Did we like it?
A pleasant enough trot down memory lane to revisit one of the best British sitcoms in TV history. But we didn’t learn much that was particularly enlightening.
What was good about it?
• As Blackadder was so brilliant, and the jokes are just as radiant today, the clips from the show are always welcome. We had the Spanish Infanta from The Black Adder, Lord Flashheart literally gatecrashing Edmund’s wedding from series 2, Dr Johnson’s dictionary from the third one, and the exchange between Captain Blackadder and George just before they go over the top: “Don’t forget your stick, George.” “Right sir, I wouldn’t want to face a machine gun without this!”
• Ben Elton’s insight into the absurdities of World War One that helped inspire the fourth series. And his sensitivity towards the “heroism” of the soldiers, and that he and Curtis didn’t exploit them for “easy laughs”. This was best shown in Lieutenant George’s ridiculous but touching tale about how he and his Tiddlywink Club all joined up together, and how he was now the last survivor.
• The UK Gold documentary earlier this year was missing the input of Rowan Atkinson. It was odd to see him interviewed, as he is a world apart from his confident Blackadder alter-egos. He constantly touches his head when talking about his own talents, like a nervous footballer, but was able to offer a dry contrast to the hyperbole being shouted by his fellow cast members.
• The unbroadcast pilot version of The Black Adder in which Atkinson played Edmund in very much the same style as he did in Blackadder 2.
• The clinical acknowledgement of Richard Curtis, Atkinson and John Lloyd that the first series wasn’t very good (even though we vaguely remember it as being hilarious, especially the exchange: “Does anybody know what happened here?” “No! I don’t!”).
• Curtis explained how writers, like himself, graduated from writing sketches to full-blown sitcoms, and that the best moments of The Black Adder are those self-contained sketches in each episode.
• The Black Adder’s obsequious walk.
• Miranda Richardson playfully adopting the puerile personality of Queenie.
• Atkinson said that on Blackadder 2 he was surrounded by such a superb cast, he could almost delegate one of them to be “amusing”. And the way Rik Mayall regarded the role of Flashheart as a chance to get more laughs than Atkinson.
• The behind-the-scenes anecdotes that hinted at squabbling amongst the cast as they fought for their characters to play a more prominent role, or the way in which jokes were adapted and improved during rehearsals.
• The story of how the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth was on the verge of an embarrassing disaster as the cast looked like a bunch of unruly toddlers charging the German guns before falling down with all the thespian aptitude of a game of Ring A Ring O’ Roses. But it was remedied by slowing the footage down, and fading into a field of poppies.
What was bad about it?
• The purpose and motivation of the documentary is that because it departed while still sauntering effortlessly along a comedic plateau, there is a sense that it finished too soon. There is almost a masochistic desire to fully exhaust any brilliant artistic venture until it falls into parody.
• This can be seen in Fawlty Towers, The Office and Porridge, whereas Only Fools And Horses should have concluded in1996, but instead lumbered on with a few fitfully amusing Christmas specials. And Peep Show may also be falling into this trap.
• This results in the public lust for new episodes being sated by a plethora of documentaries about the programmes that seek to shed new light on the sparse series that were made, almost in the belief that it can reinvigorate the people involved to make another series.
• This was apparent in the apparently nostalgic musings by the cast and crew about their favourite scenario for any proposed Blackadder 5. Atkinson and Fry like the Colditz idea, while Robinson and Richardson favoured a Western. We hope a new series isn’t made largely because Richard Curtis is the comedy writing equivalent of Coldplay – talented but writing for a complacent audience – while Ben Elton’s decline resembles Oasis, a couple of punchy, rapier-like chapters followed by a laborious trek trying to recapture former glories.
• The worry that Blackadder, for all its attributes, today “forms the backbone of school history lessons”, when it a less reliable chronicle than the Bible.