Looking Back At BLACKADDER - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At BLACKADDER

Tony's pot is blacker than his kettle.
The Black Adder (and the subsequent varieties, all of which turned the title into one word, and a name – Blackadder), was a landmark attempt by comedian Rowan Atkinson to create something that rarely – oh, so rarely – works: a historical sitcom.

Frankie Howerd had done it with Up Pompeii! But that was a fourth wall-breaking, but otherwise very traditional, Brit-com of woe, the put-upon lead character observing the madness all around him, with a modern understanding and a straight down the camera lens wink.

The likes of Chelmsford 123 and Plebs were in the future.

The original Black Adder, released in 1983, was a very different beast from Howerd’s Pompeii. Right from the beginning, it existed in a pocket of British history which didn’t exist, where the Princes in the Tower hadn’t died, where Richard III (played on screen by Peter Cook, mercilessly riffing off Shakespeare) was a good and kindly monarch, and where Prince Richard (one of those in the Tower) grew up to be King Richard IV (played by Brian Blessed as one in his long career of booming, war-obsessed maniacs).

Richard IV has two sons – the elder, the competent but dull Harry, Prince of Wales…and the younger, Edmund, the Duke of Edinburgh, a spineless weasel of a man who nevertheless has a big impact on history as we know it – or don’t.
Atkinson is Edmund, a man of no identifiable talent but unstoppable ambition, so close to the crown of England, but stopped from rising to it by his decent brother and demented father. He is joined in his scheming by a dim noble, Sir Percy Percy, Duke of Northumberland (Tim McInerny), and a crafty, loathsome peasant by the name of Baldrick (Tony Robinson).

When crossed in his ambitions, Edmund carves himself a new identity – The Black Adder – and resolves to become the most successful evil schemer in English history (and, we’re probably meant to think, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s villain, Edmund the Bastard in King Lear).

Cue a window into the medieval world, via the plans and schemes of this scheming, cowardly idiot.

Rowan Atkinson had learned before embarking on The Black Adder, both from his tours as a sketch comedian and from his time as part of the Not The Nine O’Clock News team, that he had several strings to his comedy bow. He could use his moveable face, gimlet eye and a burned-cork voice to give other characters or the audience a real tongue-lashing, or he could regress inward to a weaselly, self-interested voice and face, allowing the audience a sense of comedy superiority – a persona he was later to monetize as Mr Bean.

The original Black Adder is very much in this second, Bean-ish style of Atkinson comedy, in a way coming back to Frankie Howerd, showing us the madness of the medieval world and its beliefs but from a position of put-upon weakness, rather than superior intellect and contempt.

While it definitely works, showing everything from the ludicrous nature of the relationship between the church and the state in the middle ages, the belief in witches and witch-burning, the writing of history by the winners and more, the heavy burden of the world it created – that pocket of non-existent English history – made the original Black Adder sometimes a little hard for occasional viewers to follow, and Atkinson’s original Edmund a little too pathetic to really root for.

But it had done enough to secure a second series – a tricky prospect when you know how series 1 ends.
When the redeveloped Blackadder II arrived in 1986, the writing team had changed, from Richard (yes, that guy from the movies) Curtis and Rowan Atkinson to Richard (yes, still that guy) Curtis and Ben Elton, himself fresh off the back of success with The Young Ones.

And crucially, there was a shift in the nature of what being a Blackadder meant. The ambition for self-advancement was still there, glittering in Atkinson’s eye. But instead of the wheedling wannabe, the second Edmund Blackadder played on Atkinson’s strength at delivering sexy, vicious nastiness. The series moved the Blackadder family down the line in history, so that Edmund Blackadder was now a courtier of Queen Elizabeth I (played with a demented whimsy by Miranda Richardson).

Tim McInerny and Tony Robinson resumed their roles as Percy and Baldrick, heirs to the originals, except now more distinctly mirrored the class divide – there was posh or fashionable idiocy by Percy, and proletarian, grubby idiocy by Baldrick. The addition of Stephen Fry as rival courtier Lord Melchett, and of Elizabeth’s nurse (real name Bernard, known as Nursie), played by Patsy Byrne, gave Curtis and Elton lots of angles on the court dynamic, and helped throw the new Blackadder into whole new realms of mayhem within a relatively small number of studio sets, which were cheaper than the original’s outdoor filming.

This new hot, mean Blackadder, with a much-sharpened vein of put-downs and acid observations on the times in which he lived, clicked with the public far more than the original had done, and that became the fundamental element of what Blackadder did – he strove for advancement while surrounded by idiots, seemingly trapped in a time that didn’t deserve him. From the Elizabethan idea of courtly love, through money-lending priests of colossal perversion, to the age of exploration and the humble potato, to the almost businesslike monotony of royally sanctioned execution, Blackadder II gave us a funny Elizabethan period, crammed with acting talent, and Atkinson’s much more assured Tudor Blackaddder striding through his world with a mixture of self-possession and contempt for those around him. It was brilliant – and repays rewatching today, some 35 years on.

The writing team of Curtis and Elton, aided by Atkinson’s skill at delivering sharp and unpleasant characters, was on to a great thing. While there had been three years between the first two Blackadders, Blackadder The Third, following the same essential format of a mean Blackadder, was commissioned to arrive just a year later in 1987.
The third Blackadder was perhaps the meanest of the lot, having dropped in social standing from royal prince to scheming aristocrat to not-so-humble butler to George, the Prince Regent. George (played by Hugh Laurie like a significantly dimmer Bertie Wooster) took the role formerly belonging to Tim McInerny as Posh Idiot, and Tony Robinson’s Baldrick got distinctively less intelligent as history went on.

That freed Curtis, Elton and Atkinson to give us an ultimate inversion of PG Wodehouse – what if Bertie Wooster was really much more stupid, and Jeeves was really a conniving, self-aggrandizing, evil git? The addition of Helen Atkinson-Wood as Mrs Miggins, owner of a useful coffee shop, gave Blackadder a one-set venue in which to rage against the Georgian zeitgeist of the week, from poets to peers to politicians and industrialists. It also allowed for a range of impressive cameos – McInerny reappeared as the Scarlet Pimpernel, for instance, Richardson as a heavily-disguised highwayman, and Fry as none other than the Duke of Wellington. Chris Barrie popping by as a French revolutionary was an unexpected treat, too.

Blackadder The Third was also the first series so far in which a Blackadder was seen to conspicuously win at the end of the six episodes.

The series grew the legend of the Blackadder family every chance it got. In Series 2, we learned of a rogue branch of the family, the puritan Whiteadders. In Series 3, we learned of the Celtic Clan MacAdder (Atkinson ‘Scotting up’ to play Blackadder’s Scottish cousin). That meant that Blackadder assumed a place in the collective comedy consciousness – everyone imagined the ‘other’ Blackadders there could be, dotted up and down the course of history – and it’s that sense of infinite possibility that makes Blackadder a never-ending comedy in our heads even today.
It also came to the fore when the first Comic Relief was aired. Blackadder – The Cavalier Years was just a 15-minute special production, but it had everything you’d need for a series – a side-swapping Blackadder, a dim Baldrick, and Stephen Fry as a well-meaning but utterly dim Charles I (mercilessly pastiching the present Prince Charles).

That sense of an extended Blackadder family even allowed for the most unlikely but glorious Christmas special, as ‘Ebenezer Blackadder’ – the loveliest man in old England – was shown as a doormat, who received four Christmas Eve visions from the Spirit of Christmas Present. Staying sensibly within the Evil Blackadder eras of the show, there were quick examples of an Elizabethan Blackadder Christmas and a Regency one – both with the Evil Edmund winning out.

And excitingly for fans who always wanted more variants of Blackadder, a flash forward showed us what would happen in the far future if Blackadder stayed good, and if he turned evil. Inspired by the vision that showed his evil progeny ruling the universe, Ebenezer undid all of Dickens’ good work and turned to the Dark Side – but also seemed to inherit his evil ancestors’ habit of falling foul of monarchs by their behaviour. Sure, your descendants get to rule the universe – but it’s not going to be an easy journey to get there, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol seemed to warn.
Which brings us to Blackadder Goes Forth.

If anything, Captain Edmund Blackadder of the Somme was the most mellow of history’s ‘bad’ Blackadders. While Elizabethan Edmund was scheming to advance, and Regency Edmund was hilariously sour and under the thumb, World War I Edmund was more a soldier with an eye to the main chance. But it’s almost as though the various screaming madnesses of history have overwhelmed Blackadder’s ability to sneer at them when he finds himself in the biggest madness of all – mechanised slaughter for the seeming advancement of nothing and no-one.

Nevertheless, there was fun to be had along the way, as Blackadder encountered the joy of concert parties, flying aces, courts martial and the like. The final episode of the series though, is a remarkable thing, providing laughs, but also showing the desperation of men doomed to die. The final scene of that series has been making people weep since its first, devastating broadcast in 1989.
In fact, it’s so affecting that it almost feels like it should be the last word on Blackadder and his family. But the Millennium could hardly go by without some comment on the age by a Blackadder. Blackadder Back And Forth did the oddly almost unthinkable – it put Blackadder into our own era, and had him surrounded by friends or acquaintances in 1999, waiting for the Millennium to tick into being.

There’s little disguising the fact that this was a celebratory series get-together – Fry, Laurie, McInerny, Robinson, and Richardson all returned for this story, which essentially riffed off the premise of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and freed a modern Blackadder and Baldrick to pop up and down the timestream, meeting versions of themselves and the others in their lives.

Probably the most successful of these new historical periods was the Roman occupation of Britain, but we never stuck around in any one period quite long enough for the laughs to really land, and they existed mostly to serve the larger premise - the final victory of the Blackadder family over class, over idiocy, over everything that had dogged the family through time, so that an Edmund could finally – and permanently – ascend to the British throne.

So while there’s less emotional impact in the Millennial Blackadder, it’s there that we leave the family (at least for the time being!) – ruling Britain in a modern democracy, rather than rushing to meet its doom on the Somme, as had previously been the case.
Blackadder is an endlessly rewatchable show, and there’s more or less a Blackadder for every comedy mood you have. For snivelling toady comedy, The Black Adder is your go-to. For sexy gittery, go Elizabethan with Blackadder II. For sharp insults on days when you want to kick the cat, Blackadder The Third is your ultimate avatar. And when you feel like you can’t escape from the doldrums, Captain Edmund Blackadder will Go Forth, taking your frustration with your rut and giving it a voice.

In between, if you just need a day when anything is possible and you need to know you can win, Blackadder Back And Forth – Blackadder meets Doctor Who – can give you that sense that whatever the odds, you can do what you need to do and win through in the end.

Blackadder is a git for all seasons, and as such, he’s a classic British comedy creation, and a priceless addition to our national sense of self.

Watch Blackadder today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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