Trying to explain jokes defeats the whole purpose of jokes in the first place. That being said, there are three really clever little literary jokes buried in the rich tapestry that is the classic BBC comedy “Blackadder”(1983-1989), and it’s more than possible that since they didn’t get any laughs from the studio audience during filming, they might still go unnoticed.
- Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Buttocks
In the third episode of the second Blackadder series, Blackadder is forced to deal with someone even more arrogant than he: the returning explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. The clash of the two egos and the subsequent arm wrestle for the hand of mad Queen Elizabeth result in Edmund rounding the unchartered Cape of No Hope by mistake, accompanied by a legless Captain Redbeard Rum.
As with the entire Blackadder oeuvre, the plot is one thing, the actual dialogue is another. In amongst all the brilliant one-liners and withering sarcasm, Edmund (via Ben Elton, of course) makes a joke about the name of Sir Francis Drake’s famous galleon, which unfortunately slips right by the studio audience.
Responding irritatedly to a knock on his door, Edmund complains, “Probably some birk with a parrot on his shoulder selling plaster gnomes of Sir Francis Drake and his Golden beHind”.
Rather than having actual golden buttocks, Sir Francis Drake, that other great English explorer of the age, privateered on a ship he named “The Golden Hinde”, the ‘hinde’ of course referring to a female deer, one of which happened to be on the crest of his patron, Sir Christopher Hatton.
Get it? Get it? Hind/hinde? Behind/buttocks?
Are you laughing quietly to yourself yet? Try this one:
- Baldrick’s Octopus
In late September 1987, almost two years on from that second series, Blackadder the Third hit British TV screens, and this time Blackadder was the cunning, sardonic butler to the awful Prince Regent (played superbly by Hugh Laurie in his first major role in a Blackadder series). The second show of the series, “Ink and Incapability”, found Edmund locked in another battle of egos, this time with ‘that globulous fraud’ Dr Samuel Johnson.
Edmund has rather a large chip on his shoulder regarding Dr Johnson: the great literary doctor has so far refused to even acknowledge Edmund’s own literary efforts. Blackadder describes his own book, “Edmund: A Butler’s Tale”, as “a giant rollercoaster of a novel in four hundred sizzling chapters, a searing indictment of domestic servitude in the eighteenth century, with some hot gypsies thrown in. My magnum opus…”
Blackadder’s hapless and eternally put-upon dogsbody Baldrick’s response contains the joke that, again, slipped by the studio audience: he produces a tiny slip of paper on which he has apparently written his own novel, and obviously having misheard Edmund earlier, he calls it his “magnificent octopus”.
No laughs, but clever! “Magnum opus”, of course, is Latin for ‘great work’, referring to the greatest work of a creative person’s career. A ‘magnificent octopus’, on the other hand…
Alright, last one:
- Prince George’s Shakespearean Eagle
The last episode of the third Blackadder series contains Edmund’s unscrupulous double-dealings that result in the killing of his master by the Duke of Wellington’s ‘cannonette’, and Blackadder’s assumption of the Prince’s identity and, thereby, the Regency.
In a typically convoluted scenario, Edmund agrees to fight a duel with the affronted Duke in place of the cowardly Prince Regent. On the afternoon of the duel, the Prince wakes up from an afternoon nap in typical disarray: he’s had portentous dreams about the coming “unnatural deed” in which someone has agreed to die on his behalf. The quiet literary joke at the end of his account goes unnoticed:
It has been a wild afternoon full of strange omens. I dreamt that a large eagle circled the room three times and then got into bed with me and took all the blankets. And then I saw that it wasn’t an eagle at all but a large black snake. Also Duncan’s horses did turn and eat each other. As usual. Good portents for your duel, do you think?
Ben Elton is referring here to a scene from Shakespeare’s gloomy, doom-laden ‘Macbeth’, in which an old man, observing the natural order of things shaken by Macbeth’s own ‘unnatural deed’, recounts, “On Tuesday last, a falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place,
was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed” (Act 2 Scene 4). Ross, to whom he is speaking, then adds, “And Duncan’s horses—a thing most strange and certain—beauteous and swift, the minions of their race, turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make war with mankind”. The old man adds, “’Tis said they eat each other”.
For the Prince Regent, his whole apocalyptic dream, pregnant with foreboding, is a hilarious re-wiring of the Macbeth omen, ending of course with the dead king’s horses eating each other, ‘as usual’.
The studio audience seemed to not even register that one.
A pity. Now you’ve had to have someone explain a joke to you, which is never as funny.
Oh well, at least you now know they’re there, if you didn’t already.