Review for Blackadder: Remastered - The Ultimate Edition
I made a mental note, twenty years ago to repurchase the Blackadder Collection on DVD. I’ve finally gotten around to it now. I originally bought The Complete Blackadder, which was a piece of false advertising, as it contained just the four series, with no extra features, and none of the special episodes. Although it’s the fact that I dropped the second disc, scratching it to the point that it froze during playback that made me make that mental note. That was reinforced when this Ultimate Edition was released in 2009, which did indeed offer extra features and those special episodes. It’s only taken me 13 years to act on that mental note and finally buy the thing. God those numbers are scary. Just thinking about it, of the original series cast, only Princess Leia of Hungary is yet to collect a free bus pass.
The content is presented as follows across six DVD discs from 2 Entertain.
“The Blackadder” is the first series. Set in the middle ages, it follows the history of England in the interregnum between the death of Richard III and the ascension of Henry Tudor. In these few years, lost to history, Richard’s son, Richard IV ascended to the throne. His two heirs were the affable Prince Harry and the snivelling worm Edmund, the Duke of Edinburgh. After an unfortunate mishap with a sword during the Battle of Bosworth field, Edmund finds himself second in line to the throne. Seeing an imminent opportunity for advancement, he schemes to expedite the removal of his two impediments. Aiding him in his machinations are the wily Baldrick and the imbecile Percy.
1. The Foretelling
2. The Queen of Spain’s Beard
3. The Archbishop
4. Born to Be King
5. Witchsmeller Pursuivant
6. The Black Seal
In Blackadder II. The dashing Lord Blackadder makes his appearance in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, where he vies for the good favour of his sovereign and serves at her capricious whim. His chief rival is the ambitious Lord Melchett, whose ability to brown-nose is matched only by his machinations against his rivals. Hindering Blackadder in his ascent are his servant, Baldrick and his friend Lord Percy, who if possible is more of a moron than his ancestor.
Blackadder the Third. A few decades down the line and the Blackadder family fortunes have tumbled somewhat. He is butler to the Prince Regent, who shares the family brain cell with his father George III, who thinks he’s a penguin. Blackadder’s ambition is greater than before and with the aid of his faithful servant Baldrick strives endlessly for the top. Catering for an imbecile whilst aided by a moron takes its toll on the best of schemers and Edmund’s only respite is the occasional visit to Mrs Miggin’s Pie Shoppe.
1. Dish and Dishonesty
2. Ink and Incapability
3. Nob and Nobility
4. Sense and Senility
5. Amy and Amiability
6. Duel and Duality
Blackadder goes Forth in the year 1917, the place is the Western front and Captain Edmund Blackadder, having joined the army to plunder untold riches and conquer pygmies armed with fruit finds himself in the hell that is the Great War. Who could have guessed? Stuck in a trench trying to avoid the big push, his constant companions are Private S. Baldrick and Lt George. Going over the top armed with a rifle equipped with a bayonet facing the Bosche who are armed with the latest in machine guns is a fate to be avoided. Unfortunately, General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett and his aide de camp Captain Kevin Darling think this is good military sense and insist on ordering Blackadder to his doom.
1. Captain Cook
2. Corporal Punishment
3. Major Star
4. Private Plane
5. General Hospital
Blackadder: The Specials:-
Back and Forth
Created for the Millennium, this begins at a dinner party on Millennium Eve, where Blackadder has a delightful prank to play on his friends, and make some money. Key to his plan is a “time machine” that he asked Baldrick to build. Only Baldrick, being an idiot, went and built an actual time machine. Note that this is the only instalment of Blackadder to get an anamorphic widescreen presentation with 5.1 Surround Sound.
This is the behind the scenes documentary to go with Back and Forth, with the conceit that Tony Robinson stays in character as Baldrick for the duration, trying to be interviewed in the face of abject indifference. This too is in widescreen.
The Cavalier Years
This Comic Relief Special is set at the time of the English Civil War, where Lord Blackadder has to avoid the machinations of Oliver Cromwell, and keep King Charles’s head attached to his body.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Blackadder runs London’s finest moustache emporium. He’s also renowned as the kindest, nicest, and most gullible man in England. He’s even kind in his jibes to Baldrick, his dogsbody. Then one Christmas night, a spirit shows up, having taken a wrong turn. This Blackadder is in no need of reform, but in passing conversation, the ghostly figure offers to show him just how bad things could have been, by introducing him to a couple of Blackadders from time gone by.
Blackadder Rides Again is the 25th Anniversary Documentary from 2008, which takes a look back at the four series of Blackadder, with a brief mention of the Christmas Carol, and forgetting Back and Forth completely. The cast, the writers and the producer are all interviewed, and there are a few behind the scenes snippets to appreciate.
They say re-mastered, but there is only so much you can do with a show that is sourced for the most part from the videotape that the BBC were using in the seventies and eighties. Other than Back and Forth and the documentary disc, the shows are presented in 4:3 regular PAL format. Ironically, it is the most recent series, Blackadder Goes Forth that looks worst in this collection, soft of image and prone to ghosting, although that might be down to the subdued lighting to make the sets look more authentic. It might seem that the glare that often causes flaring on videotape has been toned down a little compared to the first release of the show, but what is obvious is that these discs do scale up better to flat panel HD displays than that first issue of the show. The same is true for the specials disc, although the most recent iteration, Back and Forth looks a whole lot better.
Except for Back and Forth, the discs present their content with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio. The all important dialogue is clear, and there are English subtitles should you need them. These mostly studio-bound comedy shows don’t exactly need the pinnacle of surround technology, but the audio does exactly what it needs to without dropout or distortion.
I got a rather substantial pack, a little more than two Amaray cases thick. The six discs of the collection are held in a digibook, the front page of which folds out, offering a contents listing on one leaf, and then the Baldrick family tree spread across two leaves. This is all held in thin card slipcase. And this time around there are extra features, although none on The Blackadder Disc 1. The discs all boot to animated menus, although matching the right theme song to the right series was apparently an optional extra.
Disc 2: Blackadder II
Audio commentary on Bells with Ben Elton, Richard Curtis & John Lloyd
Audio commentary on Money with Tony Robinson & Tim McInnerny
Audio commentary on Chains with Stephen Fry
Disc 3: Blackadder the Third
Audio commentary on Ink and Incapability with Rowan Atkinson and John Lloyd
Audio commentary on Amy and Amiability with Ben Elton, Richard Curtis & John Lloyd
Audio commentary on Duel and Duality with Stephen Fry
Of most disappointment is the first commentary, while John Lloyd’s mike volume is maxed out, Rowan Atkinson’s mike isn’t turned on, and much of what he says is inaudible.
Disc 4: Blackadder Goes Forth
Audio Commentary on Major Star with Tony Robinson and Tim McInnerny
Audio Commentary on Goodbyeee with John Lloyd and Rowan Atkinson
Thankfully Rowan Atkinson is audible in the latter commentary.
Disc 6: Blackadder Rides Again
Here you’ll find a set of more complete interviews, and one mini-featurette that add more to the interview segments used in the Blackadder Rides Again documentary.
Rowan Atkinson Interview (23:35)
Stephen Fry Interview (15:02)
Richard Curtis & Ben Elton Interview (16:27)
Tony Robinson Interview (14:38)
Miranda Richardson Interview (4:58)
Hilary Bevan Jones Interview (4:47)
Hugh Laurie Interview (4:40)
Rik Mayall Interview (4:22)
Costumes Revisited (10:22)
For me, this is the price of admission, the one show that is in the set for the sake of completion, and you have to live with it (although thankfully not watch it unless you’re writing a review) so that you can have the other three, superlative seasons of Blackadder. Ben Elton wasn’t involved in writing the first one, and that tells in the complete absence of cruel sarcasm, impaired comic timing, and an apparent inability to sell the jokes. Some gags, usually the unfunny ones are really delivered with a mallet, while other jokes are buried under background noise or Brian Blessed’s bellows.
It’s all twisted around. Edmund Blackadder is the idiot. However Lord Percy is still more of an idiot than he is, but it’s Baldrick who is the smart one, the one series where his cunning plans truly are cunning, although still not cunning enough for Blackadder to avoid a regular downfall. The irony is that this is the series that got all the money thrown at it, in terms of sets and locations... the size of supporting cast, the production value; it’s practically a feature film shot on videotape. But this Blackadder is more Mr Bean than anything charming, sophisticated, or wearily sardonic as his descendants would turn out to be.
This is still my favourite of the Blackadder quartet, although it’s always been a fine line between the three Ben Elton co-penned series. There’s much to say for the first series to ‘fix’ all that was wrong with The Blackadder. Edmund Blackadder is most certainly the protagonist here, the wit, style and intelligence to stand above his peers, and also an unlikely sex symbol in this second series. Baldrick assumes his rightful place as idiot, ably supported in his imbecility by Lord Percy, both dim-witted foils that Blackadder keeps around to feel even smarter. Against this is the royal court, with Queen Elizabeth a demented toddler in adult form, with life or death power over her ‘favourites’, Edmund and Lord Melchett. Melchett is a brown-noser extraordinaire, while the insanity of Nursie is enough to protect her from her charge’s whims. It’s the perfect ensemble cast.
And with this cast you get six divine episodes beginning with the superlative Bells, which introduces the cross-dressing Bob, and Lord Flashheart, whose flamboyance nigh on succeeds in stealing the whole series, let alone the episode. The Elizabethan era is a cornucopia of potential, and you can see that in the variety in the stories, whether it’s becoming the high executioner, sailing the seven seas, trying to outwit a money lender, getting boozed up, or being held to ransom by a lunatic German with low self esteem. With the second series, Blackadder found self awareness and a delicious sense of irony that made it the classic that still holds up today.
Blackadder the Third
The third season shows improvement over the previous series, even though Blackadder II is my favourite. I just love the scoundrel and rogue aspects of that character. Here, Blackadder is servant to the Prince of Wales, right hand man to royalty to be sure, but lower in station. It’s less about charm and wit, than it is about a biting talent for sarcasm, and a tendency to take out his frustrations on his dogsbody Baldrick in the way Basil Fawlty treated Manuel.
The six stories here are also improved over what came before, tighter, richer and funnier, beginning with an on-the-nose satire of British politics, followed by a delightful bit of silliness with Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. There’s a stronger taste of the historical period with the French Revolution, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, and then there is the appreciation for the theatrical arts, oratory, and the size of one’s trousers. And of course there a bit of Cyrano, as Blackadder tries to woo a bride for a hard-up prince, and of course the finale where the Duke of Wellington challenges the prince to a duel. Memorable episodes all, but this third series is something I best remember as the one where Blackadder wins.
Blackadder Goes Forth
It’s really strange, but even as I can see the Blackadder scripts and performances improving with each subsequent season, my preference is in opposition to that. For me the second season is perfect, the third brilliant, and the fourth stunning, but I will always choose to watch the third over the fourth, and the second over both of them. It’s down to how the Blackadder characters differ, in the second he’s a charming rogue, the third a sarcastic schemer, while in the fourth he’s more world weary, cynical, but resigned. That of course is appropriate for the wartime trenches setting, and the gallows reality of the situation.
Most wartime comedies of the time tended to minimise the war, and instead focus on the comedy. Shows like Dad’s Army and Allo Allo never really touched on the reality. Blackadder Goes Forth on the other hand, despite its daft comedy, its bizarre moments of surrealism, is about as satirical and as biting on the nature of conflict as M*A*S*H. Rik Mayall may show up again to simply steal the show as Lord Flashheart, but no other Blackadder series found such moments of drama and poignancy within its utter hilarity. The final episode of season 4 is one of the most memorable and finest moments of television. It goes from the utter wheeze inducing hilarity of Baldrick’s cappuccino to evoking tears in the audience for its final scenes.
Blackadder: The Specials
Let’s face it, the real reason to play this disc is Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, which maintains that particular style of comedy, albeit subverting it by making the main character likeable, and kind. Even his commentary on Baldrick’s deficiencies is delivered from a good place. Then Hagrid shows up, and inadvertently shows Ebenezer Blackadder the error of his ways, through a couple of mini adventures with the Blackadders from the second and third seasons. The 45 minute runtime gives the story the time it needs to breathe, although it must be noted that the version on this disc is edited, removing Baldrick’s line about the children wanting to take the dog that played baby Jesus in the nativity, and nailing it up at Easter.
The Cavalier Years is almost as funny, with Stephen Fry wheeling out a passable Prince Charles impersonation, but at just 15 minutes, this Comic Relief sketch never really gets the space to develop. But it’s still better than Back and Forth, the Blackadder ‘movie’ created for the Millennium Experience. It loses what is special about the franchise, and instead replaces it with rather a generic adventure romp, with even the Blackadder II era jaunt rather disappointing. While the various Blackadders through history have been cads and bounders, Blackadder circa 1999 is a little too mellow.
Remastered is just an advertising term when it comes to BBC TV shows of this vintage. The source material is of such limited video quality that there’s not much that you can do to make them look better, although as mentioned, these discs do scale up to an HD display a lot better than the first release of Blackadder on DVD. The shows themselves are peerless; at least the final three seasons. The original Blackadder has its moments, but it’s only when the perfect character balance is found, the right amount of post-modern satire and sarcasm added, that the Blackadder we all know and love arrives.
This collection adds the special episodes that were missing from the first, barebones release, although it’s really Blackadder’s Christmas Carol that stands out. Back and Forth misses the mark, and The Cavalier Years is just too short. Moreover we get extras too, although half of the commentaries are a tad disappointing (Stephen Fry really just occasionally narrates what’s on screen, which is disappointing given how much a raconteur he is). But the real value of the extras is on disc 6; just 4 minutes of Rik Mayall remind just how much his anarchic humour is missed. The Ultimate Blackadder is a great set, and well worth a double dip if you only bought the original release.