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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

BLACKADDER REMASTERED: THE ULTIMATE EDITION

I've enjoyed many British comedy programs since discovering MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS and THE GOODIES way back in 1974/75 (or somewhere thereabouts) and have collected my favorites since they became available on VHS tapes, eventually replacing them as formats periodically changed. I've been very displeased by the treatment of several of the classics, most notably the fact that the MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS discs are missing some sketches for reasons that are as yet unexplained (which was also true of the VHS tapes), RED DWARF having many of its effects sequences pointlessly redone in CGI (thus robbing the show of some of its cheesy charm), and the availability of only a tiny sampling of THE GOODIES on either side of the Atlantic, so when I asked for BLACKADDER REMASTERED: THE ULTIMATE EDITION for Christmas, I anticipated it with a certain sense of impending doom.

For those unfamiliar with it, BLACKADDER is rightly considered one of the very best of the British sitcoms, as well as regularly topping critics' lists as one of the best British television series of any kind (well, maybe not the first run, but I'll get to that shortly), and when I stumbled across it on PBS in 1988 I was knocked out by its terrific acting, sharp scripts, and its overall mean-spirited bad attitude. Intended by its creators to be in no way comparable to FAWLTY TOWERS, BLACKADDER eventually achieved that goal and now commands a fierce fan base.

Anyway, Christmas Day rolled around and I got the boxed set — thereby relegating my previous BLACKADDER DVDs to my trade-in pile for a certain video store in lower Manhattan — and watched it over the past week, happily revisiting some of my favorite comedy and enjoying several of the extras (which were absent from the previous DVD incarnation). What follows is one hardcore BLACKADDER fan's assessment of this latest release, so strap yourselves in for a twisted history lesson that literally takes the viewer from 1485 through 1917, as well as the distant past and the far future.

NOTE: in the UK a television season is referred to as a "series" and when it comes to sitcoms, more often than not a given series runs about six episodes. There are exceptions to this rule, but them's the basics.

THE BLACK ADDER (1983)

Prince Edmund, aka "the Black Adder."

Taking place in 1485, near the end of the Middle Ages, this first BLACKADDER series tells the secret history of what allegedly transpired following Richard III's accidental assassination during the Battle of Bosworth Field at the hands of the weak and cowardly Prince Edmund (Rowan Atkinson), the despised second son of Richard IV (Brian Blessed). When Richard IV assumes the throne, Edmund dubs himself "the Black Adder" and attempts to improve his lot, a futile quest if ever there was one, especially when aided by the moronic Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerney) and grubby manservant Baldrick (Tony Robinson). While this series set up the basic template of BLACKADDER as a sitcom that used British history as its playground, THE BLACK ADDER is merely mediocre at best, largely due to it not having sorted out all the elements that would later make it work to such great and classic effect. This incarnation of Edmund is a pathetic, unlikeable weasel of a man who displays none of the intelligence and cunning of his successors, while Baldrick is clearly the brains of the operation despite his vastly lower hierarchical status, and that dynamic between the two does not work. THE BLACK ADDER does have it's moments though, including Brian Blessed chewing up the scenery as Richard IV, Peter Cook as Richard III in the first episode, Miriam Margolyes as the extremely horny Spanish infanta, Edmund being accused of being a witch, and the final episode, in which Edmund finally becomes outright evil and enacts a plot to kill his father with the aid of the six most evil men in England. Nonetheless, critical and audience reaction to THE BLACK ADDER was tepid at best and if not for costs being cut and an overhaul of the concept, this would have been it for the Blackadder dynasty.

BLACKADDER II (1986)

Given a reprieve after some much-needed changes were made, BLACKADDER II hit the ground running some two years after the first series and became an instant classic that has not dated one bit in the twenty-four years since it originally aired. Possessed of an energy that the original series utterly lacked, BLACKADDER II benefited from the replacement of co-creator Rowan Atkinson as co-scripter with Ben Elton, a terrifically talented comedy writer whose work on THE YOUNG ONES is worthy of its own post on this blog. Paired with series co-creator Richard Curtis, the two were a humorous force to be reckoned with and their scripts overflow with delightfully scabrous wordplay. The Blackadder name somehow manages to live on into the Elizabethan era (1558-1603), despite Prince Edmund and the entire royal court being quite decisively killed off at the previous series' end, and is now an actual surname rather than a would-be dashing/sinister alias. Edmund Blackadder is now a Lord in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson), but he is in every way more capable and intelligent than Prince Edmund. Lord Blackadder is a fantastically cynical and shrewd individual who oozes a sense of superiority and confidence because, frankly, he deserves to; everyone around him is literally an idiot, an asshole or insane, so his attitude is indeed well-earned. The regulars this time around include an hilariously dumbed-down and endearingly disgusting Baldrick, the ever-useless Lord Percy, the smarmily sycophantic Lord Melchett (Stepehn Fry), and the most likely borderline-retarded or functionally demented Nursie (Patsy Byrne), the queen's childhood nursemaid. And then there's Queenie herself, a grown woman of immense power whose level of mental/emotional development is perhaps equal to that of a four-year-old.

Lord Blackadder sucks up to Queenie (the sublime Miranda Richardson), the absolute monarch of Britain and the woman who could have his head forcibly separated from his neck at her slightest whim.

It is a major understatement to say that BLACKADDER II would have been a completely different series if not for Miranda Richardson's hilariously petulant and utterly bizarre interpretation of the Virgin Queen, and I dare say that if not for her and the tweaks made to Blackadder himself and Baldrick, I would not be writing this. Richardson's work here has been the subject of endless commentary and praise, so I'll keep it short and simple and just say she's fucking hilarious. As for the episodes themselves, the weakest of the six may be "Head" and it's not even bad by any standard, so we're talking about a solid winner of a series. The highlights are too numerous to go into here, but moments that immediately leap to my mind would be Blackadder's disastrous attempt at earning money by pimping out Baldrick to rough trade at the docks,

The world's oldest profession at it's lowest.

Blackadder's scandalous "homosexual" attraction to and romance with "Bob" (quite obviously a cross-dressing woman, who usurps Baldrick's position as manservant in order to avoid supporting her aged father by working as a prostitute),

"Hot Sex Madrigal in My Tights": Blackadder finds himself unnaturally attracted to his new manservant, "Bob" (Gabrielle Glaister), and the feeling is mutual.

fan-fave Doctor Who Tom Baker as the probably mad and literally legless Captain Redbeard Rum,

"You have a woman's hands!!!": everyone's favorite Doctor Who, Tom Baker, as mad Captain Rum.

and of course Rik (THE YOUNG ONES) Mayall's unforgettable turn as Lord Flashheart, a man so egotistically macho and completely irresistible to women that he is for all intents and purposes an anthropomorphized penis.

"She's got a tongue like an electric eel, and she likes the taste of a MAN'S tonsils!": Rik Mayall as the one and only Lord Flashheart, an uber-masculine swashbuckler who self-admittedly feels better in a dress.

Simply put, this is a landmark in British comedy and stands as one of the finest sitcoms ever produced. In my opinion, it's between this and BLACKADDER THE THIRD as the best run of the lot.

BLACKADDER THE THIRD (1987)

While many consider BLACKADDER II as the finest hour of the whole BLACKADDER cycle (not undeservedly by a long shot), it was BLACKADDER THE THIRD that I first encountered and it remains my favorite some twenty-two years after I first saw it. Jumping forward in time to and playing very fast and loose with the dates of the Regency period of British history (1811-1820, but here occurring roughly some thirty years or so earlier; don't ask) during which Mad King George was too far gone to competently govern and was thus succeeded by his son, also named George, Blackadder finds his class status reduced from that of a courtier to the colossally brain-dead Prince Regent's butler. With Baldrick still by his side and perhaps more sub-humanly repulsive/lovable than ever, Edmund's reduced status only forces him to use his razor-sharp wits to make tons of cash out of easy marks and get the better of all who may be ill-advised to fuck with him in any way (sometimes fatally), and it is in this incarnation that he is at his most clever and downright sociopathic (not to mention suave). Murder, political corruption and literal highway robbery are par for the course, all equaling another six-episode run without a dud in the bunch; if any of these could be considered weak, I'd name the Scarlet Pimpernel episode, "Nob and Nobility," for that honor, but much like the previous series' "Head," it only suffers because it's just a tad less brilliant than its contemporaries. The best episodes in this third series would be — in my humble opinion — "Ink and Incapability" (due to various mishaps, Blackadder must rewrite the entire sole manuscript of Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictionary prototype or face a violent death), the piss-yourself-hilarious "Sense and Senility" (a chronicle of what happens when the "thick as a whale omelet" Prince Regent hires two actors to teach him how to craft a more heroic image, and what befalls the thespians when they make the grave error of insulting Blackadder one time too many),

Foppish asshole actors Kenarick and Mossop (Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Connor), on a course to finding out in the hardest way why it is an extremely bad idea to fuck with Edmund Blackadder.

and "Duel and Duality," the series' final episode, in which we are treated to Stephen Fry's incredible Duke of Wellington, a fascist asshole of the highest order whose vendetta of honor against the Prince Regent leads to an unexpected turn in Blackadder's fortunes.

Blackadder, impersonating the Prince Regent, in an audience with vengeance-driven fascist asshole the Duke of Wellington (played to hilarious perfection by the inimitable Stephen Fry).

Coming in at an almost undetectably close second to BLACKADDER II in terms of overall quality, BLACKADDER THE THIRD is a study in comedy and I would be egregiously remiss if I didn't single out Hugh Laurie's stunning performance as George, the Prince Regent, for my most heartfelt praise.

Fuck Dr. House: Hugh Laurie's Prince George, one of the all-time greatest comedic performances in television history and the element that made me a BLACKADDER fan for life.

Now an international star for his work on HOUSE (which is quite good), Laurie's performance as the staggeringly stupid and randy George is a joy to behold and he steals every episode. Fantastically dim, it's amazing to see George work in concert with the none-too-bright Baldrick as the two actors portraying them somehow deliver completely differing takes on their characters' total lack of intelligence (despite Baldrick's oft-uttered proclamation of "I have a cunning plan"). If anyone out there knows Hugh Laurie, please tell him his George made me an admirer for life and that he's as important to the success of BLACKADDER THE THIRD as Miranda Richardson was to BLACKADDER II, which is no small complement.

BLACKADDER: THE CAVALIER YEARS (1988)

A fifteen-minute segment done for Live Aid, this piece is rather uninspired and feels like it was done solely out of contractual obligation (which was not the case). Taking place in 1648 at the ass-end of the British Civil War, "The Cavalier Years" depicts Blackadder and Baldrick's futile attempts at keeping King Charles I (Stephen Fry) from losing his head to Oliver Cromwell (Warren Clarke, aka Dim from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE; previously seen in BLACKADDER THE THIRD's "Amy and Amiability") and his Roundheads. Speaking as a BLACKADDER junkie, I can honestly say you'll miss nothing if you choose to pass on this one.

BLACKADDER'S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1988)

Surprisingly not a scene from the new Alejandro Jodorowsky movie.

Unique in the annals of holiday offerings is this gem of a Dickens spoof that refreshingly breaks with Christmas special tradition and offers no trace of anything even remotely heartwarming or treacly, instead teaching us that the best way to succeed in life is by being a complete and utter bastard. Ebenezer Blackadder, "the kindest man in England" (!!!) is mercilessly taken advantage of by all and sundry (except Baldrick), leaving him with Jack shit on Christmas Eve. Just like in the Dickens original, the Ghost of Christmas Past (Robbie Coltrane) arrives at bedtime, but this Blackadder is such a sweetheart that the ghost has no reason to enlighten him with a look back at his past. Instead, the spectre shows Blackadder examples of what a bunch of human vermin his ancestors were and commends him for being their polar opposite, but Blackadder comes to realize that he'd be much better off if he stopped being such a doormat and embraced the self-serving evil of his predecessors (specifically his incarnations from BLACKADDER II and BLACKADDER THE THIRD). The final nail in the coffin of Ebenezer Blackader's overwhelming goodness is a glimpse into the distant future, in which... Well, let's just say that it's both bizarre and funny, as the image seen above may get across. By far the best of the BLACKADDER one-shots, this should not be missed and deserves to run annually as an alternative to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

BLACKADDER GOES FORTH (1989)

This final full series is set during WWI and is greatly beloved by its native audience, but the nature of its tone has always struck me as especially bleak and depressing, despite there being funny scripts and fine performances all around. Blackadder is now an army captain in the trenches of WWI, joined by Baldrick as a private and George as a lieutentant, and the main thrust of this series is the cynical cad's uniformly-futile attempts at being re-assigned out of the trenches and the certain death that awaits him, efforts repeatedly thwarted by the mad General Melchett (Stephen Fry turning in another stellar performance) and his assistant, Captain Darling (Tim McInnerney). It's all very entertaining, but the re-use of jokes from previous series — particularly the return of Bob and Flashheart, two great one-shot characters whose resurrections amount to little — speaks to a certain lack of ideas on the part of the writers. The one thing that truly sets this this series apart is its downbeat attitude and famous, devastating/poetic conclusion, and if not for those aspects BLACKADDER GOES FORTH would be seen as a somewhat middling affair, though considerably better than THE BLACK ADDER. Considering the heaps of praise piled upon BLACKADDER GOES FORTH, I know I'm pretty much alone in that assessment, but look at it objectively when compared to the whole run and you just might join me in my opinion.

BLACKADDER: BACK & FORTH (1999)

This thirty-four minute film made some ten years after BLACKADDER GOES FORTH is likely to be the final installment — especially since some of the cast are now way too old and/or fat to play the familiar roles convincingly — and as finales go it all ends on a fun note, although it is admittedly less sharp than the series at its best. With the Millennium mere hours away, the present-day Blackadder, now apparently a lord, informs his dinner guests (all apparently descendants of characters from previous series) that he has a time machine built from plans by Leonardo da Vinci and bets each of them ten-thousand pounds that he can travel back in time (assisted by Baldrick, who constructed the craft) and return with any item from history that they may request. Intending his claims as a practical joke, Blackadder and Baldrick enter the time machine — which looks like a cheap prop that would barely past muster on 1970's-era episode of DOCTOR WHO — that they have stocked with items that could pass as the artifacts his guests suggested, but what neither Blackadder nor his servant anticipated was that the combination of da Vinci's genius and Baldrick's stupidity would be a means of fully-functional time travel. What ensues finds the pair bouncing throughout time while trying to make their way home, bringing them face-to-face with some of their own ancestors,

Blackadder — "Blackaddicus" — and Baldrick in their Roman Empire-era incarnations.

as well as an assortment of historical notables and in the finale establishing what may be the ultimate and inevitable place for Blackadder in Britain's (and perhaps the world's) history. Though not a classic, this film is nonetheless good, brisk fun and benefits from being only slightly longer than a half-hour in length. Most filmmakers would have stretched this to around an hour, especially when considering the scope of the piece, but that creative decision was wisely not made.

The rest of BLACKADDER REMASTERED: THE ULTIMATE EDITION is rounded out with a few commentaries from the cast, writers and producer and some minor behind the scenes tidbits, but also included is the 2008 documentary BLACKADDER RIDES AGAIN. The documentary traces the complete history of BLACKADDER, interviews all of the key contributors and is definitely of interest to fans. So the bottom line of all this is that BLACKADDER REMASTERED: THE ULTIMATE EDITION is a fully-loaded boxed set that's certain to please fans, for whom this is a must-have that could only be improved by including the book of all the scripts from the four main series — BLACKADDER: THE WHOLE DAMN DYNASTY 1485-1987 (2000, Penguin) — and having Blackadder himself show up and deliver it at your doorstep. After which he unceremoniously stabs you and bemoans your worthlessness and stupidity. Worth every penny of it's $54.99 price tag on Amazon, this boxed set comes with my HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

5 comments:

John Bligh said...

Couldn't agree with you more about BLACKADDER GOES FORTH... I've only seen it once and frankly, that was enough. It was mostly a very depressing retread with the worst downer ending this side of EASY RIDER or NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

That Christmas special definitely deserves classic status.

Satyrblade said...

The remorseless talent Brits have for making comedy out of misery has many hallmarks, but Blackadder may be its apotheosis (with the potential rivalry of Monty Python and the work of English-ized Yank Terry Gilliam). Of the many things I adore about British TV, the sheer balls (bollocks?) of its creators and stars probably ranks at the top of the heap.

Brit TV goes where its pussified US counterpart wouldn't dream of going. With the occasional exceptions of South Park and certain HBO series like Deadwood, The Sopranos and Rome (the latter of which was co-produced with the BBC), American TV just won't go near subjects that Brits tackle with gusto. Sandi and I just watched Torchwood: Children of Earth, and although it's not by any means a comedy, I was amazed by how witty, dqark and emotionally harrowing it was for a TV show. US TV has rarely come close to that, and I can't think of anything even remotely resembling Blackadder on American TV.

Chris T said...

Damn you, Bunche! Now I'm seriously considering forking out my hard earned for this set of shows that I've watched hundreds of times already... :-)

I quite like Black Adder Goes Forth. It has that all pervasive sense of doom that the others lack: there's really no way Edmund's gonna talk his way out of the WWI meat grinder.

Deacon Blue said...

I haven't seen any Black Adder episodes since college (and I'm 41 now). But all four series are now in my Netflix queue now so that I can both catch up and fill in the many gaps (since I never did see any series of the four all the way through.

Also reminds me that I should add some Tom Baker "Doctor Who" to my queue.

Do you have any idea if it's possible to find "Blake's 7" in any form on DVD (assuming you're familiar with it at all)? I loved that show and sort of think of it as the predecessor of "Farscape" in many ways. I would kill to revisit it on video...

Monstermaster13 said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, I love the Blackadder series - I have the ultimate edition dvd boxset and am quite enjoying it.

I like the third series est of all as well as the fourth one and Blackadder II, also I love thee christmas carol and Blackadder: Back and Fourth.