Note: The on-screen title is actually styled Black Adder The Third.
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Regulars: The series is set in Regency London (more or less…) and Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) is butler to the king’s eldest son. In other words, each time we move on in history, our lead character falls lower down the social pecking order. However, he’s still as manipulative, selfish and cruel as his 16th-century ancestor. And he still has a servant called Baldrick (Tony Robinson), whose first name might be Sod-off. The only other significant regular character is the empty-headed Regent, Prince George (Hugh Laurie) – in effect, he’s the result of combining Blackadder II’s fruit-loop Queen and simpleton Lord Percy into one character. The manageress of the local coffee shop, Mrs Miggins (Helen Atkinson-Wood), also appears in every episode but only in the final instalment does she get much to do.
Notable guests: Episode one – a vote-spoofing story that’s sometimes been repeated on the day of a UK General Election – has BBC political reporter Vincent Hanna playing a Regency equivalent of himself. Denis Lill, meanwhile, appears as an arrogant MP who dies while the Prince is talking to him, while Geoff McGiven is one of the election candidates: Ivor ‘Jest-ye-not-madam’ Biggun of the Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party. Episode two has Robbie Coltrane as a theatrical Samuel Johnson. Also in that episode, Jim Sweeney, Lee Cornes and Steve Steen play poets Coleridge, Shelley and Byron. After series two, Tim McInnerny had dropped out of the show, but he guests here as episode three’s initially idiotic Lord Topper; Nigel Planer from The Young Ones plays his colleague, Lord Smedley. In the same story, a pre-Red Dwarf Chris Barrie is a sadistic French revolutionary. In episode four, Kenneth Connor and Hugh Paddick play lovey-dovey thespians David Keanrick and Enoch Mossop. Co-writer Ben Elton also has a cameo as an anarchist bomber. Blackadder II’s Miranda Richardson returns for a guest spot in episode five – one of her character’s two alter egos is written a bit Queen-like, so Richardson affects a high-pitched voice to mask the similarity – and Warren Clarke plays her father. And finally, another former regular, Stephen Fry, crops up in the final episode playing a bombastic Duke of Wellington.
Episode one: Dish and Dishonesty (17 September 1987). The new Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, wants the Prince Regent to pull his weight – so Mr Blackadder comes up with a plan…
* Pitt the Younger looks about 14 and says he’s taken office during his exams.
* Sir Talbot Buxomly MP is, says Blackadder, in favour of “flogging servants, shooting peasants and extending slavery to anyone who doesn’t have a knighthood.”
* Blackadder: “I shall return before you can say ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’.”
* The rotten borough where the by-election will be held, Dunny-on-the-Wold, is described as “half an acre of sodden marshland in the Suffolk Fens with an empty town hall on it. Population: three rather mangy cows, a Dachshund called Colin, and a small hen in its late 40s.”
* When the PM mentions his brother, Blackadder wonders if he’ll be Pitt the Toddler, Pitt the Embryo or Pitt The Glint in the Milkman’s Eye.
* “As a reward, Baldrick, take a short holiday. [Beat.] Did you enjoy it?”
Episode two: Ink and Incapability (24 September 1987). When Dr Samuel Johnson finishes his long-awaited first dictionary of the English language – after a decade of dedicated work – Baldrick accidentally burns the only copy and Blackadder has to write a new one overnight…
* Blackadder says the new dictionary is the most pointless book since How To Learn French was translated into French.
* Dr Johnson’s wordy, thesaurus-rich dialogue is a treat. For example, “I celebrated last night the encyclopaedic implementation of my premeditated orchestration of demotic Anglo-Saxon!”
* Dr Johnson says the dictionary has taken 10 years. Prince George: “Well, I‘m a slow reader myself.”
* Blackadder amuses himself by making up new words while talking to a flustered Dr Johnson – contrafibblarities, anaspeptic, phrasmotic, pericombobulation, interphrastically, pendigestatery, interludicle, velocitious and extramurialisation.
* Baldrick burns the dictionary – ie, the big papery thing tied up with string.
* The Prince says he’s as happy as a Frenchman who’s just invented self-removing trousers.
* Baldrick is ordered to steal a new copy of the dictionary. He fears he’ll go to hell if he steals. So Blackadder threatens him: “Eternity in the company of Beelzebub and all his hellish instruments of death will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me and this pencil.”
* George and Baldrick’s attempts to help write a new dictionary. The latter’s definition of ‘dog’ is ‘not a cat’.
* Blackadder’s dream sequence: “Baldrick, who gave you permission to turn into an Alsatian?”
* Prince George gets hold of the dictionary – which wasn’t actually burnt after all – and underlines all the rude words.
Episode three: Nob and Nobility (1 October 1987). With everyone swept up in Scarlet Pimpernel fever, Blackadder says he’ll go to France himself and snatch an aristo…
* Mrs Miggins says, “Bonjour, monsieur,” so Blackadder asks her what she’s on about. “It’s French.” “So’s eating frogs, cruelty to geese, and urinating in the street.”
* Blackadder kicks the cat in anger, then explains the hierarchy as the cat pounces on the mouse and the mouse bites Baldrick on the behind.
* In the throws of his French obsession, Prince George calls his servant ‘le Adder Noir’.
* To get out of accompanying Blackadder on a daring raid to France, Lord Topper says, “I’ve just remembered, my father’s just died!”
* Blackadder describes Baldrick’s outfit as if he were a fashion model: “Baldrick is wearing a sheep’s-bladder jacket with matching dung-ball accessories. Hair by Crazy Meg of Bedlam. Notice how the overpowering aroma of rotting pilchards has been woven cunningly into the ensemble…”
* “Baldrick, when did you last change your trousers?” Defiantly: “I have never changed my trousers.”
* After an emotional farewell with his master, Blackadder doesn’t go to France – but rather hides in the kitchen for a week.
* The Prince spends a whole week trying to put his trousers on unaided.
* Blackadder says the Scarlet Pimpernel is the most overrated human being since Judas Iscariot won the AD 31 Best Disciple competition.
* Having unknowingly taken a suicide pill, Smedley explains its sequential effects – depression, anger, forgetfulness, jumping into a corner, and death – while he’s experiencing them.
* In his invented story about his fictional trip to France, Blackadder claims he has hung from the wall of the Bastille by the larger of his testicles.
* Topper goes to punch Baldrick, but Tim McInnerny so obviously misses that a whooshing sound effect has been dubbed over the action.
Episode four: Sense and Senility (8 October 1987). To improve his standing with the public, Prince George hires two actors to help rehearse a speech…
* Prince George shouts down the stairs to the servants’ quarters, saying he wants to leave. “Coming, sir!” replies Blackadder. “Fast as I can!” He then asks Baldrick to stick the kettle on.
* Prince George visits the theatre and thinks the on-stage antics are real.
* After an anarchist throws a bomb into the royal box, George assumes he was trying to kill Blackadder.
* When he spots the actors in Mrs Miggins’s coffee shop, Blackadder sarcastically mimes having to fight his way through the non-existant crowd of admirers.
* When told that Caesar in Julies Caesar was played by an actor, Prince George reckons that Brutus will be miffed when he finds out he killed the wrong man.
* Simply to irritate the superstitious actors, Blackadder deliberately says “Macbeth” six times in just over a minute (and three more times before the episode’s over), meaning they have to perform a silly ritualistic dance.
* Blackadder bemoans the fact he always wins the Who’s Got the Stupidest Master prize at the Butlers Guild’s Christmas party.
* Prince George’s attempts at a speech: a wild and loud roar followed immediately by a deadpan, dry delivery of the text.
* When Blackadder leaves in a huff, having quit, Baldrick calls after him without malice, “Goodbye, you lazy, big-nosed, rubber-faced bastard!”
Episode five: Amy and Amiability (15 October 1987). Prince George is stoney broke, so decides to marry for cash – meanwhile, a highwayman called the Shadow is terrorising and thrilling the population of London…
* Blackadder says he feels like a pelican: “Whichever way I turn, I’ve still got an enormous bill in front of me.”
* Blackadder tells Prince George he’s as “poor as a church mouse that’s just had an enormous tax bill on the very day his wife ran off with all the cheese.”
* When Blackadder suggests the Prince marry for money, George says, “Marry? Never! I’m a gay bachelor, Blackadder. I’m a roarer, a rogerer, a gorger and a puker.”
* Searching for potential brides for Prince George, Blackadder finds 262 princesses in Europe: 165 are over 80, 47 are under 10, and 39 are so mad they all married the same horse last week.
* “There’s no need to hammer it home.”
* Prince George dictates a letter to be sent to his intended bride: “Tally-ho, my fine, saucy, young trollop! Your luck’s in! Trip along here with all your cash, and some naught night attire, and you’ll be staring at my bedroom ceiling from now till Christmas, you lucky tart! Yours with the deepest respect, etc, signed George. PS: Woof-woof!” Blackadder asks if he can change one detail: the words.
* When Blackadder meets Amy Hardwick and her father, he says to Mr Hardwick: “I can see where your daughter gets her ready wit. Though, where she gets her good looks and charm is perhaps more of a mystery.”* Blackadder’s wooing advice for Prince George: “Poetry first, sausage later.”
* Blackadder tells Baldrick to hire a horse. “Hire you a horse?” he replies. “For ninepence? On Jewish New Year in the rain? A bare fortnight after the dreaded horse plague of Old London Town? With the blacksmiths’ strike in its 15th week and the Dorset Horse Fetishists Fair tomorrow?” (It’s basically an ornate gag to explain why we never see a horse on screen.)
* When Blackadder decides to flee the country, he says he’ll send for Baldrick once he’s settled in Barbados. “You’ll stand out as an individual. All the other slaves will be black.”
Episode six: Duel and Duality (22 October 1987). Blackadder’s cousin, the Scot McAdder, shows up in London – at the same time that Prince George angers the Duke of Wellington…
* Baldrick applied to be a village idiot and got down to the final two, but he lost out to the other candidate by showing up for the interview.
* “We’re about as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod.”
* Blackadder says his cousin, McAdder, is as mad as Mad Jack McMad, the winner of last year’s Madman Competition.
* Prince George has slept with Arthur Wellesley’s two nieces. “I spent a night of ecstasy with a pair of Wellingtons and I loved it!”
* Baldrick’s cousin Bert has told him that “all portraits look the same these days, ’cause they’re painted to a romantic ideal rather than as a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question.” Blackadder suggests that Bert has a better vocabulary than Baldrick.
* Angry with Baldrick, Blackadder threatens to cut him into long strips and then tell the prince he walked across a very sharp cattle-grid while wearing an extremely heavy hat.
* In order to trick Wellington, the Prince and Blackadder swap clothes and pretend to be each other. Baldrick is confused, while Wellington repeatedly physically attacks who he thinks is a servant. (Fry really goes for comedy partner Laurie!)
* Wellington’s official report on the war in Spain: “We won.”
* Mrs Miggins gleefully slags off the Prince, who’s eavesdropping on her, but Baldrick knows he’s there. “I think it must be next door you’re wanting,” he says loudly, “strange woman whom I’ve never seen before, Mrs Miggins!”
* Blackadder offers McAdder enough cash to buy the Outer Hebrides: 14 shillings and sixpence.
* When told that his duel with Wellington will be with cannon, Blackadder has to read the instruction book.
Best episode: Ink and Incapability. Not only does it have an entertaining plot, but the whole script sings with the comic potential of the English language.
Cunning: In Dish and Dishonesty, Blackadder has a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. The following week, Baldrick says he has a cunning plan. But before he can explain, Blackadder says he reckons it’ll be the stupidest thing he’s heard since Lord Nelson’s famous signal at the Battle of the Nile: “England knows Lady Hamilton’s a virgin. Poke my eye out and cut off my arm if I’m wrong.” (Baldrick’s idea? Write an entire dictionary overnight.) In episode three, when Baldrick proudly claims Blackadder won’t need his suicide pill, Blackadder says, “Am I jumping the gun, Baldrick, or are the words ‘I have a cunning plan’ marching with ill-deserved confidence in the direction of this conversation?” (His plan is to do nothing until they’ve been executed; then they can escape.) In episode five, Baldrick comes up with a cunning plan to solve Blackadder’s financial problems: become a dashing highwayman. And in the final episode, Baldrick says he has a cunning plan to get Prince George out of his feud with Wellington: get someone else to fight him in a duel. After tweaking the plan, Blackadder also refers to it as cunning, as does McAdder.
History: The series plays fast and loose with real chronology, throwing in people and events from a half-century spread. This allows it to make comedic hay with, for example, both Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (published 1755) and the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Historical figures who actually appear include writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), George III (1738-1820), Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), soldier-cum-statesman Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Lord Byron (1788-1824) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), and of course the Regent, Prince George, who later became King George IV (1762-1830). Real-life figures who get mentioned include outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734), PM William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), biographer James Boswell (1740-1795), playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), naval genius Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) and mistress Emma Hamilton (1765-1815), French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), fashion leader Beau Brummel (1778-1840) and inventor George Stephenson (1781-1848). Episode three’s conceit is that Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel character (from a 1905 stage play) really existed. Episode five is spoofing robbers such as Dick Turpin (1705-1739), and also uses a devise from Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. Every episode is titled in the alliterative style of Jane Austen’s first two novels, Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813).
The Cavalier Years: On 5 February 1988, Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day telethon featured a 15-minute Blackadder special. Set during the English Civil War (specifically November 1648 and January 1649), it features Rowan Atkinson as royalist Sir Edmund Blackadder; Tony Robinson as his servant, Baldrick; Warren Clarke as Oliver Cromwell; and Stephen Fry as a very modern-Prince-Charles-like King Charles I. The studio set used for Sir Edmund’s house was the (redressed) kitchen from Blackadder the Third. At one point, Baldrick says he has a cunning plan to save the King. It involves His Majesty wearing a fake head (a pumpkin with a face drawn on it) for his execution. When Baldrick admits the rouse is not one-hundred-per-cent convincing, Blackadder says “It’s not *one*-per-cent convincing!”
Review: After the success of series two, it was a brave move to abandon a successful setting and shift forward to a new era. And the group of characters has been notably reduced. Ignoring Mrs Miggins – which is more or less what the writers do! – the regular cast has gone from six people to three. Thankfully, the comedy has not suffered. Not only are there a succession of great guest appearances but also new regular Hugh Laurie is *fantastic* as the naive and dim Prince. Meanwhile, the simile count in the dialogue has skyrocketed. And there’s a number of postmodern gags about this being a sitcom: some footage is played in reverse to get a laugh, while Blackadder mentions the ‘unconvincing grassy knoll’ of an exterior-done-indoors set and fantasises about the future, when episodes of his life will be acted out at 9.30 by some heroic actor of the age. Terrific stuff.
Eight hot, orangey things under the stony mantelpiece out of 10