Cover artwork by España Sheriff
The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium is an odd duck, or perhaps more appropriately, it is a platypus of a podcast: sui generis — hard to describe — but quite good at being its own weird little self. Consequently, it’s an acquired taste, very much the sort of thing you will like if you like that sort of thing.
Jemaine Clement1 plays our protagonist, Lord Joseph Banks: a real world figure who looms large over the history of Australia and New Zealand. The real Banks was a celebrated 18th century patron of the sciences, a naturalist and botanist who joined Cook in his exploration of the South Pacific and had a lot to do with the European colonization of Australia.
The world of the podcast is not quite our own, though. This Lord Banks hails from Damprot-upon-Tyne, which we are told is “the jewel of the Gravy Isles”, a nation ruled by Queen Charlotte and whose religion boasts 14 commandments, most of which relate to inappropriate contact with flora. This Banks is a spoiled aristocrat, a little dim and a lot arrogant, a petty, spoiled man-child with a boorish attitude towards just about everything and everyone; foreigners, the lower classes, women, and even nature itself. A choice early quote after being challenged on his call for men to join him on his adventure: “You think women should have women’s rights? Women’s rights are for men only!”. Clement plays it big and plummy, and is absolutely perfect in the role.
Botany is a controversial discipline in the Gravy Isles, borderline obscene and reserved for the aristocracy. In the first episode we learn that the titular Uncle Bertie fell into disrepute amongst his peers for his unconventional botanical ideas, and is presumed dead after disappearing while on an expedition. Banks come to suspect Uncle Bertie may still be alive, and sets his goal to clear the family name by finding his uncle and destroying the mysterious Heaven’s Clover, which is the source of all pleasure. After all, Gravy Islanders believe that “restraint from pleasure is the backbone of society”. In a raucous courthouse scene, he rallies the crowd by announcing: “We must face pleasure in order to destroy it!”
Accompanied by his servant Solander, whom he treats with haughty contempt, he equips a vessel and sets off. Along the way he interacts with everyone and everything around him in the worst way possible: from his crew to the horrified, generally more enlightened foreigners he comes across along the way. But crucially the podcast never loses sight of the goal of the expedition, and the first season moves Banks towards his ultimate goals with plenty of weirdness and character development without losing momentum.
Each episode features a wonderful cover illustration by Stephen Templer, and at first glance you might mistake it for steampunk or fantasy Victoriana, but it’s really the lesser-seen Imaginary Voyage: a small squishy subgenre which probably reached its peak during the European age of exploration. This genre can trace its roots back at least as far as Lucian of Samosata’s proto-SF satire A True Story, written in response to some of the more fantastical travel stories popular in Ancient Greece. Slightly more recently: Gulliver’s Travels, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and even 90s cult film Cabin Boy are extravagant adventures in far off places filled with oddities, absurdity, and social satire. The world is too small to support them now, but they live on in the DNA of genre works like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The show is the brainchild of Duncan Sarkies, and was crowdfunded for the first season, which is now available for free in the usual places. The production values are top notch, with full atmospheric sound design by Nic McGowan and music by Lawrence Arabia (James Milne) who also plays Solander. Other familiar faces (or voices) from the Conchords and the Kiwi scene appear throughout, most notably Jonathan Burgh from What We Do in the Shadows, who supplies the excellent narration.
- Best known as one half of Flight of the Conchords. ↩