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August 30, 2015

Review: Black Adder Remastered, Fawlty Towers Remastered

by Nick Zaino, posted Oct 21st 2009 3:03PM
Black Adder Remastered box setWhen I was a kid, I remember seeing episodes of a couple of strange British shows on my local PBS affiliate in Rochester, NY. I never caught them regularly, not even sure when they aired, but I remember one of them was a peculiar little period piece with some funny gags, and a storyline I never completely grasped.

I learned later this first show was the classic Blackadder series with Rowan Atkinson, and the reason the storylines never made sense from show to show is that there are four seasons of the show, all taking place in a different historical period. I saw them out of order, and mostly caught the first season.

Watching the new Black Adder Remastered - The Ultimate Edition DVD set from BBC America (video and audio both remastered), it's clear the best way to watch Blackadder is to at least watch each series in order. And if you can watch the whole run in order, so much the better. From the first series set in the Dark Ages to the last set in World War I (Blackadder Goes Forth), Atkinson's character, Blackadder, remains a scheming coward. But he changes, too.

Edmund Blackadder becomes more sympathetic from series to series. Edmund, the Duke of Edinburgh, in the first series is a power hungry cretin, cruel to the only people who will follow him -- dumb Percy (Tim McInnerny) and even dumber Baldrick (Tony Robinson). Edmund is forever intimidated by his father, King Richard IV, understandable considering the absolute fervor with which Brian Blessed infused the character. Edmund is left out, passed over, and takes every opportunity to get the slightest millimeter ahead at any cost.

He gets a bit more sophisticated in Blackadder II, in the service of Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson). Percy and Baldrick are still there, and the dynamic is similar, but takes a bit of a step forward. (It should be mentioned, also, that Stephen Fry is a standout in this series as Lord Melchett). The series really hits its stride when Hugh Laurie joins the cast permanently in Blackadder the Third as the Prince Regent, whom Edmund serves as butler. Laurie is wonderfully daft, and Edmund the one responsible for keeping him out of trouble.

In Blackadder Goes Forth, Edmund is a captain in the English army at the front in World War I. His cowardice here is something more akin to Yoassarian from Catch-22, if Yossarian were a bit more of a bastard. He remembers when the English army was mostly responsible for enforcing in the colonies, where no officer was ever truly in danger. Fry is a stand-out once again as General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, and McInnerny gets a bit more to do as Melchett's sycophantic assistant, Captain Darling. Laurie is also fantastic as the ever clueless Lieutenant The Honourable George Colthurst St. Barleigh.

Blackadder Goes Forth is the gem of this series. It has the best cast, the best writing, and even the best ending. There is a palpable sense of sadness as Melchett consigns Darling to his final fate, and though fans of the series know that Blackadder always meets his doom at the end of the series, the final slow motion charge here is poignant dark comedy. In those last few moments until the fadeout, you actually feel you're going to miss the bastard.

The collection also includes a disc of the specials, including Blackadder's Christmas Carol with Laurie, Fry, Jim Broadbent, and Robbie Coltrane (Blackadder on the baby Jesus in the nativity play dying at rehearsal -- "This high mortality rate is a real devil when it comes to staging quality children's theatre") and 1999's time-traveling Back and Forth. More extras include Baldrick's video diary, audio commentary, interviews, the "Blackadder Rides Again" documentary, and a "Footnotes to History" feature that explains some of the real historical inspiration for the characters and events behind the show.

One parting thought on Blackadder: it seems a shame that Atkinson has become more well-known for Mr. Bean than Blackadder. While Mr. Bean was an opportunity for Atkinson to showcase his ability to communicate through physical movement, he's absolutely fantastic with dialogue and delivers a sarcastic, witty line as well as anyone in comedy, which is more the focus of Blackadder.

The other series, of Fawlty Towers Remasteredwhich I caught even fewer episodes, was Fawlty Towers, now also getting the complete series treatment on DVD in Fawlty Towers Remastered (also with remastered audio and video). Like Blackadder, Fawlty Towers features a crack ensemble cast, led here by John Cleese as Basil Fawlty. Basil and his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) presided over the least customer-friendly inn in England, with maid Polly (Connie Booth, who also co-wrote both series) and a butler with sketchy English named Manuel (Andrew Sachs).

The reason I only caught a few episodes of Towers is that there are only twelve episodes altogether, stretching across two seasons that ran, oddly, in 1975 and 1979. Each one contains its own classic moments, but it's the episode "The Germans" that contains one of the single funniest moments in television history (and I'll include both sides of the Atlantic here).

Basil, head bandaged from a previous injury and running the place without Sybil, serves a group of German tourists while inexplicably peppering the conversation, and even the menu selection, with references to "the war." "Don't mention the war," he tells Polly, "I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it all right." And the hysterical climax, Basil trying to make it all better by doing his Hitler impression, finger under nose, goose-stepping like the head of the Nazi version of the Ministry of Silly Walks.

Special features include extensive cast and series regular interviews from 2009, in which Cleese talks about the real English hotelier at the Hotel Glenneagles who inspired Basil Fawlty (from a hotel where the Pythons stayed at one point) and delivers the understatement of the century, claiming he was "reasonably skilled" at physical humor. There are also the usual audio commentaries and bios, some outtakes, mostly featuring Cleese mugging, and a short documentary on the Glenneagles.

Also worth mentioning, The Mighty Boosh: Special Edition was released last week. I reviewed the separate releases for each season when they hit stores in July, and this edition contains all three of those releases, plus a bonus disc of materials exclusive to this release. There are extra deleted scenes and behind the scenes footage, and best of all, a "Crimping Collection," for those of you who wish to carry on the musical tradition of the Boosh.

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BA Goes Forth:

BA: Baldrick, What starts with "Come here" and ends in ouch?
Baldrick: "I don't know"
BA: Come here
Baldrick "Ouch"

I guess you had to be there...classic stuff!

October 22 2009 at 7:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Although I don't dislike Mr. Bean, I've always preferred Blackadder. Some series more than others, but they've all got their good points.

And yes, I cry every time I see the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

As for Fawlty Towers - I like it, but it's not one of those shows I'd go out of my way to watch. My husband's a much bigger fan than I am.

October 22 2009 at 3:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
The Deej

The end of Blackadder Goes Forth actually made me cry.

October 22 2009 at 1:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Doug Nelson

So how was the remastering?

October 21 2009 at 5:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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