1 9 8 3 (UK) The Black Adder
1 9 8 6 (UK) Blackadder II
1 9 8 7 (UK) Blackadder The Third
1 9 8 8 (UK) Blackadder: The Cavalier Years, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol
1 9 8 9 (UK) Blackadder Goes Forth
2 0 0 2 (UK) Blackadder Goes Back & Forth
The premise behind the original Black Adder series is that Richard III didn’t murder the princes in the tower and one of them grew up to be Richard, Duke of York, heir to the throne. Henry VII also didn’t win the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, it was won by Richard who went on to become Richard IV.
When Henry VII came to the throne 13 years later he changed to the Gregorian calendar, put the date back 13 years and destroyed all traces of the reign of Richard IV – all but one document, that is, recording the exploits of Richard IV’s younger son, Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh, who styled himself ‘The Black Adder’.
Edmund was decidedly hard-of-thinking but still much sharper than his two cohorts, Baldrick (dumb) and Percy (dumber). Together they schemed for an easier life, a better position and perhaps even a shot at the throne itself.
But all of these ambitions were doomed to failure by the sheer incompetence of the three protagonists, who managed to combine their monumental stupidity with laziness and overwhelming cowardice.
Producer John Lloyd and actor Rowan Atkinson had conceived the notion of a period-piece sitcom when they were growing weary of working with contemporary sketch material in Not The Nine O’clock News but The Black Adder, although a fine idea, had more than its share of problems.
It was an ambitious concept that turned out to be extremely costly – location shooting (in and around Alnwick Castle), locale dressing and set and costume design all pushed the budget up, and made the series difficult to produce.
Although the finished product had obvious potential, the mix wasn’t quite right and, strangely, the extensive location work seemed to work against the whole.
But, although flawed, the series struck a chord with many younger viewers and won an international Emmy in the popular arts category in 1983, enough (just) to convince the BBC to commission a second series – with the stipulation from Michael Grade (then director of programmes as well as controller of BBC1) that episodes must be filmed in the studio in front of an audience.
Blackadder II moved forward to 1560, and the flawed genes of the Blackadder family have resurfaced in the melting pot of history, giving us another Edmund, the bastard great, great-grandson of the original Black Adder.
Now with Blackadder as an established surname, this latest Edmund is markedly different from the first. As greedy, indolent and cowardly as his ancestor, this Blackadder has brains and cunning aplenty.
Tudor England proved to be a dangerous time for the scheming Edmund, especially with a childlike and selfish Queen who could turn instantly from being enamoured with her subject to wanting him beheaded. Elsewhere, he had an enemy in the court, Lord Melchett, a favourite with the Queen.
Melchett regarded Edmund as a transparent yet still dangerous rival. By Blackadder’s side was another Baldrick, whose family seemed compelled to produce sub-human specimens destined to serve the dastardly Blackadders.
Blackadder II nearly didn’t happen, the cost of the first series deterring BBC executive Michael Grade from permitting a second. But major changes to the series were afoot: Atkinson realised that the location scenes got in the way of the comedy and that by filming nearly everything in a studio, with an audience, they could cut costs and heighten the humour.
Atkinson stepped down from writing duties and Ben Elton was brought in to work with Curtis on the scripts. He was an inspired choice, bringing to the production quick-fire dialogue, rich verbal weaponry and a fitting dose of vulgarity.
Atkinson was in his element as the sneering, superior Edmund, a cold and calculating man surrounded by fools.
The new-style dialogue particularly suited him, his character revelling in wonderfully convoluted insults such as, ‘Your brain is like the four-headed man-eating haddock-fish beast of Aberdeen. It doesn’t exist’.
The following years Blackadder The Third found the latest Blackadder (200 hundred years on) as butler to the Prince Regent, a man of severely limited intellect and foppish habits. Once again, this Blackadder has a stinging wit and a cowardly cunning, and once again he is aided, abetted and hindered by a virtually brain-dead member of the Baldrick family.
Here we find a Blackadder no longer a member of the aristocracy but still ambitious to better himself by foul means. His demeaning position, in service to a man with a ‘brain the size of a peanut’, only strengthens his resolve to move up in the world.
A one-off special entitled Blackadder The Cavalier Years was presented as part of the 1988 Comic Relief telethon, with dashing Sir Edmund Blackadder trying to save Charles I (Stephen Fry playing the character with the mannerisms of the current Prince Charles) from Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads.
Also in 1988, Atkinson appeared in a Christmas special, entitled (appropriately enough) Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, as Ebenezer – the white sheep of the awful Blackadder clan.
Far from being mean, spiteful, greedy and cowardly, as his Dickensian name suggests, Ebenezer is a kindly, generous man. He is visited by the spirit of Christmas who, in the spirit of A Christmas Carol, takes him through time to witness the past, present and future. He encounters the Blackadders from Blackadder II and Blackadder The Third and travels to the future to spy on one of his descendants.
All these Blackadders are loathsome creatures who seem to derive some pleasure out of their wickedness, thus Ebenezer returns to the present having learnt the moral that ‘bad guys have more fun’. His personality changes accordingly, and he heaps insults upon Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who arrive to offer him a baronage and £50,000. Needless to say, he promptly loses both.
Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) was set during World War I with Captain Blackadder as a career soldier who enlisted to escape the rigours of civilian life and who has enjoyed an action-free existence across three continents. He’s a man of simple ambitions: an easy life, the occasional drink and promotion to an even safer, higher-paid position.
Unfortunately, the Great War has interfered with his plans and he has found himself stuck in the trenches, uncomfortably close to the front. With him, as always, is a prize idiot from the Baldrick clan – this time a particularly unpleasant army private, serving as Blackadder’s batman.
Also present was Lieutenant George St Barleigh, a keen, vacuous type anxious to volunteer for all sorts of loony escapades and devoted to Captain Blackadder.
Their very lives are in the hands of General Melchett, a direct conduit to General Haig, who delivers the plans and orders that dictate their movements. Melchett is quite mad – a gung-ho, bloodthirsty armchair warrior from a military family – and is assisted by an aide-de-camp, the sycophantic Captain Darling.
Blackadder’s main concern is how to dissuade Melchett from sending him and his men to certain death.
This was a marvellous finale to the Blackadder saga, bringing the tale to the 20th-century and the killing fields of the WWI.
More serious in approach than its predecessors, Blackadder Goes Forth still managed to mine many laughs out of the hopeless situation, with the sheer horror of their environment and the delicacy of their position adding to the blackness of the comedy.
In the end, the creative team stuck to their guns and, instead of having Blackadder succeed in his quest, had him and his men forced to join the advance and fulfil their fears by going ‘over the top’ to their deaths.
This grim image, the frame frozen and then dissolving into one depicting the same field full of poppies, memorably ended the series on a note of dark satire and was a fitting conclusion to a comedy premise that had always sported an underlying intelligence beneath its farcical surface.
A one-off edition of the series (Blackadder Goes Back & Forth) was made for showing in the Millennium Dome at the turn of the century. A new 21st century Blackadder has built a spoof time machine which he plans to trick his friends on millennium new year’s eve. The plan backfires when the time machine actually works.
Queen Elizabeth I
Lt. The Honourable George Colthurst St Barleigh