“Dish And Dishonesty” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 9/17/1987)
Mr. Blackadder babysits three very different children
Despite suffering from a crippling lack of Miranda Richardson’s brilliant Queenie, Blackadder The Third gets off to a strong start with “Dish and Dishonesty.” The entertaining larger ensemble of Blackadder II provided any number of comedic opportunities and pairings, but season three’s reduced core of just Mr. Blackadder, S. Baldrick, and the Prince Regent lends its episodes greater focus. Season three is very much Mr. Blackadder’s story and it gets off to a fantastic start right away in the premiere.
Mr. Blackadder is a dark creature, far more despicable than his immediate predecessor and more dastardly than The Black Adder’s Prince Edmund, if only because he’s actually effective. Rowan Atkinson brings appropriate edge to the character and a glee in malice born of a difficult and hungry life. It’s easy to imagine a complex backstory for the butler, one that fostered the casual disregard for human life and suffering that he consistently demonstrates, and that’s a testament to Atkinson’s fantastic performance. Tony Robinson is once again a treat as S. Baldrick, who is perhaps a bit dimmer than his Blackadder II counterpart but mostly fills the same role. By keeping Baldrick essentially the same, writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, along with Robinson, highlight the shift in Blackadder from a somewhat scheming, but overall likeable courtier to this season’s devious butler. Wheareas Lord Blackadder was subject to the dangerous whims of Queenie, here the Prince Regent dances while Mr. Blackadder pulls the strings. This shift in dynamic helps the premiere quickly establish season three’s identity and move it out of season two’s long shadow.
After his two previous appearances, Hugh Laurie becomes a regular in this episode, playing the imbecilic Prince Regent. The tall, thin Laurie looks nothing like the historical figure, but historical accuracy isn’t the point—this is a completely different representation of power to the canny and crazy Queenie and it opens up the door to the increasing cynical social commentary and satire of the final two seasons. Laurie is a worthy successor to Richardson and Blessed, whose Queenie and Richard IV are two of the most memorable and entertaining comedic royals in television history. Keeping the Prince Regent foolish, but ultimately likeable, is another wise move from Elton and Curtis, because it keeps the series in balance. Each of the previous seasons have featured at least two relatable, generally good-natured characters and with Blackadder at his most black, it’s nice to have the Prince Regent complementing Baldrick and counterbalancing Blackadder.
Along with its central cast, “Dish and Dishonesty” introduces guest character of the week Pitt the Younger, continuing season two’s affinity for prominent guest stars. Simon Osborne is hilarious as the eager young politician. The severity and petulance he lends line readings like, “Therefore, my three main policy priorities are one, war with France; two, tougher sentences for geography teachers; and three, a right royal kick of the Prince’s backside!” works incredibly well, making him a memorable antagonist. The Prince Regent’s reaction to Pitt, finding him more adorable than threatening, is also great and keeps the episode from taking the character or itself too seriously.
The episode’s central setpiece, the Dunny-on-the-Wold election, goes on for quite a while, but manages to maintain its momentum thanks to its shift to an external perspective. Rather than follow Mr. Blackadder through the evening, the episode switches format from a traditional narrative to a faux news program, as television journalist and famous by-election announcer Vincent Hanna covers the results of the election direct to camera as they come in. It’s a creative and fun move and one that gives the episode a jolt of energy just as it threatens to lag. It also allows viewers to spend a few moments with each of the entertaining candidates free from Blackadder and Pitt’s interpersonal strife.
As they did in season one with King Richard IV’s armor and numerous elements of Prince Edmund’s attire, and again in season two with Queenie’s outfits, the costume department outdoes themselves in this episode with the Prince Regent, Mr. Blackadder, and Baldrick’s robes. Each is appropriate to the character while following the same general design and the reveal of the feline inspiration for Blackadder’s look and the completely disheveled design for Baldrick’s robes are highlights of the episode. Between the early introductions of the season three cast and Pitt the Younger, the election, and the Prince Regent’s elevation of Baldrick to the Lordship, “Dish and Dishonesty” kicks the season off well, with creativity and humor.
Historical Hairsplitting: George Augustus Frederick became the Prince Regent in 1811, after his father George III was diagnosed as permanently insane. William Pitt the Younger, however, was Prime Minister from 1783 until 1801 and then again from 1804 until his death in 1806. In the episode, Blackadder mentions that Pitt the Elder is actually Prime Minister, further confusing the timeline. While Pitt the Younger was dead by the time George rose to power, the episode does capture certain elements of both figures’ personalities accurately. George was a noted supporter of the arts and self-assessed that he had at 17 already become, “rather too fond of women and wine” and Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minister at 24, was a confident and eloquent leader, but was not particularly well liked, having few friends and not making much of an impression on the people.
Cunning Plans: Despite having, “a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel,” Blackadder winds up as unsuccessful as usual in this episode due to repeating one of his most common mistakes: He leaves his fate in Baldrick’s, and later the Prince Regent’s, hands, trusting them to remember or infer his instructions. Baldrick is easily swayed by Pitt and votes against Blackadder’s wishes, making Blackadder’s work to get him elected a wasted effort, and later, Blackadder underestimates the Prince Regent’s decision-making, never imagining he would elevate Baldrick. It would appear Mr. Blackadder has his predecessors’ luck at scheming.
- The saga of the Prince Regent’s socks is delightful and a wonderful way to introduce the character. Laurie’s dismay at not being able to find a pair is endearing and demonstrates his good-naturedness and powers of self-delusion, as he refuses to see the obvious cause of his problem.
- After hearing of her pie shop throughout Blackadder II, viewers finally meet a Mrs. Miggins in this episode (though due to the Mrs., she’s likely not directly related to her predecessor). The character is not particularly nuanced, but her look is great and her coffee shop provides a convenient third location for the series, outside of the Prince Regent’s rooms and the kitchen.
- As mentioned above, Robinson is once again a blast as Baldrick and his line of the episode is the utterly deadpan, “Oh, I’m having dung for dinner tonight!” Blackadder’s best line is the concise follow-up to his promising strategy for winning the Dunny-on-the-Wold election, which Atkinson delivers beautifully, “And thirdly, of course, we’ll cheat.”
- Mr. Blackadder’s ruthlessness is highlighted in the grim yet hilarious way he handles opposition, causing the death of two people offscreen in this episode alone; both victims manage to accidentally brutally injure themselves while getting dressed for the day.
- The opening credits for Blackadder The Third are my personal favorite, with the minuet-like rendition of the theme pairing well with the Regency setting and Mr. Blackadder’s secret stash of romance novels, each with colorful and creative cover art, is a nice character detail for the otherwise very proper and fastidious butler. The closing credits and new closing theme are also great.
“Ink And Incapability” (season 3, episode 2; originally aired 9/24/198z)
Even sexy gypsies can’t save Blackadder from himself
After the premiere’s skewering of politics, Blackadder The Third moves on to writers, delivering in “Ink and Incapability” one of the series’ funniest episodes yet. It’s a straightforward installment, building nicely upon itself as Mr. Blackadder gets himself into deeper and deeper trouble. The clear narrative gives the writers plenty of space and allows them to indulge in wordplay as Blackadder first taunts Johnson, the Prince Regent fails to understand Johnson, and then Baldrick attempts to help Blackadder rewrite the dictionary. The creativity of writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton is on full display, with Blackadder’s spontaneous and impressively believable word creation on one end of the spectrum and Baldrick’s homophone-based confusion at the other. Extending this literary humor to include parodies of Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Colerige, and Percy Shelley is a nice move that raises the stakes and between the reveal of Blackadder’s novel, Dr. Johnson and his dictionary, and Blackadder’s frantic attempts to salvage the situation, “Ink and Incapability” is the most consistent episode of the series so far.
As Dr. Johnson, Robbie Coltrane is energetic and confident, a wonderful foil for Rowan Atkinson who, when placed against the imposing Coltrane, emphasizes Mr. Blackadder’s slipperiness and control. Blackadder dances around the bombastic Johnson, dripping with sarcasm and daring the writer to challenge his statements. Blackadder’s smug and completely deadpan incorporation of nonsense words into his dialogue is hilarious and gives the episode its best sequence, as Johnson scribbles down, “contrafibularities,” “pericombobulation,” “interfrastically,” and other such words for later research and inclusion in the dictionary. Atkinson is at turns completely still and reserved and, later, manic—the progression of Blackadder from his most supremely disdainful to his most desperate is a joy to watch. The poets may be one note, but that is enough to sustain their few appearances and their presence adds color to the scenes in Mrs. Miggins’ establishment.
Along with Mr. Blackadder and the guest cast, Hugh Laurie shines as the Prince Regent, particularly when he tries to understand the concept of a dictionary. George’s inability to imagine a non-narrative book is highly entertaining, as is Dr. Johnson’s growing frustration with the Prince Regent. It’s hard to say who comes off better—George, who struggles to grasp what a dictionary even is, or Baldrick, who accepts it immediately but wanders down a tangent as he attempts to help Blackadder with the definition for “ab.” Scenes like this highlight the new-found focus of the series and, combined with its pacing and stakes, satisfying structure, and laugh-a-minute dialogue, help make “Ink and Incapability” a new benchmark for the series.
Historical Hairsplitting: Blackadder The Third plays fast and loose with time again in this episode, as Samuel Johnson published his two-volume A Dictionary Of The English Language in 1755, seven years before the eventual George IV was born. This was not the first English dictionary, but Johnson’s was incredibly well received, as it was far more precise than its predecessors and featured quotes from a wide range of English literature to complement the entries. A Dictionary Of The English Language was the standard used by writers for decades, until Noah Webster released his An American Dictionary Of The English Language in 1828.
Cunning Plans: Mr. Blackadder’s initial plan, to steal Dr. Johnson’s backup copy of the dictionary, is a wise one, though it winds up foiled as Johnson has no backup. Instead, he focuses in on
Baldrick’s idea to rewrite the dictionary over the course of the weekend. Blackadder is absolutely correct: The plan is idiotic and utterly impossible, but it’s the only one either of them can come up with and Blackadder’s struggles with “a” and “aardvark” are entertaining, at the very least. The plan predictably does not work, but Blackadder makes a valiant effort nonetheless.
- Just as “Dish and Dishonesty” featured the series’ first shift in format, during the Dunny-on-the-Wold election sequence, “Ink and Incapability” features its first dream sequence. It comes out of the blue, surprising the audience, who has been trained by the series not to expect such flights of fancy. The random appearance of Mr. Blackadder’s aunt feels appropriate, but it’s Coltrane’s twirling and flouncing that sells the moment.
- Mr. Blackadder has any number of memorable lines, but a particular favorite is his threat to Baldrick of unspeakably painful pencil-based torture should Baldrick not try to steal a copy of the Dictionary for him. Despite the prominence of Dr. Johnson, the writers set aside plenty of time to watch Baldrick, Blackadder, and the Prince Regent interact. Thanks to the reduced cast, there’s no shortage of it and these moments are hilarious
- Of course Mr. Blackadder’s book is titled Edmund: A Butler’s Tale. He is absolutely self-centered enough to write a Mary Sue and feel it’s a brilliant and important piece. The inclusion of some sexy gypsies is a nice touch that satirizes readers’ priorities, and having Baldrick burn not only it, but Dr. Johnson’s dictionary as well makes for a satisfying, if predictable, ending.