Blackadder: Back and Forth

Sunday, October 1, 2000 by

The worst bit comes first: meeting all the familiar characters – but in the present day, dressed for contemporary times, talking and behaving in a unsettlingly modern, up-to-date, way. This isn’t right – they all look too… ordinary. The usual verbal mannerisms are there – Hugh Laurie’s tally-ho upper class stupidity, Stephen Fry’s military growling, Rowan Atkinson’s understated knowing asides – but they just don’t work without the historical setting.

So it’s a relief to move quickly back to that historical context. Everything instantly slots into place – almost. Because this one-off new Blackadder special, with its rather unoriginal premise of the out-of-control time machine, means we’re stuck with the present-day incarnations of Blackadder and Baldrick – and Atkinson and Tony Robinson don’t convince playing their respective familiar roles in contemporary dress; too many ugly reminders of Time Team and, worse, The Thin Blue Line.

It’s a welcome development that the first historical destination they accidentally end up in turns out to be the Elizabethan throne room last seen in Blackadder II (1986). Fry, Miranda Richardson and even Patsy Byrne don’t look the slightest bit different to their original TV selves of 14 years ago. Gratuitous plug for Tesco’s aside (one of the chief sponsors of the Dome) this is the best bit of the whole show, ending with a memorable encounter with William Shakespeare. “That’s for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years,” yells Blackadder, punching the Bard on the nose. “Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause? Hours spent at school desks, trying to find one joke in A Midsummer Night’s Dream …”

Shot on film, the episode has a very glossy, expensive feel totally at odds with the deliberately cheap and functional look that worked so well for Blackadder TV series II to IV. A lot of money has been spent on this one-off, and the elaborate special effects recall the disastrous attempt to “update” Doctor Who into a ultra-modern telemovie in 1996, where complex graphics smothered characterisation and plot. Of course, this Blackadder wasn’t made to be viewed on the small screen; originally available only to those braving a visit to the special cinema inside the Dome itself, its transmission on TV at least makes for one less reason to muster a visit to Greenwich before the end of this year.

The acting’s flawless, naturally. Rik Mayall turns up to give Robin Hood a Lord Flashheart makeover, with ludicrous innuendo still intact (“I love giving it to the poor – Woof!”). While there are plenty of historical incarnations of Melchetts and Captain Darlings to be found, only once is there a glimpse of another of the Blackadder dynasty, back in Roman Britain: “We’re facing a horde of ginger maniacs with wild goats nesting in their huge orange beards – or to put it another way, the Scots – and how does our inspired leader Hadrian intend to keep out this vast army of lunatics? By building a 3 foot high wall.”

Despite the shameless celebrity cameos – Kate Moss, Colin Firth, even BBC Royal Correspondent Jennie Bond – there were a couple of notable absentees from the cast, principally Mrs. Miggins herself, Helen Atkinson-Wood. If Miranda Richardson merited re-appearance then surely Atkinson-Wood did too? If both her and occasional Blackadder contributor Adrian Edmondson had been involved, the cast would’ve have been complete and the reunion perfect.

The script itself took a while to find its feet; too many obvious clich├ęd one-liners and catchphrases populated the first 10 minutes, none of which stuck instantly in the brain the way so many did from the various TV series. The huge budget afforded more-sight gags than clever verbal wit, and seemed to discourage Richard Curtis and Ben Elton from constructing the familiar dense, elaborate streams of wordplay. The best lines, perhaps inevitably, cropped up in the wholly historical scenes: “There appears to be a large orange hedge moving towards us/That’s not a hedge, counsel – that’s the Scots.”

There’s a climax of sorts as the pair race back through time to undo the damage their meddling in history had caused, but this gives Edmund another idea, one that sees the present-day Blackadder dynasty back among the upper echelons of power indeed, the highest position in the land … Fittingly it all ends with a song, that familiar title theme adorned with – as is tradition – a witty, pointed set of appropriate lyrics. Then it’s “Blackadder Back and Forth Two: Coming …” – we are promised – “… Summer 3000.”

It could’ve been a disaster – jarringly unfunny, tedious, hugely self-indulgent, an embarrassing coda to the Blackadder symphony. The script was the key. The original series wedded a jaundiced take on British history with crackling, startlingly hilarious and shamefully quotable one-liners and insults. That’s what made Blackadder the best comedy of the 1980s, and why the Dome planners presumably decided to coax the old team to reunite in this special way to mark the Millennium. Thankfully, they more or less pulled it off; but it’s doubtful whether it could – and should – happen again. For Curtis and Elton seem almost too preoccupied, or lazy, or indifferent, to sustain any kind of rekindled comic genius for a whole new series of Blackadder anymore – you sense that half an hour is more or less the limit.

And no matter how good a performance the regular cast could come up with time and again, it’s an unavoidable conclusion that without imaginative and stylishly witty dialogue Blackadder would simply be like a pencil without lead: pointless.


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