“With 50,000 men killed a week, who’s going to miss a pigeon?”
While each new season of Blackadder jumped to a new historical setting, it was still a bold move to set Blackadder Goes Forth in the trenches of World War I. While the subject matter might not be obviously suited to comedy, the show pulled it off with aplomb by combining its usual dark humour with intelligent satire, and no episode achieves the balance better than Corporal Punishment.
The scene is set when Blackadder, in classic style, is doing whatever he can to avoid orders to advance. Helped out by a genuine communications problem, he ignores a telegram on the grounds that it is addressed to a “Catpain Blackudder” and pretends that a bad connection on the telephone prevents him from hearing Captain Darling.
Things really kick off, however, when he shoots a carrier pigeon – only to discover, via the message it was carrying, that the shooting of carrier pigeons has become a court martial offence. His subsequent decision to eat the evidence seems like a wise choice when it further turns out that the pigeon in question was Speckled Jim, General Melchett’s personal pigeon which he raised from a chick.
Unfortunately for Blackadder, he is given away by the idiocy of Private Baldrick and Lieutenant George. Soon he finds himself up on charges and facing the death sentence. Stephen Fry is particularly excellent as Melchett who, despite being involved in the case, takes on the role of judge in the trial. Alternately sobbing, roaring with anger, and chuckling to himself, he calls Blackadder “The Flander’s Pigeon Murderer” and “the deceased” before even hearing any evidence. His response to hearing the defence summing up is absolute perfection: “Nonsense! He’s a hound and a rotter and he’s going to be shot!”
The rest of the comedy is provided by the repeated cock-ups of Blackadder’s subordinates, who together make things progressively worse. Baldrick mixes up Blackadder’s letters from jail, sending a request for a sponge bag to his lawyer and a request for legal aid to the idiotic Lieutenant George. Ordered in the trial to deny everything, he goes on to even refute his own name. His escape kit for Blackadder proves less than effective; among other things, it consists of a small painted wooden duck, a pencil, a miniature trumpet, and a Robin Hood costume.
Lieutenant George fares no better. He turns up late for the trial, begins and ends his defence by declaring Blackadder guilty, and is ultimately fined £50 just for turning up. Finally, given a chance to help his captain by contacting his uncle – who happens to be Minister for War – he instead gets drunk in a premature celebration and completely forgets.
While Blackadder ultimately escapes the firing squad by chance, Corporal Punishment is a fantastic satire of the way World War I was conducted. General Melchett shows no interest in the welfare of his men and cares only for the death of his beloved Speckled Jim; ultimately, far away from the reality of life in the trenches, the upper echelons have only their self-interests at heart. It might provide some of the best laughs of any episode of Blackadder, but Corporal Punishment has a serious point to make as well, and that earns it an esteemed position among the ranks as a comedy classic.
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