Blackadder: “Witchsmeller Pursuivant”/“The Black Seal”
Tony Robinson, Tim McInnerny, Rowan Atkinson
Tony Robinson, Tim McInnerny, Rowan Atkinson

Blackadder: “Witchsmeller Pursuivant”/“The Black Seal”

Edmund journeys beyond the castle, with mixed results

“Witchsmeller Pursuivant” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 7/13/1983)

The Black Adder is judged and found wanting

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

After season one highlights “The Archbishop” and “The Queen of Spain’s Beard,” “Witchsmeller Pursuivant” is a disappointment, squandering the comedic potential of the ensemble and failing to build on the improvements of the previous two episodes. “The Archbishop” established a strong rapport between the core trio of Edmund, Baldrick, and Percy, with distinct roles for each. Here that is lost, with all three filling the same function in the narrative and Baldrick and Percy getting almost nothing to do. Due to Richard IV’s touch of insanity, Brian Blessed is sidelined as well and instead of taking advantage of the King’s absence to develop the Queen or Prince Harry, much of the episode is spent with a large ensemble comprised of a few familiar faces and several new ones.

Chief among these is Frank Finlay as the Witchsmeller Pursuivant. Oscar nominee Finlay attacks his character with the same Shakespearean gusto as Blessed, but unlike Richard IV, the Witchsmeller has a very large role in the episode—the trial scenes, which he dominates, take up much of the runtime. It doesn’t take long for the character to go from entertainingly heightened to annoyingly loud and the louder he gets, the less interesting the Witchsmeller becomes. His pronouncements at the trial are punctuated by screams from the gallery that quickly become grating and with so few counterpoints from the defense, what could be an entertaining back and forth instead becomes a repetitious monologue. From here on, the rest of the episode is disappointingly predictable, with Edmund due to be convicted and then spared in the final moments (as it’s unlikely he’ll die in the penultimate episode of the season).

This episode also suffers from pacing problems. Taking Edmund out of his comfort zone of the castle is admirable, but everything in the village could easily be cut; any momentum built up in the council scene is lost as Edmund, Baldrick, and Percy wander through town. Then there’s the trial, which in skipping the defense misses the opportunity for Edmund to attempt to present character witnesses. By focusing solely on the prosecution, these scenes abandon character specifics and devolve quickly into witch trial jokes others have more memorably told. The scenes of our leads in prison also last too long, with the guards’ conversation over the Cunning Plans in need of trimming.

There are a few nice moments, however. The reveal of the Queen’s witchy ways is fun, as is the inclusion of Edmund’s child bride. Blessed’s cutaways work nicely and tie in with his crusading in “Born To Be King,” and the scoring is used well throughout. The decision of writers Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis to not explain Edmund, Baldrick, and Percy’s escape is entertainingly cheeky and having Edmund be the lone skeptic among the cast, with even Baldrick buying in to certain superstitions, is a welcome surprise, contrasting the relic scene in “The Archbishop” nicely. Overall though, “Witchsmeller Pursuivant” is a misstep, the writers having lost sight of the strengths of the previous, very entertaining episodes.

Historical Hairsplitting: “Witchsmeller Pursuivant” is a play on famous English witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins’ title, Witch Finder Generall. Hopkins is thought to be responsible for around 230 deaths, perhaps more, during his years witch-hunting (1644-1647). Pursuivant literally means “follower,” quite a downgrade from Hopkins’ Generall, and is the title given a junior herald.

Skewed Shakespeare: While witches feature memorably in Macbeth, most of Shakespeare’s plays opt for other kinds of supernatural interference, be it the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the ghost of Hamlet, or Prospero’s sorcery in The Tempest. Naturally then, there is little Shakespearean influence in “Witchsmeller Pursuivant,” though a little inspiration from The Merchant of Venice in the trial scene might have been nice. Finlay does have a connection to the Bard however, as he earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for portraying Iago in Stuart Burge’s 1965 adaptation of Othello.

Cunning Plans: There are several Cunning Plans in this episode, including the foiled attempt at escape via laundry basket and Baldrick’s successful and inexplicable jump-based ploy (which is then undone by the trio’s poor choice of hiding places). However, Queen Gertrude comes out on top with her magical doll. This brings the number of successful Cunning Plans to three: two from Baldrick (cannon, jump) and one from the Queen.

Stray observations:

  • Edmund’s interactions among the peasantry may be completely unnecessary, but his inability to remember his identity of Clever Jake is pretty great, as is Percy’s unappreciated attempt to clear a path for Edmund with his cloak and the young village boy’s poor secret-keeping.
  • While the early council scene presents several options, the best dark omen has to be Percy’s sighting of two horses. As for remedies, it’s hard to top Baldrick’s Easter Monday fertility cure.
  • The slow, high-pitched laugh Rowan Atkinson gives Edmund is one of the highlights of the character. It’s distinct and memorable and always prompts at least a smile, if not a chuckle.

“The Black Seal” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 7/20/1983)

The Black Adder seals his fate

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

The finale of season one of Blackadder is an odd duck. While “The Black Seal” is entertaining and in some ways successful, it fails as a finale because it abandons the core dynamic of season one: the relationship between Edmund, Baldrick, and Percy. Less than four minutes in, the Black Adder has cast off his friends and they don’t return until the final four minutes of the episode. It may be fun to meet the various villains of the piece and follow Edmund on a journey outside the castle walls, but with most of the main cast absent for a majority of the episode, this is a bizarre finale.

There is humor to be had however, thanks to the creative and entertaining assortment of evil men Edmund assembles to help him exile his family and claim the throne. With clear nods to The Adventures of Robin Hood and team up films like Seven Samurai, “The Black Seal” has fun with the beginning phases of Edmund’s ploy. Quick, humorous introductions to Sir Wilfred Death, Three-Fingered Pete, Guy de Glastonbury, Sean the Irish Bastard, Friar Bellows, and Jack Large kick things off and, after a drink at the tavern (every quest needs a stop off at a tavern), Edmund’s Cunning Plan is underway.

This scene of plotting is one of the highlights of the episode. Considering much of the season has revolved around only three characters, “The Black Seal” handles the expansion to seven surprisingly well. Each of these characters feels distinct, both visually and in personality, if not bloodlust, and it’s a blast to see them play off of each other. The introduction of The Hawk is similarly effective, but this unfortunately leads directly to Edmund’s imprisonment with Mad Gerald. Played by the recently deceased Rik Mayall (who requested to remain uncredited), Gerald is intentionally strident, but that doesn’t make the character any easier to take. Fortunately the delay in Edmund’s journey ends quickly, bringing back The Black Seal for one more scene of (evil) derring-do before the denouement of the episode and season as well.

As entertaining as these baddies are, and as successful as this episode would be as a standalone, it’s disappointing to get to the end of the episode and realize in the final moments of the season that we’ve gotten only a handful of scenes with Brian Blessed as Richard IV since “The Queen of Spain’s Beard,” both Elspet Gray and Robert East have had only one or two lines of dialogue in the entire episode, and the fantastic Tim McInnerny and Tony Robinson have had barely more than that. Edmund may get a few moments to shine, including his early takedown of Percy, “You ride a horse rather less well than another horse would,” but without Baldrick and Percy to bounce off of, the character is far less engaging.

The final moments of the episode also feel like a wasted opportunity: We never get to see Henry Tudor return to claim the throne and rewrite history to exclude Richard IV. That being said, Percy’s accidental poisoning of everyone is a nice capper, particularly Edmund’s decision to taste-test the wine for poison after seeing everyone else die, and the mass (accidental) slaughter gives a sense of finality to the episode and the season that the series will mimic with each coming finale.

Season one may be uneven, but it does have a couple very strong installments and despite its unusual structure for a finale, “The Black Seal” is at least an entertaining standalone episode. Rowan Atkinson continues to throw himself into the lead role and when the script allows it, he is ably supported by McInnerny and Robinson. It may be taking longer than one might hope to find its voice, but the best is yet to come for Blackadder and it’s been a treat to dive into the first season.

Historical Hairsplitting: This season finale concludes the alternate history presented in The Black Adder (season one of Blackadder). With Richard IV and his heirs out of the way, Henry Tudor is free to waltz in and claim England for himself, resetting the timeline to the one modern audiences are familiar with. The other seasons abandon this approach to the history on the show, but it has been one of the more successful recurring gags of the season.

Skewed Shakespeare: In a nice bit of symmetry, the season one finale features an adjusted line from Shakespeare, just like the first episode. Here it’s a manipulation of the famous line from Shakespeare’s St. Crispin Day speech in Henry V, “We few, we happy few, we band of ruthless bastards!” Percy’s poisoning of everyone is Shakespearean as well, calling to mind the tragedies, particularly Hamlet. Shakespeare does not receive an “additional dialogue by” credit in the coming seasons, so this will be the end of the Skewed Shakespeare section—I hope you’ve enjoyed it!

Cunning Plans: There are two main Cunning Plans in this finale: Edmund’s plot to take over England and Baldrick and Percy’s scheme to poison the attackers. Edmund’s ploy is a bit haphazard and ill thought out, but Baldrick and Percy’s works like a charm. The fact that it also goes horribly awry afterward doesn’t negate its effectiveness against Edmund’s band of miscreants. That puts the total number of successful Cunning Plans for this season at four: three for Baldrick and one for the Queen.

Stray observations:

  • The score is particularly great in this episode, adding energy and majesty to the introductions of the various men gathered by Edmund. The change to the closing theme is a nice touch as well, particularly its use of what sounds like a boy soprano, emphasizing the youth and inexperience of Edmund right into his final moments.
  • Of the various elements of season one that I’ll miss, nothing tops Brian Blessed, who is absolutely marvelous in the role of Richard IV. Blessed is more than capable of playing small moments, but he commits to this character’s larger than life persona and makes him a perfect foil for the subdued, insecure, and cowardly Edmund. His final significant speech, detailing his desire to moon Stoke, is particularly delightful. Elspet Gray has worked similarly well as a counter to Edmund, on the other end of the spectrum, and she and Robert East have been a big part of what’s worked about season one.
  • Next week we kick off season two and while season one may be the favorite of many of the commenters, I’m excited to spend some time with Queenie. Thank you for the spirited debate about season one, and I hope you’ll join me for season two!

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