Black Adder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition

Black Adder

On DVD: 
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Black Adder (usually referred to as Blackadder) is a 1980s British show that tells the story of several Edmund Blackadders in different eras, each one a cynical and self-serving member of a British family dynasty.  Think of it as a twisted and hilarious version of Forrest Gump set throughout British history.  Rowan Atkinson stars as Edmund Blackadder in all his incarnations and he makes each Blackadder remarkably different while retaining his snide and devious core. Tony Robinson also appears in all the episodes and specials as Baldrick, Blackadder’s incredibly abused sidekick.  The show’s humor is both broad and subtle, historical and topical (for the time).  This re-mastered Ultimate Edition set encompasses all four six episode series of the show, three specials, and a documentary about the making of Blackadder

The Black Adder (1485)
The first and, I think, weakest series, The Black Adder, was written by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis. Set in 1485, it told the secret history of Richard III’s accidental decapitation by Edmund, Duke of Edinburg, leading to the reign of Richard IV.  This Edmund is a doltish, brutish, sniveling coward and the show seems to be trying much too hard to find its voice.   Too many of the jokes are not quite funny, though the decapitation scene is priceless and there are several other not-to-be missed moments.

Blackadder II (reign of Queen Elizabeth the 1st, 1558-1603)
Ben Elton takes over Atkinson’s writing duties, and Miranda Richardson joins the cast as Queen Elizabeth I.  Atkinson plays Edmund, Lord Blackadder, a much smarter and more conniving character than the Duke of Edinburg.  Baldrick, on the other hand, is much more stupid. Edmund spends the series trying to gain the Queen’s favor without incurring her wrath with hilarious results.  Stephen Fry is a terrific addition to the cast as Lord Melchett and the cast gelled perfectly in this series.  I thought it was much funnier than The Black Adder.

Blackadder the Third (Late 17th, early 18th centuries)
Set in Regency England, Hugh Laurie joins the cast as the spoiled and idiotic Prince Regent.  Atkinson is E. Blackadder, the Prince Regent’s butler, and the two play off each other brilliantly.  This series overall is not quite as hilarious as Blackadder II, but the interplay between Blackadder and Baldrick is excellent, and adding the scene-stealing Laurie was pure brilliance.

Blackadder Goes Forth (1917)
This is the most topical series with a strong anti-war (and, hilariously, anti-Charlie Chaplin) message.  It is also my favorite series.  Set during World War I, Captain Edmund Blackadder is in a trench on the Western front with Lieutenant George and Private Baldrick.  He tries every method imaginable to avoid being part of the “next big push.”  Captain Darling is his nemesis and the personal aide to General Melchett.  The final episode, “Goodbyeee,” is a poignant and fitting finale.

Blackadder: The Cavalier Years (1648)
This is a fifteen minute sketch created for 1988’s Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day.  Sir Edmund Blackadder and Baldrick try to save the head of Stephen Fry’s King Charles I with a pumpkin and fake beard.

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol
This is my new favorite Christmas special.  Turning the Dickens classic on its head, Blackadder here is the kindest and most generous man in England and he asks the Spirit of Christmas how life would have turned out had he been a Scrooge, and when seeing the wonderful future his descendants could have were he to be more like his much less kind ancestors versus the dismal future were he to remain kind, Blackadder wakes up Christmas morning a rude bastard, leading, as ever, to unfortunate consequences. It should be noted that an original line about children wanting to see a dog nailed up during an Easter play is missing.  The line, while cut from most DVD releases of the Christmas special, did appear in the 2001 box set. 

Blackadder: Back and Forth
Made for London’s Millennium Dome in 1999, a present-day Blackadder hosts a New Year’s Eve party and convinces his guests that he has a time machine and they promise to give him 30,000 pounds if he brings back certain odd items from the past.  His plan is to scam his friends with objects he already has, but upon pulling the Baldrick-built time machine’s lever, he and Baldrick are sent careening through time.

This Ultimate Edition is huge, but I wish it contained the unaired original pilot, especially since parts of it appear in Blackadder Rides again, and footage of any of the Blackadder sketches performed on stage or any audio from the radio sketch that appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour program would have been most welcome.  The extras are excellent.  There is audio commentary from Ben Elton, Richard Curtis, John Lloyd, Tim McInnerny, Stephen Fry, and Tony Robinson, a “Baldrick’s Video Diary” featurette, the useful “Footnotes to History,” interviews, and the wonderful retrospective documentary “Blackadder Rides Again.”
This set is re-mastered, so the quality is better than any previous Blackadder release, but it is still a 1980s show with all the usual problems associated with that: there is grain, color wash-out, and lack of contrast throughout, though the Blackadder: Back and Forth special looks terrific. Audio quality is okay, but the menu volume is insanely loud compared to the episodes.  The menus themselves are probably the best-organized and most user-friendly ones I’ve seen.

If you’re a Blackadder fan, this set is terrific, and such a cunning plan: make a set comprehensive enough and pretty enough to get people who already own a box set to upgrade.  If you are new to the show, you might want to rent first. Fans of Rowan Atkinson expecting to see Mr. Bean may be disappointed, and House fans will see a very different Hugh Laurie.  That said, Blackadder is a smart, witty, and hilarious show with a tremendous ensemble and an ingenious premise.  This comprehensive set will make fans very happy and should also gain new viewers.

Review by Michelle St. James