Earlier this year there was debate sparked between historians, politicians, journalists and entertainers about the historical accuracy of Blackadder Goes Forth . Critics of the series believe that the sitcom was too critical of its portrayal of World War One. This has led to one form of critical attack dubbed: “The Blackadder view of history”.
Originally this was simply a debate between historians and that’s fair enough. After all they are experts of World War One. These are the people who should be debating whether we should have entered WWI or not. The problem really started were other people got involved in the debate. Jeremy Paxman was one of the first people to be critical about, having written a book about the conflict last year and attacking schools for using Blackadder as a teaching tool.
However, the problem really started to escalate when the then Education Secretary Michael Gove said in an interview with the Daily Mail that left-wing academics were using Blackadder, as well as other series and films like Oh! What a Lovely War and The Monocled Mutineer to teach a biased view of history.
This resulted in Blackadder star and left-wing activist Sir Tony Robinson attacking Gove. Robinson said that Gove was “slagging off teachers” and, “it’s not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War. When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool.”
Most recently Ben Elton was inspired by Gove’s comments to write his latest novel, Time and Time Again, which is about a man who travels back in time to try and prevent World War I from happening. Although one cannot help but think that what most people secretly want to see Elton write is a fifth series of Blackadder, because it’s the only way we will forgive him for all the other detritus he’s written since then.
There are several problems with this debate. For one, people are just going to agree with who they like more. If you like Tony Robinson, you will agree with his views that Blackadder is helpful and fair; if you like Michael Gove, you will be more inclined to his argument about the sitcom being biased. Some readers might be perplexed at the idea of people liking Michael Gove, but at least 31,326 people in Surrey Heath did in 2010.
Blackadder is a sitcom, and the point of a sitcom is to make people laugh. Most people trying to claim some deeper meaning are likely being pretentious or reading into things that aren’t there. Of course, there are some serious moments, the most famous being the ending in which Blackadder, Baldrick, George and Darling go over-the-top and are presumably killed in No Man’s Land. The ending famously failed to make an impact when it was recorded, and it was not until it was being edited that it became the iconic scene we know today, with the slow-motion footage and the image of the poppies coming into view.
Yes, it’s somewhat stereotypical in terms of its attitude towards World War One, but you have to remember that people believe what is being said because they find it engaging. People are always going to be more interested in a topic if it is presented in way that connects with them. It may be cynical, but I believe that people normally go for personality rather than substance in terms of ideas. Viewers are more likely going to find a comedy about World War One more enticing than a documentary about it, and there’s going to be a lot of documentaries in the coming years.
Thus, I would argue that if you want to people to engage with history or any academic subject it is best to follow the BBC’s original motto: “Inform, Educate and Entertain”. Perhaps it is not surprising that John Lloyd, the producer of Blackadder, went on to create QI. To the people critical of “the Blackadder view of history”: make a show that is informative, educational and entertaining about WWI and which portrays the conflict in the way you think it should be shown.
However since Blackadder is so iconic, any show about WWI is likely to be seen as derivative and judged harshly. The most recent WWI TV comedy series is the Sky1 sitcom Chickens about the only three men left in a village who are not fighting in the trenches: one for health reasons, one for moral reasons, and one for seemingly no good reason whatsoever. The show got mixed reviews.
“The Blackadder view of history” is just one view. If you are against it, then come up with a more persuasive argument.