Friday, January 13, 2012

Blackadder Returns With More Wit Than Vengeance In Blackadder II, Part 1!

The Good: Funny, Clever, Wonderful characters, Interesting (enough) plots
The Bad: Poor use of the medium.
The Basics: One of the great British comedies arrives on video with Blackadder II, Part 1 which has the noble Edmund Blackadder surrounded by witless Elizabethans! Hilarious!

I have a love for British comedies . . . at least the ones that are funny. Something about British comedies speaks to geeks. After all, while America is obsessed with reinventing the sitcom frequently and without grace, Britain recasts sitcoms in esoteric ways. They have had great success pushing the comedic envelope with such things as science fiction comedy (Red Dwarf) and historical comedy. For historical comedy, Blackadder might well be tops. Each season (or "series") of Blackadder has essentially the same characters existing in a different historical period and the show is clever, funny and enduring. Easily one of the best seasons of the show was Blackadder II and that series began on video with Blackadder II, Part 1!

It is a rare thing that I end up calling a VHS a poor use of the medium. Indeed, it is a poor medium, but the use of it is often limited only to being that medium. In the case of Blackadder II, Part 1 it is a poor use of the poor medium: the entire second season of Blackadder could easily have fit on one video whatwith its running time being under three hours. As it is, Blackadder II, Part 1 contains the first three episodes of the second season of Blackadder, (retitled Blackadder II) a historical comedy set during in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

In "Bells," Edmund Blackadder is a lord in Queen Elizabeth's London surrounded by his useless servant Baldrick - who he is using for target practice - and Lord Percy a dimwit he can't seem to shake. Kate, a poor woman, has been trying to take care of her crazy father, who wants her to become a prostitute. Rather than taking that avenue, Kate runs off to London, impresses Edmund and becomes his servant, disguised as a boy and going by the name Bob.

Edmund, much to his chagrin, finds himself able to talk with Bob and excited by having such a witty boy about the house. They go on long walks and talk and Edmund soon fears he is falling in love with his servant. Distressed, Edmund goes to the doctor who prescribes leeches to prevent him from going gay and he seeks advice from an equally unhelpful Wise Woman. Soon, though, the truth comes out and much to Queen Elizabeth's dismay, Blackadder moves to marry Bob, er, Kate . . .

In "Head," Edmund is promoted to Lord High Executioner when the prior executioner accidentally signs the wrong line on an execution order. Ordered by the Queen to take the position, Edmund immediately attempts to cut corners while taking the job. As a result, he reschedules the execution of one of the criminals from Wednesday to Monday in order to give him, Ploppy (the jailer), Ploppy (the last meal cook) and Baldrick (whose hobby it turns out is being the actual executioner with the ax) most of the week off.

The complications ensue when the Monday executions take place and the wife of Poncenby (who was supposed to be killed Wednesday) successfully petitions the queen to see her husband one last time. Threatened with his own execution, Edmund impersonates Poncenby, despite his many physical deformities and having to wear a bag upon his head.

In "Potato," Sir Walter Raleigh returns to Britain with the potato and all England is abuzz with news of his return. The queen is eager to marry him if he isn't hideous, Melchard is envious and Percy and Baldrick are celebrating with wearing ridiculous hats made of potatoes. Only Blackadder is disappointed by Sir Walter Raleigh's return and he mopes around in a jealous fit while the others swoon over Raleigh's stories.

While Raleigh is telling one of his travel stories, Blackadder challenges his statement that no one could sail around the Cape of Good Hope. Eager to regain his standing, Blackadder says he can, hires an insane sea captain and drags Percy and Baldrick onto a ship with him. Unfortunately Blackadder's cunning plan to simply sail to France and tell everyone they went around the Cape Of Good Hope is complicated by the captain truly being mad and not knowing the way to France, resulting in a sea voyage much more dangerous than the one Blackadder intended to go on!

Blackadder II is a wonderful mix of historical one-liners that make obscure references to British and European history and universal, timeless humor. So, for instance, in "Potato," there are numerous allusions to various explorers while "Bells" includes a number of jokes about the profitability of surviving on prostitution. There's a good balance between the bawdy jokes about sex (and Edmund does get some this time around!) and jokes about such things as the size of the ruffs being worn in the Queen's court. The balance makes for a smart and simultaneously universal show.

As well, the characters are fun and interesting. Edmund is hilarious with his could sarcasm and Percy is an utter idiot. Fans of the Blackadder franchise will likely enjoy seeing Edmund evolve from the first Blackadder from the hapless noble into the more intelligent and cunning lord that he is in Blackadder II. As his servant, Baldrick is cast in Blackadder II as an utter imbecile, for whom "The Renaissance is just something that happened to other people" ("Bells"). Edmund is especially likable in "Bells" and "Head."

On the character front, these first episodes of Blackadder II are fleshed out with Queen Elizabeth who is presented as a deranged flirt and Nursie her equally scatterbrained keeper. Her court is defined by her advisor Melchard, who is a man of faith who is Edmund's intellectual equal. Watching them spar is a great deal of fun in these episodes!

The acting is great as well, whatwith Rowan Atkinson taking the title role of Edmund Blackadder. Atkinson is given a fairly unique acting challenge: the present essentially the same character (Blackadder) a different way while keeping the performance fresh and funny. Atkinson does this by altering the delivery of his lines. While the first season of Blackadder had Atkinson delivering most of his lines with a sniveling quality, Blackadder II has him delivering them all with a pomposity that is rich and developed. Atkinson makes for a credible intellectual snob in this series and he plays off the blank-faced idiocy that Tim McInnerny presents with Percy perfectly.

In fact, the only real strikes against this video is that is it not living up to its capacity and the occasional lighting washouts from pyrotechnics ("Bells") and quick camera movements.

Still, it is not enough to not recommend this as a timeless, classic bit of British comedy well worth the buy from adults who love to laugh!

[Given that VHS is a rapidly dying medium, a far better investment would be Blackadder - The Complete Second Season, reviewed here!
As well, those who already love Blackadder will find Blackadder - The Complete Series to be an even better buy, reviewed here!
Thanks for reading!]


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© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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