Making my “Top 10 TV Shows That Ran Before I Was Born” list, I became inspired to rewatch the Blackadder series (no. 2 in the list, btw) for the nth time. It’s quite easy to binge-watch since, not only is it a very delightful watch, but it’s also relatively short. Each series only have six episodes, around 30 minutes each. That’s a total of 12 hours of viewing, more or less. The whole thing reminded me why I loved it ever since, and affirmed my opinion that it really gets much better with each series.
This means that Blackadder Goes Forth – the fourth and last – is the best of them, and I think everyone who have seen all four series will agree with me. First of all, it is objectively the funniest and cleverest. Secondly, its opening sequence is the catchiest, most amiable, and most entertaining – the characters are introduced while in a march along a medley of “The British Grenadiers” (the iconic marching anthem of the British military, dating back to the 17th century) and the Blackadder theme (seriously, rewatching the title sequences over and over again provides much fun already).
But what really makes Blackadder Goes Forth impressively stand out above the rest is the fact that it is able to convey a powerful anti-war message through its brilliant satirical insights on war without trivializing the sobering period of human history the series is set upon and without disrespecting the real-life people who took part in it. And this facet personally had much impact on me.
As a kid, I thought of war as a romantic, glorious thing. I loved playing with my collection of toy soldiers and pellet guns. My favorite Bible stories were those that featured epic battles. I enjoyed the G.I. Joe cartoons and comics. I was thrilled when reading about wars in history. I devoured everything – documentaries, essays, books, movies, etc. – that featured anything relating to war, whether it’s historical or fictional. I drew battle scenes during idle times in school. When I saw Saving Private Ryan and other war movies, I unconsciously dismissed the war horrors it portrayed and instead reveled on the exciting violence and explosions of its action scenes. Yes, I did have some understanding already that time that war is not all glory and thrills, but I didn’t really quite grasp yet the magnitude of the other side of the coin. To me then, the deaths were mere numbers, the devastation mere black and white pictures, and the accounts and narratives mere objects to take fascination on.
It was only with Blackadder Goes Forth that really made me deeply understand for the first time that war is indeed a terrible, terrible thing. It was not Saving Private Ryan or any war/anti-war movies that made me reflect on this. Not history books or photos. Not even Life Is Beautiful (an Oscar-winning Italian film back in the 90’s, which I had enjoyed) – it almost did, but not entirely. It was ironically the sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth that did. Since then, I’ve seen this series many times already, but each time gives the same impact on me as the first time I saw it.
Set in the Western Front trenches of World War I, Blackadder Goes Forth focuses on Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) as he attempts to be removed from his post in the trenches before another “big push” is ordered by his eccentric, buffoonish commander, General Melchett (Stephen Fry). Blackadder isn’t necessarily a coward. It’s just that he wants to avoid being sent over the top on the infamous “No Man’s Land” because it will result to certain death. He doesn't want to die in such utterly meaningless manner.
So in the first five episodes, we see Blackadder jump at every opportunity and scheme that will allow him to leave the trenches, which ultimately fails in the end. As to be expected, hilarity ensues during these misadventures. But more than that, through its satirical gags and dialogue, subtle but provocative anti-war sentiments are delivered. Though war logic is exaggerated so it can be lampooned, the lingering thought that it leaves would reveal in retrospect that the realistic version of it is actually as absurd and foolish.
For example, in the first episode, General Melchett heartens one of the soldiers, reminding him that if should he falter, he should just remind himself that the general is behind him. To which Captain Blackadder bitterly comments, “About 35 miles behind you.” Funny, but thought-provoking as well.
But the clincher is the final episode, “Goodbyeee” – which is definitely one of the most powerful finales in TV history (SPOILERS from this point on). With the order for the “big push” finally given, Blackadder makes another ploy to be sent away by pretending to be mad. But this, like his previous schemes, doesn’t work. As he muses later on, “Who would have noticed another madman round here?”
The episode plays out that is typical of the show: funny and smart. But around its 17-minute mark, it starts giving indications that this episode is going to be different. With the “big push” nearing, Blackadder and his men reminisce the past – realizing that many of their acquaintances are dead already. Then Private Baldrick (Tony Robinson) remarks, “Why can't we just stop, sir? Why can't we just say, ‘No more killing; let's all go home’? Why would it be stupid just to pack it in, sir? Why?” I was taken aback. The series has at least three moronic characters, and Baldrick is the stupidest of them. This kind of insight coming out of Baldrick is something atypical.
The next scene, General Melchett informs Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny), who serves as his personal assistant, that he will be assigned to the frontlines immediately to join the “big push.” Much to Darling’s horror, Melchett misguidedly believes that he is favoring Darling by letting him join the “fun and games.” On the contrary, “folding the general’s pajamas”, as Darling puts it, is something he prefers over being sent to the trenches since, despite any discomfort and humiliation he might receive as the general’s aide, he’s at least safe away from the conflict. Darling tries to protest, but the general – erroneously believing that Darling is simply having a hard time parting ways because of his loyalty and affection for him – “unselfishly” cuts him off and assures him that it’s okay.
Throughout the series, Darling has served as the primary antagonist of the story, being Blackadder’s rival and tormentor (and vice versa). Thus, there are some justified laughs to be had from his misfortune. But any satisfaction is restrained, and not really something cheer-worthy. In fact, when Darling joins Blackadder in the dugout, he doesn’t mock him about it, but simply welcomes him, “Here to join us for the last waltz?” (At this point, emotion was already welling inside me as I watched.) Blackadder – as well as any decent audience – understands that, in this particular context, there is no pleasure in seeing a man – even as snobbish as Darling – being sent to certain death.
Finally, it’s the simple admission from the idealistic, enthusiastic, but dim-witted Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie) that broke my heart: “I’m scared, sir.” (Private Baldrick echoes the same sentiment.) George adds, “I don’t want to die. I’m not overkeen on dying at all, sir.”
Up until that point, George has been depicted to be seemingly uncaring or ignorant of the perils of war – consistently thrilled of the opportunity to fight for “king and country.” It probably finally dawned on him at that point that the thing he feels is “bloomin'ell worth it” (as he claimed earlier in the episode) isn’t really worth dying for. Hence, the unexpected, innocent honesty makes the scene devastating.
My eyes were misty, and a lump had formed in my throat.
As the call to assemble is given, the script makes a hilarious, dark joke in a likely attempt to ease tension…
Captain Blackadder: “Don't forget your stick, Lieutenant.”
Lt. George: “Oh no, sir -- wouldn't want to face a machine gun without this!”
(I’m not sure if George is being sarcastic, or has reverted to his usual personality.)
With the men lining up outside, I was still expecting – wishing – that something – preferably, a comedic something – would happen at the last second that would prevent them from participating in this “big push.” For a second, it seemed that was going to be so…
Captain Darling: “Listen! Our guns have stopped.”
Lt. George: “You don't think...?”
Private Baldrick: “Maybe the war's over. Maybe it's peace!”
Lt. George: “Well, hurrah! The big knobs have gone round the table and yanked the iron out of the fire!”
But when Darling exclaims, “Thank God! We lived through it! The Great War: 1914-1917,” the small flicker of hope vanishes. It reminded me that the year was still 1917 in that story. I know my history. World War I ended in 1918.
The more cautious and cynical Blackadder deflates the men’s wishful thinking by bitterly commenting, “I'm afraid not. The guns have stopped because we're about to attack. Not even our generals are mad enough to shell their own men. They think it's far more sporting to let the Germans do it.”
The men puts a foot forward, waits for the signal to go over the top. Blackadder mutters a “Good luck, everyone” before the whistle to advance is blown.
With a yell, the men go over the top and charges. They are met with German gunfire. The scene plays in slow motion. Explosions and smoke and dirt fill the shot. Sad piano music plays in the background. The scene shifts to the empty, devastating aftermath, which then gradually shifts to the peaceful, poppy fields as what it is now in present time.
The last episode has thoroughly made the characters shine. They were revealed to be actually noble and courageous, despite the weaknesses they had shown throughout the series. Even if they were already likable, the episode made the audience to care more deeply and affectionately for them. And because the attachment has been established firmly, the tragic ending was emphatic. It hurt. Through this, the show is able to effectively make these characters represent the countless brave men that perished at the hands of the hellish madness of War, who equally deserves – if not twice as much – the respect, appreciation, and heartbreak that I felt for Blackadder and his men.
How the show built up and executed everything going into that finale – all that comedy unexpectedly turning towards that beautiful, heartbreaking ending – is just brilliant. I was laughing all throughout the series, and then, just like that, the final minutes pulled the rug under me. The impact of the 180o turn in its tone effortlessly provoked reflection – becoming a forceful reminder of the dreadful reality that the show is based upon.
It’s one of the most powerful TV viewing moments I’ve ever had. Thank you, Star World, for rerunning this awesome show for the tween me (was around 10 to 12 years old when I saw Blackadder Goes Forth for the first time).
Blackadder Goes Forth is a work of pure genius. It pulls off making a comedy out of a sensitive topic without being offensive. Compare that to the comedy philosophy of today that leans more on being intentionally crude and offensive to earn laughs. So not only does Blackadder Goes Forth achieve first-rate comedy, but class and depth as well, thus, unhindered by pretentiousness in its delivery of an anti-war message that works.
War still fascinates me as a topic, I still enjoy it if it’s depicted in the context of fiction, and I still believe that war – or any dark, delicate themes, for that matter – always has room for humor, if it’s executed with thoughtfulness and respect. Moreover, I’m not really a radical pacifist – I’m not ignorant of its unavoidable necessity in some cases in this depraved world. However, war is something that I believe shouldn’t be treated trivially or celebrated by itself. Blackadder Goes Forth taught me that.
Once, in Blackadder, the eponymous first-world-war British army captain learned that the Germans were stealing our battle plans. "You look surprised, Blackadder," said Stephen Fry's absurdly over-moustachioed, rubicund General Melchett.
"I certainly am, sir," retorted our hero. "I didn't realise we had any battle plans."
"Well, of course we have!" shouted Melchett. "How else do you think the battles are directed?"
"Our battles are directed, sir?"
"Well, of course they are, Blackadder, directed according to the Grand Plan."
"Would that be the plan to continue with total slaughter until everyone's dead except Field Marshal Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise, Alan?"
"Great Scott!" exclaims Melchett. "Even you know it!"
You can understand why education secretary Michael Gove is rendered apoplectic by this treacherous, possibly Bolshie and/or conshie stuff.
Very few Britons have a secure grasp of the causes of the first world war, just as few of us are really certain what British military objectives have been in Afghanistan for the past decade. But most of us accept the argument that the carnage of the Somme was in part due to the revisionist historical dictum that our troops were lions led by donkeys – that the flower of British youth died in the mud of Flanders and the Somme, and in the seas off Jutland, because of leadership issues that make RBS and G4S seem beacons of managerial competence.
Worse, not many Britons would know what prompted Gavrilo Princip to pull his trigger in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, but a majority of us can perform the above dialogue perfectly, right down to Rowan Atkinson's superb comic pause between the words "tortoise" and "Alan".
Gove worries that we've become a nation of Baldricks – intellectual donkeys rather than lions who know and are properly proud of their martial history. It was Blackadder's Private Baldrick, after all, who set out the causes of the first world war thus: "I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cause he was hungry."
"I think you mean," retorts Blackadder wearily, "it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot."
"Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir."
There is something in the satire-loving, myth-deflating, bloody-mindedly ignorant British temperament that Gove can't abide, the poor love. In his essay for the Daily Mail, the education secretary argues that the 1914 centenary of the outbreak of the first world war should be about "battling leftwing myths that belittle Britain" and denounces historians who "denigrate patriotism". He doesn't quite say that in sensible countries that treat patriotism as a duty, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton would be taken to the woods, forced to dig their own graves and shot for writing Blackadder, but he's not far off. In his piece, Gove criticises historians and TV programmes that denigrate patriotism and courage by depicting the war as a "misbegotten shambles".
Labour's shadow education secretary, and historian, Tristram Hunt retorts that it is Gove's argument, rather than unpatriotic Britons tittering over fictional tortoises, that is really shocking. Writing in the Observer under the headline "Michael Gove, using history for politicking is tawdry", Hunt seethes, "the government is using what should be a moment for national reflection and respectful debate to rewrite the historical record and sow political division."
In this skirmish in the history wars between left and right, Hunt is keeping his powder dry. He could have fired off salvo after salvo towards Gove's trenches, indicting Britain for its toff-hobbled martial shambles (the retreat after victory at Mons, the Churchill-led debacle at Gallipoli, the military reverses that led to evacuation from Dunkirk etc), its toff-mismanaged imperial disgraces (post-Auschwitz Mau-Mau concentration camps in Kenya, Bloody Sunday in Derry etc etc) and suggested that in general the Blackadder version of history is right and that the aforementioned toffs made Britain rubbish (which would have been a justifiable stance for a leading figure in a party whose foundation was premised on sticking it to the privileged). Instead, Hunt takes the depoliticised moral high ground: let the centenary of the start of the first world war be marked, not by arguments about why or how it was fought, but by more solemn remembrance of the fallen. In any case, he contends, the British left largely supported the 1914-18 conflict (thereby airbrushing the leftwing credentials of such jailed conscientious objectors as future Labour parliamentary candidate, philosopher Bertrand Russell). It's an understandable stance, since to quibble over the reasons why 15 million died in the first world war may well look unseemly, particularly for a politician hoping that his party replaces Gove's as government next year, but it doesn't have much of the lion about it.
In the history wars, Hunt could have got more down and dirty. He could have gone toe to toe with the education secretary and argued that the British conduct of world war one was a shambles. He could, for example, have cited the passage in English History 1914-45 where AJP Taylor (quite possibly one of those lefty historians whom Gove indicts but doesn't deign to name) recalled what happened on the afternoon of 5 August 1914 when prime minister Asquith called a council of war. The assembled men wondered what should the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) do – help the Belgians? Link up with the French? The director of military operations, Henry Hughes Wilson, cut in: "He explained that railway time-tables, unlike horses, could not be changed," wrote Taylor. "There could be no question of helping the Belgians, though this is why Great Britain had gone to war." Britain's war effort, that is to say, was hobbled even before a BEF shot was fired and before the mass sacrifice by old, privileged men of young British blood began in hideous earnest.
Gove won't have any of this insurrectionary stuff. Rather, under sway of rightwing historian Max Hastings, he argues that Britain's first-world-war sacrifice was necessary to resist newly imperialist Germany. Our cause was noble, he submits: we were fighting for European freedom against irksomely expansionist Teutonic tyranny. Even if this is true, Gove doesn't consider why Wilhelmine Germany might have been driven to imperial ambitions in Europe – which, if you're a leftwing historian, particularly a Marxist, is basic stuff. Leftwing historians and writers such as the Swede Sven Lindqvist are helpful here: it was imperial Germany's dearth of the vast empires held by its wartime enemies Britain and France that impelled it first under the Kaiser and later under Adolf Hitler, to seek to expand its borders.
For Max Hastings, as for Gove, the looming threat of a German Europe justified Britain's cause in the first world war and gives undying lustre to our boys' sacrifice in the trenches. Last year, Hastings indicted Gove's boss David Cameron for sucking up to the Germans intolerably over events commemorate the centenary of the start of the first world war. The prime minister and his colleagues (Gove now presumably excepted), wrote Hastings, "learned to think of the struggle simply as a pointless tragedy in which Britain's idiot generals committed mass murder. This 21st-century view has also been strongly influenced by the satirical musical Oh, What a Lovely War!, and by the "trench poets" Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, whose impassioned pens depicted in the most vivid and moving terms the nightmare to which their generation was subjected in France. But no poet ever identified a route by which the British, French and Belgian people could have escaped the conflict, save by accepting the Kaiser's domination of Europe."
Hunt cites, if he carefully does not quite endorse, the views of more left-leaning historians including Christopher Clark and Sean McMeekin who question this demonisation of Germany. These men argue that other nations, Russia and Serbia, in particular, were motivated by similar colonialist impulses in going to war in 1914 as Germany.
Some of a leftwing temper go further in accounting for the butchery of the first world war – and indeed the rest of the 20th century – in terms of European powers' imperial ambitions. Sven Lindqvist, in his A History of Bombing, for instance, writes of how the evils Europeans perpetrated in their colonies prefigured the violence they would commit against each other at home.No European power, Britain least of all, has clean hands or can tell its 20th-century history as a series of unblemished triumphs, such leftwing history tells us. The destroyer of German cities, Arthur "Bomber" Harris scored his "first civilian hits", in 1919 in Kabul, wrote Lindqvist. He argued that the aerial bombing that marked the second world war and now has its culmination in unmanned drones controlled from Nevada as they bomb Afghan villages, had its roots in the colonial policy of exterminating "savages" from the air.
But the disgraces of imperial projects and the transfer of its strategies and tactics from colonies to the European theatres of war in 1914-18 and 1939-45, still less the thought that modern drone attacks are continuations of inhumane old policies with new kit, are not the sort of things Michael Gove wants our schoolchildren to be taught. Forget about Blackadder, forget leftwing historians such as Richard Evans, regius professor of history at Cambridge University, who has said those who enlisted in 1914 were wrong to think they were fighting to defend freedom. Gove puts his trust instead in historians such as Margaret Macmillan, who has "demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order". To which, sceptics of a Blackadderian temperament might retort: "There's a western liberal order?"
Yes, yes, but what would Baldrick say? Tony Robinson, who made his name as Baldrick before becoming TV's archeology go-to guy, waded into the history wars. He said that Gove should lay off those teachers who use videos of Blackadder as a teaching tool. "To categorise teachers who would introduce something like Blackadder as leftwing and introducing leftwing propaganda is very, very unhelpful."
But not, you might think, as unhelpful as the response to Baldrick's view from Gove's spokesman. "Michael thinks it is important not to denigrate the patriotism, honour and courage demonstrated by ordinary British soldiers in the first world war." But hold on. I've watched a lot of Blackadder and can't think of a scene in which it denigrates the honour and courage of ordinary British soldiers. Sure, it depicts some as idiots (Private Baldrick, Hugh Laurie's public school twit George etc) and some as life-embracing sophisticates who would rather have it off with their hotsy totsy nurse than be gassed by Fritz. I never think of Blackadder in the way the Mail puts it, as "increasingly gutless", but rather as a brainy chap with a healthy suspicion of those who would yield up his life for pointless sacrifice. He's an anti-hero with whom 21st-century souls can identify, though admittedly our challenge as we commemorate the centenary of the start of the first world war, is to imagine what it was like to be otherwise – to believe literally in what Wilfred Owen called the old Lie:
Dulce et Decorum est/
Pro patria mori.
But none of that – Blackadder as anti-sacrifice, Owen's scorn for patriotic duty – strikes me as a slur on the good name of the fallen, still less a reason why our kids shouldn't be watching Blackadder or reading sceptical war poetry.
In the history wars between left and right, Tristram Hunt's strongest point seems to be the following. "[G]iven the deaths of 15 million people during the war, attempting to position 1918 as a simplistic, nationalistic triumph seems … foolhardy, not least because the very same tensions re-emerged to such deadly effect in 1939. In the words of Professor Richard J Evans: "Propagating inaccurate myths […] is no way to create a solid national identity."
Quite so: a better way to create a solid national identity is to educate children and encourage adults to have a critical sensibility about such myths. In this sense there's nothing wrong with British national identity – it's one made solid by people laughing at the official version.
What Gove can't bear, I suspect, is that a critical, leftwing agenda seems to have been smuggled into satirical sitcoms and thence to the classroom and thence into the fabric of national life. We're laughing at the things he holds dear.
It is an understandable irritation but one, I submit, about which the education secretary can do little but bleat in the Mail. Ever since the rise of the satire boom in the 1960s, the establishment has had to put up with having its values derided, its cherished myths debunked and its bona fides impugned. From That Was The Week That Was to Jeremy Hardy on Radio 4's The News Quiz, the government has been in the stocks and wriggling to get free only makes them look more undignified. Stop wriggling, Mr Gove.
What Gove doesn't argue is the more interesting point that the very basis for British patriotism relies, not on accepting the historical narratives he believes in, but in part on the hard satirical work involved in undermining those myths. Let others take themselves seriously. Uncritical patriotism? Unreflective pride in the military? Unquestioning conviction that we're a force for good? Flags on the front lawn? What are we now, American?
None of this means that any Briton raised on Blackadder, Oh What a Lovely War! and war poetry is doomed or likely to be cynical about wartime sacrifice. Nor does it mean that any of us is incapable of trying to understand who gave their lives for things that we, 100 years after the outbreak of the first world war, find difficult to share, namely duty to king, country and – what was the old lie Gove invokes? Oh, yes – the liberal western order.
• A picture caption accompanying this feature was amended on 8 January 2014. The original said British troops were going over the top at "the battle of the Somme, 1916". This has been corrected.