Blackadder: Back & Forth (1999, Paul Welland)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Cast: Rowan Atkinson plays a modern-day Lord Blackadder (later King Edmund III), while Tony Robinson plays his manservant, Baldrick. They also appear as Roman equivalents: Centurion Blaccadius and Legionary Baldricus. Blackadder’s dinner-party guests are played by former regulars Tim McInnerny (as Archdeacon Darling), Miranda Richardson (Lady Elizabeth), Stephen Fry (Archbishop Melchett) and Hugh Laurie (Major George). The four actors also appear as various historical ancestors – McInnerny is always said to be a member of the Darling dynasty rather than a relative of the Lord Percys from earlier episodes. Patsy Byrne is in the Elizabethan segment, reprising Nursie from series two. Colin Firth shows up playing William Shakespeare, Simon Russell Beale as Napoleon. Rik Mayall appears as a very Lord Flashheart-like Robin Hood, while Kate Moss pushes the definition of acting to cameo as both Maid Marian and the Queen in an alternative 1999. Jennie Bond, then the BBC’s royal correspondent, plays herself in voiceover.

Best gags:

On 31 December 1999, Lord Blackadder plans on conning his friends into thinking he can travel through time. However, manservant Baldrick has built the time-machine prop so convincingly, they actually get sent into the past…
* Blackadder meets Shakespeare, gets his autograph, and then punches him to the ground as revenge for 400 years’ worth of bored school kids.
* Robin Hood: “Well, well, what have we here, my tough band of freedom fighters who have good muscle tone and aren’t gay?”

Cunning: When all looks desperate and it seems he and Blackadder are fated to be lost in time, Baldrick declares he has a cunning plan: deliberately drown himself so his life will flash before his eyes and he can recall where the time machine’s setting need to be. Later, Blackadder says he has a very, very cunning plan: change history for his own selfish benefit.

History: The sketch-show format sees Blackadder and Baldrick briskly visit the time of the dinosaurs, the Elizabethan court (ie, the setting of Blackadder II), the far future, the Sherwood Forest of the 12th century, the Battle of Waterloo (1815) and Roman Britain (AD 43-410). The time machine is built to specifications written by Leonardo di Vinci (1452-1519). The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) is in the Waterloo sequence – he’s played by Stephen Fry, who sadly goes for a blander characterisation than in series three. Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138) also crop up.

Review: Sigh. What a flat ending. This 45-minute special has a strange providence. It was commissioned to be shown in the then-new Millennium Dome from 6 December 1999 and throughout the year 2000, and only later shown on television (on Sky in 2001, on BBC1 on 21 April 2002). Perhaps this explains why it feels so designed-by-committee. Not so much a comedy, more an exercise in box-ticking. All the big regulars pop up, there’s puerile humour and fancy location filming. But being shot single-camera with no studio audience gives it a very strange tone. It’s superficially similar to a comedy, but gags about Baldrick’s smelly underpants are played to stony silence.

Five large orange hedges out of 10

Blackadder Goes Forth (1989, Richard Boden)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Regulars: Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) is in the trenches during the First World War. He’s selfish and arrogant, but is a notably less cruel creation than his ancestors. His batman is the dim Baldrick (Tony Robinson), while his second-in-command is perennial public-schoolboy Lieutenant The Hon. George Colhurst St Barleigh (Hugh Laurie). Thirty-five miles behind the front is the British HQ, where the potty General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmany Melchett (Stephen Fry) is assisted by the sycophantic Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny, back as a regular after taking a series off).

Notable guests: Episode two has Jeremy Hardy as Perkins the jailer, while Stephen Frost and Lee Cornes are members of the firing squad. (About 10 years ago, I did a pub quiz in Dulwich and Frost was in the team at the next table.) Gabrielle Glaister returns to the show for the first time in 15 episodes, playing male-impersonating driver ‘Bob’ Parkhurst in both Major Star and Private Plane. Double act Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson appear in episode four – Mayall is reprising his series-two persona as Squadron Commander the Lord Flashheart, while Edmonson’s only Blackadder role is a cameo as Baron Von Richthofen. Miranda Richardson guests in the penultimate episode as nurse Mary Fletcher-Brown; Bill Wallis has his third Blackadder character in the same storyline.

Best gags:

Episode one: Captain Cook (28 September 1989). When he hears that being a talented artist will get him out of the trenches, Captain Blackadder passes off one of George’s paintings as his own…
* “Tally-ho, pip-pip and Bernard’s your uncle!” “Round here, we say ‘good morning.’
* When George was at school, “education could go hang as long as a boy could hit a six, sing the school song very loud, and take a hot crumpet from behind without blubbing.”
* EVERY SINGLE TIME SOMEONE REFERS TO CAPTAIN DARLING BY HIS SURNAME. (They struck comedy gold when Stephen Fry suggested this joke in rehearsals. The character’s original name had been Cartwright, not Percy as we might reasonably assume.)
* “List of personnel cleared for Mission Gainsbrough, as directed by General CH Melchett. You and me, Darling, obviously. Field Marshall Haig. Field Marshall Haig’s wife. All of Field Marshall Haig’s wife’s friends, their families, their families’ servants, their families’ servants’ tennis partners, and some chap I bumped into in the mess called Bernard.”
* George reveals that he’s an excellent painter. Blackadder excitedly says it could spell “my way out of the trenches.” “Yours?” asks George. Blackadder, after a pause: “That’s right, ours.”
* George tells an incredulous Blackadder to undress before he poses for a portrait. “You mean you want me ‘tackle out’?!”
* “The King & Country cover story was just a cover story.”
* Blackadder gets George to fake a painting of enemy positions. When they show it to Melchett, Blackadder has to admit that there may have been more armaments factories and fewer elephants.
* “Permission to shout ‘bravo’ at an annoyingly loud volume, sir?”|
* Baldrick offers to cook dinner: rat-o-van, which is a rat that’s been run over by a van.

Episode two: Corporal Punishment (5 October 1989). When avoiding communications from HQ, Blackadder shoots a carrier pigeon and eats it – but the bird turns out to be Speckled Jim, the beloved pet of General Melchett…
* “When are we going to give Fritz a taste of our British spunk?”
* Blackadder fakes a bad phone connection when Darling calls with orders: “Schnell, schnell, kartoffelkopf!”
* Blackadder has asked Baldrick and George to tell anyone who asks that he didn’t “shoot this delicious, plump-breasted pigeon.” So of course the first time either is asked any question, they trot out the pat answer.
* In jail, Blackadder sends two letters: one to Bob Massingbird, his lawyer, asking for representation; one to George asking for a sponge bag. Baldrick sends the letters to the wrong people. (Perkins the jailer wonders how good Massingbird is. Blackadder suggests he ask “big, butch, bonking Oscar Wilde.”)
* George reckons Blackadder is as guilty as a puppy sitting next to a pile of poo.
* “The case is the Crown versus Captain Edmund Blackadder… the Flanders pigeon murderer!”
* When asked if the charges against Blackadder are true, defence counsellor George says, “Oh, yes! I was there!”
* Darling lists instances of Blackadder ignoring orders: “May the 16th, 9.15am… 10.23am… 10.24am… 11.17am…” George, who’s looking at the same piece of paper: “You’ve missed one out there.” Darling: “10.30am, thank you. 11.46am…”
* Walking to the witness stand, Baldrick is told by Blackadder to deny everything. George: “Are you Private Baldrick?” Baldrick: “No!”
* George’s closing statement ends: “Captain Blackadder is totally and utterly guilty!” He then sits down triumphantly. Slowly, Blackadder turns over George’s paper. George then sees more writing: “–of nothing more than trying to do his duty under difficult circumstances.”
* Melchett on the witness stand.
* Perkins brings in some men to meet the condemned-to-death Blackadder, who politely asks who they are. “We’re you’re firing squad, sir.” Blackadder then asks if the leader can leave a pause between the words aim and fire. “Thirty or 40 years perhaps.”
* “I must say, Captain, I’ve got to admire your balls.” “Perhaps later.”

Episode three: Major Star (12 October 1989). Captain Blackadder is given the job of producing a morale-boosting show for the troops…
* “Bob?”
* Melchett says, of the clearly female Bob, that *he* has a splendid sense of humour. “He, sir?” asks a stunned Blackadder. “He?! He?!” Melchett: “You see, you’re laughing already.”
* Melchett suggests to Bob that she have a smoke with Blackadder, who has “rather a good line in rough shag. I’m sure he’d be happy to fill your pipe.”
* Bob: “I want to see how a war is fought, so badly!” Blackadder: “Well, you’ve come to the right place, Bob. A war hasn’t been fought this badly since Olaf the Hairy, high chief of all the Vikings, accidentally ordered 80,000 battle helmets with the horns on the inside.”
* Blackadder dictates a telegram. “Mr C Chaplin, Sennett Studios, California. Congrats, stop. Have discovered only person in world less funny than you, stop. Name: Baldrick, stop. Yours, E Blackadder, stop.” He then asks Baldrick to add a PS: “Please, please, please… stop.”
* George in drag as Gorgeous Georgina. (In a subplot not a million miles away from Some Like It Hot, Melchett falls in love with ‘her’.)
* When Blackadder is trying to maintain the illusion that Georgina is real, he warns Melchett to tread carefully. “I don’t think you need to be quite so protective,” the general says. “I’m sure she’s a girl with a great deal more spunk than most women you find.”
* Blackadder’s advice for George, who’s about to go on a date with Melchett: “Never remove your wig… Never say anything… Don’t get drunk and let him shag you on the veranda.”
* After the date, George says their conversation covered the war, marriage and proposed changes to the LBW law.
* George’s coy look when he has to admit Melchett asked Georgina to marry him.
* Told that Georgina has died, Melchett is inconsolable… but then shakes it off and says, “Oh, well – can’t be helped.”
* Blackadder says they’re in the stickiest situation since Sticky the stick insect got stuck on a sticky bun.
* “Care for a liquorice allsort?”

Episode four: Private Plane (19 October 1989). When he joins the Twenty-Minuters – a Royal Flying Corps squadron with short life expectancies for pilots – Blackadder is shot down behind enemy lines…
* During an air raid, Blackadder phones the Royal Flying Corps and leaves a message for the Air Chief Marshall: “Where are you, you bastard?”
* “I don’t care how many time they go up-diddly-up-up, they’re still gits.”
* As in Blackadder II, everything Rik Mayall does is hilarilous – Flashheart crash-lands into the episode and *takes the fuck over*.
* “Mind if I use your phone?” asks Flashheart. “If word gets out that I’m missing, 500 girls will kill themselves. I wouldn’t want them on my conscious. Not when they should be on my face!”
* Blackadder is unimpressed with Flashheart: “Most of the infantry think you’re a prat. Ask them who they’d prefer to meet, Squadron Commander Flashheart or the man who cleans the public toilets in Aberdeen, and they’d go for Wee Jock ‘Poo-Pong’ McPlop every time.”
* Flashheart reckons Bob Parkhurst is saucier than a direct hit on a Heinz factory.
* Darling: “I wasn’t born yesterday.” Blackadder: “More’s the pity. We could have started your personality from scratch.”
* Melchett unrolls a map and declares it’s a barren, featureless desert. Darling then tells him to turn it over.
* “Let’s doooooo it!”
* Flashheart says a pilot should treat his kite like he treats his woman: get inside her five times a day and take her to heaven and back.
* “Goggles on, chocks away, last one back’s a homo!”
* Melchett finds George and Darling arguing. “Now, then! Now, then! Now, now, then, now, then, now, then, then, now, now, then! What’s going on?”
* “Permission for lower lip to wobble, sir?”
* Melchett has a map of the territory taken from the Germans. It’s in a one-to-one scale: 17 square feet.
* Baron Von Richtoven gives a long, portentous speech about finally coming face to face with the famous Lord Flashheart. So Flashheart shoots him and shouts, “What a poof!”

Episode five: General Hospital (26 October 1989). George is hospitalised at the same time that Blackadder is tasked with finding a German spy…
* George and Baldrick’s game of I Spy.
* Nurse Mary says, “If I can’t give my brave boys a kind word and a big smile, what can I give them?” Blackadder: “Well, one or two ideas do suggest themselves but you’d probably think they were unhygienic.”
* “My name is Meeester Smeeeth.”
* “Security isn’t a dirty word, Blackadder. Crevice is a dirty word, but security isn’t.”
* Blackadder wonders whether the army’s plan is to continue the slaughter until the only survivors are Field Marshall Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise, Alan.
* Nurse Mary hopes Blackadder will conduct himself with more decorum. He replies: “No, I’m going to conduct myself with no decorum. Shove off.”
* Blackadder interrogating Darling. Among numerous great lines, Darling says he’s as British as Queen Victoria. Blackadder: “So your father’s German, you’re half-German and you married a German?!”
* Blackadder thinks the spy might be as hard to find as a piece of hay in a massive stack full of needles.
* “Oxford, Cambridge, Hull…”
* The punchline of how the Germans are actually getting their information.

Episode six: Goodbyeee (2 November 1989).
* It seems wrong somehow – reductive, unfair – to mechanically list the best moments of this episode. I may as well just cut-and-paste the entire script. The whole thing feels more like a Play For Today than an episode of a chaotic sitcom. It’s tightly written, based on characterisation, and becomes increasingly serious as it goes along. (You can sense the humour quietly taking a step back as the climax approaches.) But that’s not to say it isn’t funny. It is. Brilliantly so. Highlights include George’s story about his tiddly-winking pals, Blackadder’s attempt to be found insane, Baldrick’s coffee recipe, the discussion of how the war began, Baldrick’s poems, talk of the 1914 Christmas truce and Geoffrey Palmer’s cameo… But it’s far more than the sum of its parts. A triumph.

Best episode: Well, it’s Goodbyeee. (Private Plane is probably the *funniest* episode, though. Christ, I miss Rik Mayall.)

Cunning: In episode one, Baldrick cites two cunning plans within the opening few minutes. (The first time is perhaps the clearest example of Tony Robinson knowing he’s got a catchphrase and is guaranteed a laugh.) Blackadder catches him carving his own name onto a bullet. Baldrick’s theory is that if there’s a bullet in the world with his name on it he may as well own it. Baldrick then suggests that he and Blackadder get jobs as chefs at HQ in order to get out of the trenches. In episode two, Baldrick visits Blackadder in his cell with a cunning escape plan: it involves a bag containing a wooden duck, a pencil, a miniature trumpet and a Robin Hood costume. The following week, Baldrick appears dressed unconvincingly as a woman and asks, “May I present my cunning plan?” (It’s to marry General Melchett.) In General Hospital, Baldrick has a cunning plan to find the German spy: go round everyone and ask them, “Are you a German spy?” In the final episode, Baldrick has two cunning plans. The first is that Blackadder should phone Field Marshall Haig and ask to get out of the trenches. The second comes just as the regulars are about to go over the top – sadly, there isn’t time for him to elaborate.

History: As well as general First World War conventions and cliches, the series makes specific reference to the Royal Flying Corps (a precursor of the RAF), the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the USA joining the war soon afterwards. Field Marshall Douglas Haig (1861-1928) appears briefly in episode six, played by Geoffrey Palmer. Historical figures who get mentioned include Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

Review: Wow. This is machine-gun comedy, which rattles off joke after joke at an amazing rate. Similes continue to dominate, but they’re all very funny. It’s also largely a Porridge-style sitcom about characters trapped in a confined location. Superbly entertaining.

Ten clucking bells out of 10

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988, Richard Boden)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Cast: Rowan Atkinson plays Ebenezer Blackadder, a gentle, polite and generous Victorian shopkeeper. In the visions shown to Ebenezer by the ghost, Atkinson also plays Lord Blackadder from series two, Mr Blackadder from series three, and two potential Blackadders in a distant sci-fi future. Tony Robinson plays five iterations of Baldrick: the new Victorian version, the servants from Blackadder II and Blackadder the Third, and two possible Baldricks in the far future. Miriam Margolyes and Jim Broadbent reprise their double-act from series one, this time playing Queen Victoria and a dippy Prince Albert. A succession of people turn up in Blackadder’s moustache shop and con or guilt-trip money and presents from him: one of them, his goddaughter Millicent, is played by Nicola Bryant; another by Dennis Lill. Robbie Coltrane plays the Spirit of Christmas. In the scenes set in the time of Blackadder II, Miranda Richardson, Patsy Byrne and Stephen Fry reprise their former roles. Hugh Laurie puts his Prince George costume back on for the Blackadder the Third scene. And in the future stuff, Richardson, Byrne, Fry and Laurie all play new characters. (Laurie also provides the opening narration.)

Best gags:

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (23 December 1988). Kind businessman Ebenezer Blackadder faces a sparse Christmas because he’s always giving to the poor and needy (and blatantly wanty). But then he’s visited by a ghost who shows him Blackadders past and future, so Ebenezer starts to question why he’s being good…
* We hear Blackadder approaching. “Humbug! Humbug!” He then walks into his shop with a bag of sweets. “Humbug, Mr Baldrick?”
* Baldrick has written a Christmas card, but spelt ‘Christmas’ so badly he hasn’t used a single correct letter.
* When told that the local workhouse’s nativity play lost its baby Jesus, Blackadder philosophically says, “This high infant-mortality rate’s a real devil when it comes to staging quality children’s theatre.”
* Prince Albert keeps getting excited and giving away secrets and surprises – each instance is followed by an annoyed, “Daaaamn!”
* Charity-conscious Blackadder says to Baldrick, “In the feeling-good ledger of life, we are rich indeed!” Baldrick replies, “I just wish were weren’t doing so well in the bit-short-of-pressies-and-feeling-a-gullible-prat ledger.”
* Blackadder, not unkindly, tells Tiny Tom’s mother that if he eats any more he’ll turn into a pie shop.
* “Looked like a fat git to me,” says Baldrick of a man who’s just come round and swiped their stash of nuts. “Strip away the outer layers of a fat git,” says Blackadder, “and inside you’ll find–” “A thin git.”
* Prince Albert wonders if Blackadder can give a gift for the poor: “What about a goose?” he says, and Victoria giggles.
* “I am from Glars-go!”
* The ghost says he’s just visited a man so miserly he cuts down on heating bills by using his John Thomas as a draft excluder.
* In Elizabethan London, Baldrick gives Lord Blackadder a Christmas present then asks if he’s getting one. “Oh, it’s nothing really,” says Blackadder. “No, really, it’s nothing. I haven’t got you anything.”
* “I can’t see any subtle plan.” “Baldrick, you wouldn’t see a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on a harpsichord singing, ‘Subtle plans are here again.’”
* When Lord Blackadder sarcastically suggests Melchett would want to whip him in the streets of Aberdeen, Melchett laughs: “I don’t think we need go that far, Blackadder. Aylesbury’s quite far enough.”
* The Regent, Prince George, asks: “What can I do with a girl that I can’t do without you?” Blackadder: “I cannot conceive, sir.”
* Baldrick’s go at charades. “It’s a book,” says Blackadder. “Well done, Mr B! I didn’t think you’d get it that quickly.”
* “Two silly bulls?”
* Prince George wants to hear a Christmas story, as long as it’s not that one about the chap who’s born on Christmas Day, shoots his mouth off about everything under the sun and then comes a cropper with a couple of rum coves on top of a hill in Johnny-Arab-land.
* The future stuff – a la bad Blake’s 7 with tones of terrifically painful dialogue.
* Baldrick – and then Blackadder – in a posing pouch.
* Now turned cruel, Ebenezer tells Baldrick he’s found a present in his stocking: a fist.
* “If we were little pigs, we’d sing piggy-wiggy-wiggy-wiggy-woo!”
* Blackadder says Millicent’s head is emptier than a hermit’s address book.
* “We are Queen Victoria!” “What, all three of you?”
* Blackadder suggests Victoria is the winner of the Round Britain Shortest, Fattest, Dumpiest Woman Competition.
* Blackadder tucks into his turkey then passes Baldrick a wishbone. “What do you wish?” he asks. Baldrick: “I wish there was some meat on this.”

Cunning: None!

History: Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol – formally called A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas – was published in 1843. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and her consort, Prince Albert (1819-1861), are in the main storyline; Admiral Lord Nelson (1758-1805) is played by Philip Pope in the Regency scene.

Review: A one-off Christmas special based on the notion of a friendly Blackadder who’s shown that being bad can have its rewards. The show unites regulars from the previous two batches of episodes – the first series is pointedly ignored! – as well as some notable guest stars. Great fun.

Nine foul Marmidons out of 10

Blackadder the Third (1987, Mandie Fletcher)

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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.

Best gags:

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

Blackadder II (1986, Mandie Fletcher)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Regulars: The setting has moved to a different historical era, but the three leads are still in place. Edmund, Lord Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) is a Machiavellian nobleman who lives in Elizabethan London and knows the queen. Like his 15th-century ancestor, he has a retinue of two: faithful dogsbody Baldrick (Tony Robinson) and fellow peer Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny). Unlike the earlier Edmund, this one’s clever as well as conniving. The action often moves to Richmond Palace, where we see three new regular characters. Queen Elizabeth (Miranda Richardson) is a spoilt, petulant, child-like woman with violent mood swings. She’s always accompanied by her former nanny Nursie (Patsy Byrne) and the Lord Chamberlain, the toadying Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry).

Notable guests: In the opening episode, Gabrielle Glaister appears in the show for the first time – she plays Kate, a peasant woman who masquerades as a boy called Bob to get a job working for Blackadder. The same episode also features Rik Mayall in a swashbuckling cameo. His Lord Flashheart – a mixture of Errol Flynn, Captain Jack Sparrow and Alan B’Stard – is on screen for just 161 seconds, yet Mayall steals the episode lock, stock and barrel. Episode two features Bill Wallis as Ploppy the Jailor and Holly De Jong as Lady Farrow. The third episode has Simon Jones as an effete Sir Walter Raleigh and a barnstorming Tom Baker as useless – and legless – sea captain Redbeard Rum. Ronald Lacey is unrecognisable from Raiders of the Lost Ark as episode four’s odious Bishop of Bath and Wells. In the same story, Downton Abbey’s Lesley Nicol is in one scene as potential house-buyer Mrs Pants, while Philip Pope appears very briefly as renowned painter Leonardo Acropolis. Miriam Margolyes appears again, as episode five’s uptight Lady Whiteadder. And finally, Hugh Laurie plays two characters in this series: he’s an innuendo-obsessed boozer in episode five, then a speech-impaired master of disguise, Prince Ludwig the Indestructable, in episode six.

Best gags:

Episode one: Bells (9 January 1986). A destitute woman called Kate poses as a boy and starts working for Lord Blackadder. And he falls in love with her new persona, ‘Bob’…
* Needing money, Kate’s father suggests she becomes a prostitute. “Please go on the game! It’s a steady job and you’ll be working from home!”
* Blackadder asks if Percy’s new girlfriend is Jane ‘Bury Me In a Y-shaped Coffin’ Harrington.
* Every single time Rowan Atkinson says the word Bob.
* Nursie’s anecdote about a boy with no winkle.
* The doctor misunderstanding what Blackadder means by “my manservant”.
* “‘Yes, it is,’ not ‘That it be’. You don’t have to talk in that stupid voice to me. I’m not a tourist.”
* Nursie reveals that her real name is Bernard.
* Baldrick dressed as a bridesmaid – beard and all. Percy doesn’t recognise him and starts flirting.
* Rik Mayall. Everything Rik Mayall does. Smirks to camera, maniacal laughter, vulgarity, violence… He *owns* it.

Episode two: Head (16 January 1986). After the Lord High Executioner dies, Blackadder is given the job – but soon kills the wrong person…
* Blackadder tries to teach Baldrick how to count, which is a struggle. “To you, Baldrick,” he says at one point, “the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people…”
* Melchett’s shortlist of potential new executioners: just Lord Blackadder.* Blackadder meets his two new subordinates: Mr Ploppy and Mrs Ploppy – no relation.
* Baldrick reiterates that they’re “not at home to Mr Cock-up.”
* Blackadder has to impersonate Farrow. He puts a bag on his head, deepens his voice and pretends to have lost an arm so Farrow’s widow won’t twig. When he thinks she’s about to rumble him, Blackadder calls for Baldrick to come and help – and he arrives *just* as Lady Farrow is about to give her ‘husband’ a blowjob.

Episode three: Potato (23 January 1986). Sir Walter Raleigh has returned triumphant from a fortune-making voyage, so Blackadder resolves to out-do him…
* Percy says Mrs Miggins from the local pie shop is bedridden from the nose down.
* Melchett offers Blackadder a potato as if it were a cigarette.
* The Queen’s wandering monologue about her dreams: “And then I dreamt once I was a sausage roll…”
* “You have a woman’s hand, my lord!”, etc, etc.
* Rum accuses Blackadder of being a “lapdog to a slip of a girl.” Blackadder: “Better a lapdog to a slip of a girl than a… git.”
* The Queen’s self-written poem: “When the night is dark/And the dogs go bark. When the clouds are black/And the ducks go quack…”
* Melchett gives Blackadder a map for his voyage: it’s blank, so Blackadder will have to fill it in as he goes.
* “Oh, Sir Walter, really!”
* Speaking of a girlfriend, Percy says he’d “even touched her once.” Blackadder: “Touched her what?”
* “So… You don’t know the way to France either?”
* In a scene of Blackdder, Baldrick, Percy and Rum all arguing, Tom Baker is audibly just saying, “Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.”
* Upon returning from the cannibal-infested south seas, Blackadder says the late Captain Rum was a third-rate sailor but a first-rate second course.
* Nursie wears Rum’s beard.
* When Melchett says he likes the wine Blackadder’s brought back to England – which is actually Baldrick’s piss – Blackadder assures him there’s an inexhaustible supply.

Episode four: Money (6 February 1986). Edmund must pay off a debt to the baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells…
* Blackadder says his father blew the family fortune on “wine, women and amateur dramatics.”
* Because his friend is in financial difficulties, Percy says he has some money hidden away. However, Blackadder admits he’s “seen it, pinched it, spent it.”
* In the midst of all his stress over cash, Blackadder has to keep travelling all the way to Richmond when summoned by the Queen. She’s only called for him to amuse herself. (Blackadder deadpans that he’s glad he’s wearing a corset because he thinks his sides have split.)
* Baldrick suggests that Blackadder go on the game to raise some money. Blackadder makes a tiny adjustment to the plan – cut to Baldrick down the docks and holding a sign that reads ‘Get it here’.
* Baldrick’s first punter wants to be talked to like a child, but then asks, “Now then, how much do you charge for a good, hard shag?”
* Nursie warns the Queen that Mr and Mrs Spank may pay a visit to Bottyland.
* Percy uses alchemy to create gold. Then Blackadder points out that it’s green, whereas the colour of gold is traditionally gold.
* Mr and Mrs Pants come to view Blackadder’s house when he wants to sell it. “You’ve really worked out your banter, haven’t you?” says the husband, impressed. “No, not really,” replies Blackadder. “This is a different thing. It’s more spontaneous and it’s called wit.” He then tells Mrs Pants that the house has “the very latest in front-wall, fresh-air orifice combined with a wide-capacity gutter installation below.” She asks, “You mean you crap out of the window?”
* Percy wears a broach made of “pure green”. Blackadder says it looks like he’s sneezed.
* The sight of Percy in his sadomasochism gear when Blackadder stages a scene to compromise the Bishop.

Episode five: Beer (13 February 1986). Blackadder’s puritanical and rich relatives, the Whiteadders, invite themselves round – on the same night that Blackadder’s hosting a drinking party…
* “Get the door,” orders Blackadder. Baldrick returns with it in his arms. “Baldrick, I would advise you to make the explanation you are about to give… phenomenally good.”
* When Blackadder fires him, Baldrick says he’s been in the family since 1532. “So’s syphilis,” says Blackadder.
* Nursie complains about the hungover Melchett’s “great and fruitsome flappy woof-woofs”.
* Blackadder needs some of Baldrick’s blood. Baldrick offers to cut off an arm. “No, a little prick should do,” says Blackadder.
* Baldrick and Percy get the giggles after finding a turnip shaped like a thingy. Baldrick says it’s ironic because he has a thingy shaped like a turnip.
* Lady Whiteadder slaps people if she doesn’t like what they say. Or if they have luxuries such as chairs.
* The fake breasts Blackadder and co wear while drinking. When he later forgets to remove his pair of what Lady Whiteadder calls “the devil’s dumplings”, he pretends they’re earmuffs.
* The Queen turns up to the party – but she’s in disguise, so Blackadder hides her in a cupboard.
* Lady Whiteadder says cold is God’s way of telling you to burn more Catholics.
* One of the revellers tells Blackadder it’s a “great booze-up” and Lady Whiteadder demands to know what he means. Blackadder has a think, which lasts a tantalising 16 seconds, then explains slowly: “My friend is a missionary, and on his last visit abroad he brought back with him the chief of a famous tribe. His name is Great Boo. He’s been suffering from sleeping sickness, and he’s obviously just woken. Because as you heard: Great Boo’s up.”
* A drunk Blackadder says he has an ostrich feather up his bottom because “Mr Ostrich put it there to keep in the little pixies.”

Episode six: Chains (20 February 1986). Blackadder and Melchett are kidnapped and held for ransom by a sadistic German prince called Ludwig…
* Baldrick says he heard an amusing story the other day. Blackadder says, “Oh, good,” then walks off.
* Blackadder is kidnapped in exactly the manner he’d just been ridiculing as being an obvious kidnap attempt.
* Held prisoner, Blackadder gets frustrated that the guard can’t understand him. “All right,” he says, defeated. “Let’s start with the basics. English is a non-inflected, Indo-European language derived from…”
* The Queen laments that Blackadder has vanished. “Like an old table,” agrees Percy. “Vanished, Lord Percy. Not varnished.”
* The prison guard and Blackadder play charades so the former can call the latter a “bastard son of a bitch.”
* “Oh, it’s a scythe!”
* Ludwig’s odd emphasis on certain words: “Please accept my apol-ogg-ees,” and so on.
* Ludwig reveals he used to pose as a waitress that Blackadder knew, Big Sally. “But I went to bed with you, didn’t I?” says Blackadder.
* While chained up, Melchett suggest a word game to kill the time. Blackadder challenges him to rearrange the words ‘face’, ‘sodding’, ‘your’ and ‘shut’.
* The Queen has a fancy-dress party and attends as her own father, Henry VIII.
* Ludwig claims he will wreak his “re-veng-ee”.
* Blackadder tells the Queen that life without her would be like a blunt pencil: pointless.

Best episode: Tough call. Maybe Beer, but all are hilarious.

Cunning: When Blackadder visits a wise woman in episode one, she says there are three cunning plans to solve his problem: kill Bob, kill himself or kill everyone. In episode four, Blackadder tells Baldrick he has a plan so cunning you could clean your teeth with it.

History: In reality, Elizabeth I reigned from 1558 to 1603. The series also namechecks explorers Christopher Columbus (c1450-1506) and Sir Francis Drake (c1540-1596), Lord High Chancellor Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Queen Mary I (1516-1558), revolutionary Watt Tyler (died 1381), priest Martin Luther (1483-1546), Anne of Cleaves (1515-1557) and Cardinal Thomas Woolsey (1473-1530). Sir Walter Raleigh (c1554-1618) appears in Potato. The final episode is spoofing the Spanish Inquisition. In the opening ep, cross-dressing gags suggest Shakespearean conventions, and the Bard himself is mentioned by name a couple of times. In Beer, the Queen paraphrases the troop-rousing speech the real Elizabeth I gave on 9 August 1588 at Tilbury (“I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” etc).

Review: After series one, the team made some huge changes. The setting was shifted up by a century or so; the lead character was made cleverer and more rakishly sexy; and out went the expensive location filming. (Other than the credit sequences, only one scene in the whole series was shot outside BBC Television Centre.) Perhaps most significantly, Rowan Atkinson stepped down from the role of co-writer and was replaced by Ben Elton, who was hot from The Young Ones and other key comedy shows of the era. It’s maybe a shame the studio sets have gone from spectacularly impressive to spectacularly pokey – seriously, Queen Elizabeth’s throne room is *tiny* – but most of these alterations help the show a great deal. Blackadder’s actions and dialogue are significantly funnier, and that’s because he’s both smarter and crueller – and Rowan Atkinson is world-class at razor-sharp sarcasm. Baldrick’s character has been shifted less. He’s not quite an imbecile, rather a man who’s had all his dignity and drive removed, but the master-and-servant dynamic is better now. Meanwhile, new regular Miranda Richardson is just knockout as the Queen. It’s a stunning performance: bonkers, deranged and amazingly inventive. In fact, all the ‘second level’ characters are much better than their series-one counterparts. (Percy continues to feel unnecessary, sadly.) There’s also notably less plotting than in The Black Adder – most episodes are set-up, gag, gag, gag, climax. Comedy rules. And there are more flashes of Young Ones-style cartoon violence, which can only be a good thing.

Nine tongues like an electric eel out of 10

The Black Adder (1983, Martin Shardlow)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Regulars: The lead character is the king’s second son, Edmund, the Duke of Edinburgh (Rowan Atkinson). He’s so embittered by his lowly standing in the family that he creates a new alter ego: the Black Adder. He has two hangers-on cum confidantes: the dim Percy, Duke of Northumberland (Tim McInnerny) and wise servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson). Atkinson goes for a weasel-like, screwed-up-face-and-whiny-voice performance, which sadly is not as funny as he thinks it is. Meanwhile, Robinson’s playing it remarkably straight and McInnerny doesn’t make much impression; neither does Edmund’s older brother, Harry, the Prince of Wales (Robert East). Edmund’s father is King Richard IV and is loud, aggressive and very, very Brian Blessedy. Queen Gertrude (Elspet Gray) is foreign and scatter-brained, and sadly underused – she’s funny, but rarely feels vital to what’s going on. An empty-headed messenger boy (David Nunn) appears in a few episodes, as does Edmund’s unwanted child bride, Princess Leia of Hungary (Natasha King). Perry Benson from You Rang, M’Lord? plays a yokel in episodes five and six, though it’s not clear if it’s meant to be the same man.

Notable guests: Peter Cook brings some blockbuster casting to the opening episode when he plays Richard III, who Edmund accidentally kills at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard then returns as a beheaded ghost to put the frighteners on Edmund. In episode two, Alex Norton appears as Scottish nobleman Dougal McAngus. A bearded Angus Deayton also gets one line as a Jumping Jew of Jerusalem. The Queen of Spain’s Beard features the stellar double act of Miriam Margolyes and Jim Broadbent as the Spanish queen, Infanta Maria Escalosa, and her translator, Don Speekingleesh. The same story includes Howard Lew Lewis from Maid Marian and her Merry Men as local man Mr Applebottom. The actor is also in episode five seemingly playing a different yokel. In episode three, Bill Wallis and David Delve play two knights who are sent to murder Edmund. Frank Finlay is the big-name guest star of episode five. Comedy double act Stephen Frost and Mark Arden appear in the same story as two dim guards, while Valentine Dyall is a member of the king’s counsel. In the final episode, Edmund forms a new gang mostly played by famous actors: Sir Wilfred Death (John Hallam), Three-Ringed Pete (Roger Sloman), Guy de Glastonbury (Patrick Malahide), Sean the Irish Bastard (Ron Cook), Friar Bellows (Paul Brooke) and Jack Large (Big Mick). In the same story, bad guy The Hawk is played by voiceover specialist Patrick Allen, while Rik Mayall crops up for an uncredited cameo (as a bonkers prisoner called Mad Gerald).

Best gags:

Episode one: The Foretelling (15 June 1983). In August 1485, Prince Edmund oversleeps and is late for the Battle of Bosworth. When he finally arrives, he mistakes the king, Richard III, for a horse thief so beheads him…
* When told that the enemy Henry Tudor will ravish her and every woman in the court, the Queen says she won’t bother getting changed.
* After the battle, Prince Harry keeps statistical totals of how many each person killed: battle averages, he calls them.
* Richard III’s head floats above his body in a prime piece of 1980s green-screen.
* “Don’t Dickie me, Duckie!”

Episode two: Born to be King (22 June 1983). In 1487, Edmund has to arrange the revelries for the King’s return from the Crusades…
* Edmund bemoans how virtuous his mother is: “She daren’t look down in case she notices her own breasts.”
* Edmund’s attempts to arrange the entertainment: “We’ve only got one act and she’s shaved her beard off.”
* Edmund says the festivities will have a spartan feel. “Greek?” asks Harry.
* When Edmund reads out a love letter of his mother’s, Percy stands behind him mouthing the words along gleefully.

Episode three: The Archbishop (29 June 1983). November 1487. A wealthy landowner leaves his fortune to the church, so the king kills the Archbishop of Canterbury for the cash, then replaces him with Edmund…
* Edmund’s ‘Black Russian’ codpiece – more or less a dildo.
* Edmund and Harry ride along on horses. Behind them, Baldrick and Percy pull a carriage.
* Edmund: “Exactly what did God do to the Sodomites?” Baldrick: “I don’t know, my lord, but I can’t imagine it was worse than what they used to do to each other.”
* Baldrick’s summation of the perks of being Archbishop: “Basically, there appears to be four major profit areas: curses, pardons, relics, and selling the sexual favours of nuns.” Edmund questions who would pay for the latter. “Foreign businessmen, other nuns…”
* Baldrick gets a splinter from holding the fragment of the cross Jesus was crucified on.
* Percy reverentially shows off that he owns a finger bone from Jesus’ corpse. Baldrick is stunned: he thought they only came in boxes of 10.

Episode four: The Queen of Spain’s Beard (6 July 1983). Richard IV has decided to marry off his son Harry to a Spanish queen… However, he’s already spoken for, so the plan moves on to Edmund.
* Harry says he’s already engaged to “Princess Leia of Hungary and the Grand Duchess Ursula of Brandenburg. And Queen Beowulfa of Iceland, and Countess Caroline of Luxembourg, Bertha of Flanders, Bertha of Brussels, Bernard of Saxe-Coburg, and Jezabel of Estonia. No, no, sorry, that should be *Betha* of Saxe-Coburg. And Jeremy of Estonia.”
* The slow-witted message boy keeps mirroring Edmund’s body language as they talk.
* The interpreter’s attempt at relating the Infanta’s flirting, putting odd emphases on almost every word.
* Baldrick’s first mooted plan (not yet cunning): to convince the Infanta that Edmund is gay. (A number of euphemisms are then trotted out: left-footer, riding side-saddle…)
* Edmund finds a local girl to marry, so he won’t have to wed the Infanta, but when the priest calls her ‘miss’, she corrects him. She’s already married.
* A terrified Baldrick is sent to sleep with the Infanta: after the bedroom door is closed, we hear the interpreter relaying her sex talk.

Episode five: Witchsmeller Persuivant (13 July 1983). Plague has struck in 1495. King Richard IV is ill, and a Witchsmeller has pointed the finger of blame at Edmund…
* The family who die from plague *instantly*, while someone’s back is turned.
* When the locals burn a witch, they also burn her cat on a tiny stake off to the side.
* During Edmund’s trial, the Witchsmeller takes a horse’s refusal to talk as it having something to hide. When it does make a sound, Harry asks, “Was that a yay or a neigh?”
* Witchsmeller: “Can you see that man standing over there?” Witness: “Which?” Witchsmeller: “That’s him!”
* The Witchsmeller asks if a witness can see the son of Satan in the room. We then see a row of onlookers, one of which has red skin and horns.

Episode six: The Black Seal (20 July 1983). St Juniper’s Day, 1498. Stripped of his title, Edmund spurns his friends and assembles a new gang so he can take his revenge…
* Three-Ringed Pete is losing an archery contest, so kills his opponent.
* Guy holds up a coach. “Did I say ‘Your money of your life’? Slip of the tongue. Your money *and* your life.”
* When we first see Jack Large, we assume he’s a giant of a man. Jack is actually the midget beating him up.
* Edmund: “All for one…” His gang: “…and each man for himself!”
* The Hawk’s torture device, which has a spike to go up the bottom, sheers to cut off the ears, axes to chop off hands, a ‘coddling grinder’ and feathers to tickle Edmund under the arms.

Best episode: The Queen of Spain’s Beard, thanks in large part to the two hilarious guest performances.

Cunning: In episode two, when Edmund says he needs a cunning plan, Baldrick says: “I have a cunning plan,” and insists it’s pretty damn cunning. (It’s to convince McAngus to stick his head down a cannon.) In the next installment, Baldrick claims he has “a cunning plan that cannot fail” – but we don’t hear it as we then cut away to two guards discussing dinner plans. Later, when they’re tied to a bonfire that’s about to be lit, Baldrick again says he has a cunning plan, but Edmund’s not interested.

History: The conceit of the series is that, once he became monarch, Henry VII (1457-1509, who came to the throne in 1485) rewrote history. Turns out, Richard III wasn’t actually a deformed maniac who imprisoned his nephews. Also, although he *was* killed at Bosworth, it wasn’t Henry Tudor’s forces that got him – he was really accidentally murdered by one of his own. After Richard III’s death, his nephew Richard IV ascended to the throne – and the series is set in this reign, which Henry later expunged from the records. As well as numerous medieval cliches, the series also satirises Thomas Becket’s 1170 murder (in episode three), 17th-century Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins (episode five) and the Robin Hood myth (episode six). The whole thing, I suppose, is based on undermining the Shakespearean take on history.

Unbroadcast pilot: In 1982, the BBC made a single trial-run episode of The Black Adder, which has never been transmitted or officially released – but is freely available on YouTube. It’s a strange beast. It’s seems to be set in Elizabethan England, although there is a king as well as a queen, neither of whom in named. It has small studio sets and no location work. Edmund is much smarter than he is in the series proper. In other words, it’s more like to the format later used in Blackadder II. The pilot has the same story as episode two, Born to be King, but there are some different actors in the regular roles: John Savident as the King, Robert Bathurst as Harry and Philip Fox as Baldrick. Sadly, many gags fall flat and the studio audience don’t seem especially impressed. At one point, Edmund and Baldrick have a discussion that involves many uses of the word cunning.

Review: Written by Richard Curtis and star Rowan Atkinson – they cooked up the idea while working together on Not The Nine O’Clock News – this just doesn’t feel right. In retrospect, many things are ‘just off’. The whole series certainly looks impressive, with big studio sets and plenty of location filming (although, the Battle of Bosworth is dramatised without the luxury of extras!). But sadly that just means more empty space where the laughs should be. Significantly, the best moments tend to come with small groups in small rooms, such as Edmund, Baldrick and Percy discussing religious relics – a scene that also pushes the show into more deliberately anachronistic territory. Another big problem is that all the characters – except maybe Baldrick, ironically – are stupid. This doesn’t make for much variety and the comedy generally lacks bite. Considering the funnier dynamic used in later series, neither Edmund nor Baldrick are as good as they could be. It’s easy to see why big changes were made for series two…

Six summers of sweet content out of 10