BLACK ADDER (TV SERIES) - DVD review

...when it's on target, which is most of the time, it's as funny as any television show ever made.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"I have a cunning plan, m'lord."

As I've mentioned time and again, comedy is a funny thing. What appeals to one person, what knocks him out with laughter, may leave another person cold. I have friends who think "Blackadder" is the funniest television show they've ever seen; I have other friends who absolutely can't stand the thing. For me, the four BBC seasons of "Blackadder" (or "The Black Adder" as we know the character from the first season) are among the most humorous programs ever to grace the airwaves. So it's a delight to find that BBC Video have remastered the twenty-four primary episodes and included almost all of the special programs, interviews, commentaries, and documentaries ever made, many of them brand new, in this six-disc, 2009 "Ultimate Edition" box set.

Series star and co-writer Rowen Atkinson is among the few actors to have created not one but two well-loved yet completely opposite television characters: four generations of Edmund Blackadder and Mr. Bean. Yes, it's that Rowen Atkinson, whose later Mr. Bean not only conquered television but became a major big-screen movie star. Yet the characters and comedy styles of "Blackadder" and "Mr. Bean" couldn't be more different. Where "Bean" is virtually a silent comedy, with Atkinson harking back to the likes of Chaplin and Keaton and almost never uttering a word, "Blackadder" relies on verbal wit above all. It's Edmund Blackadder's acerbic tongue and continual put-downs that make the programs funny. Indeed, it is Atkinson's demonstrated ability to excel in both physical and spoken humor that always made me hope he would replace Peter Sellers in the role of Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Instead, Hollywood went with Steve Martin, totally unsuited for "The Pink Panther" movies. Yet Martin attracted filmgoers despite his inappropriateness. What do I know?

"The path of my life is strewn with cowpats from the Devil's own satanic herd."

Part of the "Blackadder" appeal is its unique approach to the subject matter. Whereas most sitcoms simply repeat the same formula year after year with the same characters, Atkinson decided that each of the four years of the series would see a new generation of Blackadder. Season one, which aired in 1983, features the first in the line of characters who would continue throughout the years. He's Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh, and the year is 1485 on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field. King Richard III (Peter Cook) is about to lead the English army against the forces of his rival, Henry Tudor. It's interesting that the series would begin and end with a war.

In this version of the story, Edmund accidentally (and with no one watching) lops off Richard's head, inadvertently making his bellowing, boisterous father (Brian Blessed) the new king and Edmund a prince. The thing is, Edmond's father doesn't know Edmund is alive; he keeps asking who that strange little man is at dinner, and Edmond's brother, Harry (Robert East), has to remind his father that it's his youngest son, Edmund.

It's in season one that we also meet two characters who will become running co-stars in the series: Tony Robinson as Baldrick, Edmund's dim-witted servant, and Tim McInnerny as Percy, Edmund's equally dim-witted friend and fellow nobleman. They may be idiots but they are completely delightful idiots, with Baldrick the unending butt of Black Adder's barbs and boots. It's also here that Edmund, a weaselly little wimp, tries to make himself more significant by donning the nickname "The Black Adder," although it takes him a while for him to get it right. At first, he thinks the "The Black Vegetable" might do the trick.

"Shut up, Balders. You'd laugh at a Shakespeare comedy."

With the second season, "Black-Adder II," following several years later in 1986, we find a descendent of Prince Edmund living in sixteenth-century London, this time as Lord Black-Adder. He's no longer a prince, however; he's an impoverished noble who, luckily, is still on good terms with the court, an especial favorite of a young, airheaded Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson). We also see a greater transformation in this Black-Adder than in any other generation: From a brainless, witless wimp with a silly haircut and an even sillier hat, the sixteen-century Lord Black-Adder has developed into a sophisticated, self-confident, acid-tongued rogue, with a dashing appearance.

One of Baldrick's descendents, also named Baldrick (Robinson throughout), continues to wait on Edmond and take his usual abuse. And a descendent of Percy (McInnerny) continues to be his friend, heaven knows why. Stephen Fry joins the cast as the pompous Lord Melchett, counselor to the Queen, and Patsy Byrne is the Queen's goofy nursemaid, Nursie. In an occasional role, Rik Mayall plays the flashy and sexy hero Lord Flasheart, who can make a woman pregnant by looking at her.

"Something wrong, Mr. B?"
"Oh, something's always wrong, Balders.... The fact that I'm not a millionaire aristocrat, with the sexual capacity of a rutting rhino, is a constant niggle."

Season three, "BlackAdder the Third," aired in 1987, finds the latest Mr. Edmund BlackAdder an advisor to the Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie) in the late eighteenth century. Alas, the BlackAdders have lost their title altogether by this time, and Edmund must do what he can to swindle his block-headed employer out of everything he can get. As the first episode opens, BlackAdder is stealing the Prince's socks and selling them. The Prince laments his missing footwear, saying "Socks are like sex: Tons of it about, and I never seem to get any."

News: We have never heard Baldrick's first name mentioned before because he's so dense he doesn't know what it is. When BlackAdder asks him about it, he says "It might be 'Sod Off,'" because that's what his friends used to call him; they'd say "Sod off, Baldrick."

Stephen Fry plays the Duke of Wellington, and various of the regulars come and go.

"Leave me alone, Baldrick. If I wanted to talk to a vegetable, I would have bought one at the market."

In the final season, 1989, we find Atkinson as Captain Edmund Blackadder, fighting in the First World War. Not only is this one of the funniest of the four seasons, it's also one of the most satiric (was there ever a more pointless war?) and one of the most poignant. The final scene of the final episode is heartbreaking.

It also brings all the old cast members together at one time or another. Tony Robinson is Private S. Baldrick; Hugh Laurie is Lt. George Colthurst St. Barleigh; Stephen Fry is General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett; Tim McInnerny is Captain Kevin Darling ("Come here, Darling"); Miranda Richardson is Nurse Mary; and Rik Mayall is again Lord Flasheart.

Serving up a new concoction for dinner in the trenches, Baldrick explains how he fixed the meal: "You marinate the rat in a fresh puddle."
"For how long?"
"Until it drowns."
He calls his other rodent speciality "rat au van": rat that's been run over by a van.

And in the final moments of the final episode, just before Capt. Blackadder and his men are to go over the top and charge the enemy in a full frontal assault, Baldrick has a plan to avoid sure death:
"I have a plan, sir."
"Really, Baldrick? A cunning and subtle one?"
"Yes, sir."
"As cunning as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University?"
"Yes, sir."
"Well, I'm afraid it's too late. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of here by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman 'round here?"

"Black Adder" is the kind of show that might just as well have worked on the radio as on TV because the humor is almost entirely spoken. Which is what made Atkinson's silent "Mr. Bean" so remarkable several years later, as it was pure television.

Trivia reminder: According to the opening titles, over the four seasons of the show Edmund's family appellation evolved from the nickname "The Black Adder" to "Black-Adder" to "BlackAdder" to "Blackadder." You could win a bet.

Video:
Just because the BBC remastered the series from original program elements doesn't mean the results are going to rival "Lawrence of Arabia." The fact is, there's quite a lot of variation in the picture quality, especially in the early years. With the exception of the special program "Blackadder: Back & Forth" and the extra features on disc six, which are all in 1.78:1 widescreen, the dimensions of the four seasons of the main series are in a standard 1.33:1 broadcast ratio.

The first season looks rather dull and faded, even remastered, with colors drained of life. Maybe it's appropriate to the era, so it probably doesn't matter. As the seasons progress, so do the hues liven up, although you'll notice some instances of color flares in more than a few scenes, particularly noticeable in shots where people are wearing armour. Definition varies, too, from very soft to reasonably sharp. By the time of the fourth season, "Blackadder Goes Forth," the color has become deeper and the object delineation more precise.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural sound in the first three seasons is nondescript. About the best one can say about it is that the backgrounds are quiet, and the midrange is smooth and natural. When we come to the fourth season, we get two-channel stereo, although it's brighter and edgier stereo than the mono was. This makes the laugh track more annoying than ever.

Extras:
BBC Video present the four seasons of "Black Adder" along with a slew of extras on six discs. The first four discs contain the four seasons, with six episodes per disc. In addition, the four season discs contain "Footnotes to History," text information on the real history of the times; scene selections within each episode; and audio commentaries on select episodes from star Rowan Atkinson and producer John Lloyd, writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, and co-stars Tony Robinson and Tim McInnerny. English is the only language choice, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

On disc five we get four special programs, starring most of the old cast. "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" (1988) is a forty-three minute special with Atkinson playing Ebenezer Blackadder in a variation on the old Dickens' tale; "Blackadder: Back & Forth" (1999) is a thirty-three minute special billed as the final chapter in the Blackadder saga; "Blackadder: The Cavalier Years" (1988) is a fifteen-minute special; and "Baldrick's Video Diary" is a thirty-minute behind-the-scenes affair with Tony Robinson.

On disc six we get the 2008 documentary "Blackadder Rides Again," sixty minutes; the featurette "Costumes Revisited," ten minutes with Miranda Richardson, Patsy Byrne, Tony Robinson, and Tim McInnerny; and extended interviews with Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, Tony Robinson, and Stephen Fry. Laurie, incidentally, speaks from Hollywood on the set of "House," and it's a little odd to see him as the stubble-faced American Dr. Gregory House, yet speaking in his normal English accent.

All six discs come packaged in a handsome book-like affair with six plastic inner sleeves, further enclosed in a cardboard slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
As I suggested at the beginning, "Black Adder" may be an acquired taste. Certainly, when it's on target, which is most of the time, it's as funny as any television show ever made. And even when it's not quite spot on, it's still more entertaining than 99% of what passes for TV comedy these days in Britain or America. In any case, this "Ultimate Edition" provides just about everything ever done with the series and more, which should delight old fans and new converts alike.

"Black Adder, Black Adder, with many a cunning plan.
Black Adder, Black Adder, you horrid little man."

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
5
Extras
10
Film Value
8