S&R Honors: Edmund Blackadder
Scholars & Rogues has been around for seven and a half years or so, and during that time we have evolved. Early on we were a political blog with a culturalist bent. These days we’re a “journal of progressive culture” – in a nutshell, we’re a culture blog informed by a strong political foundation. Our writing wanders far and wide, as you may have noticed, but the pieces all seem to fit together.
We have had, through the years, a number of discussions about who we are and who we want to be. In corporate terminology, what is the Scholars & Rogues brand? And while these conversations have occasionally been nuanced and overrun with self-doubt – if you don’t have the occasional crisis of identity in seven years you’re not trying hard enough – I have always had an answer that served as a sort of starting point.
The S&R brand is Edmund Blackadder.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Blackadder was a four-season BBC series that aired from 1983-1989. It starred the inimitable Rowan Atkinson and every time I hear people raving about the genius of Mr. Bean I always know I’m talking with someone who never saw Blackadder. I won’t try to explain it all – that would take too long and I wouldn’t do it justice. I’ll just quote this from Wikipedia and encourage you to rent it for yourself. (You can safely give season 1 a miss – the brilliance didn’t kick in until Ben Elton joined the writing team for Blackadder the Second.)
In 2000, the fourth series, Blackadder Goes Forth, ranked at 16 in the “100 Greatest British Television Programmes“, a list created by the British Film Institute. Also in the 2004 TV poll to find “Britain’s Best Sitcom“, Blackadder was voted the second-best British sitcom of all time, topped by Only Fools and Horses. It was also ranked as the 20th-best TV show of all time by Empire magazine.
Check our original logo.
That font you see in “Rogues”? It’s called “Blackadder.”
Edmund Blackadder is S&R for a number of reasons. He is both scholar and rogue, for starters. He’s an exceptionally intelligent, literate man and he’s surrounded on all sides by utter buffoons, from the lowest of the low, his dogsbody Baldrick, to the highest of the high, Queen Elizabeth (season 2, portrayed with over-the-top cartoonish dingbat glee by Miranda Richardson) and the Prince Regent (season 3, with Hugh Laurie standing in as the foppish end result of a millennia-long experiment in inbreeding).
If you have an IQ above 100 and you live in America and you’re paying even the least bit of attention, you can perhaps see how we might identify with Edmund Blackadder. He does not suffer fools gladly, and since he’s adrift in a sea of them, every episode is rich with opportunities for put-downs – think of it as a hilarious exercise in intellectual chiropractic.
But – and this is key – Blackadder thrives on understatement. In stark contrast to American sitcoms, where the zingers are formulaic, telegraphed, and accompanied by every sort of “this is where you laugh” cue sort of a rim shot, his essence is comic subterfuge. See, he lives and moves among the rich and powerful, but he isn’t one of them. He has no endowment of his own, so his survival depends on how well he pleases those he serves. Were he to say, accompanied by rim shot, the things that he actually thinks in a way that the dolts perceived as insult, he’d be on his way to the Tower to await beheading. He can be more than forthright when addressing those of his own station (or below – you’d feel bad for Baldrick if you weren’t laughing so hard), and in these moments you see the misanthropic core of his own soul. These instances are oddly compelling. Edmund has a mean streak, yes, but it’s an artifact of the battles he has fought, internal and external, to survive. This tension adds a rich, humanizing depth to a character than in lesser hands than Atkinson’s might come off as a flat, one-dimensional bully.
Again, I find myself thinking about the plight of being a have-not in modern neo-Feudal America. Sure, we can say what we think, but doing so is not likely to profit us, even if we avoid the axe. In this respect, Blackadder is an opportunity for us to reflect on a society in which the smartest among us frequently have the least power – a lesson that’s hammered home each time a Tea Party legislator speaks out on some issue of scientific import. Our best and brightest often hack away, trying to hang on financially, while a small cohort of utter dolts accrue more and more capital.
Of course, Edmund doesn’t reserve his bad attitude just for the 1%. Everyone is fair game, including those that we at S&R hold dear. For instance, consider Lord Byron, our very first masthead scrogue, whom we honored upon launch in April of 2007. That was a deeply symbolic choice and he’s a figure who has continued to be, in many respects, the face of the site. As evidence, check out who graces our Facebook page.
As it turns out, Blackadder and Byron were once found themselves in the same room, during Season 3’s side-splitting “Ink and Incapability.” The scene in question commences at 14:15.
Byron: Be quiet, sir! Can’t you see we’re dying!?
Mrs Miggins: Don’t mind my poets, Mr B.; they’re not dead, they’re just being intellectual.
Blackadder: Mrs Miggins, there is nothing intellectual about wandering round Italy in a big shirt trying to get laid.
I have said, any number of times, that this exchange is the soul of the S&R brand. It’s literate, it’s funny, it’s irreverent, and it’s subtly self-deprecating – we take what we do seriously and we take the problems our culture faces seriously, but we try not to take ourselves too seriously. We’re humans, we have our foibles, perhaps a few demons, even. But we cherish self-awareness. We can laugh at ourselves. Or at least with ourselves.
So today, S&R honors Edmund Blackadder, the soul of our brand, as our 72nd Scrogue. When the laughter dies, so does our culture.