“The Archbishop” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 6/29/1983)
Richard IV finds a use for Edmund the Unwilling
From its first moments, “The Archbishop” improves on Blackadder’s previous two installments, “The Foretelling” and “Born To Be King.” The opening scene is hilarious, setting up the episode-long conflict between the crown and the church, with Richard IV and the Archbishop posed as the devil and angel on the dying Duke of Winchester’s shoulders. Richard doesn’t have anything that can contend with the Archbishop’s, “Hell, where the softest bits of your nether regions are everybody else’s favorite lunch,” so it’s no wonder he keeps losing out. Setting this episode around a pre-existing struggle, rather than one of Edmund’s creation, works well and engenders sympathy for the increasingly odious Black Adder.
While the character is already much improved, Edmund’s high social status makes certain elements of his personality difficult to enjoy—eventually his cutting asides will mainly be aimed towards those making his life difficult (or those who don’t notice), but here his bullying of the cretinous messenger is mean-spirited, an attack on a servant just doing his job. Fortunately this power dynamic doesn’t come up frequently, as the bulk of Edmund’s scenes are shared with the King, Prince Harry, or Percy and Baldrick. Richard IV was fully formed from Brian Blessed’s first glorious, bellowing moments in “The Foretelling,” as were Gertrude and Percy, but along with Edmund, Harry and (season one) Baldrick find their footing in “The Archbishop,” cementing the group’s rapport.
Rather than the condescending Harry of “The Foretelling” or the efficient and high-minded version we meet in “Born To Be King,” this episode’s prince is a good-hearted idiot and his trusting spirit contrasts sharply with the increasingly shrewd, cynical Edmund. Robert East makes Harry painfully earnest, which allows Rowan Atkinson to take Edmund to the opposite extreme, a precursor to the dynamic that will center Blackadder The Third. While Atkinson continues his character’s journey towards the Blackadder of future seasons, there’s still plenty of the Edmund of “The Foretelling” in this episode, which has perhaps the first season’s best balance of these two personas. With the messenger, Harry, and Percy, he drips with sarcasm and disdain; with Richard IV, he’s a desperately groveling toad. It’s delightful.
The most marked shift, however, is that of Tony Robinson’s Baldrick, who all but steals the episode with his extended look at the financial opportunities that come with the central trio’s new positions in the church. Baldrick is introduced in the series’ first episode as opportunistic muscle, ready with a club and though quicker on the uptake than Edmund or Percy, not particularly brilliant. In the second he’s somewhat of a schemer, but is quickly distracted by the opportunity to pose as a bearded lady. Here he is back to working the angles, Edmund’s intellectual equal. This allows Baldrick to play off Percy just as well as Edmund, whereas in the previous two episodes, he mostly only interacted with the Black Adder. Tim McInnerny is again wonderful as Percy and watching the three leads bounce off of each other throughout the scene is a treat. The pardons sequence had the potential to bog down the episode’s pacing, as it’s the only one that doesn’t directly progress the plot, but it’s so funny this doesn’t matter.
The leads coming together, playing off each other and developing their distinct comedic voices, is crucial to the success of “The Archbishop.” Just as significant is the fantastic diversity of comedy presented throughout the episode. It is sharply satirical of the Church, criticizing the manipulation of the religious by the clergy—including the original Archbishop, who is seemingly obsessed with butts. Literary and historical references are thrown out lovingly, along with physical comedy like Edmund’s ridiculous bowing, a farcical chase, and of course the unforgettable sight gag that is The Black Russian. This episode wrings humor out of every possible source, blending the high with the low to create a continually entertaining, creative, and memorable episode. This is Blackadder firing on all cylinders, and it’s incredibly encouraging to see the show come together so early in the series’ run.
Historical Hairsplitting: In 1487, the Archbishop of Canterbury was John Morton, who was appointed by Henry VII after his victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Morton was imprisoned by Richard III for his work supporting the Lancastrians during the War of the Roses, but he escaped and fled, only returning upon Henry VII’s ascension to the throne. He was a trusted ally of Henry VII and he helped the King in that ever-popular goal of extorting money from the people. “Morton’s Fork” states that those who appear to be wealthy have money to spare and those who appear destitute are merely hiding their (taxable) savings.
Skewed Shakespeare: There is little direct Shakespearean influence in this episode, perhaps because Shakespeare never wrote explicitly about the struggles between the church and the crown. St. Thomas Becket, whose murder by those seeking favor with King Henry II inspires much of the episode, may not have inspired Shakespeare, but Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a play about him, as did T.S. Eliot, Jean Anouilh, and several others.
Cunning Plans: There aren’t any particularly cunning plans in “The Archbishop,” though Edmund’s initial ploy of running off to France might count and Baldrick’s monetary scheming, while not anything that will free them, is certainly clever. Thus far, the most cunning plan remains Baldrick’s head-in-cannon solution in “Born To Be King.”
- Elspet Gray may not get much to do, but what she does get she knocks out of the park. Queen Gertrude’s reaction to The Black Russian is hilarious, as is her continual nonchalance about most everything.
- Baldrick may get the most entertaining sequence, but the best line goes to Edmund, when he’s trying to get out of being appointed Archbishop, “I thought though perhaps, you know, someone who believed in God…” His post-bowing, “Flee!” is pretty great too.
- The two knights who arrive to overhear the wrong thing at the wrong time are handled wonderfully, with just the right amount of lampshading. They’re deliciously over the top, another example of this episode’s ability to balance its comedy—the knights may as well be cackling, they’re so heightened, but Gertrude and Baldrick remain delightfully underplayed throughout.
“The Queen Of Spain’s Beard” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 6/22/1983)
Edmund falls prey to politics
Despite remaining an improvement over Blackadder’s first two episodes, “The Queen Of Spain’s Beard” suffers in comparison to the fantastic “The Archbishop,” its immediate predecessor. There’s plenty to enjoy in episode four, but it never comes together in the same way episode three does and while it features memorable guest turns from Miriam Margolyes and Jim Broadbent, centering the episode on one extended gag limits its comedic possibilities.
“The Queen Of Spain’s Beard” sees Edmund dealing with his arranged marriage to Infanta Maria Escalosa of Spain, the game Margolyes, who immediately terrifies Edmund with her forceful personality and distinct features. She comes on strong, to say the very least, sending Edmund running for the hills. Margolyes is fantastic throughout the episode, committing to her larger than life character; even better is Jim Broadbent as Don Speekingleesh, her interpreter. His interactions with each of the main cast and ridiculous inflections to his translations are consistently entertaining and like Margolyes, Broadbent’s commitment to character grounds his performance, where a wink to the audience would sink it.
Edmund’s early struggles with the fairer sex build on the previous episode’s Edmund/Baldrick/Percy dynamic. The trio have an easy camaraderie in their first scene, with Tony Robinson maintaining Baldrick’s dry delivery, Tim McInnerny keeping Percy slow on the play, and Rowan Atkinson dancing between them, taking Edmund from haughtily dignified to utterly humiliated and back again. These three feel increasingly like friends, rather than a noble and his hangers on, and this helps humanize Edmund. Much like “The Archbishop,” here the Black Adder is out of his element and subject to the whims of his father—it’s much easier to enjoy the exploits of a total git when he’s relatable and Richard IV’s disdain for and disinterest in his son, “the slimy one,” immediately contextualizes Edmund’s less than noble behavior.
Brian Blessed is wonderful once again as Richard IV, obsessed with war and constantly playing with his toy soldiers and maps of England. “Chiswick, fresh horses!” makes its return here, previously having been introduced in “The Archbishop,” and Blessed’s passion continues to be a highlight of the season. Harry has little to do this episode besides parade around with beautiful princesses, but his early scene with Richard IV works well and keeps Harry the good-hearted simpleton of episode three.
Both episodes three and four follow Edmund as he tries to avoid a marriage he doesn’t want (in the former, a marriage to the Church, in the latter, the Infanta). On the whole, “The Queen of Spain’s Beard” is amusing. Its character-based humor works well, as do a few sight gags, and the running bits are fairly successful. However it’s slight, carried along by strong performances and lacking the satirical bite of “The Archbishop.” This episode is a solid installment of a straightforward comedy and as it demonstrated in episode three, Blackadder can be much more than this.
Historical Hairsplitting: The notion of an Anglo-Spanish alliance during the time The Black Adder (season one) is set is based in historical fact. In 1492, Arthur Tudor—the eldest son of Henry VII—was at six years old the Prince of Wales and his eventual marriage had already been discussed. At age 11, he was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon (the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon united with the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand to create the modern Spain) and this marriage, four years later, solidified an alliance between England and Spain against France. When Arthur died six months later, Catherine vowed the marriage had not been consummated and she was married to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, who would go on to be Henry VIII.
Skewed Shakespeare: Arranged marriages of varying success abound in Shakespeare, though there is no direct precedent for Edmund and the Infanta. Typically, the woman is the one trying to avoid an arranged marriage, rather than the man (as in Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew), but elements of both of these plays are seen in “The Queen of Spain’s Beard.” Edmund unsuccessfully attempts the solution found in Romeo and Juliet, marrying another before the arranged marriage can take place and thereby negating it, and in the end, Edmund must resign himself to his marriage to Princess Leia of Hungary, much like Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.
Cunning Plans: Our heroes continue to have trouble with their plans, cunning and otherwise. Percy’s idea to play mad is an intriguing one, but it falls apart when Edmund pushes him for specifics. Baldrick’s ploy to channel the Earl of Doncaster and feign homosexuality fails almost immediately, and neither of Edmund’s schemes (getting married to someone else and sending Baldrick to rob the Infanta of her virginity) work out well for him. Again, the only successful cunning plan to this point remains Baldrick’s episode two elimination of McAngus by cannon.
- Edmund’s costume remains a source of humor in this episode, particularly his hair, which is uneven and rather hideous. It frames his face in what may be the least flattering way possible and the choppy cut implies that Percy, Baldrick, or perhaps even Edmund himself continues to cut it, as the Black Adder is of so little importance that no one at court cares enough to send him to a barber.
- The scoring is great throughout this episode, toying with viewers’ expectations and punctuating the action onscreen. Whereas the scoring has previously been more atmospheric, there are recurring melodies here that add interest and emphasize the romantic theme of the episode.
- Makeup doesn’t come up frequently in Blackadder, but the effects of Baldrick’s night with the Infanta are a lot of fun. Also worth a mention is the random prisoner who lives in Edmund’s chamber—Baldrick feeds him in this episode, but he’s still mostly there as very strange window dressing.
- Edmund’s marriage to his child bride is a fun capper to this episode, resolving the story without keeping the Infanta around, as her presence would quickly become distracting, or letting Edmund off the hook.