Apparently, according to the writers of Blackadder at least, the word ‘underpants’ constitutes a punchline to a joke. This begs the question; Is the show to be criticised for appealing to the lowest common denominator, or am I for finding it so damn funny?
Blackadder is one of the cornerstones of British comedy. The cast and writing team read as a ‘who’s who’ of the local industry. Written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Ben Elton (The Young Ones, Mr. Bean), the show has appeared on television in four very different seasons. Each portraying a different generation of ‘Blackadder’ (always an adviser in some form to someone in a position of power), the program was always a showcase for Rowan Atkinson’s hilariously cutting sardonic delivery.
Like much of Elton and Curtis’s writing, the humour is based around the inherent hilarity of the male reproductive organ. Few jokes, regardless of who delivers them, avoid the subject of a penis, a function of the penis or the undergarment worn closest to the penis. And it is here that the line between whether you find this in any way funny or not is drawn.
This special was produced in 1999 to be shown on the cinema screen at the then-new Millennium dome. Blackadder, in the present day, has had his ‘cunning’ assistant Baldrick build a fake time machine to dupe his friends (played by the primary actors of each Blackadder season) out of some money. Unfortunately, Baldrick’s design is flawless and the machine actually succeeds in transporting them across the ages.
With a stream of cameos including Colin Firth (as Shakespeare), Rik Mayall (as Robin Hood) and Kate Moss (as Maid Marion), the pair travel from era to era, returning home only long enough to see the impact of their actions on the present day.
The production values are surprisingly high, shot on film and featuring a convincing animatronic dinosaur as well as impressive numbers of extras for the Scottish invasion sequence.
And, as much as it pains me to admit it, I found many of the penis-related jokes not only funny, but downright hilarious. The rare moments where the humour diverted to a more intelligent wit, though, were still stand-outs (in particular, the conversation with Shakespeare; “Who’s Kenneth Brannagh?” “I’ll tell him you said that and I think he’s going to be quite upset.”), and served as a reminder that the creative team is capable of smarter than most of this material.
Atkinson, Tony Robinson (Baldrick), Miranda Richardson (Lady/Queen Elizabeth), Tim McInnerny (Darling), Stephen Fry (Melchett) and Hugh Laurie (George) all commit themselves to the project, turning in enthusiastic performances despite the briefness of proceedings. In fact, everyone does a good job of making this television special just that.
The main criticism is the aforementioned running time. This is one half-hour special, albeit packed with a massive cast, neat story and tremendous visuals, but it ends so abruptly you wonder why they couldn’t get access to another half-hour of air time.
Shot in film for the special screening at Millennium Dome, we get the rather luxurious 16:9 enhanced 1.78:1 ratio here. The transfer is bright and perfect. The colour range is dense and the few digital effects are integrated very nicely without any obvious glitches.
As if they’re compensating for the embarrassingly small running time, three audio mixes are included here. We get the default Dolby 2.0 mix, which would be sufficient (and expected) on a release such as this. But then there’s the 5.1 mix, which offers some bang and clatter in the time-jumping sequences, as well as some wonderful ambience in the prehistoric and battle sections. As if we didn’t have enough, they give us a DTS mix to play with as well. This would have been impressive at Britain’s brand new venue, but has little point when revisited on this type of DVD. Still, if you’ve got the system, why not?
One lost early episode of Blackadder: The Cavalier Years is provided here. Critics of this latest special have heralded this ‘little gem’ as an example of what ‘Back and Forth’ should have been. For me, though, it’s the opposite. This early episode is crude, unfunny and far too reliant on laboured running gags. The show developed up until the magnificent ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ season, and it’s difficult to revisit something so early without knowing how much better it would become.
Baldrick’s Video Diary starts off like the cheesiest behind-the-scenes documentary you’ve ever seen, but soon settles into an enjoyable and thorough record of not only the production of this episode, but the entire series. The cast speak fondly about the role of the show in their careers and we even get to hear from the reclusive Atkinson.
This is a title for completists only, but those that are fans will appreciate this addition to the series. We are assured at the very end of the credits that we won’t get another Special until December 2999, so if you’re already a follower of Blackadder, best take this last opportunity to see him joke about his penis.