Last week, I was delighted and astonished to learn that Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson had reprised their iconic roles as Blackadder and Baldrick in a stage sketch written by Ben Elton for a benefit titled We Are Most Amused. If you aren’t familiar with this British comedy, it’s about a scheming man named Blackadder whose cunning plans for power and fortune are frequently thwarted. Each season took place in a different historical period in England, along with a few one-off specials, capped by a time-traveling adventure called Blackadder: Back & Forth, which I’ll probably write about here in more detail later. It was a clever approach to the show, allowing Atkinson to reinvent the character in different incarnations, much like our favorite Time Lord (a role he has also portrayed.)
Anyway, this and the impending holidays reminded me that it had been a while since I had rewatched Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, which I quickly remedied. Clearly it’s based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the ubiquitous seasonal classic which has been adapted, parodied, and referenced countless times since it was first published in 1843. This has to be one of the earliest instances of time travel and alternate universes occurring in fiction, though it employs magic (through the visions visited upon Ebenezer Scrooge by the spirits of Christmases Past, Present, and Future) and could be read with some ambiguity. If you know of other stories that predate it, I’d love to hear about them.
Of all the different versions of A Christmas Carol out there, my favorite is this Blackadder special from 1988. (Alas, I have never seen Patrick Stewart’s one-man show. Bad Trekkie!) It’s fairly standalone, but you’ll probably enjoy it more if you’ve seen and loved the preceding two seasons of the series and/or get a kick out of Rowan Atkinson. The reason I like it so much is because of its twist, which I will now spoil: When the story begins, Ebenezer Blackadder is a good, altruistic man who gives so much to beggars and family that he and Baldrick are left with no food or presents at Christmas. The spirit of Christmas (Robbie Coltrane!) turns up and makes the mistake of showing him how horrible his ancestors were, with fresh scenes taking place in the 16th century and 19th century eras of the series. But Blackadder’s nasty, clever, charming predecessors only convince him that there’s more fun and profit to be had in being bad than good, although this naturally backfires on him in the end.
The biting, offensive humor may not work for you; much of it relies on Blackadder coming up with brilliant insults of other characters, particularly Baldrick. And some of the jokes made me wince this time around. But I still think it’s great fun and the cast is terrific: Jim Broadbent as Prince Albert; Hugh Laurie returning as George, Prince of Wales; Miranda Richardson as Queenie; Stephen Fry as the obsequious Lord Melchett. And then there are their futuristic counterparts in the Grand Admiral Blackadder segment.
And of course there’s a moral to be taken away from this, that you shouldn’t let people take advantage of your kindness–in a rare instance, most of the people Blackadder eventually lets loose on actually deserve it. And it turns out that even when he’s being nice, there’s a subtle nastiness to him. It’s kind of interesting to see him insult Baldrick and the others good-naturedly. If it’s one thing he has going for him, it’s that his barbed comments are so clever that many people don’t even realize they’ve just been verbally assaulted to their faces.
Mrs. Scratchit: No goose for Tiny Tom this year.
Ebenezer Blackadder: Mrs. Scratchit, Tiny Tom is fifteen stone and built like a brick privy. If he eats any more heartily, he will turn into a pie shop.
My other favorite A Christmas Carol “adaptation” is an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, “X-mas Marks the Spot,” written by J. Michael Straczynski. I just rewatched it and it’s a bit goofy, but it’s also brilliant in a Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. You have to forgive a lot and suspend disbelief, but the Ghostbusters accidentally get time-slipped to Victorian England, where they encounter Ebenezer Scrooge. Yeah, I know.
But see, they’re Ghostbusters, so they capture the spirits that haunt him before they realize who he is, and when they get back to their own time, everyone else hates Christmas. So to restore the proper timeline, they have to retrieve the Christmas ghosts from the containment unit and return them to Scrooge–meanwhile, Peter, Winston, and Ray try impersonating the ghosts, which gives us scenes like Peter in a dress and wig pushing Scrooge around in a wheelchair with a Viewmaster strapped to his face to provide the “visions” of his past. Silly, but fun! I particularly liked that this startling development was foreshadowed early on: When the Ghostbusters try to collect their fee from Scrooge, he asks, “How do I know they were real ghosts? Maybe this was all some kind of trick.” In a way it was; if I’m interpreting it correctly, all of this happens just so that Peter will learn the true meaning of Christmas, which is that it isn’t so bad. *shrug* Oh, and Santa is also real, probably.