Our review of Black Adder: The Ultimate Edition Remastered, published November 11th, 2009, is also available.
I…have a cunning plan.
DVD has been a boon to film lovers everywhere. Let me correct that. DVD has been a boon to film lovers almost everywhere (considering that movies and electronics aren't allowed in Afghanistan I would not wish to speak for those people living there). The format has offered unprecedented levels of quality in video and audio for the movies we've come to enjoy over the years. But a few people have figured out another use for DVD—archival quality preservation of old television shows. Paramount, Fox and BBC have all managed to have a great deal of success with releasing their TV franchises in DVD format, and it's on BBC that this review will focus.
Over the years, the BBC has been home to a number of landmark television series, most notable of which (speaking for Americans) was "Monty Python's Flying Circus," a grand achievement in comedic absurdity that ran for three seasons and spawned record albums, live shows and movies, some of which can still be seen today. With the success of the Pythoners, Americans began to take more notice of British sitcoms and have enjoyed the likes of "Fawlty Towers" (declared by BBC as the greatest sitcom of all time), "Absolutely Fabulous," "Mr. Bean" and, of course, "The Black Adder."
The "Black Adder" series ran for four separate seasons of six episodes each, with each season placing a member of the Blackadder family and his manservant Baldrick in a different time period. Comedian Rowan Atkinson (Bean, Rat Race) and Tony Robinson (The Neverending Story III) star in each episode, two specials, and a special film presentation that are all lovingly presented in one DVD package.
Facts of the Case
"The Black Adder"—1485
• "The Foretelling"—Set in the really dark ages, the War of the Roses has just ended and Richard III (Peter Cook, The Princess Bride) loses his head in a bit of a "riding mishap," elevating Richard IV (a boisterous Brian Blessed, Flash Gordon) to the throne, meaning that Prince Edmund (Atkinson) is now third in line. But who is this mysterious wounded stranger who's been taken in to be nursed back to health by Baldrick (Robinson) and Lord Percy (Tim McInnerny, 101 Dalmatians)?
• "Born To Be King"—with Richard IV away, a murderous, psychotic, kilt-wearing Scotsman arrives with a dark secret that could depose Prince Harry (Robert East) as regent and place Prince Edmund on the throne. Or, perhaps not.
• "The Archbishop"—dead Archbishops of Canterbury are appearing in London, and Edmund the Reluctant finds himself in a tight spot when the king makes him the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Can Edmund survive for longer than a week?
• "The Queen of Spain's Beard"—King Richard IV is practicing diplomacy by marrying off his two sons. Prince Harry gets all of the beautiful women, and Edmund gets stuck with the Princess of Spain, who's none too easy on the eyes.
• "Witchsmeller Pursuivant"—when the King comes down with The Plague, witchcraft is suspected so the call goes out for a witchsmeller to burn Edmund and Baldrick at the stake.
• "The Black Seal"—with all of his options at an end, Edmund decides to seize the throne by force and enlists the Seven Most Evil Men in the Land to help him. This does him no good as he ends up in a dungeon cell with Mad Gerald (Rik Mayall, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) and his dead pet rat.
"Black Adder II"—1546-1603
• "Bells"—It's now the era of Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson, Chicken Run, Sleepy Hollow) and Sir Edmund Blackadder (Atkinson) has sworn off women forever until, that is, he meets Bob (Gabrielle Glaister, Jane Eyre). Rik Mayall guest stars as the libidinous Lord Flasheart.
• "Head"—Edmund is promoted to Minister of Regional Genocide and Lord High Executioner and makes the mistake of chopping off the wrong person's head. Without a cunning plan, he may very well lose his own head.
• "Potato"—Sir Walter Raleigh (Simon Jones, 12 Monkeys) returns from his voyage, and a jealous Blackadder sets out on a voyage to go nowhere to prove his mettle. After hiring the deranged Captain Redbeard Rum (Tom Baker—"Dr. Who"), Edmund, Baldrick (Robinson) and Lord Percy (McInnerny) have to dig deep to survive, preferably without drinking urine.
• "Money"—Edmund is flat broke, which is a bad thing when a baby-eating bishop (Ronald Lacey) shows up to either collect on a debt or shove a red hot poker somewhere sensitive. His efforts are not helped at all by a prank-loving Queen.
• "Beer"—a fanatically Puritan aunt pays a visit to Edmund to discuss his inheritance on the same night as a scheduled beer-drinking shindig. It's one embarrassment after another topped by an incident with a turnip. Future cast member Hugh Laurie (Stuart Little) guest stars as a partygoer.
• "Chains"—Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Certainly not Edmund, anyway. When he and Lord Melchett (Fry) are captured by Spaniards, it takes a game of charades to make an effective escape.
Black Adder in "The Cavalier Years"—1648
It's 1648 and Oliver Cromwell (Warren Clarke) and his Roundheads are chopping off the noggins of various royal persons. When King Charles (Stephen Fry, A Fish Called Wanda) is captured it might be up to Lord Edmund Blackadder and his not-so-cunning sidekick Baldrick to save the day with a plan calling for a pumpkin and a fake beard.
"Blackadder the Thirde"—1768-1815
• "Dish and Dishonesty"—the family fortunes have been unkind through the years, and Edmund Blackadder, Esq. (Atkinson) is now a servant to the Prince of Wales (Laurie), the thickest man in all of England. With the Prince Regent about to go broke, a plan to save his fortune accidentally elevates Baldrick (Robinson) to the House of Lords.
• "Ink and Incapability"—Blackadder dismisses the attempts of Samuel Johnson (Robbie Coltrane, Nuns On the Run) to assemble the world's first dictionary until he learns of Johnson's interest in an author named Gertrude Perkins.
• "Nob and Nobility"—with the French Revolution in full swing, Blackadder's hatred of everything French seems outdated. He decides to gather wealth and notoriety with a cunning plan to impersonate the Scarlet Pimpernel (Nigel Planer—"The Young Ones"), but ends up in a prison cell instead.
• "Sense and Senility"—Prince George hires two actors to help him with his speeches, but a Shakespeare-hating Blackadder decides to have a little fun at their expense.
• "Amy and Amiability"—the Prince is bankrupt and no self-respecting princess would ever marry him. Needless to say, someone has a cunning plan.
• "Duel and Duality"—the Prince of Wales upsets the murderous Duke of Wellington (Fry), and Blackadder finds himself right in the middle of a duel.
"Blackadder's Christmas Carol"
In the time of Queen Victoria, Ebenezer Blackadder is the kindest, most giving soul in all of England. That is, until he is visited by the Spirit of Christmas (Coltrane), who shows Blackadder his family's spotty past. Stephen Fry, Miranda Richardson and Hugh Laurie all reprise notable roles from past eras.
"Black Adder Goes Forth"—1914-1918
• "Captain Cook"—It's the Great War, and General Melchett (Fry) decides he needs to move his liquor cabinet six inches closer to Berlin. This is upsetting news to Captain Blackadder (Atkinson) who will be called upon to lead the charge into certain death, but not so upsetting to the bawdy Lieutenant George (Laurie). Can Baldrick (Robinson) cook up a dish so good it will get them removed from the front?
• "Corporal Punishment"—when General Melchett's favorite carrier pigeon is shot dead by Blackadder, he decides the best punishment is a firing squad.
• "Major Star"—with the Russian Revolution underway Captain Darling (McInnerny) suggests that morale is down amongst the troops. Captain Blackadder puts on a show for the men with hopes of being returned to England, but needs some help from General Melchett's driver, Bob (Glaister).
• "Private Plane"—Squadron Commander Lord Flasheart (Mayall) crash lands on Blackadder's bunker and Lieutenant George misinterprets the meaning of the "Twenty Minuters," leading Blackadder to join the Air Corps. When he's shot down and captured by the Red Baron (Adrian Edmondson—"The Young Ones") he's tortured with appalling German humor.
• "General Hospital"—a spy is discovered at the hospital, and it's up to Blackadder to discover his identity, which is okay since it gets him away from the front for three weeks. Once there he discovers a man with a thick German accent and an amorous nurse (Richardson).
• "Goodbyeee"—it's 1918 and it's time for the big push, meaning certain death for Blackadder's squad unless he comes up with a cunning plan.
Black Adder: Back and Forth
It's New Year's Eve 1999, and old friends (Atkinson, Robinson, Laurie, Fry, McInnerny and Richardson—all reprising namesakes of past characters) have gathered to ring in the new millennium. A prank with a fake time machine goes awry when it turns out the machine actually works, causing Blackadder to wreak havoc in the past. Colin Firth (Bridget Jones' Diary, Shakespeare In Love) and Kate Moss join Blackadder contemporary Rik Mayall in a bizarre look at the past.
That's a lot of material. They were not joking when they called this "The Complete Collection," and this is really more than any Blackadder fan could ask for.
Richard Curtis delves into his historical knowledge and blends these bizarre characters seamlessly into England's storied history. Ben Elton, fresh off from finishing work on "The Young Ones," joined Curtis at the start of season two, and the rest, as they say, is history. After season one, which is probably the least funny of the four seasons, the humor becomes a bit more cheeky and situational, which is a bit closer to what American audiences are accustomed to watching during prime time. The humor is still very intelligent, and the BBC has included a "What's What—Interactive Guide to Historical Figures and Events" to let audiences in on the joke. Topics covered range from Morris dancing all the way up to General Haig, who led the British ground forces during World War I. Each entry is narrated by Tony Robinson.
Atkinson revels in playing a devilish character and manages to fill the various Blackadders with a snide rancor rarely seen in American sitcoms. This is a good thing, since TV needs more comedic anti-heroes and dark humor. There's no moral or lesson learned at the end of each episode, and that's the way I like it, thankyouverymuch. Atkinson and Tony Robinson, who portrays the various Baldricks, developed a keen sense of timing with each other as the series progressed, which is also a good thing. During season three (my personal favorite), Baldrick became a whole lot dumber and foul-smelling, leading to some truly classic moments between him and Blackadder. The cast rounds out nicely with a combination of some of Britain's top comedic and dramatic actors. Hugh Laurie steals just about every scene he's in during the third and fourth seasons, and Miranda Richardson hits high spots as Queen Elizabeth. If a viewer is ever confused about which actor is playing which character, the BBC has graciously included a "Who's Who in Blackadder" feature on each of the DVD's, presenting a short biography (also narrated Tony Robinson) on the principle actors.
If having each entire season wasn't enough, "The Cavalier Years" and "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" were also included. These two specials present a quick look at other periods in history, and offer up some funny moments. "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" might be the downright rudest episode that was written, and it hits the creative high point of the series as Dickens' classic gets skewered, stomped on and thrown out into the street to be run over by a car.
When looking at the video, keep in mind that this is a TV show that was filmed during the '80s. That is to say that the overall quality isn't all that great. Warner Brothers and BBC have done a commendable job in restoring the video, but the limitations of the source material is evident throughout. The transfer results in quality that is better than the VHS releases, but it's not that much better. The only exception to this rule would be on the "Black Adder: Back and Forth" episode that was filmed for a millennium celebration in London, which looks rather pristine in comparison to the standard episodes. The audio components are about on par with the video, but it's the content that matters, not the soundtrack. The DTS soundtrack on "Black Adder: Back and Forth" deserves special note in the sense that the DTS is poorly utilized. Rear speakers are hardly used at all, and they could probably have just as well kept it in a mono format.
Rounding out the special features, we are presented with an interview with Richard Curtis, a "Making of" documentary on the "Back and Forth" reunion show, and a Blackadder Sing-Along. It's nice stuff to have that would never have seen the light of day on VHS.
I would also like to make particular mention of the menus on each of the DVDs, which are very well organized and laid out. Each of the six episodes is handily divided into six chapters, making navigation through each of the discs a breeze. Thank you, Warner Brothers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The one large problem with "Black Adder" is that it might be a little too intelligent for its own good. Historical references fly out of characters' mouths faster than you can catch them, which makes the associated joke a bit less funny. If you're not up on England's history, you might have some issues with a number of the gags. I suppose an American watching an episode of "Black Adder" might be the equivalent of somebody in England listening to a Dennis Miller rant—it's funny but half of the routine goes over your head. These shows are still hilarious, but they are certainly not as accessible as Atkinson's more familiar role in "Mr. Bean."
Also, the humor can be a bit uneven when comparing the various seasons. Season one tries a bit too hard. There are some very funny moments (especially in "The Archbishop" and "The Black Seal") but they are few and far between. Once Ben Elton began writing the shows began to get funnier, with the writers and cast hitting their stride with season three. "Black Adder: Back and Forth" was also rather uneven and largely came as a disappointment to me. It's worth watching for a few of the laughs, and to see the "end" of the Blackadder family dynasty.
My last complaint concerns the sound levels, which vastly differ from the menu screens to the actual episodes. The volume needs to be turned up to watch each episode, and turned down before entering the menus. Failure to do so will result in your neighbors beating on their walls and ceilings with blunt instruments.
As you can probably guess, I'm a huge fan of this show, but I simply can't recommend buying the DVD set to everyone. If you are already a fan of "Black Adder," this set is for you and you will not be disappointed. If you like British comedy but have yet to experience "Black Adder," try to rent it first to see if it fits your sense of taste (I would suggest "Black Adder the Thirde" or "Black Adder Goes Forth" for starters). If you're looking for "Mr. Bean," I'd suggest looking elsewhere.
Everyone involved is acquitted of all charges, and are commended for producing a definitive collection of the "Black Adder" series.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Who's Who in Blackadder
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