Rowan Atkinson's other iconic comedy creation
The Black Adder
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.
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
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
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 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
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 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.
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.
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