Friday, January 21, 2011

Blackadder - Goodbye

I recently re-watched the last scene of Blackadder. Spoilers follow, so if you haven't seen it, look away now.

This is one of the most famous shifts in tone ever in television - probably in popular fiction. After a series which managed to make trench warfare in WWI funny, the final series ends with an unexpected tragedy. Our characters go over the top to their deaths, like so many servicemen did in those four awful years.

I have always felt the finale is brilliantly done. The episode is funny right up until seconds before the famous closing montage and it follows exactly the same formula as the rest of the series - Blackadder trying ever more elaborate ways to avoid going over the top. Baldrick's final cunning plan, which we don't get to hear, just makes the first-time viewer even more convinced that something will happen and they'll be saved. And Captain Darling, whom nobody likes, being sent to die by the General he's served faithfully for years is heart-breaking. Technically speaking the last scene isn't great - I heard somewhere that the slow-motion and limited soundtrack were suggested because the special effects looked so poor, but it has an emotional impact unlike anything else I've seen in a TV comedy.

And no credit sequence either - it's the last episode of the last series and there's nothing to say who made it. Because it wasn't important, compared to what it was trying to say.

I don't write comedy (which is weird because I love it), but I have always felt there is legitimate humour in everything. I try not to joke about other people's serious stuff unless they do it first or I know them very well, but the most serious things in life are funny. Death is funny, and if you don't believe me, read Woody Allen's prose on the subject ('Is there an afterlife, and will they be able to break a twenty?'). Panic attacks, which I suffer from, are very funny (I admit I don't tend to see the humour during them, but during them I couldn't be relied upon to see a jumbo jet headed for my patio doors at speed). Illness is funny. World War One, it turns out, is very funny, when the Blackadder crew are involved.

But when we laugh at the darkest moments in our lives, it's not to trivialise them. It's to fully experience the richness and complexity of them. Sad times can be funny. Funny moments can be tragic. No one would think you were odd for tearing up a little on your wedding day when you thought of all the people who couldn't be there. So why do we get freaked when someone can laugh or smile at a funeral or at a hospital bedside?

And I think that good writing can do that - drag those strange contradictory moments on to centre stage and make them dance. It can keep us laughing right up until the boys go over the top of the trenches after Captain Blackadder's final 'Good luck, everyone.' It can make readers writhe with sympathy for Amber St Clare although they *know* what an amoral trollop she is. Terry Pratchett is especially great at that contradiction, keeping readers laughing even as they wonder if Sam Vimes could be called a murderer for what he just did.

So how on earth does one do it?

Well. Being a genius helps.

And the rest of us? I guess if we ever find out, we should agree to tell each other. . .


  1. If you ever figure it out, please tell me. I'd love to be able to merge feelings of sadness and joy with the same mastery that the Blackadder team did in that scene.

  2. I absolutely love the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth - one of the most memorable tv shows ever, ever, ever!!! Nothing like it since!!! Comedy with pathos. Something achieved sublimely by Terry Pratchett too. The secret? I await with bated breath for anyone willing to divulge here on blogworld!

    Take care

  3. Think people tend to assume that comedy is silly, light, trivial. But you're right - there's that double-edge for so many experiences.

    Recently listened to an academic-type talk about the liminal spaces of comedy, horror and pornography and the way all three so easily slip into one another - made a lot of sense.

  4. Dare I admit I have never seen even one episode of Black Adder? I know, I know!

  5. Paul, Kitty, if any of us learn how to do it, let's resolve to tell each other :)

    Claire, it reminds me of how people assume all TV is light and vacuous (enjoyed your post on that btw). Sweeping statements don't work really, good art crops up in all genres and media.

    Talli, if you like British humour, it may be one to pop on the wishlist. If you ever do get around to it though, don't watch Series 1, it isn't very good. Start with Blackadder II, the series set in Elizabethan England.

  6. You know, back in the bad old days when everything wasn't available on DVD, I used to catch Blackadder occasionally on PBS here in the US. I liked it, and I particularly always wanted to see Blackadder Goes Forth -- I had heard of it and yet was never able to catch it. Fast forward a few years and I am on a British Air flight to Kenya via London and they are showing Blackadder Goes Forth as the in-flight entertainment and I am just awake enough to be aware that it's on and not awake enough to follow it. I accepted this at the time as one of Life's Little Ironies.
    I suppose I could get it quite easily now...

  7. I have every series of Blackadder on DVD, and I love it, especially with Queenie series.

    But nothing, nothing, nothing will ever compare to the brilliance of that final episode. I can remember watching it when it first aired. There was silence in the room. Tears. No one knew what to do with themselves because it was such a shock. Moving beyond belief. Pure brilliance.

  8. I've seen a handful of episodes.

    Twain did say that all humor derives from sorrow.

  9. i am reviewing this for my history project and i did find it really funny. i was asked can war be funny and can comedy be serious. i hought this website was pretty helpful. anyone know a list of the min actors?

  10. You should find the names of the actors here:

    Hope it helps, good luck with your project :)


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