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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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S05E02

We introduced some new words: husband, gasp, egg, awkward, nag, leg
More than fifty words to leave your lingo
To your liking, thank a Viking

The show settles down to establishing the parameters for the final series, and in the process we learn definitively that, in HH terms, closure’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

In this episode:

Song:  Vikingland (Vikings and Garfunkel) — Nordic invaders Jim and Mat explain how, on arrival in Britain, they gave up savagery for sweet harmony… and really stupid wigs.

Recurring sketches:

Dodgy War Inventions — No.92: The WWII Bat Bomb (Turns out attaching ordnance to something tiny with a tendency to escape into the hangar rafters is a bad idea, go figure.)

CD Set — Now That’s What They Called Greek Battle Music! (Beats to both unleash and strategically restrain your inner world-beater… “Buy now, while enemies last!”)

Historical Don’t Tell the Bride — Spartan (Transforming the bride into not only her husband’s dream but his double, for reasons… not more than demurely hinted at here. Which, given the existence of the Spartan School Musical, is hilarious all by itself.)

Stupid Deaths — Arthur John Priest (Actually escaped the Titanic… also, several other high-profile sinkings…. earning him the first ever one-way ticket back to the ‘long and boring’ Boring Deaths line. (“Listen mate, if you’ve only lost a couple of tootsies, you’re not going to impress anyone here, you follow?” *points to skeletons*)

Thou Hast Been Framed! — Botched Tudor execution special

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Mary Shelley Project (“Your story’s been made into a film already! There’s Frankenstein, Frankenstein, Frankenstein…” “…Young Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein…” “…Count Duckula…” “No, that’s the other guy.” “Oh, right.”)

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

The Happy Highwayman — Raffish rogue Claude Duval invents the inexplicable musical interlude a full two hundred years before Broadway. (“Stand and deliver!… by which I mean, stay seated and give me stuff.”)

Woeful Second World War

The Great Carrot Caper — The Allied cover story to hide their new radar systems translates to an unusual new diet for German pilots — and mealtime dismay for small children ever since.  (“Zhen zhere is only one thing for it: Ve must build a veapon to destroy ze vorld’s carrots!… and just to be safe, any other brightly-coloured root vegetable.”)

Troublesome Twentieth Century

A Titanic Disaster — The clueless crew of what’s about to become history’s  most famous marine tragedy gather for a cruelly revealing ‘safety check’.  (“Right then, I think I deserve a nightcap! Ooh, hey — anybody know where I can get some ice?”)

Vicious Vikings

Righteous Resolutions — Feuding warriors unveil their most fearsomely unexpected tactic ever: sober, reasoned… erm, negotiation? So being totally disappointed that it’s not  berserkers would make me a terrible person right about now? Right, figures.

Terrible Tudors

Ready for the Religious Switchover? — Henry VIII appoints himself Supreme Head of the Church: even more autocratic a monopoly than your cable company. Or at least, with more axes. “Just tick the box that says ‘I accept the supreme authority of the King’, and you’ll be able to carry on as normal. But if you refuse… then you can just talk to one of our special advisors about the other options available.”

Gorgeous Georgians

Twit Light — Brooding Lord Byron is forced to disillusion a breathless groupie: he’s not a vampire, merely an “incredibly pretentious poet”… so, basically, ye olde tyme teen girl’s  equivalent of a Stephanie Meyer vampire.

Field Notes: 

  • So I was re-reading my S4 reviews, just as a way of getting back into the groove, and was struck by the difference in tone between S04E01 and now. The different level of seriousness it demanded. Back then, and throughout that series as a whole, I was tossing around words like “elegant”, “subtle” and “complex” as if they were popcorn. By contrast, it’s only the second episode of S5, and I’m already writing things like “Texas Larry is channeling Mr T alongside Jim as a meditative Spartan in a Katy Perry wig”, then glancing into my lemonade with real concern. I mean, yes, I was the one last review fully applauding the decision to let the cast loose as a coping mechanism, but there are limits.
  • Clearly, there also needs to be a reassessment of my assumptions, last seen in S04E12, re: series progression. I had been under the impression that it was simple enough: even-numbered series were the creative leaps, after which the odd-numbered ones represented the perfectly stuck landings. So that S2 was a flat-out romp through possibilities unleashed, while S3 did in fact consolidate that. It solidified the show’s ambitions, and gave the creative team the ferocious confidence in their own sophistication that then, despite the rapidly encroaching issues with content, propelled S4 to new heights of purely elegant comedy…
  • …and now here we are in S5, and that sophistication train is still moving forward, but somewhere in the process (I would guess, right after they realised they’d be tossing out half their material even before production began) fluctuating confidence levels have turned it into a roller-coaster ride. Occasional positively  breathtaking arabesques of elegant complexity are underlaid by a sort of skittishness, as if all involved had only just looked down from the creative limb they’d crawled out on and realised the safety net–not only in terms of the books’ content, but equally surefire tone and delivery–was finally, irrevocably gone.
  • Meaning that the various attempts to deal with this on-the-fly identity crisis result in Series Five often coming across more as a replay of Series One. With a bigger budget, (much) better music and several more intriguing characters and concepts accumulated to experiment with… but also with the ever-present danger of Larry’s freeform redneck stylings.
  • Which is one of many reasons why it’s hilarious that Jim’s the one in the credits again under “horrors that defy description”… well, there is the Katy Perry wig, but oddly enough that’s not the clip in question. This one has somehow escaped my memory, despite the enormous top hat. I await developments with great interest.
  • Otherwise, the production upgrades have done that keep-up-with-the-budget-increase thing they do most excellently every year, to the point that by now there’s not a whole lot of interest here to note… except perhaps that Rattus has swopped out the homey portrait of the ‘rents for a more upscale Victorian ancestor complete with top hat. Which if you think too deeply about the circs under which that was painted you… have a pretty good idea for a children’s story, that I am now copyrighting, by the way.
  • Evidently the little guy has been seduced further (another teeny raise?) into semi-respectability this year, and has adjusted his demeanour accordingly. Understandable, but if he pulls out a teeny coffee mug at any point, I’m gonna be cranky.
  • Meanwhile, I am already deeply irked at the return of Henry VIII’s frankly stupid college-sweatshirt-and-strawberry-curls combo from S3. The sheer inexplicability of this outfit actually becomes something of an unintentionally hilarious punchline here, as Henry the Ratty-Ikea-Throw-Clad is required to hold up the famous portrait depicting what he really looked like at this point. Which is not nearly as fetching as strawberry-blond Willbond, I am willing to concede, but still. Geez, show, you go to the trouble of giving Cartoon Tudor Lady a whole new accent, but can’t give the King even a bit of bling?
  • (Along the same lines, we will not even get into how much that isn’t Sir Thomas More… and I’m not best pleased with Anne Boleyn, either, frankly. Warning: standard Tudor nerd rant oncoming below.)
  • Oh, and speaking of production peculiarities, there is also the debut of the Hadland in a Bald Cap saga: the single most surreally weird running gag in HH series history… and can I just mention one more time that the competition included Larry’s Texan accent? Thank you.
  • At that, it’s about the only possible thing Sarah H. could’ve done to have topped her run as Mandy the Historical Dental Assistant from last series, so, y’know, my respect for her dedication to the strange takes another significant step toward overcoming my disdain for her shrill little voice. I am fascinated by this particular manifestation because given the structure of the show’s production process, there is just no way that it wasn’t intentional.
  • It’s like it was one of those experiments I described above, where everybody sat down at a meeting and went “You know what would really help to distract from the ongoing slightness of our material? If we did this thing where the crazy-eyes lady constantly ends up bald.” That they were correct in no way distracts from the magnificent randomness of the thought process.
  • In this case, they may have been trying to distract from more than that. The convincingly rather sweet giggly little pre-wedding party vibe is cute and all, and bounces off the warrior stuff decently, but the really entertaining sketch possibilities are hidden in the more complex reasons behind the Spartan marriage customs. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your concept of parenthood) you’ll recall from the ‘love’s banned until you’re thirty’ fudge that even this production team occasionally develops cold feet… although the reference to “all me army buddies” does serve as a nicely subtle hint.
  • Another problem inherent in turning slight little footnotes into full-on what-the-hell hijinks: a tendency toward narrative overkill. Possibly I’ve been  reading too much Etiquette Hell, but frankly, guys, at least as you portray it: no,  the groom kidnapping the bride for some extra pre-wedding-night fun, not all that whacky.
  •  Of course, if there was ever an episode in which it’s possible to forgive the makeup team all the things (except maybe those wasp stings in S1) the one containing this song would be it. Mat and Jim as Hippie Viking Simon & Garfunkel is this season’s God Compare moment: it exists as its own, perfect quantum singularity of silly. Thus it’s frankly a good thing it’s not quite a perfect takeoff, or it would have torn a hole in the very fabric of creativity and we’d all have literally died laughing.
  • As it is, it comes dangerously close, thanks to HH’s most charmingly unpredictable comedy duo–and of course Larry their constant sidekick–doing it again. Technically, it’s a pure triumph; the vocals, esp the harmonies, soar beyond ‘loving tribute’ into the realm of the absolutely uncanny, and the little *trip* at the end is an almost achingly perfect act of mickey-taking. Plus, especially if you happen to have watched the Boast Battle just beforehand, Rickard’s enthusiastic petal-strewing is besides everything else the single funniest self-parody you will ever see.
  • All involved are, unsurprisingly, having just a tad too much fun to maintain S&G’s trademark  solemn, otherworldly intensity–albeit this may be unavoidably tied into sheer-wig-silliness levels, as Jim does the better job of it. Similarly, the focus on Richie Webb’s weaving in the musical cues is understandable given the new heights of brilliance achieved, but means the whole loses track of the contrast between the ethereally lovely melodies and sharp, often bleakly sarcastic lyrics that was the real heart of their style. A missed opportunity, really, given the subject matter…
  • …but by no means a fatal one. In fact, after several viewings’ practice at keeping a straight face, it’s possible to appreciate both song and preceding skit for the novelty interest alone. (Fun mirth-enhancing side project: imagine that’s the same thoroughly domesticated Wilbondian warrior from the Viking Wife Swap. For extra credit, go on to picture the whole thing as a Hanna-Barbera-esque anachronistic sitcom.) I’ve always enjoyed the show’s brief deviations into not-axe-intensive Viking culture… although, erm, about that whole thing with the feuding and the berserkers and whatnot in S2…? Wait, that actually ended with reasoned negotiation too, didn’t it. Shoot.
  • On the further subject of novelty and Willbond: Ben gets most of the credit for the latest oddball highwayman sketch, and rightly so, but for me there’s even more fun to be had in Simon the impatient holdup victim: he gets a rare (come to think of it, possibly unique) moment as the voice of reason, and they still manage to make it completely surreal.
  • Ben does make a ridiculously charming job of the kind of insouciance more usually reserved for Mat; it’s worth remembering he can do a killer French accent too… not to mention that sweetly low-key mode, a la George I. I’ll take any of that I can get, even an undertone. As usual, whenever he and Farnaby merge their comedic confidence–not forgetting Martha as their increasingly adept foil–the show gets effects that can legitimately be called enchanting.
  • No, I have absolutely no idea how everyone missed the carrot/radar business up to now either, but it”s easily one of the best obscure oddball nuggets the show ever turned up. The loopiness writes itself from there; all the performers have to do is take it even remotely seriously and they’re home free. Which… well, yeah, again, that’s the advantage of giving them free rein after all, they know how to maximise loopiness if nothing else. Thus the viewer need merely sit back and revel in both Ben and Larry’s particular uber-Teutonic stylings… and Mat’s epic melodramatic idiocy! Sheer comic luxury.
  • Interesting side effect of the new temporal format: the chance to finally dig into the between-wars stuff that’s technically always been within the show’s timeline but has fallen into a sort of semantic black hole before now. We really should’ve seen the Titanic in some context long since… albeit from a creative standpoint this particular context is so clunkily obvious that my first reaction on watching it was to snerk that maybe the guy who wrote the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ bit last series needs his Prozac dosage upped. As comes in handy on many media occasions, I blame James Cameron.
  • At any rate, my comeuppance came immediately upon watching–and I can tell the universe was homing in on me personally, because it’s Lawry who makes the surprisingly sane, decent, even touching straight man of the piece. Overall this is about as tactful and tasteful a take on comparatively recent tragedy as this show is capable of, even given Simon’s bizarrely no-holds-barred cross between a ship’s captain and a drunk suburban mall Santa Claus. It’s the latter who ends up selling the most excellent bit of slyly noir fun–the ‘ice for the nightcap’ business–thrown in at the end (a callback to real-life incidents that night).
  • I do keep forgetting that it’s ultimately about the kiddies, for whom obvious and laboured exposition in this case is most likely providing a real educational service. And meanwhile, any really bored adults can be staring at the snappy naval uniforms… not to mention Ben experimenting with a squeaky Cockney accent. They flipped the casting between him and Lewin deliberately just to see how Willbond would react, didn’t they?
  • Introducing one other intriguing minor side effect of the new 20th-century focus: a fascination with American achievements… and, inevitably, accents. Strap in, kids, it’s about to become a bumpy ride. Still, it’s good to have the Dodgy War Inventions back. Awwww, cute little bat bomb is…
  • <BOOM!>
  • …oh, damn you, producers. And your Russian anti-tank dogs, too.
  • Speaking of random animal-based factoids, I am entirely too entertained by the quiz preceding the Twilight parody sketch about Lord Byron’s exotic pets… yes, show, but did he have a team of zebras and dine with chimps, hmmm?
  • Otherwise, well, this particular parody certainly didn’t go the way I began  envisioning immediately it was announced early in the off-season. Let us just say my version involved considerably more Mat, a curling iron and red silk… also, sparkles. I can deal with the rest as a good joke on my own expectations, but I really do miss the sparkles.
  • Overall I am torn generally between being ready to applaud the show for managing to work the parody so cleverly and–in conjunction with the Avengers thing last episode–being uneasy about this budding willingness to pile on such obvious targets. Mind you, when I am watching it, the former mood always wins handily. Besides, they continue to have the wit to cast Sarah in the emo female parts, and juxtapose same with the bald-cap-wearing. So I guess we can call success, here.
  • *ahem* So anyway, it’s past time to check back in with Death and his ongoing bourgeois dream of purgatory. Though unsure as to why they’d spring it now instead of the finale, I thoroughly approve of the well-handled meta-plot twist. Not least because it proves that our Reaper did strike off to establish his own self-indulgent corner of the afterlife, exactly as suggested in S1. That the SD sketches have this level of detailed continuity makes me quite unreasonably happy.
  • Oh, speaking of which–except the happiness part–the mummy’s gone. Forced out unjustly after the afterlife equivalent of Perez Hilton broke the story of the affair with the skeleton, I will be assuming. Anyway, clever reverse-juxtaposition of the unusually upbeat SD with the earlier unusually bleak sketch — complete with nice (awesome, if intentional) creepy frisson in the form of Captain Smith having apparently seamlessly morphed into Death.
  • And awww, cute plucky working-class pajama-wearing Jim, squeeee! First item in my Howick plushie’s new optional wardrobe. Could’ve done without the overt ‘first time for everything’ bit, tho.
  • Hey, the Movie Pitch is back!… yaaaaayyyy. Right, for those of you just tuning in, yes I’m both an unabashed fan of these bits and well aware that that places me in the severe minority among the fandom. Still, I don’t see why both camps can’t appreciate how the LoG are making an unexpectedly nice smooth transition from brittle novelty to comfortably ongoing world-building. It’s clear they’re genuinely invested in making something three-dimensionally clever out of the kiddie series cameo, and I think that’s really damn cool of them. I think Martha’s affected aristocratic lisp is slightly less cool, but the sheer sympathy for her having to wear that costume more or less balances it out.
  • Anyhoo, you might as well settle in and enjoy, kiddies, because this and (spoiler alert) Historical Apprentice are about all that’s left of the richly detailed S3/4 reality-TV parody vibe. By contrast, you know how the tabloid parodies have always served as repositories for those little scraps of anecdote that won’t stretch as far as a full-length sketch? And how most of the time, that’s for a good reason? Welp, meet ‘Thou Hast Been Framed’, besides (spoiler alert) a boatload more tabloid parodies to come, because of course there’s a lot more of those anecdotal shreds floating around this series. Sigh.
  • Which doesn’t stop me from being rather unnecessarily pleased with myself over the bit with Margaret Pole’s execution, that I first mentioned as an intriguing story back in S02E11. Go me. Of course, they went for the “less well-documented” half of the anecdote, and thus transformed the whole thing with the “dignified and completely innocent elder stateswoman dies in a heartrendingly grotesque fashion on the whim of an increasingly paranoid despot” into an awful mini-mess of cheezy comedic desperation. Really, it…
  • *thinks back to Mat making saucer eyes under that Garfunkel wig while Larry prances in the background*…
  • …Ahhh, never mind, show, s’ok. I forgive you.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So yes, Spartan marriage customs, routinely popping up on lists of ‘Weirdest Wedding Rituals’ since pretty much ever. The thing is, the sketch here gets it right while somehow rearranging the details so as to avoid all the actual memorably awkward stuff. Which I can actually understand, because, according to contemporary historian Plutarch, the kidnapping bit in reality happened first, and then:
  • The so-called ‘bridesmaid’ took charge of the captured girl. She first shaved her head to the scalp, then dressed her in a man’s cloak and sandals, and laid her down alone on a mattress in the dark. The bridegroom – who was not drunk and thus not impotent, but was sober as always – first had dinner in the messes, then would slip in, undo her belt, lift her and carry her to the bed.
  • …OK, some backstory is in order. Spartans weren’t any more convinced of the inherent value of the female than any other Greek society; but–as addressed in that S1 Wife Swap–as long as the ladies held the keys to population growth, which in turn was the key to Spartan security, the state was sure as hell going to make sure they were capable of birthing and raising real warriors.
  • Thus, unlike any others in Greece, Spartan girls were educated, participated in sport and just generally hardened from early childhood right alongside the boys. There’s evidence that young women even trained in the nude, right alongside those same young men. (If you’ve ever wondered what would really shock an ancient Greek historian, well, there’s your answer.) Given all of which, marriage didn’t happen until they were eighteen or so–in contrast to the Athenian custom of equating marriage availability to a girl’s first period.
  • Meantime, the men had gone off to military training, as, erm, detailed in the S2 song. That is, they spent years in close companionship with other young males, whom they were taught to rely on absolutely as brothers-in-arms… but there was still that pesky question of ensuring State security, and that was the one thing his brothers just couldn’t help with.
  • So marriage was mandatory for all Spartan males at age thirty (although in practice the age limit was frequently handwaved, so long as nobody caught the underage groom slipping out of the barracks at night to visit his bride). And it’s not hugely surprising that, when convincing said adult male to voluntarily get it on with an (eeew!) girl, it was thought prudent to turn her into basically a facsimile of one of his ‘army buddies’, bung her into a dark room, and hope for the best. Interestingly, some scholars point out that this strictly regulatory attitude to procreation also acted as a curb on any heterosexual hormonal hooplah induced by the aforementioned co-ed nudity. Spartans: no matter how you slice it, still and always utterly unique.
  • Right-ho, past time for your scheduled Reasons Why the Show’s Handling of the Tudors Drives Me Nuts Rant, number… oh, gosh, must be a whole lot, because getting even the little details of Tudor history wrong is by now the historical-scholarship equivalent of misidentifying the occupant of Grant’s Tomb, and yet the show just keeps on doing it. Even when, once again, reality is much the more interesting. For starters, this is what Thomas More actually looked like at the time; an older, learned man, a statesman and one of Henry VIII’s best friends. Sort of what you’d expect to happen when an academic gets forced into public life. Even a bit naiively fanatical on the whole Catholic issue, maybe–but frail little blond wuss, he was emphatically not.
  • Second… even setting aside the fact that slight, naturally brunette Alice L. would’ve been much the better choice to embody her, the whole damn switchover from the Pope to Henry had Anne Boleyn’s enthusiastic approval, given that it was all about finally legalising the King’s divorce and making her Queen. In fact, her entire relationship with Henry was about her power over him; she knew he was a middle-aged, balding, tubby tyrant when she got into this mess, and she frankly did not care, because he was the King, and also did I mention he was working very very hard to make her Queen? It helps.
  • Speaking of revealing portraiture: Here’s Victorian artist William Powell Frith’s take on the highwayman sketch, or at least the anecdote that inspired it. You’ll notice quite a lot more cowering away from pistols and whatnot, but even so, a weirdly charming scene. Just generally, Claude Duvall (technically Du Vall, but really now) is a much more appealing candidate for inappropriate romanticisation than either Dick Turpin or James Hind. Certainly his legendary way with the ladies goes a long way towards explaining his popularity with Charles II in particular. And if Duvall’s epitaph is any indication at all, he kept it up to the very end:  Here lies Du Vall: Reader, if male thou art, Look to thy purse: if female to thy heart.
  • OK, I do know the misguided sensationalisation is part of the… fun… of the tabloid parodies. As a public service, though, I’d just like to point out that Mary QofS wasn’t actually a twelve-year-old waif at her execution — she was 45 (hence the wig, get it?), a middle-aged, corpulent figure wracked with rheumatism thanks to all those years shut up in Northern castles. Oh, and she went to the block wearing a bright red dress, as a final sign of Catholic defiance, and with her favourite little lapdog tucked somewhere among her voluminous skirts, because… damn it got dusty in here all of a sudden.
  • The Titanic sketch does as noted do a very nice job of getting the facts straight–as well it might, given that the disaster is rivalled only by the Tudors in exhaustive scholarly analysis. Yes, contrary to rather over-excited modern revisionists the ship was in fact touted as ‘unsinkable’ pre-maiden voyage, prompting impressive displays of passenger stiff-upper-lipped-ness that totally included guys wandering around with cocktails post-collision coolly snarking that they needed some ice, anyway.
  • All this confidence was fueled in part by the ship’s unique construction, featuring a specially-partitioned lower hull (the area our old pal Arthur Priest would’ve been working in) that was designed to prevent further flooding in the event one section of the hull was breached, rather like modern fire doors. Unfortunately, nobody pictured an impact that would rip open several sections all at once…
  • One other thing: Overconfident Captain Smith may have been, magnificently bearded he certainly was… but, by God, he went down with his ship just as the finest traditions of his day prescribed. (So, incidentally, did Lawry’s character, thus vaulting my usual sympathy for his pathetic types to heights I don’t think either of us ever considered possible.)
 
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Posted by on May 25, 2014 in Series Five

 

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