By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Blackadder the Third
Series 3, Episodes 1 – 3 : “Dish and Dishonesty,” “Ink and Incapability,” and “Nob and Nobility”
Original airdates: Sept. 17, 24, & Oct. 1, 1987
Noel: You guys can talk about everything else (including the brilliance of Hugh Laurie as the foppish idiot Prince George), but I just need to tell you how much I adore “Dish and Dishonesty.” It is, for me, one of the single best episodes of a sitcom ever. Every U.S. presidential election year, despite it being about British politics, I break out “Dish and Dishonesty” for a good laugh at the absurdity of not only British politics, but of politics in general (it helps in balancing out the crying). While airing in 1987 and being set in in the late 18th century, the episode continues to ring true in its pointed and hilarious satire.
The episode works beyond its very specific premise of rotten boroughs (which can be off-putting at first) because once we arrive at the episode’s set piece—election night coverage from the Country Gentleman’s Pig Fertilizer Gazette!—you realize that it just boils down to stealing an election through massive amounts of fraud and murder. (“I took over the previous electorate when he, very sadly, accidentally brutally cut his head off while combing his hair.”) Election fraud is easily understood, a horrible thing, and it turns to be very, very funny. It’s in this episode that series’s aims toward spoof and satire are at their most true.
The rest of the episode is filled with brilliant bits of business, including Pitt the Younger’s desire for harsher sentences for geography teachers, the frustration of Pitt the Even Younger (aka “Pitt the Toddler? Pitt the Embryo? Pitt the Glint in the Milkman’s Eye?”) that he did every negative political thing he could to do to win and still lost, Blackadder’s cat fur-lined robes of state, and finally, the giant turnip. The episode is expertly constructed with the foundation for some jokes, like the giant turnip, laid out far in advance so that the payoff is wonderfully earned. It really doesn’t get better than this.
Les: That was certainly a fantastic episode Noel, although I think I preferred “Ink and Incapability” by comparison, largely due to my weakness for language-based jokes. Fittingly for an episode that was centered around the publication of the dictionary, the wordplay here was masterful, and there were so many different flavors of it: Blackadder’s continual efforts to undermine Johnson’s credibility by making up words, Prince George’s inability to comprehend either the complicated language Johnson uses or the idea of a book without a plot, or Johnson* having a carefully crafted simile for every scenario. And in what’s fast become one of my favorite parts of the whole Blackadder series, Baldrick’s stunning idiocy in responding to anything his master says, incapable of picking up any subtleties to the point where everything has to be spelled out. (“So you’re asking where the big papery thing tied up with string belonging to the baity fellow in the black coat who just left is.”)
*Johnson of course played by noted British actor Robbie Coltrane, most recognizable as Hagrid of Harry Potter. Sadly no “Yer a wizard, Baldrick” comments were made this episode.
Structurally, I think this may the strongest the show’s been: it’s a darkly anarchic version of a P.G. Wodehouse novel, with the incompetent idle rich and his immensely capable servant. Only unlike Jeeves, Beach or Voules, this servant is out to screw his master out of every penny he can, be it by nicking socks or pretending to be an aristocratic Robin Hood. The Blackadder character works best when he’s got just enough influence to cause trouble, but not quite enough to actually be successful, and it feels like the balance is perfect here.
And of course, a few words need to be said for the master in question. Cory, you had considerable words of praise for Mr. Laurie’s work in Blackadder II‘s finale, and he’s in masterful form here as the foppish Prince Regent of Wales. Laurie spent so many years on American TV creating a character as indelible and caustic as Dr. Gregory House, it’s remarkable to visit this (or A Bit of Fry and Laurie, or Jeeves and Wooster) and be reminded that for so many years Laurie’s greatest strength was in playing a goof. And unlike some of the other idiotic characters we’ve seen on this series, there’s a core of innocence to George that’s quite endearing, the sense that he knows he’s “as thick as a whale omelet” but still wants to do better.
Cory: Noel, you stole my focus point! My viewing of these episodes came during a break from a Community re-watch where I’m in the middle of the season and just finished the political debate episode, “Intro to Political Science.” Even though that episode and “Dish and Dishonesty” aired two decades apart, you can see the similarities on the ideological and formal levels. Both episodes have no qualms about deconstructing the legitimacy of elections (or politics in general) and they also both feature hilarious election reporting constructs that only reinforce the ideological barbs. In any event, for me, one of the key tenants of a great comedy is timelessness and you’re right Noel, “Dish and Dishonesty” fits that bill. The diegetic and non-diegetic contexts between the two episodes are entirely different, and yet, they work on similar levels—and Blackadder actually does it better.
Les, you mentioned the structural highs on display here and while I think that’s absolutely true, it appears to me that the show is firing on all cylinders on all accounts. Everything I enjoyed about the second series continues to be in play here: tight narratives, in-rhythm jokes, really great performances and less historical specificity. As with the strong episodes of series two, both “Dish and Dishonesty” and “Ink and Incapability” thrive with stories that, while not “familiar,” are built from the ground up like a typical sitcom narrative. There’s a scheme or a problem, things get out of control, only to get more out of control before being solved again. The show has grown into a more confident product since the first series and it’s been a real treat to watch it do so.
I’ll finish up by nothing how impressive I’ve found Blackadder‘s ability to concoct cross-series continuity without actually doing so. Obviously we’re supposed to assume that each Edmund is related to the previous one and therefore it’s quite amusing that with each passing series, the character grows smarter but loses social standing—and when that’s paired with the show’s portrayal of royal figures, we can see what the creative team thinks about this whole royalty bonodoggle. But something like Baldrick’s obsession with turnips keeps coming back and the show actually keeps getting better at working into ridiculous circumstances. The characters are the same, but not, which is a compelling and difficult way to build up a rapport with the audience, and yet it works very well.
Andy: It is impressive how the character dynamics shift just enough to keep things fresh but not so much that they’re fundamentally altered. This Edmund, while in a lower station than his lordly predecessor, also has more freedom of movement not being at the beck and call of a mercurial monarch. Oh sure, he ostensibly has a royal boss, but the Prince Regent is far too malleable to exercise anything resembling authority. So rather than facing frustrations from above and below, Edmund is now bookended by equal yet opposite forces of dumbassery. Baldrick’s placid dimness is the yin to the Prince’s pompously antic yang. The way Edmund attempts to exploit them is different than the way his ancestor juggled the yokels at Elizabeth’s court, breathing life into a new fount of humor.
The satirical elements also stand out more to me in these first three episodes—particularly in “Dish and Dishonesty,” of course—if only because the targets are closer to home. Blackadder the Third isn’t just puncturing the monarchy or the notion of government in general. Now it’s taking aim specifically at Parliament, the seat of British power in the 1980s even more than in the 1780s, which gives the barbs extra bite. The delightfully anachronistic TV news spoof shows that extra willingness to directly parallel past and present, and to spotlight the absurdity of both.