By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Blackadder the Third
Series 3, Episodes 4 – 6 : “Sense and Senility,” “Amy and Amiability,” and “Duel and Duality”
Original airdates: October 8, 15, and 22, 1987
Andy: For a show with only 24 regular episodes (only 18 of which we’ve all been through so far), Blackadder has proven to be deft and determined at exploring the whole gamut of comic styles. We’ve talked about its pointed satire, finely-tuned farce, and Vaudevillian wordplay. This week’s batch, in particular, made splendid use of physical comedy. “Sense and Senility” is stuffed with cartoonish gags, from the Acme™ bomb that blows up the Prince Regent to the runner of Baldrick popping out of confined spaces. The hammy actors training the Prince to deliver a regal speech in a “heroic” stance could have no more game student than Hugh Laurie, throwing every inch of his 6’2″ into an outlandish groin thrust with gusto.
And Laurie delivers a physical comedy clinic in “Duel and Duality,” the clear standout of this bunch for me (no surprise there, considering it features the return of Stephen Fry). It’s not just his pratfalls, either—though those are masterful, whether in the small, wincing recoils or the sprawling, table-smashing dives as Wellington and Blackadder clobber him in turn. He’s also conveying an array of character notes through his movements and facial expressions. After a night of sexual conquest he frolics through his bedchamber filling the frame with lithe energy. When he adopts the guise of a butler, he seems to shrink into it, growing even meeker and more compact as his inevitable incompetence pours out. In lesser hands, the Prince Regent could’ve been a rube indistinguishable from Baldrick, or a sour royal oaf. Instead, no matter how dimly or detestably he behaves, Laurie imbues the character with a lightness and spirit that are impossible to dislike. When he dies (the only one, this time, in an ending that tweaks the show’s convention so far), it feels like a true loss—though more so for the audience, perhaps, than for the Empire.
Les: Hurrah indeed for Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent, but as many hurrahs for the work Rowan Atkinson’s turning out in what’s almost certainly the most nuanced version of the Blackadder character we’ve seen yet. Our first Edmund was a simpering coward who wanted power but shrank away from any of the dirtier things he’d have to do to get hold of it, and our second Edmund was a bored aristocrat who treated the royals he was subservient to with veiled mockery. Mr. E. Blackadder, however, is a man who’s stewing with outright contempt at nearly everyone who isn’t him, even if their name doesn’t happen to be Baldrick. This series alone we see he despises the French (“a load of garlic-chewing toffs crying ‘Ooo la la!’ and looking for sympathy all the time just because their fathers had their heads cut off”), actors (“shouting, with their chests thrust out so far, you’d think their nipples were attached to a pair of charging elephants”) and highwaymen (“I have no desire to get hung for wearing a silly hat*”). Obviously every member of his genetic line is a self-centered prick, but this third Blackadder is a man frustrated by his station, one who’s suffered fools for so long he’s constantly on the breaking point.
As such, there’s a more volatile core to this series than the earlier ones, more of a sense that this Blackadder’s willing to do absolutely anything and step over anyone to better his station. The faux betrayal of “Chains” has now turned into outright defiance of authority, willing to raid George’s fortune and run off with the Shadow (another welcome return in the form of Miranda Richardson’s crazy squirrel-blasting highwayman) or abandon his master to certain death without the promise of “a ton of cash, an amusing clock and a sack of French porn.” There’s also more physical outbursts from the character, blowing off some steam by smacking around the Prince as they channel Cyrano de Bergerac under Amy’s window in “Amy and Amiability,” or in the prince/pauper/porpoise swap of “Duel and Duality.” (Even Baldrick seems infected by this spirit, daring to call the departing Blackadder a “lazy, big-nosed, rubber-faced bastard.”) It’s a more active, more frenetic season, and one that I think gets the best mileage yet in how fast the wordplay and actions of each episode move.
And I’ve been down on the endings, but this one was a much better close to the season. After six episodes of scheming and stumbling, it was so smugly satisfying to see Blackadder’s spur-of-the-moment decision to embrace his new identity as Prince Regent—that split second of hesitation on his face, only to quickly turn this misunderstanding into the most cunning of plans, and leave the series with a devious smirk. He’s fulfilling the destiny his slimy forefather fought so impotently to obtain, at last one heartbeat away from the British crown, so long as he’s willing to marry the odd rosebush here and there.
(Okay, one minor nitpick: For a show this fond of its recurring players, would it have killed them to get BRIAN BLESSED back for a brief cameo as the mad King George III here? Nothing against Gertan Klauber, but come on. BRIAN BLESSED.)
Noel: These back three episodes were a bit hazy for me, with only “Duel and Duality” feeling anything near familiar. I found “Sense and Senility” to a be drag, probably the least successful of the episodes in Third. Maybe it’s all my time with theater people in college, but Macbeth jokes just don’t do it for me anymore. But it’s okay because I don’t think there are many things funnier than watching people pretend to beat up Hugh Laurie.
Even though he carries over to the next season, I want to take my space this week to discuss just how good Tony Robinson is as Baldrick, particularly this season. There’s a certain charm to this Baldrick that was missing in the earlier incarnations, but I just feel like the dumber they’ve made Baldrick (though not dumb enough to not cover for Mrs. Miggins), the smarter Robinson’s performance became, and he’s clearly game for anything. It’s an odd thing to stand out, but all his bits of business with chickens in this run of episodes, from continuing to stuff a bird while delivering lines to holding it close as he gets all misty-eyed about being a highwayman, it feels like unobtrusive prop comedy. Robinson never calls attention to it, making it feel like a clear extension of Baldrick and not something that was tacked on for humor. He’s not just “some tiny tit in a beard.”
Cory: None of these episodes have the obvious pop that “Ink and Incapability” (or for most, apparently, “Dish and Dishonesty”) has, but all three stay within familiar rhythms of quality. The jokes aren’t as sharp or biting as they are in those two aforementioned episodes, but you’re right guys, the physical comedy is more prominent and even as a sometime-critic of that type of gag, I enjoyed the way Blackadder used it. Blackadder and the Duke of Wellington discussing the proper slapping decorum, using the Prince as the primary example, was well-handled by Laurie, Atkinson, and Fry. And though not exactly related, even the mileage “Duel and Duality” got out of the two lead characters switching outfits and identities was pretty impressive. Again, returning to my main point of this whole discussion, the show has done its best work when working within typical comedy structures, and the body swap certainly fits that bill.
On that front, it’s curious to me that these final three episodes somewhat mirror the final three episodes of series two, at least on a basic narrative level. While not in the same aired sequence, series two’s “Money” and “Amy and Amiability” both focus on, you guessed it, cash money and the things that Blackadder will or will not do to get and/or keep it. “Beer” and “Sense and Senility” share an interest in moderately twisty, circumstantial, and situational humor involving less than intimidating outside forces. And perhaps most notably, “Chains” and “Duel and Duality” are both built around outside forces that are much more intimidating (at least in theory). Granted, there are differences on display across all six of these episodes, but the similarities reflect both structural and thematic repetition in Blackadder‘s formula. Nevertheless, the familiar nature of series three’s offerings don’t negate their quality; if anything, they give the show a second pass to make a situation funnier.
For me, Third is the most consistent of the show’s series thus far. It manages to pack the most jokes into the six episodes and certainly handles the characters better than both series one and two. For the first time with Blackadder, the British model of short series runs has interfered with my viewing. I wanted more from the performers in these roles. Hopefully series four can keep up the pace.
As a programming note, we’re going to move right into Blackadder Goes Forth next week, skipping the Christmas special. But don’t worry! We’re going to pair the Christmas special with Blackadder: Back and Forth after we finish Blackadder Goes Forth to close out our discussion of the series. Be sure to watch this space for our upcoming poll to select our next roundtable topic.