Monday, November 20, 2017

Ranking the Blackadder episodes

No special occasion this time (we just passed the 30th anniversary of the underdog-favourite third series?) Here's what I could be bothered to write about The Top 27 Blackadder Episodes (plus extras) when I watched through them all again a few years back. (When my wife isn't interested in watching something with me, I like to talk to an imaginary penpal).

Newly shuffled into an approximate ranking of best to worst, because that took minimal extra effort and it's an unhealthy preoccupation.

Key and Keyritique:

The Black Adder (1983)
Blackadder II (1985)
Blackadder the Third (1987)
Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)

27. Witchsmeller Pursuivant

This is a pretty clear contender for the worst episode of the whole series, though I'm sure it has its contrarian advocates. I remembered finding the trial scenes very dull the first time I sat through it, and I think it's because so much of it relies on you finding their uninspired parody of Matthew Hopkins hilarious enough to endure for many minutes on end.

Outside of those scenes, there is at least a very nice looking plague village that looks disproportionately expensive for the relevance of those scenes to the story, and the oppressive music helps with the Hammer/Amicus horror atmosphere. But the characters feel out of character even by series one standards, and the scenes of weird magic and pointless cutaways feel like they're just imitating The Young Ones without success.
- "Only this morning, in the courtyard, I saw a horse with two heads and two bodies!"
- "Two horses standing next to each other?"
- "Yes, I suppose it could have been" - Percy and Edmund

26. The Queen of Spain's Beard

I felt like I was getting into the series at last and accepting it on its own terms, but then they fell back on cringeworthy gags about 'hilariously' undesirable women and flamboyant homosexuals lol. The audience are a weird bunch, not responding to many of the best lines but loving the broader stuff. When that weird ending arrives, there isn't much laughter from either direction.
"Percy, in the end you are about as much use to me as a hole in the head. An affliction with which you must be familiar, never actually having had a brain" - Edmund

25. Blackadder Back & Forth

I hadn't watched this millennium special since it originally aired, whenever that was, and it wasn't as bad as I remembered. It's actually quite a nice finale after you're worked through the series, which the BBC invited us to do many times during the 90s (apart from that first series they didn't really like to talk about), even if its adventure plot and sci-fi themes aren't necessarily going to appeal to fans of the historical sitcom.

All the familiar faces from series two to four show up (there was no first series, shh), as do the laboured similes, anti-French sentiment, compulsory turnip shout-out and a couple of cunning plans. In fact, for something that looks to be aiming at a broader audience with its Jurassic Park dinosaurs and cheaper gags than usual, it does weirdly rely on brand familiarity by plonking us back in Queenie's court. Even Blackadder Hall is a reference to the obscure 'The Cavalier Years,' unless they just didn't realise they'd used the name before.

It was undeniably nice to get a final outing with these characters, but this will only ever be supplementary to the classics.
"If history has taught us anything, it is that the story of man is one long round of death and torture" - Lord Edmund Blackadder

24. Born to Be King

Much of the script from the pilot is re-used, and the episode becomes noticeably funnier when that happens. Despite the change of setting, not many tweaks were needed, with the Queen's birthday celebrations now being a celebration for the King's return, though the weasly Edmund feels like much less of a match for his Scottish rival now that he's got the proto-Bean thing going on.

After the Black Adder's proclamations last time, he's certainly taking his time to get around to those plans of domination, spending most of his time willingly going along with his thankless manual labour duties, so there isn't as much of a throughline to this series as I'd remembered and hoped. Never mind, the scenery still looks nice. Let's enjoy the budget while it lasts.
"As the good Lord said, love thy neighbour as thyself. Unless he's Turkish, in which case, kill the bastard!" - Richard IV

23. The Foretelling

Since we couldn't all be smart enough to be born in time for the original airing of this rarely repeated series, The Black Adder can't help being discussed as the oddball of the bunch, though I did try to restrict that confusion to this first episode. Unfortunately, since I always try to do that every time I go back through this series once a decade, I always feel quite uncomfortable watching this, not yet being able to separate the slimy, whiny Edmund from his more cunning descendants or rubbish Baldrick from hilarious Baldrick. Percy just about gets away with it, though I'm not really sure what his character is supposed to be since the ensemble is all equally stupid on occasion.

On the plus side, all the location shooting looks splendid, as long as you're used to the old BBC film look, and that's how I mainly got through this troubling experience. I was also pleased that such a fittingly black tone has been established from the onset. I'm sure I'll settle in soon - the relentlessly bellowing Brian Blessed is pretty funny.
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Consign their parts most private to a Rutland tree!" - Richard III

22. The Archbishop

Blackadder is coming into shape as Edmund is shown for the first time to be shrewd and less moronic than those around him, though that isn't much of a challenge. This was also the first episode to really make me laugh, as Baldrick runs through the lists of pardons, curses and fraudulent relics they can make money flogging to the gullible devout, as well as spice racks and other tat allegedly made by the young Christ during his carpentry days.

I wasn't immune to the cheap laugh of Edmund's disturbing codpiece display either, which is sufficient evidence alone to show those defendants of the first series that the knob gags didn't only come along when Ben Elton came aboard. The Sacred Appendage Compendium Party Pack may end up being my favourite line of the series, but there's still time.
"The thing about Heaven, is that Heaven is for people who like the sort of things that go on in Heaven. Like, uh, well, singing, talking to God, watering pot plants..." - Edmund

21. The Black Seal

I've always held this final episode of the first run in a higher regard than its predecessors, and I suspect that's partly for the feeling of relief that the difficult early period is over. I've tried to convince myself that Edmund ends the series well on the way to being as scheming as his future descendants, but I'm probably trying too hard to reconcile the narrative. It would have made for some nice closure if they'd at least brought Henry VII back to claim the vacant throne and get started rewriting history, but it's quite a packed episode as it is.

There are so many one-time characters introduced that there's sadly not much room for the regulars, meaning Baldrick and Percy barely get anything to do, though Edmund does try to make up for it by launching a tirade of insults against the latter before they part company for good. In this lifetime, at least.
"You ride a horse rather less well than another horse would, your brain would make a grain of sand look large and ungainly, and the part of you that can't be mentioned, I am reliably informed by women around the court, wouldn't be worth mentioning even if it could be" - Edmund

20. Beer

I assume there's consensus on this being the weakest of series two, but I thought I'd best double check. The excess of puerile smut makes it even less rewarding on this side of adolescence.

It says something about the script when the simplistic "get the door" is by far its stand-out moment, but it's all in the delivery. Not even Hugh Laurie can redeem this drunken, flatulent riff on the double date.
"Cold is God's way of telling us to burn more Catholics" - Lady Whiteadder

19. Ink and Incapability

After a deeply satirical episode, this time there's an over-abundance of smart-arse linguistic and literary gags to put off the casual viewers in a different way and consequently win some awards at last. Even though I'm much more at home in these fields than in 18th-century politics, I find all the laboured similes a trifle grating. Even the characters are telling each other to stop it by the end.
"It's the most pointless book since How to Learn French was translated into French" - Mr. Blackadder

18. Corporal Punishment

It didn't take long for the devious Blackadder to be caught disobeying orders and to rile up his General, but considering Melchett's sanity and the fact that this is an episodic sitcom, there won't be any lasting damage to their relationship.

It's certainly funnier than the last time they did a trial, but it's still my least favourite of the final batch, maybe because it spends so much time away from the oddly comforting dugout. And I do miss Blackadder's character having more to him than all-encompassing sarcasm.
"If I had a rope I'd put it round my neck and bally well hang myself until it really hurt" - Lieutenant George

17. Blackadder's Christmas Carol

This perfectly fitting Christmas special is gimmicky in all the right ways, with plenty of gifts for fans. The first time they've explicitly connected the Blackadder genealogy, we're treated to fitting new material based in series two and three (series one was already largely forgotten, and they evidently preferred it to stay that way) as well as a slightly less funny and downright weird glimpse of the far future that I remember freaked me out a bit as a child. No teaser of the as-yet-unconceived Blackadder Goes Forth of course, they're not magic.

It's a bit confounding at first to deal with a kindly, humanitarian Blackadder before his descent, though even when he's being nice, he manages to be witty about it. The longer running time is mainly spent on a lengthy procession of chancers taking advantage of Blackadder's misplaced generosity and then getting their comeuppance one-by-one at the end.
"Mr. Baldrick, I guarantee that if there's one thing liable to stop Santa coming down the chimney, it's your sock waiting for him at the end of it" - Ebeneezer Blackadder

16. Captain Cook

It's one of those eternally enduring questions: is the final series the best series? It's certainly the most talked about, and such a pillar of satire that it can be hard to look beyond that. But try, and there's a whole world of juvenile innuendos and laboured similes to enjoy and endure.

Aside from Stephen Fry returning as a character whose resemblance to the old Melchett is in name and face only, the most notable addition to the cast this time is Tim McInnerny as Darling (that joke hasn't got old quite yet). It's such a departure from Percy that I didn't even recognise him as a kid until I read the photo captions in my script book and realised they were the bally same chap.

Considering how this series is going to end up, this is a suprisingly light-hearted opener that's all jolly japes as usual. The looming spectre of Death doesn't feel particularly tangible yet, as Blackadder & co. sneak out of the trenches with little trouble to avoid their certain fate. Or delay it, at least.
"Permission to shout 'bravo' at an annoyingly loud volume, sir?" - Lieutenant George

15. Chains

The tradition of grand, fatal finales continues, incorporating some spectacular multilingual set-pieces and a healthy dose of racism against our European neighbours. I can't say that the defeat of the guards and the profane charades are still as funny as on the first several viewings, but I still enjoy the notion of Satan's "little wizards." Hugh Laurie makes a swift return for a much more memorable role, Melchett gains some woolly backstory and Nursie finally comes through courtesy of a deranged udder fixation.

The idea that Blackadder might have been done differently seems incomprehensible for something that's been set in stone for most of my life, but would it have been preferable to get a second Elizabethan series rather than travelling through time again? Presumably featuring a Shakespeare cameo and a new Hugh Laurie regular standing in for Tim McInnerny? They made the right decision.
"As private parts to the gods are we. They play with us for their sport" - Lord Melchett

14. The Cavalier Years

At 15 minutes, this Comic Relief special is no quickie sketch like other miscellany from the period (I'll get to those later). It's every bit as funny as the episodes proper and deserves equal weight in the canon, so I always found it a bit annoying when 'complete' DVD collections and scriptbooks would miss it out.

I'm going to make the unsubstantiated assumption that a Civil War setting might have been under consideration for a potential Blackadder III, and that scenes and insults from this special might be salvaged B-sides from those drafting sessions. Or they might have really just put in the effort. Either way, we should be grateful for this bonus helping of Blackadder in its prime.
"Forgive me if I don't do a cartwheel of joy. Your family's record in the department of cunning planning is about as impressive as Stumpy O'Leg McNolegs' personal best in the Market Harborough marathon" - Sir Edmund Blackadder

13. Potato

Half-way through this series, we've already fallen back on gimmicks that they painfully don't have the money to realise, from the voyage itself to the rubbish boomerang joke. At least the guest stars are still up to scratch, with Simon Jones being suitably smug and irritating as Raleigh and Tom Baker being a perfect fit for the mad, bawling Captain Rum. I'm even warming to Lord Melchett now that he's revealed his inner, utter creep.
"Better 'a lapdog to a slip of a girl' than a... git" - Lord Blackadder

12. Major Star

This has always stood out as the point at which the similes went overboard and became irritants. "Sticky the Stick Insect" was hilarious when I was 12, but these days they're all more likely to elicit audible groans than guffaws.

The series is also starting to become a little too aware of its legacy with the reappearance of Bob (followed by Flashheart next time), which is more reason to be satisfied that they wrapped things up here. It's a bit like Red Dwarf VI - still on top form, but in hindsight, the beginning of the end. A shame 'Dwarf didn't know when to call it quits too.

I still can't help but love this one though, particularly the absurd idiocy of Melchett - was it only him forgetting his lifelong acquaintance with George, or were the writers guilty of a continuity fluff too? - and it's nice to see Baldrick finally having enough of being a huddled mass before promptly abandoning all notions of revolution when the unlikely prospect of marrying into money presents itself.
"They've overthrown Nicholas II who used to be bizarre" - Private Baldrick

11. Nob and Nobility

Blackadder and Baldrick set off on a reluctant French adventure while Prince George stays at home to struggle with his trousers. This is a more satisfying outing than last series' 'Potato,' complete with twists, turns, convenient escapes and plenty of anti-French fun from the onset.

The '80s comedy cameos are coming thick and fast with a brief return for Tim McInnerny, Nigel "Neil" Planer already past his prime and a pre-Rimmer Chris Barrie having a whale of a time as a typically vile guard. If they ever missed a trick for the biennial Flashheart appearance, it's here.
"He's pretty down on his luck, he's made that horse's willy last all morning" - Mrs. Miggins

10. Amy and Amiability

Financial troubles force the Prince to seek a bride and Blackadder to turn to highwaypersoning. Miranda Richardson returns in what amounts to a dual role, essentially separating Queen Elizabeth's ditzy and dark sides, but throwing in a homicidal hatred of squirrels that's entirely unprecedented.
"She's famous for having the worst personality in Germany, and as you can imagine, that's up against some pretty stiff competition" - Mr. Blackadder

9. Dish and Dishonesty

I can imagine people who enjoyed the scatological second series being confused and a little disappointed by this new minimalist and satirical direction, especially in this first episode which has always struck me as an oddly erudite one to kick things off. I certainly wasn't capable of appreciating it at 12, and even now I find certain jargon to be an unpleasant reminder of GCSE History.

The important thing is that it's still damned funny. Blackadder's more Machiavellian than ever now that he's been taken down a social peg or two, Baldrick's getting stranger all the time and Prince George is a welcome replacement for the superfluous Lord Percy. It's never occurred to me to miss Melchett and the rest. The sets may still be cheap, but they're a lot nicer to look at now. It's miraculous what a few centuries can do.
"Do you have any ambitions in life apart from the acquisition of turnips?" - Mr. Blackadder

8. General Hospital

It's a shame I can't erase this from my memory every once in a while so I could see whether I'd solve the mystery and see past the red herrings, or should that be wet fish. At least when you do know what's going on, you can appreciate the expert subtlety - for goodness' sake, George's first line of the episode is "I spy."

Miranda Richardson makes her now-conventional annual appearance, and even though it's much the same shtick as her last one, it is nice to give Blackadder something vaguely, distantly resembling a love story for the first time since the original Bob. Of course, by now the character has been drained of all non-reptilian emotions, so it was never going to work out.

There are some classic Darling moments too, which are worth treasuring for their scarcity alone.
"'Security' isn't a dirty word, Blackadder. 'Crevice' is a dirty word" - General Melchett

7. Sense and Senility

They're letting off steam about poncy actors this time, while Blackadder finally reaches his patience threshold with the Prince and opts to see how well things go without him holding up the kingdom. Things last less than five minutes.

I used to find this one a bit annoying because the actors playing the annoying actors are annoying. These days that just seems like a case of good casting.
"What a mad, blundering, incredibly handsome young nincompoop I've been!" - The Prince Regent

6. Private Plane

One of the clear stand-outs from the fourth series, and not just because of Rik Mayall's windbreaking performance. It is mainly that though.

It's fantastic that they teamed him up with Ade, even if it's for all of one overlong, overconfident sentence, and it's the first episode that convinces me of the reality of the characters' peril... even if they had to use incompatible stock footage to do so.

They've reigned in the similes a little and Rik's even following the script this time. He even stuck his moustache on properly and everything.
"Send the bitch with the wheels right now or I'll fly back to England and give your wife something to hang her towels on!" - Squadron Commander Lord Flashheart

5. Money

A contender for the best of its series (which is half of them), this classic dilemma of raise money or die doesn't rely on smart-arse put-downs of the Elizabethan era, beyond Queenie's childish japes. It would have fitted in just as well with the first series if that hadn't been rubbish.

It's odd that I never considered this to be particularly risque when watching as a child, despite most of the dialogue concerning prostitutes of both genders and nonconsensual anal poker penetration. Probably because it's tempered by so much silliness and mad plans, or just by the historical angle making it seem less downright filthy than Bottom (which I watched at an even younger age).

It also didn't much occur to me just how despicable Blackadder is, since it seemed so obvious he was the character we're supposed to look up to. I mean, who'd choose the kind-hearted and inexplicably loyal Percy as their role model?
"The path of my life is strewn with cow pats from the devil's own satanic herd" - Lord Blackadder

4. Head

I used to insist on watching this one first, as much for production order snobbery as Percy's beard continuity (and possibly Blackadder's virginity continuity, I've never understood that line). It does serve as a better intro to the new dynamic, with Blackadder trying his best to educate Balrick before abandoning him to the gutter when that proves futile, but I can see why they swapped it with the Flashheart one to start things with a bang.

I can't really pick a favourite between them, as the wit hit rate is as high as ever. Rowan brilliantly demonstrates his mime talents when bagged up, and the traditional awkwardness of the British sitcom is taken to lethal extremes. If there's anything weird about it, it does make it a little harder to sympathise with this version of Baldrick after he reveals that lopping off heads is a hobby.
"My father, Daddy Ploppy, was known as Ploppy the Slopper. It was from him that I inherited my fascinating skin diseases" - Ploppy

3. Bells

What subtle nuances did I pick up on when rewatching an episode as an adult that's up there with the Red Dwarfs and early Simpsons in terms of adolescent repeat viewings? Not much, though I was pleasantly surprised at just how bloody bleak Baldrick's life is, which you're not allowed to dwell on for too long because there's always another joke about willies or Y-shaped coffins around the corner.

Comparisons with the lacklustre first series are redundant, considering that was buried in the archives out of shame almost immediately, but there are still a few nagging imperfections waiting to be ironed out by the next series in the form of all those extraneous regulars beyond the classic triumvirate. Melchett's not even a shadow of what he'll become in the future, I've always found Nursie a bit annoying, and Percy just takes away valuable screen time from Blackadder and Baldrick, though he is redeemed by his idiotic failure to recognise Baldrick in drag.

The one-off characters (in this incarnation at least) are all very entertaining, but however much you enjoy the wide-eyed Kate, her immoral father and the maniacal Wise Woman, it's the incredible Lord Flashheart who mercilessly steals the show in his single scene and doesn't even bother to stick his moustache on properly. Just who does he think he is? He's Rik Fucking Mayall.
"I've got a plan, and it's as hot as my pants!" - Lord Flashheart

2. Duel and Duality

The conventionally lethal finale is one of the most gimmicky episodes ever, culminating in a split screen scene in which Rowan acts opposite himself in a ginger wig and kilt, but it's also one of the most rip-roaringly fun of the lot. A big part of that is thanks to Stephen Fry popping up as the Duke of Wellington in violent scenes that amount to one big orgasm for Fry & Laurie fans.

As far as the leads go, Blackadder finally tells the Prince what he thinks of him and Baldrick's veneer of thankless devotion slips for the only time. Fans who favour this series in particular get to share the last laugh, as it's the only one the incumbent Bladders makes it out of alive.
"Baldrick, does it have to be this way? Our valued friendship ending with me cutting you up into strips and telling the prince that you walked over a very sharp cattle grid in an extremely heavy hat?" - Mr. Blackadder

1. Goodbyeee

I could try desperately to be unconventional and claim this isn't the finest episode of the whole lot, but who am I trying to fool? It may have done irreparable harm to public perception of the Great War (1914-17), to the point that it was referenced on my GCSE History exam and I tend to picture No Man's Land as a polystyrene soundstage, but it's just about the most perfect finale ever.

And not just because of all the poignancy. With only a fleeting appearance by a guest character, we get to know the regular chaps more intimately in this final outing, from George's predictably Woosterish upbringing to Blackadder's shameful military history. Who doesn't feel for Darling at the end and start quite despising Melchett? And best of all, there's even time for some of Baldrick's trench poetry and a disgusting running joke about his barista technique that just keeps getting filthier.

"Made a note in my diary on the way here. It simply says: bugger" - Captain Darling


The Black Adder: Unaired Pilot (1983)

The weird thing about this pilot isn't how different it is to the series that followed, but how similar it is to the sequel series that would come a few years later. Those of us who approached The Black Adder after its better known and more frequently repeated successors - which is the majority of us, especially those of us who didn't even exist during all of the original run - are rarely able to shake off just how different it is to what we're used to, so it's bizarre that the pilot is so much more 'Blackadder' than anything would be until Blackadder II came along.

Much of the script was recycled for episode two of the series, but I prefer it in this draft form. That's not only because Rowan Atkinson's Edmund lacks the irritating, snivelly persona he'd subsequently adopt, or because the Elizabethan setting makes me nostalgic for 'good' Blackadder, but I also prefer Robert Bathurst's more believably oblivious Prince Harry over Robert East's. Tony Robinson isn't in it, of course, but that's only a shame for continuity purposes, as the Baldrick of series one didn't really stand out and Philip Fox handles that just as well. And while Brian Blessed is undeniably more entertaining as the king, I was glad to get a bit of a breather before embarking on six episodes of bellowing.

The gag hit rate isn't as consistent as the later Elizabethan-themed episodes would be with Ben Elton, and the attempted hanging scene is too much drawn-out slapstick, but this is still a very solid pilot. I'd commission it. And then be a bit confused and disappointed at what happened next.
"Percy, have you ever wondered what your insides look like?" - Edmund

The King's Birthday (1988)

Stephen Fry's Charles I returns from 'The Cavalier Years,' but is noticeably no longer an impression of Prince Charles. That'll probably be because this royal gala was held in honour of His Royal Highness' 50th birthday, so they have to direct their jibes at the gala institution instead. Actually, Fry's baah-ing like Melchett, which is a bit strange as Blackadder Goes Forth hadn't gone out yet.

There isn't much to hide the fact that this sketch was rushed and second-rate. Through the gimmick of a letter, Rowan even gets to read from the script for most of it.

Children in Need (1988)

Mere days after the prince's birthday, Blackadder was back in shaky live form for Children in Need night, and this time he brought Baldrick with him. The pair seem to be cultural touchstones by this point, but there was clearly considerably less effort made this time around than for Comic Relief - 'The Cavalier Years' is a bona fide classic that they put on the DVDs, whereas this interview with Terry Wogan can only be found in deteriorated VHS quality on YouTube.

For a charity aimed at helping suffering children, it's a bit weird that most of the jokes revolve around Baldrick's impoverished childhood.

The Shakespeare Sketch (1989)

This isn't technically a Blackadder sketch, but as a scathing historical sketch by the same writers and featuring the same actors, where else would you categorise it? It's even a call-back to the first series, with its dialogue by Shakespeare and alt-history premise.

Hugh Laurie is Bill Shakey, who defends his treasured Hamlet against the ruthless editing of his manager. Rowan doesn't play it Blackadder-like at all, but he's still a mouthpiece of present-day scorn. He's even wearing a watch.

The Army Years (2000)

Growing up in the 90s, Blackadder was part of my upbringing and never really went away, and this nostalgia is to blame for the various lame and sycophantic 21st century revivals post-'Back and Forth.' The French baiting is still there, but otherwise Rowan's patriotic officer doesn't feel like a Blackadder at all. This Royal Variety performance wasn't even for charity, so it doesn't have that excuse.

The Royal Gardener (2002)

Rowan Atkinson sells out his character to advertise the Queen's Jubilee celebrations. While I at least appreciate the implications of Sir Osmon Darling-Blackadder's heritage, he doesn't come across as particularly Blackaddery or Darlingy, and most people probably wondered why Mr. Bean is enunciating clearly.

Blackadder and the Banking Crisis (2012)

I'm not in a position to judge this one fairly, as I've only seen an incomplete cam recording from YouTube. It's got Blackadder being scathing and Baldrick being downtrodden, but I'm not totally on board with the move from historical to financial satire.

Worthless stats

The highest quality three-
episode VHS collection to
buy if you live in the 1990s
and can't afford the six-
episode bumper packs.
You're welcome.
I've never had a clear sense of having a favourite series out of the good years. You might be able to tell that from the flashing multicolour titles you just scrolled through. There was no strategy involved in trying to force one series' average above the others, but in the end I get to look unconventional anyway by favouring:

1. Blackadder the Third: 110 points
2. Blackadder II: 108
3. Blackadder Goes Forth: 107
4. Specials: 28
5. The Black Adder: 25

Though what that mainly tells us is there's really nothing in it. Apart from the obvious. Even the diminutive specials category beat that, and one of those was rubbish.

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