Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Karl Puschmann: Fruity botanic satire so good you'll soil yourself

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Hilarious podcast ripe harvest of some astonishing Kiwi talent .
The star of Uncle Bertie's is the riotously bonkers Jemaine Clement. Photo / AP
The star of Uncle Bertie's is the riotously bonkers Jemaine Clement. Photo / AP

I must begin with an unsavoury admission. I have spent this past week listening to exotic and provocatively suggestive words of a ... well, there's no sanitary way to phrase this - of a botanical nature.

Gasp! Wait, what? Botany? Huh? Let me explain.

Botany, as reimagined in a new podcast titled The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie's Botanarium, is the grubbiest of sciences. A hugely competitive field attracting only the privileged and perverted to its calling. It is at once highly regarded and highly suspect. Much like those who practice it.

Botanists, as described by the show's ever-present narrator, are "fickle and cowardly", a bunch of deviant, well-to-do aristocrats with an unnatural attraction to various flora and fauna.

It's an odd desire, to be sure. But one the entirety of the Gravy Isles citizenry seems to share.

Though as their pubs serve pints of milk pumped straight from the bosom of Siamese cats ("both short-haired and long") the parameters of the word "odd" may need to be realigned somewhat.

While you're at it you may as well realign the parameters of the word "podcast" too. That makes you think of two or three people sitting around a table gabbing incessantly for an hour.

Uncle Bertie's is nothing like that. It's an episodic series with an intriguingly weird and original premise, populated with terrific characters, plenty of funny wordplay and witty one-liners. It's superbly produced, richly textured and fantastically voiced. It is, in short, bloody good.

The downside is that to get to the show requires going online and signing up at howl.fm. But I assure you it is absolutely worth the hassle of doing so. This is not the usual aural distraction your attention dips in and out of as you go about your business. No. It is appointment listening.

How could it not be? The creative team behind this thing is a powerhouse of New Zealand talent. The show sprung from the minds of novelist and director Duncan Sarkies, musician James Milne aka Lawrence Arabia and artist Stephen Templer.

Between them they've brought to life a highly stylised and comically absurd alternate history for the real-life botanist Lord Joseph Banks, a man who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage of discovery to New Zealand and Australia.

But the real star of the show is, appropriately enough, the star of the show. Jemaine Clement is just brutally hilarious in the dual roles of entitled toff twit Joseph Banks and the titular perverted visionary that is his Uncle Bertie. While Bertie is a pitch-perfect recreation of plummy British aristocracy, Banks is instilled with a similar sneering privilege to that of Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder the Third. Clement has jettisoned his usual, trademarked hangdog mumbling, filling Banks with a boisterously pompous entitlement that ensures he comes across as a total posh bastard.

A lot of this is down to his mistreatment of his companion/man servant Solander, another figure borrowed-then-distorted from botany's rich history.

Voiced superbly by Milne, who clearly has far too much talent, he essentially serves as the Baldrick to Banks' Blackadder. The ever dumped-on comic foil, eager to please but who finds simple things like a request to go home after tucking Banks into bed denied.

His plea to "at least sit down for a bit", during the night met with a flat "no", before being theatrically informed that, "sitting down is the domain of an aristocrat".

Clement really goes to town delivering his lines, extracting maximum comic mileage out of every word. His exaggerated pronunciation of "aristocrat", complete with rolling rs and pompous pitch shift, is nothing short of a delight.

The series kicks off after Uncle Bertie's legacy is berated by "bitter botanists because of his unconventional ideas". In a hilarious scene that reveals the sadomasochistic tendencies of botanists, Banks defends his uncle's honour before making it his "personal mission" to find then destroy the mythical, pleasure-giving plant Heaven's Clover.

The narrator promises that this quest will lead Banks "to the lowest depths of humanity imaginable", which in a world where people are getting off by stroking plant leaves, "dog eaters" is a racist slur and "women's rights are for men only", is saying something.

"The world's quite big isn't it, Solander?" reflects a seasick Banks at the beginning of their journey. "Somewhere out there beyond the bubble, beyond the boiling ocean, beyond the furthest reaches of scientific inquiry, we will find Heaven's Clover and my lost Uncle Bertie."

I hope they do, but not for a long while yet.

- NZ Herald

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Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

A pop culture junkie, Karl has spent his career writing about the important things in life; music, film, television, comics and video games. He was editor of a popular music rag for five years and has since written regularly for every local culture/arts/lifestyle magazine worth a damn. His recent expansion into travel writing has flung him far, far from the comfort of his couch and into that bewildering place known as the ‘outdoors’. He is also currently endeavouring to make sense of the world by reviewing it over at critikarlreviewstheworld.com

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