I have a most cunning plan: to use 2,000 words to review a series which has itself a larger vocabulary than most under-developed countries. I refer to The Black Adder: The Ultimate Edition DVD set, which spans the four eras of the Black Adder ancestry, and the successive specials produced. Due to its historical rewriting of extremely British history, and the thick heads of genius behind it, it's vexing television for casual viewing, particularly the first series. Is it worth it? By far, for many different reasons, not the least of which the evolving and devolving character performances by the stellar cast, and ever-adapting theme song. Even though centuries-old history is one of my least favorite subjects, it is ripe for comedy, and hasn't and won't be done any better than it is here. Unless someone adds supplemental zombies to it years later, as is done with British material sometimes.
Black Adder I was written by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis. Atkinson is easy to place, but you may not know Curtis is responsible for every non-Danny Boyle British cinematic release here in the States. (Or not, but he's done a lot.) This well-funded series showcased the end of the British middle ages, 1485, where the Battle of Bosworth Field is (in this show only) won by Richard III. His great-nephew Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh (Atkinson), inadvertently beheads him, making Edmund's boisterous father the new King Richard IV (Brian Blessed). Edmund seeks positive attention from Richard IV, who doesn't care for him much, always forgetting he exists. Atkinson plays this Edmund as a bit of a twig. His voice is high and whiny, and he looks like the product of linear lineage, with a quick wit, but dulled skills. He's constantly at odds with his brother Harry, Prince of Wales (Robert East), or other envied titlists, with the misguided aide of Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny) and Baldrick (Tony Robinson), a servant with a mind like a porridge trap, who only gets dumber and trashier as the show switches timelines. Tony Robinson is the loose knob in Edmund's door, always turning but never going anywhere. In each series, there are a multitude of such double entendres, used both in sub-waistline insults, or to speak unromantically of lovemaking. And in this series, everyone gets it in the end. (Gets it in the end...get it? Bum sex. Also, death.) Three stars.
It's definitely the writing and varying plateaus of verbal trickery used, even without the novel historical hook, that make Black Adder stand out. Especially for the first series, because I know nothing of the era and am uninterested by class structures and royalty. I'll claim ignorance there, no problem. But the fact is, there weren't many relatable things to talk about back then, so creativity had to be up to snuff to capture the attention of anyone not looking beyond the lush locations and realistic costumes (and laugh track) to realize how funny it is. There are so many animal/sausage/anatomy/vegetable metaphors that I often spent more time marveling than laughing aloud. I can't imagine how many of these things flew over my head when I used to watch the show on PBS in the late '80s and '90s. I haven't said much specifically about the first series, but the show only gets better further on. The outdoor filming did the comedy itself little justice, as edits weren't quick and jokes couldn't be strung together as well as in later years. Also, Ben Elton's unique writing took the place of Rowan Atkinson from series 2 on.
Black Adder II has a more clever Lord Black Adder, great-grandson of the original, serving under Queen Elizabeth, the wickedly alluring Miranda Richardson. She's portrayed as a flippant oddity, buoyed by her loose-tongued handmaid Nursie (Patsy Byrne). Stephen Fry appears in the first of many hairy-faced roles as the brown-nosing Lord Melchett. Yes, Hugh Laurie pops up twice this series, but he's more of a star in the next two. Both Edmund and Melchett try to woo the Queen, if only to not to read his own name on one her of random death warrants. In these oral battles with Melchett, Edmund shows himself as a more sardonic and eccentric schemer than his great-grandfather. The insults take on an average of seven more words. At his beck and smack is Baldrick, who has gotten smellier and a few shades dimmer than a blind man's closet. Edmund fakes a trip through the fabled horrors in the Cape of Good Hope to please the Queen, who has taken a fancy to Sir Walter Raleigh's quests. His plan is to just sit out the trip and return with stories of success, which splashes back in his face, of course, and this is the style of most of these episodes. Cunning plans going kaput. McInnerny is back as the unnecessarily outspoken Lord Percy. One episode has him having to hold a conversation with Edmund's puritan aunt and uncle, while Edmund simultaneously hosts a drinking competition in a room down the hall. It's a predictable premise, where as soon as Edmund speaks of an inheritance he hopes to get from the aunt and uncle, you know he's not getting it. But the amazing wordplay fills in all the blanks and gives the events tension. It's one example covering many. Three and a half stars.
Black Adder the Third goes up another peg in terms of silliness and wit, even as the show's budget and cast shrink, which helps. If you have less characters to storyboard, there's more time for Edmund to verbally whip the shit out of Baldrick's non-existent ego. This series is set around the year 1800 and has Edmund playing a back-slagging butler to the foppiest-of-fops Prince Regent, played with a heightened sense of single chromosome by Hugh Laurie, costumed to a crooked T. Miranda Richardson and Stephen Fry have small cameos throughout, and Helen Atkinson-Wood plays Mrs. Miggins, who runs a coffee-shop hangout, so to speak. An episode sending up its own talent has Edmund needlessly antagonizing Dr. Samuel Johnson (Robbie Coltrane) for writing his dictionary. He invents words to discourage the man, and has to constantly evade him, fearing Baldrick used the man's lifework to fuel a fire. It's a clever episode that mixes in historical particulars. The first episode post-modernly breaks a wall by having a corrupted election reported on -- seemingly to no one -- by a man staring into the camera. There's an assassination mix-up that Ben Elton pops in on. McInnerny steps in during an episode where Edmund is irritated by everyone's fascination with the heroic Scarlet Pimpernel. Lots of turnip and poop jokes. Laurie is a test of the wills of rational acceptance, but in a good way, as it makes for hundreds of grave-sized digs on him from Edmund. Four stars.
To me, and many others, the stand-out series is the fourth, aptly titled Black Adder Goes Forth, which takes place in 1914, in the trenches of World War I. The writing is as satirical of its subject matter as previous years, if not more so, because of the inevitable existence of war in any generation. And damned near all of it takes place in Edmund Blackadder's tiny, three-man quarters or in the office of his superiors, sharpening the comedic power and giving a real sense of isolation amongst the men. Edmund has fallen in rank down to an Army Captain, fighting Germans that are almost as crazy-violent as Richardson's Queen Lizzie. Private Baldrick is there, allowed in by draft, surely, and his mental facilities have dissipated to a mist. The optimistically vapid Lieutenant George, played 30% by Hugh Laurie's eyes, proudly serves his country. He provides a moldable foil for Black Adder's military-weary captain to backhandedly comment on the timeless state of things, and now the insults are about 15 words longer than in the first series. The references reach the 20th century, unlocking a world of new things to conversationally jab into Baldrick's rear. Edmund's goal is to avoid going into No Man's Land (war zone), and at the same time avoid spending any time with General Malchett (Fry) and Captain Kevin Darling (McInnerny). You can't imagine how many "Hello, Darling," and "What's wrong, Darling?" variations are made, and how quick that studio audience laughs. It's weird. Each meeting with the superiors has Edmund, by any form of bald-faced fiction, trying to get outside the trenches and into a less violent setting. Despite the show's comedic overpinnings, there are emotional underpinnings that were missing from the previous series, where moments of danger felt camp. The implied ending is noted as being a very poignant moment in the canon of televised comedies. It's poetic. Four star series.
The specials encompass the other series, so though they're kind of like extras, I'm putting them here. Black Adder: The Cavalier Years is an amusing English Civil War-era tale where Edmund tries scamming the public and King George (Fry) out of King George's own execution. A Black Adder Christmas Carol spins the Dickens tale by having Edmund Scrooge and Mr. Baldrick be extremely pious, passing off their entire Christmas celebrations to others only using them. Robbie Coltrane's ghost takes Edmund through his ancestors' histories, all filmed new with Christmas themes by the original casts. Edmund enjoys the way evil ways got them ahead, and guess how it ends. Very fun special. Black Adder: Back and Forth was a big-budgeted, large-screen effort, though not a feature film, exactly. It leaves the studio audience behind and is quite ambitious. A 1999 Edmund attempts to con his guests with a time machine Baldrick built, which actually works. Edmund goes around slightly altering things, including a very funny scene with Colin Firth as Shakespeare. Edmund scolds him for writing things that will bore children and give Kenneth Branagh a reason to make a three-hour Hamlet. Shakespeare says he'd never heard of Kenneth Branagh, and Edmund replies with, "I'm going to tell him that, and I really think his feelings will be hurt," or something. That's great shit. It's a fun special, though it doesn't carry much weight.
Despite all that's already on here, there's supplemental stuff, too. Of course, if there wasn't, it could sod off. The remastered episodes look nice, though the first series is murky. The audio is odd in places where the channels are only set to certain areas. There are two or three commentaries per season, done in singles or doubles by the cast and writers/producers. The commentaries are on a left/right pan, too. They're good enough, but there's a lot of empty space. British people aren't as amped up as Americans on commentaries. Good and a bad thing. There are an extensive set of interviews with all of the principle cast except for McInnerny. Solid stuff. It's fun seeing a Housed-out Laurie talk about his zany past. Jeeves and Wooster should be seen by anyone who thinks they have his sense of humor pegged. There's also a good costume extra that goes over all the amazingly crafted era-appropriate garmenting.
The best extras, though, are the two behind-the-scene features. First, there's the full-on documentary Black Adder Rides Again, an hour-long look back at the show from conception to it's squandered present state. It's a really good look at the whole thing, while getting some personal takes from a lot of the cast, seeing some of the footage for the first time in years. I love Miranda Richardson. Rowan Atkinson comments on it, but it's strange how he never ever laughs. Anyway, the other one is a making-of Black Adder: Back and Forth called "Baldrick's Video Diary." It's like a dream all-in-one package that has interviews talking about the 10-year span between shows, making the thing itself, writing it, and even outtakes and deleted scenes, all put together.
The set is cheaper than its earlier iteration, and has more stuff on it, and it looks better. I love me some British television DVDs, if you can't tell. Hopefully, I can find more on this side of the pond. This thing took an entire day to watch.