“Who’d Notice Another Madman Around Here?”

Ian Jones and Jack Kibble-White on the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth

First published December 2001

Generally held in high regard by fans of TV comedy, special praise is usually reserved for the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth – “Goodbyeee”. Regarded as a poignant ending to the Blackadder quartet, it is perhaps best remembered as a piece of television comedy that seemed to transcend its genre. However, amidst the almost uniform praise there are some disparaging voices suggesting that perhaps the final episode was a final bridge too far amidst a weak series.

OTT brought together both a supporter (Ian Jones) and a detractor (Jack Kibble-White) of Blackadder‘s final push and let them to have it out …


Imagine a third series of The Young Ones, in which you are invited to view all of the characters as somewhat flawed, but in the end, essentially loveable – even the “bastard landlord”. Or what about another episode of Porridge in which Grouty is shown up to be nothing more than a blustering old buffer? How rubbish would this be? Long running fictional characters often suffer from a protracted process of softening up: take Pat from EastEnders, Hilda from Coronation Street, or even Irene from Home and Away. These three were all made more loveable to ensure that they did not offend week in, week out with their brittle mannerisms. Their vindictiveness became their eccentricity. Once they were angry – now they are quirky.

Once Blackadder hit its second series and its stride, viewers were able to enjoy not only biting humour, funnier than pretty much anything else on the telly at the time, but also fantastic antagonistic interplay between the characters. A large part of the programme’s appeal was the moral turpitude of its lead, a character in tune with, and implicitly critical therefore of, the times in which it was first broadcast. Clichéd as it might now be, back in the ’80s, sitcoms did consist of 2.4 children, and the boss coming round for dinner. As such the brittleness of the characters in Blackadder was an important ingredient, exposing the fact that many of us in real life were mean spirited and selfish and that even more of us had grown tired of the unchallenging, inoffensive material that seemed to make up the bulk of prime time television.

By the time Blackadder Goes Forth was first broadcast in 1989, there were unsettling indications that the programme had gone the way of Hilda and her ilk. No longer shrill, unpleasant and unsympathetic, Ben Elton told us that this version of Edmund Blackadder was not actually horrible as such – just tired. Significant pre-publicity seemed to imply that things had really changed since Blackadder the Third. Let’s chuck in another comparison: as recently as Channel 4′s Top Ten of Sci-Fi, Doctor Who again came under criticism for during it’s dying years, resorting to its own mythology for inspiration. Such a tactic was deemed as an admittance of a dearth of new ideas and the programme’s final few series were rightly criticized for taking the Time Lord up a creative cul-de-sac from whence he has never truly rematerialized. Yet at the same time, Elton and Curtis were doing exactly the same thing to Blackadder.

Whilst the Yuletide celebratory nature of Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (in which the eponymous hero’s previous incarnations all team up) can be excused, such a willingness to recycle past glories became the hallmark of Blackadder Goes Forth. The continuation of the core group of three (Atkinson, Robinson and Laurie/McInnery) is of course welcome and pivotal to the programme (after all you couldn’t really have an Only Fools and Horses without Del or Rodney). However in just six episodes we are subjected to a rehash of Blackadder II‘s episode “Bells”, with its two most memorable characters (“Bob” and Lord Flasheart) plundered to fill up not one, but two episodes of … Goes Forth (“Major Star” and “Private Plane”), and a tiresome replay of Blackadder the Third‘s “Amy and Amiability” in the shape of the inferior “General Hospital”. When Red Dwarf tries to shoehorn Dwayne Dibbley and Ace Rimmer into an episode, it is held up as an indication of a format long past its best. But with Blackadder Goes Forth it seemed that the critics were all too busy laughing at Rowan’s latest nonsense word to notice.

Truly though, the reappearance of old characters is only a symptom of the real problem at the heart of Blackadder Goes Forth. The worst of it is the series’ reliance on recycling the same old jokes, and willingness to solicit easy cheers from the fans as Tony Robinson slaps his thigh once again and proclaims he has “a cunning plan”. Convoluted similes worked well in series two and three, but there are only so many jokes that one can make of this nature, and by the time that Atkinson advises us in “Goodbyeee” that the front line has made as much progress in the last two years as an “asthmatic ant with a heavy load of shopping” one has become as tired of these jokes as an insomniac during the coldest, wettest winter on record forced to sleep in a church cloister room with a leaky roof beside a particularly busy main road – with the light on.

For many though, the series saving grace and true masterpiece is the manner in which Elton and Curtis finish Blackadder off. In previous series the demise of the lead characters served to punctuate the harshness of the comedy being meted out, and furthermore was a self-conscious rebellion against the sitcom dictate that at the end of each episode the characters had to find themselves at the same place as where they started. Undoubtedly, Curtis and Elton’s manifesto had changed since the end of Blackadder the Third, and the inevitability of the demise of the cast was now no longer any kind of statement. Instead it was mere “Blackadder tradition”, and in the spirit of the final series’ creative poverty it had to be religiously adhered to. That the decision was made to use the opportunity to make a serious antiwar statement is not the issue here. It’s whether or not the Blackadder formula was up to it.

The emotional and comedic power of that final episode is drawn primarily from the characters and the pathos of the situation. Someone remarked on the last episode “I have never been comfortable with drama and comment being segued into shows that wouldn’t otherwise carry them. I was always less than comfortable, for example, with the random injections of tragedy in One Foot … but perfectly willing to accept any displays of melancholy or frustration in evidence in Porridge as the situation not only carried it but demanded it.” True, you might retort that there can be few more appropriate scenarios for such pathos as the trenches of World War I. Yet, Blackadder has a history of being a resolutely lively programme, in which horrific subjects such as execution (“Head”) have provided fuel for truly grotesque moments of high comedy. Viewed in this context, the entire final series starts to smell a bit fishy. Obviously Elton and Curtis thought that in order for their finale to mean anything we had to first care for the characters. Thus their “lovableness” is laid on with a trowel throughout Blackadder Goes Forth, culminating in the cloddish nostalgia of “Goodbyeee”. However surely the salient point is that regardless of who these people might be, it is unacceptable that they are sent to their death by warlords who strategize on the basis that a war could be won by the side with the highest number of casualties.

The treatment of the military is, of course, another matter entirely. Blackadder Goes Forth lets them all off the hook by suggesting that they weren’t the calculating bastards who cared little for their own men that we might have all thought; no – they were a bunch of loveable eccentrics, blissfully ignorant of any of life’s harsh realities. Well that’s all right then.

I made a note in my diary whilst I was watching that final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. It says simply “bugger”.


It’s too much of a generalization to dismiss the entire repertory of Blackadder Goes Forth as “loveable” (and we’ll come on the whether such a qualification is essentially a negative one at all later). The kinds of behaviour demonstrated by Captain Blackadder towards his men – and vice versa – rarely invites “love” from the viewer; the antagonism and animosity remain just as intense as in previous series, but only seem less pointed because they are to be expected. To see the characters reacting as per usual inevitably prompts softer-edged responses amongst an audience – and so such familiarity is (subconsciously) applauded, and enjoyed. But it’s also deeply reassuring, and within the context of the period when the series is set, this is crucial.

Blackadder Goes Forth finds our full complement of regulars in as close a setting to that of the “everyman” to date. All previous series revolved around rather rarefied contexts – nobility, aristocracy, and royalty. It was impossible to relate to any characters, therefore all the more enjoyable to see them plotting and double-crossing each other. Baldrick no more invited empathy – or sympathy – than Lord Melchett. Now they’re in the trenches, and interacting with a greater madness, that of World War I. Indeed, Blackadder himself has fallen the furthest – from holding esteemed posts within court circles to being simply another army captain.

To find them, therefore, still squabbling and bating each other is in part welcoming – in the same way any familiar object, face or expression is welcoming amongst a strange, unfamiliar environment. Blackadder’s hatred for his companions remains undimmed. He has utter contempt for his immediate fellow soldiers – duping them, pulling rank, at times positively encouraging their demise (“You want two volunteers for a mission into no-man’s land?”). His behaviour is outrageous and at times hard to understand. He could have deserted the forces long ago but – in the same way his former incarnations tried to exit their posts only to end up back where they started – he needs, maybe, the security of his position, if only to allow him to go on hating.

Qualities of mean spiritedness and selfishness run all the way through the series: between Captain Darling and Blackadder, Melchett and Darling, Blackadder and everyone, but pale slightly when thrown in the shadow of the greater cause of evil and spite they are all answering to, the war itself. Three years of fighting has blunted even the harshest of temperaments and beaten down the snidest of personalities; so come the end, and the last episode, we find emotions nearing resignation and reconciliation than burning anger. This is what World War I has done – reduced even Blackadder to a playground sneak hopelessly pretending to be mad. And “who’d notice another madman round here?”

Similarly the conflict casts previous ideas and themes – and characters, the “returning” Bob and Flashheart – into different guises; if material is recycled then fair enough, because now it’s being played out in drastically changed circumstances and for far greater odds. The significance of Flashheart’s familiar posturing and innuendoes sits alongside the fact that the flying corps loses more than half their number on each sortie. To knock Baldrick for mentioning he has “a cunning plan” seems rather high-minded – is he to come up with a new catchphrase just for this series (which would appear contrived) or just mention it once (tokenistic)? The fact that there isn’t time for that one last cunning plan before going over the top is dramatically perhaps a bit clumsy but at the same time reinforces how absurd and pitiful a character Baldrick has become, still chanting his refrain even when he’s about to be slaughtered. Ditto Blackadder and his similes.

The closing episode sees Melchett lose former traces of buffoonery and resume his position as a cold, clinical General – dispatching Darling to his death without any remorse. So the series does reassert the image of the upper echelons of the military as calculating bastards (Commander Haig in particular) who cared little for their own men. The “bunch of loveable eccentrics” are the ones sent to die, not left to dwell safe in oak-panelled offices. Snivelling Darling was foolish to ever think he could see out the conflict from the safety of his desk, dealing with lorry loads of paper clips. It was foolish of the viewers to think so as well.

So the majority of characters are shown meeting their final end, as was the case in Blackadder II and partly in Blackadder the Third. But this tradition is enhanced by the changed context, the fact that they have not brought in on themselves, and the fact it was easy to feel indifference at a load of toffs meeting their fate at their own hands. Again, it’s the “everyman” element: we see almost the complete ensemble, plus some unnamed extras of course, anonymous privates and everyday recruits, being collectively sent over the top (and to be precise, we don’t actually see them die either, it’s only inferred.)

It’s a conclusion that obviously aspires to deliver something more than just a neat payoff and two-dimensional moralizing. George and Baldrick are shown entertaining their first real doubts about the merits of the war in the final episode – but at the same time Blackadder pitches himself into extremes of delusion and selfishness, desperately resorting to pantomime antics and personal connections to engineer his and only his exit from the trenches. Again, if he were really smart he’d have got out long ago. But his cleverness is his own downfall … a topic that, along with the greater futility of their situation and the continual backdrop of fatalities, punctuates the whole series. Blackadder Goes Forth has a far greater consistency of tone – very bleak, with humour arising out of misfortune – than all its previous series. That’s what makes it so great, and why the last episode is so memorable.


Of course another way of saying what I was trying to say is that Blackadder Goes Forth just isn’t funny enough. Moments of real drama are only ever tolerated in sitcoms if the surrounding jokes are sufficiently strong. Otherwise, we become resentful of writers who, though unable to get the comedy right, still possess sufficient arrogance to believe they can slip a bit of serious moralizing between the “gags”. Curtis and Elton obviously seemed to think they’d cracked the winning formula by the time they got to … Goes Forth (Blackadder thinks up a wheeze to get him out of his current situation, Baldrick has a cunning plan and Hugh Laurie is a stupid puppy dog) yet in fact the true formula (be funny) remained largely elusive; instead Blackadder‘s comedy had become completely formulaic.

There seems to be a miscommunication between us here. You’re telling me what the story is about, and in turn I am telling you what the comedy is about. So let’s work through both of them right now. You question my criticism of the repetition of Baldrick’s “cunning plan” catchphrase, claiming that to ignore it at this stage would be unacceptable. However, take a look at the most consistent long running sitcom of all time. When was the last time Bart had a cow? Blackadder always seemed the type of comedy that, like The Simpsons, set the zeitgeist and then moved on. It might at first appear elitist to wish for Curtis and Elton to drop the running gags as soon as the Radio Times gets hold of them, but the issue here is not that of who’s now in on the joke, rather how many times the joke has therefore been joked. Anyway, I haven’t counted up the number of times Baldrick announces he has a “cunning plan” in Blackadder Goes Forth, but suffice to say it turns up very early in the first episode, and then with alarming frequency right up until he hurtles headlong towards the camera over a cheap set at the end of the final episode.

Once again, let’s draw a comparison here with the most well known other “alternative sitcom” of the era. A running gag introduced in one series of Red Dwarf was openly criticized by viewers and, in retrospect, the writer. So, alright Rimmer misremembering Space Corps directives was a corny joke, but then so were the constant jokes at the expense of Captain Darling’s surname, weren’t they? How many funny misinterpretations can there be? Well I make it three: you can have it so that saying “Darling” at the end of a sentence makes it sound like you are speaking to your mum, your wife or your child. It would seem logical – therefore – that once you’ve exhausted these possibilities, the joke is over. Yet with Blackadder Goes Forth this gag surfaces on average three times an episode serving to reinforce the fact that any ill feeling between Blackadder and the Captain isn’t real antagonism at all but just a spat between a pair of “Mr Grumpypants”.

And so, back to the characters, and therefore the “story” of Blackadder Goes Forth. I would dispute your interpretation of Melchett’s actions in the last episode as cold hearted. Endearingly wearing a moustache net, the old buffer thinks that the front-line is precisely where Kevin wants to be, and as such he is doing the young whippersnapper a huge favour by “allowing” him to accompany Blackadder and Co on the Big Push. It is a comical misunderstanding that is being played out here, and not an act of cold calculation (after all this is the man who wept at the death of his beloved Speckled Jim). Whilst the ignorance of the ruling classes is held up to the light in this scene, what escapes analysis is the far more serious and real disregard for the life of the common soldier shown by those Generals who – in full knowledge of the atrocities of war – were still happy to send working class men out to into no-man’s land to do their bidding.

There are other elements wrong with this last episode. Stuff that it seems Elton and Curtis thought they could get away with due to the ambition of what they were trying to achieve. Call me mealy mouthed, but the actual realization of the trenches, and in particular, the battlefield at the end of the final episode is atrocious. If you want to explore the true horror of World War I (in lieu of providing 30 minutes of decent comedy) then it would seem only reasonable that you make a real fist of it, and actually show it for all its worth. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the stunning realization of the same conditions in such dramas as The Monocled Mutineer, and should not demand equivalent production values from a sitcom, but then I come to expect it due to the seriousness of the point that Curtis and Elton are trying to make.

Finally, coming back to the first point you make regarding whether or not “loveable” characters are by definition a bad thing, I have to concede that you make something akin to a direct hit here. Analysing the true source of my irritation, I have come to the conclusion my annoyance with the characters in Blackadder Goes Forth stems not from their lack of sharp edges, but rather their willingness to fall into line, as a knockabout troupe of predictable characters with predictable catchphrases and predictable responses. Again, not in itself a bad thing (think Dad’s Army) but in this instance a hideous precursor to Elton’s next piece of ensemble comedy writing. Many people have commented that The Thin Blue Line seemed a radical change in tone for Ben Elton, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Sadly, it’s all too easy to trace the genesis of this rather sorry series; most of its characters are charging straight at you in the penultimate shot of Blackadder Goes Forth. The series is guilty by association.


First off I want to re-emphasize the importance of context. Because of its setting, the kind of comedy that Blackadder Goes Forth trades in is bound to be different to that we’ve witnessed in previous series. I reckon there are important limits to the sort of humour British sitcoms can spin out of British conflicts; because when dealing with both World War I and II – as opposed to almost any other kind of environment at any other time anywhere else in the world – there’s still all this cultural and historical baggage that both writers and their performers have to negotiate. Be it down to issues of remembrance, commemoration, revenge or reparation, the way those two conflicts continue to be revered and referenced in all walks of life demands artists to somehow couch their responses in obvious strategies and one-dimension symbolism.

So you get the one favoured approach: all out slapstick and throwaway farce – witness ‘Allo ‘Allo. But alternatively you can get a different type of progress along an alternative, more problematic route, testing what’s possible and practical and what’s not, and pushing at parameters. I think Elton and Curtis tried to do the latter – or at least thought they were trying. What they came up with might not always be convincing, but is at least provocative. So to complain that Blackadder Goes Forth just isn’t funny enough is in a way precisely the point. The series is almost a kind of on-screen clinical examination into how and why it’s so difficult to make a joke out of World War in a British comedy series – a premise that is an absurd and wry dilemma in itself.

You also complain that Blackadder Goes Forth is completely formulaic, yet earlier you spoke of how irked you were by how both the series had changed from its earlier template, and how awkward you found the characterizations. These various responses neatly reflect the shifting nature of the series as a whole, and how Blackadder’s last incarnation challenges the more discerning viewer to reappraise their relationship with the man and his myth – again, in the light of such a dramatic overarching context. So ultimately the scriptwriters have had to resort to employing a particular kind of humour to explore some of the unique problems and confusions facing Blackadder and his company; and that’s a kind of humour which maybe inevitably will always be hit and miss.

You make a point about catchphrases and their longevity. It seems misplaced to criticize the use of such narrative devices in the Blackadder series in comparison to The Simpsons: over the same period that saw the 24 principal episodes of Blackadder broadcast (seven years), the equivalent of 128 episodes of The Simpsons would later be aired. That’s a quantity that would surely necessitate a moving away from early clichés and catchphrases, and hence the disappearances of “don’t have a cow”.

Similarly I think it’s wrong to compare Blackadder with Red Dwarf. These were and are shows both aimed at very different audiences and which win hugely contrasting followings in size, attitude and expectation. Red Dwarf could never be shown on BBC1: for starters it would need to show a bit of respect to casual, uncommitted viewers who’d tuned in by chance. So while there are clearly some dialogue crutches that are leant on too hard by Elton and Curtis – “Captain Darling” admittedly does lose its initial impact – I disagree about the connotations of Blackadder Goes Forth‘s general use of stock phrases and taglines. With such bizarre, unsympathetic characterizations, the appearance of such catchphrases represent a lifejacket or water buoy keeping us bobbing atop the manic, sometimes confusing to and fro of each episode’s structure.

I still think the sudden inversion of Melchett’s buffoonery into a far more stern and genuinely authoritarian guise elevates that final scene between him and Darling beyond the tawdry. The impact comes from seeing someone of such lunatic persuasion as to happily wear a moustache net being in such a position to wield total power over a man’s life. When you add to that the fact Melchett thinks he’s being kindly and doing Darling a favour, the effect is all the more powerful. It’s cruelty coupled with misunderstanding, making for an all the more potent and lethal combination and a sharp illustration of how people of that high a rank can tend to fall back into the safety of convention and eccentricity when faced with real danger. A protracted and ponderous monologue that involved Stephen Fry thundering about sending men over the top, death or glory and so on would have been too clumsy and unsubtle. What we get instead is craftier for being on the surface so amiable.

Maybe the realization of the trenches is poor, but at least the series doesn’t pretend otherwise and attempt what would invariably end up a half-hearted Spielberg-esque depiction of suffering in the tiniest detail ruined by the limitations of a BBC budget. If anything the look of the programme helps reminds us that it’s a sitcom and there’s an audience sitting a few feet away from the actors – and therefore make us more aware of the mechanics of what’s going on here, and our relationship with what we’re seeing acted out for our entertainment.

Finally I still believe you can’t really detach characterization from context here. Just as I’ve argued above that the setting plays such an important role in shaping our perceptions of the cast, so it’s perhaps almost counterproductive to seek to impose any connection between the ideas and clichés mocked or represented on screen in Blackadder Goes Forth and those developed in The Thin Blue Line. To strike comparisons between characters shown interacting with each other in a local police station, and those in a World War I trench, without flagging up their changed circumstances and contexts clouds the argument. The final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth still provokes an important visceral reaction. And if that response is inevitably framed by a cursory consideration of what its collected actors and writers have subsequently done (or failed to do) since, then that’s perhaps even more significant and worthwhile.