“Beer” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 2/13/1986)
Blackadder overcommits and pays the price
Despite containing some of the most memorable moments and characters of Blackadder season two, “Beer” is somewhat of a mixed bag. It lacks the narrative focus of the rest of the season’s episodes, struggles with its pacing, and fails to live up to the potential of its setup. The final of these issues is the most frustrating. While the notion of Queenie being shoved in a closet is promising, it’s disappointing—to say the least—to not really see her interact with Lords Melchett and Blackadder while incognito. There’s also surprisingly little overlap between the two parties at Blackadder’s house, which would be a natural source for conflict and comedy, with Edmund forced to explain away happenings to the two sets of guests. His transformation of “Great booze-up!” to “Great Boo’s up” is a highlight of the episode, but it’s the only such solution Lord Blackadder is forced to improvise. With a character as defined by his clever wit as Edmund, it’s surprising that the writers do not take greater advantage of this trait.
The episode also suffers from a distinct lack of Queenie. Miranda Richardson takes a backseat throughout, as the conflict between Melchett and Edmund is foregrounded. The early scene with Melchy’s hangover begins promisingly, but the character’s headache is quickly forgotten as he bickers with Edmund, with Queenie stepping back to observe. Both Melchett and Blackadder are good characters, but they’re familiar comedic types viewers have seen before, whereas Queenie is a unique creation. Had she been given more to do later in the episode, this would be less of an issue, but as the penultimate episode of the series, it’s hard to see the scenes in “Beer” containing but mostly ignoring Queenie as anything but missed opportunities.
Despite these problems, there’s a lot to like about this episode. The fantastic Miriam Margoyles, who previously guest starred as the Spanish Infanta in “The Queen Of Spain’s Beard,” is back and just as entertaining in a completely different role. Her Lady Whiteadder should get old quickly, but much like Tom Baker in “Potato,” her shtick works throughout because of its creativity and Margoyles’ commitment to the character; along with Lady Whiteadder’s disapproval of chairs, Margoyles’ delivery of “Devil’s dumplings” is a particular treat. Though Jim Broadbent was unable to return as originally planned as Lord Whiteadder, Daniel Thorndike does a great job with the role, and among the other guest stars is Hugh Laurie, who’s game in a nothing role. Thankfully it’s not the only appearance for Laurie, who returns in “Chains” and joins the main cast for Blackadder The Third.
Queenie may not get much screen time, but Richardson makes the most of what she does get. Her delivery of, “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant”—a play on one of Queen Elizabeth’s most famous quotes—is fantastic, as is everything about the final scene. Nursie is even more sidelined than Queenie, but in her two scenes, she’s delightfully incomprehensible. Patsy Byrne continues to shine in the role, giving sage advice such as, “You’re so clever today you better be careful your foot doesn’t fall off” a knowing air that somehow makes the line feel credible.
Disappointing as they are, the reduced roles for Queenie and Nursie allow more time for Melchett and it’s nice to see Stephen Fry stretch his legs a bit—he and Rowan Atkinson work well together and their sparring is appropriately juvenile. It’s almost a shame when the other invitees to the drinking contest arrive, distracting from the Melchett and Blackadder dynamic. Tim McInnerny is a blast both in the opening, as Percy deflects each of Blackadder’s barbs, and particularly during the dinner with the Whiteadders, as Percy manages to put his foot in his mouth time and again before somehow winding up with it on the table. Edmund and Percy’s “beshrew me,” “tush,” and “hey nonny nonny” exchange may be one of their most entertaining in season two, but it’s immediately bested by the sight gag of Baldrick’s ridiculous mousetrap mask. Tony Robinson is the picture of deadpan hilarity both in this scene and when he returns later with his cat-trap mask, and as for Atkinson, he oozes smug obnoxiousness at the beginning of the episode, but is just as fun later on, as he rambles at his aunt and drunkenly sings.
For another series, “Beer” would be a knockout, but for Blackadder, it’s a bit of a let-down. The pieces are there and the episode entertains, but unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to its potential.
Historical Hairsplitting: The Puritans arose during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign in response to the potential Catholic influences within the Church of England. The name came out of a conflict within the Protestant church. In 1564, acting on pressure from the Queen, the archbishop of Canterbury decreed that all clergy adhere to a particular dress code and certain specifics in their liturgy. This uniformity was too similar to the Roman Catholic traditions for some and reacting against both this and the involvement of the Queen in the archbishop’s issuing of the decree, some of the Protestants refused to comply. They were eventually being dubbed “Puritans” by others due to their unwillingness to allow the Queen to control even one element of their religious lives.
Cunning Plans: Lord Blackadder’s plan to have Baldrick substitute water for his ale would be a cunning one, except it relies upon Baldrick, who has already proven himself a useless co-conspirator in “Potato,” when he forgets not to give away Percy. Though in Baldrick’s defense, he is never told not to mention that Edmund is cheating. Needless to say, none of the schemes in the episode go particularly well.
- The costumes for Blackadder II are consistently great, but the costume department outdid themselves with Lord and Lady Whiteadder’s cross-bedecked robes.
- The glee of first Percy and Baldrick and later Lord Whiteadder at the term “thingy” is absolutely hilarious; fortunately when it arrives, the turnip lives up to the hype.
- Lord Blackadder’s goblin song is delightful, as is the entire court’s familiarity with it. If only he’d also sung a few bars of “I’m Merlin the happy pig.”
- Queenie has the line of the episode, but Edmund gets a few good ones in, the highlights being his description of the Whiteadder’s wallets and the inspiration for his selection of breakfast guest, “I like to start the day with a total dickhead to remind me I’m best.”
- It would seem Edmund has a genetic predisposition to parties going awry—Lord Blackadder is no more successful in his planning than his princely predecessor.
“Chains” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 2/20/1986)
Blackadder struggles with cross cultural sensitivity
Much like its predecessor, “Chains” is a somewhat problematic installment. There’s a lot to like, but one or two elements hold it back—in this case, the episode’s stereotyping and epithets. Despite this, the premise is a good one, with Lords Blackadder and Melchett kidnapped and held for ransom by the evil Prince Ludwig. Played with panache by Hugh Laurie, Ludwig is colorful and ridiculous and his recurring gags are just as effective as those of the rest of season two’s guest characters. Less entertaining are the buffoonish German guards and some of Blackadder’s remarks to the Spanish Inquisitor. Most Blackadder episodes have aged surprisingly well, all things considered. Unfortunately, certain moments of “Chains” have not.
There are other problems as well. The opening scene is bizarrely cut together, with Edmund leaving Queenie, Nursie, and Melchett abruptly only to encounter Baldrick in the hallway before being kidnapped. It’s odd—Blackadder’s unceremonious exit feels rushed, as if a line or two was cut for time, but his exchange with Baldrick is completely extraneous and feels like an addition to pad out a too-short episode. Also, despite the Melchett and Blackadder dynamic established previously in the series, with Melchy a canny intellectual equal to Edmund, here his role as the Percy to Queenie’s Blackadder is underlined, as he gets almost nothing to do besides fret over his imprisonment. Stephen Fry has been a lot of fun throughout the season, and never more so than when given the opportunity to spar with Rowan Atkinson. Here though, Melchett is out of his depth, frantically clinging to Edmund and following his lead. It’s disappointing to see the character go out in this fashion.
Two elements of Blackadder and Melchett’s imprisonment do work incredibly well, however. Introducing Ludwig as a Master of Disguise and then subverting expectations by having him always be only tangentially related to any of the characters’ prior acquaintances is a great touch. The highlights of this chunk of the episode, however, are the charades sequences between Edmund and the Torturer. Both the deadpan delivery of Atkinson and the animated miming of Max Harvey as the Torturer are hilarious and the button, “Oh, it’s a scythe!” is the perfect final touch.
Back in the throne room, Percy adapts quickly to his role as New Melchy. Miranda Richardson is once again fantastic as Queenie (“Percy, who’s Queen?”) and Tim McInnerny is an absolute treat as well. He manages to milk the choice Queenie offers him of either shutting up or having his head cut off for at least 12 seconds, ages in TV time. Percy’s pride in himself for thinking of, “What chaps?” is another memorable moment and his sincere happiness at Edmund’s return emphasizes the fickleness of Queenie’s court. Percy is truly sad that Blackadder has been kidnapped, but he does nothing to help him, distracted by his role as Queenie’s new plaything. Nursie has less of note to do than usual, but she makes up for it with her terrible cow costume and udder fixation. Baldrick is similarly sidelined, but at least he also has an excellent costume—pencil case is a great choice for the character.
The denouement of the episode is well structured, ending with a final bit of wordplay from Lord Blackadder before wrapping up the saga of the minstrel and, inspired by The Black Adder, killing everyone on the show. “Chains” may not be the series’ strongest episode, but it’s fun and engaging, giving Edmund one of his best sequences of the series and highlighting the unpredictable edge of Queenie, who remains a unique and wonderful creation to this day. Richardson is consistently noted as the standout performer of season two and in managing to craft a heightened, yet truthful new version of the so frequently represented Queen Elizabeth I, all of that praise is well earned. Patsy Byrne will be missed in season three, but fortunately the rest of the main cast pops up at least once during Blackadder the Third, making the second season’s mere six episode order a bit easier to take. Despite its occasional problems, Blackadder II is an excellent season of comedy full of memorable characters and hilarious performances: Season three has big shoes to fill.
Historical Hairsplitting: While Elizabeth reigned in England, the Hapsburgs ruled Germany and there wasn’t a German prince Ludwig during this time, making Laurie’s eccentric character an unsurprising fabrication on the part of the writers. He may have been named for Mad King Ludwig, who lived during the mid to late 19th century, commissioned Neuschwanstein, and eventually withdrew to live alone before being declared insane so that the next in the line of succession could take over the official ruling of Bavaria.
Skewed Shakespeare: Shortly after joining Lord Blackadder in prison, Melchett reworks a line of dialogue from King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, They kill us for their sport” to more closely suit their situation, swapping out “flies” for “private parts” and “kill” for “play with.” The tonal shift between the two works feels appropriate.
Cunning Plans: Lord Blackadder only has one cunning plan throughout the episode, but fortunately it works, allowing Edmund and Melchy to escape and later, save the day. This makes it one of only a handful of notably successful cunning plans over the course of the series, including Prince Edmund’s murder by cannon, Percy’s overly-effective wine poisoning, and Lord Blackadder’s blackmailing of the Bishop of Bath and Wells.
- The various outfits for Elizabeth’s fancy dress party are great, but the costume department looks to have had particular fun with Queenie’s Henry VIII.
- Percy’s frightened look over his shoulder upon being told that kidnappers only take idiots is yet another fantastic moment from Tim McInnerny. It’s great to see him interact a bit with the Queen, but it’s a shame there’s so little Percy and Baldrick interaction in the season finale.
- Poor Ludwig! Shorty-Greasy-Spot-Spot? Of course he became a supervillain.
- It’s been a pleasure spending time with the most amiable of the Blackadders, the first reimagined Baldrick, and the rest of this wonderful group of characters. I’ll definitely miss Queenie the most, though, and it’s not even close.