Controversial DVDs: Blackadder Supposedly Remastered

I've done a bunch of Controversial Blus posts before, but how about one for DVDs?  Because this situation is a real fiasco, and with no HD bumps on the horizon, it's still where we're at in 2022.

We're here to talk Blackadder, the clever and inventive historical sitcom that revealed a very different side to its star Rowan Atkinson than most know him for today.  It ran for four seasons, each depicting a different descendant of the Blackadder family line throughout British history.  Season 1 is the most ambitious, set in Shakespearian times, with the wonderful Brian Blessed as King Richard IV and Peter Cook as Richard III, plus beloved costars Tony Robinson and Tim McInnery.  Later seasons honed the formula into a slightly more conventional sitcom (a lot of jokes get just the thinnest repaints as they recur year after year), but they also introduce a slew of terrific cast members, including Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Robbie Coltrane, Simon Jones and Jim Broadbent, who continued to breath fresh, exciting life into its ever-invigorating run.  So it might be nice if they got it right on home video.
The BBC released Blackadder on DVD with Warner Bros in a pretty definitive, five-disc "Complete Collector's Set" digibook in 2001.  And in 2005, they reissued the same set in a traditional amary case.  They also released seasons individually starting in 2001.  But however you decided to purchase it, these same discs were the sole, go-to way to add Blackadder to your home video collection here in the US.  But then, in 2009, BBC came out with a new, Remastered Ultimate Edition 6-disc digibook set (reissued in a traditional amary case in 2014), now in conjunction with 2 Entertain rather than Warner Bros... I'm guessing because rights lapsed.  This set's packaging proudly proclaims, in all caps, that it "INCLUDES EVERY EPISODE OF BLACKADDER DIGITALLY RESTORED FROM THE ORIGINAL PROGRAM MASTERS!"  Okay, we know it's all still SD, but still, for a big fan, it sounds worth upgrading to, no?
2001 BBC DVD top; 2014 BBC DVD bottom.
Well, have a look at the above.  Without looking at the caption, could you even tell me which was the remastered version?  They look like pretty much the same, garishly interlaced transfers to me.  To be fair, they're not identical.  They're both 1.33:1, but framing sometimes shifts slightly.  In the first set of shots, it moves a few pixels lower.  It doesn't in the second.  But at different points throughout the show, it sometimes shifts.  And if you're thinking that second set of shots are off a frame, that's because the one frame doesn't actually exist in the other transfer, which is almost certainly a symptom of these US DVDs simply re-encoding transfers made for UK PAL discs to NTSC.  But for all intents and purposes, despite these slight variations, there is no gain in PQ here.  And it goes a bit cheaper these days, but the "remastered" edition originally listed for $79.98.  That's a lot to throw down for no gain.  And let's look at some more.
2001 BBC DVD top; 2011 BBC DVD mid; 2014 BBC DVD bottom.
Blackadder's Christmas Carol
is a stand-alone television special from 1988, which means it originally aired between seasons 3 and 4.  It's a pretty fun subversion where Ebenezer Blackadder is an ultra-cheerful, kind man who's always in the holiday spirit and, we're told in the opening theme song, doesn't laugh at toilet humor.  He's visited by Christmas spirits not to teach him a lesson, but to simply reward him for a job well done, but the visions they show wind up convincing him the world is an unfair place, and he becomes the cynical, self-centered nihilist he's always been in his other iterations.

Besides the two sets, I also have this episode on a third DVD: disc 2 of the BBC and 2 Entertain's 2011 2-disc set, BBC Holiday Comedy Collection, which collects holiday specials from a variety of British comedies, from Are You Being Served? to The Vicar of Dibley.  Unsurprisingly, then, it's a closer match to the 2014 DVD, which was also put out in conjunction with 2 Entertain, although you'll notice slight differences with the framing across all three discs.  Still, while the brightness also slightly changes between the 2004 and newer discs, they are, in essence, all equally interlaced messes, and it feels pretty arbitrary to declare any one of them superior to the others.

I have read some reports that one joke was cut out of some versions of this special, but I'm happy to report that all three discs here have it properly included and are uncut.
2001 BBC DVD top; 2014 BBC DVD bottom.
Now, I left the negative space around the Cavalier Years (a 15-minute short shot for a Comic Relief television special in 1988) shots to show you a peculiarity in framing.  Notice how the 2001 DVD has a letterbox along the bottom.  The Remaster removes that, lowers the image, and in so doing, reveals more picture that had been trimmed along the top.  So that's a nice little correction.  But in those season 2 shots, the remaster actually zooms in, cropping the image along all four sides.  And just look at what they did to the 1999 Back & Forth special!  They've widened it to 1.78, yes revealing a little more along the sides, but blatantly stretching the image horizontally for the sake of "filling" modern televisions.  It's a disaster; I mean, just look at it.  So I'd say that's two steps forwards and one step back, but Back & Forth is a much more obvious flaw than any of the pros and cons in the others ones.  And yes, they're all still interlaced.  To be clear, everything, on every disc in both sets is interlaced.
All discs in both sets, and the Holiday Collection, feature Dolby 2.0 audio with optional English subtitles, except for Back and Forth, which both sets provide in 5.1.  But there is one important distinction I have to credit the Remastered edition with.  There is a joke in episode 3 of season 3 that has been cut out of the original DVD, but is restored in this Ultimate edition.  It's an inoffensive (and not particularly funny) reference to The Scarlet Pimpernel, so I doubt it was cut for censorious reasons... but for whatever reason it was missing from the old DVDs and it's back in the new ones.  So that's one real bit of good they did.
The other real good they did was cook up a bunch of new special features.  But that's undercut somewhat by the fact that they lost all the extras from the 2004 set.  Besides some inconsequential stuff in the disc menus and a few bonus trailers, the 2004 set chiefly has two noteworthy extras.  The first is a hefty, 25-minute on-camera interview with writer/ creator Richard Curtis.  And the second is an almost 20-minute featurette called Baldrick's Diary - The Making of Back & Forth.  Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that second one is on the new set, quite clearly on disc 5: Baldrick's Video Diary, a featurette on the making of Back & Forth.  But actually, these are quite different.  One mostly follows Curtis around, while the other is hosted and partially shot by Tony Robinson.  As you'd expect, they do cover much of the same ground; but they are actually two entirely different documentary shorts on the making of the same show, and serious fans will probably want both.
But it has to be said, The Ultimate Edition comes up with a whole lot more.  First, there are eight episode commentaries, sporadically appearing throughout seasons 2, 3 and 4.  Sometimes they're a little slow, but they're mostly all rather fun, and they change up the roster of who's speaking, so sometimes you'll get Rowan Atkinson with producer John Lloyd, or Lloyd with Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, or Tony Robinson and Tim McInnery.  Stephen Fry even does two solo.  And if that's not all, there's a new, one-hour retrospective documentary called Blackadder Rides Again, which is rather excellent.  And it's back up by almost two hours of extended interviews.  Put into competition, the new set of extras are clearly better.  But as a wise Old El Paso spokesperson once said, why don't we have both?
So it's a real mess.  It's not really "Controversial," because every review I've found just takes the BBC's word for it that the remastered versions are nice and very welcome improvements without any actual analysis of the picture quality.  Now we see how controversial this situation should have been.  Which set is better?  In some ways the Remastered Ultimate Edition did make some genuine improvements.  But in other ways, they actually made things worse and the original Complete Collector's Set remains preferable.  And most of the episodes just look equally poor on both.  Purists will need both sets so they can get all the uncut episodes looking as best they can, as well as both sets of extras.  But for most viewers, it's a frustrating and disappointing tie; and the only real solution would be for the BBC to finally bend down to restore everything for HD (without stretching it to 1.78!) and compiling all of the available extras... maybe even a few new ones.  But it's been a long time with no sign of any such project coming so far, so we'll probably have to make do.  But whatever you decide to get or not get, at least know that this remastering business was pretty much a crock.


  1. I've owned the original since release and since the remaster release I've been looking for an image comparison online but have never found one. Thank you so much for your work here, it basically confirms my what I already suspected.

  2. Why wouldn't the discs be interlaced? That's how it was made - 50i field-based interlaced VT. It would only be progressive if they messed up the process (either clicking the wrong flag during authoring, or ingesting the tapes incorrectly, both of which have happened quite a lot in the UK and Europe over the past few years). Interlacing is a good thing here, and you shouldn't see combing if everything is set up correctly, just a very smooth but soft picture. Visible combing would be weave deinterlacing by the player instead of the correct bob (no pun intended). The Blackadder discs were definitely mastered correctly (unlike the US release of Dr Who's The Moonbase for example), 50i for the UK and 60i for America using motion estimated conversion.

    As for the "remaster", it is, as you spotted, pants. It was done by an outside company that no longer exists who were able to do nice work with film but nothing existing on a tape. Their "remastering" of old video involved zooming the picture and blasting with noise reduction, plus softening the picture to reduce jitter caused by the zooming. If it had been handled internally this wouldn't have happened, and we might also have had new transfers of the series one film inserts. But the job went to the company down the road.

    As for edits, the Pimpernel episode had rights issues - seems no one checked that Scarlet Pimpernel was still in copyright. So it wasn't always shown in each repeat run, and sometimes the lines from the book were snipped. The other edit was to Xmas Carol about five minutes in. The UK transmission master had the bit about coming back at Easter to see them nail up the dog cut after the first or second tx, and only earlier dubs keep it intact (e.g. the copy used for the original US disc, and the dub provided to UKTV channels like Gold and Dave).

    Back and Forth is meant to be 16:9 as it was intended for cinema (at the Millennium Dome). The initial US version was open matte in the old school way, with some clipping of the sides. I think the geometry of the American widescreen transfer is a bit off because someone stretched it to remove the little blanking bars on the sides during the standards conversion (as seen on the PAL disc).

    As for a blu-ray, if it was like Fawlty Towers then we'd just get upscales of the "remastered" dvds with the remaining fine detail filtered off (the Fawlty remasters themselves, in SD, are good work done inside what was BBC Resources - but that's all closed down now). The recent Only Fools blu ray wasn't that bad though, all work done fresh, but that was mostly film based work and there were still some little quirks I'd have preferred not to see, like a little too much DNR and off flesh tones even for British skin.

    1. Yeah, that may've been an over-simplified way to review the interlacing on my part. But you sound like you know your stuff, so you know there's more to it than a binary "Interlaced/ Progressive" or "Interlaced Y/N" question. An extreme example would be the US Sword of Honor DVD (review coming soon!), which clearly took a transfer with interlace combing in it and re-encoded it, adding a lot more/ worse interlacing on top. I'm not saying Blackadder has done that (though I wouldn't be 100% surprised either), but the frame rate and interlacing is clearly messed up somehow... how else is it possible that there are entire frames that exist on one version and not the other? And certainly, comparing the interlacing on these discs to, say, Network's recent Monty Python remasters, the combing looks far less destructive to the original image than this... Of course, that was a recent HD release, but it's still another decades old British television film/ video hybrid that I think shows the interlacing wouldn't have to look as nasty as it does here if the BBC did it right.

      And you're right - I didn't even notice that the Ultimate Edition puts episode 1 first! Sheesh. It's a good thing they came up with new extras (and goodness only knows why the made-for-DVD Blackadder Rides Again disc would also be interlaced?), or it would've been a complete rip-off. At least we get the restored joke and some new content...

  3. PS. Not having a moan at you personally (aside from the interlacing...), but this "remaster", with my deliberate quotation marks, is a real pet peeve of mine. It was bollocksed from the start, with issues even a quick Google search could have avoided. And these people had access to masters and original paperwork! (Note how the remaster uses the original, unintended broadcast order for series one, unlike every single other release on any format ever that uses the correct, intended order.)

  4. Why Isn't "Black Adder: Back & Forth" not included in the British Blu-ray Collection. The set wouldn't be complete without it.

    1. Perhaps because SkyTV produced it, so there's a separate licensing issue? It is a real shame though, and obviously they were able to pull it off previously for the DVDs. So it's definitely a bummer.