It seems as though the British comedy Blackadder is at the center of a lingering controversy some 25 years after the last episode premiered on BBC One in 1989. The debate is heating up as the 4th August of this year will be the 100th anniversary of when Great Britain entered World War I in 1914.
The debate began earlier this year with UK Education Secretary Michael Gove claiming that The Great War has, for many, been seen through the fictional storylines of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War!, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, which depict the War as a misbegotten shambles, a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Blackadder star, Sir Tony Robinson, has hit out at education secretary Michael Gove’s claim that ‘left-wing academics’ are using the program ‘to feed myths’ about the First World War. Robinson, who played Private Baldrick in Blackadder Goes Forth and current Labour Party member, said: “When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool.”
Taking the debate to the BBC History Magazine, scholars discuss whether or not Blackadder is bad for First World War teaching.
The Blackadder Effect – Bad
Mark Connelly, a professor of modern British history at the University of Kent, agrees with Gove believing that the fourth and final series of the British sitcom, Blackadder Goes Forth, is a gross example of what can happen when trying to bring history to life for younger students. While teachers need to use every trick in the book to engage their students, they simply can’t get it though to pupils that what they are watching is an ‘interpretation of the war’, entirely written by individuals who were not there.
Connelly stated that while he loved Blackadder, “…it is a reflection of a view of the First World War from the 1960s and 70s. You are seeing how Richard Curtis and Ben Elton were taught about the war. My concern is that we are not questioning how representative these programs are of the millions of men who went through the British Expeditionary Force“.
The Blackadder Effect – Not so Bad
Annika Mombauer, senior lecturer in modern European history at The Open University, tends to disagree with Gove’s contention that Blackadder should not be used to teach children about the war because he thinks it is important not to ‘denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honor and courage’ demonstrated by British soldiers in the First World War. Mombauer writes that Blackadder does nothing of the sort, but that it engages with the experiences of war, and with its myths, in ways which move an audience.
She says that “The First World War has been controversial since the moment it began – there is no right or wrong way of thinking about it, there are just lots of different, often conflicting, interpretations. And that is what we need to teach pupils and students – that there isn’t just one version of events, or one interpretation of history that is the right one. Rather, history and how we interpret it is influenced by contemporary concerns, and history writing always has a political agenda“.
Finally, research conducted by Dr Catriona Pennell, senior lecturer in history at the University of Exeter, and Dr Ann-Marie Einhaus from Northumbria University, suggests that teachers use Blackadder Goes Forth in a very limited way to help catch young people’s attention, often as a comedic window into a more detailed and complex discussion.
Dr. Pennell offers these final thoughts: “Film and other multimedia is a fantastic way to get a class’s attention, and to then build on that to get a more complex interpretation of the war. If there is evidence to suggest that it is being used as historical evidence, then yes that is problematic. But I’m really not sure that it is.”
All kidding aside, those that fought in The Great War exhibited undeniable patriotism, honor and courage as the Education Secretary stated above. Whatever side of the great teaching debate you find yourself on, the ending of Blackadder Goes Forth is one of the greatest, most poignant and powerful endings to a sitcom since the end of M*A*S*H.
If you made it this far, I’d love to know your thoughts…