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Ink and Incapability
Ink and Incapability
Blackadder the Third, Episode 2
Written by Richard Curtis & Ben Elton
Directed by Mandie Fletcher
Guest stars Robbie Coltrane
Original airdate 24 September 1987
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"Ink and Incapability" is the second episode of the third series of the BBC sitcom Blackadder.


Samuel Johnson (Robbie Coltrane) seeks Prince George's patronage for his new book, A Dictionary of the English Language. The Prince – seeking to amend his reputation as an "utter turnip-head" – is interested, but Blackadder tries to turn him against the idea, condemning the dictionary as "the most pointless book since 'How to Learn French' was translated into French". It soon emerges that Blackadder resents Johnson for apparently ignoring his novel "Edmund: A Butler's Tale", which, under the pseudonym of "Gertrude Perkins", he had secretly sent to Johnson in the hope that he would get it published.

Johnson has a meeting with the Prince, during which George fails to grasp the purpose of the Dictionary and Blackadder infuriates Johnson by continuously inventing and using new words in order to convince him that his work is incomplete. However, on learning that Dr. Johnson had also intended, if given the Prince's patronage, to promote "Edmund: A Butler's Tale" – a book Johnson considers to be the only one better than his – Blackadder persuades George that he should, in fact, support the dictionary.

However, when Blackadder seeks to retrieve the dictionary for Johnson, Baldrick admits that he has used it to light a fire for the Prince. Blackadder decides to find out where a copy of the dictionary is kept and have Baldrick steal it, threatening all manner of hellish tortures involving a small lead pencil that could rival an eternity in Hell with Beelzebub in five minutes if he doesn't comply. Repairing to "Mrs. Miggins' Literary Salon", where Johnson and his admirers (Byron, Shelley and Coleridge) are socialising, Blackadder attempts to find out where a copy is kept, but Johnson indignantly proclaims that there is none, considering it "like fitting wheels to a tomato, time-consuming and completely unnecessary". Under threat of horrendously painful deaths from Johnson and his devotees, including an Oriental disemboweling cutlass up a certain part of his anatomy, Blackadder desperately attempts to recreate the Dictionary before Johnson discovers the truth. Baldrick and George try to assist, but their efforts are of little help (Blackadder: "Have you got 'C'?" Baldrick: "Yes. 'C: Big blue wobbly thing that mermaids live in.'") After several hours, all Blackadder has written is a fairly inaccurate definition of an aardvark: "Medium-sized insectivore with protruding nasal implement", causing him to vow that if he ever meets one, he will step on its protruding nasal implement until it couldn't suck up an insect if its life depended on it.

The next morning, Johnson and his devotees arrive at the palace, demanding the dictionary. He explains that he has worked on this book 18 hours every day these past 10 years, ignoring his mother's death, his father's suicide, and his wife leaving him. Just as the enraged literati are about to kill Blackadder, the Prince emerges from his room, holding the dictionary and offering his patronage. It is ultimately revealed that Baldrick did not burn the dictionary but instead burned the only copy of Blackadder's novel (which Johnson had also brought with him when visiting the Prince). Blackadder is, of course, devastated. Johnson departs in a fit of rage on realising that his dictionary is missing the word "sausage" after he reads Baldrick's "semi-autobiographical" novel ("Once upon a time there was a lovely little sausage called Baldrick, and it lived happily ever after.") The episode ends with Baldrick lighting another fire and this time burning the actual dictionary.

Historical and cultural references[]

Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge appear in this episode, hanging around Mrs. Miggins' coffee shop and lamenting their drug addiction, tuberculosis and other woes. They are billed in the credits as "romantic junkie poets". Later in the episode they are seen hanging around Samuel Johnson. However, most Romantic poets such as Coleridge would have opposed to Johnson's views on poetry and literature. While explaining his pseudonym to Baldrick, Blackadder claims that Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth are men (especially Jane Austen, who is actually "a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush"), and the only female writer in England is James Boswell. These untruths are naturally meant to be comical references to female authors of that time who published under male names as women were discouraged to pursue such "manly professions". Baldrick's destruction of Blackadder's novel and Dr. Johnson's dictionary by mistakenly tossing them in the fire is the manner in which the manuscript of Thomas Carlyle's 1837 history "The French Revolution" was destroyed by John Stuart Mill's maid. While exaggerated for comic effect in this episode, there was a trend of Royal philistinism during this era. Either George III or his younger brother Prince William is believed to have said, when presented with a complementary copy of Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire": "Another damn great, thick book! Scribble, scribble, scribble, Mr Gibbon, heh?" While writing the dictionary, the word "a" is described by Blackadder as an impersonal pronoun. It is in fact an indefinite article, which is then defined by Prince George as "doesn't really mean anything". Johnson's dictionary is indeed missing a definition for the Afrikaans word "aardvark", as the Afrikaans language did not exist during his lifetime. But it does contain "sausage", albeit in the wrong spot for alphabetical order, so it is entirely possible for someone to assume that it is missing.

Inaccuracies and anachronisms[]

  • Samuel Johnson actually published his dictionary in 1755, seven years before the Prince was born. Johnson died in 1784, 25 years before Prince George became Regent.
  • Likewise, Byron, Shelley and Coleridge, though contemporaries of each other and the Prince, would never have met Johnson.
  • Blackadder and Samuel Johnson both describe Blackadder's book as "a roller coaster of a novel". As the series take place in the 18th century, the "roller coaster" anachronism is obvious.
  • A reference is made to Thomas More about the fact that he was burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism. More was actually beheaded for his refusal to swear to the Act of Succession.