Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Arts

Rated or Dated: Blackadder II

The revival of chatter about a new Blackadder series has sent Standard Issue back to the first four. OK, three of them because, well, you know. First up, Hannah Dunleavy looks at the second coming of the English nobleman.

Blackadder II

What and why: I’m not sure if it was a concerted effort on the part of my parents, but I seemed to spend a lot of the school holidays away from home. Like an inverse boarding school child, the last bell went and I packed my bags to stay with aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends and school friends.

In the summer of 1986, I went with my friend Fran to stay with her grandparents in Sheffield. I can’t remember how long we were there, but I do know it was long enough they needed a night away from us, going out and leaving us in the care of her uncle, who was young enough to still live at home.

He did what any young man would do when left in charge of two 12-year-olds: put a whole series he’d recorded off the telly into the video (the precursor to the boxset) and let us have what we wanted for dinner. And so it was we found ourselves watching Blackadder II and eating Nutella out of a jar with a spoon. It remains one of the most fun evenings I ever spent.

Of course, I’ve seen it an uncountable number of times since then – there was a time when I knew it by heart – but to me the series has always represented that incredible feeling of watching grown-ups’ TV and not just liking it, but understanding it, too.

So, yes, I suppose you could say I’m a bit concerned about watching it again.

Rated or dated: Firstly, I’m struck by how many characters Blackadder II has in it. Not as many as the bonkers and overstuffed original – which I couldn’t bring myself to watch again, even if it means I can see Jim Broadbent put in one of the funniest comedy turns EVER. But, having become a fan of big, ensemble comedies like 30 Rock and Arrested Development, I expected it to feel more cramped and have less going on.

“When I see my nephew shortly after reviewing, I drop the phrase ‘letting off such great and fruitsome flappy woof woofs’ into the conversation and he laughs uproariously, which makes me look forward to when he’s 12.”

Aside from the six characters who appear in every episode there’s the embarrassment of riches in the ‘star of the week’ department. Rik Mayall literally swings by early to set the bar impossibly high, but there’s sterling work from Miriam Margolyes as Lady Whiteadder (“Wicked child!”) and a completely batshit performance by Tom Baker. I don’t know who else could take that potentially awful “You have a woman’s [insert first thing he sees here]” line and get away with it. Repeatedly.

And Hugh Laurie’s second appearance – as evil Prince Ludwig – is so relentless in-your-face silly, I’m fairly sure you can see Stephen Fry laughing in the scene where the German reveals ‘Flossy the sheep’ was actually him in a very good disguise. (“Baaaaa.”)

Yes, the writing’s funny – when I see my nephew shortly after reviewing, I drop the phrase “letting off such great and fruitsome flappy woof woofs” into the conversation and he laughs uproariously, which makes me look forward to when he’s 12. It’s also got a charming scattering of historical references – few are actual facts – and some nice pinching from Shakespeare. In fact, the first time I saw Richard II and heard the line “for God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories,” I burst out laughing.

But, in truth, it’s the performances that really shine.

So, first thing to say: Miranda Richardson, Miranda Richardson, Miranda Richardson. It’s simultaneously the least accurate and the most accurate portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I you can imagine. Her ability to switch from power-wielding maniac to wide-eyed innocent in seconds is a wondrous thing. Her flirtation with Walter Raleigh (“Gosh, you’ve got nice legs”) is so joyful I had to go back and watch it again.

Her constant companions – Nursey and Lord Melchett – are, respectively, funnier than I remember and just as nothing-y. The later incarnation of Melchett is an improvement to the power of 20.

It seems unnecessary to say it, but weird not to: Rowan Atkinson is central to Blackadder’s success. In this series, it’s a performance that grows to a crescendo when he’s kidnapped. In fact, from the ridiculous posturing to the threatening charades (“Oh, it’s a scythe”), everything that happens while Edmund’s locked in the comically spiky box is among the best stuff Blackadder’s ever done.

What I had forgotten after a 20-year gap between viewings – give or take an episode I may have strayed across on UK Gold when I was looking for an excuse to not wash up – is how much I loved Percy.

Much like Baldrick, he’s a useful idiot for the writers, picking up some of the series’ most broad and least funny comedy. However, given a bit to do, Tim McInnery really shines. From my very first viewing my favourite episode was Money, where Edmund finds himself in debt to the Black Bank.

Percy in MoneyWatching it again, my view hasn’t changed. And it really is Percy’s episode. His discovery that his own savings have already been stolen, his hopelessly optimistic bid to crack alchemy “this very afternoon” and his ridiculously loyal bid to beat the Bishop of Bath and Wells all prove he’s a fool, but he’s a completely delightful one.

And, as a poke in the eye to the bit of me that was saying “what can I possibly see here I’ve not seen a dozen or more times before?” it occurred to me for the first time that among that ridiculous get-up Percy wears at the end of Money is a latex ruff. Enough said. RATED.

@funnypunts

On Monday, Mickey Noonan on Blackadder The Third.

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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.