Blackadder: “Nob And Nobility”/“Sense And Senility”
Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInerny, Nigel Planer (BBC)
Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInerny, Nigel Planer (BBC)

Blackadder: “Nob And Nobility”/“Sense And Senility”

Literary season continues to shine

“Nob And Nobility” (season 3, episode 3; originally aired 10/1/1987)

Mr. Blackadder becomes the elusive Pimpernel

(Available streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and Netflix)

After being one of the standout performers in The Black Adder and Blackadder II, Tim McInnerny took season three of Blackadder off. He was tiring of the Percy character and didn’t want to be typecast. Fortunately however, he didn’t sit out Blackadder The Third entirely, and his guest appearance in “Nob And Nobility” is one of the elements that helps this potentially tiresome episode sing. Even more than its predecessors, episode three of this season relies on its guest performers to bring life to a familiar script and McInnerny and his colleagues rise to the challenge.

In what is basically a retread of season two’s wonderful “Potato,” Mr. Blackadder reacts negatively to the acclaim being awarded the Scarlet Pimpernel and winds up, thanks to his inability to back down from a challenge, tasked with heading off to France to rescue an aristocrat from the clutches of the revolution. Just as in the previous episode, Blackadder’s decision to fake the operation winds up getting him in trouble and when he manages to extricate himself from this, the episode ends with Blackadder’s antagonist drinking something other than the wine expected. It’s a blatant retread, but thanks to strong guest turns by McInnerny, Nigel Planer, and Chris Barrie, “Nob And Nobility” manages to succeed and continues season three’s strong showing thus far.

As Lord Topper, le Comte de Frou Frou, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, McInnerny is delightful. His early exchange with Planer’s Lord Smedley, the Prince Regent, and Mr. Blackadder is one of the funniest of the season, with McInnerny and Planer managing to say “Damn” in just about every line and making the word hilarious each time. McInnerny has an equally strong rapport with future Red Dwarf star Barrie, who plays the French revolutionary/ambassador, as he does with Planer. McInnerny and Barrie’s animal-themed exchanges are a blast and the two do an excellent job building off of each other’s energy. Planer, a fellow The Young Ones cast-mate of previous guest star Rik Mayall, works just as well as McInnerny in his triple role and is particularly successful in his poisoning sequence.

For much of the episode, Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson are basically along for the ride as Mr. Blackadder and Baldrick, but the two do get a few standout moments of their own. Blackadder’s summary of the chain of abuse, “I am annoyed and so I kick the cat, the cat pounces on the mouse, and finally the mouse bites you on the behind” is great and his breakdown of Baldrick’s ensemble and comparison of Baldrick’s trousers to Pandora’s Box feature some of his most evocative imagery. Mr. Blackadder is notably more physically abusive to Baldrick than his predecessors, a trait that continues throughout the season, and yet Baldrick remains as reliably passive, yet amiable as ever. Robinson’s delivery of, “It’s the Scarlet Pimpernel! ... and you killed him!” is fantastic and Baldrick’s enthusiasm for his hideous scarlet pimple is adorable.

As for the Prince Regent, Hugh Laurie brings new levels to George’s idiocy in his few scenes, managing to make the Prince’s struggle with his trousers shockingly believable, and the final moments, with the Prince’s mouth excitably agape as he infers that Blackadder is the Scarlet Pimpernel, are an excellent button to the episode. Each character is heightened, none more so than the Prince, and this approach strengthens the dynamic, drawing new humor out of a plot and characters that could easily become stale. “Nob And Nobility,” while far from Blackadder’s most original episode, is consistently entertaining and proof that sometimes, strong execution is enough.

Historical Hairsplitting: Just as with the previous season three episodes, “Nob And Nobility” has no interest in being historically accurate. Setting aside the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel is a fictional character from a play and then book of the same title published in 1903 and 1905, respectively, the French Revolution took place between 1787 and 1799, during the reign of King George III. The Prince Regent, later King George IV, took over for his father in 1811.

Cunning Plans: Baldrick has a particularly brilliant suggestion in this episode. His plan to wait until after their heads have been cut off before attempting to escape is truly cunning—no one would ever see it coming. His second suggestion, that they wait to be saved by the Scarlet Pimpernel, winds up being far more successful, though of course they wind up killing their savior.

Stray observations:

  • With this episode, season three’s murderous Mr. Blackadder brings his tally up to four: the two accidental brutal deaths in “Dish And Dishonesty” and the two poisoned Pimpernels here. With the show starting to return to the same comedic wells, the added bite of Mr. Blackadder helps to change up the dynamic of the series, making him a malevolent, rather than just sarcastic, presence.
  • Mrs. Miggins continues to pop up in each episode, but she has yet to become more than a functionary character. Especially as it follows season two and the impactful Miranda Richardson and memorable Patsy Byrne, season three is disappointingly male-centric, and that seems unlikely to change.
  • Unsurprisingly in an episode based on The Scarlet Pimpernel, the makeup and costume departments get more to do in “Nob And Nobility.” The disguises for Lords Topper and Smedley are creative and fun and considering the strong impression McInnerny makes in his first scene and how much time the Comte de Frou Frou spends on-screen, the end of episode reveal is surprisingly effective.

“Sense And Senility” (season 3, episode 4; originally aired 10/8/1987)

Mr. Blackadder discovers the theater

(Available streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and Netflix)

The first three episodes of Blackadder The Third found comedic success drawing inspiration from literary or television sources. “Sense And Senility” continues the trend—this time lampooning actors and the theater—and is just as entertaining as its predecessors, making the third season of Blackadder by far its most consistent yet. The premise is a simple one: The Prince Regent, after a tiff with Mr. Blackadder, demands elocution lessons from two incredibly pompous actors. Blackadder’s bad mood takes care of most everything else, with Baldrick’s attempts to do some spring cleaning filling out the edges of the action. This narrative skeleton gives the writers plenty of space to play and allows for lengthy recurring gags, a welcome change from the previous episode’s plot-based approach.

Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Connor are fantastic as the dramatic David Keanrick and Enoch Mossop, the actors brought on to coach the Prince. Paddick and Connor bring specificity to their performances and their body language is hilarious throughout, conveying the characters’ bravado and weariness. They manage to layer desperation and a fear of obsolescence beneath the actors’ confident exteriors, giving weight to the characters and grounding their larger moments while keeping them comedic throughout. The immediate mutual dislike between Mr. Blackadder and the actors works well and it’s great to finally see Blackadder forced to deal with antagonists as witheringly disdainful as he is.

“Sense And Senility” puts the good butler in a unique position. For the first time, he is on the outs with the Prince Regent, his manipulation of and lack of regard for his employer having become a bit too obvious. The heightening of the character in “Nob And Nobility” continues in the beginning of this episode, with Mr. Blackadder at his least subtle. It’s a mistake he quickly rectifies, though not before his and the Prince’s entertaining, “Thicky-Black-thicky-adder-thicky” exchange. This is the only time thus far the Prince has taken Blackadder to task, and he’s not the only one. Baldrick actually speaks his mind in this episode, once he thinks Blackadder is gone. In what may be the character’s only negative remark about a Blackadder in generations, Baldrick calls him a, “lazy, big nosed, rubber-faced bastard” and it’s a triumphant moment for the eternally downtrodden dogsbody.

As glorious as this line is, however, it’s trumped by Tony Robinson’s excellent work in the background of the episode. He opens “Sense And Senility” shining shoes and when he finishes, without a beat, he moves on to some carrots and then a cabbage. Nothing in Robinson’s demeanor, body language, or motion changes and viewers not paying attention would be forgiven for not noticing. Later, after surprising the Prince in his cupboard and being told to leave and resume cleaning later, Robinson exits to the left of the screen, rather than out the door in the back—Baldrick returns to the cupboard, where he will undoubtedly wait for a while before starting up his cleaning once more. These little touches add tremendously to the episode’s rewatchability and build a fascinating picture of Baldrick’s off-camera life in the castle.

Three main, recurring gags drive the episode as much as its plot: the Prince’s inability to discern fiction from reality, the Prince’s fear of attack by the unwashed mass that is Baldrick, and Mr. Blackadder’s torturing of the actors by speaking that dread title, Macbeth. The Prince’s basic confusion on the nature of the theater never gets old, thanks to Hugh Laurie’s committed performance. He sells each moment, making the Prince every bit the small child and by extension, Blackadder the exhausted parent. Just as entertaining is George’s fear of Baldrick, which works nicely to bring the two characters together. In season three’s previous episodes, the two interact, but with Blackadder prompting these exchanges. Removing the intermediary is a welcome change, offering narrative options and making Robinson a more active participant in the episode.

The final recurring gag, Mr. Blackadder’s continual needling of the actors and prompting of their chant, “Hot potato, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends,” is an easy joke, but an effective one that manages to get funnier each time it comes up. Rowan Atkinson is at his smarmy best, slipping Macbeth innocently into conversation and delighting in the actors’ eventually pained response. When any one of the core trio of Blackadder The Third is given material this strong, the show shines. Here, the episode’s breathing room, witty dialogue, and clear and creative use of its characters gives each of them memorable and entertaining material, making “Sense And Senility” one of the highlights of Blackadder’s third season.

Historical Hairsplitting: Unlike the previous three episodes, the timely elements of “Sense And Senility” are actually feasible as having happened during George IV’s time as the Prince Regent. The anarchist who attacks the Prince Regent yells, “Smash the spinning Jenny! Burn the rolling Rosalind! Destroy the going-up-and-down-a-bit-and-then-moving-along Gertrude!” making him likely one of the Luddites, a group of craftsmen who spoke out against and destroyed machinery like the spinning jenny because of its mechanization of the textile process, a change that cost many artisans their jobs. They were active during the 1810s, early in George’s tenure as the Prince Regent.

Skewed Shakespeare: As well as quoting Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, this episode features the theater tradition of not saying the title Macbeth, instead referring to it as, “The Scottish Play” and performing a simple ritual should someone else say the title. However, this is usually limited to the confines of a theater, making Mr. Keanrick and Mr. Mossop strict observers of the tradition.

Cunning Plans: Baldrick has no cunning plan this episode, besides following Mr. Blackadder’s advice and hiding under the table at the sign of threat. Blackadder, on the other hand, manipulates the Prince Regent into ordering the execution of the actors, after they insult him one final time. This brings Mr. Blackadder’s kill count for the season up to six.

Stray observations:

  • The actors have many standout moments, including their lessons on stance and roaring, but their single best line is their reaction to Mr. Blackadder’s skepticism of their original play, The Bloody Murder Of The Foul Prince Romero And His Enormous-Bosomed Wife, “The violence of the murder and the vastness of the bosom are entirely justified artistically.” If only the same could be said for most television series.
  • Speaking of their play, the excerpts the duo rehearse are delightful, two highlights of many being its opening line, “Spring has come, with all its gentle showers. Methinks it’s time to hack the Prince to death” and later, “I have not killed him yet, sir, but when I do, I shall have the stomach and the liver, too, and the floppily-doppolies in their horrid glue.”
  • Another of Robinson’s fun line deliveries is his soft reading of, “except for the sex, of course” after his critique of the theater’s violence and sex, which he apparently gets enough of at home, and just as endlessly enjoyable as Atkinson’s deadpan, “Macbeth?” is his assertion that the actors should have knocked when they arrived at the castle.

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