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.