Looking Back At BLACKADDER'S CHRISTMAS CAROL - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony sings along.

When Richard Curtis and respectively Rowan Atkinson (The Black Adder) and Ben Elton (Every other Blackadder since) created the adventures of the various Edmunds Blackadder, it’s fair to say they probably never had any kind of Christmas Special in mind.

Which in hindsight seems absurd, because Blackadder in all his various historical guises is an embodiment of the worst traits in human nature – just as, to some extent, Ebenezer Scrooge is meant to be.

Every Blackadder is significantly different, of course – the original, Plantagenet Blackadder is very much a worm who turns, his self-pride and sadism launching him on his new identity and his plans to rule England. The Elizabethan Blackadder is undeniably charming when he has to be, but it’s the charm of a social climber, sickened by the reality of his age but playing the game of paying court to a spiteful child-queen (Miranda Richardson embodying Elizabeth I as the worst kind of spoiled brat).

By the time of the Regency, stripped of position if not of influence, Edmund Blackadder is the Anti-Jeeves, a brilliant brain seething with rancour towards his clueless, nonsense-spewing master, the Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie, who would of course later go on to play Bertie Wooster to Stephen Fry’s Jeeves). And in World War I, Captain Edmund Blackadder is a post-colonial career soldier, trapped in a world of real horror and finding relief only in putting down those with whom he’s billeted, and working the odd dodge.

When Blackadder’s Christmas Carol was written, the logic of its central idea was delicious. But getting to that idea may have been more difficult than you’d think.

The family had always been rumoured to be large – we meet the puritan ‘Whiteadders’ in Blackadder II, and the Scottish arm of the family, the Clan MacAdder in Blackadder The Third. If you already have a family as diverse as any other, but in which the Edmunds are historically possessed of a unique talent for gittery, the original Christmas Carol doesn’t work as played. If you have a typical Edmund Blackadder in the Victorian era, and he’s like all the Edmunds, but he gets visited by spirits and changes his ways, then as the credits roll, you end up with a duller Blackadder than you started with. Intellectually interesting, yes, but not especially funny.

And we don’t need Blackadder to do that. The world is stuffed to bursting point with actual versions of A Christmas Carol which show that journey.

The moment you flip the script though, lots of things fall immediately into place. If you imagine there’s a good Blackadder, a kindly, even a saintly Blackadder – in fact a Blackadder who has lived his life in the way Scrooge becomes by the end of A Christmas Carol – and then you run the whole process in reverse, you have both an excellent comedy idea, and a puncturing of any sense of sentimentality in the original Dickens. What, it asks, would a businessman who actually did keep Christmas in his heart the whole year round, really be like?

The answer, in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, is that he’d be a doormat, holding in his own self-interest, finding the good in every brand of sponger who’s only out to steal from him. It’s always been an undeniable inconsistency that Scrooge, once he’s had his epiphany, can only afford to make up for his behaviour with largesse because he’s been such a parsimonious skinflint for decades. You’re more or less driven to wonder quite how long his generosity can be supported in the wake of his change of heart. In Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, that’s made explicit. Ebenezer Blackadder runs a moustache shop, but never shows any profit because he traditionally gives it all away at Christmas.

The set-up of the first half of the story is expressly geared to show us his loss of everything celebratory and festive through the theft or coercion of a group of (in some cases, literal) foot-stamping, tantrum-having freeloaders – from the scary Mrs Scratchit to Nicola Bryant’s ear-splittingly vacuous Millicent, to Denis Lill’s Beadle and his cadre of scavenging orphans. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their Christmas adventure to reward the virtuous and the good, end up taking from Ebenezer Blackadder.

The pacing of this is very tight, and very forced – it’s a practical whirlwind of gittery, the scene delivered with staccato moments and an endless parades or doorbell ringing – almost a satire in itself, of the kind of ‘comfy’ British sitcoms of the 1970s where ‘There’s somebody at the door’ was a spur for the complication of the week.

Once the doormat nature of Ebenezer Blackadder is established though, he can become the Anti-Scrooge, and his journey through ghostly visitations to a change of heart can begin.

Robbie Coltrane makes for a perfect Ghost of Christmas Present, but really his job is harder than he makes it look. In A Christmas Carol, it’s examples from along one man’s timeline that make him change his ways, but the Ghost – who, let it be noted, has absolutely no reason to be there, except to ‘congratulate’ Blackadder on his purity of heart – introduces a radical Christmas Carol alternative plotline. While sometimes, people are shown how bad they themselves have been, other times, people get a glimpse of how bad their ancestors were? Wait, what?

The joyful fact that this makes no sense at all is impressively glossed over, because it is, when all is said and done, why we’re here. Cue new, specially written and performed scenes with two of the three pre-Victorian Edmund Blackadders we’ve visited before.

The writing and more especially the performances in these scenes is fabulously impressive, because it would be easier – especially for Omni-Blackadder Rowan Atkinson - to simply trot out an amalgamated Blackadder and play them all in a similar way. But no – it’s taken straight and serious, the Elizabethan and Regency periods played as intensified microcosms of their full series versions so you believe in the consistency of the characterisations. The scenes are short glimpses of the Elizabethan and Regency Blackadders, but they’re boiled down to perfect statement of what the show was in each case.

In Elizabethan Blackadder, Ordinary Scheme A goes wrong, then the quicksilver changeability of the Queen’s mood puts Blackadder in fear of his life. But a moment’s cunning leads to Improvised Scheme B, which lets him trick his court rival Lord Melchett and win the day.

In Regency Blackadder, the humour’s less subtle – the Prince is a moron who gets all the presents, Blackadder hatches a plan to steal them all, and the plot is seemingly foiled by the incredible stupidity of Baldrick, in a riff on the first episode of Blackadder the Third, in which Baldrick becomes a lord. There’s also a riff on the last episode of Blackadder the Third, which ditches the repartee and resorts to laughs of comic physical violence.

If you wanted all the basic information you’d need before watching either Blackadder II or Blackadder The Third, you could get there from these short scenes. Sure, there’s no Tim McInerny as Percy or Helen Atkinson-Wood as Mrs Miggins, but they’re not especially needed here. The absence of any mention of the original Black Adder feels right in terms of example, but also probably has as much to do with rights and writing credits as it does with run-time and pacing.

Instead of the original Black Adder, we get two versions of a future Blackadder. The dialogue in these sections is a little tiresome, as though it was placeholder space-nonsense that made it all the way to the screen, but still, it’s reasonably good fun to see Blackadder conquer the universe, and equally fun to see the ‘nice’ Blackadder of the future reduced to being Baldrick’s slave.

On waking, Ebenezer Blackadder sets about his new vocation – being one of the ‘bad ones’ of his family, both to have some fun, to set himself free from the conventions of his age, and, it seems, for the sake of his descendants and their eventual universe-ruling destiny.

Mrs Scratchit suffers a reversal of the scheme which let her steal almost all Blackadder’s profits for the year. Millicent – along with her ghastly fish-faced boyfriend - are turned away, but not before Blackadder is able to steal additional profits for the walking halibut. The urchin who tantrummed his way to Blackadder’s last penny is cheerfully pushed off a rooftop to the street below, and the beadle and his urchins get a door in the face and a stolen miniature pudding. Blackadder even borrows from his Regency ancestor and starts punching his Baldrick almost casually, to get a jump-start on his career of evil.

When the Queen and Prince Albert return to reward the saintly Ebenezer Blackadder though, we feel the ‘curse’ of all the previous Edmund Blackadders descend on Ebenezer like a cloak. He goes up one side of the royal couple and down the other, and so loses out on their gift of a sackful of cash and a title. The path of a bad Blackadder never runs smoothly, and there’s a sense that the gift of gittery comes with its pitfalls as well as its eventual rewards.

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol is a joyous one-off in the Blackadder canon, a festive funfest for all those who are sick of the received wisdom of peace and goodwill to all men at Christmastime. It drops in on some of the most loved Blackadders of years gone by, makes us pine just a little for a Blackadder series set in the Victorian era, and delights us with the idea of a universe eventually run by a Blackadder.

Is it perfect? No.

It’s a little forced along, because it has a lot more to achieve in story terms than most, if not all, other single episodes of Blackadder. It resorts to jiggery-pokery to make its central idea work. And, viewed years later, it has an uncomfortable amount of fatphobia dotted throughout its run-time. If Tiny Tom eats any more heartily ‘he will turn into a pie shop.’ The orphans are all so fat that Blackadder fears ‘bursting one of them and getting showered with two dozen semi-digested meat pies.’ That extends into their meaningless Christmas song and its nonsense lyrics about them being little pigs and singing piggy wiggy woo. And the thread is carried over into Blackadder’s blistering tirade against Queen Victoria, the ‘winner of the Round-Britain Shortest, Fattest, Dumpiest Woman competition,’ ‘the Pig,’ and ‘Empress Oink, as lads call her.’ It all feels a little bizarre and lazy from the writers of some of the sharpest lines in 80s sitcom.

But as a one-off Christmas Blackadder story, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol is better than these concerns. It’s a fun inversion of the Christmas Carol story, and it fuses the Victorian novel and the Blackadder canon in a way that punctures some of the fatuous festivity of Christmas goodness. Give it a whirl: the issues will be clearly visible when viewed from this point in the 21st century, but you’ll still have a lot of fun along the way.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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