The Black Adder
Home | Background | 1 - The Black Adder | 2 - Blackadder II | 3 - Blackadder the Third | 4 - Blackadder Goes Forth | 5 - The Specials


analysis of The Black Adders

Developments over the series

It is implied in each series that the Blackadder character is a distant descendant of the previous one. With each observed generation, his social standing is reduced, from prince, to nobleman, to royal butler, to army captain and by the end, in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, nothing more than cannon-fodder. However, he concurrently goes from being an incompetent fool (in the first series), to an ever more devious strategist in matters that affect him.

The Macbeth-inspired witches, in "The Foretelling" (1.1) (thinking he is someone else), promise that one day Blackadder will be King and, in "Bells" (2.1), the 'wise woman' says "thou plottest Edmund: thou wouldst be King!"

In the first series, Edmund does become King for less than a minute, but then dies after succumbing to some poisoned wine (a fact alluded to in a song in Blackadder II, whose lyrics include "His great-grandfather was a king/Although for only thirty seconds"). In the second series, Blackadder comes very close to marrying Elizabeth I but fails. At the end of Blackadder the Third, the character assumes the role of Prince Regent after the real prince is killed in a duel with the Duke of Wellington, and (presumably, though not definitely) goes on to assume the identity of George IV.

After the continual decline in status through the series, Blackadder, or at least the descendant of the original, finally becomes King in Blackadder: Back & Forth through manipulation of the timeline. A Grand Admiral Blackadder of the far future is also seen in the Christmas special, and his status further rises when he manages to achieve control of the entire universe upon marrying Queen Asphyxia XIX.


Comparison between Baldrick and Blackadder

It is also noticeable that, as Blackadder becomes more cunning, so Baldrick develops into a dimwit. It is clear that in the first series, the latter is smarter than his superior, saving the day on several occasions. However, in later instalments, this situation is reversed: e.g., in "Captain Cook" (4.1), Baldrick scratches his name on a bullet, because "somewhere there's a bullet with your name on it" — and if he owns it, then he cannot be shot by it.


Similarities over the series

Each series tended to feature the same set of actors in different period settings. Stephen Fry played the mild-mannered Lord Melchett, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I in the second series, The Duke of Wellington in the final episode of the third series and General Melchett, a blustering buffoon, in the fourth. Tim McInnerny played Lord Percy Percy in the first and second series, The Scarlet Pimpernel (for one episode) in the third and Kevin Darling in both the fourth series and Blackadder Back and Forth. Hugh Laurie plays Simon Partridge in episode five and Prince Ludwig the Indestructible in the final instalment of Blackadder II, a foppish Prince George in Blackadder the Third and the idiotic Lieutenant George in Blackadder Goes Forth. Rik Mayall plays 'Mad Gerald' in the first series and the dashing Lord Flashheart, a vulgar yet successful rival of Blackadder in both the second and fourth series; he also plays a decidedly Flashheart-like Robin Hood in Back and Forth. Gabrielle Glaister plays an attractive girl who poses as a man and calls herself Bob, before revealing her true gender and becoming romantically involved with Flashheart, in both the second and fourth series.

The Howard Goodall theme tune has the same melody throughout, but is played in roughly the style of the period in which it is set (mostly with trumpets in The Black Adder; with a combination of flute, string quartet and electric guitar in Blackadder II; on harpsichord for Blackadder the Third; by a military band in Blackadder Goes Forth; sung by carol singers in Blackadder's Christmas Carol; and by an orchestra in Blackadder: The Cavalier Years and Blackadder: Back & Forth.


Popularity and effects on popular culture

After the first series — which had enjoyed a considerable budget for a sitcom, and had been shot largely on location — the BBC decided not to take up the option of a follow-up. However, in 1984 Michael Grade took over as the controller of BBC One and, after talks with the Blackadder team, finally agreed that a second series could be made as long as the cost was dramatically cut. Blackadder II was therefore to be a studio-only production, with Ben Elton joining the writing team. Besides adding more jokes, Elton suggested a major change in character emphasis: Baldrick would become the stupid sidekick, while Edmund Blackadder evolved into the fast-talking intellectual. This led to the now familiar set-up that was maintained over all the following series.

While each episode was plot-driven, they were still formulaic to a degree. For example, whenever Blackadder found himself in a difficult situation (as was the case most of the time), Baldrick would invariably suggest a solution, starting with the words, "I have a cunning plan". This became the character's catch phrase and, while his ideas were usually totally unhelpful, he would sometimes come up with a scheme that went towards saving the day.

Also, Blackadder popularised the use of exaggerated simile and similar devices for comic effect in Britain. Examples include:

  • "Madder than Mad Jack McMad, winner of last year's Mr. Madman competition."
  • "I've got a plan so cunning, you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel." or "As cunning as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University."
  • "I'm as happy as a Frenchman who's just invented a pair of self-removing trousers."
  • "I'm as weary as a dog with no legs that's just climbed Ben Nevis."
  • "We're in the stickiest situation since Sticky the stick insect got stuck on a sticky bun."
  • "Smarter than a brain pie."
  • "Thicker than a whale omelette."
  • [on the theatre] "A bunch of stupid actors running around with their chests thrust out so far you'd think their nipples were attached to a pair of charging elephants."
  • "Baldrick, eternal torment in the company of Beelzebub and all his hellish companions will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me... and this pencil."
  • "You, are as thick as clotted cream which has been left to stand until it has enough clots to ruin an electronic de-clotting machine."

It also turned the implied wit of wordplay on its head for humorous effect:

  • "Blackadder... You twist and turn like a twisty, turny thing."
  • "The grave opens up before me like a big hole in the ground."
  • "Disease and deprivation stalk our land, like two giant stalking things."
  • "We're as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod."
  • "Better a lapdog to a slip of a girl than a ... git!"
  • "I'd rather be a quack than a duckie — good day." (Note : this implies the following — quack as in fake doctor, and duckie as in homosexual. See the episode for a better understanding)


Historical anomalies in Blackadder


The Black Adder

The entire series is a secret history in which it is suggested that Henry Tudor was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and that after the death of Richard III at that time his nephew, Richard, Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower, succeeded him as Richard IV and reigned for thirteen years. In actual fact, of course, Henry won this battle and began his reign in 1485. This is VERY important to consider when exploring historical inaccuracies in the series, since the entire premise is built upon Henry Tudor lying about the previous royal family and re-writing history as he sees fit.

It is claimed that Harry was born in 1460 and Edmund the following year. In reality, their 'father' King Richard (ala Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York) was not born until 1474. This also means Richard would have been 11 when the Battle of Bosworth Field took place.

It is believed that Richard, and his elder brother Edward may have been murdered in 1483.

The series is rather unclear as to the manner of Richard III's taking the throne. If he did not depose his nephew Edward V, Edward would have remained king, and Richard would never have taken the throne. If he did, in fact, depose and disinherit his nephews, it is unclear why the younger Richard would be his heir at the time of Bosworth Field. (In actual fact, Richard's heir at the end of his reign was another nephew, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln.)

Reference is made to a famously homosexual Earl of Doncaster, a title which did not exist until 1663. A dying Duke of Winchester also makes an appearance, but the Peers of Winchester were at the time Earls and have never been Dukes.

The Duke of Edinburgh is one of Edmund's titles. However the title was not created until after the union of Scotland and England. In the credits to the episode "Born to Be King," however, it is suggested that Richard IV is also King of Scotland, which would explain his ability to grant Scottish fiefs to McAngus. (In actual history, the Kings of Scotland for the period of Richard IV's reign would be James III and James IV). It is also possible that the title was given to the character of Edmund as a pun at his expense, since the title (due to Scotland's autonomy at the time) is a useless one.

In the episode "The Queen of Spain's Beard," various princesses who are betrothed to Prince Henry are listed. Many of them are princesses of countries which did not exist in the late 15th century.

Richard IV is depicted as capturing Constantinople from the Turks with a fruit-knife. In fact, the Turks have never lost control of that city, which is now the Turkish city of Istanbul.

In the episode "Witchsmeller Pursuivant", someone is said to have recently seen Geoffrey Chaucer acting like a cow. In fact Chaucer had died in 1400, 95 years before this episode is set.


Blackadder II

Blackadder threatens to call the police if Percy says 'hey nonny nonny'. Actually, the British police force was not established until 1821, by Sir Robert Peel

In Bells, Nursie describes Sir Thomas More as having been present at Elizabeth's birth. In fact, More had already been imprisoned some months before Elizabeth's birth on 7 September 1533, and given his antipathy to Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn, it is rather unlikely he would have been there even if he had been at liberty to do so.

Also in Bells, Melchett says, "I have heard on the underground grapevine, Ma'am..." The phrase, "I heard on/through the grapevine" originated from the American West in the late 1800s, when the wires on communication posts were said to resemble grapevines, thus rumours and stories being said to travel along there.

In Head, Blackadder says 'I've been on this paltry, boring planet for thirty years...'. Few Elizabethans believed the theory that the Earth is a planet (and Nicolaus Copernicus was condemned as a great liar in the introduction to The Foretelling). Of course Blackadder could be one of those believers.

Also in Head, Nursie refers to Elizabeth I's "sister Mary" having been beheaded. Elizabeth's sister Mary I of England died of influenza. She is often confused with her contemporary cousin Mary Queen of Scots who was beheaded, but one would expect Nursie to know the difference between the death that brought her mistress to the throne and one that Elizabeth ordered. On the other hand Nursie is senile.

In Potato, Sir Walter Raleigh refers to an expedition begun in 1552. The historical Raleigh was born in 1554.

Also in Potato, Raleigh states that nobody has ever gone around the Cape of Good Hope. In fact, it had been done by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488.

Blackadder says that Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato with him. In truth, the potato was brought to England from Colombia in by Sir Thomas Herriot, 1586.

The Earl of Essex is several times mentioned as having been already executed by the Queen. However, Essex was not executed until 1601, nearly the end of the Queen's reign, while the Queen is depicted as a young woman throughout the series.

The same argument could be made concerning the numerous references to William Shakespeare in the series, since Shakespeare did not start writing his plays until 1588, when Elizabeth was already 55 years old.

In Money, Blackadder introduces Percy to the baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells as 'Lord Percy Percy, heir to the Duchy of Northumberland'. While Percy is indeed the family name of the Dukes of Northumberland, the title did not exist in Elizabeth I's reign and the first Percy to receive the title was Hugh Percy in 1766.

Among those whom Blackadder is to execute in Head are Sir Francis Drake and Lord Effingham, the historical victors against the Spanish Armada. Neither of these men were executed during Elizabeth's reign, and Lord Howard of Effingham, indeed, lived well into the reign of her successor

In Beer, the drunken revellers who burst into Edmund's house sing Happy Birthday to You. Presumably, the show's writers thought this song to be traditional, or at least of reasonable antiquity. In fact, it was not written until 1883.

Also in Beer, Edmund says that the ideal guest for his drinking party should be "an aggressive drunken lout with the intelligence of a four year old, and the sexual sophistication of a donkey" and Percy suggests, "Cardinal Wolsey?" In reality, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey died in 1530, 28 years before Elizabeth I became Queen.


Blackadder: The Cavalier Years

Charles I of England is depicted as in hiding when the story begins, in 1648. In fact, Charles had been captured by Parliamentary forces two years earlier, in 1646.

At the end of the sketch, Blackadder has been given Charles's son to watch after. The son is depicted as an infant, but the historical Charles II was already 19 years old at the time of his father's death.

In the sketch, Oliver Cromwell refers to himself as "Lord Protector". In reality, he only took-up this title and office after the civil wars and the execution of Charles I.


Blackadder the Third

Blackadder the Third, perhaps more than any of the other three series of Blackadder, suffers from inaccurate historical references. Many originate from a lack of clarity as to exactly when it is set. The sleeve for a recent DVD release states that the period is "1760-1815" and the series embraces people and events right throughout this era and beyond, often with little regard for chronology or whether the individuals' lives overlapped. However, there are events contained within it that fall even outside this very broad timeframe. Some have assumed that the series is set during the Regency (1811-1820) but this is by no means clear. This was perhaps a result of a lack of clarity over the period which Prince George reigned as regent, and the period prior to this where he was the Prince of Wales, on the part of the writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton or else a willingness to ignore precise historical accuracy. Actor Tony Robinson has commented on the popular degree of ignorance about Georgian Britain, compared to Elizabethan England, and the creators possibly felt unbound to follow strict historical accuracy. Although this is of little significance to the overall quality of the series, it is still, perhaps, interesting to note.

There are a number of references in many episodes to Prince George as the "Prince Regent". In reality George was only Prince Regent from 1811.

George's father, George III is referred to on several occasions as being mad. George III suffered his first attack of what is now believed to be porphyria in 1765, but it was not until 1788 that he suffered a more prominent attack. In 1810 he suffered a further attack and from the following year was declared permanently insane in 1811.

Prince George is portrayed as thin and young, when, if it is set during the Regency, by this point he was actually in his early fifties and very, very fat. Bizarrely, jokes are made about his weight which, while appropriate for the real Prince, seem out of place when describing Hugh Laurie.

Dish and Dishonesty - This episode features William Pitt the Younger becoming Prime Minister, played by a teenage boy. However, Pitt became Prime Minister in 1783 and died in 1806, 5 years before George became Prince Regent. (It is also worth noting that he was 24 years old, not a teenage boy, when he first became Prime Minister, but that was clearly a joke, taken from the contemporary lines "a sight to make all nations stand and stare: a kingdom trusted to a schoolboy's care," and should probably go without saying.)

Upon becoming Prime Minister, Pitt declares his determination to go to war with France and Napoleon Bonaparte, however in reality war did not break out until 10 years into Pitt's premiership and before Bonaparte had risen to power. By this point the French Revolution had taken place - see below.

The start of the episode refers to a general election having just taken place, but Pitt did not become Prime Minister until three years into the Parliament, calling the 1784 general election after his appointment.

Mr Blackadder claims that Pitt took over from his father, William Pitt the Elder as Prime Minister. However, in reality, their respective premierships were separated by fifteen years and Pitt the Elder died five years before his son's appointment. Blackadder also claims that the Elder Pitt was an ineffective Prime Minister, which is at odds with many historical perceptions of him.

"Lord Nelson" is referred to in this episode, but Nelson was not ennobled until 1798, 15 years after the Younger Pitt first became Prime Minister.

Pitt refers to speaking to "Chancellor Metternich at the Congress of Strasbourg". However Metternich did not rise to power until 1809, three years after Pitt's death, and to the position of Foreign Minister, whilst Pitt did not travel abroad to conduct diplomacy.

Pitt has a younger brother active in politics (humourously referred to as "Pitt the Even Younger") however in real life James Pitt died in 1780 before Pitt first entered Parliament, although Pitt's older brother Lord Chatham was a notable politician of the period.

Ink and Incapability - The episode features Robbie Coltrane playing the great literary figure Dr Samuel Johnson as he completes his dictionary. However, Johnson completed the work in 1755, before Prince George was even born, and died in 1784.

Also featured as friends of Johnson are the poets Shelley, Coleridge and Byron. However Coleridge was only 12 when Johnson died whilst the other two were not yet born. None of them, at any rate, much cared for Johnson.

Johnson states that his mother died and his wife had affairs whilst he worked on the dictionary. In reality his wife died early on during his work whilst his mother died four years afterwards.

Nob and Nobility -

The episode is set during the French Revolution, which took place between 1789 to about 1799, and apparently specifically during the Reign of Terror, which took place between 1793 and 1794. This would place the episode earlier historically than previous episodes in which Napoleon and Lord Nelson are mentioned.

Sense and Senility -

Prince George refers to his "future queen" as though he is not yet married. Regardless of chronological order this implies the episode is set before 1795 (see below).

Blackadder looks at the Situations Vacant section of a newspaper and reads out three positions, but all of them are from different periods:

o "Mr. and Mrs. Pitt are looking for a baby-minder to take Pitt the Younger to Parliament." However the Younger Pitt's mother became Lady Chatham in 1761 when he was only two years old, and his father the Earl of Chatham in 1766 when his son was six. Additionally his father was dead before he first entered Parliament in 1781. (Again, the reference to baby-minders and Pitt's age is a joke.)

o "A fellow called George Stephenson has invented a moving kettle" presumably a reference to Blucher, not invented until 1814 (after Pitt's death).

o Napoleon Bonaparte is looking for someone to be King of Sardinia. Napoleon conquered the larger mainland (Piedmont) portion of the kingdom in 1798 and annexed it in 1802, but never the island itself, and Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia was restored to his full dominions in 1814.

Amy and Amiability -

Prince George is not yet married. In reality he secretly married Maria Anne Fitzherbert on December 15, 1785, though this was illegal under the Royal Marriages Act 1772 and he would have reasons not to mention it. In 1795 he publicly married Caroline of Brunswick (who is mentioned as a prospective bride for him in the show).

Duel and Duality -

The Duke of Wellington and Blackadder discuss the movements of Horatio Nelson, Blackadder suggesting that Trafalgar would be a good place for a naval battle with Napoleon. It is mentioned that Wellington triumphed six months earlier, but Britain is at war with Napoleon at the time of the episode. This victory would most logically be the Battle of Vittoria (June 21, 1813) (although that was nearly two years before Napoleon's Hundred Days), but could refer to the Battle of Waterloo. At any rate, the episode must be set no earlier than 1814, when Wellesley became Duke. However, the Battle of Trafalgar, in which Nelson was killed, took place about a decade earlier in 1805.

Wellington claimed he would 'mention [Blackadder's plan] to Nelson'. In reality, the two only met once. The encounter, in Lord Castlereagh's waiting room, occurred the day before Nelson left for Trafalgar.

The book The Prince and the Pauper is mentioned. This novel was written by Mark Twain in 1881, more than 60 years after the series is set.

George III is portrayed with a very strong Germanic accent. In reality English was his first language and he never set foot in Germany.

At the end of the episode, Blackadder assumes the identity of Prince George while the real Prince dies. The opening credits show Blackadder as born in 1760 and dying in 1827. However, if George IV was really Blackadder, Blackadder must have lived to 1830.


Blackadder Goes Forth

In the second episode "Corporal Punishment", Captain Blackadder simulates radio interference by impersonating crosstalk, and this includes a song and then weather report from a commercial radio station but the first commercial radio station (KDKA) began in 1920.

In the same episode, Blackadder reads aloud a letter from George to his family which refers to his Great Uncle Rupert becoming Minister of War. However the position was a Secretary of State, not a Minister (titles such as "Minister of..." only began to be used to senior British ministers from midway during the First World War) and nobody called Rupert held this position during World War I.

In the episode "General Hospital", Blackadder is introduced to the finest spy in the British Army, a Brigadier Smith. However the rank of Brigadier did not exist until 1928.


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