In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle argues why The Black Adder is, in some ways, the most enchanting series of Blackadder
We’re always going to be in a minority: those who actually quite like the first series of Blackadder.
This blog, as its title indicates, is usually about books. But the first series of Blackadder, as the credits make clear, was co-written by William Shakespeare: after Richard Curtis’ and Rowan Atkinson’s names (Ben Elton would only join the series for Blackadder II), we are told that ‘additional material’ was written by the Bard himself – presumably a reference to the numerous Shakespearean allusions and parodies we find in the first series, rather than a suggestion that Ouija boards and psychic mediums had been consulted in order to summon the Swan of Avon from the grave. And this Friday Secret Library column is all about sticking up for neglected or forgotten titles, so we’d say the 1983 series The Black Adder more than qualifies. For most people, Blackadder proper only begins with the cruel, witty, sexy, and beruffed Elizabethan schemer Edmund Blackadder in Blackadder II.
I beg to differ. The first series is entirely different from the rest, both in terms of filming styles and characterisation, but that is in keeping with the nature of the series. Although a few things are constant across series two to four – Blackadder is always somewhere slightly higher on the social ladder than the lowest of the low (and thickest of the thick) and yet put upon by those higher up the social chain than he is; Baldrick is invariably stupider than his master/commander – every series was new as we marched through the Elizabethan, Regency, and First World War settings that provide the later series with their historical backdrops. In the third series, Blackadder is more a ‘get rich quick’ kind of character, scheming and Machiavellian; in the fourth series his sole aim is not to get rich but to avoid being sent over the top into No Man’s Land to his almost certain death.
The first series, interestingly, was supposed to follow this rough pattern established by the later series. Right up until the last minute, Curtis and Atkinson were apparently unsure whether to play Blackadder as the slimy, snivelling craven he so clearly is in the first series, or whether he should be more of a scheming, world-weary, and canny operator, much as he became from series two onwards. In the end, of course, they opted for the former – although the 1982 pilot episode of the series, which looks and feels much more like the eventual Blackadder II but follows the plot of ‘Born to be King’, the second episode of The Black Adder, shows how close they came to establishing the definitive Edmund Blackadder right from the start.
But I’m glad they didn’t. Whatever the failings of the first series – and they are manifold, from the nonsensical ending to the ‘Witchsmeller Pursuivant’ episode to the long shots of slapstick which, as Stephen Fry observed, don’t quite make the most of Atkinson’s talents for physical comedy – it contains a real charm which makes it utterly unlike the other series, but not necessarily to its detriment. But I think to make good on this somewhat contrarian claim I need to list some of these charming features.
First, it feels medieval. The studio scenes are often wonderfully atmospheric, especially with the chiaroscuro-like use of darkness and flickering candlelight in many scenes, but the filming on location (mostly at Alnwick Castle) also helps to create a recognisably medieval England full of mud, peasants, disease, poverty, and chickens. (Yes, it’s the little details.) Some scenes have really stayed with me since I first watched the series in its entirety when I was 13 years old (it was the first video I ever bought: at that point, the first series had never been repeated on UK TV since it was originally aired in 1983). Visually, it’s a masterpiece. The old jibe at the BBC – that the series ‘looked a million dollars, but cost a million quid’, implying it didn’t live up to the money spent on it – is half true, certainly. It’s sweeping and epic, in a way that medieval England needs to be. (Game of Thrones springs to mind here, with its inspiration founded in medieval English history.)
Second, it has some of the best lines in the whole of Blackadder. This is more contentious, I know, but by ‘best’ I don’t mean ‘funniest’. If we were judging a comedy’s greatness by how many belly laughs it generated per minute, Harry Hill’s TV Burp would be a ‘better’ comedy series than The Office. Clearly we look for something else in great comedy writing than just the ability to generate a hearty chortle. (And I say this as a TV Burp devotee who still has countless episodes on old VHS tapes.) To go back to the Shakespeare connection for a moment, lines from the first series of Blackadder have entered the everyday language I use with my friends and family in a way that Shakespeare’s phrases have entered the English language: Percy’s ‘I thought we all were’ about going to Canterbury rather than France, Prince Harry’s defiant ‘not on St. Leonard’s Day’ as a riposte to something that cannot be allowed to happen on a special day, Harry’s ‘Oh, splendid!’ when walking in on Blackadder, Baldrick, and Percy whacking each other over the heads with their scrolls, the Witchsmeller Pursuivant’s declaration that ‘You will all notice how it has suddenly become much darker’ (particularly piquant at this time of year) or Baldrick’s switch from crestfallen to panicked in his line ‘Oh dear, Richard the Third … What are you going to do?’ … these phrases have become part of the Tearle argot.
Third, there are lots of funny moments. Consider the Chaucerian sketch in ‘The Archbishop’ involving the fake relics (Baldrick’s ‘Sacred Appendage Compendium Party Pack’), or Peter Cook’s gloriously mad performance as Richard III, Frank Finlay’s fanatical Witchsmeller Pursuivant, and the numerous lines delivered with quiet genius by the late Elspet Grey as Blackadder’s mother, the Queen. (Grey’s line – ‘It was last Thursday!’, about when she last had to spank her son’s bottom for being naughty – is very much the Lady Bracknell ‘A handbag?’ of The Black Adder.) Indeed, think of the cast: not only Cook and Finlay but Brian Blessed (relishing every minute, as you’d expect), Angus Deayton as a Jumping Jew of Jerusalem (Deayton’s removing his false beard and declaring, ‘I don’t really think they understood it’ is another line that’s been co-opted into family parlance), Howard Lew Lewis, Stephen Frost, Miriam Margolyes as the hilarious Infanta, Jim Broadbent as her equally hilarious translator, and, last but by no means least, the mighty and much-missed Rik Mayall as Mad Gerald.
Fourth, the soundtrack is the best ever heard on a sitcom. Howard Goodall is one of the finest composers of TV soundtracks out there, responsible for QI, Red Dwarf, Mr Bean, The Vicar of Dibley (his stirring setting of the 23rd Psalm for the series is breathtaking), and many others. But the first series of Blackadder shows him at his most panoramic, as if he’s channelling several centuries of medieval pomp into a half-hour sitcom. Go and listen to the organ music in ‘The Archbishop’ when Edmund is being invested as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Finally, but by no means last (as Sam Goldwyn would have it), The Black Adder is simply braver than the other series. There’s a long tradition in sitcom of the clever but misguided hero (or antihero) and his monumentally stupid and naïve dogsbody or friend: Mainwaring and Pike, Father Ted and Dougal, Geraldine Granger and Alice, even Basil Fawlty and Manuel. Of course, it goes back even further in the world of literature, and can be found in Shakespeare (Dogberry and Verges from Much Ado, for instance). Blackadder and Baldrick embody this double act brilliantly, but in the first series we see a noble if only partially successful attempt to do something different. We get a dynamic where Blackadder is the naïve and silly one, and Baldrick is the more worldly wise one (though Baldrick in the first series of Blackadder has his fair share of stupid ideas too, even if the ‘cunning plans’ hatched by medieval Baldrick are often more genuinely cunning than his descendants’). We get a sitcom on an epic scale. It’s a bold and, yes, probably an arrogant enterprise, as the show’s producer, the genius John Lloyd, later acknowledged. But it’s more than an interesting but failed enterprise. It’s a curious and original comedy that couldn’t be made now, so we should relish it all the more because ‘we shall never see its like again’. If you’ve never watched it, give the first series of Blackadder a go. And if you’ve tried but given up, set aside three-and-half hours on a rainy Saturday and give it another go. Of all sitcom series, it’s the one that’s followed me through my life the most: the first video I bought, the first series I watched when I moved into my new house (while waiting for the TV to be up and running), the one I probably quote more than any other. And despite its reputation, it has some very funny moments. In the words of Prince Harry, ‘Oh, splendid!’
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.