Blackadder Goes Forth

By: Sara Baker

            In 1989, the BBC aired the fourth and final series of its groundbreaking historical sit-com BlackAdder. The series follows various generations of the fictional and wicked dynasty throughout history. Rowan Atkinson's witty and cynical Edmund BlackAdder is always caught in an important crossroads in history.   The fourth series, BlackAdder Goes Forth, takes place in World War I France. Flanked by Tony Robinson's ever-hapless Private Baldrick and Hugh Laurie's aristocratic, incompetent Lieutenant George, Captain BlackAdder faces the challenges of life in the trenches and avoids combat whenever possible.

            BlackAdder is the most intelligent person wherever we find him, but that does not keep him out of trouble.   He is a sarcastic and arrogant officer with a keen interest in soft jobs. Captain BlackAdder had joined the Army years before when their concerns were British colonies and when the Army rarely saw combat.   Now he has found himself unexpectedly in the middle of the terrible Great War. The formula which seemed to work for BlackAdder was to give him some great machine to kick against, and in this case it was the Army and his commanding officer, the mentally unbalanced, over-zealous General Melchett (Stephen Fry) and his sycophantic right-hand-man Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny).   Having no hope against higher powers combined with various well-meaning blunders by his fellows inevitably finds BlackAdder in dire situations.

            In the first episode, Captain Cook, BlackAdder becomes suspicious when, after weeks of sitting in the trenches he has suddenly been sent a new service revolver. After deducing that he and his men are finally going to "go over the top" and march into No Man's Land, he is given a special assignment which may get him out of the big push. General Melchett commissions him to find an artist among his men who can paint a stirring picture for the British soldiers' magazine, "King and Country." On the theory that such an artist would be able to leave the trenches, BlackAdder manipulates them into believing he is an artist. The plan backfires on him when it is revealed that what they were really looking for was a reconnaissance artist to draw pictures of the German defenses, and BlackAdder finds himself lying in a minefield in No Man's Land.

            No Man's Land was a deadly wasteland, torn up, laden with barbed wire and open to artillery fire after the war quickly reached a stalemate. One of the most devastating and tragic aspects of World War I was just that. Instead of agreeing on a truce upon reaching this stalemate, the Central and Allied powers just went on slaughtering each other. BlackAdder's hesitance to lie in No Man's Land drawing pictures under a flare is understandable.

            In the second episode, Corporal Punishment , the Army is suffering communication problems. Captain BlackAdder is constantly receiving irrelevant calls through crossed lines. He leaps on the idea to avoid receiving and obeying any orders to advance. He ignores telegrams and phone calls, and goes as far as to shoot and eat a carrier pigeon.   Unbeknownst to him, the communication crisis has made the shooting of carrier pigeons a court martial offense, and before he knows it he is on trial for disobeying orders. His efforts to hire the "finest mind in English legal history," Bob Massingberd-Massingberd are foiled when Baldrick sends the attorney the wrong letter. BlackAdder credits Massingberd with convicting Oscar Wilde of homosexual indecency, though the prosecuting lawyer in that trial was actually Edward Carson. General Melchett's closeness to the particular bird BlackAdder shot leads our antihero quickly to facing a firing squad. The firing squad in this episode is a source of surprising humor and they visit BlackAdder the day before he is to be executed. Captain BlackAdder has one hope, however, if Lieutenant George can contact a well-placed uncle in the government.

            The third episode, Major Star, is full of references to cricket and Charlie Chaplin when BlackAdder is commissioned to put on a concert party to boost the men's morale. The men find out that Russia has just overthrown Czar Nicholas II and withdrawn from the Eastern Front.   General Melchett reveals that Field Marshal Douglas Haig fears that this may depress the troops. BlackAdder hates music hall entertainment, but he sees yet another opportunity to evade combat. The entertainment includes a Chaplin impression (Baldrick wearing a dusty bowler hat and a slug on his upper lip) and an unconvincing, traditional "soldiers' drag act." Lieutenant George dons a dress and makeup, leading BlackAdder to say he looks "about as feminine as W.G. Grace." Grace was England's most famous cricket player, a slightly pudgy athlete with an enormous beard.

            This episode sees the humorous reprise of the role of Bob, the young lady pretending to be a man from the second season, portrayed by Gabrielle Glaister. After the first performance, General Melchett asks BlackAdder's permission to escort the lovely "Georgina" to a ball. BlackAdder panics when Melchett proposes to George (the 6'2" Cambridge Blue Hugh Laurie) and fails to realize he is a man. BlackAdder takes steps to get out of the situation, but Melchett cancels the show on the grounds that it was awful and that the Americans have just joined the war.

              The fourth episode, Private Plane, sees the reprise of yet another memorable second series role, Lord Flasheart (Rik Mayall). In this case, the licentious and arrogant Flasheart is a famous fighter pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. BlackAdder can't stand him, but his men are captivated by his tales of adventure and cunning. Flasheart convinces Lieutenant George that life in the Royal Flying Corps is the only way to fight a war. It's more glamorous, and according to a booklet George has, the average amount of time a new pilot spends in the air is only twenty minutes. Although BlackAdder resents Flasheart, he recognizes the opportunity to get out of the trenches.

            BlackAdder and George start training and are startled to discover the nickname "Twenty Minuters" actually means that the average life expectancy of a new pilot is twenty minutes. Soon they're in the air, but BlackAdder and Baldrick are shot down behind enemy lines. They are captured and put inside a German prison, and soon meet the famous "Red Baron," Manfred von Richthofen (Adrian Edmondson). Richthofen was possibly the most famous fighter pilot of all time, credited with eighty victories in the air. His untimely death at 26 years old is the point of some controversy. Some believe that he was shot in the air. Others hold that he was killed by ground troops after crash landing in the enemy territory. Here, Richthofen is portrayed as a scarred, severe looking, intimidating man, but one with a keen desire to understand English humor.

            Lieutenant George, meanwhile, is desperate to rescue his Captain, and makes a surprising entrance with the help of Squadron Commander the Lord Flasheart. Flasheart and Richthofen are portrayed as respected mortal enemies, and have an interesting standoff in the prison.

              The fifth episode, General Hospital , deals haphazardly with espionage. When a bomb lands Lieutenant George in the hospital with an injury, British intelligence officers reveal that there is apparently a spy. The Germans anticipate every British movement, and the officers have discovered that the leak is in the hospital. General Melchett assigns BlackAdder to spend some time investigating the matter. BlackAdder takes advantage of three weeks outside the trenches and abuses his position to torment and interrogate his despised counterpart, Captain Darling.  

            Lieutenant George is excited to learn of the news, but is ignorantly comfortable with a fellow patient who has a heavy German accent and constantly listens to him read his letters home. BlackAdder also takes advantage of the opportunity to spend time with George's nurse (Miranda Richardson), a rather salty broad despite her "fluffy" bedside manner that her patients see. Despite the German-speaking patient, it is Nurse Mary that BlackAdder begins to suspect.

            The final episode of this season and the series, Goodbyeee, is one of the most memorable episodes of the BlackAdder series. It is a significant change in tone from the rest of the series. It begins with the men in a huddle, smoking in the rain, which sets the tone for the episode. The order has come for the men to finally go over the top, and BlackAdder doesn't have a clever plan to get out of it. His first attempts to get out of it by first deserting and then pretending to be mad fail, and most of the episode he spends with Baldrick and George, discussing the beginning of the war and their various experiences. Each man at some point describes when and why they joined the army while waiting for the advance, and we are treated to their humorous but bittersweet histories.  

            Baldrick asks why the war started, claiming that he heard a "bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry."  BlackAdder tries to explain the assassination of the Archduke of Austral-Hungary, but to no avail.   George claims that the war started because of "villainous" German empire-building. Again, BlackAdder has to correct him, in at least as much as pointing out that Britain had built a much wider empire than Germany.

            George reminisces about when they first met each other and the wonderful Christmas Truce and football game that they shared with the Germans in the winter of 1914. This was taken from a true story, though one of varying and sometimes contradicting accounts. During these very early stages in the war, the land had not been completely mutilated yet and the troops could still see traces of civilization. It wasn't uncommon for the Germans and the Allies to call to each other, either throwing insults or sometimes agreeing to cease fire for a while.

            The conversation stays comical as BlackAdder continues making sardonic remarks, but it has a darker tone as the men remember how things have changed and friends that they have lost. Meanwhile, Captain Darling is facing unexpected troubles. In General Melchett's zealous delusion, he "rewards" Darling with a commission to the front line. Darling cannot make it clear that he doesn't want to go and eventually must join BlackAdder and his men. Ironically, Melchett offers Lieutenant George the opportunity to join him behind the lines, being an old Cambridge friend, but George happily turns him down, keen and optimistic to go beat the Germans.

            Even George, however, finally admits to his Captain that he is scared. It's not going to stop him, but he seems to have just realized that he was probably going to be facing his death. As the artillery stops and the men prepare to climb their ladders, Baldrick tells BlackAdder that he's got a plan, but BlackAdder won't hear it. He does say, however, that whatever it was would have been better than his plan to pretend to be mad.  "I mean, who would've noticed another madman around here?"

The men go over the top, and in a somber scene the grey, war-torn field silently fades to a field of poppies, ending the series. It is a tribute to those who died and is inspired by John McCrae's famous poem In Flanders Fields.

It is this episode that Richard Curtis discussed in great length in a 1999 interview for Laughter in the House, a BBC special series which celebrated successful sitcoms in British television history. He commented on his and co-writer Ben Elton's decision to end the series this way.

I think it was by chance that BlackAdder II and III ended with BlackAdder getting killed; we couldn't think of any other way out, but series four we did do it very much on purpose. We were very keen to do World War I, but it's recent history, and terrible and tragic recent history. And so, our deal with ourselves was that we would do it as long as we would kill all the characters, which is sort of what happened in the First World War. It was actually full of wonderful clashes of class and strangenesses in the trenches, but the men did go over the top and die. And we felt that, or hoped that, if we did do that, really, at the end of the episode, it would not be too disrespectful, and would actually represent some of the tragedy of the First World War. So that was on purpose.

Richard Curtis also emphasizes how very close comedy and tragedy can be, and even should be. His other works have demonstrated this, including the popular comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. Curtis believes in playing straight comedy and changing direction to pure tragedy, and back again. It was this principle which he worked into the final episode of BlackAdder Goes Forth . They tried to remain as funny as possible, cracking jokes until the very last moment, when BlackAdder wishes the men luck and they finally go over the top.

Seriousness and comedy are not very far apart. Or, they don't need to be. If you're being funny, you're then allowed to be tragic, and if you're being tragic, you're definitely allowed to be funny. Shakespeare does it - I say all the time, but twice.

            The BlackAdder series is a wonderful and witty look at history. Though it clearly cannot be relied on as an accurate reference for history, it is brilliantly coordinated and it brings many major events into a tremendously fun experience. Curtis said that they had been discouraged from doing a historical sitcom because historical sitcoms always failed. Luckily, they ignored the advice.

            Other films one might view which relate to World War I include the 1933 adventure about two fighter pilots in Britain's Royal Flying Corps, The Eagle and The Hawk, starring Cary Grant. Also, a number of times Erich Maria Remarque's famous All Quiet on the Western Front has been made into films. The book is a riveting read, full of grim details of life in the trenches and camaraderie among soldiers.

            Manfred von Richthofen also wrote an autobiography of his short life called The Red Baron, which is full of his adventures and those of his contemporaries. It tells of danger, fame, honor and death and is available through amazon.com.