'Blackadder' and the Case for the Defense of Anachronism

Anachronism so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel.


Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Tim McInnerny, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Miranda Richardson
Network: BBC 1

It gets harder to appreciate synchronicity the further back in history one looks. It’s startling to realize that the Great Sphinx had been gazing out across the Giza plateau for almost a thousand years before the last sad-eyed mammoth slipped and fell in the northern tundra. Other things seem contemporaneous but were not. Every Midsummer’s Day, hundreds of modern day Druids gather at Stonehenge in southern England to worship among stones that were set by people who lived three millennia before Druidism even emerged. The actual intention of the builders remains unknown, but druidism feels somehow right. It’s earthy enough. It’s based in nature. It’s, like, really old.

We make the histories that feel right, even if it’s to the annoyance of the professional historian. Blackadder made great sport out of this, particularly in its third incarnation.

Edmund Blackadder is the manservant of Prince George, the future King George IV. References are made to his Regency, which means that, strictly speaking, it's set somewhere between 1811 and 1820. Fortunately, we’re not speaking very strictly at all, and it’s more accurate to say that it’s set in a general period from c1750 to the middle of the 1830s. This extended scope allows it to draw in characters, events and attitudes from the entire period and submit them all to an incisive mocking scrutiny.

We may consider anachronism to be an occupational hazard for this kind of work, but it’s more than that -- the satire wouldn’t even work without the anachronism. To encompass the publication of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and the Romantic Movement (c1810-1820), the writers would have to start each episode with new characters, or miss out swathes of interesting stupidity to mock.

There are two layers of anachronism at play in Blackadder, both of them deliberate. Firstly, there’s the anachronism of having a man with a late 20th century worldview walking around at the beginning of the 19th. Or at least, I think it’s the start of the 19th century. It’s hard to tell.

Secondly, the presentation is a soup of anachronisms that present a host of people and events from a broadly 80 year period as exact contemporaries. Thus, you have Samuel Johnson as a personal acquaintance of Byron, Shelley and Coleridge; the French Revolution sitting cheek-by-jowl with the Regency of the future George IV, which is presented as running directly alongside the Great Reform Act, in which it is suggested that William Pitt was involved.

For the pedantic historian, it's a total mess. For the show’s writers, it's an opportunity to satirise the entire period without having to make allowances for the sake of strict historical accuracy.

It helps that the anachronisms are carefully applied. Had they been included through error, it would have been easier to laugh at the makers, rather than with them. Writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and the cast (among them several Oxbridge grads) were fully aware of the anachronisms, and delighted in them.

There are three general themes in Blackadder: politics, society and culture, and all three are treated to anachronism. The show addresses such issues and events as the French Revolution, the prevalence of Britain’s corrupt and useless ‘rotten boroughs’, the Napoleonic wars, the advent of coffee shops and the rise of the industrial classes. Few of these were direct contemporaries, but they are all redolent of the general period that may be called the Georgian, the Regency, or the Industrial Revolution. Still, that period has limits, however fuzzily they are defined. It would jar too much for Charles Dickens (b. 1812) to wander in, while James Cook’s discovery of Australia and New Zealand can be regarded as having taken place some indefinite time beforehand.

Of course, Blackadder himself is an anachronism. His world-weary cynicism is best explained by his 1917 incarnation, but it's all present and correct in the third season, too. ‘I am a fully rounded human being,’ he says, ‘with a degree from the University of Life, a diploma from the School of Hard Knocks, and four gold stars from the Kindergarten of Getting the Shit Kicked Out of You.’

His hard-earned cynicism is of a piece with his sitcom contemporaries Norman Stanley Fletcher and Del Boy Trotter. Like them, he's a cunning and quick-thinking survivor who gets by simply by having seen it all before. He has a 20th century sensibility, which allows him to laser through the pretentions and shibboleths of history.

It has often been observed that the best sitcoms feature characters who are trapped in their situation, particularly with people whom they dislike and from whom they cannot escape. This can be literal, as in the Ronnie Barker sitcom , Porridge which is set in a prison, while Black Adder's contemporary, Red Dwarf features characters stuck in deep space.

Edmund Blackadder is trapped in time. He's like a time traveller whose time machine broke after its first use, leaving him feeling perpetually dislocated. His modern sensibility, intelligence and relative sanity generate conflict with the idiots and lunatics who surround him. His master, Prince George, is a vain, profligate idiot, in possession of ‘the wit and sophistication of a particularly stupid donkey’. Baldrick, Blackadder’s own manservant (or rather, ‘dogsbody’) is stupider still. Coming lower than the kitchen vermin on the Palace pecking order, Baldrick is obsessed with the acquisition of root vegetables and fond of devising absurd schemes to aid his exasperated master.

Little wonder then, that Blackadder frequently resorts to a sigh and an expression of disdain. He has idiot fatigue. Even the cleverer characters, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, are given short shrift by Blackadder’s weary cynicism. Far from being the greatest literary achievement of the age, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language is dismissed as ‘the most pointless book since How to Learn French was translated into French’.

His attitude toward the politics of the time is similarly modern in hue. His plan for winning the by-election in the corrupt constituency of Dunny-on-the-Wold is to state that ‘Firstly, we’ll fight this election on policies not personalities. Secondly, we’ll be the only fresh thing on the menu and thirdly, we’ll cheat.’ Not that the actual 19th century was free from corruption.

'Dish and Dishonesty'

The strongest episode is the first, “Dish and Dishonesty” an outright satire of the political scene of the early 19th century as well as that crazy little decade called “the ‘80s”. Vincent Hanna, then known in the UK for his presentation of election night coverage, appears as ‘his own great-great grandfather’ and provides commentary as though the Dunny-on-the-Wold by-election is being televised.

The Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party is a clear analog of the comedy political party the Monster Raving Loonies, who actually stand for election in the UK with policies that include abolishing the number 13.The Standing at the Back... Party have three such policies on their program, namely, the compulsory serving of asparagus at breakfast, free corsets for the under-fives, and the abolition of slavery. The first two policies resemble the deliberate nonsense peddled by comedy parties, but it’s the third that Hanna describes as ‘extremist nonsense’. ‘Yes’, admits the party’s candidate ‘we only put that in as a joke’.

The joke is precisely the point. The substance of the skit is to skewer the collective hypocrisy of pre-Reform Britain. It’s all there; the rotten boroughs, the use of the electoral process as a pawn, even the relative youth of William Pitt the Younger, who became Britain’s youngest Prime Minister at the age of 24 in 1783, several decades before the Regency. Pitt also happened to support the abolition of the slave trade. Some joke.

Social and economic changes were also addressed by Blackadder, and are perhaps the most important. No matter which end of the period we’re dealing with, the industrial revolution reigned supreme over all. The process of industrialisation has been thoroughly explored by historians and economists for 200 years but rarely has it been as succinctly described as it was by Blackadder in the first episode, ‘Toffs at the top, plebs at the bottom and me in the middle, making a fat pile of cash out of both of them.’

'Amy and Amiability'

In the episode “Amy and Amiability”, the Prince finds himself desperately short of cash, meaning that his regular embezzler, one E. Blackadder, is also skint. Their best solution for this is for the Prince to marry money, which in this era now means marrying below his station. They select Amy Hardman, whose father owns ‘more mills than the Prince has braincells’, (which is to say, seven). Mr. Hardman is a blustering, foul-mouthed, earthy Lancastrian, the epitome of the industrial nouveau riche. He’s also revealed to be utterly broke and a victim of the damaging profligacy that plagued the newly wealthy then as much as it does now.

Penniless or otherwise, class is important. This is true of every series of the show (and indeed, of every British sitcom), but particularly so of the third one. A feature of the show is that Blackadder descends in social class with each series. In the third, he was middle class, it was the age of the middle class and Blackadder, in his most middling incarnation could enjoy being ‘respected about the town’. It’s no coincidence that this incarnation of Edmund Blackadder is the most successful. Not only does he manage to survive the end of the series, he actually manages to rise in social status, albeit by subterfuge. Trapped in time or not, as a middle class man with brains, the world of the 17th and 18th centuries was being built for and by people like him. The possibilities created by capitalism and industrialization made it an era for him far more his era than it was for the aristocrats and royals he still pretended to serve.

Black Adder’sfirst episode, “Dish and Dishonesty” may have been the most effective, but “Ink and Incapability”, the series’ third, is possibly the funniest. It features a suitably bombastic performance from Robbie Coltrane as Dr Johnson, and some of the show’s best lines as the mischievous Blackadder seeks to undermine Johnson’s achievement, taunting him with a fusillade of rare words, some of them outright fictions. After annoying the doctor by offering his ‘most sincere contrafibularities’, Blackadder apologizes, claiming that he is ‘anaspeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused him such pericombobulation’. Johnson can’t even leave quietly, as Blackadder is only too keen to assist in his ‘velocitous extramurilisation’

The Blackadder cast

Blackadder’s loquacious bullying of Johnson is not only deserved, but necessary. Johnson represents the pomposity of letters and of the culture of the time. Byron, Shelley and Coleridge, who he could not possibly have met in real life, and whose work he would have hated are here shown as his acolytes, essentially fanboys who hang upon his every word. That their work was in opposition to his is irrelevant –they are simply there as recognisable literary figures from that period, and thus, they deserve Blackadder’s acid treatment.

The anachronism is worth it because it’s funny. Certain traditionalists for whom history is best understood as a neatly chronological series of events (or ‘Facts!’ as the most Gradgrindish of them would have it) may look aghast at the free and easy manner with which Blackadder toys with history. Blackadder is a useless primer for any simple test of dates, but it’s extremely effective in its analysis of the errors and mistakes of a certain era, even if it has to mix them up a little to do so. And if that anachronism gives us more jokes to enjoy in our era, then all the better.

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