Article by Marie Stirling. Edited by Linley Wareham. Research by Ellie Veryard.
‘You see, Baldrik, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocks developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war’.
A failure by any to have watched Blackadder has a tendency to make me exclaim disbelieving or run for my DVD selection for an enforced marathon. The widely watched series combines a supreme script, a fantastic cast and, of course, a comedic look back on Britain’s past. From a historical perspective it is of course prone to comic exaggeration and severe license with the truth. Still it is not completely farcical as this article will aim to show, though my ultimate advice would be just enjoy it.
The Blackadder series first aired in 1983 with Rowan Atkinson taking the part of Blackadder and Tony Robinson the part of his servant Baldrik. Through the four series Blackadder progresses from the Duke of Edinburgh in 1485 to Lord Blackadder under Queen Elizabeth and a butler for Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent complete in regency dress. The fourth series or ‘Blackadder goes Forth’, the subject of our attention, is set in the trenches with the long suffering Blackadder serving as Captain with his ever faithful, if not generally useless Private Baldrik. The six episodes are filled with priceless moments from Hugh Laurie playing drag in the troop’s variety show to sitting in no man’s land painting pictures of the Germans.
Blackadder, however, does not entirely dwell in the realms of fiction. Comic turns are accompanied by references to factual events, for example Blackadder reminisces on the football match between the Germans and the English, which occurred during Christmas in 1914. While this was not an official truce and fighting did continue in some parts, there is evidence of a football match, while other festivities such as carol singing were recorded in the regimental records of the 133rd Saxon Regiment and in a letter to The Times. Other events are covered, such as the Russian peace in 1917 and the arrival of the Americans. Leaders of the British army were also mentioned and camoied, for example Field Marshal Haig, the commander of the army, as the title of this article notes.
Further Blackadder portrayal of the trenches can be regarded as giving a general idea, if not wholly accurate idea of the conditions in which soldiers lived. It stays true to Siegfried Sassoon, the war poet’s line that the average soldier spent his time ‘in trenches, cowed and glum, with crumps and lice and lack of rum’. For example, while the cooking was not quite as disgusting as Baldrik’s
(a feast of dog droppings in glue passed off as Filet Mignon with Sauce Béarnaise and cream custard straight from the cats mouth),
soldiers could expect to eat bread made from turnips and pea soup with lumps of horse meat. The clash of the classes at the time is also played superbly between Blackadder, a captain who worked his way up through the ranks and his lieutenant, George, a proud member of Cambridge Trinity College tiddlywinks club, or the ‘Trinity Tiddlers’. Other cultural references appear, such as the popularity of Charlie Chaplin.
Still the emphasis on comedy does mean that one should emphasise caution. Further Blackadder relies rather too much on the old adage of ‘lions led by donkeys’. Not only does Blackadder have to endure the leadership of the incompetent General Melchett but the series frequently plays on Haig’s ‘Butcher of the Somme’ title, in one scene Haig is shown to kill his attacking toy soldiers in one ferocious hand sweep. Further if one was to take Blackadder literally then one would leave under the impression that the war was started by an Archduke shooting an ostrich in Hungry…
Perhaps it would be best to see Blackadder as an example of popular history on the war. It emphasises the bad conditions, lack of good leadership and the general confusion behind the reason for war, all popular stereotypes held then and today. The joke about an ostrich shows that it is fact the pointlessness of the war which has become the joke. From an historical perspective this could be a danger but I believe that it can still be used as a teaching aid as it is possible to glean much from this period between the laughs and stereotypes. Like the popular children’s show Horrible Histories it presents a parody of history but one very much worth watching.
Despite being shot the Blackadder pilot has never been shown in the United Kingdom
Blackadder Back and Forth, shown at the millennium dome in 2000 included cameo appearances from Colin Firth and Kate Moss and features Blackadder and Baldrick travelling through history in a time-machine they believed unable to work.