BLACKADDER. (1983-1989) THE COMPLETE FOUR SERIES REVIEWED BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
WRITTEN BY ROWAN ATKINSON, RICHARD CURTIS AND BEN ELTON.
STARRING ROWAN ATKINSON, TONY ROBINSON, HUGH LAURIE, STEPHEN FRY, TIM MCINNERNY, MIRANDA RICHARDSON, PATSY BYRNE, BRIAN BLESSED, MIRIAM MARGOLYES, JIM BROADBENT AND GABRIELLE GLAISTER.
‘Baldrick, it’s the stickiest situation anyone’s ever been in since Sticky the Stick Insect got stuck on a sticky bun.’
‘Yes, the Teutonic reputation for brutality is well-founded, Baldrick. Their operas go on for three or four days and they have no word for ‘fluffy.’
By anyone’s standards, this British pseudo-historical situation comedy snaps, crackles and pops in all the right places. It’s bally well top-notch stuff, as Lieutenant George himself might say. It always comes near the top of Best Sitcom Lists and, as far as the English are concerned, only two other sitcoms could possibly top it: ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES and FAWLTY TOWERS. I think I’d give BLACKADDER first place, personally speaking. The writing is just pure genius.
There were four complete series of BLACKADDER between 1983 and 1989, each taking place in a different historical period of England’s long and chequered past. Each one stars Rowan Atkinson as the Edmund Blackadder of the period and Tony Robinson as his less intelligent and much less fragrant sidekick-slash-dogsbody, while the cast around them shifts slightly each time, while maintaining a little core group of regulars, if you get me.
SERIES ONE: THE BLACK ADDER is set in 1485 at the end of the British Middle Ages. These were pretty yucky times, with plagues and pestilence stalking the land and flies and muck and shit everywhere from the indifferent sewerage systems in place at the time. There were none, I think, in point of fact. With shit from the privies flowing like the Thames down the streets of English towns, it’s no wonder the peasants were always catching the plague.
Peter Cook plays Richard the Third, who accidentally gets his bonce lopped off by an inept Blackadder after winning the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard the Fourth succeeds to the throne and is played by the big, bearded, larger-than-life Brian Blessed, he of the booming voice and lavish theatrical gestures. If anyone was born to play a King with a loud booming voice, surely this guy was, lol.
The Blackadder in this series is the King’s weedy second son, the one he doesn’t like and can barely recognise when he sees him. Flanked by the malodorous Baldrick and the wonderful Tim McInnerny as the foppish Lord Percy Percy, Blackadder is a somewhat ineffectual bumbler here and nowhere near as cunning and self-advancing as he becomes in the later three series.
By the time we reach BLACKADDER TWO, the character of Blackadder has been developed into the shrewd opportunistic sycophant we’re more used to seeing. Set in Elizabethan times, the Queen is marvellously played as a self-absorbed, self-obsessed selfish psychopathic cretin by Miranda Richardson.
The mischievous, some would say malicious Queen’s mood can turn on a dime, as they say, and so it’s ‘off with his head’ for anyone who pisses her off. Blackadder therefore spends his days sucking up to her big-time, in competition with Stephen Fry as her Numero Uno Toady, Lord Melchett.
Patsy Byrne is marvellous as Nursie, the Queen’s constant companion and former Nanny, who is obsessed with the booby-feeding she did when Queenie was a nipper. She treats the Queen as if she were still in the nursery and the Queen seems okay with it, probably because of the comforting familiarity it brings.
Then of course, on other occasions, she’s all, like, shut up Nursie, what would a demented old bat like YOU know about anything, lol. It’s all part-and-parcel of the tightly-knit, almost symbiotic relationship between the pair.
As brilliantly capricious as Miranda Richardson is as Queen Elizabeth, my favourite ‘dim aristocrat’ of the whole show is Hugh Laurie as the idiotic Prince Regent, the Prince of Wales, in BLACKADDER THE THIRD. The Regency period, taking place as it did towards the end of the 18th century and the start of the 19th, was the era of the fops, and nobody fops like Prince George.
In his magnificent frock-coat and knee-breeches, his wig atop his bonce and his boat-race powdered and rouged to perfection, he drives his butler Edmund Blackadder Esquire to distraction with the emptiness of his head and the idiocy of his thoughts and ideas, if he has any. If the always-strapped-for-cash Blackadder wasn’t able to make a few quid on the side by selling the Prince’s socks behind his back, he’d probably hand in his notice.
The premise of each episode is that a tricky situation presents itself and Blackadder and Baldrick, who by now is a scruffy sight indeed, have to come up with a multiplicity of ‘cunning plans’ to try to extricate themselves from it.
The plans are always ridiculously complicated, often involve a disguise of some sort, and usually go tits-up in a spectacular way, leading Blackadder to bemoan the fact that ‘Fortune vomits on my eiderdown once again, Baldrick.’
I love the one in which the pals meet the Scarlet Pimpernel during the French Revolution, and the one in which Robbie Coltrane (who also appears in the Crimbo special) plays Dr. Samuel Johnson, the man who wrote the world’s first ever Dictionary.
When Baldrick accidentally tosses the one and only copy of this precious manuscript onto the Prince Regent’s drawing-room fire, believing it to be mere kindling, Blackadder is in a fearful bind.
He’ll have to stay up all night in order to re-write the Dictionary again, the Dictionary it took Dr. Johnson ten years to write, or risk the great wrath of the Doctor and his sword-wielding sidekicks, the boozy, drugged-up Romantic poets, namely, Shelley, Byron and Coleridge. I think Keats is absent for some unknown reason…!
Needless to say, the following morning sees Blackadder still stuck on ‘A is for Aardvark.’ The scene where Dr. Johnson is trying to explain the ‘plot’ of his Dictionary to the thick-as-a-plank Prince Regent is hilarious. Reminds me of that joke in THE SIMPSONS: ‘So, I finally finished reading the Dictionary. Turns out the zebra did it…!’
BLACKADDER GOES FORTH, the final series, is many peoples’ favourite. It’s set in the mucky, water-logged (but poetry-rich) trenches of World War One. Captain Blackadder is at his absolute wittiest and most sharp-tongued here (‘I lost closer friends than that when I went for my last delousing!’) as he battles the deprivations of warfare alongside his mates.
These are his loyal batman Private S. Baldrick (the S stands for Sod Off, as in Sod Off, Baldrick!) and the aristocratic but infinitely loveable upper-class twit, Hugh Laurie as Lieutenant George Colhurst St. Barleigh.
Blackadder, he of the biting wit and cutting sarcasm, spares neither of them as he demonstrates to the enchanted viewer his unsurpassed skill as master of the scathing put-down.
The main aim of Captain Slack Bladder in this series is to try to avoid the certain death involved in ‘going over the top,’ or taking part in ‘The Big Push,’ as it’s known. This isn’t just because he’s a snivelling coward, but because he genuinely bemoans the awful loss of life, all of it unnecessary, caused by this dreadful war.
By Jove, you coves, it’s enough to make you stick a pair of underpants on your head, shove a couple of pencils up your nose and go ‘wibble!’ Only don’t let me catch you at it, dash it all, or I’ll jolly well have to shoot you for cowardice.
I’m always crying like a baby long before the ‘Big Push’ slow-motion finish, when the three lads finally charge out into the smoke and fog and certain death of ‘no-man’s land,’ joined by Tim McInnerny as Captain Kevin Darling. (Rik Mayall as Lord Flash-heart: ‘Darling? That’s a funny name for a guy! The last person I called ‘Darling’ was pregnant twenty seconds later…!’)
I cry when Hugh Laurie as Lieutenant George, serious for once, realises out loud that he’s the only one of his bright-eyed school chums left alive now, the tiddly-winks-playing, leap-frogging chums who signed up so hopefully to beat the ‘Hun’ three years ago when the war began. It’ll all be over by Christmas, isn’t that what they thought? And now look at the devastating waste of all the young lives gone forever thanks to the stupid war.
Stephen Fry is superbly funny as the lads’ superior, General Melchett, but he’s making a serious point here too. Commanding his men from a comfy, cosy French chateau miles behind the front line, he doesn’t live in the real world of trench foot, rat sandwiches and coffee made from mud and sprinkled with Baldrick’s dandruff-for-sugar. The generals complacently moved armies about on their little maps but it was the men on the ground- and in the trenches- who bore the brunt of these near-sighted, ivory-tower decisions.
Anyway, if you’re not bawling your eyes out by the time the mist and fog clears to reveal a poppy field, empty of living humans but silently bearing witness to the millions who died, then you’re an unfeeling monster, lol. Grown men freely admit to crying at the emotional last episode, titled GOODBYEEE, without a trace of shame. I’ll leave you, as Jerry Springer used to do, with my final thought, and it’s this:
‘If I should die, think only this of me;
I’ll be back to get you…’
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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