Blackadder paints himself into a corner
Each season of Blackadder has its own flavor and with “Captain Cook,” Blackadder Goes Forth gets off to a solid start. While there’s actually less of a time jump between seasons three and four than two and three, the shift from the palace setting of Blackadder The Third and its predecessors to the WWI trenches of season four sets Blackadder Goes Forth apart, immediately casting Capt. Blackadder in a favorable light. Unlike the darkly scheming Mr. Blackadder, this latest incarnation is looking not for riches or power, but any method of escape from the front lines and his certain death. He’s the most human and relatable version yet and the character’s canny awareness of his situation, and the seeming obliviousness of those surrounding him, adds a cynical edge to the by now familiar interactions. This season also features the most supportive relationship between Blackadder and Baldrick. Pvt. Baldrick may be Blackadder’s batman, but the two are bonded by their shared experience and lack of agency—both are subject to the whims of their superior officers and their fortunes on the whole rise and fall together.
The new opening credits sequence, with its military band reinterpretation of the theme, kicks off the episode well and the very first scene sets the tone for the entire season. Baldrick’s attempt to escape death with his first cunning plan, carving his name into a bullet, establishes the season’s focus on mortality and the characters’ futile attempts to escape their fate. This season’s Blackadder and Baldrick dynamic works well and this Baldrick’s practicality, making the best of his difficult situation, is a nice counter to his continued lack of intellect. The dire stakes of their situation, however, make some of the well-established rhythms of the series less believable. With their lives constantly in danger, it’s harder to buy Blackadder’s lengthy tangents and descriptors—by season four, they’ve grown ostentatiously ornate and it strains credibility that Blackadder has the energy to indulge in them, or sees a point in doing so. Far more successful are the details of life in the trench, such as Baldrick’s dinner menu and preparation of rat sauté, rat fricassee, and rat au van.
Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson are once again fantastic as Blackadder and Baldrick and rounding out the cast this season is Hugh Laurie as the enthusiastic if dim Lt. George, along with Stephen Fry and Tim McInnerny, who make their triumphant returns to the series as the blustery Gen. Melchett and his assistant, Capt. Darling. It’s wonderful to have both Fry and McInnerny back in the regular cast, acting as regular antagonists to Blackadder. Given the setting, the threat to Blackadder and Baldrick must be ever-present, and having Melchett and Darling as continuing presences, rather than problem-causing guest stars, ensures this. Laurie and Fry are great in their roles, two sides of the upper-class coin, one a well-intentioned innocent due to be chewed up and spat out by the war, the other a dangerously foolish commander, out of touch with the men his orders are killing. The standout, though, is McInnerny, who is an absolute joy as the twitchy Darling. His name may be an easy gag, but it’s one that works every time, thanks in part to McInnerny’s physicality throughout. The Blackadder-Darling rivalry is one of the best elements of season four and Darling’s pure glee at Blackadder’s mission to no man’s land is a highlight of the episode.
The actual plot of “Captain Cook,” Blackadder’s attempt to escape the trenches by passing himself off as first a painter and, in the end, an Italian chef, works well. The friendly rapport between Blackadder, Baldrick, and George is quickly established during the painting scene, making Blackadder’s betrayal of George’s trust immediately afterward all the more potent, and though George and Baldrick standing up in flare-lit no man’s land is a stretch even for them, the rest of their interactions are entertaining enough to make up for it. The denouement, with Melchett and Darling enjoying a Baldrick-cooked dinner, is a nice and appropriately brief capper and ending the episode on Baldrick and an adorable kitten certainly doesn’t hurt. Despite a few less successful moments, “Captain Cook” establishes a new and exciting interpersonal dynamic and gets Blackadder’s final season off to a strong start.
Historical Hairsplitting: During WWI, Field Marshal Douglas Haig was the British commander in chief in France, and as the characters are in France, in the trenches, he is mentioned frequently throughout Blackadder Goes Forth. His approach to fighting the Germans was one of attrition, which led to British casualties so numerous they shocked the public.
Cunning Plans: Baldrick has two cunning plans in this episode. His first, carving his name into a bullet so that he is already in possession of it and hopefully will not find another one during their time in the trench, is ludicrous, if endearing. Far cleverer is his ploy to have the trio masquerade as chefs to escape the front lines. It actually works in the end, despite Blackadder’s fears about Baldrick’s cooking, and is one of the most successful and straightforward cunning plans of the series.
- The pose Blackadder adopts when posing for George is hilarious, as is George’s faithful rendering of it.
- Though Blackadder’s digressions have lost some of their luster, his quick save of, “a cluster of colorblind hedgehogs” is particularly deft, and among his best moments in the episode.
- There are any number of memorable lines from this episode, but a few favorites are Blackadder’s list of achievements, including, “three gold stars from the kindergarten of getting the shit kicked out of me” and his bitter, “Clearly, Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.” In contrast, George’s best line is Laurie’s ridiculous and fun reading of, “Bravo!”
- Frequently as entertaining as the dialogue are the various reaction shots of this talented cast. McInnerny in particular has an easily overlooked gem in the background during Melchett’s greeting of George. As the two finish their take on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” Darling closes his eyes and releases a heavy sigh or shudder of disgust. Much like Lord Melchett in the early parts of season two, Darling is Blackadder’s equal in intellect and station, and has similar regard for their boorish superiors.
Blackadder stands trial for pigeon murder
One of the absurd highlights of Blackadder, “Corporal Punishment” changes tack from “Captain Cook” by focusing on the consequences of Capt. Blackadder’s schemes to avoid the final push, rather than the maneuvering itself. Blackadder’s attempts to aid in the breakdown of communication, particularly orders to advance across no man’s land, are fantastic, especially his handling of an unwanted call from Capt. Darling. The writers’ escalation of such a straightforward premise to the episode’s central court sequence is even better, building a ridiculous comedy of errors while condemning Gen. Melchett and his dangerously skewed priorities. Stephen Fry and Tim McInnerny are once again excellent in this episode. Fry is at his least restrained, as Melchett bellows at Blackadder over his lost pet carrier pigeon, Speckled Jim, while McInnerny keeps Darling as subdued as ever. As in the premiere, the twinkle in McInnerny’s eyes as he watches Blackadder squirm is delightful and heightened as it may be, Fry’s delivery of, “the Flanders Pigeon Murderer!” is hilarious.
Just as much fun is Hugh Laurie as Lt. George, utterly out of his depth as Blackadder’s defense council. The closing argument he writes based around playing the mindless optimism card is great, as are George’s interjections during the trial. Whereas the premiere focused exclusively on the main cast, this episode expands the ranks quite a bit, introducing Cpl. Perkins as well as Blackadder’s firing squad. The latter are a lot of fun and contribute to the episode’s almost disorienting cheeriness, given the subject matter, but it’s Jeremy Hardy as Perkins who makes the biggest impression. His sing-song delivery and pleasant demeanor is a welcome surprise coming from Blackadder’s jailer, a contrast to the series’ previous jailers from “Head,” and Hardy’s performance sets the tone for the second half of the episode.
The episode is well paced, quickly establishing its premise before whisking Blackadder off to his trial. Rather than linger in the trial like season one’s “The Witchsmeller Pursuivant” however, here the writers keep the momentum going, moving past the trial to the conviction without trying to pretend the trial would convince anyone who was objective. Instead, Blackadder’s attempts to squirm out of his sentence take up the second half of the episode. Rowan Atkinson keeps the captain a picture of calm, only slightly flustered in his final moments, when the telegram overturning the conviction is late. Atkinson’s, “Where do you want me?” is charming and confident and his stroll back into the trench is equally relaxed. It would have been nice to see more of Baldrick, who has little to do for most of the episode, but his exchange with George is entertaining and his testimony is spot on.
With its silly tone and ridiculous setup, “Corporal Punishment” is one of Blackadder’s most heightened episodes, its blend of boisterous and subdued performances working beautifully and its contrast of the characters’ grim situation with the episode’s sunny charm and pleasant optimism effective and entertaining. The unique setting and stakes of Blackadder Goes Forth require a different approach than the previous seasons, but so far the writers are off to an excellent start.
Historical Hairsplitting: Homing pigeons have been used by leaders to convey military communications dating back to Genghis Khan. In WWI, they were crucial to the war effort and were used extensively in France. The most famous homing pigeon of the war was Cher Ami, who delivered a message during the Battle of the Argonne despite being shot in the breast, blinded in one eye, and all but losing the leg with the message attached—this message helped save the lives of 194 men of the 77th Infantry’s Lost Battalion.
Cunning Plans: After the rousing success of his cunning plan in “Captain Cook,” Baldrick is regrettably back on form here. To help Blackadder escape, Baldrick sneaks into his cell a small painted wooden duck, for putting on his head to hide in ponds, a pencil to write him a postcard with after the escape, a miniature toy trumpet, and a Robin Hood costume. It’s one of Baldrick’s least coherent plans, and that is saying something. Unsurprisingly, nothing comes of any of these items.
- Tony Robinson and Laurie’s deliveries of their practiced testimony, “We didn’t receive any messages and Captain Blackadder definitely did not shoot this delicious plump breasted pigeon,” are great, particularly the quick smile of pride that comes over George’s face at his having remembered it correctly.
- Perkins and Blackadder’s reminiscences of, “Oh, butch Oscar” Wilde are fun, and a nice addition to the legend of lawyer extraordinare Bob Mattingburg.
- McInnerny keeps Darling professional, for him, throughout, with the delightful exception of his line of the episode, “and of course, having enormous fun into the bargain.”