Is Blackadder bad for First World War history?

Blackadder star Sir Tony Robinson has hit out at education secretary Michael Gove’s claim that “left-wing academics” are using the programme “to feed myths” about the First World War.

Blackadder stars Rowan Atkinson and Sir Tony Robinson - photo by Photoshot/Getty

Gove last week told the Daily Mail that people's understanding of the war had been overlaid by “misrepresentations” which at worst reflected “an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”.

Gove added: “The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War!, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.

“Even to this day there are left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.”

Here, historians debate the impact of Blackadder and other programmes on our understanding of the First World War:

“I am concerned about ‘the Blackadder effect’”

I find Blackadder is a gross example of what can happen when trying to bring history to life for younger students.

Of course teachers have to engage their students, but the real problem is that – through no fault of their own – teachers cannot get it though to pupils that what they are watching is an interpretation of the war, written by someone who was not there.

I find that many of my first-year students [at the University of Kent] believe Blackadder and similar programmes were written in the trenches, and are a primary source.

I love Blackadder, but 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.

It’s a bit like saying you would base your entire vision of 1980s Britain on a Daily Telegraph column, or of what happened at Agincourt on Shakespeare’s Henry V. What you are getting with these is a particular view of the experience. And in Shakespeare's case by someone who never witnessed it, nor had any living first-hand references to go by - very similar to Curtis and Elton!

The problem is that programmes such as Blackadder are invested with a status that almost makes them as hallowed as genuine sources. People forget that they are written by people decades afterwards.

They are less dominant in teaching than they were 10-15 years ago, but ‘the Blackadder effect’ is still lingering – particularly in the teaching of English literature. And my concern is that we are not questioning how representative these programmes are of the millions of men who went through the British Expeditionary Force.

It’s fascinating that while we often view the 20th century as a time of the common man and woman, our perceptions of it are driven by an elite – primarily, public school men. And we somehow invest massive status in them.

Mark Connelly is a professor of modern British history at the University of Kent

Blackadder engages with the myths of the war in ways which move an audience”

Generations of British school children have been brought up on a diet of war poetry, part of the school curriculum since the 1960s.

They know of the mud, the horror, the alleged futility of the suffering and the dying during the First World War, and they have come to appreciate the heroism of individual soldiers. Many will have seen Blackadder, too, and its message is very similar. But it is arguably easier to relate to the TV series than to poetry.

Moreover, Blackadder will doubtless have influenced more people because it is funny. Humour is – understandably – often lacking when we think about the First World War. This irreverence is what made Blackadder so different.

And this is why, I imagine, many teachers use it as part of their armoury for teaching children about the war. Teachers need to be able to capture the imagination of their pupils, for only an interested pupil will be engaged and keen to learn.

I think Michael Gove is wrong when he implies 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, honour and courage” demonstrated by British soldiers in the First World War.

Surely Blackadder does nothing of the sort – rather, it engages with the experiences of war, and with its myths, in ways which move an audience. That the views of the war that are portrayed in it (the ‘myths’, if you like) are of their time is of course a given – and that they will not tally with what everyone agrees with is unavoidable.

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.

For at least the past 15 years, no serious military historian (of any political persuasion) has entertained the ‘lions led by donkeys’ caricature Michael Gove opposes. What his comments reveal, above all else, is that there is no undisputed past to reclaim here, there are just different interpretations of the same event.

Annika Mombauer is a senior lecturer in modern European history at The Open University

“Blackadder helps to catch young people’s attention”

Undoubtedly programmes and productions such as Blackadder, Downtown Abbey, Birdsong and War Horse have had a major impact on the way the First World War is understood, particularly in the UK.

As other historians, like Gary Sheffield, have highlighted, these cultural outputs are popular because they remind the viewing audience of what they think they already know about the war. They find them amusing (or emotionally compelling, depending on which programme we’re referring to) because they contain familiar ideas – the naive Tommy, the bumbling officer, and the callous general – set in trenches on the Western Front knee deep in mud and rats.

It’s a very narrow view of the war that ignores the fact that the war was a European and global event that had many – often contradictory – layers, and that changed world, not just British, history.

I am hopeful that the centenary period will allow the space in programming (in the press and on TV, radio and online) to explore these themes and ideas. Otherwise a once-in-a-generation opportunity will be lost.

I agree that there are a number of distorted myths about the war that are perpetuated in popular culture. However, that these are all a result of left-wing bias is simply incorrect.

The classic myth of British generals being ‘donkeys’ (continued in Blackadder with the imbecile General Melchett) was put forward by a member of Thatcher’s cabinet, Alan Clark in his publication The Donkeys (1961). It’s not really about political bias at all – it’s about different historical interpretations based on evidence available at the time, and the context within which historians were writing.

Interpretations will change and evolve as time moves on. Important revisionist history, particularly regarding social and cultural approaches to the war, has been undertaken for over 25 years by academics around the globe. I think the question we should be asking is why these more nuanced approaches have not yet penetrated the public imagination and popular culture, particularly in Britain.

Research conducted by myself and Dr Ann-Marie Einhaus from Northumbria University suggests that teachers use Blackadder Goes Forth in a very limited way, often as a comedic window into a more detailed and complex discussion.

Where the programme is used, it is as a more ‘modern’ and easily digestible window to get discussion going among a class that is emotionally distanced from a conflict almost 100 years old.

Film and other multimedia (YouTube being another popular tool for teachers, according to our survey) 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. 

Dr Catriona Pennell is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Exeter

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