Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Television Review - Blackadder Goes Forth

Blackadder Goes Forth
Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Tim McInnerny, Stephen Fry, Stephen Frost, Gabrielle Glaister, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Miranda Richardson, and Geoffrey Palmer
Release Date: September 28th, 1989 - November 2nd, 1989
Rating: ★★★★★
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When Edmund Blackadder decided on a career as a solider it was made when the most dangerous fighting he could expect to see was a native with a sharpened mango. He didn't expect the Germans and their war machine, no one did. He would never have signed up if it meant spending all his time in the mud with two dimwits praying that his baaahing mad General, Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, KCB, doesn't decide for them to go over the top or pay for the death of his beloved pigeon, Speckled Jim. All Blackadder's time is spent trying to conceive of ways to get as far away from the front and the trenches as possible, though hopefully not by being removed and placed in front of a firing squad as the Flanders Pigeon Murderer. Blackadder is forever hindered by General Melchett's nefarious adjutant Captain Darling. Combine Darling's antipathy with Blackadders two disastrously dysfunctional "friends," Baldrick and Lieutenant George, and if they survive the war it will be a miracle. If only they could put on the best music hall showcase and decamp to London. Or perhaps a stay in hospital is needed. Then there's the flying corps. So many schemes, can one of them save them?

One Christmas my friend Sara gave me the first half of Blackadder the Third on VHS and we promptly sat down and watched all three episodes. I immediately had to have the second half of the season and over the years I have rewatched those tapes so many times that I wore them out. Sara grew up with a love of all things relating to British Comedy thanks to her older brother Paul. Once they became a part of my life my British Comedy horizons expanded. Paul was forever searching for the elusive Blackadder: The Cavalier Years. It just so happens that I was the one who found it on eBay. I remember as we watched the grainy bootleg tape Paul's disbelief that this young girl who was rapidly gaining in British Comedy knowledge had somehow beat him to the punch. It was an odd little tape made up of Comic Relief Sketches and a music video of Cliff Richard singing "Living Doll" with The Young Ones. But it also had one episode of Blackadder on there that I hadn't seen. I was very strapped for cash at the time and most of my money was going towards my Red Dwarf purchases so I hadn't yet gotten Blackadder Goes Forth. Figuring I knew enough about Blackadder I watched "Goodbyeee" and was just floored by the episode.

The episode is so poignant as I watched these characters die. Sure, we'd seen certain characters bite the big one before on previous seasons, but this was just so much more. This was the final goodbye. Blackadder Goes Forth was the final of four series and we had come to know and love these characters over many years and here they were leaving us forever. How could the writers give the perfect send off while also doing right by their creations? At the time when it was revealed that this final season was to be set during World War I it was criticized for being inappropriate. But I defy you to find any show that shows the horrors of the Great War so heartrendingly. When the show fades to black and white and then the field turns into a field of poppies, I dare anyone not to cry. It does justice to the war by showing how these characters we love reacted to it. It makes so much sense to end the show when the world forever changed. Each season was a different epoch, but I don't think anything quite got the point across to me that history was forever changed by the advent of World War I than a single episode of a rather silly British Comedy.

While people were initially concerned that this series would trivialize the war it not only forged a closer connection and understanding to the war with viewers but it continued the honorable tradition of using humor to shine a light on the truth. Yes, who would have thought that a show based on sarcastic put-downs and sex jokes would show the true horrors of the war? It's not like there was precedence? Oh wait says 'Allo 'Allo, Dad's Army, F Troop, Hogan's Heroes, M*A*S*H*, McHale's Navy and others. Comedy is, in my opinion, the best way to understand a situation but also to make it bearable. Humor is healing. Just as I said when I read Nancy Mitford's Nazis satire, Wigs on the Green, by taking something scary and laughing at it we take away it's power. We memorialize while putting the pain in it's place. But Blackadder Goes Forth does so much more. I remember when I first watched this last episode I couldn't believe that a show that had made me laugh so hard could also make me cry so much. Could make me really care about the Great War. For all those history books I read and even for my love of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles for some reason I never got the human element, it was all larger than life. It was the humor that revealed the humans.

But it's the asides, the throwaway jokes that shed a light on what World War I was really like. You might laugh at Baldrick saying he's grateful for the new trench ladders because they had kindling for the first time in months, or how rat is what is on the menu, cooked in a variety of fashions that are all eerily similar, or drinking coffee that is actually just mud, but the truth was the war was full of privations and attrition. We may think of it now as beautiful fields of poppies and heroic men and women who gave their lives, but it was mud and diseases these heroes faced. Plus, the humor used doesn't just aid in understanding the war but in understanding how the soldiers probably survived. If they couldn't think like Blackadder and use a little dark humor now and again how could they survive without all going wooble? Just look at the terrifying thought of the flying squadron? The 'Twenty Minuters.' Called such not because of the length of a mission but because that was the average life expectancy of a new pilot. While this might be stretching the truth a little, it's not by much. Remember, the planes they fought in were mostly made of canvas!

The show also tackles the problem of the "old boys club" that was the military at the time. World War I was the last war where rank was almost solely decided by social ranking. The upper classes taking on the more senior leadership roles, no matter how inept they were. I mean, how messed up was it that you could buy your commission? Pompous, childish, incompetent, and rather dim we see this "club" in the interactions between George and Melchett who speak in their own weird language at the top of the ladder. George is even given a "get out of jail free card" when Melchett offers him the chance to leave the trench before the big push. George though isn't just of the "old boys club" he also embodies the idealistic young men who joined up in a group thinking they'd all be home for Christmas. George is in fact the last one left of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers. When he talks about all the others he joined up with, and their ludicrous nicknames, you see the idealism that was the start of the war. The fact that George has been able to hang onto that throughout is something of a miracle. That he didn't turn into a cynic like Blackadder just goes to show that the war was made up of many good men, of all different kinds, that did what had to be done, even if it seemed contrary to just walk at the guns, they did it for liberty and their loss will be forever felt.


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