Rowan Atkinson’s brilliant Blackadder franchise, consisting of four fabulous series and a couple of clever one-offs, is frequently misjudged by the press. No, not in the lists of British Best-Of, where it frequently gives other English classics like Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and The Young Ones a run for “greatest sitcom ever” accolades. And not in the arena of available talent. Along with the future Mr. Bean, we get stunning, starmaking turns from Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry as well as creative input for comic savants Ben Elton and Richard Curtis. In fact, when wedged up against those previously mentioned UK laughfests, Blackadder typically beats them all. So why is it never a true part of the pop culture discussion? Why does it take something like the sensational new DVD release of remastered episodes to get the show some significant international love?
Of course, it’s a massive hit back home, recently voted the second favorite comedy of all time - and this might explain some of the disconnect. One of Blackadder‘s major selling points is its twisting of British history, retrofitting the facts (and occasional tall tales) to turn the adventures of a conniving little cretin named Edmund, his manservant Baldrick, and the various incarnations of the man throughout traditional English folklore into sidesplitting satire. The first series, simply entitled The Black Adder sees the secret record of Richard III/Richard IV’s reign used as a backdrop for Atkinson’s seminal sneak. Blackadder II is set during the court of Elizabeth I and amplified the character’s sinister nature. Blackadder the Third finds the Regency Period utilized as a means of highlighting the relationship between the Prince of Wales and his butler, our scheming antihero. We shoot forward a century to World War I, where Captain Blackadder Goes Forth, trying to find ways of avoiding his military duty to God and Country.
As with most UK series, all four Blackadder offerings consist of six individual installments. They cover subject as intriguing as the authority of the Church (“The Archbishop”), witch hunts (“Witchsmeller Pursuivant”), baby-eating bishops (“Money”) and intoxication (“Beer”). By the third go round, we get plots revolving around politics (“Dish and Dishonesty”) old stage superstitions (“Sense and Senility”) and The Scarlett Pimpernel (“Nob and Nobility”), while the final tour of duty presents tales of pigeon murder (“Corporal Punishment”), aviation (“Private Plane”), and music hall variety (“Major Star”). In addition, the DVD set also offers the masterful Blackadder Christmas Carol take-off, the 15 minute Blackadder: The Cavalier Years set during the English Civil War, and the time travel extravaganza Blackadder: Back and Forth. Along with a wealth of bonus features (including commentaries, interviews and documentary features on the show and its impact), we get an in-depth lesson in all things silly and snide - and it’s all absolutely brilliant.
Indeed, what one takes away from such an overview is how radical and revisionist Blackadder really is. Imagine a series that poked gentle fun at American ideals and factual truisms, all for the sake of a character that is mean, neglectful, incorrigible, cutthroat, bumbling, brazen, devious, shrewd, and on more than one occasion, completely off his nut. Without Aktinson in the lead it would never work. Though he is usually the butt of the situational joke most of the time, Blackadder (in all his carnations) remains a significant comedy creation. He’s not just the man you love to hate - he’s the slimebucket you obsess over like a moonstruck school girl. There is just something so amazingly awful, so delightfully despicable about the man that you can’t help but hang on his every wicked wisecrack and/or deed. No matter if it’s aimed at royalty or a peasant, Blackadder does not suffer fools - not lightly, not bloody likely.
Though great almost from the beginning, the series did struggle a bit at first. The BBC did not like the high cost and low return of The Black Adder, and then demanded changes before the second set of shows was okayed (and even then that took nearly three years to accomplish). Aside from the casting, which saw the heroic Brian Blessed replaced by more comic-oriented actors, the character of Blackadder was altered as well. Instead of a blundering fool who seems to fall into treachery, Curtis and Elton reconfigured him as a more astute and cunning antagonist. Much of the moron material went directly to Tony Richardson, who mined the always filthy manservant Baldrick for all he could. In was also discovered that Atkinson was a master at making already idiotic people look even worse than they really were. Thus the constant state of stupidity surrounding Blackadder, from a dim Elizabeth I to an insufferably dense Prince of Wales.
By Goes Forth, the writing was so polished, the performances so honed and perfected, that the series never misses a beat. Even when dealing with a subject as tricky as war, Blackadder finds the truth and then turns it on its crazy, crackpot head. Even better, with each new generational jump, the historical elements become an indirect supporting character. Another reason the show often suffers in syndication is that many of the quips are incredibly insular, known to only those whose country is being deconstructed and/or those familiar with the eras and events. Granted, the dialogue is not all dates and declaration. The Blackadder series is sublime in its unique and complex insult strategy, a combination of scatology and dead-on satire. It’s not every show that can work a statement about feces, incest, and the failed Feudal system into a rejoinder, but that’s the beauty of Edmund and the gang.
As the DVD set points out, the series was a truly labor intensive affair. Actors had to learn to ride, wear ridiculous, epoch appropriate garb, and trust the intricacy of the scripts vs. adlibbing at will. Injuries where suffered and opportunities missed, and many have fond memories of the results if not the specific means of achieving them. During a few particularly poignant moments, several members of the cast are visibly moved by their memories of their show. Aktinson, a rather reclusive star who rarely gives interviews, uses the new bonus features to address rumors, quash misinformation, and generally make his final statement on the show, period. Oddly enough, there have been rumblings both pro and con for another series of the show. While many recent comments argue otherwise, the material here seems to suggest that, if the right subject came along, and a network was willing to back them up, there’s a contingent that’s keen to do it.
And why not - the Blackadder conceit seems to work no matter the time or place you put it in. Like most classic comedies where one character spends his or her time looking down their nose at the rest of the rabble, only to realize their as guilty of being as plebian as they are, Rowan Aktinson successfully argued for his place as one of Britain’s greatest living humorists. While his next outing, Mr. Bean, would reinvent slapstick for the post-modern age, it’s his time traveling through various phases of UK lore that will always illustrate his truest gifts. No matter the lack of universal respect, Blackadder remains a singular achievement. It’s great, because everyone involved is as well. You can’t argue with that kind of creative strategy.