Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (review)

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The Rewards of Virtue

Okay, so it’s not a movie. But Blackadder’s Christmas Carol is my favorite variation on the beloved Charles Dickens story of one man’s dramatic change of heart. Remember, though, dear reader, to take into account that I am a heartless bitch — anyone with an ounce of sentiment will be thoroughly appalled by this entirely mean-spirited black comedy.

A bit of background is in order. The BBC television series Blackadder follows the falling fortunes of the Blackadder family from the dark ages through, in the latest series, World War I. (The new series — woo-hoo! — apparently in the works will take Blackadder who-knows-where.) The medieval Prince Edmund (in every incarnation played by Rowan Atkinson: Bean), son of the king of England, christens himself “the Black Adder” and plots nefarious ways to steal the throne. By the next series, however, the prince’s descendant Edmund Blackadder is further removed from power — he’s an advisor to Queen Elizabeth (Miranda Richardson: Sleepy Hollow, The Apostle) who develops cunning plans to get the queen to marry him. A few hundred years later in the Regency period, Blackadder is now valet to mad Prince George (Hugh Laurie: The Borrowers, Stuart Little), and his schemes have turned from the acquisition of power into efforts to make himself rich. In the fourth series, Edmund Blackadder, a captain in the trenches of Europe in WWI, merely hopes to stay alive until the end of the war. Through every incarnation, Blackadder finds himself accompanied by the indescribably disgusting Baldrick (Tony Robinson), whose deep devotion to Blackadder is exceeded only by his stupidity. Baldrick is so dumb that it’s impossible to insult him, though trying is Blackadder’s favorite hobby.

While the Blackadder television series practically require the viewer have a degree in English history to get all the jokes, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol — a 45-minute “special” episode — merely asks that the viewer keep in mind that all the Edmund Blackadders have been some of the nastiest, most power-hungry men the British Isles have ever hosted. This knowledge is key to the gleeful savaging of Dickens to come.

Ebenezer Blackadder, we’re told as the story opens on Christmas Eve, is “the kindest and loveliest man in all England,” owner of a “mustache shop in Dumpling Lane.” Poor but happy, Ebenezer finds his boundless generosity taken advantage of by the poor and conniving — including Mrs. Scratchit (Pauline Melville), whose son Tiny Tom is “15 stone and built like a brick privy,” though he does fake a limp once in a while. Ebenezer is patient and kind with his moronic clerk, Baldrick, and gives away the meager Christmas presents he has assembled for the two of them to his annoying niece, Millicent (Nicola Bryant). Still, “in the feel-good ledger of life, we are rich indeed,” Ebenezer insists.

But that night, the Spirit of Christmas (Robbie Coltrane) stumbles accidentally into Ebenezer’s sleeping chamber, gets a little tipsy on the drink Ebenezer generously offers, explains his unusual line of work (“it’s all visions these days”), and offhandedly mentions how horrible Ebenezer’s ancestors were. On a lark, the Spirit offers to show Ebenezer how some of the earlier Blackadders behaved at Christmastime: the Elizabethan Blackadder tricks the Queen into signing a death warrant for Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry: Wilde), with whom Blackadder is constantly at odds; the Regency Blackadder swindles the Prince out of all of his Christmas presents; and in both cases, the Blackadders are rewarded in some manner or other for their despicable behavior.

Ebenezer’s eyes are opened. “There is actually something to be made out of being bad,” he says with wonder. And if he had any doubt as to whether he should change his ways, that is dispelled when the Spirit shows him what his future will be like if he continues being kind and charitable, and what it will be like if he changes his ways. Ebenezer himself sums up the message here: “Bad guys have all the fun.” Politically correct it ain’t, but it is wickedly amusing.

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, not surprisingly, shares with the series an intelligent and literate sense of humor. Written, as all the series were, by Richard Curtis (Notting Hill) and Ben Elton, you’ll find everything from clever word play — like humorous use of humbug satirizing the fact that few people realize that the word has a meaning beyond Scrooge’s disparaging exclamation — to sublimely inane parodies of Christmas songs to some of the most creative insults you’ll find outside of Shakespeare. And if you didn’t know that Miranda Richardson is a brilliant comedienne, Blackadder is the place to find her in all her comic glory as the spoiled, petulant, and fickle Virgin Queen. (The entire cast is, of course, a Brit-com lover’s dream.)

Dickens wouldn’t be totally disappointed in the ending, in which Ebenezer runs afoul of Queen Victoria (Miriam Margolyes: End of Days, Magnolia), her dumbbell husband, Albert (Jim Broadbent: The Avengers, The Borrowers), and their “traditional Christmas adventure” to reward their particularly virtuous subjects. Mostly, though, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol is a welcome dose of cynicism in a season when all those visions of sugarplums and replays of It’s a Wonderful Life can tend to send one into diabetic shock.

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