Writing a thorough review of Blackadder is difficult as it’s not your typical comedy program. The series, which helped make stars out of actor Rowan Atkinson and writer/director Richard Curtis, was produced for four seasons between 1983 and 1989, as well as several well regarded specials. Each season took place during a different period of English history, beginning with the Middle Ages in season one and finishing up in World War I for the fourth and final season. The four separate seasons are not tied together other than the fact that Atiknson stars as the main character and Tony Robinson co-stars as his abused sidekick, Baldrick. Blackadder also featured breakout performances by Stephen Fry, Miranda Richardson and Hugh Laurie in supporting roles and it is considered one of the seminal British comedies of all time. This new box set from the BBC contains every episode and each special, all digitally remastered for the first time, as well as new bonus materials never before featured on previous video releases.
Here is a brief overview of each series. As stated, The Black Adder (Series 1) takes place during the Middle Ages. In it, Atkinson is Prince Edmund, the ill begotten second son of King Richard IV. After his father is made king, Edmund, a lazy, sniveling nitwit, believes he can weasel his way into someday becoming king by outsmarting his older brother, Harry (Robert East) and fooling his father (a booming Brian Blessed). Of course, none of his plans succeed and Edmund, who has dubbed himself “The Black Adder,” proves himself a fool by the end of each episode. Assisting him in his schemes are Baldrick (Robinson) a dirty, sneaky servant, and Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny).
Blackadder II is set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (late 1500’s), with the Queen played by Richardson. In the second series, Edmund’s characteristics have changed. No longer is he a bumbling idiot, but instead, Atkinson’s Lord Blackadder is a cunning Macheveilian character trying to woo the Queen. Stephen Fry joined the cast as Lord Melchett; Robinson and McInnerny returned as characters bearing the same namesakes and responsibilities as the previous season. Blackadder II saw a shift in tone from the first season, most notably in Edmund’s character. No longer was he a sniveling dolt, but instead a smartass with a knack for witty wordplay. Blackadder II is also significant in that Ben Elton came on board as co-writer with Richard Curtis. The two men found a balance of slapstick and subtlety that was lacking in the first season. They would work on the remaining series together, shaping it into a classic.
Blackadder the Third finds the series set during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, when King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince of Wales, acted as regent. He was known as the Prince Regent (one thing about this show is that it makes you bone up on World History). In this series, Edmund (Atkinson) is the butler to the Prince Regent (Laurie), who is portrayed as a foppish idiot. Baldrick is back again, as an underling to Edmund, making him practically a peasant (McInnerny opted out of the third series). As the prince is a buffoon, it’s up to Edmund to advice him on matters of the state. By the end of the third series run, Edmund is actually running the kingdom, posing as the prince. Laurie is hilarious; this box set is worth checking out simply as a reminder that he is a gifted comedian as well as a brilliant dramatic actor.
Blackadder Goes Forth was the final series. It takes place in the trenches of World War I. Unlike the previous series, this 4th season has an air of dread that hangs over the proceedings. The seriousness of war and the unknown fate of these characters makes Blackadder Goes Forth, by far, the best of all of them. Atkinson is Captain Blackadder, whose only goal serving on the frontline is to survive. Thus, he creates schemes to get removed front, schemes that invariably backfire. His comrades in the trench are Laurie as Lieutenant George, a bumbling, though well intentioned twit, and Robinson as Private Baldrick, who functions as Captain Blackadder’s principle servant. Ruling from safe confines, far away from the bombs and gunfire are General Melchett, a sly, even sinister commanding officer played by Fry, and his secretary, Captain Darling, portrayed by a returning McInnerny. Series four contains the same witty and physical humor that the series is known for, but it is also a biting commentary about war and power. The final episode, in which the main characters prepare for a suicide charge on their enemy, is bittersweet; the final moments are moving and powerful.
This handsomely packaged DVD collection comes with an abundance of special features. Included are two Blackadder specials (which aired between series 3 and 4), plenty of entertaining commentary that appears on DVD for the first time, interviews with the principal cast, an hour long documentary to mark the 25th Anniversary of Blackadder, and much more. For those of you who yearn for comedy that takes risks, this is a series you should check out. And for those of you who have already been fans of Blackadder, but who have never bought any of their seasons on DVD, I recommend either buying or renting the box set. You will not be disappointed.