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TV review: Horrible Histories; The Story of Now; Up the Women

Laurence Rickard, Ben Willbond, Martha Howe-Douglas, Mathew Baynton, Jim Howick and Simon Farnaby in Horrible Histories. Photo: BBC/Lion Television/Rory Lindsay

The award-winning Horrible Histories has returned for a triumphant fifth series, putting its distinct comic twist upon epochs long gone, plus a few that are, disconcertingly, more recent.

Included among the Slimy Stuarts, Smashing Saxons and Vile Victorians was the Troublesome Twentieth Century, featuring Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 weight-loss programme from 1969 – no willpower was required, but you did need a 36-storey-high space rocket to get you to the Moon, where minimal gravity reduced your weight by 82%.

I’m not sure how I feel about Horrible Histories catching up with my own era – who knows, the next step could involve my featuring in the show’s Stupid Deaths slot – but I am definitely a big fan of the show.

Quite apart from being very funny, constantly inventive and subliminally educational, it also has the courage to tackle potentially controversial events head on. Re-imagining Rosa Parks’ celebrated civil rights protest as a soul number explained a complex issue in a clever, concise and accessible way without trivialising it.

Happy 30th birthday to the compilation album Now That’s What I Call Music, celebrated by ITV in the frivolous but fun documentary The Story of Now.

Before Now hit the record shops (we had record shops back then) compilation albums were of the Top of the Pops variety – cheap cover versions with even cheaper cover artwork bashed out with indecent haste before being peddled to children and naive teenagers who thought they were buying the authentic chart hits.

Ronco and K-Tel then entered the fray, their albums featuring the original artists but with best-selling singles heavily outnumbered by makeweight tracks.

At which point Richard Branson and other hairy, hippy executives at Virgin Records hit upon the idea of compilation album as a showcase for their artists, taking the name Now That’s What I Call Music from a poster of a talking pig on the wall of their ramshackle Portobello Road offices.

Eighty-four editions later, Now enjoys a fan base that spans generations, encompasses several musical styles and takes full advantage of ever-changing technologies to push its product.

Among those fans and contributors paying tribute to the iconic album were Dom Joly, Limahl from Kajagoogoo, the Saturdays and Timmy Mallett – complete with trademark, comedy foam-mallet – who, to all outward appearances, remains stuck in 1983 when the first Now came out.

Written by and starring Jessica Hynes, Up the Women is a gentle, charming sitcom set in 1910, and follows the transformation of the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle into a branch of the suffragette movement.

Hynes plays the group’s timidly radical leader Margaret, fiercely opposed by Rebecca Front’s redoubtable matriarch Helen.

“What on earth do women need a vote for?” Helen argues. “My husband votes for who I tell him to vote for. What could be a better system than that?”

The script is full of many fine lines, plus one excellent visual gag involving a tapestry of peonies, but it’s all rather static, with the action – if action be the word – confined to a solitary village hall location and looking set to stay there.

However, the whole series is a mere three episodes long, so the chances of viewers developing cabin fever are minimal.

Horrible Histories, CBBC, Wednesday, May 29, 4.30pm
The Story of Now, ITV, Monday, May 27, 10pm
Up the Women, BBC4, Thursday, May 30, 8.30pm

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