Skip to content

Blackadder contextualized

Module: Studying Comedy
Module Coordinator: Dr Van Norris
Academic Year 3 (2022/2023)

The contextual reports set by Dr Norris followed a similar structure: State what you are contextualising; offer some key words; provide a summative quote; why is it important?; provide x number of references following the R.P.I. model (Reception/Reviews, Personnel/People, Institutions). As I was writing my Dissertation on Blackadder, I decided to write this report on it too, hoping it could help discover new areas of research for my Dissertation. The bibliography was a large part of the brief, and most will not be directly cited within the text.

The Sitcom: Fully contextualise a situation comedy of your choice, focussing on one episode that you feel is emblematic of the show. Use the R.P.I. model to fully outline the context for this choice.

I have chosen Blackadder, specifically the final episode Goodbyeee.

Key Words

Blackadder, Comedy, Situational, Tragic, Witty, British, Satirical, Historical, BBC, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Tony Robinson, Tim McInnerny, Stephen Fry, Ben Elton, Richard Curtis

Summative Quote

The gradual slide of the scheming and ambitious Blackadder character down the social scale through history, from prince to harassed Army captain, was part of the humour. (Badsey, 2001, p. 114).

Why is the example worthy of note and what aspects of history would be important things to investigate?

Situational comedies typically follow a set format as outlined by Leo Charney:

Half-hour time frame; a setting in a home and/or workplace; a set of four to eight recurring characters, each defined by fixed character traits that generate predictable reactions and ritualized conflicts’ and three genres: family comedy, friends-as-family comedy, and workplace comedy. (2005, p. 586).

For the focus of this contextual report, I have chosen Blackadder which is a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) production written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and consisting of four separated and differently named seasons comprising of six episodes each, (The Blackadder, Curtis, 1982-1983; Blackadder II, Curtis & Elton, 1986; Blackadder the Third, Curtis & Elton, 1987; Blackadder Goes Forth, Curtis & Elton, 1989), as well as a charity special (Blackadder: The Cavalier Years, Curtis & Elton, 1988a) and holiday specials (Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, Curtis & Elton, 1988b; Blackadder Back & Forth, Curtis & Elton, 1999). The final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth (“Goodbye”, Boden, 1989) is emblematic of the show, leaving a lasting legacy for British comedy.

Blackadder follows the format Charney outlined, and each season varied between the three genres of “family comedy, friends-as-family comedy, and workplace comedy”, with a stronger emphasis on workplace comedy towards the later seasons as the character of Blackadder works their way down the social scale “from prince to harassed Army captain, [which] was part of the humour” (Badsey, 2001, p. 114). In Blackadder Goes Forth in particular, it is all workplace comedy.

Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis attended Oxford University in 1976 and had their own slot in the Cambridge Footlights show. They worked together on Not the Nine O’Clock News (Lloyd, 1979-1982), a topical sketch comedy show, and had been planning a “Fawlty Towers meets Starsky & Hutch” crime series (Roberts, 2013, p. 81) when they saw a daytime showing of The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz & Keighley, 1938). This sparked the idea that “if it was murder and skulduggery they wanted, after years of topical sketches, what could be a cleaner break than a medieval tights-and-codpiece spoof?” (Roberts, 2013, p. 81).

The Blackadder is markedly different in style than following series: the character of Blackadder was not particularly intelligent and rather cowardly; Baldrick and Percy are portrayed as smarter and braver than Blackadder. This is effectively swapped from the start of Blackadder II, which is where Rowan Atkinson stepped back from co-writing with Richard Curtis, and Ben Elton was brought in to help write.

 The Blackadder was “shot on location on a lavish budget” (Brooke, n.d.), so filming Blackadder II in a studio in front of an audience helped to greatly lower the budget. This created new constraints in filming, but Elton had the experience with writing for this type of production and was coming from his highly successful The Young Ones (Elton, Mayal & Mayer, 1982-1984), which was also a situational comedy filmed in front of a live audience.

 I chose “Goodbyeee” as an episode I think is emblematic of the show for a couple of reasons: Firstly, the way in which the episode ended, and it’s lasting impact on audiences. Each season ended with death (All of the cast in The Blackadder, Blackadder II and Blackadder Goes Forth, and the Prince Regent in Blackadder the Third), and each season consisted of six episodes, so it would have been safe for an audience to assume there would be some element of death to come at the end of “Goodbyeee, but to what extent could only be speculated. The Great War is a far more recent history than that in previous series, with Veterans of the conflict still alive in our time, so with the cast going over the top and for the scene to fade to a field of poppies and sombre theme music not only sends a strongly critical message of these events, but also incites a strong and emotional reaction from an audience. The entirety of Blackadder Goes Forth depicts Blackadder attempting to escape the war, and it requires repeated viewings of Goodbyee to find the exact point in which he stops pursuing this and accepts his fate. It is also around this point where the laughter stops.

Blackadder is often credited among the top TV shows of all time (EMPIRE, 2021; Shepherd, 2022; McIntyre, 2022) with Blackadder Goes Forth, especially “Goodbyeee”, being common justification for its position among the rest. Mark Butler puts it well “Few comedies have made an entire audience of TV viewers weep. But Blackadder Goes Forth was no ordinary comedy.” (2017), and Andrew Pulver suggests it might be “the most influential TV series ever” (2010).

Secondly, I believe the comedy, whit, sarcasm, and general insults towards each other in this episode are at their strongest. Gags perfectly set each other up throughout the episode to the point where they can almost be predicted. When Blackadder is explaining to Baldrick how putting his underwear on his head and sticking pencils up his nose will get him sent home for being mad, just outside General Melchett is explaining to George how he had to shoot “a whole platoon” in the Sudan for trying exactly that. Blackadder obviously overhears this because we next see him explaining to Baldrick “and the other thing they used to do in the Sudan was to get dressed up like this and pretend to be mad. Now don’t let me catch you trying that one Baldrick, or I’ll have you shot” before pretending to be surprised by General Melchett’s arrival. Blackadder’s attempt to be sent home as mad is certain to be successful until General Melchett swipes it away without even knowing, forcing Blackadder to quickly adapt. Later, in his last attempt to escape the war by calling Field Marshal Haig, he is told to do what he planned to do in the first place and is swiftly hung up on. The entire series had been building up to one last cunning plan, only for a repeated gag to be used against Blackadder.

There are a couple of areas which may prove interesting to investigate. Firstly, the way “Goodbyeee ended in comparison to how other situational comedies ended in similar ways: M*A*S*H (Gelbart, 1972-1984) ended with each character having to come to terms with the fact that they would be leaving the war in “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen (Alda, 1984) but this was in a two-hour episode and didn’t quite make a statement as clear as in Blackadder. Where Only Fools and Horses (Sullivan, 1981-2003) “ended” and the specials “began” can be debated between the years of 1993 and 2001, but in the episode “Time on Our Hands (Dow, 1996) Del Boy and Rodney finally become millionaires when their antique watch sells at auction, closing the frequent theme of “this time next year, we’ll be millionaires”, but it could be argued in fact, that at the end of “Three Men, a Woman, and a Baby” (Dow, 1991) when Del Boy is holding his new born son, that this was the moment he became a metaphorical millionaire, with the episode ending on an emotionally uplifting scene, instead of the more common punch line or gag. These M*A*S*H and Only Fools and Horses examples don’t quite equate to that of how Blackadder ended, so it would be interesting to investigate further if any other situational comedies ended in the same way, with such a definable point in the episode where the laughter stopped, and such a drastic tonal shift occurred.

Secondly, it would be interesting to investigate Blackadder’s influence on historical education. Particularly with Blackadder Goes Forth, as it covers more recent history, the line between historical fiction and historical accuracy can be somewhat blurred. Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddle wrote, with reference to Blackadder Goes Forth:

[…] scholars find themselves frequently up against well-established popular myths, such as that of an universally disillusioned soldiery reluctantly engaged in futile destruction throughout Europe – myths which persist in the face of strong contrary evidence and dominate contemporary fiction and above all, television programmes, the greatest influence in moulding opinion today. (2016, pp. XVI-XVII, my emphasis).

They are of a strong opinion that the events depicted in Blackadder Goes Forth falsely provide historical context for the Great War. The documentary Haig: The Unknown Soldier (Bettinson, 1996) “used scenes from Blackadder Goes Forth intercut with the commentary of historians in order to establish the stereotype before subjecting it to scrutiny.” (Badsey, 2001, p. 114) and in 2014 Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, called for a ban on Blackadder being shown in schools for historical education. (Groves, 2014). It would be interesting to explore this further and to perhaps compare Blackadder’s effect on education for each of it’s depicted time-periods from The Blackadder to Blackadder Goes Forth.


  • Alda, A. (Director). (1984, December 27). Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen (Series 11, Episode 16) [TV series episode]. In B. Metcalfe & G. Reynolds (Executive Producers), M*A*S*H. 20th Century Fox Television.
  • Badsey, S. (2001). Blackadder Goes Forth and the ‘Two western fronts’ debate. In G. Roberts & P. M. Taylor (Eds.), The Historian, Television and Television History (pp. 113–125). University of Luton Press.
  • Bettinson, H. (Director). (1996, July 3). Haig: The Unknown Soldier (Series 15, Episode 7) [TV series episode]. In R. Davies, T. Gardam, J. Hayes, J. Farren, L. Rees, H. Purcell, J. Gili, E. Stobart, C. Brand, P. Bader, B. Govan, C. McCarthy, S. Amezdroz, J. Barnett, W. Paterson Ferns, M. Hamlyn, P. McGuigan, M. Csaky, & P. Whitehead (Executive Producers), Timewatch. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Boden, R. (Director). (1989, November 2). Goodbyeee (Episode 6) [TV series episode]. In R. Curtis & B. Elton (Writers), Blackadder Goes Forth. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • British Comedy Guide. (n.d.-a). Ben Elton. British Comedy Guide. (Guidance note… Personnel)
  • British Comedy Guide. (n.d.-b). Richard Curtis. British Comedy Guide. (Guidance note… Personnel)
  • British Comedy Guide. (n.d.-c). Rowan Atkinson. British Comedy Guide. (Guidance note… Personnel)
  • British GQ. (2022, June 24). From Mr Bean to Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson Breaks Down His Most Iconic Characters [Video]. YouTube. (Guidance note… Personell)
  • Brooke, M. (n.d.). Blackadder (1983-89). BFI Screen Online.
  • Butler, M. (2017, August 17). How Blackadder Goes Forth captured the absurd tragedy of war. I News.
  • Cecil, H., & Liddle, P. (2016). Introduction. In H. Cecil & P. Liddle (Eds.), Facing Armageddon. The First World War Experienced. (p. XVI–XXI). Pen & Sword Military.
  • Charney, L. (2005). Television Sitcoms. In M. Charney (Ed.), Comedy. A Geographic and Historical Guide. (Vol. 2, pp. 586–600). Praeger Publishers.
  • Curtis, R. (Creator). (1982–1983). The Black Adder [TV series]. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Curtis, R., Elton, B., & Atkinson, R. (Writers). (1999). Blackadder Back & Forth [TV Special]. New Millennium Experience Company; Sky; Tiger Aspect Productions.
  • Curtis, R., & Elton, B. (Writers). (1986). Blackadder II [TV series]. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Curtis, R., & Elton, B. (Writers). (1987). Blackadder the Third [TV series]. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Curtis, R., & Elton, B. (Writers). (1988a). Blackadder: The Cavalier Years [TV Special]. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Curtis, R., & Elton, B. (Writers). (1988b). Blackadder’s Christmas Carol [TV Special]. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Curtis, R., & Elton, B. (Writers). (1989). Blackadder Goes Forth [TV series]. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Curtiz, M., & Keighley, W. (Directors). (1938). The Adventures of Robin Hood [Film]. Warner Bros.
  • Dow, T. (Director). (1991, February 3). Three Men, a Woman, and a Baby (Series 7, Episode 6) [TV series episode]. In J. Sullivan (Creator), Only Fools and Horses. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Dow, T. (Director). (1996, December 29). Time on Our Hands (Series 8, Episode 3) [TV series episode]. In J. Sullivan (Creator), Only Fools and Horses. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Elton, B., Mayall, R., & Mayer, L. (Writers). (1982–1984). The Young Ones [TV series]. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • EMPIRE. (2021, October 7). The 100 Best TV Shows Of All Time. EMPIRE.
  • Footlights. (n.d.). About. The Cambridge Footlights. (Guidance note… Institutions)
  • Gelbart, L. (Creator). (1972–1984). M*A*S*H [TV series]. 20th Century Fox Television.
  • Gold, T. (2022, June 24). Rowan Atkinson still has us in stiches. GQ. (Guidance note… Personnel)
  • Groves, J. (2014, January 4). History dons back Gove over ban on Blackadder: Great War comedy is not a documentary for schools, they argue. Mail Online.
  • Hallam, C. (2012, June 18). On Trial: Ben Elton. British Comedy Guide. (Guidance note… Institutions)
  • Hoel, C. (2010, August 14). Footlights in “Good For You’’. Calcuttagutta.
  • Little, R. (2009, March 5). Red Nose’s straight man. Calcuttagutta.
  • Lloyd, J. (Creator). (1979–1982). Not the Nine O’Clock News [TV series]. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • McCann, P. (1999, August 16). Media: Turn on, tune in, switch over. Independent. (Guidance note… Personnel, Institutions)
  • McIntyre, M. (2022, December 28). The 50 Best TV Shows of All Time. Wealthy Gorilla.
  • Pulver, A. (2010, December 17). Your next box set: Blackadder. The Guardian.
  • Roberts, J. F. (2013). The True History of The Blackadder. Arrow Books.
  • Rotten Tomatoes. (n.d.). Blackadder. Rotten Tomatoes. (Guidance note… Reviews)
  • Shepherd, J. (2022, August 26). The 100 best TV shows of all time. Games Radar. 
  • Sullivan, J. (Creator). (1981–2003). Only Fools and Horses [TV series]. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
  • Tessier, D. (2020, November 6). Blackadder Goes Forth. Television Heaven. (Guidance note… Reviews)
  • The Guardian. (2018, January 18). ‘Blackadder Goes Forth? Sorry you’re wrong’: Readers on the definitive series of the best TV shows. The Guardian. (Guidance note… Reviews)
  • Williams, B. (2018, November 3). The Chameleons: Blackadder Goes Forth—Review by Ben Williams. Chandler’s Ford Today. (Guidance note… Reviews, Institutions. Although this is a review of a stage production of Blackadder Goes Forth, it is still an important context showing how the popularity and impact of the television show was strong enough to encourage reproducing the texts on stage.)
  • Young, B. (2018, January 8). The journey from ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ to ‘Blackadder’ to ‘House’ to ‘The Night Manager’ lands Hugh Laurie a CBE during the New Years Honours. Kera Tellyspotting. (Guidance note… Personnel)