Blackadder

Blackadder is a series of four BBC1 pseudohistorical British sitcoms, plus several one-off instalments, which originally aired in the 1980s. All television episodes starred Rowan Atkinson as the anti-hero Edmund Blackadder, and Tony Robinson as Blackadder’s dogsbody, Baldrick. Each series was set in a different historical period, with the two protagonists accompanied by different characters, though several reappear in one series or another, for example Melchett (Stephen Fry) and Lord Flashheart (Rik Mayall).

The first series, The Black Adder, was written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, while subsequent episodes were written by Curtis and Ben Elton. The shows were produced by John Lloyd. In 2000, the fourth series, Blackadder Goes Forth, ranked at 16 in the “100 Greatest British Television Programmes”, a list created by the British Film Institute. In the 2004 TV poll to find “Britain’s Best Sitcom”, Blackadder was voted the second-best British sitcom of all time, topped by Only Fools and Horses. It was also ranked as the 9th-best TV show of all time by Empire magazine.

Although each series is set in a different era, all follow the misfortunes of Edmund Blackadder (played by Atkinson), who in each is a member of a British family dynasty present at many significant periods and places in British history. It is implied in each series that the Blackadder character is a descendant of the previous one (the end theme lyrics of series 2, episode “Head”, specify that he is the great-grandson of the previous), although it is never specified how or when any of the Blackadders (who are usually bachelors) managed to father children.

In series one, Edmund Blackadder is not particularly bright, and is much the intellectual inferior of his servant, Baldrick (played by Tony Robinson). However, in subsequent series, the positions are reversed; Blackadder is clever, shrewd, scheming and manipulative, while Baldrick is extremely dim. Each incarnation of Blackadder and Baldrick is also saddled with tolerating the presence of a dim-witted aristocrat. This role was taken in the first two series by Lord Percy Percy, played by Tim McInnerny; with Hugh Laurie playing the role in the third and fourth series, as Prince George, Prince Regent; and Lieutenant George, respectively.

Each series was set in a different period of British history, beginning in 1485 and ending in 1917, and comprised six half-hour episodes. The first series, made in 1983, was called The Black Adder and was set in the fictional reign of “Richard IV”. The second series, Blackadder II (1986), was set during the reign of Elizabeth I. Blackadder the Third (1987) was set during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the reign of George III, and Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) was set in 1917 in the trenches of the Great War.

The Black Adder, the first series of Blackadder, was written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson and produced by John Lloyd. It originally aired on BBC1 from 15 June 1983 to 20 July 1983, and was a joint production with the Australian Seven Network.

Set in 1485 at the end of the British Middle Ages, the series is written as an alternative history in which King Richard III won the Battle of Bosworth Field only to be mistaken for someone else and murdered, and is succeeded by Richard IV (Brian Blessed), one of the Princes in the Tower. The series follows the exploits of Richard IV’s unfavoured second son Edmund, the Duke of Edinburgh (who calls himself “The Black Adder”) in his various attempts to increase his standing with his father and his eventual quest to overthrow him.

Conceived while Atkinson and Curtis were working on Not the Nine O’Clock News, the series dealt comically with a number of aspects of medieval life in Britain: witchcraft, Royal succession, European relations, the Crusades, and the conflict between the Church and the Crown. Along with the secret history, many historical events portrayed in the series were anachronistic (for example, Constantinople had already fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, predating the events in the episode by 33 years); this dramatic licence would continue in the subsequent Blackadders. The filming of the series was highly ambitious, with a large cast and much location shooting. The series also featured Shakespearean dialogue, often adapted for comic effect; the end credits featured the words “Additional Dialogue by William Shakespeare”.

Blackadder II is set in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), who is portrayed by Miranda Richardson. The principal character is Edmund, Lord Blackadder, the great-grandson of the original Black Adder. During the series, he regularly deals with the Queen, her obsequious Lord Chamberlain Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry) – his rival – and the Queen’s demented former nanny Nursie (Patsy Byrne).

Following the BBC’s request for improvements (and a severe budget reduction), several changes were made. The second series was the first to establish the familiar Blackadder character: cunning, shrewd and witty, in sharp contrast to the first series’ bumbling Prince Edmund. To reduce the cost of production, it was shot with virtually no outdoor scenes (the first series was shot largely on location) and several frequently used indoor sets, such as the Queen’s throne room and Blackadder’s front room.

A quote from this series ranked number three in a list of the top 25 television “putdowns” of the last 40 years by the Radio Times magazine: “The eyes are open, the mouth moves, but Mr. Brain has long since departed, hasn’t he, Percy?”

Blackadder the Third is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a period known as the Regency. In the series, Edmund Blackadder Esquire is the butler to the Prince Regent, the Prince of Wales (the prince is played by Hugh Laurie as a complete fop and idiot). Despite Edmund’s respected intelligence and abilities, he has no personal fortune to speak of, apart from his frequently fluctuating wage packet (as well, it seems, from stealing and selling off the Prince’s socks) from the Prince: “If I’m running short of cash, all I have to do is go upstairs and ask Prince Fathead for a rise.”

As well as Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson in their usual roles, this series starred Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent, and Helen Atkinson-Wood as Mrs. Miggins. The series features Dr. Samuel Johnson (Robbie Coltrane); William Pitt the Younger (Simon Osborne); the French Revolution (with Chris Barrie, Nigel Planer as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Tim McInnerny); ham theatrical actors (Kenneth Connor and Hugh Paddick); a squirrel-hating cross-dressing highwayman (Miranda Richardson); and a duel with the Duke of Wellington (Stephen Fry).

Blackadder Goes Forth is set in 1917, on the Western Front in the trenches of the First World War. Another “big push” is planned, and Captain Blackadder’s one goal is to avoid being killed, but his schemes always land him back in the trenches. Blackadder is joined by his batman Private S. Baldrick (Tony Robinson) and idealistic Edwardian twit Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie). General Melchett (Stephen Fry) rallies his troops from a French château thirty-five miles from the front, where he is aided and abetted by his assistant, Captain Kevin Darling (Tim McInnerny), pencil-pusher supreme and Blackadder’s nemesis, whose name is played on for maximum comedic value.

The series’ tone is somewhat darker than the other Blackadders; it details the deprivations of trench warfare as well as the incompetence and life-wasting strategies of the top brass. For example, Baldrick is reduced to making coffee from mud and cooking rats, while General Melchett hatches a plan for the troops to walk very slowly toward the German lines, because “it’ll be the last thing Fritz will expect.”

The final episode, “Goodbyeee”, is known for being extraordinarily poignant for a comedy – especially the final scene, which sees the main characters (Blackadder, Baldrick, George, and Darling) finally going “over the top” and charging off into the fog and smoke of no man’s land to die. In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000 and voted for by industry professionals, Blackadder Goes Forth was placed 16th.

The Blackadder pilot was shot but never broadcast on terrestrial TV in the UK (although some scenes were shown in the 25th anniversary special Blackadder Rides Again). One notable difference in the pilot, as in many pilots, is the casting. Baldrick is played not by Tony Robinson, but by Philip Fox. Another significant difference is that the character of Prince Edmund presented in the pilot is much closer to the intelligent, conniving Blackadder of the later series than the snivelling, weak buffoon of the original. Set in the year 1582, the script of the pilot is roughly the same as the episode “Born to Be King”, albeit with some different jokes, with some lines appearing in other episodes of the series.

The Cavalier Years, set in the English Civil War, was shown as part of Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day on Friday 5 February 1988. The 15-minute episode is set in November 1648, during the last days of the Civil War. Sir Edmund Blackadder and his servant, Baldrick, are the last two men loyal to the defeated King Charles I of England (played by Stephen Fry, portrayed as a soft-spoken, ineffective, naive character, with the voice and mannerisms of Charles I’s namesake, the current Prince of Wales). However, due to a misunderstanding between Oliver Cromwell (guest-star Warren Clarke) and Baldrick, the king is arrested and sent to the Tower of London. The rest of the episode revolves around Blackadder’s attempts to save the king, as well as improve his standing.

The second special was broadcast on Friday 23 December 1988. In a twist on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Blackadder is the “kindest and loveliest” man in England. The Spirit of Christmas shows Blackadder the contrary antics of his ancestors and descendants, and reluctantly informs him that if he turns evil his descendants will enjoy power and fortune, while if he remains the same a future Blackadder will live shamefully subjugated to a future incompetent Baldrick. This remarkable encounter causes him to proclaim, “Bad guys have all the fun”, and adopt the personality with which viewers are more familiar.

Blackadder: Back & Forth was originally shown in the Millennium Dome in 2000, followed by a screening on Sky One in the same year (and later on BBC1). It is set on the turn of the millennium, and features Lord Blackadder placing a bet with his friends – modern versions of Queenie (Miranda Richardson), Melchett (Stephen Fry), George (Hugh Laurie) and Darling (Tim McInnerny) – that he has built a working time machine. While this is intended as a clever con trick, the machine surprisingly works, sending Blackadder and Baldrick back to the Cretaceous period, where they manage to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs through the use of Baldrick’s best-worst-and-only pair of underpants as a weapon against a hungry T. Rex. Finding that Baldrick has forgotten to write dates on the machine’s dials, the rest of the film follows their attempts to find their way back to 1999, often creating huge historical anomalies in the process that must be corrected before the end. The film includes cameo appearances from Kate Moss and Colin Firth.

Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis developed the idea for the sitcom while working on Not the Nine O’Clock News. Eager to avoid comparisons to the critically acclaimed Fawlty Towers, they proposed the idea of a historical sitcom. An unaired pilot episode was made in 1982, and a six-episode series was commissioned. The budget for the series was considerable, with much location shooting particularly at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland and the surrounding countryside in February 1983. The series also used large casts of extras, horses and expensive medieval-style costumes.

Atkinson has said about the making of the first series-

The first series was odd, it was very extravagant. It cost a million pounds for the six programmes … [which] was a lot of money to spend … It looked great, but it wasn’t as consistently funny as we would have liked.

Each series tended to feature the same set of regular actors in different period settings, although throughout the four series and specials, only Blackadder and Baldrick were constant characters. Several regular cast members recurred as characters with similar names, implying, like Blackadder, that they were descendants.

Howard Goodall’s theme tune has the same melody throughout all the series, but is played in roughly the style of the period in which it is set. It is performed mostly with trumpets and timpani in The Black Adder, the fanfares used suggesting typical medieval court fanfares; with a combination of recorder, string quartet and electric guitar in Blackadder II; on oboe, cello and harpsichord (in the style of a minuet) for Blackadder the Third; by The Band of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment in Blackadder Goes Forth; sung by carol singers in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol; and by an orchestra in Blackadder: The Cavalier Years and Blackadder: Back & Forth.

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