Being in period, the Blackadder series – like Dad’s Army – has aged much better than sitcoms with a contemporary setting. Only its technical quality and modest production values show its age: in my view the script and acting quality have never been bettered.
The creativity of the cast of the final series, Blackadder Goes Forth, caused friction in production. Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were already established comedians in their own right, accustomed to writing comedy as well as performing it: they could hardly be expected to act their parts without suggesting improvements. Co-writer Ben Elton said that by opening it up, they allowed the cast to question every aspect of the script. This collaborative process achieved outstanding results, but the other writer, Richard Curtis clearly found it frustrating, telling The Times in 1989:
“Everybody on the show thinks they can put in good jokes, despite the fact that Ben Elton and I think there are already quite a few good ones in there to start with. It does usually end up funnier, but it’s time to do something over which I have more control.”
And in the 2008 documentary Blackadder Rides Again, Curtis recalled:
“They would literally sit around for the entire time discussing the script… sometimes we would just say to them ‘if you stood up and tried to act this script out, you would find out things about it.'”
Some historians have criticised it for presenting a critical view of the war, reinforcing the popular perception of “lions led by donkeys” – although as all the main characters, Blackadder excepted, are portrayed as idiots, the narrative is surely closer to “donkeys led by donkeys”. Broadcaster and historian Max Hastings has called the common British view of the war “the Blackadder take on history”, while military historian Richard Holmes wrote in his book The Western Front: “Blackadder’s aphorisms have become fact… A well-turned line of script can sometimes carry more weight than all the scholarly footnotes in the world.”
And when Blackadder Goes Forth was broadcast in 1989, some felt that it trivialised World War 1 by turning it into comedy. But the sixth and final episode in the series, Goodbyeee, aired shortly before Remembrance Sunday, emphatically answered those critics. The very first line hints that events are taking a darker turn, as Blackadder takes a phone call:
“Ah, Captain Darling. Tomorrow at dawn. Oh, excellent. See you later, then. Bye.”
There is still room for comedy. When George argues that the war has been worth it, Blackadder responds:
“How could it possibly be worth it? We’ve been sitting here since Christmas 1914, during which millions of men have died, and we’ve advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping.”
The humour acquires a poignant edge, as George realises he is the last survivor of the Cambridge Tiddlywinkers:
George: Well, er, Jacko and the Badger bought it at the first Ypres front, unfortunately — quite a shock, that. I remember Bumfluff’s house-master wrote and told me that Sticky had been out for a duck, and the Gubber had snitched a parcel sausage-end and gone goose over-stump frogside.
George: I don’t know, sir, but I read in the Times that they’d both been killed.
Blackadder makes an attempt to feign insanity, sporting underpants on his head and a pencil up each nostril, and saying “Wibble”. He promptly backs down when he overhears General Melchett approaching with the words:
Is this genuinely mad? Or has he simply put his underpants on his head and stuffed a couple of pencils up his nose? That’s what they all used to do in the Sudan. I remember I once had to shoot a whole platoon for trying that.
Blackadder offers an analysis of the causes of the war:
Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?
Blackadder: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
George: What was that, sir?
Blackadder: It was bollocks.
Baldrick, saddened at the animal friends he has lost, gives a plain and heartfelt speech against the war – the simplest of soldiers has worked out that it is a pointless waste of lives:
Baldrick: Why can’t we just stop, sir? Why can’t we just say, “No more killing, let’s all go home”? Why would it be stupid just to pack it in, sir, why?
George: Now, now, now, look here, you just stop that talk right now, Private. It’s, it’s absurd, it’s Bolshevism, and it wouldn’t work anyway.
Baldrick: Why not, sir?
George: “Why not?” Well, what do you mean? “Why wouldn’t it work?” It– It wouldn’t work, Private…It wouldn’t work because, there, well, now, you just get on with polishing those boots, all right?
We see Blackadder following this exchange closely. He clearly thinks Baldrick has a point. And the comedy gets suddenly darker in the next scene, where General Melchett hands Captain Darling his commission, meaning that he must join the others going “over the top” at dawn.
Darling is the pivot on which the episode turns from comedy to tragedy. Up to this point in the series, he has been Blackadder’s enemy, the subject of contempt – a sycophantic bureaucrat, keeping a safe distance behind the front line. But we feel his fear intensely as we see him literally pleading for his life, while Melchett – inadvertently or wilfully – misinterprets his protests:
Darling: No, sir…You’re, you’re not listening, sir. I’m begging you, please — for the sake of all the times I’ve helped you with your dicky bows and dicky bladder – please don’t make me…
Melchett: …make you go through the farewell debagging ceremony in the mess? Heh! No, I’ve spared you that, too, you touchingly sentimental young booby! Look: no fuss, no bother – the driver is already here.
Darling has been painted as a coward, but we understand his terror at this sudden turn of events. The nightmare mood of this scene is underlined by Melchett’s unsettling moustache net, and by the dramatic lighting portraying the arriving driver as a figure of doom.
Back in the trench, as the time to go over the top approaches, fear starts to take hold, even in the breezy and mindlessly patriotic George, and the simple Baldrick:
Blackadder: Yes, Lieutenant?
George: I’m scared, sir.
Baldrick: I’m scared too, sir.
George: I mean, I’m the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the golden summer of 1914. I don’t want to die. I’m really not overkeen on dying at all, sir.
As we enter the final sequence, the most moving speech is left to Captain Darling, on his arrival in the trench, when Blackadder asks him how he is feeling:
Erm, not all that good, Blackadder — rather hoped I’d get through the whole show; go back to work at Pratt & Sons; keep wicket for the Croydon gentlemen; marry Doris… Made a note in my diary on my way here. Simply says, “Bugger.”
Blackadder resists the temptation to mock or gloat over Darling, simply replying “Well, quite”. The adversaries are reconciled by fear. And in this moment, we are all Darling. Dislikeable though he is, we cannot but feel his tragedy: why should he be denied this modest, contented future?
As they wait in the trench to go over the top, they notice that the British guns have stopped firing, Darling concludes that the war is over: “Thank God! We lived through it! The Great War – 1914-1917.” (by now this dark joke might now require an explanatory caption: “The war did not end until 1918”). Blackadder has to point out to the men that the guns have only been silenced so they can make their attack.
We hear the chilling anonymous order: “On the signal, company will advance!” Blackadder’s final piece of caustic wit is aimed not at Baldrick, George or Darling, but at the war itself. There is no time to listen to Baldrick’s cunning plan:
Well, I’m afraid it’ll have to wait. Whatever it was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
When Blackadder says “Good luck, everyone” before blowing his whistle for the advance, he is sincere. We’re not laughing any more.
In the famous final scene we see all the main characters (except General Melchett) running into action with explosions around them. The scene is shown in slow motion, accompanied by a haunting, echoing piano slowly playing the Blackadder theme. It then fades into a tranquil poppy field, leaving us to draw our conclusions about their fate. Following the laughter that has gone before, this is devastating.
It was not written that way. The final scene had been hastily filmed on an unconvincing polystyrene set: furthermore the cast members, having once clambered through the obstructions, smoke and explosions in the dark, feared injury and refused to do another take. The resulting amateurish footage undermined the intended poignancy of the scene, so in editing, the episode’s director Richard Boden had the idea of using slow motion and fading into the poppy field with the sound of birdsong. The end credits were omitted.
During the filming of the episode, Rowan Atkinson described sharing his character’s dread of impending death and feeling a “knot in the pit of my stomach”, something he had not experienced before. By the end, we each have that knot in our stomach. To my mind, this is the finest half hour of television ever made.
And yes, I do mean better than the one with Del Boy falling through the bar.