In 10 Words or Less
Rowan Atkinson's other iconic comedy creation
Loves: Britcoms, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Tony Robinson
Likes: Rowan Atkinson, Black Adder, Mr. Bean, Stephen Fry
Dislikes: The brevity of Britcoms
Hates: The idea of royalty
One of the marks of a good, three-dimensional character is how well it works in a variety of settings. By that measure, Rowan Atkinson's Edmund Blackadder is one of the best ever to grace TV. An unlikeable man looking out only for himself, Blackadder is transplanted from era to era with each season, along with his friends and acquaintances, putting this hilarious gang into some of the most memorable times in England's history.
The Black Adder
There are some who would skip over this first season and dive into the brilliant second series, and I honestly can't blame them. Though these episodes feature terrific talents like Peter Cook, Jim Broadbent and the wonderfully blustery Brian Blessed, this is not the Blackadder we'd come to love, as his ambition is more weaselly than underhanded, at times seeming nearly retarded, rather than the schemer he became. There are moments where the iconic Blackadder shines through, but most of the time, it's like Mr. Bean is playing Blackadder.
Though it's an auspicious debut (one that nearly killed the show before it would blossom) that doesn't mean it's not fun. As Blackadder, son of Richard IV, tries his hand at trechery in the Middle Ages, with the help of his ever-present, ever-dopey sidekicks Baldrick (the tremendously deadpan Tony Robinson) and Percy (Tim McInnerny,) he is way over his head. Whether he's trying to kill his father's Scottish ally or get out of marrying an unattractive Spanish Infanta, he's bound to screw it up, if only out of sheer arrogance, along with a healthy amount of stupidity.
The only season shot on location, this run looks and sounds like a spot-on parody of period BBC dramas, especially in espisodes like "Witchsmeller Persuivant" where a creepy fellow leads a witch hunt that puts Blackadder in its sights. That gives the show another level of comedy, but unfortunately, the primary foundation of funny comes up a touch short. Part of the problem is the nearly level mental status of Blackadder and Baldrick, which robs the series of their later, fantastically uneven conversations. There's also a lack of a truly believable archenemy to keep Blackadder on his toes, as his main enemies are himself and his own father, who forgets Blackadder's very existence as well as wishing to snuff said existence.
Now we're talking. Here's where the formula, the characters and the tone come together, and the result is something very special. Blackadder has taken a step down in social status here in the Elizabethan Era, but he's now far more intelligent, while Baldrick is somehow a bit dimmer. As proven by Krusty the Clown, dignity enhances comedy, and this more-respectable Blackadder's failures are much funnier.
More importanly though, the cast has been slimmed down and yet enriched, bringing in Miranda Richardson to play the Queen and Stephen Fry as her advisor, Lord Melchett. Richardson's take on her Queenie character is utterly brilliant, teetering between absolute loon and childish innocence, to make her the most dominant character of the entire run of the show. While Fry is funny as her aide, nothing can match Richardson's magic (and that even goes for Rik Mayall's over-the-top adventurer, Lord Flashheart.)
The other big change this season took place behind the camera, as Atkinson ceded his co-writing duties to The Young Ones' Ben Elton. The result is obvious, as Elton brought a more immediate and frequent rhythym to the punchlines, trading longer set-ups for new strength in Blackadder's cunning wit and agonized reactions. Having to abandon location filming due to budget issues, this style fit the studio taping well, as the claustrophobic set and rapid-fire comedy combined to create a new sense of energy.
Blackadder the Third
Moving ahead to the Regency period, leaving Queenie behind isn't a happy thing by any stretch, but if she had to go, at least she was replaced as the key royal by someone equally as fun. House's Hugh Laurie, who portrays the dim-witted George, to whom Blackadder is butler, is fantastic as the shiftless prince, and the rest of the gang is on-board to negotiate the social maze of the time. Laurie follows Richardson's lead in making George a bit of a nutbar, and everyone else has to play off that madness.
Unlike many shows set in other time periods, the plots for this season are hugely specific to the era, with stories about the Prince being the patron of a dictionary, the Scarlet Pimpernel and the French Revolution and the Duke of Wellington. Obviously, the interplay of the characters is the meat of the fun, and Blackadder's schemes and wit are the engine of the action, but seeing how the familiar characters act in new settings and the Regency-specific storylines make the series unique (and possibly over the heads of some viewers.)
Blackadder Goes Forth
Jumping forward further in time, Blackadder spends this series as part of the British forces in World War I, hunkered down at the front. Once again, he's joined by George and Baldrick, while Stephen Fry and Tim McInnerny are Army leaders, bringing the group into a new dynamic, where no one in Blackadder's inner circle has any power, and they are in a situation that's entirely out of their control. As a result, Blackadder's schemes this time are all about escaping the war (which serves as a solid bedrock for the season's general condemnation of the British strategies in WWI.)
The thing that's most memorable about this season of Blackadder has to be the finale, which is M.A.S.H.-like in its sincerity, and wraps up nearly free of laughs as the guys face their destiny in the long-awaited big push against the Germans. I'm not going to pretend it is because of the actors' skill or the crew's filmmaking ability, though both groups do a fine job. Part of it is how real the final scenes sound, as the characters express how they feel about the moment ahead of them, and the other part is the way it all plays out to the final scene. It really does feel like we've said good-bye to old friends, and there's no final joke to break the somber mood. It just ends. Which is just perfect.
Blackadder's Christmas Carol
This holiday special hit the airwaves between the third and fourth series, putting Blackadder into the age of Dickens, but doing it with a twist. Whereas Scrooge and Blackadder were mean and wicked, Blackadder as Scrooge is the nicest man in England, and he's taken advantage of by everyone with a hand held out for help. The traditional visit by the ghost (Robbie Coltrane), which shows Blackadder the ancestors we know well, have a unique effect on him, and, as is often the case with Blackadder, he doesn't end up with the the long end of the stick.
This special holds plenty in common with the more popular seasons, with lots of fast-paced jokes and silliness, which makes sense, since it has scenes set in the other series. It also gives us a look at the future of Blackadder's lineage, an insane future time that also gives us too close a look at both Blackadder and Baldrick. In a way, it's like a best-of or clip show, just all-new.
It's worth noting that this is the censored version of the episode, removing the line about crucifying a dog.
Blackadder: Back and Forth
The only official sequel following the brilliance of the series' finale is this 1999 short, as grand a 30-minute adventure as Blackadder and pals ever had, though there's a lack of genuine laughs. It's more like a humorous warm blanket on an unfunny cold night, as it's quite comforting to see our old friends once again, only this time in the present (at least the present 10 years ago.) Yes, George and Elizabeth are the same funny nuts they were centuries ago, but they aren't in much of the film, which is really a buddy flick for most of its running time.
Together for a New Year's celebration at Blackadder's mansion (apparently he's doing well,) George, Elizabeth, Melchett and Darling are perfect victims for Blackadder's prank, which will help him scam his friends for 10,000£. Having had Baldrick build a time machine, Blackadder bets his pals he can go back in time to get souvenirs of the past. Naturally, they bite, but Baldrick has managed to build a working (though flawed) time machine and they are launched through time, with no way to get back home. Of course, while trying to return to the present, they manage to mess up history dramatically.
The visits to Blackadders of the past, including some we've seen before, like Queenie's court, are, of course, fantastic, but seeing new times, like the age of Romans and the time of Robin Hood (played like Flashheart by Mayall) are a treat, as are the celebrity cameos, including Colin Firth and Kate Moss. What's weird is the inclusion of a laugh track, which just feels out of place on such a big-budget effort.
The complete run of Blackadder is collected on six DVDs, which are packed in a six-tray digipak (with a parchment-style fold-out cover that features a break-down of the content and Baldrick's family tree), tucked inside a handsome gold-foil embossed slipcase. The discs feature animated full-frame menus, with options to watch all the episodes, select scenes, adjust the set-up and check out the extras. There are no audio options (outside of the commentaries) or closed captioning, though English subtitles are included.
The full-frame episodes have been remastered from the original masters, and they look very nice, though they certainly look their age as well, with color that's a touch dull and an image that's somewhat soft, affected by some video noise. One thing I'd love to know though, is why location footage from English TV in the '80s looks as dull as it does. Despite the lack of vivid color, there are no problems with dirt or damage, nor are there any problems with digital artifacts.
The 1999 film Blackadder: Back & Forth is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and looks much nicer in terms of the color and detail (as one would expect for a film 10 years younger than the series.) Oddly though, there are some noticeable bits of damage to be seen, though the film is free of digital artifacts.
The episodes and the film feature Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, which do an effective job of presenting the show's dialogue and the memorable themes, especially since the show originally aired in mono. Don't expect anything impressive and you won't be disappointed with these center-balanced tracks.
The previous releases had some decent extras included, but nothing like what you get with this set, starting with eight audio commentaries, spread out over the final three seasons. The participants are impressive, including Atkinson, Robinson, Fry, McInnerny, Elton, Lloyd and Curtis, though they are split into groups and the lack of Laurie and Richardson is disappointing. Despite those shortcomings, those participating make the tracks must-listens for fans of the series, as they include plenty of notes about the making of the series, while it's great to hear from Atkinson.
For anyone looking for more behind-the-scenes insight, there are a pair of documentaries to enjoy, which run a combined 90 minutes. Up first is Baldrick's Video Diary, which mixes interviews with the main cast and crew, scenes that were cut from the movie and footage from the set of Blackadder: Back and Forth, focusing mainly on the making of the short film, such as how to film a Scottish horde, while including some thoughts about the series as a whole.
There's more of an overview in the 60-minute 2008 documentary Blackadder Rides Again, which marks the 25th-anniversary of the series by going over the history and revisiting the show's past with the main cast and crew. For example, Richardson visits the costume shop at the BBC and checks out the ornate gowns she wore as Queenie, while Atkinson and producer John Lloyd go to the castle where the first season was shot. You probably couldn't get a better retrospective of the show, since you get it right from the horses' mouths, including Fry, interviewed in Uganda, and Laurie, from the lot where he shoots House. If you want more of the interviews that make up the bulk of the special, there's almost another 90 minutes of them to enjoy, plus over 10 minutes more of footage from Robinson, McInnerny, Richardson and Patsy Byrne's trips to the costume department, including Robinson attempting to try on his old gear and Richardson's run-in with a rather rude anatomical prop.
The extras wrap up with a scene from 1988's Comic Relief, Blackadder: The Cavalier Years, is another new look at the familiar old characters, this time limited to Atkinson, Robinson and Fry, as they take Blackadder and company to the time of the 17th-century English Civil War. Short, at just 15 minutes, the piece is most fun for Fry's performance as King Charles I, whose personality draws from an obvious inspiration (at least for anyone who remembers the glory days of the current Prince of Wales.)
Unfortunately, there are a few additional scenes out there (at least five) that aren't included on these discs, which is a let-down for completists, but they aren't know as must-haves for any reason.
The Bottom Line
Though it gets off to something of a slow start, Black Adder became something brilliant by riding an incredible cast and the smart concept of following these hysterical characters throughout time. This set brings together both beautifully remastered video and a hearty dose of extras you definitely want to check out, to offer a collection that really is the ultimate Black Adder (with a few annoying bits to complain about.)
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.