By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Blackadder Goes Forth
Series 4, Episodes 4–6: “Private Plane,” “General Hospital,” and “Goodbyeee”
Original airdates: Oct. 19, 26, and Nov. 2, 1989
Noel: I find “Private Plane” to be oddly hilarious. Flashheart is a bigger-than-life, bigger-than-this-show, and the character tends to suck all the oxygen out of the scene, but not in a horrible way. Rik Mayall’s performance pushes Rowan Atkinson to underplay even more, but I find it really works (we’ll see Flashheart again in Back & Forth next week). The raging ego on Flashheart’s part and the seething envy on Blackadder’s part make for a nice counterpoint to each other, so the action never seems completely unbalanced. But the other thing I love about “Private Plane” is that even the threat of being a POW teaching home economics to German girls is more appealing than staying in the trenches. Anything, anything, to get out of this damn war. But…
“Goodbyeee” guts me, fellas. It guts me. I’m choking down a sob just typing this.
Some of it is, of course, that there’s a finality to this death that we don’t have a sense of in the previous installments. Those were broad, stake-less comedies (as we discussed last week). This… this… Edmund has no way out. He tries to be insane, and no one buys it because, well, “Who would have noticed another madman round here?” A lot of that rests on eve of the impending final push when everyone—save for that cowardly loon Melchett—suddenly realizes that they’re going to die. It dawned on Edmund long ago, it finally dawns on George and Baldrick (Hugh Laurie and Tony Robinson are intensely good in this episode), and then Darling’s safe perch is pulled out from under him (in the show’s most theatrical moment), busting all his smug superiority so thoroughly that even Edmund doesn’t have a truly snide word for him upon the man’s arrival.
They’re all doomed, and they all know it. And so do we. And it’s horrible.
Andy: It got a mite dusty in my house too when I watched “Goodbyeee,” and the dustballs are cropping up a bit now as well. For a silly if incisive comedy to morph into a disarmingly profound comment on a relatively recent national tragedy is truly amazing. The Renaissance may have been something that only happened to other people, but the Great War cost the United Kingdom something in the neighborhood of 800,000 lives,* many of whom might have otherwise made it to 1989.* This isn’t merely a satire of the powerful, however savage; there’s real scorn boiling over. While even the officious Darling is treated with sympathy when his fate is revealed (in a stomach punch of a scene featuring a wonderful performance by Tim McInnerny), there’s no such humanizing moment for Melchett, one of the architects of this pointless slaughter. That’s telling.
*I researched a few websites to find the estimate but turned up a number of answers, generally between ~750,000 and ~1.1 million, depending in part on which British political entity you’re referring to.
Rarely, too, has Blackadder previously been quite so explicit in drawing its parallels between historical idiocies and their contemporary descendants. But when Edmund elucidates the precarious balance of powers that shaped Europe in the decades leading up to 1914, he couldn’t be more clearly alluding to the alignment of the Cold War, then in its waning days (exactly one week after “Goodbyeee” originally aired, the Berlin Wall was toppled).
Which is not to say that “Goodbyeee” isn’t still funny: equally impressive is how effectively it balances—but doesn’t undercut—each remembrance of a vanished past or longing for a vanishing future with a customary joke. To wit, that crystal clear explication of 20th century geopolitics is delivered by a man boasting underpants on his head and pencils shoved up his nostrils. This doesn’t suddenly become A Very Special Blackadder, and the episode is immensely more special for it.
“Private Plane” and “General Hospital” both work as hilarious episodes too, naturally. The way Flashheart boosts the energy of the former is palpable in the raucous audience response; and the way the latter wrings every drop of funny out of applying Stephen Fry’s supercilious baritone to the phrase “pooh-pooh” over and over is one of my favorite gags in the series. But yes, it’s “Goodbyeee” that will stick in my gut for a long, long time.
Les: God damn it, none of you who watched Blackadder prior to this roundtable warned me this show was going to make me cry. Largely for all of the reasons that you both enumerated above, but what really gut-punches me here is the calm before the storm. Waiting is the hardest part, as Tom Petty put it, and our central trio sitting in the bunker takes the dread we’ve felt for five episodes to the peak. George cheerfully talks about how much fun it was for all the lads of the Trinity Tiddlers to enlist at the same time, but then he rattles off the list of men who’ve died until he realizes he’s the only one left, and then falters for a moment until his natural cheerfulness kicks in—a cheerfulness that gets harder and harder to maintain the longer the night goes on.
And then there’s Baldrick raging against the pointlessness of the war, and for once it’s not his general obliviousness. Yes, he interpreted the war as starting because “some bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was hungry,” but having lost every one of his verminous friends (even poor Neville the hamster, bunging up the sink) he’s the only one to ask the simple question: “Why would it be stupid just to pack it in, sir, why?” Noel, you praised Tony Robinson’s performance specifically at the end of Blackadder the Third, but this may have been his finest moment, as being so simple it makes him the purest voice of reason.
But it’s Edmund I found the most interesting. Like George, I spent a good deal of this season wondering why Blackadder, a character concerned only with himself (and who comes from a long line of similarly narcissistic assholes), would become a career soldier. His answer—that at the time he enlisted the toughest opponent available was armed with a mango—was not only in keeping with the character, but also says a lot about just what World War I did to the sense of Britain’s invincibility. Britain was used to stomping all over other countries by virtue of its armaments, building up its empire without any major obstacles, and against Germany for the first time they were outmatched. The bloom fell off the rose, and the fall of the British empire began in those trenches. Edmund took the route he thought was the easiest path to glory, and found himself trapped.
As to the other episodes, I’m less enamored of the Flashheart character as I think he’s a bit too bombastic for the show’s more sardonic attitude (I had similar problems with Lord Dougal McAngus way, way back in “Born To Be King”), but I’m always pleased to see Miranda Richardson pop up even if it’s for another brief cameo. “General Hospital” in particular was a good sampling of Blackadder humor, especially Melchett sending Darling undercover courtesy of a bullet in the foot and the eventual reveal that George’s whale omelet-thickness was the security leak all along.
Cory: Apparently, I’m heartless. I didn’t have quite the emotional reaction to “Goodbyeee” as you three did. However, that doesn’t take away from its effectiveness, or the fact that I was moved by it. Maybe I shouldn’t have read all your thoughts before watching that episode? Perils of going last (and being a bum), it seems.
In any event, one of the things that really got me about “Goodbyeee” is how it felt like not only a finale to this particularly series, but also to the whole show. We know that there is more to come and that these characters aren’t exactly the same ones that we saw in the series before, but the finale still goes to great lengths to give all of the characters and actors their moments. And I liked that after so many episodes of divisive scheming and posturing, all the characters finished off together. They might have been forced there and certainly didn’t want to be there because of the situation’s deadly nature, but there was a sense of community present that was in fact stirring.
On a related note, I’ll be curious to see if anyone (in the comments, on Twitter, what have you) thinks that the show didn’t really earn that more serious turn in the second half of “Goodbyeee.” It seems like you all think it did, and I’m mostly in-line with that thought because Goes Forth was generally more serious and earnest throughout (despite great comedic set-pieces and jokes). Still though, I wonder if anyone reads the episode differently.
We’ve spent a lot of attention on the finale—and for good reason—but I’d like to point out that “Private Plane” and “General Hospital” were good as well. “Private Plane” was silly but funny and I thought the half-cocked mole plot worked better than it should have thanks to the palpable chemistry between Rowan Atkinson and Miranda Richardson. For some reason, I laughed a lot at the pot-shots at Oxford, even though I have no problems with (or true knowledge about) Oxford. But I think the triumph of little gags like that is a testament to the strength of the writing and the performances.
Though neither we nor the series are officially done here, I’d like to note that I’m really happy I stuck it out with you guys here. I don’t think that Blackadder makes it into my personal Mount Rushmore of comedies, but I totally understand how and why it does for other people. Both the writing and the performances were strong as separate elements from series two onward, but what is so impressive about Blackadder is how those two things worked so well together.