“Bells” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 1/9/1986)
Blackadder meets a boy named Kate
“Bells” kicks off Blackadder season two in (mostly) fine form, quickly establishing the format for most of the rest of the season as the intrepid Kate (Gabrielle Glaister) decides to head for London and ends up entwined in the lives of our leads. With the exception of “Heads,” each episode in Blackadder II features a prominent guest star who propels the plot and prompts action from Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) and company, and starting with Viola (from Twelfth Night) stand-in Kate is a great way to transition the audience from the Middle Ages setting of season one to season two’s Elizabethan court. Gabrielle Glaister is excellent throughout, overplaying the character’s earnest goodness just enough to parody the familiar type without becoming annoying. Her opening scene immediately sets the tone for the episode, with the theatrical Kate counterbalanced by her pragmatic father, a contrast that continues throughout, with different combinations of characters.
The first glimpse of Lord Blackadder is similarly canny. By introducing him hitting a bullseye with his bow and arrow, writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis immediately let the audience know this is not the character of the previous season. He’s confident, with a dry wit, and though his snarkiness makes him a bit crueler, in general he’s more likeable than Prince Edmund. From his opening scene, Rowan Atkinson gives off a completely different energy than before. Gone is the manic edge, replaced by a cool patience that allows the actor to demonstrate his impeccable comic timing. His placement of “I did” and “So did Baldrick, actually” during Percy’s attempts to aim are absolutely delightful and without the squeakiness of Prince Edmund’s voice getting in the way, Atkinson is also able to show off his ability to make just about any word funny—particularly if it has a b or two.
Despite these changes, “Bells” actually represents more of a tweak to the season one formula than an overhaul. The series still centers on two trios, features an arguably insane regent, and is particularly successful when deflating pomposity with acerbic wit. Season one soared when a pious Percy (Tim McInnerny) was undercut by an unscrupulous Baldrick (Tony Robinson) in “The Archbishop.” Here, Lord Blackadder questions the motives of the leech-happy diagnostician—actually named Dr. Leech—and, in a moment any language nerd will love, chides the Young Crone for her phony, faux-mystical grammar. The episode continually sets up broad, heightened moments only to puncture them, from Lord Blackadder and Bob’s stroll through a garden to the dire warnings of the Wisewoman. Elton and Curtis have found a formula that works and they embrace it, making “Bells” one of the most consistent episodes of the series thus far.
As for the other recurring elements, while the changes made are small ones, they are crucial. The core trio of Edmund, Baldrick, and Percy remains the same, but Edmund is made a more relatable series’ center by his observer status. He’s not scheming to be King, as the episode lampshades, he’s just trying his best in the situation he finds himself in. Queenie (Miranda Richardson), Nursie (the sadly deceased Patsy Byrne), and Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry) are a definite step up from season one’s Richard IV, Queen Gertrude, and Prince Harry not only because they are used more consistently and to greater effect, but because they act as a direct parallel to our heroes. The doddering Nursie mirrors the now simple Baldrick, the sycophantic Lord Melchett stands in for the needy Lord Percy, and Queenie is the self-involved Lord Blackadder given absolute power. Having the two groups counterpoint each other works well and keeping Queenie, Nursie, and Melchett together for all of their scenes helps build their dynamic right away.
Each of the new additions to the cast give fantastic performances, but the highlight is without a doubt Miranda Richardson’s beautifully irreverent take on Queen Elizabeth I. As the immature and potentially violent Queenie, Richardson brings an element of unpredictability and danger to the series that keeps the audience on their toes. Whereas Blackadder’s other Kings or superiors can be trusted to not hear or understand what Blackadder is saying, Queenie is always listening and ready to take any utterance the wrong way. Edmund can’t throw off a cutting aside and any attempt at manipulation could be deadly. It’s a unique relationship for the series and one that’s one display from their first scene together.
With so much to praise, then, why not give the episode a better grade? After 26 minutes of entertaining, character-based humor and underplayed subversions, Lord Flashheart (Rik Mayall) comes crashing in and destroys the delicate balance of heightened and underplayed performances that has driven the episode to this point. Flashheart is a fan-favorite character, but I’ve never understood why. He’s loud, obnoxious, and spouts off hammy one-liners in an episode notably devoid of them. Every other line is delivered directly to the camera and frankly, none of them are as funny as the cast seems to think they are. The entire episode comes to a screeching halt and there’s not nearly enough time after Flashheart leaves to repair the damage, despite Fry’s final lines and Robinson’s pitch-perfect, smiling, “I do.” Flashheart aside however, “Bells” is a strong premiere and a breath of fresh air after the struggles of Blackadder season one.
Historical Hairsplitting: Leeching as a medical practice has a long history, dating back to the start of the Common Era. Famed Greco-Roman doctor Galen was known to prescribe leeching and over time, it became such a common and accepted practice that doctors were sometimes known as “leeches.” This continued through the Elizabethan era, when Blackadder II is set, and reached the height of its popularity in the beginning of the 19th century. Leeches are still used today, to help return circulation to an area of the body where damaged veins are not carrying blood away properly.
Skewed Shakespeare: The plan was to only include this section for the episodes that credited William Shakespeare, but how can I not include it for an episode that so clearly draws from Twelfth Night and has Lord Blackadder say, “Kiss me, Kate”? Cross dressing features prominently in several of Shakespeare’s plays, including the previously mentioned Twelfth Night, when Viola dresses as a boy and prompts all sorts of romantic confusion before the happy ending, in As You Like It, when Rosalind dresses up as a shepherd and is wooed by Orlando, in The Merchant of Venice, when Portia dresses as a lawyer to be able to assist in the central case, and in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Julia dresses as a boy to pursue her love, Proteus. There are undoubtedly several other examples, and there are certainly examples of men dressing as women for various reasons, but these are four of the big ones.
Cunning Plans: There are notably no cunning plans in this episode, though Kate’s decision to dress as a boy to find work might fit the description.
- Lord Blackadder and Bob’s stroll through the garden is the second season’s only location shooting. The writers’ decision to set the scene to Greensleeves and turn it into a Best of Madrigals commercial is delightful. My favorite track title had to be, “Hot Sex Madrigal in the Middle of my Tights,” with, “My Love is a Prick (on a Tudor Rose)” coming in a close second.
- This is Baldrick’s second time in drag, after his memorable turn as a bearded lady in season one. His scene with Percy is fantastic, as is Lord Blackadder’s dispassionate reaction. Percy is not quite as successful here as in season one, as he works better when Blackadder actually wants him around, but Tim McInnerny continues to give an excellent performance and is a wonderful partner in his scenes with Atkinson.
- The costuming throughout “Bells” is creative and fun. Lord Blackadder’s codpiece may not be the Black Russian, but it’s certainly prominent, Percy’s cape is another highlight, and Queenie’s gown is beautiful.
“Head” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 1/16/1986)
Edmund gives an arm and a leg to keep his head
Despite airing second, “Head” feels much more in keeping with season one of Blackadder than its predecessor. It meanders from scene to scene, lacking the narrative through-line of the premiere, and is content to linger with the characters far beyond what the scene requires. Fortunately, most of these potentially overlong moments are funny ones. The opening sequence with Lord Blackadder, Baldrick, and some beans is fantastic and goes a long way towards freeing audiences of their guilt at enjoying Edmund’s verbal abuse of the poor man. He is trying to help, unsuccessful as he may be, and his frustration with Baldrick is more than understandable. Rowan Atkinson is a treat in this scene, delivering his lines with a mix of contempt, frustration, and genuine compassion, but Tony Robinson is great, convincingly playing dumb by committing to Baldrick’s open, straightforward personality. The sight gag of Percy’s ruff is also welcome. Visual humor like this is sorely lacking in the premiere, though there are a few examples, and Tim McInnerny sells each of Percy’s new looks throughout the episode.
Without a guest character stepping in to instigate the action, that task is left to Queenie and the wonderful Miranda Richardson, who gets much more material in this episode than the premiere. She’s determined, flighty, poised, and flirty, flicking back and forth between her various emotions in a heartbeat. We get our first indication of a closer relationship between her and Edmund as they wander through the castle corridors and when they leave, Nursie’s mimicking of Queenie’s kick as she heads offscreen is downright adorable. Patsy Byrne brings warmth and is just batty enough for Nursie to believably be a life-long companion of Elizabeth I’s that she’s not yet tired of and the character’s non sequiturs (“Ointment!”) are one of the delights of the season.
Queenie is particularly demanding in “Head,” something audiences only saw a glimpse of in “Bells.” Between her insistence that elephants are orange and polite request for a stroll with Edmund, she’s downright scary when she feels ignored and watching the men around her as they forget quite who they’re dealing with, only to receive a fresh reminder, is a lot of fun. Queenie continues to be a force for chaos in this world and is proof that a whimsical nature is a lot less cute when it comes with a crown.
The remainder of the episode is a farce of Edmund’s creation thanks to his overly hasty execution of one of the Queen’s favorites. Holly de Jong does a good job as the Lady Farrow, particularly her very effective crying, and Atkinson gets plenty to do, particularly once he’s bagged. Still, the standout is Tim McInnerny who, like Richardson, takes full advantage of his additional screen time. His conversations with Lady Farrow and Blackadder and the staff build expertly until he’s yelling about gloaters, a wonderfully ridiculous conclusion to his portion of the scene. While each of the episode’s scenes could easily have been tightened up, Percy’s being no exception, on the whole “Head” works, thanks to several excellent performances and the careful escalation of the episode’s overall absurdity, which manages to sell the closing shot of a hopping, bag-covered Edmund speaking with a ridiculous voice. It’s great to see Blackadder take on such a different comedic style in the second episode of the season and, for the most part, do it well.
Historical Hairsplitting: Miranda Richardson’s performance as Queenie is closer to the mark than many might guess. Elizabeth I had many suitors, from home and abroad, and would shower her favorites with attention and favors. Elizabeth could quickly turn from pleasant to cold or angry, however, and was known to lead on various suitors at the same time. She was very canny in her dealings with potential matches and had no interest in dividing her power or her country by marrying, despite having close relationships with a few men.
Skewed Shakespeare: This is the second episode in which, “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” from Hamlet is more or less quoted, the other being the first episode of series one. In this episode, Lady Farrow says it to Queenie after securing her permission to visit her husband and in the first episode, Prince Harry says it over the body of Richard III.
Cunning Plans: It’s Percy’s turn to have the plan this week, as he tries his best to come up with a solution to Blackadder’s problem. His idea, trying to pass off the body as newly executed after a fracas on the way to visit the Queen, may be a non-starter, but Lord Blackadder’s bag-related ploy works rather well with Lady Farrow, even if it’s ridiculous to believe it could have worked on Queenie. So far this season, it’s Blackadder, one.
- This episode features one of the very best lines in the series, Lord Blackadder’s, “To you, Baldrick, the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people, wasn’t it?” The entire scene is reminiscent of one that would come later, Father Ted’s hilarious cow scene from its season two premiere, “Hell.”
- Ploppy and Mrs. Ploppy, no relation, are way more fun than they have any right to be. The scene introducing them keeps going and going but somehow still works, likely because ps are funny, particularly when Atkinson says them, and because both Bill Wallis (Mr. Ploppy) and Linda Polan (Mrs. Ploppy) drip with sincerity throughout the scene, making these potentially ridiculous characters feel (comparatively) real.
- In “Bells,” we learned how much fun Atkinson has with the letter b through his delightful pronunciation of “Bob.” In “Head,” not only does that expand to include the letter p (as discussed previously, “Ploppy”), but we get more fun with b, courtesy of the Genoan fashionistas who say stand in buckets and say, “bibble.”