George is swept off his feet
One of the funniest and most consistent episodes of the series, “Major Star” allows Hugh Laurie an overdue moment in the spotlight, as Lt. George takes to the stage as Georgina to boost troop morale and Gen. Melchett falls instantly in love. Season four’s take on “Born To Be King,” this episode sees Capt. Blackadder once more putting on an evening’s entertainment, this time in the hopes that the show will be sent on the road to London. Blackadder, George, and Melchett make up the core of this episode, with both Pvt. Baldrick and Capt. Darling having some of their best material as well, and this focus on the main cast, along with the episode’s clear narrative, makes it one of the best installments yet, and certainly an improvement on each of the episodes from which it draws inspiration.
Hugh Laurie is a blast as the attention-seeking George. From his first line in drag, “I feel fantastic,” Laurie steals the show, flitting around the trench as if on wings. His dreamy-eyed return from the ball is adorable, George utterly unconcerned with the potential difficulties of being engaged to Melchett and still swept up in the grandeur of the evening. As Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson counters him masterfully, first during the opening scene and then later, his incredulity pitched wonderfully to match Laurie’s breezy wistfulness. Atkinson is just as good with Stephen Fry and Tim McInnerny, as Blackadder goes to share the sad news of Georgina’s death. The writers thankfully don’t allow the Melchett and Georgina romance to overstay its welcome and Blackadder’s detailed account of her accidental discovery of a cluster of mines shows his quick thinking.
The entire premise for the episode could easily have derived from one of its best scenes, Melchett’s conversation to an imagined Georgina and Capt. Darling. The series has consistently played with Darling’s name, but watching the writers, and Fry and McInnerny, fully indulge in this gag is an absolute delight. Capt. Darling’s growing unease and twitchiness and eventual, “Well, it’s all so sudden,” works beautifully, as does Fry’s utter self-involvement throughout the scene. As for Baldrick, he spends a majority of the episode doing what is indeed a rather unconvincing Charlie Chaplin impression, but Tony Robinson gets to have some fun with Baldrick’s early political statement. It’s not dissimilar to his art criticism in “Duel and Duality,” another Baldrick highlight, and the episode does an impressive job of tying together each of these disparate threads.
Along for the ride is Gabrielle Glaister, who returns as Bob, first seen in “Bells.” As Melchett’s driver, Glaister serves two important functions: She establishes the general’s poor eye for gender, supporting the possibility that he could not realize Georgina has an enormous Adam’s apple, and she gives Blackadder a solution to his headliner issue once Georgina takes her fatal midnight stroll through no man’s land. Blackadder’s instant recognition of Bob as a girl and her feeble attempts to argue otherwise give the episode another of its best exchanges. By subverting expectation with Melchett and Blackadder’s interactions about Bob, then Georgina, and finally Bob again at the end, the writers find new steam in these familiar beats, bringing them together for one of the most entertaining episodes yet.
Historical Hairsplitting: At the height of his career, silent film star Charlie Chaplin was one of the most popular and famous men in the world. His crowning achievement was his creation, the Little Tramp, a character who struck a chord with fans the world over. Despite his popularity, Chaplin was criticized heavily when he didn’t enlist during WWI, instead helping to raise funds by selling and promoting war bonds.
Cunning Plans: Regardless of his far more active vocabulary in this episode, Baldrick’s cunning plan here is among of his worst. He intends to marry the General, using his outfit as a clever disguise (the third time a Baldrick has cross-dressed over the course of the series for one reason or another) and doesn’t seem to have thought past that point, other than that he’ll offer simple home cooking as an incentive to marriage.
- This episode is amusingly self-aware. After beginning the episode with George essentially asking Blackadder, “What’s up with you then?”, the very line Blackadder attributes to a music hall double act, Blackadder has the nerve to critique it as a genre.
- Blackadder gets many fun lines, but his best is without a doubt his warning to George, “If I should die, think only this of me—I’ll be back to get ya!”
- The telegrams both to and then from Charlie Chaplin are cute and give the episode a fantastic final line. That being said, Capt. Blackadder may be the most relatable Blackadder yet, but I’m not sure I can get behind a character with no appreciation for Chaplin.
Lord Flashheart channels Indiana Jones
Lord Flashheart is a popular figure among Blackadder fans. Rik Mayall brings tremendous energy and commitment to the role and thanks to the character’s overwhelming personality, Flash’s mere presence is enough to shake up the dynamics of the characters in a dramatic way. Lord Flashheart previously appeared in “Bells,” where he swooped in during the final minutes and overturned the applecart rather significantly. Here, writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis go for a different approach, incorporating Flash throughout the episode. Comedy is very personal and what one finds hilarious, another can easily stare at blankly, struggling to see what the other could possibly have enjoyed. So it is with Lord Flashheart and me. I was not a fan of his first appearance, which derails an otherwise entertaining and funny episode, and I laughed even less here. Fortunately, while Flash is as grating and obnoxious as ever, there are other elements that work very well.
“Private Plane” is well structured, with Flash an active participant in the action rather than a literal show-stopper. The episode, like the rest of the season four installments, explores a scheme by Capt. Blackadder to get away from the front lines, and including Flash in that is key to the episode’s success. It also makes a small but crucial adjustment to the interpersonal dynamics: Rather than Flash being Blackadder’s best mate from school, Blackadder can’t stand him, treating the ace with the same withering disdain he reserves for Gen. Melchett and Capt. Darling. Having at least one character who doesn’t buy in to Lord Flashheart’s tiresome shtick goes a long way towards making the entire proceedings more palatable.
While Baldrick barely features in the episode, much of his time having been given to Flash, the rest of the main cast gets plenty to do. The conversation that prompts Blackadder and George to join the Royal Flying Corps is a lot of fun, as is George’s argument with Capt. Darling. This is the first time George has spoken back to a superior officer and it’s nice to see genuine concern from George for Blackadder; Gen. Melchett’s reaction, and the accompanying rabbit story, is a highlight of the episode. Darling’s taunting of Blackadder remains one of the best threads of the season, and Tim McInnerny delivers, “As long as you’ve got a good navigator, I’m sure you’ll be fine” with as much smug glee as is humanly possible.
In the episode’s climax, Blackadder and Baldrick wind up behind enemy lines and imprisoned by an over the top German. The sequence is very reminiscent of Lord Blackadder’s capture by Mad Prince Ludwig in “Chains,” and unfortunately, that’s another of season two’s least successful moments. Surprisingly, it’s Lord Flashheart that saves the day, comedically, when he pulls out his gun and kills the monologuing Richthofen. Flash also gets one more chance to redeem himself, harassing Darling on behalf of Blackadder. It’s extraordinarily satisfying to see the character, who took such delight in Blackadder’s imminent doom earlier in the episode, taken down a peg, even if it’s by the oafish Flash.
Despite these bright points, “Private Plane” is the weakest episode of season four thus far, its strengths outweighed by the seemingly unending pelvic thrusts of Flash and ramblings on comedy from Richthofen.
Historical Hairsplitting: Manfred, baron von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron, was the top German fighter pilot of WWI. Richthofen did not survive the war, but he brought down 80 enemy aircraft by himself during his time in the Imperial Air Service. In “Private Plane,” the Red Baron is played by Adrian Edmondson as an eccentric obsessed with British comedy. It seems fair to guess this is not an accurate depiction of the historical figure.
Cunning Plans: This episode does not actually feature a cunning plan by Baldrick, who gets very little screen time. Instead, Blackadder and George attempt to avoid the front lines by joining the Flying Corps and Blackadder and Baldrick wind up behind enemy lines, rescued by a well-intentioned George, who doesn’t realize they’ve just been sentenced to comfortably sit out the rest of the war in a convent.
- Melchett has some of his absolute best lines in “Private Plane,” in the same scene. It’s hard to top Stephen Fry’s delivery of, “Now, then, now then, now, now, then, now then, now then, then now, now now then.”
- Just as entertaining, but tying in to the season’s more cynical tone, is Melchett’s second great line, “If nothing else works, then a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.”
- Also featured in this episode is one of the best props of the series, the map of the land Melchett and company were able to recapture. Darling’s sheepish confirmation that it’s at one-to-one scale, and then excitement at a worm, adds to the moment and makes it among the most ridiculous in the season.
- Using stock footage of planes for the trio’s sole flying mission and adding voice over narration from Blackadder, Baldrick, and George doesn’t quite work, but it’s a creative solution to the budget constraints that undoubtedly precluded any shooting with actual planes.
- Lord Flashheart’s best moment is his most insincere—his earnest lines about the suffering of war are the only ones that seem to feature any reflection or depth. However they’re immediately revealed to be a ruse, and the character instantly flips back to his earlier persona.