The British comedy series Blackadder (originally called “The Black Adder” during Season 1) is unique in many ways. While all center on a character named Edmund Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson), each season takes place during a different period of British history.
The first series is a kind of alternative history, with the previously unknown tale of Richard IV (Brian Blessed), who succeeded Richard III. His bumbling younger son Edmund, with his servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson) and pal Lord Percy (Tim McInnerny) try to implement various Machiavellian schemes to gain power and riches.
The first series was given a generous budget for the time and was only a mild success. After a huge cut in the budget, Season 2 was greenlit by BBC1. The following three seasons (as well as several one-off specials) are much more highly regarded, with sharper writing and a reimagining of the main character, changed from bumbler to increasingly wily sycophant (who still becomes embroiled in disasters of his own making). The main character of each season is supposedly a descendant of the first Edmund, and the family’s fortunes devolve as time marches on.
My favorite season by far is Season 2, which takes place during the Elizabethan era. At this point, the Blackadder family is still aristocratic. He is Lord Blackadder and one of Queen Elizabeth’s (Miranda Richardson) many male admirers who try to curry favor with her by flattering and flirting with her.
One of the ingenious twists on history in this series is Queen Elizabeth (or “Queenie”) is a spoiled child who speaks like a 6-year-old and still keeps company with her “Nursie” (Patsy Byrne). Nursie is a bit on the flaky side (she suggests “ointment” to cure someone after a beheading in this episode, for instance). The portrayal is completely wrong historically, of course, but coupled with the historically accurate portrayal of Elizabeth as a flirtatious woman with no interest in giving up any power to a husband, the result is hilarious. Richardson, in one of her first major roles, is brilliant.
The reason I chose Episode 2 of Season 2 to review, “Head,” is because there’s something inherently funny about misplaced dead bodies. Fawlty Towers did its own take on the inconveniently dead person in “The Kipper and the Corpse.” Neither episode ever gets old for me.
Edmund, to his chagrin, is appointed Lord High Executioner by the queen. He is assisted by Percy and Baldrick, who turns out to be the actual executioner (“Well, it’s a hobby”). The staff is rounded out by the jailer, Mr. Ploppy (Bill Wallis) and Mrs. Ploppy (Lisa Nola), the last meal cook but no relation to Mr. Ploppy. (“No, many people think that, but it’s pure coincidence. We did have a good laugh when first we found out.”)
Annoyed by having to actually work, he hits on a plan to move up some executions to earlier in the week to give him and his staff the middle of the week off.
To Edmund’s horror, he discovers the queen has given Lady Farrow (Holly de Jong), the wife of one of the executed prisoners, permission to see her husband. The queen has signed an order for Edmund’s own execution if he refuses.
Desperate, he puts a bag over his head to pretend he is Lord Farrow. Unfortunately, Lord Farrow has many distinct physical features, including a booming voice and a missing arm. Even so, he still manages to fool Lady Farrow. (To the point where Lady Farrow insists on servicing her “husband” sexually, only to be interrupted by Baldrick, to Edmund’s dismay.)
Even more upsetting is the news that the queen has decided to pardon Farrow. They hit on yet another ridiculous plan (hey, the first ridiculous plan worked) to pretend they heard Farrow say something treasonous and executed him on the spot. However, when they look for his head, they find out Baldrick has not executed Farrow, but a man named Ponsonby.
Relieved at this stroke of good luck, they remember the queen is on her way to visit Ponsonby. Once again, Edmund dons the bag over his head to fool the queen that Ponsonby is still alive.
This episode contains one of my favorite lines in the entire series. While trying to teach Baldrick simple math, Edmund comments: “To you, Baldrick, the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people, wasn’t it?” Considering how stupid Edmund’s aristocratic friend Percy is, this is blatant classism, and is even funnier in the context of the increasingly ill fortunes of the Blackadder family over the rest of the series.
In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the reason the first season didn’t work and the other three did is that they turn on classism. Edmund (even more the case in Season 3, when he’s forced to become butler to the idiotic Prince Regent) knows he’s smarter and more capable than the people in power. His rivalry with the Queen favorite, Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry), is a running thread through almost every episode, and goads him into some of the dangerous (and funny) situations he finds himself in with Percy and Baldrick.
Atkinson was obviously much more comfortable playing the “I give zero you-know-whats” attitude of the later incarnations of the character than the clod from Season 1. Even though all the Edmunds are still thwarted in their many endeavors, his cool disdain for everyone and everything else makes his desperation in the face of disaster that much funnier. Such as when one has to walk around with a dead person’s decomposing head in one’s pants.