Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Blackadder Goes Forth Video
Reviewed by James Patton

Blackadder Goes Forth (Blackadder, Part IV)

Created by Richard Curtis & Ben Elton
Original Broadcast, BBC One, 1989

Rowan Atkinson, Right, Portrays Blackadder in All Four Parts of the Blackadder Series

Rowan Atkinson (b. 1955) is a British comedian, actor, and screenwriter known for somewhat broad, bawdy, humor, often with sight gags, and cold satire. He holds degrees in electrical engineering from Newcastle and Oxford. While at the latter university he became interested in theatrical performance. He even wrote several short scripts, and in 1979 he got a stint as the sole performer and writer of a BBC-3 radio program called The Atkinson People, and a few months later he also had a BBC TV series called Not the Nine O'Clock News, which he also wrote. In all he has appeared in 20 movies and 34 different television productions, some of them series.

He is best known for the silent character Mr. Bean, whom he has played for most of his career, in stand-up comedy, three long-running TV series and two movies. Apart from that, his most familiar movie role would be his appearance as the vicar in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and his most well-known TV roles are that of Edmund Blackadder in the series if the same name and Inspector Fowler in The Thin Blue Line.

In the Blackadder series, which Atkinson also helped to write, the dramatic premise is that, since the Wars of the Roses there has always been a pseudo-noble Edmund Blackadder (and his cloddish but wily servant named Baldrick) on the scene at important events in British history. The Blackadder persona is always snide, conniving, scheming, craven, and a counterpoint to all of the other real historic figures and caricatures, who are depicted as boobs and twits.

In the course of the series it was inevitable that they would get to the Great War experience. These six episodes comprise the season called Blackadder Goes Forth, where Blackadder, always with his batman Private Baldrick, tries a variety of schemes for getting out of the "Big Push": volunteering to be a war artist, organizing a theatrical revue, joining the Royal Flying Corps as an observer, going undercover to catch German spies, killing carrier pigeons to stop getting orders.

Blackadder's foils are the top brass, the fictional General Melchett and the real Sir Douglas Haig, who plays with toy soldiers and discards them when he's tired of them. In the final episode, with the "Big Push" imminent, which according to Blackadder is, on the part of Haig, "another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin", Blackadder feigns insanity while Baldrick embraces Bolshevism, but at the end of the episode (and the series) everyone falls in for duty and goes over the top (except Melchett and Haig, of course). Blackadder's last line, spoken to Baldrick who has just told him that he has one last "cunning" scheme, is not a wisecrack:

"Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman around here? Good luck, everyone."

The cinematic effect of this scene is startling and powerful. It is in monochrome and slow motion, even the theme music is slowed down and the cast just disappears into the smoke and battle noise, then the last image is of a present-day field of poppies, with birds chirping in the audio.

Blackadder and His Cohorts Preparing to Go Over the Top in the Series' Concluding Scene

This unexpected and abrupt conclusion had a powerful and lasting effect on the audience. In 2005 I sat in the parlor at Talbot House in Poperinghe and listened to five Brits talk about the impact this episode of Blackadder Goes Forth had on them like it had just happened last night rather than in 1989, an experience not unlike that of Americans of a certain age discussing the impact on them of the JFK assassination in 1963.

In the Golden Age of what PBS calls the "Britcom", Blackadder Goes Forth was ranked as the Best Comedy Series of 1989 by the British Academy, in 2000 was slotted at No. 16 on the 100 Greatest British TV Programmes of the 20th century by the British Film Institute, and in 2004, the entire Blackadder series came in second in the BBC's poll to determine Britain's Best Sitcom.

James Patton


  1. I remember seeing Goes Fourth in the US soon after it appeared. The season was darker and more bitter than its predecessors. That final scene was very powerful, even to this yank.

  2. Agree with the comment above - I have only seen this episode in the series, but it is powerful and striking.

  3. Among the best television of all time. Thanks for spotlighting!

  4. Patton's review of Blackadder is spot on. Rowan Atkinson elevated the art of deadpan British satire and honed it to perfection in Blackadder. Blackadder's comments about Haig's drinks cabinet and toy soldiers say much about his astonishing detachment from The War. The final episode brings tears and thoughts of LTC John McCrae's epic WW-I poem, "In Flanders Fields."

  5. Very good review. In this series, Atkinson was at his best with ironic, wise cracking humor. I thought he went backwards with Mr. Bean. Also see Blackadder's Christmas Carol, also made around the time of Blackadder Goes Forth. It is very funny as well.