[3 December 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“You find yourself amusing, Blackadder?” “I try not to fly in the face of public opinion.”—from the episode “Chains” in Blackadder II.
People love comedy. Even if we can’t all agree on what good comedy is, exactly, we know it when we see it. It doesn’t matter if it’s learned or low brow, if it makes us laugh it’s good. We love one-liners and elaborate set-ups, we like visual gags as well as wordplay, pratfalls just as much as puns and a clever callback can make your day. Musical, historical, satirical…the form isn’t important, for if it’s done properly, comedy can be any, all or none of these things and still appeal to the broadest of audiences.
BlackAdder is comedy done right. Nearly 30 years after its creation, the beloved British series continues to be watched and worshiped, recited and referenced, lauded and, of course, laughed at.
Blackadder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition DVD set collects each of the four series and all of the specials in new, digitally restored from the original program masters form on six discs. The set also features new episode commentaries with Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Ben Elton, Richard Curtis, Tony Robinson, and Tim McInnerny; several new interviews with Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, and Tony Robinson; Footnotes to History, a guide to the real historical figures and events depicted in Black Adder hosted by Tony Robinson; a behind-the-scenes of Black adder Back and Forth featurette entitled Baldrick’s Video Diary and the wonderful 25th Anniversary documentary Black Adder Rides Again. It’s an embarrassment of riches even the Black Adder himself would want to share.
The first series, The Black Adder, was written by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis (perhaps best known in the US for his many films, like Love Actually and Bridget Jones’s Diary), and takes place in the middle ages, reimagining the Battle of Bosworth Field with Henry Tudor’s defeat. Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh (Atkinson), an inept and weasley nephew of King Richard III inadvertently beheads the victorious Richard. This makes Edmund’s warrior father the new King Richard IV (Brian Blessed), and puts him third in line for the throne behind his more favored brother. First, jealousy and then ambition give rise to The Black Adder, as Edmund now refers to himself. Though more quick-witted than many around him, this first Edmund is a bit of a bumbler, even compared with his aide, Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny) and servant, Baldrick (Tony Robinson).
Though the writing was strong and the verbal interplay was there, the first series made the mistake of abundance, with Edmund Blackadder too bumbling, the cast too abounding and the sets too sprawling. The comedy wasn’t as quick and sharp as it was to become in future series, and the expansive shooting style couldn’t capitalize on that most important of comedy tools, the reaction shot. Additionally, as discussed in the interviews, Atkinson’s characterization hadn’t yet been formalized. The balance, or rather the imbalance, between The Black Adder and his surroundings had not yet been struck.
The BBC canceled the show after the first series, but reprieve came in the pared down form of Blackadder II. Not only was the set condensed and the series filmed in front of a live audience (which made it cheaper), but the cast was whittled to six core characters (which made it comically economical). Percy, Baldrick and Lord Blackadder now serve under Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson), a delightfully, and dangerously, dotty young monarch doted on by her addle-brained Nursie (Patsy Byrne) and her sly advisor, Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry). Given the caliber of these performers, one might be tempted to put the show’s renewed success down to that alone.
But you also have to figure in the fact that Curtis was now writing with Ben Elton (The Young Ones), which raised the already lofty level of the language to an unprecedented height and provided a means to craft faster, leaner comedy. And of course, this is the series where Edmund Blackadder became the silver-tongued snake with which the character is synonymous, and where it first becomes apparent that the character is something of a modern cynic in a period (cod) piece. It’s also in this series that Baldrick began his de-evolutionary descent toward dogsbody.
Blackadder II features Edmund again attempting to advance himself, mostly through trying to please the mercurial majesty. Queenie does have a bit of a crush on him, but she also fancies Melchett, Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Flasheart (Rik Mayall), who makes his first fabulous appearance in the episode, “Bells”, not only stealing Blackadder’s bride (a girl called “Bob”), but the scene as well. Also appearing for the first time in the second series is Hugh Laurie, first as a partygoer in “Beer” and again as the mad Prince Ludwig in “Chains.” It’s this second one that demonstrates the brilliance to come between Laurie and Atkinson, as Ludwig and Blackadder try to top each other in some sort of all-out insult assault.
Blackadder The Third finds Blackadder the butler to frivolous fop George, Prince Regent of Wales (Laurie). For the majority of this series, which includes episode titles that parody Jane Austen (“Dish and Dishonesty”, “Nob and Nobility”, “Sense and Senility”, etc.), it’s just Prince George, Baldrick and Blackadder. The volleys of vocabulary are astounding, as is the willingness to mine sheer silliness for comic gold. Richardson guests as a deceptively dippy prospective bride for the broke Prince George in “Amy and Amiability”, and McInnerny appears in an episode skewering the Scarlet Pimpernel. Fry shows up as a blustery Duke of Wellington in “Duel and Duality” where his and Laurie’s interactions and physical comedy are priceless.
The best episode, however, may be “Ink and Incapability”, in which Robbie Coltrane plays Dr. Samuel Johnson, who compiled the first English dictionary. Blackadder is incensed with the man for not accepting his novel for publication and Baldrick only fuels the fire. What elevates this episode particularly is the truly inventive, impressive use of the language as both the jokes themselves and their means of delivery.
If the third series honed the language and delivery, the last, Blackadder Goes Forth, perfected the reactions. Never has one man said as much with a single word—usually “What?”, sometimes “Git”—as Captain Edmund Blackadder. Set in the confines of the trenches of WWI, this series revolves around Atkinson’s capacity to be still amid the performances of others.
Blackadder is once again trapped in his circumstances, but this time out there’s a resigned acceptance to his character, which Atkinson portrays beautifully. Laurie lends Lieutenant George a chipper innocence as counterpoint. Private Baldrick is dimmer as he has ever been, and yet somehow Robinson makes him even more heroic. He’s the star of this show.
Meanwhile, back at HQ, McInnerny imbues Blackadder’s unfortunately named nemesis, Captain Darling, with a mix of anxiety and superiority that equals hilarity every time the camera is on him, while Fry gives General Melchett all the pomposity and farcical force such a character deserves. Though the subject of WWI might seem more serious than Regency frippery or Elizabethan court etiquette, and too and somber for a sitcom.
However, the writers and cast are able to be incredibly respectful, not to mention emotionally affecting, as they continually lampoon the most tragic of all comedies, modern warfare. Again, it’s the love of language and the give-and-take of the core performances that make this, perhaps, the best of the four series, but it has other virtues, too. Among them are Richardson as a hard-boiled field-hospital nurse, Aide Edmondson (The Young Ones) as The Red Baron and Gabrielle Glaister returning as “Bob”. Flasheart also returns as an ace pilot, and once again, Rik Mayall commences stealing every scene he’s in. As Flasheart, he attacks the dialogue like it’s a dogfight, flying rings around everyone else in the room. Just when you think he’s taken it well over the top, however, Blackadder shoots him down with a well-aimed and succinct rejoinder from Atkinson, thereby winning that battle.
Still, even in the world of Black Adder, no one won this war, with more than a million military casualties for Britain alone. The writers chose to honor and reflect that fact by having Blackadder’s men “go over the top” (into battle and on to certain death) in the final episode. It was a strange choice for a comedy, especially at the time, but it’s, maybe not-so-strangely, moving, even today. And so ends the centuries-long saga of Blackadder.
Well not really, because of course, there are the specials to speak of still on this set. First, is a special that aired between series at Christmas. Blackadder’s Christmas Carol is the tale of a very different, very kind and generous Blackadder who is visited by a Christmas Spirit (Robbie Coltrane) that shows him all the misdeeds and cunning plans of his and Baldrick’s ancestors. Needless to say, this Christmas Carol has a decidedly different outcome than Charles Dickens intended. Next up is Blackadder: The Cavalier Years, a 15-minute skit featuring Stephen Fry as King Charles and Warren Clarke as Oliver Cromwell, and casting Baldrick and Blackadder as the king’s most loyal, and hapless, subjects.
Finally, the specials conclude with Blackadder: Back and Forth, which finds the gang on the eve of the millennium, and Blackadder in possession of a working time machine courtesy of Baldric. Though many fans complain about this production—and it honestly isn’t up to par—it does still have its merits. Mayall as Robin Hood, for one… ok, that may be the only merit, but as reunion specials go, it could have been so much worse.
Infinitely better is Baldrick’s Video Diary, which although made during the filming of Back and Forth redeems its association by coming across as spontaneously quite amusing, probably because much of it was actually the actors ad-libbing. Also putting the show’s comic legacy back in the saddle is 2008’s Black Adder Rides Again on the sixth disc, which is an hour-long retrospective documenting the show’s history and offering the origins of the often hysterical historical details in each series, as well as reminiscing with all of the principle players. The final disc also has recent, exclusive interviews with various cast, many of which are conducted by series producer John Lloyd, and a short feature called “Costumes Revisited”. In addition to the remastered video, which is quite good, there are a handful of audio commentaries per series, from a mix of cast members and writers/producers.
In fact, aside from the original pilot (in which Robinson hadn’t yet been cast as Baldrick, which probably explains why it isn’t on here, as he’s so important to the entire concept), and a few deleted scenes, there’s very little this set doesn’t have. Even the packaging is perfect, opening like a beautifully bound and well-worn history book (look closely at the illustration of Baldrick’s family tree on the front leaf; it may explain a few things!). Essentially, if Blackadder is the prime example of how to create and produce a near-perfect comedy—and, that it be—then Blackadder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition is exemplary of the way to make a near-perfect DVD set.