Television Revision: The Black Adder – Season 1

Television Revision: The Black Adder – Season 1. Starring Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInnery, and Tony Robinson. Rated M. By Andrew Williams.

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Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and warning you away from the specific episodes – or even seasons! – that might have ruined their reputation).

Now, this is a story all about how…Prince Edmund Plantagenet (Rowan Atkinson), the self-described ‘Black Adder,’ is the deeply out-of-favour son of Richard, Duke of York (Brian Blessed). Together with his imbecilic sidekicks (Tim McInnerny & Tony Robinson), he valiantly and unsuccessfully attempts to seize power via any means necessary.

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Happy days? Rowan Atkinson is responsible for some of the touchstones of British comedy; you don’t ask a guy to represent an entire nation’s sense of humour at the Olympics Opening Ceremony if he hasn’t done some good stuff. The Black Adder is not among those touchstones. When you hear people talk about Blackadder as one of the all-time great British sitcoms, there’s a silent caveat: except the first season, of course.

Since Atkinson was the credited co-writer here (with Richard Curtis) but was replaced by Ben Elton for each subsequent season, it’s easy to blame his writing for the failure of The Black Adder. It’s his performance, however, that is the far more problematic element: all high-pitched hysterics and twitchy, bug-eyed overacting. It’s a far cry from the sardonic anti-hero that would follow. This isn’t to say the writing isn’t poor; most episodes contain long, laugh-free stretches and confusing, overwrought plots.

Since there’s not a lot to love here, it’s lucky Tony Robinson is on hand to provide the grand majority of the laughs. He and Brian Blessed are the only actors who seem to have a real handle on their character’s voices, though Blessed doesn’t get any good lines. Robinson does, and he makes the most of them; you can see why he played a starring role in the following three seasons.

The final frontier: The Black Adder isn’t just bad by the standards of the classic episodes that follow; it’s bad by pretty much any standard you care to name.

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Top three episodes:3) The Archbishop. Robinson’s Baldrick comes into his own with fantastic one-liners in the only truly good episode of the season. His deadpan delivery is invaluable. 1) The Foretelling. Peter Cook is in this! There are Shakespeare references! That’s about it. 5) Witchsmeller Pursuivant. One of the best episode titles ever plus some funny prison guard interplay saves this one. Also:Hey, look! A puppy!

Worst episode:4). The Queen of Spain’s Beard. Features several jokes about how no one wants to sleep with ugly women, and ends with Edmund marrying a child bride. Even the laugh track doesn’t seem to like this one very much.

Season MVP: Perhaps predictably, Tony Robinson is the clear standout. He may pretty much exclusively host historical documentaries now, but this is the beginning of a classic sitcom character.

The Black Adder Season 1 is available on DVD. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix PLAY.

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