In this highly emotive centenary year, there are no doubt scores of World War I articles and expositions being written right now by people much better versed in the subject than myself. I’ve elected not to even attempt to write on so significant, so enormous and complex, a subject as the First World War in a blog like this one, as there’s no way I can even begin to do the matter justice, as fascinating and often moving as the subject has always been to me.
Instead I’ve decided to talk about one of the more famous cultural homages to the First World War – the fourth and final series of the classic British series Blackadder; and in particular its famous final episode.
While Blackadder as a whole is rightly regarded as an absolute classic in British television comedy (despite a dreadful first season), it is probably its forth and final incarnation, Blackadder Goes Forth – the season set in the trenches of World War I – that is the most fondly regarded overall.
Airing on the BBC from 28th September to 2nd November 1989, the final series of Blackadder depicted life in a Flanders trench in World War I and centered primarily around Captain Blackadder’s failed schemes to escape the grim horrors of the front line. While the Elizabethan Blackadder II (who could forget Miranda Richardson’s singular take on the Virgin Queen?) and the Georgian-set Blackadder the Third (and who could forget Hugh Laurie’s exceptionally stupid Prince George) are both equally as good in comedy terms, what marks out the final series of Blackadder is the grimness of its setting and the surprising level of poignancy it managed to attain at times, particularly in its final episode.
In fact numerous academics cite the series as a highly relevant influence in the modern public’s perception of The Great War, even having gone so far as to suggest that the modern, common British view of World War I is based on “the Blackadder take on history.”
Richard Curtis’s and Ben Elton’s writing essentially presents a broadly anti-war message, using the characters and situations to mock the conflict, show the war’s leaders and strategists as incompetent, even farcical, and to basically surmise the war as pointless, particularly playing on the idea that the soldiers suffered relentlessly in the trenches while their leaders – their “betters”, invariably the upper classes – were making incompetent strategic decisions at a safe distance, themselves sheltered from the true horrors and true human cost of the conflict. There are no heroes or heroism in Blackadder Goes Forth, it is simply an attempt to find gallows humor (and humanity) amid the daily hellish grind of the trenches.
While some historians might refute the show’s cynical, satirical take on the First World War, many don’t; there are of course plenty of academic perspectives on the war that sympathise with the view that the conflict was basically a tragic farce, waged for highly nebulous or questionable reasons and led by “fools”.
Blackadder Goes Forth embodies that sense of tragic farce perfectly, Rowan Atkinson’s character describing The Great War as: “a war which would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed in England and shot fifty thousand of our men a week.”
It is a bleak view that is presented across the six episodes and it never tries to romanticise or lionize anyone or any aspect of the conflict.
Though he still retains his characteristic dead-pan, bitter nature, the Blackadder of this fourth and final incarnation isn’t quite as mean spirited as in previous series and is in fact more of a sympathetic figure, certainly in the aforementioned final episode anyway. It’s arguable that Hugh Laurie and Tony Robinson both get their best Blackadder roles in this series too, as the overly-idealistic toff Lieutenant George and the profoundly daft Private Baldrick respectively. The same case can be made for Stephen Fry as General Melchett – a much more pronounced role than in Blackadder II, and likewise for the often underrated Tim McInnerny as Captain Darling.
All of the actors portray their respective characters with a huge amount of enthusiasm and sympathy, really bringing those roles to life, and one gets the sense that the poignancy of the World War I setting might’ve inspired the level of performance somewhat. Guest appearances by Adrian Edmonson as Baron von Richthofen and the late Rik Mayall as Lord Flashheart (in ‘Private Plane’) also enliven the all-too-short series (I really wish they’d had more than a mere six episodes), the former in particular being an excellent guest-spot.
There’s no point listing the series’ great comic moments, as there are too many; from Baldrick’s war poems (“Booom, boom, boom!”) to the trial of “the Flanders pigeon murderer!”, Blackadder Goes Forth is rich with as many memorable moments of comic dialogue and more importantly first-class comedy acting as it is with incisive historical observations.
As for that famous final episode, “Goodbyeee”; I was only nine years old when I first saw it and even though I didn’t properly understand its meaning, I remember it made an impression on me just visually and tonally. Much later of course when I rewatched the series, I understood it better and it became even more poignant. For a comedy show to achieve that level of poignancy is rather extraordinary.
What’s remarkable about it is that there is a certain almost cut-off point about a third of the way into the episode where all the comedy evaporates and suddenly we’re left with simply the bleak, harsh reality of the situation. And it isn’t in the famous ‘going over the top’ sequence, but a few scenes earlier than that; specifically it’s once Blackadder has realised his final ploy to escape inevitable death (by attempting to call in a favour from Field-Marshall Hague) has failed and he will ultimately have to face that final pointless, hopeless battle with the rest of the men. There’s something so gut-wrenching about seeing that – that final, last-ditch plan fail, that final glimmer of hope winking out and Blackadder finally becoming resigned to his fate as one of the other millions of casualties of the battlefields.
It is compounded by the arrival of Captain Darling to join them for this last hurrah; that scene too gets me in the gut, as Darling, who has spent most of the series safely away from the front line and displaying a typically haughty attitude towards Captain Blackadder and those in the trenches, is suddenly told he too must go and participate in the suicidal advance into enemy territory.
That scene where he (Darling) begs and pleads to be spared that fate, while the uncomprehending and remorseless General Melchett stubbornly refuses to understand his pleas, is so uncomfortable to watch that I marvel it even exists in a comedy show.
All of Darling’s sycophancy towards Melchett over the course of the series has ultimately amounted to nothing as he finally isn’t spared the horrors of the battlefield, but realises at last that he is regarded as being every bit as expendable in the aristocrat Melchett’s eyes as Captain Blackadder and the other pawns. Darling’s arrival in the trenches somewhat redeems him as a character in this particular narrative while it also decisively confirms General Melchett and his ilk as the ‘villain’ of the series. Melchett’s is the cold and uncomprehending, remorseless face of aristocratic British Imperialist warmongering – and who better than a gleefully over-acting Stephen Fry to portray that? He even looks every bit the Kitchener type character of the era. It’s interesting to note in this series that the Germans themselves are never overly depicted in a villainous manner or presented as the bad guys, but rather Blackadder’s own superiors are portrayed as the both the reprehensible and most incompetent party.
As the final hour approaches, even George‘s characteristic patriotic glee fades and he reveals himself to be as frightened as his captain. And poor old Baldrick, who’d never even begun to understand what the war was about anyway even through his grim life in the trenches, mourns the death of his pet hamster “Neville” – another meaningless mortality to add to the millions.
As for the famous final scene itself, it is thoroughly remarkable and has lost none of its poignancy. Describing it in text only detracts from its qualities, so I’ve included the You Tube clip here for anyone who hasn’t seen it before. The key masterstroke of it – that fade into the present-day poppy field with the birdsong audio – is so evocative with its “In Flanders Fields” connotations that you’d think it was the work of some great film director like David Lean and not the conclusion to a comedy series. The fact that it was an afterthought and not a pre-planned directing choice makes it all the more remarkable.
Combined with the very poignant, if downbeat, dialogue that precedes it, it might just be the single finest ending or end-sequence to a TV show ever committed to film.
In actual fact, although the quality level is generally high through all six episodes, there are some dips here and there and it’s this closing episode that performs the final, definitive act of raising the series onto its deserved pedestal for all posterity. And for all the fan talk over the years of what another Blackadder series would be like and what it’s historical setting should be, I can’t help but feel they could never do better than this or end on a more powerful note than this.