Review: ‘Blackadder’

It's not often that you get a TV sitcom that spans the years 1485 through 1917. And it's not often that you get a bouncing-ball sing-along to its theme song. These reasons alone make the BBC Video DVD release of "Blackadder" a notable event.

It’s not often that you get a TV sitcom that spans the years 1485 through 1917. And it’s not often that you get a bouncing-ball sing-along to its theme song. These reasons alone make the BBC Video DVD release of “Blackadder” a notable event.

The five-disc boxed set contains all 24 half-hour episodes of the comedy plus two hours of supplemental material, including three TV specials, a documentary, an interview with co-creator Richard Curtis, and other assorted goodies. (Surprisingly, star and co-creator Rowan Atkinson and key scribe Ben Elton are not heard from. Too busy? Too shy? Who knows?)

In 1983, Curtis and Atkinson came up with a comedy series set in the Dark Ages, centering on court intrigues, beheadings and warring nations. It’s like Shakespeare’s history plays, accompanied by a laugh track. (This may be the world’s only laffer to carry the credit “with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare.”)

In each of the first six segs, the scheming and treacherous Edmund, the Black Adder, comes up with “a cunning plan” to further himself, which always ends disastrously.

Since the series originated in that most eccentric of countries, Britain, the production order was for only six episodes. Two years later, six more segs were produced, but these were set in Elizabethan England and all the characters became descendants of the originals (with the Black Adder evolving into Lord Edmund Blackadder). Episodes 13-18 took place in the late 18th century, and the final six (filmed in 1989) were set in the trenches of World War I.

Besides the collection of 24 episodes, with six chapter stops,are the three standalone TV specials: a rarely seen 15-minute episode set during the Oliver Cromwell era; “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol”; and a time-travel seg taped in 1999, “Blackadder Back and Forth.”

The last-named episode, and a 17-minute docu on the making of it, represent the only disappointing elements in the 14-hour set. The half-hour seg, taped 10 years after the end of the series, ignores the structure and relationships of the series. Though there’s a funny joke about Kenneth Branagh, most of the humor seems forced. And the docu is about as unfascinating as the episode it chronicles.

The DVD’s best addition is “Historical Footnotes,” letting viewers click onto info that explains the settings and references in the episodes. Though these are not played for laughs, they are often witty. There’s a throwaway line in one episode about “the traditional St. Leonard’s Day entertainments, such as eunuchs and Morris Dancing.” Morris Dancing, we are taught, is a real-life form of ancient folk dancing that sometimes involves six men wearing deer antlers, two people carrying phallic symbols, and a hobby horse.

Another note on “Royal Marriages” offers up the fact that King Richard II married Princess Isabella of France when she was 6 years old, though she had the option of nullifying the wedding when she reached the age of maturity: her 12th birthday. Other items in the Footnotes include stats on the Wars of the Roses, Tudor Sanitation, Dr. Samuel Johnson and WWI battles.

Alert the FCC: Sitcoms are educational!

The DVD also features a “Who’s Who,” containing an onscreen list of credits of the lead actors and writers, while additional insights into their careers are narrated by Tony Robinson — the only actor besides Atkinson to appear in every episode (and, arguably, the funniest performer in a sterling cast.)

While many movie DVDs carry a filmmaker’s running commentary during the action, 12 hours of that would be a bit much. Instead, there’s a half-hour interview with Curtis (who went on to write “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill”), who offers amusing insights into the show’s creation and production process.

Curtis praises co-writer Ben Elton for giving the show its “linguistic wildness and wickedness” and he’s probably right; the first six episodes are droll, but the series really took off into the stratosphere with the Elizabethan segs, when Elton came on board.

The series is available on five separate discs, but the 14-hour “Complete Collector’s Set” is a better deal financially, giving you more laughs for your buck– plus, you get that bouncing ball sing-along.



A BBC Video release of the 1983-89 BBC TV series produced by John Lloyd. Directed by Martin Sherdlow, Mandie Fletcher, Paul Weiland, Richard Boden. Writers, Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton. Running time: 14 HOURS (boxed set of 5; also available on separate discs).


With: Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Tim McInnerny, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Brian Blessed, Jim Broadbent, Patsy Byrne, Robbie Coltrane, Colin Firth, Rik Mayall, Geoffrey Palmer, Miranda Richardson.
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