Friday, January 8, 2010


The fundamental difference between American and British television is that most of our quality television tends to be dramatic, while the best British exports are comedies. Naturally, each country has its own successes with the other genre -- the Brits seem to hold The Simpsons in an even higher regard than we do -- but generally speaking the States produces far more lasting dramas than comedies and the British follow the inverse. British humor is such a constant in the United Kingdom's cultural identity that, above the cultural humor of other nations, it allows a deep insight into the history and mindset into Britain and its people.

Keeping that in mind,
Blackadder may be as beneficial to understanding England as a history course, and it's a damn sight more entertaining than listening to a professor drone on and on about the Norman invasion and the Magna Carta. Blackadder, created by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, traverses great temporal leaps across its four series, touching upon four key moments in English history. Each of these periods -- medieval, Elizabethan, Regency and World War I -- are vastly different in technology, dress and thought, yet the overriding theme of the program is "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"; Blackadder reuses actors, character names and traits to illustrate why the Brits are still so hung-up about class.

The first series of the show,
The Black Adder, introduces the anti-hero Edmund Blackadder, a supercilious, conniving creature who leaves a slime trail through England's timeline. In the medieval era, Edmund is a prince, youngest son of Richard IV (a magnificently insane Brian Blessed, setting a precedent for all future characters in the show in a superior position to Edmund's). Flanked by his dimwitted entourage of Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny) and his servant Baldrick (the brilliantly deadpan Tony Robinson, the most consistently rewarding actor across the four series), Edmund spends most of the first series dodging his father's berserk rage and attempting to win his brother Harry's (Robert East) inheritance.

Compared to the other seasons,
The Black Adder looks hopelessly weak; it uses a number of location shots, much to its detriment as it, like all the other classic BBC programs, uses cheap film stock for location shooting (it's taxpayer money, after all), and the jokes chiefly concern silly voices and the usage of "thous" and "thines" in more modern speech patterns. Blessed is wonderful as the rapacious, murderous Richard, who seems to be covered in blood every time you see him, even if he's supposed to be in bed sick with fever; everyone else, though, has not yet found the true core of each character. Atkinson in particular threatens to kill his own show, his Edmund as asinine and fatuous as his idiotic buddies. There's hardly any intellectual distance between him and Baldrick, for God's sake (a potentially incisive attack on the incestuous vapidity of Britain's ruling class used merely to give Atkinson's ability for silly voices a venue).

Only one episode of the first six hints toward the show's future quality: "Witchsmeller Pursuivant" isn't too far removed from the rest of the series -- Edmund's schemes to become king take a back seat to merely saving his own skin -- but it adds a quality of satire generally missing from the first season, perhaps because it's set too far back for any reasonable and believable sociopolitical commentary. "Witchsmeller Pursuivant" offers a deliriously enjoyable send-up of the frenzy of a witch hunt, in which Richard's court is consumed with hysteria over the threat of witches, a paranoia the titular character -- an oddly dressed freak claiming to know how to identify conjurers and sorcerers and "very highly recommended" according to Harry -- directs onto Edmund's shoulders. The sheer insanity of the trial, in which all of Edmund's protests are twisted into "evidence" of his Satanism, is a brilliant take on witch hunts and the way that cases are still swayed by the cheap manipulation of public opinion.

The first series ends, as would become a recurring element, with nearly all of the characters dead in a comically short burst of mass expiration. At the time, it likely seemed like the end of a program that was interesting and well-constructed but limp (£1 million for only six episodes was a hefty sum then, and
The Black Adder has a detail in the design that it sorely lacks in the writing). Surprisingly, the BBC agreed to finance a second series, albeit with a smaller budget and less-than-subtle notes calling for improvement. The result, Blackadder II, sets the story in the Elizabethan era, porting over Edmund and his two buddies and leaving the rest behind to start anew with a smaller cast.

More importantly, Atkinson stepped down as co-writer to be replaced by Ben Elton, thus freeing the actor to focus on his role, which Elton and Curtis reworked to return to Atkinson and Curtis' original, un-aired pilot for the program: they recast the slimy, weaselly Prince Edmund as the Machiavellian, witty, razor-sharp Lord Blackadder. This established a common theme of the show's progression, with Edmund slipping further down the social ladder with each series as he increased in intelligence. Somehow, Baldrick becomes even dumber -- though he was the most intelligent of the basic trio of the first series -- allowing for a now-classic rapport between the vicious Blackadder and the fool he does not suffer lightly. (Few actors have ever played dumb as magnificently as Robinson; attempting to use sarcasm on Baldrick is like yelling at a brick wall. Made of shit.) The new Blackadder heavily recalls iconic Britcom protagonist Basil Fawlty: like Fawlty, Edmund is acerbic and condescending yet also under direct control of someone in his inner circle.

Blackadder II also makes better use of its time period; where The Black Adder loosely appropriated vague medieval tropes for plots -- the Black Death, witch hunts -- the series now integrated actual historical content into the program, giving it a sly, upper-crust bent even as it cheekily re-imagines actual events throughout. The best of these alterations involves Miranda Richardson's performance as Queen Elizabeth I. Blackadder sardonically asks Baldrick if he's one of those people for whom "the Renaissance was something that happened to other people," but "Queenie" is childish, vain, incapable of processing anything other than that which gives her pleasure, only just smart enough to recognize when her obsequious Lord Chamberlain Melchett (the incomparable Stephen Fry) is trying too hard that day to please her (relatively speaking, of course). Here Elton and Curtis flesh out the underlying themes of the program for the first time, illustrating the reasoning behind Britain's history of class jealousy and derision through the infantile avarice of its leaders. The imbecilic nature of Queenie and, in the third series, Prince George, show that, while America might suffer its share of dangerously ignorant leaders, we at least have the luxury of electing them out of office every two, four or six years, even if we don't always take advantage of it; until the power of the monarchy dwindled over the last two centuries, England was at the mercy of its inbred, out-of-touch nobility.

Ironically, the show's sudden basis in solid historical fact -- "Potato," an episode about Blackadder sent by Queenie on an expedition to the Cape of Good Hope, begins with Sir Walter Raleigh's return from America -- gives it the freedom to branch out into the levels of the magnificently absurd: Blackadder invites Lord Melchett and some other guests over to his home for a drinking competition in "Beer," only to receive a visit from his arch-Puritanical aunt and uncle, the Whiteadders, prompting him to juggle a night of debauchery with an image of saintly, ascetic purity to win his family's inheritance as well as the bet with Melchett. It's a freewheeling ride that mocks the extreme orthodoxy of dogmatic followers, places a pair of comedy tits on a friar and features my favorite exchange between Blackadder and Baldrick ("You're fired." "But, my Lord, I've been in your family since 1532." "So has syphilis. Now get out."). The finale, "Chains," begins simply enough, with a take on the etiquette of ransoming involving the abduction of both Blackadder and Melchett, then spirals slowly off the axis of logic, first showing Blackadder and his Spanish torturer circumnavigating their language barrier with insults delivered in charades -- the torturer crawls around on the floor and mimes breasts until Edmund triumphantly deduces that the man is telling him he's "a bastard son of a bitch" and the two shake hands like old friends -- then introducing a German prince (Hugh Laurie). A master of disguise and pretender to the English throne, the prince has been infiltrating the upper ranks of the English nobility for years; he tells Blackadder that he dressed as a waitress who served the lord. "But I went to bed with you, didn't I?" asks Blackadder; the prince later confronts Melchett and reveals that he was a sheep at a monastery where Melchett lived. "But didn't we...?"

Both the absurdity and the commitment to historical fact-ion are expanded with
Blackadder the Third, which tragically loses Richardson but gains Hugh Laurie in an equally gonzo performance as George, the Prince Regent. Edmund, now a butler, reaches the apex of his cunning, a charming, erudite intellectual who takes advantage of his position to bilk his master out of any and all money that the prince receives. Where Queenie represented the reckless abandon of Britain's ruling class, George shows the impotence of the waning monarchy as they emptily consume the nation's resources to maintain their image; European comics like to joke about Disney's muted reception across the Atlantic because they "have real castles," but it's also because their princesses and kings are just as two-dimensional and fake as our fictional creations.

George exists only because Parliament bankrolls his lavish lifestyle, which engenders great resentment in -- especially in the House of Commons -- but not enough to cut his funding. Only the newly appointed PM Pitt the Younger, depicted as an adolescent whose platform includes "more stringent punishments for geography teachers," dares to suggest that the Prince, acting as regent for his father, George III, who'd by then gone almost completely mad -- he makes an appearance at the end of the series, under the impression that he is now "a small village in Lincolnshire, commanding spectacular views of the Nene valley." That George is technically the ruler of the country almost never occurs to me, as he's so vapid and unconcerned with anything but...does he even have any interests? His fickle tastes lead him through money-draining hobby after money-draining hobby -- from socks to theatre patronage to cards -- all of which provide Blackadder new and exciting ways to con his master out of cash he doesn't really have.

George's status, combined with his own passivity, allows historical figures and then-contemporary issues to pass through his opulent home, from Blackadder rigging a rotten borough to ensure George remains on the Civil List to the Scarlet Pimpernel's rescue of lingering French royalists. Even when the dates do not match -- the episode involving Dr. Samuel Johnson asking the prince to patronize his dictionary neglects to mention that Johnson published it nearly 60 years prior -- the inclusion of these historical figures and events asks something of the audience even as the stories spiral further into silliness; the finale brings back Fry to play the Duke of Wellington, come to duel the prince for sleeping with his beloved nieces, leading to a
Prince and the Pauper situation wherein Blackadder capably assumes the throne and charms the duke while George proves just as hapless as a manservant and earns hysterically violent rebukes from Wellington.

With the fourth series, however, Curtis and Elton curtailed the absurdity. No, that's not true;
Blackadder Goes Forth is just as mad as the rest of Blackadder. The difference is that its insanity is placed in brutally realistic context, against the backdrop of World War I. Once again, the status of the characters drops slightly: no longer is Blackadder within whispering distance of a royal but a captain in a trench, in a position of superiority over George's "descendant" but unable to do anything about his situation.

Blackadder answers to General Melchett, a symbol of the outmoded aristocracy who played World War I like a game. Stephen Fry was too young, by most standards, to play Melchett, but he gives by far the most memorable performance of the entire show as Melchett, a deluded nutbar who received his position solely through his social status. His plans, passed down from Field Marshal Haig, always involve the men in the trenches going over the top and proceeding slowly toward the enemy trenches where the defense is strongest; according to him, running this same plan for the 19th straight time "is the very last thing the Germans would expect." Queenie was childish and Prince George was an outright buffoon, but Melchett is the first character in a position above Blackadder who is simply insane; "Corporal Punishment," a sly spoof of Kubrick's
Paths of Glory, involves a court-martial/execution trial for Blackadder for the grievous offense of shooting Melchett's carrier pigeon in order to not receive its message ordering an attack. Blackadder has enough problems, what with George being his defense lawyer, but Melchett appears as the judge of the military tribunal and begins to hysterically attack Blackadder for his crime, fining him £50 for even showing up to waste the court's time with a defense and viciously shrieking the phrase "the Flanders' pigeon murderer" to refer to Blackadder.

Much of
Blackadder Goes Forth focuses on the needless horror of World War I, and the incestuous relationship between the two fighting powers; Lt. George has noble ties -- and thus receives special dotage by Melchett -- and when he's sent to a field hospital suddenly beset by a German spy, we learn that the informant is actually George himself, casually writing of his activities to family members in Germany. In the same episode, Blackadder, tasked by Melchett to sniff out the rat, uses the opportunity to gain revenge on Melchett's assistant, Capt. Darling (McInnerny), and the resulting interrogation offers up a delicious sideswipe on the insanity of England's bitter feelings toward Germany: "I'm as English as Queen Victoria," Darling cries as Blackadder squeezes the vice with his roundabout questioning (which recalls "Witchsmeller Pursuivant"); "So your father's German, you're half-German and you married a German?" asks Blackadder in kind.

Occasionally, this series reaches the levels of absurdity of its previous seasons, such as the appearance of ace pilot Lord Flashheart (Rik Mayall, updating the Series Two character for WWI), a vainglorious ball of testosterone who "can give orgasms to the couch just by sitting on it." But what sets this series apart from its predecessors is its pathos; as he did in the first series, Edmund attempts to stave off death, but here he's not a sniveling caricature but the victim of a despicable system that allowed the landed gentry to send working and middle class men to die in the millions for mindless, petty aristocratic disputes. In the final episode of the show, "Goodbyeee..." Blackadder at last runs out of excuses to stave of advancement; the noose tightens around his neck, and he knows it. Amazingly, we start to pity him, and we pity the callous, smug Darling when Melchett, so completely consumed by the lie he helped to craft, sends his assistant to the front lines to gain honor in battle (Melchett actually thinks he's doing Darling a favor). When Darling arrives at the front line, all animosity between the two captains dissipates, and George, so gung-ho the entire series about engaging the enemy, quietly admits how scared he is.

The final moments of
Blackadder elevate a classic Britcom into the upper echelon of TV history. Blackadder, who spent the entire episode attempting to fake insanity, gently refuses to hear Balrdick's latest and last attempt to think up a cunning plan: "Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of here by pretending to be mad," sighs Edmund. "I mean, who would have noticed another madman around here?" After four series' worth of sarcasm, arrogance and selfishness, Blackadder turns to his companions and wishes them good luck before they go over the top. Purportedly, the actors were originally going to, as they must at the end of a Blackadder series, die suddenly and horribly, but they kept bouncing on the soundstage floor. Thus, they shot the current, vastly superior ending, in which their movement out of the trench plays in slow motion before fading out, and the final shot of the program shows the barren mud of No Man's Land gently morph into a beautiful and fertile meadow. In a program that visualizes the centuries-long grudge between the classes in Britain, what ending could be more beautiful than the intimation that, some day, it finally won't matter anymore?


  1. A fantastic overview of a mostly brilliant show -- your thoughts quite closely hew to my own. The first series pales in comparison to the rest, the second and third are the most outwardly funny, while the final series, due to the backdrop of WWI, actually becomes the most poignant and scathing in its satire of war.

    I haven't taken a look at these in over ten years, but I still remember them well, and that final scene of them going over the top actually brought a tear to my eye.

  2. Thanks for this summary! I just re-watched all the episodes (including some specials) and you got this all bang on.