By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andy Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Blackadder Goes Forth
Series 4, Episodes 1–3 : “Captain Cook,” “Corporal Punishment,” and “Major Star”
Original airdates: Sept. 28, Oct. 5, and Oct. 12, 1989
Noel: I’m going to take the lead here as we enter the last series of Blackadder, but I’m also going to leave a lot of the discussion up to you three. Blackadder Goes Forth is pretty tonally different from its predecessors, even right off the bat. I don’t think a series has made its tone clearer from the outset than when this one has Baldrick (how lovely is it that Tony Robinson appears like a totally different person every series?) carving his name into a bullet so that the Germans don’t have it. Baldrick’s bullet is funny, desperate, and sad, and that’s how one can best sum up Blackadder Goes Forth.
In the previous incarnations, Edmund has been an ambitious man thwarted by fools and unlucky circumstances. Here, Edmund is a sane man in a crazy situation surrounded by lunatics (save for maybe Tim McInnerny’s wonderfully sniveling and antagonistic Captain Darling). His schemes aren’t for power, but for escape from the asylum that is World War I and the ever-impending final big push—whether it be through scamming a supposedly cushy painting job, avoiding the firing squad after killing a pigeon, or putting on a smashing cabaret act. They’re just part of a last ditch efforts of a man stuck in the trenches, trying to survive by any means necessary.
Les: “Funny, desperate, and sad” is probably the best way to describe the series, for all the reasons that you touched on above, Noel. Where the show has chiefly been focused on Edmund trying to make a profit on the idiotic monarchs he’s beholden to, now he’s in the grasp of the military chain of command, and his silver tongue doesn’t work nearly as well when it’s trying to get around a direct order. The tone’s been satirical and critical of those in power for the entire run, but in the first three series their incompetence was presented as more of an annoyance than anything else. Here, there’s 50,000 men getting killed a week as a result of the bluster and bloodlust of men like Melchett and the off-screen General Haig, all for gains as piddling as moving a drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
And that sense of frustration, of being trapped in something completely out of your control and where it makes no sense you’d die for it—or for something as trivial as shooting a pigeon—really does bleed into the whole series. Edmund’s still engaged in his usual behaviors of abusing Baldrick and insulting George, but there’s a weariness to the way he throws off his elaborate one-liners that suggests his heart’s not really in it. They may be his intellectual inferiors—or as George puts it, the “stupidest stupids in the whole history of stupidityness”—but at the end of the day, all three of them are going over the top together, and he seems to know that. (Not that he’s unafraid to use his authority to keep them quiet or say exactly what he needs them to, even if the latter bits him in the face on several occasions.)
At the same time, despite the much darker atmosphere, the core of what we’ve come to associate with pure Blackadder comedy is still there. Beyond Edmund and Baldrick, the ensemble now contains the strongest parts of all the previous series: Hugh Laurie’s idiotic optimism and Stephen Fry’s outlandish bluster are together full-time now, and Tim McInnerny makes a welcome return to the regular fold after only appearing in one episode of Blackadder The Third for fear of being typecast. (The reinvention of the character, though likely done to convince him to come back to the series, is fantastic—after generations of Percys being beaten down by Blackadders, you can see the barely restrained joy on Darling’s face as he thwarts Edmund’s attempts to get out of dying for king and country.) There’s some excellent callbacks to earlier series, as Private “Bob” shows up unexpectedly in the trenches as Melchett’s assistant and Baldrick’s once again amused by vegetables that have grown into a “rude and amusing shape.” And of course, the writing remains sharp as hell—the gender confusion in “Major Star” alone led to several “PHRASING” moments.
Cory: I would also suggest that Forth is more obviously satirical than its predecessors, though that might also have something to do with the subject matter. Taking potshots at hapless members of the royal family is pretty easy to do—though series two and three did a masterful job—but criticizing military leadership or the purpose of war altogether offers more edge to the commentary, and that’s on display in these first three episodes. You guys both hit the nail on the head. Whereas the previous two series featured a lot of supremely funny silliness, it was all set against a backdrop of pretty low stakes. Even when characters were “in danger,” they really were not. The plots and schemes felt like ways to move up the social ladder, but also to distract from the somewhat innocuous environment. Not here though. The jokes are still present, and at times sharper than ever before, but they exist to either make bigger points about lame leadership or reflect that sadness that you two already mentioned.
It’s interesting to me that this final series not only brings all the great performers together for good—because, come on, that’s amazing—but also that Blackadder returns to that more critical, darker place that we haven’t really seen since the first six episodes. We can all agree that the first series struggled quite a bit and I think those struggles stemmed from an inability to combine the broad comedy with the specific criticisms that the show was trying put out there (among other things, like mediocre plotting). That first run had a weird tension between comedy and biting satire that it never really rectified. Here though, Blackadder pulls it off for the most part. The way that the show still successfully constructs these situations despite the prevailing desperation found within these characters is impressive. The premises are still in that familiar sitcom-y wheelhouse that I’ve talked about, but the premises filled with details (small and larger) that reflect the dire circumstances (shooting a pigeon for food, trying to get out and to London, etc.).
Andy: You’ve all touched on the distinct undercurrent of fatalism suffusing series four so far, and I’d wager that’s as much a factor of time as of theme. In 1989, when these episodes originally aired, World War I was barely three generations in the past. It’s likely that the population of the UK at the time contained a fair number of people old enough to have experienced the Great War’s horrors first-hand, whether on the front lines or at the homefront. Casting a satirical or a broadly farcical eye on eras out of musty history books is one thing; fixing your sights on a national tragedy that still bears directly on the present day is quite another.
Les, I think your point about the flicker of kindred spirit Edmund recognizes in his addle-pated companions this time around is a sharp one. Each Blackadder has always exploited his mid-level power far beyond its nominal reach, abusing subordinates as though he weren’t just someone else’s subordinate himself. This time, though, he’s hampered by the knowledge that no distinction of title, rank, or intelligence truly separates himself from the likes of George and Baldrick—their fate will be his, sooner or later. The real power structure is truly out of reach this time, much more than it was when he was beholden to royalty. The individual capers that drive each episode are just as spirited and wacky as any we’ve seen, but they never wrap up with a sense that Blackadder’s come out on top, even relatively speaking. At best his accomplishments can only postpone the inevitable awaiting in No Man’s Land.
It’s not an overpowering dread, but it’s enough so that you’re not just laughing out of amusement but out of a need to break the tension. That’s a tricky feat for a sitcom to pull off. You can understand why Blackadder would want the franchise’s heaviest hitters around to meet that goal.
Finally, apropos of nothing, I have to tip my hat to Melchett’s mention of George’s “Uncle Bertie.” If that’s not a reference to two other characters Fry and Laurie brought to TV life, I will eat said hat.
Les: And a mention of Boat-Race Night, no less! George seems the sort who’d easily grab a policeman’s hat regardless of whether or not there’s a policeman in it.