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
Sidant: You can discuss everything else (including Hugh Laurie’s brilliant performance as the foppish idiot Prince George), but I must express my deep admiration for “Dish and Dishonesty.”
To me, it stands as one of the finest episodes in the history of sitcoms. Every U.S. presidential election year, despite its focus on British politics, I revisit “Dish and Dishonesty” for a good laugh at the absurdity not only of British politics but of politics in general (which helps to balance out the tears).
Airing in 1987 and set in the late 18th century, the episode’s sharp and hilarious satire continues to resonate.
The episode transcends its initially specific premise of rotten boroughs (which might seem off-putting at first) because, as we reach the episode’s central set piece—election night coverage from the Country Gentleman’s Pig Fertilizer Gazette!—we realize that it ultimately boils down to winning an election through copious fraud and murder.
(“I inherited the last constituency when its previous member, quite sadly, accidentally and brutally decapitated himself while combing his hair.”)
Election fraud is something easily grasped, a dreadful act, and it turns out to be uproariously funny. In this episode, the series’ intentions to spoof and satirize are at their most genuine.
The remainder of the episode is brimming with brilliant comedic moments, such as Pitt the Younger’s quest for harsher penalties for geography teachers, the exasperation of Pitt the Even Younger (aka “Pitt the Toddler? Pitt the Embryo? Pitt the Glint in the Milkman’s Eye?”) who did every conceivable negative political action to win and still lost, Blackadder’s state robes lined with cat fur, and, of course, the gigantic turnip.
The episode is impeccably structured, with the groundwork for certain jokes, like the enormous turnip, laid out well in advance to ensure a satisfying payoff. It truly doesn’t get any better than this.
Reesav: That was undoubtedly an exceptional episode, Sidant. However, in my personal preference, I leaned more towards “Ink and Incapability.”
This inclination is largely due to my weakness for language-based humor. Appropriate for an episode revolving around the creation of a dictionary, the wordplay in this installment was truly masterful.
It offered various types of wordplay: Blackadder’s consistent attempts to undermine Johnson’s credibility by inventing words, Prince George’s inability to grasp either the intricate language Johnson employed or the concept of a book without a plot, and Johnson’s skill in crafting similes for every situation.
One of my favorite aspects of the entire Blackadder series has swiftly become Baldrick’s remarkable stupidity, as he responds to everything his master says, incapable of detecting 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, portrayed by the noted British actor Robbie Coltrane, who is most recognizable for his role as Hagrid in Harry Potter.
Sadly, no “Yer a wizard, Baldrick” comments were made in this episode.
In terms of structure, I believe this might be the strongest the show has ever been.
It feels like a darkly anarchic version of a P.G. Wodehouse novel, with the bumbling idle aristocrat and his highly competent servant.
However, unlike Jeeves, Beach, or Voules, this servant is determined to swindle his master out of every penny he can, whether it’s by pilfering socks or impersonating an aristocratic Robin Hood.
The Blackadder character is at his best when he wields just enough influence to create chaos but lacks the power to actually succeed, and the balance feels just right in this episode.
And, of course, we must acknowledge the central character.
Naveen, you previously expressed great admiration for Mr. Laurie’s performance in the finale of Blackadder II, and he truly excels here as the foppish Prince Regent of Wales.
Laurie spent numerous years on American TV creating a character as iconic and acerbic as Dr. Gregory House, making it remarkable to revisit this show (or “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” or “Jeeves and Wooster”) and be reminded that, for many years, Laurie’s greatest strength lay in portraying a buffoon.
Unlike some of the other foolish characters we’ve encountered in this series, there’s an inherent innocence to George that is quite endearing.
He recognizes that he’s “as thick as a whale omelet” but still aspires to do better.
Naveen: Sidant, you’ve touched upon a point I was going to make! My recent viewing of these episodes coincided with a break from re-watching “Community.”
I’m currently in the middle of the season and just finished the political debate episode, “Intro to Political Science.”
Despite the two-decade gap between that “Community” episode and “Dish and Dishonesty,” there are clear thematic and formal similarities.
Both episodes unapologetically deconstruct the legitimacy of elections and politics in general.
Furthermore, they feature humorous election reporting elements that enhance their underlying commentary.
Timelessness is a fundamental aspect of great comedy, as you rightly pointed out, Sidant, and “Dish and Dishonesty” unquestionably possesses that quality.
Although the diegetic and non-diegetic contexts differ significantly between the two episodes, they manage to resonate on similar levels, with “Blackadder” executing it even more effectively.
Reesav, your mention of the structural strengths in this episode is entirely accurate. In my view, the show is firing on all cylinders in various aspects.
Everything I appreciated about the second series remains intact: coherent narratives, well-timed humor, exceptional performances, and a reduction in historical specificity.
Much like the standout episodes of the second series, both “Dish and Dishonesty” and “Ink and Incapability” thrive on narratives that, while not “conventional,” are constructed like typical sitcom plots.
There’s a problem or a scheme, things spiral out of control, become even more chaotic, and then find a resolution.
The show has grown into a more self-assured product since the first series, and it’s been a true pleasure to witness this evolution.
I’d like to conclude by highlighting Blackadder’s remarkable ability to create cross-series continuity without explicitly doing so.
It’s evident that each Edmund is meant to be related to the previous one, and it’s quite amusing to see the character becoming more intelligent while losing social status with each new series.
When combined with the show’s portrayal of royal figures, it offers insights into the creative team’s perspective on the concept of royalty.
Additionally, recurring elements such as Baldrick’s obsession with turnips keep resurfacing, and the show excels at incorporating them into absurd situations.
The characters remain the same, yet not quite, making it a compelling and challenging way to establish a connection with the audience, and it works brilliantly.
Abhishek: It’s remarkable how the character dynamics undergo subtle shifts to keep things fresh without fundamentally altering them.
In this series, Edmund, despite his lower social status compared to his lordly predecessor, enjoys greater freedom, as he’s not constantly at the mercy of a capricious monarch.
While he technically has a royal superior, the Prince Regent’s lack of authority renders him highly pliable.
Consequently, instead of contending with challenges from both superiors and inferiors, Edmund now finds himself surrounded by two equally absurd yet opposing forces: Baldrick’s serene simplicity acting as the yin to the Prince’s pompously eccentric yang.
The manner in which Edmund tries to manipulate them differs from how his ancestor handled the simpletons at Elizabeth’s court, breathing fresh life into a new source of humor.
I also find the satirical elements more pronounced in these first three episodes, especially in “Dish and Dishonesty.”
The targets of satire hit closer to home in Blackadder the Third, as it doesn’t merely lampoon the monarchy or the concept of government in general.
Instead, it specifically takes aim at Parliament, which was the seat of British power in the 1980s, even more so than in the 1780s.
This specificity lends extra sharpness to the satirical jabs. The anachronistic TV news spoof, in particular, demonstrates a direct parallel between the past and the present, highlighting the absurdity of both eras.