Squeamish About … review – Matt Berry's harebrained history lesson

<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Rogue historian Michael Squeamish, author of Fish & Chips and Frogs’ Legs: Britain and Europe Since the War and presenter of last year’s Road to Brexit documentary, returns to alleviate our lockdown boredom with a short series of even shorter films about large, unwieldy subjects in Squeamish About… (BBC Two). This time, the comic creation of Arthur Mathews and Matt Berry – the latter also plays the title character – is taking us on a whistle-stop tour through the history of entertainments (or “EnTERtainMents!” as Berry’s unique gift for demented emphases and somehow vocalising random capitalisations renders it), rElationSHips!, LoNdon! and THE CountRY!. Squeamish’s own penchant for speaking English just two degrees off to the side of the tracks on which it usually runs (“sex intercourse”, “they would be of the bullshit”) and fearless translation, dubbing and subtitling of anyone speaking in a regional accent – especially from “up nowath” – or foreign language are all present and incorrect too.

Their patented blend of silliness and surreality enables them to skip through time and place and over facts on a glorious whim. This is a world where the Great Fire of London caused “£57-worth of damage”, Cork is “just 20 miles from Devon” and Motown moved its headquarters from Detroit to Batley, Yorkshire, in the 60s to facilitate the Northern soul scene. It is like being pulled along by Vic Reeves on one side and Philomena Cunk on the other, all in seven-league boots.

Squeamish, as is customary, booms and belches his take on life over stock footage and clips of old shows from the past 50 or so years. Film evidently from an old documentary about countryside life is repurposed as an accompaniment to assurances that “Voles have to be culled every half hour” lest Bristol and Bedford be overrun by “23 million” of them. Hence the village of Baldwin-on-Mike’s annual vole strangulation rituals. Occasionally, Squeamish’s takes make as much sense, if not more, than reality. There is a shot of people at a 1960s summer fete who look like they may very well be playing a game of “Slinging the Missus”. And who can really say for sure that Gracie Fields was not “a famous drag act from Rochdale” played by part-time blacksmith “and tic-tac-toe man” Albert Chisholm? You cannot watch our Gracie without feeling that you are surely missing some piece of the puzzle. She can’t be entirely explained by the war.

If I did not laugh much (apart from at odd moments such as the assertion in one of the later episodes that “chatting someone up” was known as “showing your trainers” in the north and “ngllycwfandgylafeiuyrajsfhsyrf” in Wales) – well, I’m aware that in matters as subjective as this, it hardly matters. But I do wonder how much difference it would make if some discipline were imposed on the endeavour – how much comic tension is lost by the fact that Berry and Mathews are entirely free to go anywhere, say anything and simply reach into an almost infinite archive to find the pictures and footage to go with it. Compare that approach to, for example, the for-adults Ladybird books. The joy of reading them lies in the fact that the new words go with the original pictures: invention playing round one constant and making the whole thing 10 times funnier than if both were ever-shifting. It is the friction that creates the delight. It dissipates something vital knowing that when Mathews and Berry come up with a line, as they do in the London episode, about “Trevor Barbecue – real name Ali Baba-Ku”, the first man to introduce the cooking concept to the capital, they have no limits on the sources they can ransack for illustration (or, if they come across a fertile clip, have no constraints on the script to accompany it).

As it stands, it is fun and harmless and, at 15 minutes long each time, does not outstay its welcome. And Entertainments, at least, ends on a gently thoughtful note. Over footage of closed theatres and stadiums emptied by the pandemic, Squeamish announces: “2020 saw British entertainment draw to a close.” As the recent footage gave way to a documentary reenactment of hooded peasants gathered round a campfire, he continued: “Like our ancestors, we are now content to amuse ourselves by sitting in the dark and telling stories about angry, vengeful gods.” We were played out to footage of a crowded Trafalgar Square and the sound of Don McLean singing American Pie – “and this will be the day that I die.” You have to laugh.