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We hail Blackadder, we hail Blackadder!
Forty years on, the historical comedy remains timeless
What do these famous figures from British history all have in common? Elizabeth I, George III, George IV, Victoria and Albert, the Duke of Wellington, Dr Samuel Johnson, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Douglas Haig, Richard III, er Richard IV, William Pitt the Younger, William Pitt the Even Younger….
They’re all, of course, characters in the greatest tale of our island story, a giant rollercoaster of a comedy in four sizzling chapters, one that was first shown 40 years ago today.
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I was nine years old, in my second year of a new school, and my memory of this period in my life is rich with new sensations. I strongly recall the huge excitement, the love affair, of discovering a television show that made me laugh endlessly like nothing else, about a sarcastic and conniving butler who worked for an unbelievably stupid and lazy prince. In the playground I would repeat every line from the previous night’s episode, ad nauseam. I haven’t stopped since.
I imagine that this is quite a common feeling but some of my warmest early childhood memories involve watching comedy, almost always on the BBC; from a very early age there was The Lenny Henry Show, then Smith and Jones, and later Red Dwarf. Amid this rosy Auntie childhood, however, two programmes stood above all others in my affection, The Young Ones but perhaps most of all Blackadder.
I was probably always going to love history — my dad was obsessed with it — but Blackadder helped imprint the idea that the past can be one great black comedy. History is funny because people’s behaviour is often quite irrational, or spiteful, or motivated by petty reasons that contrast with their high-minded principles — and no doubt we will seem the same to future generations, too.
That was the whole idea behind Blackadder because, as creator Richard Curtis points out in a documentary screened tonight on Gold, he’s ‘a modern person in the stupidity of ancient times’.
Yet when the idea was first proposed by Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, they were advised that there are two sitcom premises that can never work — shows set in heaven and hell, or those in historical settings. And Blackadder was lucky to survive its first season.
Atkinson and Curtis had met at Oxford, going on to work together on Not the Nine O'Clock News,where they’d met producer John Lloyd. The two men were inspired by Fawlty Towers, but were also determined to avoid any comparison with John Cleese and Connie Booth’s great creation, so decided on a setting as far removed from a south coast hotel as possible.
Aired on 15 June, 1983, The Black Adder was quite lavish. There were location shots in places like Alnwick Castle and huge amounts spent on costumes and horses. Curtis says that one of the hats Atkinson wore was worth more than he was paid for writing the episode. It featured such big names as Brian Blessed and Peter Cook, the godfather of alternative comedy whose presence granted the show its place in the apostolic succession. But, while the first series has its moments, it was flawed; the original Blackadder was a weasel-like and pathetic figure, and less clever than his sidekick Baldrick. The comedy didn’t exactly work.
Yet in the original pilot episode, previously available on YouTube in parts but being screened in full in tonight’s documentary, Edmund Blackadder is far closer to his later character. Much about it feels familiar — indeed the basic story is recycled in a later episode — but for the obvious absence of Tony Robinson, who had been auditioned but was unavailable at the time. Baldrick is instead played by Philip Fox, and while Robinson is characteristically generous to Fox, Tony Robinson really *was* Baldrick; it could not have been any other.
The Black Adder won an international Emmy and has its fans, but it might have become a largely forgotten moment in British television history had BBC One’s controller Michael Grade not been convinced to commission a second series, on condition of certain changes. (It’s debatable whether in today’s more cut-throat TV industry such long-term thinking would be possible.)
Things did change thanks to Curtis meeting comedian Ben Elton, at this point perhaps best known for co-writing The Young Ones. Elton has been much maligned down the years for his politics, which attracts critics from Left and Right, and for instigating a form of political comedy which later became very tired because the people doing it were quite clearly now the establishment. His stand-up routines about ‘Fatcha!’ were perhaps the ancestor of today’s satire punching the corpse of the old order, but he was very funny.
And to many of us growing up in the 1980s, and who watched a lot of television, Elton was sort of the centre of our world, and a highly intelligent man with a love of history, and from a distinguished family, his uncle being the great historian Geoffrey Elton.
The younger Elton, although he had never seen the pilot, suggested a change in character that was actually closer to that original incarnation, with the more familiar set up where Edmund is clever and caustic, and Baldrick is utterly dim-witted and gormless — and the stupider Baldrick gets, the more the British people loved him.
Blackadder now became the epitome of the trapped man, a frustrated individual of a certain status in society who believes himself to be worthy of much more, and who is surrounded by stupidity. Basil Fawlty was a trapped man, as was Harold Steptoe and (more literally) Porridge’s Fletch, and Blackadder would in turn influence later comedies such as Fr Ted (in another documentary shown on Gold, Fr Dougal actor Ardal O’Hanlon cites Baldrick as an inspiration, as you’d expect). The use of history as comedy also influenced what I regard as the best children’s television show of my lifetime, Horrible Histories.
Blackadder’s humour stems from the fact that ‘he’s a bully to the people below him and sucks up to the people above him’, as John Lloyd put it. He resents the social hierarchy not because he has any principled opposition to it, but because he thinks he should be nearer the top, represented by the girlishly menacing Miranda Richardson as the Tudor tyrant.
Blackadder II aired at the start of January 1986, and had a much smaller budget and a simpler set up — and it was far, far funnier, the protagonist no longer a conniving weasel but a court sycophant with Baldrick and Percy as comedy punchbags.
‘Well, it is said, Percy, that civilised man seeks out good and intelligent company, so that through learned discourse he may rise above the savage and closer to God…. Personally, however, I like to start the day with a total dickhead to remind me I’m best.’
(Fans of comedy shows who quote the lines endlessly can become quite tedious but, well, tough.)
Or: ‘The eyes are open, the mouth moves, but Mr. Brain has long since departed, hasn’t he, Percy?’
Towards Baldrick he is somewhat more indulgent, telling him that ‘Thinking is so important’.
‘I've been in your service since I was two and a half my Lord,’ his dogsbody protests upon being thrown out: ‘Well that is why I am so utterly sick of the sight of you.’
Elton also thought the medieval era to be too squalid and wanted Season 2 set in the ‘sexier’ Elizabethan era (and indeed Edmund’s outfit is rather sexy, as Percy might put it).
Elton was the leader of the alternative comedy world and with his arrival came the best comedy actors of the age, including three cast members from The Young Ones. Among the most memorable was Rik Mayall as Lord Flashheart — ‘the best sword, the best shot, the best sailor and the best kisser in the kingdom’ — who turns up in episode one of Season 2, ‘Bells’, and steals Blackadder’s bride Bob/Kate, announcing ‘She’s got a tongue like an electric eel and she likes the taste of a man’s tonsils.’
Season 2 had too many great moments and characters to mention, although Tom Baker’s Captain Redbeard Rum (‘you have a woman’s hands’) was especially memorable. Personally, the scene that still brings the biggest smile is when Percy tries to help Edmund’s financial troubles by dabbling in alchemy and discovers ‘purest green’.
‘Now, look, Percy, I don’t mean to be pedantic or anything, but the colour of gold... is gold. That’s why it's called gold. What you have discovered, if it has a name, is some... Green.’
Each Blackadder is the descendent of the previous incarnation, and in successive series the protagonist falls down a notch on the social hierarchy, from prince to lord to royal butler to low-ranking officer, adding to his sense of frustration (and fitting in with Gregory Clark’s theory of English history).
Blackadder the Third was far more overtly about class, with Edmund now sandwiched between a cretinous toff who can’t put his trousers on and a credulous peasant whose only life goal is to acquire more turnips.
As Tim McInnerny chose not to return for Season 3 because the character of Percy was dominating his career, a reasonable and common fear among actors, so Hugh Laurie’s Prince George became the new foil. ‘We took Percy,’ Curtis says, ‘and scooped out the final teaspoon full of brains’. Elton even made a cameo as a revolutionary trying to kill the unpopular Prince Regent (‘Why, The Public Love Me! Only The Other Day I Was Out In The Street And They Sang, “We Hail Prince George!” “We Hail Prince George!” ‘“We *hate* Prince George”, sir. “We *hate* Prince George”’.)
It opens with an attempt by the new Prime Minister, the adolescent William Pitt the Younger, to bankrupt the spendthrift Prince of Wales, causing Blackadder to organise a cunning plan to contest a rotten borough following the death of the reactionary backbencher Sir Talbot Buxomly.
McInnerny made an appearance in an episode satirising The Scarlet Pimpernel, playing a fop alongside Nigel Planer of The Young Ones, getting into a protracted argument with Chris Barrie’s revolutionary. Season 3 also featured the late Robbie Coltrane as Dr Samuel Johnson (Coltrane would play Johnson in a serious role later, just as Stephen Fry played Wellington again, in Sabotage). In that much quoted episode, Baldrick ends up burning the manuscript of his master’s great novel Edmund, a Butler’s Tale, something which really happened to Thomas Carlyle, who sent the manuscript of his History of the French Revolution to John Stuart Mill, whose maid burned it, thinking it was wastepaper.
The series concludes with Stephen Fry’s Wellington forcing Blackadder — pretending to be the Prince of Wales — to fight a duel, except with cannons.
‘Swords! What do you think this is, the middle ages? Only girls fight with swords these days. Stand by your gun sir. Hup two three. Hup two three.’
The Iron Duke proceeds to prepare his weapon while Blackadder reads out the instructions. ‘Congratulations on choosing the Armstrong Whitworth four pounder cannonnette. Please read the instructions carefully and it should give years of trouble-free maiming.’
By now Blackadder was a much-loved comedy. Robinson has said how the popularity of the show took a while to dawn on him, realising its huge success when people started sending him turnips through the post. But the final series confirmed its status as an institution.
Blackadder Goes Forth was set in that ultimate of trapped spaces, the trenches. It proved both the most influential and, to some extent, the most difficult. The closer that history gets to the present day, the more difficult it is to employ dark humour, and the Western Front is the most painful event in British history.
It is also one of the most debated. The topic of rotten boroughs is hardly contested today, nor is the religious persecution of the Tudor period (‘I am the new minister in charge of religious genocide’, Edmund tells Ploppy the Jailer.)
Yet the wisdom or necessity of joining the Great War is a living controversy; from the 1960s and the play Oh! What a Lovely War, the television documentary The Great War and Alan Clark’s book The Donkeys, the popular view has moved away from 1914-1918 as being a horrible necessity (as it was thought until the late 1920s) and towards the idea that it was a senseless waste of life presided over by callous generals on both sides.
‘The popularity of the series is attributable in large part to the sheer quality of the scripts, which blend perfectly with the sparkling performances of the actors. The element of conflict, which lies at the heart of much great comedy, is provided by Blackadder’s clashes with his real enemies, who are not the Germans but the brainless, braying Melchett and the cowardly, column-dodging Darling. But there is another reason for the success of Blackadder Goes Forth. It reflected and reinforced the majority of the public’s views and emotions about the Great War.’
So opens Gary Sheffield’s Forgotten Victory, a book which sets out to counter what some even came to call ‘the Blackadder view’ of the war. In particular, Sheffield disputes the characterisation of Field Marshal Haig as a man who would sweep figures off a board as he planned his next mindless bloodbath.
Yet whether or not we went to war because ‘it was too much effort not to have a war’, the sheer scale of the wasted lives, of young German, French and British men told to kill each other, still has an awesome senselessness brilliantly portrayed in six episodes.
The series has many great moments — Rik Mayall returned as Flashheart, this time a fighter ace opposite Adrian Edmondson’s Red Baron: ‘How lucky you English are to find the toilet so amusing!’ the German tells his prisoners, who are in fact quite keen to stay captured: ‘To us, it is a mundane and functional item. To you, it is the basis of an entire culture.’ Blackadder fans also have a special soft spot for ‘Corporal Punishment’, where the captain is court-martialed for shooting General Melchett’s favourite carrier pigeon, Speckled Jim.
(Although Richardson returned in seasons 3 and 4, actor Lee Cornes is the only person to play three completely different minor characters in the series, as a guard for Hugh Laurie’s Prince Ludwig, as the poet Shelley, and as one of the banterous firing squad team assigned to shoot Blackadder).
Historical comedy has to play on easily recognisable tropes — the medieval as superstitious, Tudors as cruel — and Laurie’s Lieutenant George represents the public school spirit of the Belle Époque, an elite installed with patriotism, a sense of fair play, and an idea of war as an extension of sport, a world blown away in the Trenches. (Indeed, Lieutenant George would have had the worst life expectancy of all the characters.)
Yet for all his idiocy, in a moment of great poignancy in the final episode, Lieutenant George reflects on how all his friends from Cambridge are now dead and he too is scared of dying. It is this final episode that proved the most powerful of all. Black comedy works best if the moments of release and absurdity are abruptly interrupted by the full horror of reality, and as time runs out on the series the approaching carnage becomes more unavoidable.
Even Captain Darling achieves a moment of final comradeship with Blackadder, realising he’s not going back to Doris after all. ‘Made a note in my diary on the way here,’ he says: ‘Simply says, “bugger”.’
Finally, as they prepare to go over, Baldrick announces: ‘I have a plan, sir.’
‘Really, Baldrick? A cunning and subtle one?’
‘As cunning as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University?’
‘Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?’
He blows his whistle, and says ‘Good luck, everyone.’
Like millions of viewers, I remember the intense sadness of watching that final scene. Unsurprisingly, then, there has been much speculation about a fifth series ever since; there was talk of a Blackadder set in the 1960s, either based on a rock band called the Black Adder Five, with drummer Bald Rick, or one about university dons who hate the young students. Most interesting was the The Red Adder, with Blackadder an officer in the tsarist secret police who after the Russian Revolution works in the same job in the safe office, but with a different colour on his uniform — with Rik Mayall as Rasputin.
Nothing came of it, and much as the fans were left disappointed, it was surely for the best. Blackadder left the stage at just the right moment, and in just the right way, and after forty years the memories remain as golden — or green — as ever.
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