Blackadder: The Complete Collector's Set Review
The TV Series
It's best reviewed as individual series, so here goes:
Somewhat underrated on release, the first series of Blackadder is still the weakest of the four, relying too heavily on rather primitive gross-out jokes, and getting crucial aspects of characterisation wrong, with Baldrick as vague straight man to Blackadder's comedy turn. However, it's funny stuff, not least because of a classic turn from Brian Blessed, who seems to have been given the direction 'You can't overract too much darling!'
This marked the real start of Blackadder, as it moves from being mildly amusing to hilariously funny. It was here that Atkinson started to develop as a comic actor, moving away from merely pulling funny faces and actually developing the character of a clever, cunning man who was unlucky enough to have an imbecile (Baldrick, of course) as a servant. This series also introduced Richardson as Queen Elizabeth, which is one of the greatest comic turns in any sitcom ever, as the insane yet childish monarch, who can be bribed with sweets if necessary.
In a sense, topping the Elizabethan era was a hard task, but Richard Curtis and Ben Elton pulled it off. Still many people's favourite series, it does have Hugh Laurie in a fantastic performance as the very, very thick Prince Regent, which leads to such wonderful moments as his encounter with a pair of devious, yet superstitious, actors, not to mention the appearance of Robbie Coltrane as Dr Johnson. Truly classic stuff.
The last series, and in many ways the best. There's a more sombre air to it all this time, culminating in a surprisingly affecting ending, but the witty lines and hilarious moments are here in abundance, from Stephen Fry's insane pigeon-fancying General Melchett, to Rik Mayall's obnoxiously dashing Captain Flashheart. However, this is the first series where the historical context actually gives the plot gravitas, rather than simply acting as a counterpoint for the jokes, and there is some poignancy even amongst the farce. It would be just about impossible to top this.
Blackadder Back and Forth
This is rather a sad failure, unfortunately; lacking most of the wit of the previous 4 series, it instead feels more like an especially tired Christmas special, and lacks any really funny moments. To cast an actor like Colin Firth as Shakespeare is quite a good idea; to then give him nothing to do is not. There's the odd amusing moment, but the feeling is that the old magic's rather left the series by this point. Still, Curtis has occasionally mentioned that he'd like to do a last series with Blackadder as a university don, which would be amusing...
A straightforward PAL to NTSC video transfer, presented in full frame format. It's nothing special or particularly surprising, but it does the job well enough, with the only noticeable flaw being some smearing in the (infrequent) camera moves; however, this is hardly offputting, and I would be rather worried if anyone actually cared all that much about the picture quality of an 80s TV series!
A bog standard stereo mix. The dialogue is presented clearly, and the music sounds slightly less tinny than it did on VHS, but there aren't any surprises to be had here, although Blackadder Back and Forth makes slightly greater use of sound effects and music than the other series. There's a rumour than it's due to be released in R2 with DTS sound, which seems utterly pointless, but then there will be some people out there who will probably see some value in this.
A very pleasing selection. The stand-out is the hilarious 'Blackadder's Christmas Carol', which is easily as funny as any series, and has great cameos from Jim Broadbent and Miriam Margoyles as Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. There's also 'Blackadder; the cavalier years', which is a short but amusing skit on the Civil War. Other extras include a lengthy Richard Curtis interview (25 minutes), in which he talks interestingly about the influences for his writing and his success in both sitcom and film, a short, tedious making-of for 'Back and Forth', a lacklustre sing-along, and some funny cast biographies, as narrated by Baldrick. Just for comparison's sake, precisely none of this is present on the R2 discs.
One of the greatest sitcoms ever gets a fine DVD package, and it's highly recommended if you're a fan. The big decision has to be whether to get the box set or just the second, third and fourth volumes; given that the other two discs can cost little more if bought as part of the boxset, I would recommend buying the lot. 'I have a cunning plan, my lord....'