There has been a lot of talk about Blackadder in the news recently, particularly concerning its use in History classrooms. It has certainly had a major influence in shaping how millions view the First World War. Many consider the Tommy as either akin to the cynical main character, the jingoistic George or the simple Baldrick, constantly short of supplies, having to rely on mud as a substitute for coffee, dandruff for sugar etc. The generals fit the ‘donkeys’ stereotype’ with General Melchitt portrayed as ‘barking mad’ and Field Marshall Haig as a callous bungler whose tactics doomed the cast to death. It’s use has been heavily criticized by Jeremy Paxman and Michael Gove. Shown uncritically it would give students a very distorted and largely inaccurate view of the conflict, but used as stimulus at the start of an enquiry into First World War it opens up a host of areas to explore.
For many years now I have used the final episode of Blackadder Goes forth as the starting point in an interpretations exercise that tests the way the war is portrayed against primary and secondary source material. This includes interviews with soldiers, diaries, memoirs, etc.. as well as the views of historians. Throughout the enquiry the students compare the evidence they collect with the views shown in the Blackadder episode and assess the extent to which the show accurately portrays the different aspects of the war. At the end they weigh up the evidence, give their judgement and invariably conclude that the show is unfair in its portrayal of the conditions, generals and soldiers attitudes. I am sure that there are many other History teachers who do something similar.
The recent controversy over how we should remember the First World War adds an extra dimension to this unit this year. I plan to introduce the students to many of these, such as Michael Gove’s attack on unpatriotic left wing academics, Richard Evans’s response, Gary Sheffield’s contribution, as well as others. In fact, as Jessica Meyer outlines the discussion between the latter two shows how events can be viewed very validly from different perspectives; the national and international. It certainly demonstrates to them that how historical events still shape our world, how the ‘past is never dead…’
Some of the debate is listed below: