When the conversation turns to naming the all-time greatest UK sitcom, it’s no coincidence that Blackadder remains in the picture some three decades after it first aired. Written by Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson, the show delivered wonderfully crafted jokes, unashamed silliness and plenty of killer lines across four series and several one-off specials.
As the assorted incarnations of “Edmund Blackadder”, Rowan Atkinson is a wonderfully cynical presence at the show’s centre, his pitch-perfect delivery turning his withering put-downs into works of art.
With an ensemble cast that no other sitcom can ever hope to match, the show gave us plenty of memorable episodes, but we’ve tried to narrow them down to just a select few:
Bells : S2
After the slightly hit-and-miss first series, the second run of Blackadder hit the ground running with this unforgettable romp that saw Blackadder fall in love with his manservant named Bob. Frankly, I could just sit and watch Rowan Atkinson enunciate the name “Bob” for half an hour and still not get bored, but luckily that’s just one small gem in an episode filled with great moments. Edmund and Bob’s romantic stroll through stately gardens is another highlight, especially when it turns into an advert for the “Best of Madrigals” including such hits as “My Love is a Prick (on a Tudor Rose)”. The chap formally known as “Kate” gives Blackadder a brief glimpse of happiness and eventually there even appears to be wedding bells on the horizon.
Atkinson is on exceptional form throughout this episode, giving us our first glimpse of a Tudor era Edmund Blackadder and showing us pretty quickly that he’s a different kettle of fish to his predecessor in series 1. Here is a dry and witty man full of utter contempt for those around him, especially his nice-but-dim pal, Percy and loyal lackey, Baldrick. There’s also the added bonus in this episode of Rik Mayall’s incomparable Lord Flashheart arriving to steal the show as Blackadder’s best man. Woof.
Beer : S2
In their own unique take on a classic sitcom staple, “Beer” saw Blackadder trying to juggle being at two wildly different events at exactly the same time. On the one hand he’s trying to prove he can drink with the big boys at a beer-swilling booze-up, while on the other hand he must convince his puritanical relatives that he is a wholesome and deserving recipient of their considerable inheritance.
The debauchery of the former, complete with fake breasts, a boisterous Lord Melchett and plenty of innuendo, contrasts wonderfully with the prudish atmosphere of his family gathering that is in danger of being ruined by a phallic-shaped vegetable. Miranda Richardson’s Queenie is also a delight as ever, and she has one of the episodes best lines when she twists one of Queen Elizabeth’s famous quotes to wonderful effect, “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant.” Plus of course, there’s that perfect explanation of what the phrase “great booze-up” really meant.
Ink and Incapability : S3
Blackadder’s third series thrived upon its central character’s considerably lesser social status. As a mere butler to the Prince Regent, he is less cocky than before and more exasperated than ever with his lot in life. He retains however that distinctly snobbish nature, frustrated at the collective idiocy of those around him.
In this episode, he takes great umbrage with Dr Samuel Johnson (played with gusto by Robbie Coltrane) who tries to convince Prince George to be the patron for his new book, the dictionary. While Blackadder’s patronising quips towards Dr Johnson are a joy throughout, “…I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafibularities”, the episode comes into its own when he tries to recreate the dictionary from memory after Baldrick accidentally burns it. You may be able to see the gad regarding the letter “C” coming a mile away, but it doesn’t make it any less funny when it arrives.
Dish and Dishonesty : S3
A memorable episode here in which Blackadder puts his considerable skills in the art of deception and manipulation to good use during a foray into the world of politics. The premise sees him attempting to get Baldrick elected as an MP in order to strike down a bill aimed at bankrupting the Prince Regent. It’s a wonderful spoof of UK parliamentary politics as well as the quirks of election night coverage. The reading of the final vote count and the revelation of the mysterious voter’s true identity were both moments of pure comic timing in action.
Blackadder does some wonderful scheming in this episode, with his cunning plans almost going off without a hitch. As is so often the case however, he makes the fateful mistake of trusting Baldrick with anything. As the man himself says, “if you want something done properly, kill Baldrick before you start.” It’s a wickedly satirical episode that lands its jabs perfectly.
Corporal Punishment : S4
The show’s shift to World War 1 and life in the trenches on the Western Front saw an escalation in the use of gallows humour as the terrible conditions, threat of mass slaughter and the incompetence of military leadership all came in to play. However it still allowed Blackadder to scheme aplenty as he sought a way out of the trenches and to avoid the “big push”.
In this outing, he made the mistake of killing a carrier pigeon called “Speckled Jim” who just so happened to also be General Melchett’s beloved childhood friend. There are plenty of great moments, including Blackadder’s interactions with his firing squad, George’s questionable case for the defence and the inevitable implosion of Baldrick’s cunning escape plan. However, the episode’s ace in the hole is Stephen Fry as Melchett, a pompous blowhard who plays a central role in the most un-impartial court martial hearing ever.
Goodbyeee : S4
The strength of this final episode lies not only in its extremely funny story revolving around Blackadder’s final desperate ploy to avoid going over the top, but also in it powerful closing moments.
Edmund’s grand escape plan revolves around him pretending to be mad by sticking two pencils up his nose, wearing a pair of pants on his head and saying the word “wibble”. As fool proof as this master scheme appears, it ultimately of course proves unsuccessful. The gallows humour of this final series was utilised perfectly throughout the episode, including Blackadder’s timely observation to Baldrick, “who would’ve noticed another madman around here?”
The episode’s poignant closing scenes have quite rightly gone down in TV history. Edmund’s final line prior to the finale is devastatingly effective as he simply offers his comrades a heartfelt “good luck, everyone” before they launch their ill-fated attack. As the men finally go over the top towards certain death, the action slows down and a haunting piano melody kicks in before the footage silently fades into a field of poppies. It proved to be the perfect ending to the bitingly satirical series as a whole, as well as providing an especially affecting tribute.