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S03E11

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
That top hats are fabulous? No. Although they are…

Aaaaand we’re right back up and bouncing happily on the Trampoline of Endearingness again. Not at all a bad point of takeoff, as Series Five debuts…

In this episode:

Song: The Ages of Stone — Mat as a totally Jazz Age cave pianist, man…

Recurring sketches:

Historical Masterchef — Pirate (“I like to think of it not as losing a hand, so much as gaining a utensil…”)

Victorian EastEnders — Moving on Up… From the Sewers

Historical Paramedics — Victorian (“And how often does that work?!” “NEVAH!”)

Historical Dragon’s Den — Stone Age (“Me invent beer! It grown-up drink* *Not for kids!” “Ugh… me invent headache!”)

HHTV Sport: The First Olympics — (“Let me guess… It’s an Ancient Greek thing.”)

Stupid Deaths — Milo of Croton (Strongman who got stuck trying to rip a split tree in half… “Hah, you spent too much time working on these muscles, and not enough on this one!… You know, the brain?… and sudoku, and…? Oh never mind.”)

Historical Pet Shop — Cavalier Prince Rupert, cousin of Charles I (“Did I mention that?”)

Historical Don’t Tell the Bride — Stuart elopement options (“Is this even legal?!” “Good question, and in answer to that I’d just like to say that your hair looks lovely…”)

One-offs:

Terrible Tudors

The Spaniard Takes a Wife — “Once upon a time, a loving king married a beautiful queen, and they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, this… is the story of Phillip II of Spain and Mary I of England.”

All-New Tudor Sugar-Paste Toothpaste — Being forced to compliment Elizabeth I on her dental hygiene: proof that being a royal courtier wasn’t all beer and skittles. Or Skittles. It did however apparently involve a ton of other sugary goodies…

Putrid Pirates

Pirate Weather Forecast — Even talking about the weather is more fun when you add pirates. Kind of hard on the black cats, though.

Field Notes:

  • Yep, it’s back. Again. Series Three, you have proved true to my relationship metaphor from S03E01: while I have come to accept that while you may never really excite me (creatively, guys, creatively) in the manner of the series just fore and aft, your overall likeability, along with the commitment to a swift and engaging recovery from missteps — up to and including recognition of the immediate need for moar Baynton, as displayed here — does still go a long way toward strengthening my affection.
  • In all seriousness, though, I’m still not convinced my missing Mat so much from the latter half of the series is totally about the physical. Turns out that when Jim described his BAFTA-nommed buddy as ‘the absolute staple of our show’, he for once wasn’t making a snarky crack about the minstrel eyes.
  • Not that the others aren’t all staple-y in their own way; that’s what a comedy troupe is. Ben especially has been doing a sterling job of proving it lately. Only that Mat (and, to a less doe-eyed extent, Larry) bring a certain freeform spark to the whole — free particularly to shift between childlike and adult implications — which if you’re going to spend a season mostly resting on your creative laurels, it’s especially sorely missed.
  • Except for the music, which of course never quite rests anywhere. We’ve gone notably minimalist this week, but my imagination does not mind, for it has filled in the blank spots with a running paraphrase of the pre-production meeting. Highlights:
  • “OK, so we’ve got this incredible song. You know how Stone Age taxonomy sounds all sort of jazzy, like scatting? …Well, anyway, we get Mat to perform it in that skimpy fur tunic, it’ll sound fabulous. Trust me.”
  • “Wait, that’s it, just the one part? No backup chorus? Tell me at least there’s some fun stone instruments in there.”
  • “Ah, about that… have you ever seen the Flintstones live-action movie? Yeah, don’t. We figured, wouldn’t it be hilarious if instead there’s this huge modern piano in a cave. (Mat plays piano, right?) And just for insurance, we’ll do that thing where the cute stick cave paintings come to life. Everybody loves the little dancing buffalo.”
  • “I don’t know… Anybody remember what we did for the first caveman song?”
  • “Uh… I think we just sort of grabbed everybody from the other cave skits and had them do something sort of funny in the background, really. Plus, you know, that whole inset sketches thing. Man, am I glad we don’t have to resort to stuff like that any… What?”
  • “Hm? Oh, I just had a great idea…”
  • So yeah, a sort of luxury Series One format upgrade — which did turn out to be pretty great overall. Largely because there’s nothing more happifyingly catchy than an authentic jazz/big band performance; clearly Amy Winehouse wasn’t the only British musician of her generation paying close attention to the American standards. This is something else I find incredibly endearing (the paying attention, that is. The Winehouse question is another blog entirely).
  • Oh, also I bugged my multi-instrumentalist brother-in-law, and in-between funny looks — engineers just have no appreciation for history — anyway, he confirmed that if Mat can play the keyboards he can play the piano, at least in theory. That said, musical prodigy or no, Mat’s clearly not actually playing here — you can tell from if nothing else the quick just-the-highlights cuts used to show him at the keyboard.
  • (This is standard practice when not actually filming Chopin or Liszt biopics. Backing piano tracks, like any other, will usually already be pre-recorded, and attempting to match up the onscreen finger-flying with that would create a continuity headache nobody — let alone a BBC kid’s show on a budget — wants to deal with.)
  • Mat can also, and this needs to be stressed as frequently as possible, morph randomly into a hungry tapeworm-slash-concept art for A Bug’s Life II. This alone should cement his essential-ness in HH legend, if only because being in a performance zone where invertebrate-related humour not only seems like but is a gloriously funny idea must be at least one definition of pure joy. Which is, as it happens, exactly how the Victorian HParamedics come across onscreen.
  • This is in fact why I’m not altogether broken up that it’s the last of the lot; the Tudor one provided an instructive warning re: just how vulnerable the concept is to self-aware satisfaction… although I wouldn’t have minded risking that on a caveman one, also maybe pirate.
  • Luckily, in the meantime we have not only Pirate Weatherman Mat (“Sick as a parrot”… nice one that, must remember it) but Simon and his… unique… knack for both. The Stone Age Dragon’s Den is altogether hilariously adorable, not least because the format is ideally suited to an era in which pretty much every waking moment involved innovation.
  • I do also like the meta-conceit — found exactly nowhere else in the series — of flat-out telling the viewership that we’re going to have adult time now, kiddies. Especially the way Mat sounds quite genuinely concerned, like he’s somehow not a fully passport-holding citizen of a nation that considers drinking an essential life skill to begin with. Seriously, guys, you were providing cutesy little infographics for Viking hell by your third episode, and this is the child-development hill you want to die on?
  • Anyway, yes, Simon. Who it must be admitted makes a much more authentically appealing cave inventor than Mat, and whose essential role in the troupe is summed up nicely by the fact that when somebody on the writing team was all “Hey, you know what would be good value? If for once the pirate wasn’t all menacing, but really laid back,” everyone nodded and agreed. (Yes, somehow the entire production staff have all acquired Canadian accents, specifically the verbal mannerisms of a blogger from Southern Ontario. It’s odd, I know.)
  • So the HMasterchef featuring the resulting awesomely cool pirate is pure Farnabian bliss, and in combination with the ease with which Jim and Ben now inhabit their parody roles easily the best of the four HM segments. Although I do still have a soft spot for Martha and the whale phlegm. At any rate, I am unreservedly glad that this recurring bit will be returning, as it is explicitly designed so that familiarity only makes it funnier. I especially enjoy how unlimited background gags are built right into the format.
  • Moreover, in the process there have been vistas opened by Jim’s hitherto criminally underplayed talents as a mimic — this of course is his essential role, to be ridiculously talented regardless of whatever ridiculous creative situation he’s plonked down into — that are a big part of the reason I’m already anticipating, not only reviewing S4, but watching S5.
  • Although… So, uh, Rattus? The whole rat-blatantly-skewered-on-a-hook thingy…? Anything you’d like to share with the viewership, who frankly at this point is totally on your side, at least in between the violent retching? …Yeah, you’re right, I guess one more pet flea gag was totally worth ignoring it all. *rolls eyes*
  • In other recurring news (on several levels): No, show. I do not care if you bribe me with Mat playing the guy whose picture I walk past every day on the way to my cubicle (more below) and an adorable puppy. I refuse to be sad that the Historical Pet Shop is going away. Frankly I have reached the point where if I hear one more ‘hilarious’ animal fact out of you I’m going to throw socks at the screen, so there.
  • Ooh, way to bust out the snark, little cartoon Tudor lady! You were always my favourite. So are Mat as Prince Philip, and Larry his advisor, and their accents that are… sort of what would happen did Spain suddenly decide to embrace Snidely Whiplash, a la the French and Jerry Lewis. (Readers under 21: ask your parents.)
  • Larry’s essential role by this point goes a bit deeper than the offbeat wit; as his familiarity with performing alongside the others expands so does his low-level knack — probably related to his writing skills — for tuning into their schticks and enhancing them. So that anytime he’s paired with Mat or Simon especially, his overt silliness level goes down and the hilariousness of the whole goes up about 150%.
  • As if to maximise the potential of this, the writers have finally got round to the darkly comic melodrama inherent in the actual Tudor experience — although Alice predictably fails utterly at being homely, but never mind, it’s all enormously satisfying fun, and I adore it. Too much even to chastise them… much… for the “How’s about a kiss?” bit, which let’s face it, that’s literally the only reason Ben’s playing the priest, isn’t it?
  • Alice — who, probably to her ongoing chagrin, really is the very definition of ‘ladylike’ — is also signally failing to sell the lower-lower-class ‘Victorian EastEnders’ accent. Again, though, I’m pleasantly surprised enough at the return of this bit to let it pass. Even when tested by the writers’ weakness for horrendous poo-related gags, the thoughtful charm somehow remains strong with this series. I think ‘Dickensian’ may be a species of British media Teflon by this point.
  • (Totally random thought had while typing that last sentence: physicality aside, Simon would make an absolutely killer Micawber.)
  • On the other hand, Alice could not make a more perfectly virginal historical bride, nor Mat her feckless groom. Always nice when you go into a sketch cringing in anticipation at the cliches and end up laughing aloud. I’m not familiar with the source material, but this is at least equally enjoyable; a neatly and sweetly lovely little bit of universal satire, fine as a needle and as exquisitely performed.
  • You can tell this is Ben’s week off — or possibly just that somebody accidentally ordered the wrong size loincloth, because Larry is playing the latest big dumb doofus to have a Stupid Death, and from the camera angles the minimalist costuming was clearly supposed to be the hilight of the role.
  • And very acceptable it turns out to be… still, it leaves me strangely unsatisfied. I cannot quite think of a way to explain how Willbond is much better at this moronic stuff without implying terribly unfair things about our resident Oxfordian, so will merely say that it is an art… and hastily change the subject to Death and the ongoing skeleton-intensive middle-class psychodrama, of which I can never get enough.
  • Anyway, there’s plenty of appealingly minimalist Wilbond at the Greek Olympics, also Simon come to that. (There is also Jim’s facial hair, but hey, not even this troupe bats a thousand.) Lovely all-round expert mock-Olympic coverage this — presumably designed to co-incide with the anticipation for the real event, so I’m not sure how the parody writers missed the chance to swathe everything in magenta.
  • Otherwise it’s only missing the inspirational story of a marathon runner who began as a helot slave in Sparta and started running to avoid getting caught up in one of their periodic slave purges… OK, maybe you have to have access to the American coverage to get that one.

95% Accu-rat:

  • Right, the real story behind Phillip II of Spain’s sneering villainy is… well, it involved significantly less sneering, and a job lot more dour dutiful Catholicism, given that it was actually Dad’s brilliant idea that he wed his cousin Mary in the first place — in order among other things to unite their thrones against the oncoming Protestant Reformation. Seeing as how Dad was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Emperor Charles I of the Spanish Empire, what’s a guy surnamed ‘the Prudent’ to do?
  • Basically, what he’s shown doing here… well, barring the dashing around being tall dark and handsome. In reality, at the time shown here, Philip was a polite, sedate young manikin with the blonde, blue-eyed looks — and trim calves — that were actually required to be considered a hunk in sixteenth-century Europe. Being a tad on the short side (about Jim’s height, actually) didn’t hurt his status with the ladies at all.
  • It certainly didn’t deter Mary, who was as (sort of) shown thirty-seven to his twenty-seven, and very much still a virgin, because did we mention she was also a fanatical Catholic? They didn’t have ticking clocks back then, so biological metaphors tended to be couched more in terms of “Fulfilling God’s will that I have offspring to carry out my work,'” but you get the idea. Philip sent his portrait along, and — despite literal riots among her notoriously xenophobic subjects — that was it. Did we mention she also really didn’t get realpolitik?
  • The net result went also as shown, only even more pathetic, famously involving at least two false pregnancies. Frankly embarrassed by this faded, middle-aged woman clinging desperately to him (even their formal portrait is awkward), Philip basically kept appearances up just long enough to persuade her to get involved in his ongoing war against the French, whereupon they promptly lost Calais, England’s last possession on the Continent. Shortly after that, Mary took to wandering the palace halls muttering to herself and occasionally attacking Philip’s portrait…
  • You can see why Philip saw his much younger, comparatively much hotter sister-in-law as a more appealing alternative. Even much later, after they were well embarked on their epic feud — the one that would lead to (spoiler alert) the Armada — Elizabeth liked to boast that she could have him back merely for the asking… you’ll recall that marriage proposals back then generally didn’t involve getting close enough to breathe on your beloved before the actual contract was signed. Also, incidentally, that the Tudors pioneered the art of sugar sculpture…
  • Cut to a couple centuries or so later, and the English throne is being occupied by people considerably more eager to head out and make their mark in — or more accurately on — the world. One of them was, yep, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who some years after playing amateur dog trainer convinced his Cousin Charlie II to back a go-getting little fur-trading outfit calling themselves “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading Into Hudson’s Bay”. Which, in 1670, is exactly what they did.
  • Hedging their bets in true Renaissance explorer fashion, the GCAETIHB promptly dubbed huge swathes of their new possession ‘Rupert’s Land’, and appointed him their first Governor. Thus it is that, yes, Prince Rupert’s portrait (OK, a replica of, but still) now hangs on a wall in an office in suburban Brampton, Ontario, Canada: the buying offices of the Hudson’s Bay Company, now Canada’s premier department store and my humble 343-year-old employers.
  • Clearly, Rupert’s expedition were careful not to harm any albatrosses en route to the New World. Because this never-kill-an-albatross thingy, quite the big deal, and not only for pirates.
  • Check out Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner for a glimpse into just how seriously the random murder of dorky-looking waterfowl could impact your performance review — also the English language’s stock of cliches. It starts off with “Water, water, every where/Nor any drop to drink”, proceeds through “Instead of the cross, the albatross/About my neck was hung”, then winds up with Death winning the souls of all his crewmates… after which things really start to get bad.
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Posted by on May 27, 2013 in Series Three

 

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S02E10

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Measly Middle Ages

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

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

Slimy Stuarts

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

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

Gorgeous Georgians

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

Awful Egyptians

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S02E09

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

Bob Hale — The Incan Report

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

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

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

Vicious Vikings

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

Woeful Second World War

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

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

Incredible Incas

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

Vile Victorians

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

Awesome USA

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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