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. Today, Mickey Noonan looks at what the butler saw in Blackadder the Third.
Cards on table: when it comes to Blackadder, my order of utter love is: Goes Forth, II, then the Third, all of which I’ve watched and rewatched countless times. I have the DVD boxset – I’ve also got that boxset on VHS. It weighs a tonne. Alas, I wasn’t quick enough to bagsy either of those in the Standard Issue scrum. (Yes I’ve seen the first one a couple of times, too; let’s move on.)
What and why: For his third outing, Edmund Blackadder has moved forward in history to the Regency period, but dropped another step down the social ladder. Butler to foppish idiot (“thick as a whale omelette”) Prince George, master of dogsbody Baldrick, and determined to take everyone he meets for everything they’ve got. Even if they don’t have anything. “It is the way of the world, Baldrick. The abused always kick downwards. I am annoyed, and so I kick the cat… the cat pounces on the mouse, and, finally, the mouse bites you on the behind.”
Rated or dated: Let’s get a couple of bugbears about Blackadder the Third out of the way first. THERE IS NO RIK MAYALL. Mayall’s cameos as Flashheart in Blackadders two and four are series-stealing highlights, so it’s baffling (to me, at least) that there’s not a sniff of him in three. There is a little Tim McInnery, as a brilliant cameo in Scarlet Pimpernel-led episode Nob and Nobility (which also features a freaking hilarious turn from Chris Barrie), but in the main THERE IS NO TIM MCINNERY.
“Dish and Dishonesty might be set in the 18th century and have aired in 1987, but its pummelling of British politics is as savvy and pointed as ever.”
It’s something of a boy’s own Blackadder, though, the whole series revolving around the much-smaller principal cast of three – Rowan Atkinson (Edmund, obvs), Tony Robinson (Baldrick, also obvs) and Hugh Laurie (The Prince Regent, huzzah!) – that would go on to be the heart of Blackadder Goes Forth.
In fact, there are just three female characters in the entire series, and – aside from recurring coffee shoppekeeper Mrs Miggins (Helen Atkinson Wood, wonderful) – two of them are cameos in the same episode: Amy and Amiability. And it happens to be my favourite, because one of those cameos is Miranda Richardson. Her double turn as Amy Hardwood, insipid daughter of a (presumed) wealthy industrialist by day, and the elusive Shadow, mercenary squirrel-hating highwayman by night is bloody brilliant. If bad for squirrels. (Warren Clarke also makes an appearance as Amy’s father, and delivers the almighty line: “Why, sir, I shall take off my belt and by thunder me trousers will fall down!”)
The series kicks off with an absolute doozie, too: Dish and Dishonesty might be set in the 18th century and have aired in 1987, but its pummelling of British politics is as savvy and pointed as ever. It positively drips Ben Elton at the top of his game – and given the current political climate, it’s scarily relevant. Actually, politics being such a dodgy game full of oleaginous, untrustworthy arsebiscuits, that particular episode is always going to resonate. The aforementioned Nob and Nobility is another smasher, taking potshots at the fat cats with writing that’s as taut as a drum.
“This is the most conniving and arrogant incarnation of Edmund Blackadder, a man certain he deserves a higher station in life and willing to do anything to reach it. Scruples? Pah. For losers.”
It’s the tale of a savvy self-involved prick, bookended – and occasionally stymied – by two (lovable) fools, which leads to some gloriously cartoonish scenes, including Baldrick as a horse and Baldrick wearing a giant turnip as an unexpected hat. As the Prince Regent, a man baffled by his own trousers, Hugh Laurie gets to pantomime A LOT. And it is a delight. His pratfalls are a joy. His hurt expression only adding to the hilarity. No one does buffoon like Laurie playing Prince George.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s Rowan Atkinson’s party, however. This is the most conniving and arrogant incarnation of Edmund Blackadder, a man certain he deserves a higher station in life and willing to do anything to reach it. Scruples? Pah. For losers. And he is delish. (Sweet lord, so much about my personal life just made sense.) Atkinson plays an absolute blinder: his delivery of those extended similes beloved by Elton and Curtis is perfect, but all he needs is a bang-on sneer, dead-eyed stare or artfully cocked eyebrow to elicit proper belly laughs. Differing from the other Blackadders, he sometimes gets away with his cunning plans, too – the last episode in particular is a definite win for Edmund Blackadder.
Confession: it’s not actually that long since I last watched Blackadder the Third. I rarely leave it more than a couple of years between viewings of the entire Blackadder back catalogue (see previous note about the first series). The writing remains as fresh as ever, meaning it never ever fails to put a massive shit-eating grin on my face, or to make me honk so hard the cat shoots off my lap in surprise.
RATED. But you probably knew that from the top, right?
Read Hannah Dunleavy’s Rated or Dated on Blackadder II here.
Tomorrow, Sooz Kempner rates or dates Blackadder Goes Forth.
Aged five, Mickey Noonan shoved an apple pip up her nose to see what happened. Older, wiser but sadly without a nose-tree, Standard Issue's editor remains curious about the world. Likes running, jumping and static trapeze.