By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Series 2, Episodes 1 – 3 : “Bells,” “Head,” and “Potato”
Original airdates: Jan. 9, 16, & 23, 1986
Andy: Welcome back to Merry Olde England, chaps. This time around it’s a little less Olde and a lot more Funnye…er, funny. Where series one took place in the Dark Ages, Blackadder II jumps ahead to the Golden Age, the Elizabethan era. This incarnation of Lord Edmund Blackadder, a hanger-on at the court of Good Queen Bess, is immeasurably cagier and more composed than his distant ancestor, and the show is the stronger for it. Although I didn’t find series one terribly funny, it was certainly zany—and therein lay some of the problem. At its heart, Blackadder is a farce amplified by the absurdity of historical settings, and farce is all about transforming order into chaos. Series one lacked order, so the farce often fell flat.
By contrast, the Edmund of Blackadder II provides a sane center for all the inanity around him to bounce off. He’s far from a straight man—most of the sharpest jokes belong to him—but he’s an effective audience surrogate. He keeps things anchored enough that the outlandish elements prove genuinely funny. From a distance the whole dynamic reminded me of Dave Foley on NewsRadio, so often just trying to keep his head above the rising water of wackiness.
Which is not to say Edmund is a hero suddenly, or even an anti-hero. He’s a preening, acid-tongued prat. He’s also the smartest prat in a room full of them, and he knows it. In our first entry, I mentioned that Rowan Atkinson’s performance was one of the big liabilities for me. Here, the complete opposite is true. He’s fantastic, all puffed up scheming and permanently wounded dignity and exasperated, insouciant bile. That shift in character and performance makes everything click.
Noel: Andy, I think you’re spot on in how Edmund has become the exasperated straight man surrounded by a motley assortment of crazies. Not that Edmund himself isn’t as little off-kilter, but his brand of off-kilter is levels beneath everyone else. I even think the crazier elements, like the big guest characters Lord Flashheart or Captain Redbeard Rum (an unrecognizable and hilarious Tom Baker) work better now than say, Witchsmeller Pursuivant, because Edmund isn’t as wacky. On the plus side, the episodes still allow him to just swing for the fences every now and then, particularly in “Head” when he poses as the decapitated Lord Farrow. I do think I lost my breath laughing during that episode.
But I have to say, so far, I somehow had completely and utterly forgotten how amazingly funny Miranda Richardson is as Queenie (Elizabeth I). The spoiled brat behavior, complete with squeaky voice and pursed lips, is such a delightful comedic takedown of all the Elizabeth depictions across all of time that it still feels remarkably fresh even today. I especially love her never-ending quest to sex up some nobles that always seems to fail due to her childish whims. Virgin Queen indeed!
Cory, I’m particularly eager to hear how this is playing for you. You seemed to be on an upswing at the end of the last series, and I’m dying to know what you think of this new incarnation. Is it working even better, or did it lose you with the remarkably smaller sets (all the rooms are very small!) and fewer characters moving about?
Cory: Noel, I think you will be happy to hear that I enjoyed these first three episodes quite I bit. I have resigned myself to the fact that this type of show or humor is never going to hit all my pleasure centers in the way something like Community or Parks and Recreation or Party Down would, but that does not mean I cannot like or laugh at Blackadder. Indeed, I laughed consistently through these episodes, but particularly did so while watching the first episode, “Bells.”
You posed the question about my reaction to the smaller sets and tinier cast and in reality, those things help me enjoy the show more than I did in its first incarnation. II feels less like an overly-specific historical riff and more of a workplace comedy set in a familiar time period. Clearly, this string of episodes is using characterizations of real people to poke fun at “reality” and how it may have happened, but these first three episodes were easier to follow and therefore more enjoyable. While the episodic plots are not cliché per se (though I would enjoy an episode of Last Man Standing about beheadings), they follow a rhythm that is more palpable and familiar to someone who isn’t well-versed in British comedy (or history). As I mentioned, “Bells” is probably my favorite of the three and it has a fun, obvious narrative with Edmund falling in love with “Bob” and struggling with those feelings. The jokes aren’t novel or special, but they land properly and Atkinson and Gabrielle Glaister have a fun chemistry.
Moreover, I think that fewer characters allows for a more detailed emphasis on the people who are present. This Edmund’s improved intelligence changes the entire fabric of the show, where, as Andy suggested, II is much less zany and silly than its predecessor. The first series had no real solid entry point for someone like me—the characters ranged from idiots to stooges to villains. Here though, Edmund’s competencies allow Percy and Baldrick to be the dense dolts he can both roll his eyes at and occasionally lower his standards for.
Generally speaking, these three episodes felt more of a piece and together, played like a legitimately solid comedy. It’s less tied directly tied to its historical focus and more tightly interested in character-based comedy. I continue to warm, I guess.
Les: I was a little worried going into this second series, given that I didn’t love the first one as much as I wanted to even in the later episodes, but my concerns were dismissed fairly quickly. This is a terrific trio of episodes, and the series is clearly thriving in this new environment. Like you, Noel, I found the escalation of the situational comedy in “Head” to be hysterical beyond compare, and thought such routines as the gender confusion in “Bells” and the incompetence of Captain Redbeard Rum (dead parrot and all) were far more consistent than what we saw before. The reinvention of the Edmund and Baldrick dynamic is a remarkable thing, with a brilliant master and an inept servant turning what had been a relationship of symbiotic idiocy into wonderfully pointed cross-talk. (“No that’s what I think, that’s what I think! What do you think? Try to have a thought of your own, Baldrick, thinking is so important. What do you think?” “I think thinking is so important my Lord.”)
Noel, you mentioned the smaller size of the sets, which probably threw me the most at first while watching these episodes. Evidently the BBC refused to allow a second series unless they lowered the cost and improved the writing (hence why there were three years between series), and you can see not only how so many of the sets are enclosed, but how often they reuse the throne room and Edmund’s chambers. While they certainly got good mileage out of the castles in the first series, I think the enclosed area means everyone’s playing closer to an audience, and as such there’s a better rhythm to the punchlines and the dynamic between the actors.
And most importantly, the series hasn’t lost sight of one of its main satirical targets in the transition. So much of Blackadder—and British comedy in general—is rooted in class distinctions and the ineptitude of the higher social orders, and they’ve just found a new spin on it here. Where BRIAN BLESSED’s Richard IV was loud and boorish and his rule was by virtue of brawn over brains, Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth I is daffy beyond compare (and unrecognizable to someone like me who last saw her in Rubicon), someone who’s only queen because of her birthright. And she has a terrific pair of foils in Stephen Fry’s* Lord Melchett and Patsy Byrne’s Nursie, the former flattering her ceaselessly and the latter bringing up constant childhood anecdotes and odd personal details. You really get the sense of how frustrating it is for a clever and arrogant type like Edmund to be in thrall to people like this, and the more hoops he has to jump through to cater to their whims, the better it gets.
*Truth be told, I defy anyone to find anything that wasn’t improved by the introduction of Stephen Fry. He’s a treasure.
And as our resident Anglophile, I have to single out one moment. In “Potato,” prior to Edmund departing on his voyage, we have a circumstance where Edmund Blackadder, Jeeves, the Fourth Doctor, and Arthur Dent are all in the same room together. That’s just remarkable.