Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Black Adder

Watched a couple of old episodes of this, the first series of Blackadder, at lunchtime today and spotted a couple of Classical/Ancient History references.

The first series of Blackadder, called The Black Adder rather than the one word surname 'Blackadder', gets a lot of stick for not being as good as the others. To some extent, this is true - Edmund himself is extremely annoying in this version and some of the humour is rather forced. Most of the problem, though, has more to do with the fact that the subsequent three series were all so amazingly good, culminating in, as I've said before, one of two contenders for Best Episode of a TV Comedy Ever Made, TM. But none of these half hours of greatness would exist without the original, which for all its flaws is still a perfectly good, at times hilariously funny and rather nicely filmed sitcom.

The first series also benefits from having the National Treasure, the fabulous BRIAN BLESSED in the regular cast as the fictitious King Richard IV (supposedly Richard of York, the younger of the two Princes in the Tower, not murdered by Richard III but alive and well and shouting a lot). BLESSED is as birlliant as ever, and since I saw this series after I saw I, Claudius, I am left with a vague impression that medieval England is actually being ruled by the Emperor Augustus the entire time.

The two episodes we watched today were 'Born to be King', in which Edmund (younger son of King BRIAN BLESSED) tries to have his elder brother Harry exposed as illegitimate, but ends up nearly exposing himself as same instead, and 'The Archbishop', in which Edmund is forced to become Archbishop of Canterbury and make rich, dying men leave their lands to the Crown instead of the Church. 'The Archbishop' is, I think one of the best episodes of this series (the other great one is 'The Queen of Spain's Beard', which stars Miriam Margolyes as a nymphomaniac Spanish princess and Jim Broadbent as her amusingly-voiced interpreter). It features false relics (Baldrick produces items made by Jesus as a carpenter which include crucifixes), curses ('may your head fall off at an inconvenient moment') lots of descriptions of Hell from over-enthusiastic churchmen ('Alas, spare my posterior!') and some very naughty nuns ('you wont be wanting to unicorn tonight, then?'). There are also a couple of jokes about increasing numbers of Popes that would be accurate, if they weren't a few decades out.

Anyway, the ancient references are pretty small and unimportant, but there you go. In 'Born to be King', Edmund plans to murder a Scottish rival by having him play the part of the murder victim in a play set in Ancient Egypt, incorrectly referred to as a mystery play. A mystery play is a play which tells a religious story, usually a Christian story from the Bible, but this doesn't sound like anything Biblical, and it certainly isn't by the time they've inserted the role of the Scotsman. It's vaguely amusing seeing the medieval Scotsman with Egyptian headress, but not really that significant to the episode. In 'The Archbishop', celebrating what he incorrectly believes to be Harry's impending doom, Edmund dresses in an elaborate costume which includes a 'Trojan' helment. The helmet in question doesn't really look very Trojan - it's sort of pointy, but that's about it - and the centrepiece of the costume is actually the Russian codpiece, which is quite something. It's interesting that 'Trojan' was chosen though - presumably it sounded suitably exotic.

There is one other vageuly Classical reference. As Archbishop Edmund tries to persuade a dying man to leave his lands to the Crown, he says the man can't have done anything that bad. Unfortunately, the dying noble in question turns out to have a really, really bad Oedipus complex - having already confessed to killing his father and committing adultery more than a thousand times, he adds that said adultery was comitted with his mother. It is this revelation that causes Edmund to change tack and, rather than persuading the man that he will get into Heaven anyway, convinces him instead that Hell is much more fun and he will be better off there. Contrary to Freud's idea, that Sophocles' play is so moving because everyone shares the Oedipus complex, I would say this is an excellent example of why the opposite is true - Sophocles' play can move many different people from different cultures because they are all equally horrified by it, and Oedipus' deeds are still considered in most societies to be the ultimate example of acts that are completely beyond the pale.


  1. I think one of the things that causes people to not like this series as well as the others is the role reversal. Baldrick is the clever one and his cunning plans often are, while Edmund is hopelessly thick. Rowan Atkinson is simply at his best when he's being snide, bored and sarcastic. The Queen of Spain's Beard is a serious contender for the best episode out of all 4 series and, along with "Yo soy la Infanta," references to the Earl of Doncaster and the "purest green" are standard in-jokes in my family. The first series theme song is also the most earwormy (to coin a term), the Back and Forth theme comes very close. And Richard IV is the role BLESSED was born to play. (Though I'm still hoping Jackson and del Toro cast him as Beorn.)

  2. BLESSED as Beorn would be awesome!

  3. I still haven't seen any of these... gave the box-set to a friend for his birthday last year, I need to ask him to loan them to me! ;o)

  4. I gave my hubby the Boxed Set for Xmas. I didn't enjoy the first season much - production values so shoddy - and second had its moments, but we are now on to the divine 3rd season with Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent. Pure unadulterated delight!

  5. I think the fourth is my favourite - I like the bittersweet side of it - but I love the second and third too - so hard to choose! I think the third was the first one I saw - the one that got me hooked.

  6. stop on by, I've got a movie I want your opinion on please!!! Something right up your alley I think... ;o)

  7. Ridiculously long comment duly left on your blog Chris! :)

  8. I love the underrated first series, particularly the Archbishop episode (perhaps even my favourite).

    "And another thing that bothers me Your Grace, if my right hand causes me to sin so I cut if off, but then my left hand causes me to sin also, what do I cut it off with...?)"



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