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.
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…
* 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