There is a saying that ‘he is so funny he can get laughs reading a phone book. In the case of master class British comedian Rowan Atkinson this is a documented fact, well sort of. One of his funniest and best known stretches is an English Headmaster reading off the class attendance roster. With little more than brilliantly controlled inflection punctuated by independently functioning eyebrows he never fails to bring the audience to bouts of roaring laughter. I have seen this performance many times and it never fails to illicit the desired results. Most people, at least here in The States, associate Atkinson with the character of Me. Bean. As it turns out this is the slightest tip of the iceberg of talent that resides in the wonderfully twisted mind of this man. One of the absolutely best sources of humor in his comic arsenal is a set of characters collective known as ‘Black Adder’. There are actually four incarnations of the character set against the backdrop of different pivotal periods of British history. In each time period depicted Atkinson and his cadre of funny friends create an ensemble cast of some of the most innovative and exceptionally hilarious characters ever devised. While each season, or as they are called over there, series, stands on its own most devotees of the franchise prefer to consider them as they were intended, a perfectly crafted saga depicting the decline of a rather bizarre family lineage. The entire collection is available on DVD and it is best to get the whole package at once. Not only is this most cost effective it is certain that the series are addictive. You will find yourself gliding through laughing through the centuries marveling at the way Atkinson recreates basically the same archetype flavored by the trappings of the century at hand. This is the foundation for the genius exhibited in this franchise. Each incarnation of Black Adder is basically the same; a self serving, cowardly opportunistic little man trying to use and means necessary to increase is social power base. While the details differ in each season the presentation is through a subtle manipulation of characteristics. It is suppose to be the same family line with subsequent generation at the focal point but the irony lies in the fact that despite every possible effort and considerable machinations every incarnation slips lower on the social spectrum.
The entire series was created and scripted by Atkinson and his writing partner Richard Curtis. Curtis is perhaps one the most successful screenwriters in England responsible for films such as ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, ‘Notting Hill’, "Love Actually’ and both Bridget Jones’ films. The writing in each series of Black Adder is incredible well constructed. There is not a superfluous line to be found anywhere. Of course the stories and dialogue are only part of the factors that set this franchise so far above the pack. The community of British comedians is exceptionally tight with crossovers common place in each other’s projects. Each series here attracted some of the best comedians raised in the UK as well as a number of actors noted for their dramatic abilities.
Series one: ‘Black Adder’ (1982)
This opening series is set in 1485 at the end of the British Middle Ages structured as a parody of the royal Shakespearian dramas. It presents an alternate view of English history where King Richard III won the Battle of Bosworth Field, only to be accidently assassinated. Instead of being one of the Princes of the Tower Richard IV (Brian Blessed) goes on to assuming the throne. The King has two sons by Queen Gertrude of Flanders (Elspet Gray); the heir Harry, Prince of Wales (Robert East) and the barely acknowledged ‘spare’ Edmund (Atkinson). He refers to himself as ‘The Black Adder’ in order to secure more formidable personae. With the assistance of his best friend Percy, the Duke of Northumberland (Tim McInnerny) and his servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson) The Black Adder sets out to gain the favor of his father and position himself to sit on the throne. The ‘Percys’ throughout history are typically flighty and silly. There is always a Baldric in service to the current Black Adder although he seems to lose a significant number of IQ point in each successive incarnation. Brian Blessed play the King in an over the top fashion as a man with an unbounded capacity for hedonistic pleasures. You will remember him as Augustus in the critically acclaimed series ‘I, Claudius’.
Blackadder II (1996)
For this second series the time period moves up to the Elizabethan era. The story follows the exploites of Edmund, Lord Blackadder (Atkinson), the great grandson of the original Black Adder. This time out Edmund is intelligent and capable of creating his own schemes. He is a cynical member of the London aristocracy and member of court for Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson). Richardson is a well renowned dramatic actress who portrays the Queen as a mischievous child-like monarch with a perchance for practical jokes frequently at the expense of Edmund. Her closest confidents are the ditsy Nursie (Patsy Byrne) and pompous Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry). Fry most recently had a recurring role on ‘Bones’ and has been the comic partner of Hugh Lurie (‘House M.D.’ for many years. Once again McInnerny plays Lord Percy while Tony Robinson reinvents Baldrick as a dimmer bondsman to Edmund.
Blackadder the Third (1987)
This was set during the English regency period where Mr. Edmund Blackadder (Atkinson) ids the butler to the Prince Regent, George Prince of Wales (Hugh Lurie).if you only know Laurie as the obnoxious Dr. House you might be surprised that he plays idiots so amazing well. Mr. Blackadder is constantly trying to increase his own status and personal fortune while contending with the mentally scatted Prince.
Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)
In this final series the time is set during World War One. Atkinson is now Captain Edmund Blackadder who is trapped in the trenches in Flanders. Sharing the plight are his second in command Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie), a silly sort of man and the exceptionally stupid Private S. Baldrick (Tony Robinson). Directing the action from the lap of luxurious surrounds is the eccentric General Melchett (Stephen Fry) attended by his toady assistant Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny), the target of most of Blackadder’s scorn. This series was a perfect capstone to the franchise although there was a special that took as peak into the future of these strange families.
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