At a time when Rowan Atkinson chooses to make another Johnny English, one certainly needs to be reminded of an era when he was actually funny. Those days were the 1980s and Atkinson’s pinnacle of achievement became the TV series Black Adder. Conceived by him and Richard Curtis while they were working on Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-1982), another of Atkinson’s watchable efforts, Black Adder was above all not meant to be another Fawlty Towers. Unfortunately, the high ambitions of the show almost torpedoed it.
Beginning in the Middle Ages
The first series premiered in 1983 and neither Atkinson nor Curtis had any idea of what to do with their generous budget and the character of Edmund Blackadder himself. The show was set in the Middle Ages and viewers were introduced to the fictional King Richard IV (Brian Blessed) and his weaselly son Edmund (Atkinson) who constantly tried to impress his father. He was aided by two assistants, Baldrick and Percy (Tony Robinson, Tim McInnerny). Blackadder was an odd, unlikable and very poorly defined figure who failed to struck a chord with viewers; money was spent on genuine locations, but it was more chaotic than funny and sometimes overly academic.
Three years later, a second series emerged and both Atkinson and Curtis had learned their lessons. This time the royal intrigues were moved to the 16th century where Blackadder now was a lord at Queen Elizabeth’s (Miranda Richardson) court. Now the character was clearly defined as an arrogant, dashing and highly sarcastic plotter; Baldrick and Percy had become completely witless accomplices. The changes, along with greater attention to dialogue-heavy scripts, and very welcome contributions from Richardson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, provided a bedrock for great comedy.
Genuine interest in British history
The second season was followed by a third, set in the Regency era where Blackadder served as butler to the idiotic Prince of Wales (Laurie), and a fourth, set in the trenches of World War I where Blackadder was a captain putting up with the whims of General Melchett (Fry). Both seasons were hilarious, with the entire cast making the most of their characters; Atkinson suffering fools with a raised eyebrow and delivering his lines laced with acid, Robinson turning increasingly bizarre as Baldrick, McInnerny finding a chance to vary his silly Percy by turning into the spiteful Captain Darling in the fourth season. Laurie has dismissed his own performance as just “shouting”, but his Prince (and Lieutenant in season 4) was endearingly stupid; Fry was 32 when he played Melchett but felt like 62, without any old-age makeup, and got most of the big laughs in the final season.
A genuine interest in British history was maintained throughout the show and the writers often saw a chance to ridicule historical figures. One consistent theme from season 2 and onwards was Blackadder’s somehow lovable tendency to despise anyone above or below him. Those in power, be they royalty or generals, were always portrayed as dim-witted, essentially just children playing grownups. Blackadder knew that he would be a better leader, but he was desperately stuck between the brainless haves and the equally daft have-nots.
Ever since the fourth season, there has been talk about a fifth. Most of the cast are reluctant, and for good reason. The series actually ended on a perfect, bittersweet note and Fry’s analysis from a few years ago is correct: “Perhaps it’s best to leave these things as a memory”.
Black Adder 1983-1989:Britain. Made for TV. 24 episodes. Color. Created by Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson. Theme: Howard Goodall. Cast: Rowan Atkinson (Edmund Blackadder), Tony Robinson (Baldrick), Tim McInnerny (Percy Percy/Kevin Darling), Miranda Richardson (86-89), Stephen Fry (86-89), Hugh Laurie (86-89), Brian Blessed (83).
Trivia: All four seasons bore different titles: The Black Adder (1983), Blackadder II (1986), Blackadder the Third (1987) and Blackadder Goes Forth (1989). Later a stage show. Followed by TV specials in 1988 and 2000.
Quote: “It’s a ghastly place! Gangs of rough, tough, sinewy men roam the Valleys, terrorizing people with their close-harmony singing and you need half a pint of phlegm in your throat just to pronounce the place names. Never ask for directions in Wales, Baldrick. You’ll be washing spit out of your hair for a fortnight!” (Atkinson to Robinson)
Last word: “‘The Blackadder’ […] kind of represented a particular comic consensus amongst a group of creative people at a particular time in their careers. And I think it would be very difficult to replicate that atmosphere – to replicate that consensus – at a later stage, when all the writers and producers and actors and everyone else have moved on into so many different areas, and have become probably more choosy about what they do, and less flexible, let’s say, at accommodating other people’s whims and wishes.” (Atkinson, IGN)