Amidst the booms, bangs, and bombardments of the frontlines, laughter might be the last thing one would expect to hear. And yet, the comedic, character-centred dynamic Blackadder has been built around since its second series seems to be more at home in the trenches of the Somme than it is in any of the royal halls of the previous generations. Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) is at his sharpest, Baldrick (Tony Robinson) at his dumbest, and George (Hugh Laurie) at his silliest.
In light of the staggering amount of lives lost in the war, taking comedy to the front lines had to be conducted with a certain degree of astuteness. One Blackadder writer, Ben Elton, was in a uniquely apt position to handle it, having had each of his grandfathers fight on different sides of that very war. In a documentary commemorating 25 years since Blackadder’s birth, he states: “From the beginning, Richard [Curtis] and I were absolutely committed to being extremely respectful and aware of the unimaginable human tragedy that the First World War was.”
Curtis himself believed that between the clash of different classes in a confined area, and the frustration of being stuck with the same people for years, there was immense opportunity for comedy, as long as the ending of the series showed the proper deference. “We felt it was okay, on the condition that we ended the series the way we ended it… it had to be very harsh at the end.”
Blackadder Goes Forth isn’t unique in its wartime setting. While it may be the only highly acclaimed British sitcom to deal with the First World War, Dad’s Army, and later, ‘Allo, ‘Allo, both manage to draw some terrific comedy against an otherwise tragic backdrop. What really makes Blackadder Goes Forth stand out from other wartime comedies, and even from every other series of Blackadder, is its final episode.
Even from before the first scene of the episode, you can tell something is off. The humorous prologue in which Baldrick chases the marching band that serves as an intro theme is exactly the same, until, as usual, the episode title pops up. Until now, we’ve had Captain Cook, Corporal Punishment, Major Star, Private Plane, and General Hospital. Every single one of them a pun relating to both a military rank and the episode’s content. Here? Goodbyeee. The long “byeee” is a clear nod to Blackadder II, where it serves as Queen Elizabeth’s (Miranda Richardson) trademark farewell. A farewell extending to previous series is immediately sobering. This is the final episode. And it’s no longer just “bye”, it’s “Goodbye” now.
The final episode doesn’t fail in its mission to provide the audience with half an hour’s worth of laughs, but from the beginning, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s writing is foreshadowing the tragedy that will occur. The trio of soldiers discuss joining the army, and as George tells the tale (in his standard aplomb-laden jargon) of how he and his university chums signed up on the very first recruitment day, he comes to the stark realisation that he’s the only one left alive.
Hugh Laurie, in the 25th anniversary documentary, says of his character that “George’s sort of happy-go-lucky-home-in-time-for-tea attitude was especially tragic. His ideas about war come from games. George could only see real warfare in those terms, he genuinely was a lamb to the slaughter.”
This immediately sets a tone which, over the course of the episode, retrospectively casts a tragic shadow over the entire fourth series. This crack in the humorous armour of the show ends up widening enough for audiences to glimpse the horrid truth behind the otherwise hilarious stereotypes.
Perhaps the most outstanding scene, apart from the final one, is the collapse of Captain Darling. General Melchett, a George-like war enthusiast, only much older and far more insane, sends his aide to the front lines as a ‘reward’ for his loyal service. The scene is uncharacteristically dark for the show, ending with Darling on his knees, all protests swept aside as the shadow of his driver/executioner stands over him, ready to take him to the forefront of the war. It’s a sudden surge of sympathy for Blackadder’s main adversary in this time period – all the bickering, banter, and trying to get one over on each other, it’s all suddenly meaningless in the face of enemy fire.
Following this path, a thoroughly poignant conclusion begins to come together. Petty rivalries are forgotten and barriers break down as the end draws near. George shows a moment of true fear and admits that he doesn’t want to die. Baldrick, whose character “strangely gained meaning [in series 4] … when he did suddenly seem to represent the working man,” according to Richard Curtis, couldn’t even remember why the war had started in the first place.
The emotion before the soldiers ‘go over the top’ is phenomenally established in two incidents. The first is a painfully sharp moment of dramatic irony – there’s that brief moment of hope when the guns stop firing, and the group briefly theorises that the war might have ended. As soon as Darling declares The Great War ended in 1917, the audience are separated from the onscreen characters by their knowledge that another year of warfare remains. Even though Captain Blackadder corrects them immediately after, having a moment where the audience are certain these men are doomed while they themselves are still flooded with relief is incredibly powerful. And the other? After 432 years of Baldricks serving Blackadders, from 1485 till 1917, Baldrick, spying a splinter, finally gets a “cunning plan” which could save their lives. Only it’s too late to hear it.
Then, that final, unforgettable moment. The whistles blow, the men charge. The explosions throw dirt over them as they fire forward. The cameras slow, the music follows. The colour fades out, then so do the men. All is grey. And then, driving reality home in a way words never could, the wasteland fades to a field of poppies.
It’s an endearingly funny, stoic and yet bitterly sad ending. You really do want Blackadder to escape the war – he’s been trying in vain since day one, and was close to succeeding on occasion (Major Star, for instance). His final line before going over the top – “whatever [Baldrick’s final cunning plan] was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad…I mean, who would’ve noticed another madman around here?” – encapsulates the true tragedy of the Great War: millions being sent to their deaths at the behest of a dozen or so Mad Melchetts, to fight a war that started for reasons they never knew. Many, in fact, still lament the futility of the First World War.
Quite a number of comedies end on a sombre note, but Blackadder was no ordinary comedy. It takes true mastery to bring an audience to tears, and, if describing the show with one word, ‘masterful’ would certainly be apt.
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