I had written a long and sparkling introduction, laden with witticisms and crammed with mind-blowing insight into what compelled me to air my nonsense opinions about Blackadder. It was probably the best thing I've ever written. Come to think of it, it was probably the best thing anyone has ever written. But it was a lie.
The truth, as ever, is that I done a drawing of Edmund Blackadder and then thought I should probably find some words to accompany it. So, for no better reason than that, here are 5 grounds on which I reckon Blackadder is probably the best sitcom ever made.
"I've got a plan so cunning, you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel."
Edmund Blackadder takes on a world of bounders, cads, pirates, thieves, attractive transvestites and pompous despots armed with little other than his wits. He has few friends and fewer principles. He isn't rich, he isn't particularly athletic and he isn't excessively fond of hard work. He knows that if he is to ascend life's greasy pole, it is not going to be because he hits the hardest. He is going to have to rely almost exclusively on his intellect which, thankfully, is formidable.
This "brains over brawn" philosophy is epitomised by the bottomless well of acuity from which Baldrick draws his "cunning plans". Naturally, the plans are always utter bollocks but this doesn't stop them from being dauntlessly dished up. One is reminded, for instance, of the scene in Series 3′s Nob and Nobility when Bladders and Balders are languishing in a French prison, waiting to meet the business end of a guillotine. As ever, Baldrick's optimism belies the gravity of the situation but he has an ace up his snot-smeared sleeve.
Bladders: "Am I jumping the gun, Baldrick, or are the words 'I have a cunning plan' marching with ill-deserved confidence in the direction of this conversation?"
Balders: "They certainly are, sir!"
Bladders: "Well forgive me if I don't jump up and down with joy, your record in this department is hardly 100 per cent. So what's the plan?"
Balders: "We do nothing."
Bladders: "Yep, it's another world-beater."
An idiot, but a thinking man's idiot, Baldrick remains.
"For you, Baldrick, The Renaissance was just something that happened to other people wasn't it?"
So Blackadder is smart. Fine. But in order to make him look smart, it is necessary for almost everyone around him to be spectacularly stupid. The simple fact is that Bladders could not be such a mercurial clever-clogs without the breathtaking thickness of his foils.
One must remember that Blackadder hails from a simpler time before shows like The Office dispensed with time-honoured sitcom mainstays like laugh tracks and far-fetched narratives. The protagonists did not have to have any grounding in reality. Plot lines did not have to be remotely credible and characters had the licence to display the sort of implausible degrees of stupidity which, in the real world would prevent them surviving out of infancy. Witness, for instance, the scene in Series 3′s Duel and Duality in which Bladders and Prince George's clothes swap nearly gives Baldrick a brain haemorrhage ("Don't even try to work it out Baldrick; two people you know well have exchanged coats and now you don't know which is which.")
So for making Bladders look good, hats off to the whole imbecilic ensemble:
Lord Percy - "Percy, I don't want to be pedantic but the colour of gold is gold...that's why it's called gold."
Queenie - "I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach...of a concrete elephant."
Prince George - "Prince George is shy and just pretends to be bluff and crass and unbelievably thick and gittish"
Lieutenant George - "I need to construct a case that's as watertight as a mermaid's brassiere. I'm not sure your particular brand of mindless optimism is going to contribute much to the proceedings."
General Melchett - "Tell me, have you ever visited the planet Earth, sir?"
And, of course, Baldrick - "Baldrick, that is by far and away the worst and most contemptible plan in the history of the universe."
"It is the way of the world, Baldrick: the abused always kick downwards. I kick the cat, the cat pounces on the mouse and finally the mouse bites you on the behind."
Blackadder teaches us a great deal, not necessarily about British history but more about the English class system and the attitudes of Englishmen on its different rungs, in particular towards each other.
Whether it be Baldrick's Bolshevik epiphany in series 4 ("Have you smelt it, sir? There's something afoot in the wind") or our introduction in series 3 to Sir Talbot Buxomly whose hobbies include "flogging servants, shooting poor people and the extension of slavery to anyone who hasn't got a knighthood."
Edmund Blackadder himself is a paradigm of frustrated social mobility. The audience is given to understand in no uncertain terms that if Britain were a meritocracy, he'd be running the show from upon the throne rather than behind it. Yet in each series, he finds his ambitions ("to be young and wild and then to be middle-aged and rich and then to be old and annoy people by pretending [he's] deaf") thwarted by the half-witted heredity of the establishment.
This manifests itself in the series 2 through the capricious Queenie (Elizabeth I) who pits her beleaguered courtiers against one another in flirting death-matches for her affections. In series 3 it is the peanut-headed Prince Regent who, despite "dressing like a mad parrot and talking like a plate of beans negotiating its way out of a cow's digestive system," is next in line to the throne. In the fourth series, it is the "barking, wine-soaked fascist" (Hugh Laurie's words) that is General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett: a man who court-marshals Blackadder for shooting a pigeon yet thinks nothing of sending thousands of the lower orders to their slaughter in order to move Field Marshall Haig's drinks cabinet "six inches closer to Berlin." Baldrick makes up the triumvirate by representing the terminally grime-encrusted face and rancid, boot-ridden trouser-seat of the turnip-fancying British working class.
One perhaps slightly depressing thing about Blackadder's journey through the squalid back passages of yore is that the relative fortunes of the three dynasties never really seem to change all that much. At the top of the pile is always a chinless product of an aeon's inbreeding, at the bottom, "sleeping in a puddle" is always the hapless Baldrick and perennially sandwiched in between the lunatics of the insane asylum is old Bladders himself. I suppose the chief reason for this is that each of the characters is a product of his station in life and would cease to be engaging outside of it. Baldrick's relentless and endearingly unmerited optimism would ring false in the palaces of the mighty and without the wanton abuse of his social superiors, Blackadder's withering mordancy would simply be cruel.
I'm anaspeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have caused you such pericombobulations.
Blackadder contains some of the most sumptuous dialogue ever seen on TV. I could go on for pages and pages about the delightfully self-indulgent prolixity of the script but I wont. I'll simply confine myself to admitting that it makes me do little wees of joy and list a few choice examples of the trademark "Blackadder extended simile" courtesy of series 4:
"A man may fight for many things: his country, his principles, his friends, the glistening tear on the face of a golden child. But personally, I'd mud-wrestle my own mother for a ton of cash, an amusing clock and a sack of French porn."
Edmund Blackadder is basically a bastard. He pretends to be dead so that he doesn't have to speak to his "old bat" of a mother. He sells Baldrick into prostitution to pay off a loan shark. He becomes the "minister in charge of religious genocide" and accidentally beheads the wrong man in order to give himself half the week off. He shags a nurse and then grasses her up as a German spy. He drugs a bishop and makes him perform unspeakable acts of sexual depravity with the heir to the Duchy of Northumberland. He then commissions paintings of said acts and uses them to bribe said bishop. He does a turn as a highwayman and holds up carriage at gunpoint, using Baldrick as his steed. He lies, cheats, steals, fornicates, extorts, pimps and defrauds.
In the final episode of series 2, Eddie babes agrees, without too much duress, to betray the queen in order to save his own skin.
"Blackadder, what of honour? Loyalty? Self-respect?!" demands an incredulous Lord Melchett.
Bladders' reply is as inevitable as it is sardonic. "What of them?"
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