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S05E12

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

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

Words We Get From the — Greeks

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

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

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

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

One-offs:

Vile Victorians

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

Awful Egyptians

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

Measly Middle Ages

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

Woeful Second World War

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

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S05E09

The sacred chicken has spoken! We’re doomed! Auuuggghhhh!

In which we pause in the headlong rush to the finale to fully appreciate some of the more sweetly offbeat efforts to overcome the content crisis… and in the process wrap up more than a few plot threads.

In this episode:

Song:  Henry VII: The Original Tu-Tu-Tudor — Mat as the famously dour founder of the melodramatic dynasty decides to upgrade his image with the help of modern glam rock. Featuring Larry and Simon on mandolins and Jim on drums.

Recurring sketches:

Wonders of the Roman Universe — “That’s actually quite impressive, that you knew all about the planets–” “Ooh, but they’re not just planets, they’re gods! Giant beings who played games deciding the fates of everyone in the world! It’s Ancient Roman scientific fact!” “Yeah… it always starts so well, doesn’t it…”

Historical Wife Swap — Egyptian (Pharaoh Rameses II and Queen Nefertari swap with a peasant family: “I am the great Pharaoh! Born of Ra, chosen of Ra. For powerful is the truth of Ra. Half-king, half-god, master of all I survey, Rameses II, glory be to my name, yada yada yada. Right, and you are?” “Susan.”)

Photographic Monthly Chronicle — Pioneering photographer William Henry Fox Talbot reveals the good reasons why nobody’s smiling in old-timey portraits; also post-mortem photography, a real live craze re: remembering the dead. (“And we’ve got all the very latest accessories! These rigid neck irons and body braces make movement blurs a thing of the past, don’t they?! …he’s trying to nod.”)

Words We Get From the… — Stone Age. No, really.

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

Plague, Plague, Who’s Got the Plague? — Pretty much everybody in London by this point, meaning that victim-finder recruitment came with some major occupational hazards… “Can I be your apprentice?” “Sure, why n–errrkk! *thud*” “Well, you can see the problem…”

Ye Olde Starbuckes — Charles II’s attempt to discourage anti-government plotters leads to Cavalier hipsters–and you just know there were a lot of them–having some difficulty in securing a hot beverage. (“What’s your name, I’ll just write it on the mug?” “I’m the only person in the shop…?” “Right, TheOnly... *squeek* *squeek*…” “…and you’re making that noise with your mouth.”)

Rotten Romans

Playing Chicken — The great naval Battle of Drepanum hinges on the predictive powers of a sacred, and not incidentally profoundly land-based, barnyard fowl. No, really. (“O Sacred Chicken! Show us our fate!” *…* “Think she might be a bit seasick…”)

Measly Middle Ages

Middle Ages Antique Roadshow — The renowned experts of which are called upon to assess the value of an, erm, well-traveled lump of medicinal metal… and an even more unsettling recipe for gold… yeah, you know the drill by now. (“Bleaaarrghh…!” “‘Ere, now, that jar’s an antique!”)

New! Middle Ages Magic Set — Makes creating your own miracles so easy, the whole family can do it!… And probably did, in a whole lot of cases. Warning: Performing magic in the Middle Ages could get you executed!

Terrible Tudors

Bosworth Bollocks — So apparently the last great deciding battle of the epic, century-spanning Wars of the Roses came down to one Lord Stanley dithering over which side to enter on while the battle was already in progress.  (“…On the other hand, Henry Tudor’s royal bloodline does stretch back to Edward III — and let’s not forget, I am married to his mum. If I side with the other guy, well, you can imagine how awkward Christmas is gonna be…”)

Vile Victorians

Ahoy-hoy, Mr. Edison — The Wizard of Menlo Park makes a fundamental adjustment to Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention… just possibly not the one you were expecting. (“Mr. Edison! Telephone for you!” “Thanks… wait, what does that even mean?”)

Savage Stone Age

An Historical Place in the Sun — Moving on up and out of the cave for the first time comes with some unique stumbling-blocks. (“What ‘home’ mean?” “OK, well, a home is somewhere you live, it’s a permanent dwelling…” “Per-ma-berm-dwellin?” “…this is gonna take awhile.”)

Field Notes:

  • Well, isn’t this nice. Remember back a few reviews ago, when I brought up the Viking Poetry bit? (Pause for public service announcement: if you still haven’t seen that sketch, and its inexplicably total absence from Tumblr et al suggests that’s likely, get thee back to my S01E11 review immediately for all the reasons why you should. Ben in pigtails, people!)
  • Anyway, it turns out that the gently fragile surreality I thought was unique back then has ended up as a fairly common side effect in S5. It’s located right at the intersection of the new content vibe–in which quirky is totally the new anarchistic–and the consequences of leaving the cast alone to cope with the same material as they will. You know how [spoiler alert] Yonderland is constantly balancing between knowingly raunchy and wide-eyed innocence? Welp, this here HH episode will help you understand where the latter came from. (Hmmm? The former? Ah, this must be your first-ever contact with British comedy, congratulations. Go look up some Monty Python on YouTube, love, and do let me know how it all works out.)
  • In fact, I’d suggest the Wonders of the Universe sketches owe a very direct debt to the VP bit; at least, the nagging question of why Ben’s perpetually-bemused producer character seemed so familiar to me is now definitively answered. Even down to the hair, which is only getting more hilariously implausible. Clearly, somebody in makeup had a film-school relationship they needed closure on.
  • The whole concept really is shaping surprisingly well. Lawry is operating on a level of comedic sophistication unusual both for him and the entire series (I can tell, because it has now become flatly impossible for me to keep a straight face when watching the real Prof. Cox). Ben is likewise invested to a much more subtly impressive degree than is lately typical for him, possibly because for once he’s being forced to create the smarter character.
  • The whole makes marvelous capital out of the one key bit of meta-wit that prevented the Scary Stories from taking off properly: here, it’s not about Ben’s character constantly snapping, but how far Lawry can get before Ben finally snaps, thus giving the viewer real incentive to pay attention to some really interesting factoids. Amazing!… no, really.
  • So is the song, and in some of the same ways. It had my interest built in right from the get-go; there’s something deliciously, even mesmerizingly unsettling about Mat as Henry VII even before the pop-art psychedelia kicks in. It’s hard to pin it down exactly, but something in the way he’s so right for the part feels quite incredibly wrong–a further dark spin on his icily authentic aristocratic aura from S4’s wig debate.
  • Musically, meantime… well, 70’s glam rock has never been my thing exactly, but I am onboard with its basic desire to show me a good time, and on that level this song is fully awesome. The overall theme is so lovingly re-created the ironic distance from Henry’s ‘audience’ evaporates and it starts to feel like you’re enjoying it on exactly the same level. Not coincidentally, our Mathew by now has the genre mimicry down to the point where you only realise how uncanny-verging-on-genius it is when you consciously think about it, and you’re enjoying the result so much you never do think of it until it’s over, so.
  • And because I know you’re all waiting for the Tudor nerd explosion: there won’t be one. Really, for once accuracy isn’t a problem–in fact, major props are deserved for recognizing the subtle but stone cold potential in VII to begin with. OK, so I may have allowed myself just a minor wry grin at how dour Dad’s the one all dolled up in bling while ‘exciting’ Henry VIII is sitting there in, yep, the “sweatshirt” and floppy cap, but this need not concern us here, on account of it is VIII’s last (regular-series) appearance after all *snif*. Besides, by now I am convinced that it must be a deliberate joke. Only I’ll be damned if I can figure out what’s so funny.
  • Much easier to figure out the funny–and the Baynton–in the Stuart-era Starbucks bit. Mat as coffee-shop hipster parody… right, yeah, not a whole lot of Method preparation required for that one, obviously. What we’re looking at here is entirely believable as a Mathew Baynton from an alternate reality in which he’s a failed theatre major who hangs around Starbucks all day with his guitar, telling himself it’s a performance piece… featuring Jim as his snarkily neurotic barista foil… OK, I feel bad fanfic coming on, best we move along now.
  • As a deliberate bit of satire, on the other hand, it’s frankly wonderful. Largely because it never makes the mistake of trying to be pointedly clever on a done-to-death parody subject, so is free to take advantage of Mat and Jim’s near-genius-level penchant for sweetly charismatic silliness instead (also, possibly, Jim’s ongoing eagerness to begin rehearsing his big opening scene in the Yonderland pilot). Thus it manages to stretch a barely interesting factoid to full sketch-length satisfaction. This is what constitutes creating a classic bit, this series.
  • Besides: costuming, even more a happy-making thing in the Stuart bits than the Victorian. I do love me those big plumed hats… well, basically, I just like the idea that at one point in human history it was plausible to walk down the street dressed like a panto production of the Three Musketeers, waving your sword about whilst swopping the latest gossip re: the King’s new mistress. Feels like it would make up for quite a lot, really.
  • So does the knowledge that the Romans consulted oracular chickens. Yes, in theory this isn’t all that far removed from the whole ‘Ericho follows the Spirit-infused livestock to the Holy Land’ hilarity last series, thus I should’ve been expecting at least some level of sublime ridiculousness… but as it turns out there is really no way to prepare for the fact that, and I cannot stress this enough, the Romans consulted oracular chickens.
  • Every history text you’ve ever read or written on the glory of Rome, every epic sword-n-sandal movie you’ve ever seen, you now suddenly can’t unsee the fortunetelling fowl lurking somewhere just off camera. Cleopatra seduces Caesar: cue the ominous clucking. Freakin’ Richard Burton, solemnly marching off to find Christ and his destiny in The Robe: probably checked in with a banty hen beforehand. Best. HH. Fact. Ever, is what I am saying here. Bet there were near-fistfights in the writer’s room over it.
  • Whomever won the day, I congratulate them hugely on not over-thinking the result and simply following in the direction the material leads; in this case, Farnaby biting the rigging in blind panic. And the wildly fake prophetic poultry itself–shades of S2’s Viking navigation raven–it’s all just deeply, deeply appreciated, guys.
  •  I also think I can officially call this now: cuddly little bearded Jim makes for a funnier reversed-expectations military officer spoof than skinny awkward-looking Mat–although, you level the field re: facial hair and the gap closes quite a bit, on account of Mat having much the more spoof-worthily heroic chin to begin with. On the other hand, Jim usually has Ben to bounce off of, which automatically wins you all the things. We get what must be the full spectrum of epic Willbondian exasperation here, and it is as unabashedly glorious as anyone ever suspected. In particular, the being actively intimidated by the chicken. Lovely.
  • And not all, by a long shot. The team of Willbond and Howick then definitively wrap up their dual act by successfully pulling off an Abbott & Costello-type routine whilst trying desperately to hang onto American accents–any American accents, they’re clearly not picky. That’s it, the final summit of the demo-duo charisma has been explored and conquered, much hilarity has been had, closure has been achieved. Seriously, the only thing they could’ve topped it with in S6 would be an actual rendition of “Who’s on First”… and now, see, I have all the fuel I need to imagine it regardless. Once again, I declare myself content.
  • Especially, as usual, with Jim, who makes a surprisingly convincing Edison. However my real appreciation here is reserved for Ben, on the other hand being totally unable to keep the random RP inflections out of what is evidently supposed to be… some sort of a… possibly Midwestern twang… with occasional overtones of the Bowery? Yeah. Somebody may have been just a teeny bit unduly influenced by the traditional Hollywood sidekick archetype, here.
  • Unexpectedly charming closure corollary: Awww, little Cartoon Victorian Gentleman Guy finally loosens up and makes with the puns! I always knew he had it in him.
  • There’s another definitive apex being reached over on Wife Swap, and indeed the whole class struggle plot thread: inasmuch as even given this show’s determination to beat the unfairness of it all into the ground, there’s literally nowhere to go from a Living God/common labourer matchup.
  • Thanks to the aforementioned beating, though, not much else going on here of note; in fact the format is so creatively stalled out by now it’s to the performers’ real credit I didn’t consider that until I’d finished watching. Technically, Pharaoh Simon should’ve probably had a herald/slave to recite that whole schpiel for him, but I do not care, because damn, way to combine the teachable moment with the hysterically funny. Farnaby the Politely Clueless Aristocrat, I have missed you.
  • Say what now? No, no, I totally also noticed the Return of Bald Cap Sarah. It’s just that after Simon’s not only gone over the top but run off with it, any other surrealism in the vicinity inevitably gets reduced to a purely logical development. By that point, I was more interested in how much younger- and cuter-looking a deviation Nefretari is from her old Museum Matron look in S1. In other mildly pique-worthy casting news, Mat in that wig, being a matter-of-fact peasant, is somehow still much more pathetic than he was as a flamboyantly bitter French revolutionary.
  • Speaking of which, it’s past time for my annual (and rather sheepish) confirmation that the latest guy I thought wasn’t around all that much actually turns out to have been around quite a bit, or at least fairly prominently. Evidently, and rather intriguingly, they didn’t so much randomly delete Mat from S5 as choose his spots with elaborate care. Which as previously noted I find myself totally OK with, as a means of fulfilling my minstrel-eyed-spark-related needs. Especially when it’s accompanied by the chance to reuse the accent from last series’ Tudor archery SD, that’s a major plus.
  • So is the photography sketch itself. A bit overtly ‘Internet factoid’-esque precious, yet well and memorably presented… y’know, having now spent this much time with S5 in closeup, overall I’m starting to think they were developing more of a plausible handle on their newly slight, quirky identity than I’ve previously been willing to give them credit for. Still not enough to make me actively long for S6, but definitely a bit more intrigued by what might’ve been. In particular, Prince Albert being tripped up by an insistence on smiling of all things–a tiny perfectly-worked sample of the pure HH everyone raves about, right there.
  • Back here in the present, I must assign more bonus points to Unexpected Corpse Greg. A real old-fashioned trouper to the end, that lad… in particular, I am seriously, and quite sincerely, impressed by the totally keeping the straight face–let alone body–when Martha abruptly pulls out that idiotic voice.
  • And as if to reward me for all this Baynton-related fortitude, oh look, it’s the return of carefully-insouciant Civilian Host Mat! Yeah, I know, Gross Designs, but somehow it’s just not the same without the elaborately casual outerwear and ridiculously over-fluffed ‘do. Besides which, awwww, Martha and Jim the cozy couple! That chemistry will never get old… erm, in a manner of speaking. It’s such an solid, purely sweet-natured asset within the troupe that it’s a shame Yonderland is structured so it can’t happen.
  • And while we’re on the subject of civilian fluffiness… Alice the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ lady, thank you so much for not being shrill and blonde right now. No, really, I mean that. I do have something of a prejudice against your taste in sweaters, but given the parody subject, I can deal.
  • Particularly since I have other costuming distractions to think about. Did they just hustle Jim straight off the Sorby Institute set to this one? If so, awesome. I could stare fascinated at that check suit all day, it’s the professional version of Ben in a sweater-vest. The rest of the sketch doesn’t quite live up to it, but the concept has enough untapped potential to make me rather wistful (at the least, I could’ve been watching the suit instead of the Top Gear crew re-imagined as demonic troll dolls) and is pleasantly predictable in its own way. As per the Whiffy Jar, the pure grossout stuff’s been rare enough this series that it actually starts to seem warmly nostalgic.
  • Also, the random threats of brutal violence, likewise weirdly heartwarming, especially since the Vikings went all fuzzy-wuzzy on me. Thus I am left with the ethical intricacies of medieval magic tricks, and save for possibly a few seconds’ wondering where D.Duckworth has got to I am totally OK with this. Unexpectedly dark, rather impressively complex stuff—I must continue to give the new fact-finding team their due, they’ve got a fully refined eye for a fascinating anecdote…
  • …Which then proceeds to be severely if not entirely undercut by all the unnecessarily goofy over-playing onscreen. Mat’s got something of an excuse, as this seems to be his go-to ecclesiastical characterisation (at least here he’s not speaking in rhyme) but look, Farnaby, we just saw you biting the rigging, nobody’s buying the cutesy stuff, OK?
  • There`s more of the same–well-handled noir vibes, not cutesiness, thank goodness–in the plague-finder bit, aka a nice subtle riff on the Pythonic ‘Bring out your dead’. Yes, HH is now all but explicitly confirming the accuracy of Holy Grail scenes. I feel like a comedic circle of life has just come full round, here, somehow. That, and in the annals of stock HH schticks, ‘plague victims abruptly falling about like ninepins’ has never not been strangely hilarious. And the finale of this sketch, particularly if you’re familiar with Larry’s history as the perpetual patient, could be read as a rather pleasingly noir admission of ultimate futility on the whole topic.
  • Over in the annals of the English Civil War, meantime, we’ve finally reached Bosworth Field… and it’s all so incredibly exciting that my major concern is to determine whether the Tudor velvet flat caps have had a luxe upgrade. Otherwise, uh, yeah, so it turns out Lord Stanley had a perfectly viable, reasonable, definitely non-Horrible dilemma going there, and I still mildly enjoyed the show’s attempt to turn it to account. Forget the Wife Swap, I’m thinking this may represent the final final apotheosis of the cast’s ability to rescue a sketch.
  • Well done turning the car park business to advantage, though–the perfect way to wryly acknowledge the show’s part in the controversy without presuming on more than necessary for a silly comedy.

95% Accu-rat:

  • So, yes, Henry VII, forcible founder of the Tudor dynasty.  As noted, the show for once gets a Tudor monarch exactly right: not so much boring as the most sane Bond villain prototype ever. Quite a guy, all things considered… and as the expression in that portrait suggests, either you considered them, or you discovered what it feels like when a real-life version of Machiavelli’s Prince comes down on your butt.
  • This is a man who clawed his way to the English throne despite a ‘claim’ that looked like this: Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, fourth son of Edward III, and his third wife Katherine Swynford. Katherine was Gaunt’s mistress for about 25 years; when they married in 1396, they already had four children, including Henry’s great-grandfather John Beaufort. In theory, the Portuguese and Spanish royal families had a better claim as descendants of Catherine of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt and his second wife Constance of Castile.
  • Wiki is, as usual, understating. In medieval terms, that one wheat farmer who seceded from Australia and now makes a living selling dukedoms to tourists had more of a shot at being taken seriously as royalty. Realistically, all Henry had going for him was his genuinely formidable Mom, a leading Lancastrian intellect of the day. Lady Margaret bore her only son when she was 13, was widowed shortly thereafter, and–despite eventually marrying a prominent Yorkist leader–never wavered in her commitment to her boy’s royal ambitions past that. Trust me, Lord Stanley wasn’t kidding about Christmas.
  • It also helped that the young Henry had his native wits sharpened by long exile due to his dynastic pretensions. In France, traditional hangout of disaffected English nobles waiting for a political shift, and thus also the first last and only time anybody’s ever going to draw a parallel between ol’Happy Harry here and Charles II.
  • The former, frankly, had much better things to do than lounge around Gallicking it up. For one thing, Mom had meantime engineered his massively-throne-claim-strengthening engagement to Elizabeth of York, noted beauty and much more importantly sister to the Princes in the Tower… meaning it can’t help but be interesting that she and Henry enjoyed by all accounts not only a long but unusually happy marriage. During which she produced four children that survived at least to adolescence, including two whole sons–a feat of future-securing the Tudor clan would never quite manage again…
  • …What? Oh, sure. Before Prince Henry VIII there was Arthur, Prince of Wales, original husband of VIII’s noted future wife/victim /inexplicably never an HH subject Catharine of Aragon. Named in, yep, a shameless attempt to cash in on the aura of the single most belovedly English hero ever. I said Henry was cunning, I never said he was subtle about it.
  • While Arthur’s death at fifteen was a blow to Dad’s dynastic hopes, it was no means a fatal one. He raised his kids strictly, thanks in part to his renowned miserly streak; it’s thought VIII’s uber-boisterousness as King was partly the result of finally being let of the short paternal leash. But VII also revered and reflected his mother’s respect for education to the extent that the entire clan would eventually be renowned for their intellect (yes, even VIII–that’s the key part that’s rather frustratingly missing from Ben’s characterization).
  • Speaking of the original Champagne Charlie, meantime: Yes, as yours truly pointed out aways back in S02E09, he really did try to ban the newly hip London coffee houses for awhile, on the grounds (har) that people just, like, sat around and gossiped about the King and his government in them (given that laptops hadn’t been invented yet, and it’s already hard enough to look cool while using a quill pen without introducing delicately-balanced hot beverages into the mix). Because, y’know, his subjects obviously must’ve been fomenting rebellion. I mean, it’s not like their King was a literally larger-than-life character with the single most flamboyantly juicy private life since Casanova, or anything.
  • Finally… ever wonder what exactly happened to Publius Claudius Pulcher, the great and powerful Roman consul who got crossed up by the seasick chicken? Well, yes, he lost the battle and everything, but what’s really sad is what happened next: He was recalled to Rome and ordered to appoint a dictator; his nomination of his subordinate Marcus Claudius Glicia was overruled. He was tried for incompetence and impiety and was fined, and died soon afterwards, possibly by suicide. So basically the guy’s whole entire illustrious life was ruined by one lousy befuddled fowl. Which, yes, is still completely hilarious, but that’s not the point. Geez, people.
 
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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in Series Five

 

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S05E05

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

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

In this episode:

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

Recurring sketches:

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

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

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

One-offs:

Smashing Saxons

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

Slimy Stuarts

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

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

Woeful Second World War

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

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

Groovy Greeks

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

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

Gorgeous Georgians

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

Fabulous French

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

Field Notes:

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

95% Accu-rat:

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

 

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S04E08

*SPLAT*
Only think, my son: the gods have chosen you to receive this divine message. Perhaps this bird brings tidings of great joy — or of a future love! Perhaps you have been singled out for greatness…!
Or perhaps the gods want us to stop standing under trees full of doves!
*SPLAT*
Yeah, could be that too…

Ever wonder what might have been had the show skipped over all those carefully-considered creative strides toward cross-demographic subtlety and just upgraded Series One to PG-13 instead? Well…

In this episode:

Song: Luddites! — Proletariat punk rockers Jim, Mat, Simon and Larry channel the original rage against the machine.

Recurring sketches:

Wonders of the Viking Universe — “What we Vikings don’t know about the universe isn’t worth knowing! …And we also know that it rests in the branches of an enormous tree called Yggdrasil! Amazing!” “Brian… stick to the script, yeah?”

Historical Dating Service — Viking warrior seeks a wife… and may have found one right there in the office. (“Now, how much will your father want for you?” “Oh, Sally’s cheap as chips. In fact, for two bags of chips, you could probably marry Sal and her sister!” “Hum. Nice deal. Well, I must go and fetch the goat…”)

Computer Game: Scorpus Chariot Racer! — “Yeah, green’s good… although red doesn’t show up your opponents’ blood so much!”

Stupid Deaths — Richard the Lionheart (Hit with a child defender’s arrow while distracted by the grownups’ comic efforts at defense, and… “Wait, you went into battle without wearing armour?” “Oh, totes! It’s how I roll!”)

Historical Apprentice — crop-rotation pioneer Viscount ‘Turnip’ Townshend and his Team Whig -vs- the random peasants on Team Go Wurzel (“I’m a Georgian gent, I never get my hands dirty. I’m more the ‘ideas’ person.” “Yeh, and I’m the ‘do the actual work’ person!”)

Shouty Man — New! Ancient Greek Tattoo Messenger (“Simply shave the head of your most trusted slave, then tattoo the message directly onto his skull… wait for his hair to grow back, and voila! The messaging system that’s ‘hair’ today, but not gone tomorrow! …or something.”)

Historical Dentist — Tudor (“You’re not going to put that poo into my mouth?!” “Don’t be ridiculous! In order to be effective, it must be your own poo. Ah, I don’t suppose you feel like –” “Not a chance, mate.”)

One-offs:

Rotten Romans

Disastrous Relief — After the Great Fire of Rome, Emperor Nero tours the devastation… which goes about as well as you’d expect. (“But Emperor, our lives have been destroyed! You have to do something for us!” “And so I shall! I promise you that I will not rest, until there is a thirty-five-foot bronze statue of me just — there! How do you think I should pose? Grapes, or no grapes?”)

Nasty Knights

Here There Be Monsters — A Crusader prepares the new recruits for the exotic fauna they might encounter in the Holy Land and OHAI MP’S ‘SELF-DEFENSE AGAINST FRESH FRUIT’ SKETCH DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE. (“What about the one-legged Cyclops?! What’ll you do then, hey?! — Too slow!! You think that slow, and he will dance on your grave — “ “Hop.” “Hop on your grave!!!”)

New! Mellified Man — A mummy in honey that’s yummy! “Want a great way to start their day? Give them the finest delicacy of modern Arabia! Chunks of real honey-soaked hundred-year-old dead person!”

Groovy Greeks

Winged Messengers — One thing about birds as divine symbols, they’re not subtle. At all. “Look, a dove! Tell us Aphrodite’s bidding, O White-Winged One!” *SPLAT!* “A blessing!” “Easy for you to say, you don’t have poo on your shoulder!”

Terrible Tudors

HHTV News: Behind the Throne — Profiling Sir Thomas Heneage, Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool. Let’s just say, when historians speak of the position’s unprecedented access to the King, they were so not exaggerating.

Field Notes:

  • Right, so it turns out the Samuel L. Jackson pastiche was merely the beginning of the gleeful grossology update; in other words, it was already clear that the HH crew are past caring about any Carthaginian demographic barriers, and this is where we find out just how far. Spoiler: somewhere just barely south of the post-10PM programming watershed.
  • Which I… did not strictly consider necessary to my viewing happiness, but can sympathise. It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when a children’s edutainment series has patiently worked its way to grownup creative respectability, the creators thereof are entitled to have a bit of fun. At least, this is what I keep telling myself. Along with the occasional “well, at least they’re not actually sitting on the toilet this time… much…”
  • So what the hey, let’s patch together a half-hour kiddy gigglefest out of — among other things — Henry VIII’s bowel movements, mummies for breakfast, Historical Dentists with S&M fetishes and finding out exactly how desperate the Historical Dating Service tarts are! Oh, and of course a Sex Pistols-inspired song. Because education, or whatever it is that makes the BBC feel better about lyrics like “smash my switch up!”
  • It really is educational, though… the song, that is. (We’ll get to the mummies later.) Also, a job lot of satisfyingly clever fun. It’s so fundamentally logical, and universal, a subject/genre parody mashup that this team basically could not possibly screw it up, either production or performance. Once the connection was made, the only thing left to do was get out of the way and let the gang have at it…
  • …possibly after purchasing some additional insurance on ersatz Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, there. Giving Jim and Mat full licence to lose all inhibitions is not only as brilliantly, authentically entertaining as you’d expect, but also as you’d expect comes with bonus hilarity in the form of Jim’s subsequent Twitter account of having ‘nearly killed Mat and a crewmember’ with that staff.
  • Mind you, it’s not all about the rowdy stuff. There is still Historical Apprentice, once again starring Chris Addison and what I think we can safely now dub his thing for flouncy wigs. At any rate, as the wigs have gotten bigger — and, OK, his time spent hanging out-on set presumably increased — his confidence has noticeably expanded, to the point where he’s a genuine addition to the HH house style. (Check out the grin on ‘I’m a gent’, especially.) It’s a real shame it turns out to be one of those classic ‘finally gets it just as he has to go’ moments.
  • As a sendoff, though, it definitely makes the most of the trip. Leave it to HH to turn a sketch literally all about crop rotation into one of the flat-out funniest, most engaging of the series — largely because the slightness of the subject serves to allow Larry, Mat and Greg J. all to demonstrate just how adept they’ve become at filling in the odd comedy corners. The first two are of course old hands at the hilarious idiot game, but you especially have to love Greg, totally unable to keep his own intelligent interest from shining through the mute pitchfork-toting peasant.
  • Meantime Jim is still doing a great job of being Donald Trump Except Non-Ironically Entertaining — seriously, if the real-life Lord Sugar also does things like insist the Queen produce her birth certificate to prove she’s not one of the Lizard People, I don’t want to know, OK? The guy’s really starting to grow on me. As is his assistant Martha.
  • His assistant Lawry, on the other hand, is really starting to make me want a shower. And then I got to the Historical Dentist bit, and… well, look, let me stress the good news: as Not Brian Cox, he now has the wide-eyed idiot child of the universe thing about nailed, which makes me very happy — despite a severely ironic lack of fact-checking (see below). That said, there is not enough brain bleach in the whole amazingly vast universe to make me comfortable with inviting him into my imagination to explore feces-related fun and games.
  • I am less viscerally panicked by Sarah frolicking merrily amid the sadistic undercurrents, because for better or worse my brain accepts and even respects this as the natural level-up of her S1 persona… but I still had to construct an entire little fantasy around Civilian Simon and his de-fluffed hair, and how it clearly responds to his moods, to feel properly clean again. To top it all off, incipient obsession with this or no, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the patient would more naturally have been Ben.
  • I’m better with Simon driving the chariot; that sketch could use a dash of unexpected fun, given that it’s otherwise expecting to earn same from pretty much your average PlayStation experience (and, OK, ‘Dobbinus’. Heh…). Granted this isn’t going to hurt its coolness factor any with small audiences — and at this point, it’s almost reassuring to have evidence that we’re still thinking about the small audiences — but mere random brutish violence, in the gaming world, does not a viable parody make.
  • It does however make a dependably great Viking parody, which just about manages to save me from questioning why the HDating Service exists in the first place. Along with my other theory, which involves the producers creating a sort of playroom for the HH cast’s domestic whims — a chance to hang out with Mat’s adorable baby, for Martha and Dominique to whoop it up, for Simon to pillage stuff, whatever. It’s all very ‘women’s programming’, only in this case the man is literally a big dumb insensitive brute with only one thing on his mind.
  • This would be an excellent time for my usual rant re: Scandinavian accents, except that it’s also time to kick off the short-but-fabulously memorable career of our final major royal character, Richard I Lionheart, and in-between the mad snickering it occurs to me that I am a total linguistic hypocrite. Because reality dictates that the uber-English legend of countless Robin Hood movies is here played by Mat in full mock-Gallic magnificence…
  • …also an arrow stuck under his armpit, kind of embarrassing that. Even with their full rich schedule of simulating fresh scalp tattoos, you’d think the f/x crew could’ve glued a suction tip on the fly.
  • Nevertheless, Richard’s Stupid Death manages for once to upstage Death’s surreal antics (although the random mummy-motivating campaign sure doesn’t hurt). The really impressive part, in fact, is the unexpected coda, and more specifically Death demonstrating he knows when to turn it off. Right in the middle of all the enthusiastic ickiness, the perfectly-judged comic maturity here might be one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen on the show — and it says something about their newfound confidence that they’d even try.
  • Shouty Man with new! bonus afro and tiara, on the other hand, slightly less with the endearing. I like Shouty a lot, but this does not mean I was prepared for a glimpse into what happens when Jim not only gets bored, but apparently starts reading TMZ.
  • I am more solidly enchanted with his product concept. I don’t care how formulaic the gags for your history lesson are, if the formula was first concocted for the Flintstones — and is currently being executed by Mat and his grasp of the ridiculous — you’re pretty well covered in the random hilarity department. Kind of a shame they missed their chance at the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (or possibly Waterworld) gags, though.
  • Speaking of unsettling Howick-ness… Jim’s Nero has officially joined Ben’s Henry VIII in the Could Pass in a Serious Drama stakes. I am still giggling every second the vile sociopath’s onscreen, and still hating myself for it in the morning — even the ‘Hail me!’ bit, which I think itself actually dates back to the Roman era. Clearly I have no shame… albeit in my defense, Jim is trying on the aristocratic lisp that Caligula’s been modelling for awhile now, except working off Mat’s version rather than Simon’s, and so ends up declaiming that “I will not rust…!”
  • Another way you can tell this is a straight S1 update: Python influence bunged in wholesale. Seriously, the MP influence hasn’t been this obvious for awhile… luckily the the producers’ taste in inspirational sketches is as, well, inspired as ever, and so is Jalaal’s and Larry’s timing. Jim, meanwhile, is making about as impressive a Drill Sergeant Nasty as you’d expect… which actually works well as an oddball stand-in for Cleese’s full-on insane, under the circs. Like heading around in the opposite direction to achieve the same comic results.
  • There’s more exquisitely Pythonic goodness in the ‘Winged Messengers’ bit. Easily one of the slightest excuses for a sketch in the entire canon, but so worth it just to see Simon and Mat’s respective interpretations of ‘beatific’. Again, sort of disappointed they didn’t go for Ben here — since part of me can’t help but envision a smartly wicked riff on ‘Baybond’ — but I’ll take what I can get, especially when it’s “Maybe the gods want us to stand over there…?”
  • We do eventually get mondo Benjamin in the Henry VIII sketch, which is nice. So is Jim’s chipper devoted act, which really sells the outrageous premise, and Sarah, doing the best she can as Alice’s replacement brunette newsbimbo despite not having much indignation to stand on after that HDentist bit. Otherwise… yeah, again, the toilet sketches aren’t my thing, and so a tactful veil will be drawn over further comment. Except, maybe, to offer a hug to poor dear Jim. It’s a hell of a way to win comedy awards, isn’t it?

95% Accu-rat:

  • I did get a little distracted by the unusually blatant goofs in the Viking Universe sketch — blatant enough, in fact, that I gather they may have been fixed on the DVD. In the original broadcast (of which I have the iPlayer recording), the Gorgeous Viking Scientist accidentally makes himself look not only mad, but frankly like he bought his diploma from a random guy — or possibly a talking rat — wearing a horned helmet at ComicCon. Protip: Loki is Odin’s son only in the Marvel Asgard, kids. And the ‘six-legged’ horse he gave birth to… well, why don’t we have Wiki explain it all:
  • In Norse mythology, Loki, Loptr, or Hveðrungr is a god or jötunn (or both). Loki is the son of Fárbauti and Laufey, and the brother of Helblindi and Býleistr. By the jötunn Angrboða, Loki is the father of Hel, the wolf Fenrir, and the world serpent Jörmungandr. By his wife Sigyn, Loki is the father of Narfi and/or Nari. And by the stallion Svaðilfari, Loki is the mother—giving birth in the form of a mare—to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir. In addition, Loki is referred to as the father of Váli in the Prose Edda.
  • …Amazing, isn’t it?
  • So of course is the Mellified Man, and not only because it stuns the rat into complete disgust only an episode or two after confessing to adore ‘rotten seafood sick’… and no, I don’t plan on letting that go anytime soon. Anyway, I’m sure we’ll all be most pleased — and not a bit surprised — to learn that ‘honey-soaked dead guy’ as medical aid may not have been an actual thing.
  • While honey’s uniquely limitless shelf-life could theoretically make it happen (still-edible traces of the sweet goop have been found all over the ancient world, including in some coffins) there’s very little hard evidence that it actually did, in medieval Arabia. The concept was recorded as a secondhand rumour by a 16th century Chinese pharmacologist, who noted that it even if true, it was considered a rare and exotic, uh, delicacy.
  • But wait, there’s more! The really fun part is, in the course of researching, I noticed the Wiki article has a section on ‘Similar Medical Practices’. To wit:
  • …the medicinal use of mummies, and the sale of fake ones, is “well documented” in chemistry books of 16th to 18th centuries in Europe, “but nowhere outside Arabia were the corpses volunteers”. Mummies were a common ingredient in the Middle Ages until at least the eighteenth century, and not only as medicine, but as fertilizers and even as paint. The use of corpses and body parts as medicine goes far back—in the Roman Empire the blood of dead gladiators was used as treatment for epilepsy.
  • Yep, the afterlife really could be only the beginning of your great adventure… only quite possibly not the one you were expecting. Makes the whole rest of the business with the poo and mouse parts and whatnot seem almost quaintly charming, doesn’t it?
  • Meantime, I am deeply saddened to report that tattooing random slaves did not, in fact, catch on as the text-messaging equivalent of ancient Greece. The good news is, though, that the facts as recorded here are still substantially correct. According to contemporary historian Herodotus, the whole thing was a sort of last-ditch inspiration by ancient POW Histiaeus of Miletus, who had to convince the slave in question that it would ‘help his failing eyesight’ in order to get him to submit to the procedure.
  • At any rate, the whole thing worked like a charm, the rebellion was a success and Histiaeus was freed. History doesn’t actually record what happened re: the slave’s eyesight, but I like to think he got many free rounds out of the story anyway, down at the Grecian equivalent of the pub.
 
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Posted by on July 30, 2013 in Series Four

 

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S04E01

 Take that, Hitler!

The first episode of HH the Bonafide Award-Winning Phenomenon debuts amid relentless hype, clashing expectations and creative dilemmas… if it were any other show, this is where I’d advise you start worrying. As it is, all you’ve got to be concerned with is an all-out charm assault…

In this episode:

Song: The Few (WWII RAF Pilots) — Jim as Douglas Bader; Mat, Larry, Ben and Simon as Stinky, Squiffy, Frantisek and Stanislav, respectively (Parody of: Take That, feat. Relight My Fire)

Recurring sketches:

Horrible Movie Pitch — The Dick Whittington Project (“So, who do you see playing the talking cat?” “Right, the cat thing again… This is a true story of my life. A political drama.” “Oh yeah sure sure, a political drama.” “With a talking cat.” “For kids!” “I love it.”)

Stupid Deaths — Tudor Archers (As should not actually be news, archery and stupidity don’t mix well… “So I leaned over to see what’s going on there with the bow, and…” “Yeeeessss?” “…twang. Right in me ‘ead.”)

Wonders of the Egyptian Universe —  “Before us Egyptians, no-one had any idea that the sun travelled across the sky by being rolled by a giant vast dung beetle!” “Alright, reality check, Brian: if this dung beetle is so massive, why can’t we see it?” “…a giant vast invisible dung beetle!”

Computer Game: Duat! Egyptian Journey Through the Underworld — “Look out, giant man-eating beetle! I’m packing a scroll!”

One-offs:

Slimy Stuarts

Wee For Victory — War with Scotland required a very personal sacrifice of the nation’s women… no, even more personal than that. “The makers of gunpowder for our troops are desperate… as, hopefully, are some of you…”

Warts and All — “Truly, Lady Fortune smiles on me this day! Finally, I get to paint Mr. Cromwell himself!” “…yeah, good luck with that.”

Terrible Tudors

The Spanish Armada: Judgement Year (movie trailer) — “So, to cut a long story short… no corks, no Armada.” “I’ll be back!” “Oooh, good catchphrase!” “Thanks.” “De nada.”

The Spanish Armada II: This Time It’s Really Judgement Year — “Are my ships ready?” “They are, sire.” “Do my barrels have corks?” “They do, sire!”
…”Bad news, sire! We have lost more than feefty sheeeps!” “…and the good news?” “Uhm… there’s venison for supper?”

The Spanish Armada III: This Time It Must Be Judgement Year — “What news of my Armada? Has it at last been successful?” “It has caused minor damage to Mousehole! An inconsequential village in Cornwall! Yay!” “I’ll be back!…maybe. It might take awhile.”

(Pause for Stupid Deaths sketch above, then…)

The Spanish Armada IV: Maybe This is Judgement Year — “I don’t care what happens, so long as my fleet of 140 galleons wasn’t wrecked by storms off the English coast!” “It wasn’t! … it never got that far. It was wrecked by storms off the Spanish coast.”

The Spanish Armada V: Let’s Face It, It’s Not Gonna Be Judgement Year — “Storms again?… yeah, I won’t be back. Forget it.”

Gorgeous Georgians

(Fees for) Safety First — In which seventeenth-century fire insurance is handled with all the empathic finesse of a… modern health insurance debate, come to think of it. “What happened to ‘No blaze too big, no fire too small’?!” “If you’re not insured, we won’t help at all!” “Well, can I at least borrow a bucket?” “NO.”

Toilet in the Court — You know how you never see aristocratic people going to the loo in those swank historical dramas? This right here is why.

Savage Stone Age

World of Stone — “We’ve got all the furniture new to the Neolithic era! Beds! Cupboards! Shelves! Dressers! Chairs! Even limpet tanks! Buy now, don’t pay until the Bronze Age*!” (*Delivery times may vary a lot. For henges please allow thirty years.)

Early News: End of an Era? — Guess what, people who stand in line for days to pick up the latest Apple gadget: you were out-tooled — literally — about four thousand years ago.  (“Ooh, look, they’re so shiny an’ all!” “Ehh, I reckon this whole Bronze Age thing is just a fad. I’m gonna wait for the Iron Age to come along.”)

Woeful Second World War

First, We Hit the Gift Shop — “German High Command wants us to bomb any city with three stars in the Baedeker guide.” “Do they have fudge? I luff fudge!”

Field Notes:

  • Well, this is exciting. Where I came in, you might say. Those familiar with my S2 reviews — and if you haven’t been printing them out and memorising key passages, why not, may I ask? — at any rate, those willing to put up with me to this point may recall that it was round about the Stonewall Jackson sketch in S02E11 that I finally decided to ask Google if it was just me.
  • What I found first was the Prom, which had just happened. So… clearly not just me then. The next thing I found was a comment thread re: the minor post-Prom debacle in which the cast was prevented from coming out to meet their fans, to which both Mat and Jim had apparently responded. This in turn led to an impulse to match the names I’d found to the faces… which in turn led to the discovery that holy crap there was an entire fandom out there. An over-12 fandom. (Good thing I picked up on that latter tidbit before I discovered the fanfiction, or things might’ve gotten really weird.)
  • There was also somewhere in there Stephen Fry, besides a boatload of awards, up to and including the British Comedy Award for Best Sketch Comedy. You’ll note the lack of “children’s” in that sentence; the People Who Notice These Things, UK division, certainly did. When they weren’t too busy swooning over the highwayman and snickering at the audacity of a platinum-blond Death. Clearly a delighted BBC had found itself driving a bonafide bandwagon: the kiddy educomedy it was cool for adults to love, too.
  • It was all just ridiculously, hilariously adorable… which made it unique among my experiences at the time. Clearly the only thing to do — and you might just keep this in mind, kids, next time someone tells you that escapism is harmless — was write a lengthy article for the semiprestigious online pop-culture ‘zine I was blogging for at the time, explaining in excruciating detail what a cultural phenomenon this children’s series had become…
  • …on which note I would just like to thank the entire Horrible Histories team for subsequently making me look awesomely sophisticated, instead of really, really stupid. I can tell, because as the hype for Series Four commenced, it became clear that the UK comedy community was backing me up. The show that had once pinned all its hopes for notice on Meera Syal reading fairy tales now found itself fielding requests from some of the hottest names in the business.
  • Most notably, the one from genre wunderkind Mark Gatiss and his buddies from the League of Gentlemen troupe, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, that the show host their reunion. The HH team, quite understandably, fell all over their hero-worship in their rush to say yes. Given that the LoG had produced some of the most famously dark, quirky, critically-acclaimed comedy of the last decade, this was already a much better idea than the fairy tales (or, for that matter, the Scary Stories). The really remarkable thing, though, was that the world’s most famously cynical media also thought it was a fine idea…
  • …right about the time that, as was starting to be evident towards the latter end of S3 and will become much clearer from here on in, the nature of the show’s material had undergone a sea change. Albeit not exactly in the way that’s popularly supposed. Human nature dictates that the well of Horrible historical moments will never run dry. From a creative standpoint, though, there’s a significant difference between a moment surefire enough to sum up in a cartoon and one that — while not necessarily less subtle — does require more delicate handling to extract the edutainment. Let alone what is at least nominally children’s edutainment.
  • And the HH crew had not so much run out of the former as run them into the ground. I have a mental image of writers scanning the books ever more frantically as they realise they’ve been hoist by their own ambition. After a moment of tense silence, one speaks: “… I suppose there’s always the Baron Rothschild and his –” “NO.”
  • In effect, they found themselves almost entirely thrown back on their own imaginative resources just as they were being forced to prove them. Full-blown comic maturity, a praiseworthy novelty up til now, had suddenly become a requirement on several levels… while still officially not happening at all. Because on top of everything else, thanks to revised regulations, they were now solely confined to the CBBC channel.
  • Enter the really nifty thing about all of the hype: it had been fairly earned — not just by the awards, but by the entire series of shrewd creative choices that underpinned them, both on and off camera. Shrewd, and frankly anarchistic. A team that had spent years juggling education with Python were not people who were about to be unnerved by abruptly skyrocketing expectations, however sophisticated.
  • As if to prove it, S4 kicks off with a bit of ecclesiastical exquisiteness that not only showcases the latest budget upgrades, but is the visually lavish equivalent of anything in any adult BBC historical costume epic… riiight up until you realise that what the unctuous clergyman is piously intoning is an urgent request for ladies’ pee. As in chamber pots now available under the pews. Welcome to Horrible Histories, everybody.
  • Which triumph they then follow up with an odd little interlude focussing on Oliver Cromwell’s ‘warts and all’ —  that’s literally the entire point, that warts are somehow grotesque abominations — that comes across as a script abandoned half-way through but filmed anyway because… well, hell if I know. Maybe the f/x crew spent all off-season perfecting Cromwell’s new makeup and nobody had the heart to tell them? They’d heard the fandom rumours about Lawry leaving the show and wanted to have a bit of fun off the top?
  • Alright, so subtle doesn’t always mesh well with shrewd. But by the time you get to a fourth series, sometimes, as per the above bit, endearing works nearly as well… yeah, I think I did just call Lawry endearing. Something about the way he skates right out to the edge of petulant whining trying to find a reason to still be onscreen is triggering my affectionate-nostalgia reflexes.
  • A much more effective combination of experience and intuition and endearing happens in the Armada sketch(es)… another personal set of Sketches That Make My Brain Never Stop Grinning Like a Loon, as you’ll have noticed from the fact that I’ve transcribed them nearly in full above. Thing is, in the course of which I realised that, frankly, the writing here is nearly as slight as in the Cromwell bit (although here at least they progressed as far as looking up everyone’s correct titles).
  • Then I read through them again, only in Mat and Larry’s voices to get the full effect, and I realised I’d actually just fully and totally proven… whatever it is I’ve been rambling about up to now. The whole wonderful thing is based on intimate knowledge of who the cast are and what they can do, as anchored to a perfectly adapted concept — equating Philip II’s attempts to a series of steadily diminishing movie sequels is just awesome.
  • And again, awesomely adult… on a few separate levels, as evidenced that Ben-as-Drake got his own notice in the reviews, and rightfully so. They really don’t give him enough chances to play with that suave… the smug is good, but it’s just not the same. Meanwhile, back in the foreground, Larry and Mat play off each other with the inspired — and, not incidentally, unselfish — brilliance of comedians who by now trust each other even unto stupid accents. Pace Carl Reiner, they “don’t know what’s going to come out — but they know that something is!”
  • Speaking of which: Kind of a shame that all the ‘Gift Shop Bombers’ bit is remembered for is the fudge; that’s probably the least remarkable aspect of the enchantingly unique comic chemistry that happens whenever Ben and Simon’s veteran understanding of ridiculousness is deliberately paired. Seriously, this is now officially not a co-incidence. Not sure whether it’s the result of the writers getting excited at that prospect or production carefully selecting the assignment, but they’re inevitably among the best-written sketches of their series, and this here is probably the best of that lot. Just fabulously witty stuff — I honestly had to restrain myself from transcribing it in full.
  • Great ensemble stuff also from Martha and the competing fire brigades, esp. Ben, who is clearly now allowed to amuse himself on-set however he wants. They all really do turn this very slight sketch into something close to a classic. In the process, quite seriously, demonstrating how much individual leeway they’ve been given by now within the format — to become a troupe, in fact. The evolution of Yonderland etc starts right here, kids.
  • Oh, and “Ding-a-ling-a-ling!” Simon and the marshmallows… nope, he hasn’t let me down yet. Not even once. And certainly not while being the go-to caveperson. In related news, it’s kind of interesting, as always, what media concepts — like annoying furniture ads — turn out to be cross-cultural… it’s somehow always not the ones I would’ve imagined.
  • We’re actually reintroduced to Death in the middle of playing rock-paper-scissors with the skeletons, which I like to think of as my own particular little cosmic present for being a really good fan. Aside from which — and the total lack of explanation for the new mummy sidekick, which acts as the pink bow on top — his contribution to the new creative subtlety this season will involve more patiently letting the corpses… ah, hang themselves, so to speak, with their own stories. Or, in this case, accents. Larry’s is the better anecdote, but Mat’s — by a hair — is the better-told.
  • By now, of course, you’re wondering how the music fits into all this… well, if you’re not, rest assured that the prospective new S4 audience certainly was, with bells on. Having as usual already surmounted the challenges the prose sketches were facing — up to and including ‘dazzlingly subtle maturity’ — this series’ musical efforts will focus increasingly on finding clever genre matches as a sort of quick shortcut to maintaining that impressiveness, or at least, quite a lot of impressed new fans.
  • Whether the actual songwriting itself rose to the occasion, as it did so amazingly last series… well, that’s to be seen. For now, it’s altogether irrelevant. The point of this series’ debut number is merely “Yeah, you remember that boy-band thing you all drooled over? So check this — now we have DANCE MOVES!” Well, sort of. Kiddy-show-level expectations do have their uses, not least when trying to pass off Willbond needing to not only stay in step but hold a note. Also, Larry doing that… whatever he does, when there’s music. Expecting it is not quite the same thing as being prepared for it.
  • OK, I know, details. In all seriousness this thing is a positive arabesque of engaging… IN A PLANE!… that somehow works as an affectionate takeoff of both real and Hollywood-style wartime heroics — while still providing fully *ahem* believably dashing eye candy. I’m literally only just now realising how horribly tacky topping things off with a Churchill quote could’ve come across under the circs, that’s the level of goodwill this show had built up to this point. As far as I know, there wasn’t even a perturbed letter written to the Daily Mail.
  • I personally tend to focus more on the goofy stuff mostly because my distaste for the genre target is such that the accuracy would otherwise really start to get in the way of my enjoyment after awhile. (You ever try to clear mouth foam off a keyboard?) So it falls to the guys to cheer me up, and as usual they don’t disappoint.
  • Especially not Mat, who’s throwing himself full-tilt into this whole derring-do-doing bit despite wearing a uniform that — as per usual in these things — is easily two sizes too big. Granted they’ve done a very decent job of tucking the extra in round the belt; still, being the one member of the squadron with both a lead vocal and a noticeably nipped-in waist cannot have been a major confidence-booster either. (I also wouldn’t have minded being in Jim’s head when they told him about having to fake prosthetic legs.)
  • So having gone on at length about subtlety and complexity, I must now concede that it’s time to introduce the League of Gentlemen into the conversation. Personally I could sum the whole thing up as ‘I don’t care if the HH stuff is nothing more than a showcase for their reunion, it’s all just completely freakin’ hilarious,’ but given that this is clearly the minority POV…
  • The trick is remembering that it is the LoG’s reunion. Everything I said in S02E03 about giving the Big Name(s) a safe place to play within an established, stylised concept applies here as well, except with extra chocolate on top in the form of what I said earlier in this review about it being an honour. No offense to the uber-dependable David Baddiel, but his presence didn’t rate a full-colour spread in the Radio Times. (Although it can be argued that the fez deserved one.)
  • In that context, perhaps it’s worth reconsidering the fact that two parties nevertheless came up with a durable, dependably funny and fascinating concept — one that meshes the worlds of celebrity and historical satire in a way that’s relevant to both, leaving the LoG free rein to do their preternaturally quick, clever thing and the show to provide interesting historical insights at the same time. Come to think of it, in most important respects it’s quite like Stupid Deaths.
  • This one in particular, I can’t understand what’s not to love. There’s just something about the way they bounce the over-the-top cynicism off Mat’s primly sweet earnestness — the talking cat -vs- “I created the first public toilets in London!” — that means I can’t stop giggling, no matter how often I watch it. (“How do you feel about Keira Knightley playing you?” Oh, god…) Also, as a footnote, nifty bit of accent misdirection on Gatiss there at the beginning. No idea why he decided to try the American, but I salute a decent attempt. The whole corporate stuffed-shirt thing really suits him, weirdly enough.
  • “Hi, I’m a hot Egyptian scientist…” Oh, very subtle, there, show. In not-entirely-unrelated news, the other major creative development this series will be a sharp uptick in the recognizable parodies. Despite the challenges any pop-culture takeoff faces re: aging well — and, as I can testify, exporting well — this is basically good news. Both as a way to be very-but-not-really adult, and to take advantage of some hitherto criminally unappreciated mimicry skills among the troupe.
  • Having now seen the original, I can appreciate that ‘Lewin!’ would’ve popped into the producer’s heads almost immediately… and frankly agree with them. It’s a shade too excitable for strict accuracy — as far as I can gather, Prof. Cox is more about the angsty “I am but a dust mote in the Great Cosmic Reality” understatement — but having once been handed this assignment, it’s easy to understand our Lawry jumping at it full-tilt. Yep, he’s won my heart… for those three minutes, anyway.
  • Ooh, and while we’re on about impressively heart-winning angst, check Ben in Val Kilmer’s wig from The Saint!… right, so there’s a joke exactly three people will get. Of whom apparently at least two are on the HH makeup team.
  • Speaking of which, it’s past time to pay tribute to this series’ f/x upgrades, including as noted impressively updated makeup jobs on Cromwell and Elizabeth I, a quick cut-n-style for Death, vastly improved computer-game graphics that allow for true, and truly hilarious, player interaction… and a squeefully tasteful teeny portrait of Gran and Grandpa Rattus, indicating that fame may have gone slightly to the head of our host rodent. (My theory is that, instead of a badger they eventually gave him a teeny raise to handle ‘the sad bits’).
  • O and hai, Also Starring Sarah H.! Can’t say I’m wildly excited to have you and your shrill little voice back, but hey, you’re an integral part of the HH lore, so… on the other hand, so is Lawry. Watch it, lady.
  • ‘Vanessa Stonebottom’? ‘Trevor Geek’? Yeah, some things HH will never change… no matter how much they should. Despite which the Bronze Age report is a fun little expansion on the Internet sketches (and incidentally a nice complement to the ‘aBook’ bit from S03E01). Much love for Mat the cave-hipster; I will not suggest he’s basically playing himself, because that would be evil, and… uh… oh, look, they even managed to work in some Ben-annoyed-with-Jim stuff! Awesome! *runs away*

95% Accu-rat:

  • Congratulations on making it all the way down here! Your reward is learning that Oliver Cromwell really should’ve been referred to as ‘Lord Protector’ (or more formally, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland), not ‘Mr’. He wasn’t any fonder of pointlessly fancypants titles than he was of formal portraits — and of course calling him ‘Your Highness’ was just totally defeating the point — but they had to put something on the official flowcharts, so this was the compromise.
  • Yep, Philip II really did not take his rejection by then-Princess Elizabeth at all well. It pleased Liz to claim in later years that his obsession with retaking England was all about thwarted love for her, and that in fact she could have him back merely by ‘crooking her little finger’. She of course refused to think of it out of love for her stalwart subjects, but still.
  • In reality, of course, it had much more to do with the fact that on her accession Liz has definitively tipped the national religious scales to Protestant, and as you may recall from previous entries, Philip was a confirmed fanatical Catholic. Not that this alone exactly justified wasting the equivalent of billions in national resources or anything… only that it really helps your lust for conquest when it’s sanctioned by the Pope, and back then His Holiness could totally do that.
  • Elizabeth was after all not only a ‘weak and feeble woman’, but one that the Vatican still officially considered illegitimate. By their lights, given that Mary Queen of Scots was still a toddler at this point, Philip was about as close to a Divinely-sanctioned legitimate claimant to the English throne  as was going. So you can just about imagine how wrecked his day was when God apparently sided with the heretic five times running.
  • Incidentally, the ‘minor damage to Mousehole’ is more formally known as the Mounts Bay Raid, or as Wiki seems to be alone in calling it, the Battle of Cornwall. On the international scale it was indeed a pretty inconsequential affair, although to the locals the whole ‘overpowering the local militia and setting fire to the town’ thingy must’ve been pretty damn inconvenient at least. Sir Walter Raleigh apparently wasn’t best pleased about having to bustle down to what he evidently considered the back end of civilization and train the remaining defenders, either.
  • So the Egyptian Book of the Dead: actually a personalised document commissioned for each individual mummy, of which several still exist to this day. They do indeed contain all sorts of spells and other stuff to impress and amaze your friends… a lot of stuff. This is afterlife as extended D&D session, and it’s hard not to imagine that a lot of it was designed to serve mostly the same purpose. Real life probably got really really boring at times, out there in the desert hauling stones around.
  • The sketch here actually starts a little late in the process; you’re a mummy, remember, so your first priority would be making sure all that disembowelling wouldn’t hurt your chances. During embalming there would be chants performed to preserve your body (‘jewelled heart scarabs’ available for a small fee in case of damage to the real thing), and later on food and incense offerings designed to satisfy your ka, or life-force, which was a bit peckish after all that reassembly.
  • Finally, the appropriate spells would then transmute you into a sort of soul-shadow, suitable for negotiating the Byzantine corridors of the afterlife — many, many more than could be comfortably fitted into one short sketch. If you were lucky — or at least had friends with a lot of time on their hands — and completed all the steps above, you became an akh, and earned the right to travel with Ra himself in his golden barge; if not, you remained a ba, a bird-headed being that had to maneuvre under its own, um, wing-power. Either way, I can’t help thinking it would’ve improved the sketch immensely…
 
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Posted by on June 23, 2013 in Series Four

 

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