, the show bounces back from a wildly uneven episode with a solidly entertaining, intelligent treat that finally begins to build on the lessons in sophistication learned from S4…

In this episode:

Song: Joan of Arc — Martha as the sassy saviour of France takes no prisoners — not even when she’s been taken prisoner herself, by Mat as the Bishop of Beauvais. (Parody of: Jessie J, Price Tag)

Recurring sketches:

Wonders of the Saxon Universe — “We Anglo-Saxons were the first people anywhere in the world to discover the scientific fact that storms are caused by people from a cloud country in the sky, called Mergonia!” “Oh, here we go…”

Tudor Wildlife Magazine — Buy now, while species last! Henry VIII discusses his conservation schemes: specifically, conserving farmland by placing bounties indiscriminately on the wildlife. (“Are you calling me stupid? Because I can have you put on the official vermin list, you know!”)

Stupid Deaths — Hans Steininger (Proud owner of a luxuriant floor-length beard… which turned out to be a problem when trying to run for his life from a fire. (“Ooh, hey — that wasn’t a close shave! Get it? Because you died, and you have a beard, and…” “Ja, thanks.”)

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

God is in the Details — Brother Augustine discovers that the suspicious, superstitious Angles are actually perfectly OK with Christianity… just not with the concept of an all-powerful deity. (“…Bit greedy, isn’t it?” “I don’t think you’re quite getting the hang of this; maybe I should stick around. I’ll call myself the Archbishop of Canterbury, how’s that?” “Sure! And you can be god of something, if you want?”)

Slimy Stuarts

New! Whiffy Jar — Aromatherapy takes a deeply dubious–if handily self-renewing–turn during the search for a plague cure.”Phew! That’s even worse than his…!” “Are we gonna do this now? I am ill, you know.”

Something Fishy at the Royal Society — Wherein treasurer Samuel Pepys makes some even more dubious publishing decisions… of course, he didn’t realise Isaac Newton was about to make a world-shattering physics breakthrough, but still. (“And how many fish historians do you know?” “…One.” “Apart from the bloke who wrote the book!”)

Woeful Second World War

The Sorby Research Institute — Alternate service as a medical test subject: experience all the suffering and inconvenience of life in the field, without actually being killed. Probably not being killed, anyway. (“…Is it too late to sign up for battle?” “You’d never pass the physical.”)

Queen-Fit-Fitters — One’s the one to trust! Wartime mechanic and future monarch Princess Elizabeth takes time out to celebrate her service via a… sprightly… parody of the jingle for the British equivalent of Mister Goodwrench. Because of course she does it’s the last series shut up.

Groovy Greeks

With Your Shield, Or… — For Spartans, identifying cowardice in battle was simple… except that the cowards had totally been trained in Spartan cunning and deceit, too.

New! Spartan Girl Dolls — Pretty much what my explanation of the unique Spartan concept of femininity the other post would’ve looked like, did I have access to an even more than usually anatomically-incorrect Barbie… also, the inability to reach through the screen and clock the little princess for whining about that sweet hunting knife accessory.

Gorgeous Georgians

History’s Greatest Escapes — The Countess of Nithsdale devises an unexpectedly cunning plan to break her Earl out of the Tower of London… really unexpected. (“So what we thinking — burn down this wall and let loose your secret ninjas on the panicked guards while you two leap 200 feet into the icy water below, yeah?!” “No, I’m dressing him as a woman.” “…Right. You know, there is a show called “World’s Stupidest Escapes”, I can give you their number…”)

Fabulous French

Saint Joan the Teenage — The Dauphin of France introduces their unlikely new leader to his openly skeptical army. (“I’m not little, actually, I’m four-foot-ten, which is actually quite tall for my age. Anyway, I’d rather be a bit short than stinky like you!” “Ah… she is a leetle bit, erm, annoying…” “I’m not taking that from a dolphin!”)

Field Notes:

  • “I squid you not”?! OK, erm, Rattus, what I said about getting back to the puns a review or so ago, I didn’t… that is, I… Ah well, should’ve learned my lesson about being careful what I wish for from this show long since…
  • Thing is, though, thanks to this episode for once I have gotten what I wished for from S5. At long last, it’s providing me with evidence that the creative team did truly understand what they had going on in S4. All that leaps-and-bounds brilliance wasn’t a fluke, and moreover was a foundation that could be built on. Yes, I know I should’ve been more trusting to begin with… but you’ve seen that seal blubber business too, right? Right.
  • What makes this sudden burst of experimental energy all the more promising is that for once it’s not tied to the potential of the material. There’s stuff here that’s as shaky as anything we’ve seen yet; the change is in the way they’ve dealt with it. As though every so often, during the creative process, they took a break from desperately throwing out performance tics and novel parodies and plot twists and whatever else might distract for a moment, and settled down to apply that same shrewd, focussed intelligence I celebrated at the start of S4.
  • Then they gathered a whole bunch of those moments together into one episode, and if nothing else earned the profound gratitude of at least one adult critic person. Rather like the relief on rediscovering the Plague Song was a thing in S1, just after the final straw that was “It’s Not True”.
  • It’s nowhere near that desperate by now, of course. Even so, given the events of last episode it’s definitely reassuring that in this one, Queen Elizabeth II doing a jig in a wartime airfield is merely a very minor blip on the way to Jim as genial mad scientist, Mat playing Newton, and multiple debates on the nature and will of God… also, Simon farting into a jar. Because, as I also once mentioned in a long-ago review, some things HH will never change.
  • So yes, about that whole Queen-Fit-Fitters business. Best we get that out of the way right up front, since I am almost certainly not its intended audience, not even after a kind soul found the original inspiration for me. I gather it’s intended as a sort of… cuter… version of God Compare, and indeed, what the random is missing in magnificence it almost makes up for in sheer dedication to the ridiculousness. Particularly Alice’s. There is also mild novelty value in how Martha makes a nice plausible Liz II… albeit it’s beginning to be a trifle distracting that all the female royals have the exact same face.
  • Otherwise, sorry, kids, but clearly your relationship to your royal family is much more complex than I’d ever suspected, here in the land where the Queen merely stares solemnly up from the coinage, and I feel it best to leave you alone with it. Meanwhile I will be over here, really starting to wonder what the discarded 50% of the proposed material looked like, if this (and the seal blubber, have I mentioned that?) is what made the cut.
  • …And then Martha proves all over again she can pwn the entire current crop of pop tartlets even when forced into a pixie bob and an awkwardly flopping breastplate, and I have to forgive her all the things, because damn, girl… woman, I should say. With all due respect. And this despite the song parody choice doing the exact opposite of making me want to plonk myself into an HMV sound booth with the original. Having really bad flashbacks to my failure to feel the similarly-glossy Suffragettes’ Song, over here.
  • This time, though, I’m willing to compromise a bit further. As first mentioned in S2, there’s probably no really effective way Saint Joan’s wholly unique blend of romanticism, mysticism and frank pragmatism could be interpreted for a young audience except via a goof on grrrrl-power cliches. If they don’t have anything nearly as cleverly appealing here as Heavenly Messenger Howick, they do at least have both Martha’s obvious commitment and the wit to cut across the glossiness with Joan’s own memorable words. Evidences of sincerity, duly appreciated.
  • Given all of which, I am enabled to forgive not only all those distracting fleurs-de-lys but the cheezy, wannabe-hipster ‘heavenly’ effects. Mostly. There is still the matter of Mat the impressively stern judge abruptly flapping about like a South Park extra.
  • All of that decided, I am back to wondering what happened to Alice the originator of the role. She’s evidently available this series, and can actually sing. Besides which she has that clever capable mode that I really like, that would’ve been ideal for adding some interest to the otherwise predictable prelude in which Joan is introduced.
  • It’s physically impossible not to smile anyway at Martha doing a note-perfect ‘typical teenager’ (not to mention Ben hauling out a Gallic turn on his usual blustery royal stuff), but seriously now. Did Ms. Howe-Douglas renegotiate her contract in the off-season to insist she has to play every single prominent female character or else? ‘Cos even given artfully dimmed lighting, it really is a bit much when latter-sketch Liz II is suddenly also claiming to be fourteen.
  • On the other hand, large chunks of the aforementioned really good stuff do happen to involve Alice, in a role that plays the clever capable etc. off as a nice witty riff on her particular femininity. The entire ‘Great Escapes’ sketch is like that–cast perfectly not only on the surface but through several satirical layers. Both she and Simon keep perfect control of the comedy while skimming as close to the straight line as possible, so that the whole can be enjoyed as farce without ever losing the thread of adventure. Pure skill creating something wonderfully satisfying…
  • …well, skill, and bored producers assigning Rickard the exotically-accented parts now that dousing him in poop has gotten a bit old, I am increasingly convinced. Much love here for how he has to audibly stop and readjust his Scots in the middle of a line. In other incidental-pleasure news, not sure if Simon is meant to be parodying anybody in particular, but either way, the strategically-cheekbone-enhancing scar, nice touch. Actually, the whole look is sort of strategically-enhancing-Simon-in-general. Dunno how they convinced Willbond to let go of the flak jacket and/or mousse, but I would be open to it becoming a trend.
  • I am however sort of disappointed that they didn’t bother recreating Ben’s Val Kilmer-is-the-Saint ‘do from the first couple Wonders of the Universe sketches. Otherwise, I have nothing but frank and open goodwill towards the return of this series. The mythology is uniquely interesting and the idiot child of the universe schtick remains agreeably daffy, if for no other reason than that I haven’t seen Lawry enjoying himself this much since… erm… well, ever, come to think of it.
  • Otherwise, the absence of Willbond is near-total, excepting a quick characteristic fillip in the Whiffy Jar bit… oh, and another smitch of Henry VIII, which owing to a pleasantly impressive costuming upgrade has suddenly become interesting again. That is, just this once, inner Tudor nerd, we’re going to shut up and appreciate fetching strawberry-blond Benjamin to the full, ‘kay? Standing in a lovely, appropriately aristocratic-looking garden, to boot. If nothing else, any attempt at a Henrician sketch that doesn’t involve chopping heads, marriage or chopping heads after marriage deserves all the encouragement possible.
  • The rest of the leading-man stuff comfortably belongs to Simon, who over the last three series has slid from the lunatic fringes into the solid, dare I suggest nuanced, forefront of the troupe with almost unnervingly assured confidence. Almost, because the farting-in-a-jar. This is not something I ever imagined myself describing as ‘reassuring’, but it is so. In fact, my first viewing of this all-round tiny perfect triumph of casting triggered the most intense bout of nostalgia thus far this series… save possibly the Stupid Deaths segment involving Death blithely ignoring the implications of a bearded skeleton.
  • I am also strongly tempted to say something about his similarly surreal take on Brother Augustine; except that it would be stern, and invoke the perils of over-confidence. Sure, I laughed, but still cannot in good conscience recommend trying it at home, not when an unusually delicate, intriguing bit of comedy material very nearly gets swamped. (Incidentally, also: “Hold the sausage!”… pushing it, guys. Really pushing it.)
  • The whole thing with the Angles and the niceties of conversion to Christianity does manage to hang onto its subtly offbeat charm, thanks either to a deliberately brilliant satirical commentary on the relative value of belief systems that cleverly invokes Clarke’s Third Law to bring a thought-provoking philosophical point down to kiddy level…
  • …or, y’know, they closed their eyes, punched a spot in the encyclopedia index, then bunged Simon and Mat in there and told them to make it work. Either is equally plausible at this point, but I like the results a lot, regardless. Especially Mat consciously playing with his own lack of imposing–oh, and the random blond facial foliage, that’s got even more novelty value than the beard from the SD. Although the beard does come with the same prissy downtown-art-gallery-owner accent last heard on Gutenberg, so it’s a close-run thing.
  • Speaking of Mat’s prime command of prissiness: The Royal Society sketch is totally my new Most Favourite Sketch Ever, and I honest and true really mean it this time, pinky swear. Even if it didn’t hit all my particular HH buttons dead-on, it’s still easily the best prose thing in this series, and equally easily among the top ten sketches ever. An elegant-yet-endearing triumph in the same vein as S4’s Borgia/Godfather sketch: every element the show has mastered, exquisitely perfect in every way and interacting perfectly from there. Up to and including Simon refining the quiet skill thing to the point where what was designed merely as a springboard for Mat and Jim’s antics morphs into an actual performance that very nearly steals the show.
  • Of course, that was never going to actually happen or anything, and especially not when that particular duo are under those wigs exploring a whole new dimension of their nervy genius-vs-plain commonsense chemistry. This troupe knows each other’s creative strengths to an almost scarily precise degree at this point; whatever other production problems the producers encountered, casting must’ve been an unqualified delight. All props to Baynton particularly for restraining himself insofar as possible; making Jim’s exaggerated bluster that much more hilarious in response. Proven ability to respect intellectual excitement while still fully honouring the idiocy: yet another reason to be excited for Bill-the-film.
  • Meantime, over at the Sorby Research Institute, Jim is doing another kind of smart-guy sell, and it is fully as entertaining. Again, loving how this creative team now knows each other well enough to not only rely on individual schticks but pull off this type of complicated, clever experiment with them. It’s the same old creepy-cuddly Howick hilarity, except turned inside-out then held upside-down and sideways. Until you’re not entirely sure what to think, except that you are just incredibly creeped out by this cuddly little elderly man earnestly doing his best for his country’s war effort.
  • It helps that it’s Larry opposite him, doing the resigned disbelief he’d previously perfected as a Fashion Fix victim… come to think of it, that might explain the outfit here, they were trying to help get him in the mood. Really, it’s the uncannily accurate “All Creatures Great and Small client” vibe that gives the performance, Rickard just has to follow along looking increasingly miserable. All that’s missing is the little terrier.
  • After all that rampant innovation, the Spartan shield business comes across as positively refreshing: a nice little classic Jim’n’Larry palate-cleanser… yeah, I just now realised afresh that that’s a thing in my world, and am suddenly very, very happy in my heart cockles. The Spartan material has the great benefit to begin with of naturally working perfectly as throwaway anecdotes, a minute or so being the exact time available to thoroughly enjoy the funny before the uglier implications have a chance to kick in.
  • Which leads us finally to the Spartan Girl advert. I have been putting this off partly because I’m slightly terrified that the show and I are clearly now locked in a symbiotic comic relationship (see history notes for S05E02), and partly because, even though creatively it’s an amusing riff on little girls and their Barbies (of which I totally was one), in all other ways it’s just an incredibly annoying about-face from celebrating Jeanne d’Arc.
  • Turning the relative freedom and empowerment of Spartan female culture back on itself merely ‘cos it’s not ‘girly’ enough strikes me as very much throwing out the great teachable moment with the frankly tepid comedic bathwater. I’m really disappointed that they wouldn’t take the chance, in the final series, to…
  • …*thinks back to all that genuine excitement over scientific achievement*
  • *sigh* Fine, show, you win again. Just…well… watch it, OK?

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes, Saint Joan. For the full context surrounding the goofy gyrations (in particular, why I’m so weirded out at Mat’s share) check out S02E07. Actually, you might want to check that sketch out just on g.p’s–Alice deserves her due, and the chance to witness Apologetic Angel Howick in all his glory never a bad thing.
  • Otherwise, given that both my major topics have been poached, and everything else is basically self-explanatory anecdotes, we’re a little light on fun historical sidelights this week. Especially since I never did find anything further re: the Anglo-Saxon Sky Kingdom of Storms, and am severely cranky as a consequence. Anybody care to give me the scoop in the comments, I’d be much obliged.
  • I did manage to find out that cute little Doctor Mellanby was absolutely a real doctor… well, a real entomologist and ecologist, anyway. Actually, he was Major Kenneth Mellanby, CBE, Sorby Research Fellow of the Royal Society in the Zoology Department at the University of Sheffield, whose death in 1993 was accompanied by the kind of public-service and medical-breakthough-filled eulogies you really wouldn’t mind having. The sketch here catches him more or less at the start of his career, when an interest in scabies–caused by mites, in case you’re still wondering about the connection–led to the Sorby project (link highly recommended for a more detailed overview) which in turn led to all those other fun bits of medical research…
  • …which in turn led to his argument at the Nuremberg tribunal that the Nazis’ own notorious medical experiments were… well… It was Mellanby’s view that Nazi medical research was justified by its long-term scientific benefit, despite the human costs: the death of each victim had the indirect potential to save thousands of lives in the future. ‘If their sufferings could in any way add to medical knowledge and help others, surely this is what they would have preferred.’…Mellanby also justified the malaria experiments that were carried out in what he called the ‘reasonably humane’ concentration camp at Dachau. 
  • Yeah, so this, ah, unique theory got him completely curb-stomped by the prosecution at Nuremberg shortly afterwards, thanks for asking. Although the same link notes that it’s possible to defend Mellanby somewhat based on just how urgently important two World Wars had made the field of wartime medicine. Besides which, the man did establish the first university in Nigeria, at Ibadan. And was a prolific writer on environmental causes, eventually founding the journal Environmental Pollution. And–if Wiki is to be believed–wrote a children’s book called Talpa, the story of a mole. Still… ‘reasonably humane’. Brrrrr.
  • On a much-needed lighter note, Hans Steininger: definitely also real, and definitely the star of more than one online list of bizarre deaths. Unfortunately he lived well before the age of photography, so instead, have a 1927 snap of Hans Langseth, Danish owner of the longest recorded beard in history–17.3 feet (in case it’s not clear at first glance at the photo, that’s the rest of it braided and slung back over his shoulder)–or approximately four times ol’Hans the First’s superior in the matter of luxuriant facial fungus. Evidently much luckier when it came to beard-related accidents, too. What it is about men named Hans that particularly compels them to bury their chins, on the other hand, we may never know…
 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E04

These Romans think they’re minted
But they ain’t rich like me
You can’t call yourself loaded
Till you can buy an army…

Some more old standbys return for an offbeat, odds-and-ends romp in which the purely golden moments still manage to bridge the creative cracks… just barely. They were saved by the timely application of Roman grime rap, is basically what I am saying here.

In this episode:

Song:  Crassus: Minted — Simon as the forgotten third member of the First Roman Triumvirate explains via the traditional route for HH royalty — ie, party-intensive hip-hop — why he couldn’t care less about the fame, so long as he had the fortune. (Parody of: Dizzee Rascal, Bonkers)

Recurring sketches:

Dominic Duckworth: HHTV Investigates — Touching for the King’s Evil: A Viable Healthcare System? (Nope, even in HH reality, Charles II in maroon can’t actually cure what ails you.”This is Dom Duckworth, in Stuart England, covered in the remains of an Ancient Egyptian mummy… which is a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say.”)

Thou Hast Been Framed — Roman royal blooper special

Words We Get From — Jeremy Bentham

Stupid Deaths — Sophie Blanchard (Ballooning pioneer who decided her dramatic public ascent could only be improved by: setting off fireworks. After said ascent. “Now, where were we?” *phhhbbbbbttttthhhhhh* “…that was the balloon.”)

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Magazine — The magazine everyone in Saxon England should read! “…well, as long as they’re monks.” “What happened to the vow of silence?!” “Oh, right. Starting now…”

Historical Apprentice — Team Monk vs. Team Johannes Gutenberg vie to demonstrate the most efficient printing technology… except not really, that’s a given, so we’re all just here for more ‘vow of silence’ jokes. Unfortunately. (“Just to recap: Team Gutenberg single-handedly started a revolution in communication… and Team Monk here gave us a few pretty letters? Team Monk, what d’you have to say for yourselves?!” “…?”)

HHTV Sport — Live as Emma Sharp completes her thousand-mile walk in one thousand hours, Bradford,1864 (“Somebody stop ‘er! I’ve ‘eard of men doing it, but whoever ‘eard of a woman doing something so physically demanding? It shouldn’t be possible! …also I bet ten quid that she couldn’t.”)

One-offs:

Woeful Second World War

Canine Covert Ops — In which the German attempt to train canine spies gets just a tad over-optimistic, even for the ‘delusional-egomaniacal-dictator-insists-on-total-control’ system of military strategy. (“Perhaps you will be more easily impressed by Private Rolf. He taps his paw in a different way for each letter… Is there anything you wish to say to ze General, Rolf? Ah: WOOF…”)

Corporal Wojtek — Well, no, the Polish army giving a brown bear a commission wasn’t strictly what you might call ‘normal operating procedure’ either. But definitely lots more badass.

Vicious Vikings

I Can’t Believe You’ve Got Me Eating Seal Blubber! — Dude, not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re living in ancient Scandinavia. How is this stranger (or less fishy-tasting) than the walrus?

Frostbite Follies — Erik the Red’s heated attempt to lure settlers to the ‘sun-drenched paradise’ of Greenland inevitably gets put on ice. (“P-p-p-pour me a drink, Magnus!” “I c-c-an’t — the beer is frozen, and the jug is st-stuck to my hand! I’ve g-got jug-hand!”)

Gorgeous Georgians

Jeremy Bentham, I Presume — Tea with one of Britain’s leading sociopolitical thinkers comes sweetened with a nice dose of eccentricity. (“We must demystify death, sir! Surround ourselves with it, and we will lose our fear of mortality!” “But… you can’t keep corpses in a garden!” “Yes, well.. perhaps you’re right, the weather would rot them. Maybe I’ll just display some preserved heads in a specially modified cabinet.”)

Vile Victorians   

The Original Media Darling — Captivating young heroine Grace D. and her dad negotiate the perils of pre-Internet celebrity… well not really, we’re mostly just here for Sarah H. in another bald cap. Which is at least an improvement over the muffled monks.

Field Notes:

  • Forgotten credit weirdness, update: Someone… I’m gonna say Lawry?… totally making chipmunk face behind (naturally enough) ‘Your host, a talking rat’. Yes, with appropriate makeup and everything. You can see why I’m getting more sceptical about this experimental business by the review, here. At the least, I now definitively feel much better about the non-existence of a Series Six, because if we are already channeling Chip’n’Dale in this series I am reasonably certain they would’ve resorted to Transformers-based satire in the next. Or maybe Historical Government, featuring Rob Ford jokes…
  • …Actually, while typing all this I did have an idea for a Kafka-inspired song, featuring Lawry as the cockroach guy, and maybe a Freudian cameo from Simon. I’m a little sad about missing that, now.
  • However I am getting over it fast, because this week’s real experiment in musical originality involves a full-on attempt to top Charles II, the Eminem-inspired King of Bling. It fails, of course, if for no other reason than the attempt to compensate for Ben’s juggling with Ben making what he fondly assumes are happening hand gestures… gesture, really. (I think it may actually be the same one he’s making in the iconic stock photo of Charlie and cronies.) Just had another missed-opportunity-based mental image, of Caesar drunkenly tossing Crassus’ minor room ornaments around in the background, and am even sadder. I don’t even get Pompey showing off his Electric Slide. Larry Rickard, you have let me down.
  • Right, yes, nominally at least still a kiddy show, I do get that. And even for the adults, casting Farnaby as legendary mega-zillionaire Marcus Licinus Crassus, Grime God among mere partying mortals, is still pushing the boundaries of regal rap out to deeply pleasing new levels of ridiculousness. First reaction is ‘Really? Simon?’ and the second, approx ten seconds in, is ‘Of course, Simon!” After all, when you recall how convincingly his Caligula boogied down in S3, this begins to seem no more than the solidly logical followup.
  • The overall effect, coming directly after Dickens the definitive musical celebration of erudition, is of the wild post-exam bash in the frat house, and equally exhilarating… the return of Grandmaster Funk Willbond and all… up to and including Mat tonguing the camera. Y’know, guys, I might have a bit less difficulty remembering the demographic boundaries if you’d quit randomly forgetting them yourselves.
  • Incidentally, everyone’s also evidently forgotten that they’d firmly established that same Baynton as General Pompey way back in S1; or possibly are merely trying to forget that at that stage they still weren’t above ripping off Python scenes wholesale. Kind of pleasingly ironic really, given that back then it was ol’ Pom who got the credit–correctly reassigned here, interestingly enough–for Crassus’ reviving the Decimation punishment.
  • Anyway, Mat gets something of his own back–accent, even more so than usual, on the ‘something’–when Charles II flits in for his annual go at driving more rational characters absolutely nuts. That the rationality in this case is represented by Dom “Stone-Face” Duckworth is a great idea, absolutely inspired… but in practice, it ends up hilighting just how far Charlie has veered from the genuinely intriguing original, in much the same way as Henry VIII. (It may-or-may not be a coincidence that this comparative indifference kicked in around the same time Mat also started getting vocal about the show’s failure to hilight the Merry Monarch’s less fun, more autocratic qualities.)
  • Which doesn’t really spoil this party in the slightest, because: Dom! Most excellent choice of recurring bit to bring back for further development, show… even if you might want to quit developing the hair, at least, while you’re ahead. Also, Jim, it wouldn’t hurt to back off the ‘crusading reporter’ voice just an itty-bitty smidge, there.
  • I am also a bit concerned, given that this is a character best-remembered for getting clocked in the face by a fish-wielding knight, by his failure to pass the stuck-in-the-HH universe spot check here. Duckworth ol’buddy, if your bar for implausible statements is still set that low you are setting yourself up for for a world of hurt… or at least, an encounter with the chipmunk-face guy. As it is, we’re clearly now just fine with the blatant fat jokes in Howick’s direction, which let me be the first to say: Huh. O…kay, then. I guess.
  • On the other hand, much decisive excitement re: the return of Steve “Not Actually Eric Idle, But…” Punt. In fact, tell me why we didn’t develop him as the de facto seventh member of the troupe instead of Lawry, again? He was there first, and as far as I can tell, wouldn’t have had much of a problem handling the neurotic. Meanwhile, check the impressive lineup of fully-made-up extras behind him! …Most of whom don’t actually look all that ill, and certainly don’t appear to comprise any sort of viable ‘crush’, but I am certainly not complaining, because in HH terms it’s ruddy Downton Abbey.
  • I think I would be a bit more sympathetic toward Jim the target if Hannibal: The Return wasn’t also the star of this week’s ‘Thou Hast Been Framed’. Which bit has already been established as highly problematic re: performer dignity, and here… Oh God, Howick, please can you just knock off the Colonel Sanders impersonation before they make you give back the BAFTA, OK? (On the plus side, last series elephants made out of stagehands and flannel, this series papier-mache. Result!… no, I don’t know what it would be, exactly, only that it’s encouraging.)
  • Oh, and also: Fine, show, we’ve definitively established liking the bagpipes puts me on par with Emperor Nero. Thanks to you lot I am strangely OK with this, so there.
  • Let’s get back on the happiness train alongside Jim as Jeremy Bentham, revelling in the chance to spend quality time being, essentially, a Doctor Who character, which from all appearances turns out to be fully as delightful an experience as I’ve always envisioned.
  • It’s a delightful experience altogether, this sketch; the show hasn’t made my brain feel smiley all over like this since the HParamedics fled the scene for good. Add Bentham to the list of Concepts They Really Should’ve Found Long Since; now they have to cram in all the rich comic goodness at once, and still wind up sticking the really excellent bit into the quiz for afters. All of which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–except when I start thinking about how I could’ve been watching Bentham’s precious eccentricity unfold instead of, say, the Historical Pet Shop, or for that matter any given iteration of the Baron Rothschild and his chimps…
  • Ah well, at least I can cross the return of Lawry the magnificently snarky butler from last series’ Victorian bits, and Ben doing what he totally should’ve been back when Martin Luther was involved, off my wish list before it’s too late. And this time there’s no toilet jokes involved, either–quite the reverse, in fact. (Protip: accidentally pausing on video of Jim cooing at a teapot really should come with insulin warnings.)
  • It’s all part of an interesting new trend I’ve noticed as the material moves further and further away from the books. In general, it appears to be getting… well… nicer, is the best way I can put it. Still gleefully scatological, and violent where needed, but not nearly as dedicated to the anarchistic ‘stuff they don’t teach you at school’ undertone. I can’t speak to the precise motives or priorities of the new crew of fact-gatherers, but it’s obvious that the kiddies are being challenged to develop their understanding of human nature on a whole ‘nother level. Taken together with the ongoing gains in creative complexity, entering S6 it likely would’ve been nigh-unrecognizable as HH at all. One wonders if T.Deary was impressed or otherwise by the prospect.
  • Having unveiled said thesis, damned if they haven’t found one last surefire vein of anarchic stupidity to mine, and it began with the “Don’t Wake the Fuehrer” bit last series. Yes, I know delusional megalomania that leads to innocent deaths isn’t at all funny, and I also know the show knows that–see: Titanic sketch. Still, man, the possibilities in the Reich’s increasing detachment from reality as the war waned have got me all bouncy on the edge of my seat here, going “Ooh, ooh! Next, can we have the story about how Goebbels diverted entire desperately-needed divisions from the front to be extras in a major propaganda film, so that by the time it was finished they had to cancel the Berlin premiere because the theatre had been bombed out?”
  • … Right, this show has turned me into a terrible, terrible person. But for the moment at least I do not care, because it is pure gold, this intricate and clever canine bit, even if Martha & Mat’s accents aren’t any of the above. Frankly, I’m a bit torn here, casting-wise; I wouldn’t trade Mat’s slow realisation that he’s slipping down the rabbit hole for anything — except maybe the equally glorious set of possibilities that would be Ben, filling out the uniform properly, with That German Accent. Man, the kind of problems you want to have, huh?
  • On the other hand of surreal glories past: we have reached the point in the history of Stupid Deaths when even skeletons in shiny party hats cannot shake me from faintly melancholy nostalgia … and then suddenly it’s all whoa, callbacks to Death the despiser of foreigners from Moliere’s SD! Helium voice! Balloon-fart gags! Martha doing a neatly and appealingly toned-down version of her Madame Tussaud from S3! Perhaps still not the most sublime comic heights you’ve ever achieved with this bit, show, but I do really appreciate the thoroughness of the effort to cheer me up.
  • So, based on the accent, Gutenberg turns out to have been a direct descendant of Vercingetorix? And is possibly an ancestor of the Fashion Fix host? Well hey, Mat, I’d be upset with you for thus pointlessly trivialising one of the great figures of intellectual history (and a personal hero of mine), but that and Jim’s sweet new neckbeard are about all that’s keeping me going through the latest Historical Apprentice sketch–which is saying something when not only S.Punt but Greg J. are also sitting nearby–so carry on.
  • And we will not even get into your line in ‘trying to pretend it’s summer on an ice floe’ gags, because whew, at least the vow of silence ditto apparently had some sort of satirical purpose. Here… well, even given the sheer obviousness of it all understandably weighing you down, you still had Nordic Larry available front and centre and… y’know, maybe that was the problem, actually. I kept waiting for the weird to really take off and break loose, and all I got were a couple of broken thumbs; too little, too late. If you ever wondered what an actual earnest children’s show version of HH would look like, this would probably be it… complete with crappy dollar-store cardboard snowman.
  • This illusion was not hurt at all by the preceding ode to seal blubber, which of all the whacky food trivia this show has brought forth (two words: Whale. Phlegm.) it doesn’t even rate as remotely quirky. I mean, yeah, they got Lawry to do the kvetching in his dependably impressive Victorian Cockney mode, which it says a lot about this bit that that actually helps rather than merely increases the odd–but still.
  • Much more interestingly, at least for the non-UK viewer: you lot still advertise that not-butter stuff over there? I mean, not judging or anything, whatever provides your cheap-breakfast-spread needs. Just saying that, at this point, most North Americans would rather go for the blubber.
  • Contrariwise to all of the above, and to my intense personal gratification to boot, the show for once manages to turns up an entirely unexpected yet utterly awesome everyday heroine, thus continuing the tradition of my having to forgive them everything at the last minute. Especially because, total unexpected bonus alert, Larry as the sport reporter! I don’t know why I like him so much in this guise, exactly; possibly it has something to do with watching him play blandly cheerful while all the while knowing what he’s really capable of… exactly as per the last punchline.
  • We are also treated to a great plot twist in the ongoing series of wartime animal heroes: the animal survives the experience! Well, at least you can finally cross PETA off the list of potentially annoyed special interest groups, show!
  • More seriously, thwe whole thing is a much better use of the animation than is typical in the final few series, and a very welcome expansion into other nations’ wartime experiences to boot. It’s a bit surprising we haven’t seen more of those, actually; you’d have to believe that, in the search for new and novel Horrible material, this would’ve  developed into a really fertile field. Not to mention, you’ve got Ben and his knack for Eastern European accents, besides the others and their…
  • …*pictures Larry attempting a Bohemian lilt*…
  • …Y’know, maybe it’s all for the best as-is.
  • Anyway, there will always be the Victorian sketches, maintaining their unusual thoughfulness and lush detail to the end. I may have been unduly influenced in this by a recent viewing of North and South, but am convinced that the saga of Grace Darling, whatever its shortcomings as fascinating historical folly, is nevertheless about as close and precise as we’re ever likely to get to a pure satire of the BBC’s historical-drama vibe.
  • I may also have been influenced by Mat, doing his fully charming bit in the noble cause of keeping up with the bald cap–no, not by attempting that accent, or at least not just that accent–and no, not by being Sarah H.’s dad, that actually works out quite well, or at least better than it did when Martha tried the same stunt. It’s just… if there’s one thing completely and consistently effortless about this series, it’s the cast’s ability to bring the weird. And frankly it is a damn good thing there is Yonderland and Bill, otherwise I might have found myself really… sniffly about that, right now.

95% Accu-rat:

  • You think I’m kidding, about the sheer volume of eccentric goodness Jeremy Bentham had yet to give? Look on his QI Infocloud page, ye skeptic, and despair. Not that I am bitter or anything, but I will just point out again that very nearly all the info in that cloud was ignored by the entire HH creative community for years, while they conducted an inexplicable love affair with a guy who merely dined with chimps. Bentham, on the other hand, turns out to have actively changed the world not only for the cuter, but for the better:
  • Odd though he was, Bentham is an important thinker. His idea that ordinary people were entitled to happiness struck at the heart of the entrenched rights of the aristocracy, the Crown and the judicial system. He opposed slavery, capital and corporal punishment; he believed in equal rights for women, and for animals; and called for the decriminalising of homosexuality; he praised free trade and freedom of the press; he supported the right to divorce and urged the separation of the church and state. Most of what we now call liberalism can be traced back to Bentham and his protégé, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).
  • About the only crazy market Bentham didn’t have cornered was the effect of great wealth; he was content to putter around writing and snoring and naming teapots and whatnot. Marcus Licinius Crassus, on the other hand, took no prisoners–quite literally–on his way to becoming the wealthiest single private individual in history. It’s always a bit tricky to sort fiscal historical reality from the exaggerations, but in modern terms, adjusted for inflation etc, some estimate that the man had a net worth of nearly two trillion US dollars. Here, I’ll write that out for you (in the British notation): $2,000,000,000,000.
  • And this after the previous generation had managed to lose the entire already-impressive family fortune playing politics. Having once got a tiny shred of influence back, Crassus proceeded to methodically rebuild said fortune to Scrooge McDuck-like levels by the time-honoured method of having absolutely no moral or ethical scruples whatsoever. By ‘Took the land off enemies to flog it’ the song means running the government’s list of “proscriptions”, ie. those declared enemies of the state. The listees’ possessions would then be confiscated and auctioned off–basically, modern-day estate auctions, only with a lot more elaborate family shame and disgrace and stuff. It’s said that Crassus added at least one wealthy enemy to the proscription list outright.
  • Once hip to the possibilities of screwing other people out of their funds, and steadily regaining influence because of it, Crassus got more and more brazen. Alongside the fire-brigade scam hilighted in the song, there is also the story (via Plutarch) of his seduction of a young relative of his, Licinia, wholly in order to get his gold-plated paws on her “pleasant villa in the suburbs… at a good price”.
  • Sure, standard operating procedure in Ancient Rome–except that Licinia was a Vestal Virgin, bound to a State-sponsored vow of chastity. Thus forcing even the most jaded public officials to go “Tut, tut” in the zillionaire’s general direction, although of course money–aided by his politician’s tongue–easily talked Crassus out of any official immortality charges. History doesn’t record what happened to Licinia, except that it was definitely minus one pleasant villa.
  • And then there’s poor old Erik “the Red” Thorvaldsson, hoist by his own petard into an icy hell-hole. As it turns out, he wasn’t even able to claim the honours of discovery; according to Wiki, Tradition credits  Gunnbjörn Ulfsson (also known as Gunnbjörn Ulf-Krakuson) with the first sighting of the land-mass….nearly a century before Erik… After Gunnbjörn, Snaebjörn Galti had also visited Greenland.  Apparently neither of these guys had Erik’s PR expertise (as many an MMORPG player has discovered, having a flaming ginger beard will do wonders for your warrior cred) and, more to the point, they didn’t manage to establish permanent settlements.
  • Yep, outlandish as it sounds, Erik’s little etymological scam in reality worked a treat. Granted, mostly with poor Icelandic famine victims, but, y’know, details. It’s anyway generally believed that the new settlement would have been significantly more ‘green’ back then, the island historically being notoriously subject to rapid climate shifts:  Interpretation of ice core and clam shell data suggests that between 800 and 1300 AD, the regions around the fjords of southern Greenland experienced a relatively mild climate several degrees Celsius higher than usual in the North Atlantic, with trees and herbaceous plants growing and livestock being farmed. Barley was grown as a crop up to the 70th parallel.
  • At any rate, within just a few years after his return from exile in 982, Erik had managed to attract a fair few thousand settlers to the imaginatively named Eastern and Western Settlements respectively. Whereupon he promptly named himself paramount chieftain of the whole schmear, built himself a grand estate and became both “greatly respected and wealthy”. Thus everybody lived happily ever after… or at least until the fifteenth century, when another ice age kicked in and farming became impossible once again.
  • It’s not made clear in the sketch itself, but the reason everyone therein is so het up about Emma Sharp’s attempt (or for that matter, is giving her any attention at all) is because covering 1000 miles in the shortest possible time turns out to be historically a pretty big deal, it being the longest recognised standard distance. For awhile there at the turn of the 19th century, quite a few intrepid (also, male) sporty types earned a handsome living taking bets that they could walk it in x hours. Emma’s definitely a worthy candidate for feature treatment, but I have a soft spot for George Wilson, dauntless dare-taker extraordinaire:
  • …[He] became involved in great controversy when in the middle of one of his 20 day 1000 mile wagers he was stopped by the authorities and charged with causing a breach of the peace. He lost the wager and ended up in debtor’s prison. Unbowed, he then proceeded to walk 50 miles in 12 hours in a tiny prison yard, a mere 11 yards by 8, making 9.026 turns!
 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Series Five

 

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