The path of Judge Jim Thomas' life is strewn with cowpats from the Devil's own Satanic herd!
Our review of Black Adder: The Complete Collection, published July 17th, 2001, is also available.
Percy: I must say, Edmund, it was jolly nice of you to ask me to share
your breakfast before the rigors of the day begin.
BBC Video brings us a remastered edition of the almost literally timeless tales of that caddishly charming rogue—Black Adder: The Ultimate Edition Remastered.
What a cunning plan!
The concept is diabolically simple—take the same basic set of characters and place them in different time periods. The conceit keeps the writers from having to spend much time establishing the characters, but at the same time, the changed surroundings keep the proceedings from growing stale. The result is a true classic.
Here are the main series:
• The Black Adder (Set in the late 15th Century): The original Black Adder, Edmund of York (Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean), forgotten son of the curiously unrecorded King Richard IV (Brian Blessed, Flash Gordon), schemes with his servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson, 101 Dalmatians) to place himself on the throne—or at least get his father to remember his name.
• Blackadder II (The Elizabethan era): Edmund, Lord Blackadder, tries to stay in good graces with Queen Elizabeth (Miranda Richardson, The Crying Game). Along the way, he must pay back a loan shark—The Bishop of Bath & Wells—and escape the clutches of Prince Ludwig of Germany (Hugh Laurie, House).
• Blackadder the Third (late 18th Century): Edmund Blackadder serves as butler to the somewhat dim Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie, who threatens to steal every scene he's in).
• Blackadder Goes Forth (World War I): Stuck in the trenches with Baldrick and Lt. George C. St. Barleigh (Hugh Laurie), Captain Blackadder grasps at any scheme to get out of the trenches before the impending "Big Push" that will almost certainly get him killed.
The first series is uneven, mainly because Edmund's character isn't well defined, with bits of idiot and cunning schemer all mixed together. By the second series, the character is more clearly defined. Here is the Blackadder we come to know and love: arrogant, scheming, quick-witted, and with more (and better) insults than a Don Rickles routine. More importantly, he is teamed up with characters who are just as outrageous as he, from Queen Elizabeth to the Prince Regent to General Melchett (Stephen Fry, V for Vendetta). At Blackadder's side through it all is Baldrick, his infinitely loyal and infinitely dimwitted manservant. The result is nothing short of brilliant.
Everyone has a particular favorite—I prefer the second and fourth series myself, the former because Blackadder has a charming rogue quality absent in the other series, and the latter for the way the humor underscores the fatalistic tone of trench warfare.
There are also a couple of one-off specials:
• Blackadder: The Cavalier Years—In the midst of the English Civil War (1648), Blackadder, who is hiding the deposed King Charles I (Stephen Fry), must figure out how to save the king from execution and save himself from being denounced as a royalist.
• Blackadder: A Christmas Carol—Edmund Blackadder is the nicest, most generous man in all of England—until he gets a visit from a Christmas Ghost (Robbie Coltrane, Goldeneye).
• Blackadder: Back and Forth—It's New Year's Eve 1999, and Blackadder plans an elaborate trick on his friends using a fake time machine. The cunning plan goes awry, however, when Baldrick screws up and builds a time machine that works. Sort of.
There are still a few short sketches that aren't included—the writers and Atkinson occasionally did Blackadder shorts for special events (The Cavalier Years was done for BBC Comic Relief). Perhaps the biggest omission is the original pilot, which is basically an abbreviated version of the Series 1 episode, "Born to be King." In the pilot, Edmund is much closer to the Blackadder of Blackadder II and beyond; it would be wonderful to get the writers to talk about how what changed between the pilot and the first series.
Black Adder: The Complete Collector's Set was released back in 2001, so remastering must have had a massive impact on the picture, right? Not so much, actually. Here are a few almost identical screen caps. For each pair, the top image is from the earlier edition.
As you can see, the remastered picture is a little sharper and the colors are a little brighter, but the difference isn't pronounced. There's still some occasional flaring from light sources, particularly in Blackadder Goes Forth, with its dark interiors, and most of the episodes suffer from a somewhat soft image, but it's not pronounced enough to be a distraction. The Dolby 2.0 mix is retained from the previous release, and it's quite good for the dialogue-heavy show.
The set retains the extras from the previous release—including the "Historical Context" bits that are particularly useful to us bloody colonials. New for this release is "Baldrick's Video Diary," which combines some behind-the- scenes footage from the "Back and Forth" special with some retrospective interviews. There's also a 2008 documentary made for the series' twenty-fifth anniversary. Everyone's involved in this—Hugh Laurie is interviewed from the set of House, and there's a charming bit with Miranda Richardson going into the bowels of the BBC costuming department and finding the outfits she wore as Queen Elizabeth. The inside of the package features a painstakingly researched family tree of Baldrick which should clear up quite a few questions.
However, the real draw are the commentary tracks. Most of the participants are seeing the episodes for the first time in years, so there's a lot of reaction and sudden recollection of stuff that went on during production—in one track, Stephen Fry points out that a distinctive laugh from the audience is Robbie Coltrane, who had stopped to watch. Fry's tracks are a bit of a letdown, not so much because they are boring—if anyone can manage a solo commentary, it's Fry—but because there are too many pauses where he's just watching. It would have been nice if they had gotten Laurie and Richardson to pitch in.
If you're considering an upgrade, it's a close call. The remastering, in and of itself, doesn't quite warrant it, and the new extras, while good, don't quite put the disc over the top, either. On the other hand, if you've put off the purchase (the older release was a bit pricey), the improvements and extras, coupled with a lower price, make Black Adder: The Ultimate Edition Remastered an easy choice.
Ludwig: You find yourself amusing, Herr Blackadder?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Episode Commentaries
• IMDb: The Black Adder
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