Roundtable Review: The Black Adder, “The Foretelling,” “Born to Be King,” and “The Archbishop”

By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick

Series 1, Episodes 1 – 3 : “The Foretelling,” “Born to Be King,” and “The Archbishop”
Original airdates: June 15, 22, & 29 1983

Noel: Of the four of us, I have the most familiarity with Blackadder as a franchise insofar that I’ve actually seen the series before. And my memories of the first series, The Black Adder were less than sunny (I saw it after having seen Blackadder The Third), and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to revisiting it. But my memories betray me as I generally liked these first three episodes, even if I still found them to be something of a slog.

It’s fascinating even to watch “The Foretelling” and then continue forward. Edmund starts off as overly weaselly and mealy-mouthed, and barely recognizable as to character he is even by “Born to Be King.” It’s not just in the writing, but in Atkinson’s performance as well. There’s a drastic shift from shrinking and inept coward to the somewhat inept schemer that is appearing by the end of “The Archbishop.” Atkinson sounds more confident and less squeaky, carrying himself better than he had in the first two (his back-and-forth groveling to Richard in “The Archbishop” was a highlight).

Brian_Blessed_King_Richard

It doesn’t mean that all of it works. I find “Born to Be King” to be something of a dud (the script for it was actually the unaired pilot, and they reworked it as the second episode) beyond BRIAN BLESSED storming in, covered in fake blood and extolling the virtues of his fruit knife. By the opposite measure, I’m adoring Elspet Gray’s Gertrude. I absolutely love her brief moment of dread in “Born to Be King” at news that Richard will be returning. It’s a great tweak on the role of women as often depicted in these settings by fiction.

What did you all think?

Andy: I couldn’t help but notice some of the misgivings die-hard Blackadderites expressed about season one, so that may have influenced me on some level going into my first viewing. My reaction to these episodes was pretty lukewarm. I chuckled lightly a few times, but for the most part I found myself frustrated by the gulf between the comic ideas and their actual execution. More than once I felt like the jokes splattered into broadness when I was expecting something more sharp-edged. Defying expectations is a vital element of comedy, but sometimes it just leaves you frustrated instead.

A lot of that is due to Atkinson, of whom I’ve never been much of a fan. I often find his delivery a bit too mealy-mouthed, his slapstick a bit too splaying. Those traits irked me here, though as Noel noted they get dialed back considerably as Edmund evolves into a sharper schemer rather than a completely addled lackwit. Strangely, I’m much more amused by his physical comedy when it’s smaller, more controlled—for instance, his assiduously bowing and scraping his way forwards and backwards before the king in “The Archbishop.” Same for his verbal gags: The funniest bit in any of these episodes, hands down, was his mention of owning an “autographed miniature of Judas Iscariot”—a nifty line that’s equal parts absurdity and pointed characterization, which Atkinson underplays amid a babbling monologue.

I also have to second Noel’s all-caps adoration of Brian Blessed [sic] as the blustering, leonine Richard IV. The relish with which he devours every scrap of scenery in Merry Olde England is a treat. 

As a P.S., I was surprised to see the title of this season as “The Black Adder.” I’d never heard anyone refer to it that way before. Is this like the 1980s BBC equivalent of “The Batman”?

Les: Let’s get my big complaint out of the way: Edmund’s hat is awful. It’s like a giant black baby bottle.

Okay, onto the episodes themselves. Blackadder is one of those shows I’ve had friends tell me for years I should be watching, but never had the real impetus to get to, so I’m pleased this wound up being our next roundtable choice. I’d heard similar quibbles about the first series, and while like the two of you I found these first three episodes a bit dreary to start they’re still interesting. “The Archbishop” is easily my favorite of the three, embracing the idea that Edmund might be smarter than he looks (though still not as smart as he thinks he is) and trying to direct his clerical connections into profit. While I’m growing increasingly weary of making this argument, it is true that comedies start rough and get better over time, and there’s a very clear progression even through these three episodes that they’re figuring things out. (Unsurprising then that Richard IV can barely remember his son’s name, or even that he is his son.)

Edmund_Baldrick_Percy

One of Blackadder‘s most famous traits is that while it moved across historical periods in its seasons, it retained a core cast throughout, so it’s good to see the early chemistry between its leads. Atkinson, Tim McInnerny and Tony Robinson make for a nice trio of schemers, and putting them together helps move past the aforementioned problems with Atkinson’s portrayal. The relationship between Edmund and Baldrick in particular is one with a symbiotic sense of idiocy. (My name is Baldrick, my lord.” “Then I shall call you Baldrick, Baldrick.” “And I shall call you ‘my lord,’ my lord.”) My favorite scenes of these episodes are easily when it’s the three of them trying to find a way out of their messes: juggling the headless King Richard, trying to put the St. Leonard’s Day show together without any acts*, or realizing the lucrative potential of the curse and relic market.

*The absurdity of The Jumping Jews of Jerusalem is also a highlight. Not quite Jews In Space, but so delightfully random.

And structurally, I appreciate the show’s commitment to being a historical comedy. There’s no “it’s only a model” about these episodes, thanks to location shooting on sites such as Alnwick Castle and Brinkburn Priory—Atkinson said the first series cost a small fortune. As an English history and literature nerd, it adds a nice flavor to the episodes as both King Richard’s use bits of Shakespearean dialogue tweaked ever so subtly to fit the show’s more anarchic and raunchy sense of humor. (A move that also lets them add the tag in the credits “with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare.”)

Cory: I’ve made it known, both in our operational emails and on Twitter, that Blackadder was a complete unknown to me before one of you suggested it and the folks voted for it in the poll. And by complete unknown I mean that I had literally never even heard of it before. Once I knew that we were going to cover it for the roundtable, I made the decision to not do any research on the show. No reading of reviews, no cursory reading of Wikipedia, nothing. I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that with a new-to-me show, or if I ever have. 

After watching these first three episodes, I’m not necessarily regretting my decision to go dark on the information search but I can say that this is the type of show that is categorically not for me. Admittedly, my handle on this era of history isn’t particularly strong (read: pretty non-existent, thanks contemporary American education system), which definitely hampers my ability to get the smaller, insider-y jokes. And although I did enjoy a few sequences with the lead trio bouncing poorly-conceived ideas off of one another—the aforementioned struggle to dispose of the king’s body in the first episode is a silly treat—the show’s style of humor does absolutely nothing for me. The bouts of physicality and the general zany, absurd nature of the proceedings left me cold. Nothing in these three episodes held my attention that strongly. I found myself constantly looking towards the running time or wanting to click over to a different tab. 

However, I’ve heard a great deal—mostly from you guys—that the first series isn’t particularly good, so I’m optimistic that my opinion will change. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too. I think it will be really interesting to watch and discuss something I can’t really appreciate. I won’t say dislike because I am well aware that this is simply the kind of show I do not—and likely will never—enjoy. I see what you guys are saying and recognize some of the things that the show does well. It’s just not for me.

12 Responses to “Roundtable Review: The Black Adder, “The Foretelling,” “Born to Be King,” and “The Archbishop””

  1. Noel Kirkpatrick

    Andy: Thanks for mentioning the “autographed miniature of Judas Iscariot.” I had that in my notes, but left it out for some reason. That line killed me as well.

    The whole franchise is Blackadder, but each individual incarnation has its own title (The Blackadder, Blackadder II, Blackadder The Third, Blackadder Goes Forth). Needless to say that had DVRs existed in the 1980s, they would’ve hated you for this show.

    Les: I appreciate your mention of the scheming trio. I’ve never cared much for Percy, though I think McInnerny’s performance is spot on. I think, again, my general bias in favor of Baldrick from having seen the third series first, colors this.

    Cory: Clearly you’re the worst.

    No, I totally get where you’re coming from. Have you had experience with this sort of comedy before and it not work for you either? I’m trying to think of the closest American equivalent, but nothing immediately springs to mind.

    Reply
  2. Cory Barker

    Noel:

    Not really? That’s probably part of the problem, but also purposeful because I know where my sensibilities and tastes lie. It’s just one of those things. But I’m hopeful that future seasons, which I’ve been told are much better, appeal to me more.

    Reply
  3. Sohail

    I’ve never been a big fan of the first season, and even find the 2nd and 3rd to drag at times, but the 4th season, in particular the last episode is just fantastic. So don’t give up hope!

    Reply
    • Noel Kirkpatrick

      I can understand seeing the second as being a bit of a drag, but I personally find the third to be pretty hilarious (probably the funniest).

      But series 4 just has that pang of melancholy that doesn’t let go. And, yes, that last episode. Oy.

      Reply
  4. Anthony Strand

    Well, you guys have convinced that I need to rewatch S1. I’ve seen all of 2-4 several times, but I’ve only seen this season once. Based on your reactions, I’d probably feel the same way about it as I did then, but I honestly remember very little about these eps.

    But man, Edmund’s just a completely different character here.

    Reply
    • Noel Kirkpatrick

      I didn’t remember much either, as I noted. But, yes. Edmund’s radically different. He inches forward to the Blackadder we all know and love, but it’s pretty startling at first.

      Reply
  5. theshoresofme

    You know, this Edmund isn’t THAT different from Blackadders to come. Blackadder is a selfish coward whose plans for advancement at the smallest possible personal cost never work. Prince Edmund is definitely a Blackadder, just one lacking entirely in sex appeal.

    Reply
    • Noel Kirkpatrick

      Right. of course. The sexiness factor. I always forget about that.

      Reply
  6. Jaclyn M

    Re: Andy’s question about the title. The first series was called “The Black Adder” because that’s what Edmund called himself (an adder being a kind of snake). It was more of a title or pseudonym, after Baldrick talked him out of his original idea of “The Black Vegetable.” It looks like in the later seasons, his descendants began using “Blackadder” as a last name, so the title of the show went along with that.

    Reply

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