Short, sharp, sweet, and sensationally silly: this medieval road trip comedy about a rascally pardoner and his unlikely accomplice has a dynamic duo, its tongue firmly in its cheek and its heart in the right place, writes Dave Gardner-Smith.
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear in ballads” utters the thuggish Robin Hood, pasty crumbs spraying from his mouth, when he is accused of not being at all like the legendary figure everyone believes him to be. And it turns out that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear in Tales of Bacon either – this is medieval history à la Blackadder, complete with modern idioms, tongue-in-cheek humour, and much less bloody, muddy violence. If this sounds like criticism, I assure you it couldn’t be further from the truth, as this brilliantly funny and inventive new webseries is a quietly joyous experience.
England, 1380. An obstinate young maiden overhears her money-grabbing father scheming to marry her off to a pox-ridden toddler and escapes out of her bedroom window to safety. And then we cut to a dodgy-dealing traveller in flowing cloak smarmily attempting to flog his wares to a woman astride a mountainous ox. A striking introduction to the world of shambling but twinkly pardoner Thaddeus Bacon (Adam Elms) – a cheeky, rascally chancer in mauve – and Elfrida Deverwyck (Gemma Shelton), a moody teenage noblewoman trying to find her place in the world. Meeting under bizarre circumstances, when Bacon stumbles across Deverwyck about to be burned at the stake by an incensed bishop and trying to barter a deal for his combustible flints, they begin a pilgrimage north to Lindisfarne together. Although the sardonic, mischievous Bacon (who absolves sinners of their guilt with hooky goods, like a 14th century Del Boy) clashes with the spunky but naive Deverwyck, there is a strong sense of a meeting of minds almost from the outset; the double act feels established immediately. A simple concept perhaps but one that offers up a myriad of opportunities, situations, recognisable historical figures, and comic business. This is a series that bursts with love and warmth, the occasional poignant moment or undercurrent of danger offsetting the gloriously daft gags and gallery of colourful, eccentric characters – and one can suddenly become swept along with the pace and drive of the episodes. Short, sharp, and sensationally silly. An hour of pure escapism.
Co-creators and writers Max Gee and Natalie Roe (who also directs and produces) keep the action fluid and the dialogue snappy but never at the expense of developing roles, narrative, or plot. The humour ranges from broad slapstick and quickfire groan or giggle-inducing gags to sophisticated and razor sharp wit – there really are jokes to satisfy everyone – and the smattering of real life or mythical historical characters from Chaucer to Bolingbroke and Robin Hood and Little John reveals the series can be as clever and subtle as it is riotous. They are also not afraid to brush over the harsh realities of death or peril – the final broadsword showdown on the beach with Thaddeus and the knight who haunts his every step through the countryside is a superbly dramatic scene, tense and remarkably shot. Another key pleasure is the aesthetic. The beauty of the scenery (chiefly in Yorkshire): lush green hedgerows, medieval villages and quaint churches, sweeping beaches, candlelit taverns, and shadowy woodland provides a stunning backdrop to proceedings, proving Plotting Films have a keen eye for a sumptuous location. Their period detail is evident from the first second and is a welcome change from the plethora of many modern webseries which feel stuffed to the brim with special effects and extravagant set pieces.
The performances help, of course. Elms, a consummate stage actor, here reveals an effortless and mesmerising screen presence, expertly managing to create a deliciously heightened character whilst always remaining truthful and employing his impeccable comic timing to full effect. Lovable, charming, and charismatic, Thaddeus could have felt two-dimensional in lesser hands but Elms not only makes you care about the rogue but hints at an emotional depth throughout. And it’s often his relationship with Shelton that truly makes this series sing. The two tap into a sarcastic repartee and sparkling chemistry from their first encounter that only builds as the plot progresses, a true friendship slowly and delicately blossoming before our very eyes. Shelton’s is a subtler, quieter, more grounded portrayal but no less engaging; she complements Elms beautifully, their differing personalities balancing each other out pleasingly. Shelton charts Elfrida’s journey carefully but naturally, and in later episodes, with a restless energy and sweet innocence that lifts scenes in which the duo have gone their separate ways. The supporting and guest cast, although game and spirited, are a mixed affair, but Olivia Jayne Newton as a cantankerous Scottish rebel, Paul Toy as a maniacal bishop, Jimmy Johnson’s greedy Robin Hood, and Natalie Brimicombe’s arrogant rival to Thaddeus all stand out, and while Richard Thirlwall’s deranged John The Very Ready skates dangerously close to complete caricature, he just about gets away with it because of a slew of visual gags and punchy writing. Amusing cameos spring from Mike Tyler, Tom Jackson, Arron Dennis, James Tyler, and Adam Atkinson, playing everything from mute monks to intimidating highwaymen, snooty lords, and sneaky authors.
There are tiny gripes: the sound isn’t always as crystal clear as it should be and the odd edit doesn’t feel clean, especially in the opening few episodes. Some droll gags land with aplomb, others fall short. There were one or two episodes that may have benefitted from a couple of extra minutes to the running time to allow the dialogue to breathe and whilst most of the ensemble shone, a handful of supporting performances either struggled to feel natural or make an impression. But trust me when I say I had to search for negatives – how this industrious company created such an impressive work on such a meagre budget is nothing short of incredible. It zips along, had me grinning inanely throughout, and left me hankering for the next adventure. Hopefully, there is time and room for a second series: further developing the sparky lead duo, getting rid of Elfrida’s smug and tedious saint of a hubby, plumbing a darker side of that historical period, and continuing to push the envelope with outrageously frothy humour.
Who said history has to be tedious? Because with Tales of Bacon, it’s fresh, daft, and as warm as a hug on a crisp winter’s morning.
Written by: Max Gee and Natalie Roe.
Directed & Produced by Natalie Roe.
Company: Plotting Films.
Starring: Adam Elms, Gemma Shelton.
Running Time: Approx 1hr (6 episodes).
**** – FOUR STARS.
Tales of Bacon will be released every Thursday until the 1st of March. Episodes 1 and 2 are already available.
Please visit/subscribe to ‘Plotting Films’ on YouTube for the series.