I don’t know about you but there aren’t many television series I know better than Blackadder. With the possible exception of The Young Ones, there isn’t really any other series I don’t actually need to watch – every line, every shot, every gesture, every gag is embedded so far into my DNA that I find myself using phrases and gags in everyday conversation without even realising I’m doing it. Blackadder was born in the eighties and – apart from the odd one-off, died there (on multiple occasions). It transcends the idea of “sitcom” – Rowan Atkinson has commented that it’s “modern day jokes in different clothes”, but it seems to be so much more than that. It’s one of those occasions when television gets it 100 percent, utterly right.
One of the many things I love about it is this – it evolves. Blackadder is always a work in progress – with each series picking up on the one before, refining and fine-tuning as it goes. I don’t mean that Blackadder Goes Forth is the finest, funniest and best of the four main series – I’d find it difficult to choose a favourite out of them – just that it’s utterly consistent with more or less everything that’s gone before. All the main characters behave as you’d expect them to, just because you’ve seen most of their ancestors and you know how they’d react. Blackadder becomes more icily polite and devious. Baldrick continues his reverse evolution, albeit to the point where we reach the dreadful “Sniff My Skids!!!” moment in Blackadder : Back and Forth. Percy becomes more and more of a chinless wonder with every series. Even when he turns up in Blackadder the Third, he’s playing at being one (shortly before hopping into a corner and expiring). George – well, he’s an idiot when we first meet him and an idiot when we say goodbye, but by the time we reach the trenches of World War One he’s a well-meaning, generous soul as opposed to the self-centred, pampered egotist of the third series.
It’s safe to say that Blackadder is loved. Most of it. You never hear a great deal of praise for the original series, least of all from the people who made it. That’s a shame, because it has so much to recommend it. It is vigorously different to everything that came after – almost acting as a six episode prologue before Blackadder settles down into a house style that seems to really work for it.
It looks lushly expensive. The sets are massive and so are some of the performances (yes, the words Brian Blessed should be leaping to mind around about this time). Baldrick and Blackadder would swap characters by the time Blackadder II came along. In this iteration Baldrick’s the schemer, the planner, while Edmund is the idiot. Relatively speaking. This is the classic comedy situation of two complete fools, each thinking they’re the clever one. It’s just that Baldrick is that little bit more devious than his remarkably slimy and incompetent master.
Offsetting Blessed’s screen-eating antics, Robert East and Elspet Gray are wonderful. Howard Goodall’s music is cavernous, stately and memorable. Every episode is rammed with fantastic, scene-stealing guest stars, from Peter Cook to Frank Finlay to Miriam Margolyes.
I love it. I always have, and I probably always will. It doesn’t feel like the rest of the series, which makes it all the more cherishable to me. Michael Grade may have initially cancelled because of the expense of the thing - “there weren’t enough laughs to the pound” – but by those criteria he’d probably have canned Ripping Yarns as well, which is what the first series of Blackadder reminds me of. It’s full of beautiful, sweeping Jones-and-Palin scenescapes which add precisely nothing in terms of laughs but which make it different.
Back when “Black Adder” was a description and not a surname – and of course, how very wonderful that it becomes one, in the finest medieval tradition of naming yourself after your profession – the BBC produced something as close to “epic” as a six part television sitcom is ever likely to get.
All of which makes it even stranger that it didn’t start out that way. There’s an even earlier version of “The Black Adder” which has never been aired on terrestrial television and possibly never will. The 1982 pilot episode can be found if you look for it and makes the first series an even more alarming tonal shift from everything else. Like the second, third and fourth series, it’s claustrophobically studio-bound. Edmund, Baldrick and Percy behave exactly like their latter incarnations (from Blackadder II on, basically). Much of it is considerably more in keeping with what we know as “Blackadder” than the first series ever was. Yet, the production team decided to take off in a completely different direction, before returning to this particular strand for the second series. It’s all very odd.
Things get off to a stirring start. The theme tune is in place right from the off, and it’s a rousing, romantic, martial version with drums and brass to the fore as a black-gloved hand opens the Blackadder history book to the title page. A title crawl follows, setting up the traditional Blackadder alternate history -
“It is Europe, 400 Years ago. In Spain, war rages as Christians from every land fight off the threatening terror of the Turkish invasion. The French… are in uneasy peace. But in England, under the tutelage of a powerful King the Ship of State ploughs a steady course as the Court awaits The Queen’s Birthday and the return of a Scottish hero from the war…”
Immediately we’re in Blackadder II territory. This little bit of exposition places us squarely in the early 1580s, which leads us to expect Queen Elizabeth I to be on the throne. She isn’t – although the unnamed Queen we’re about to see looks like her, it’s actually a fictional King who’s in power. That King… is John Savident. One of Blackadder’s major strengths is immediately evident – every character, down to the most minor of bit-part players – is cast to the hilt. There’s one glaring exception which we’ll come to in a moment, and that’s got a lot more to do with what came after and our expectation of who plays whom.
Quite apart from John Savident as the fictitious King, that’s Robert Bathurst as The Prince of Wales. Still with us, still working, here he’s just starting out. Years away from Joking Apart or indeed, Downton Abbey. Sadly the low-quality dub I’m taking these screengrabs from doesn’t really reveal what he’s up to, but he’s painting a still-life of an apple. He’ll still be painting that apple in the final scene, by which point he’ll have got hungry and it’ll have a gigantic bite out of the side. A nice bit of business to book-end things.
The Queen – lovers of the first series will instantly recognise Elspet Gray, one of the major strengths of the initial run as the eccentric, gentle Queen Gertrude (who may or may not be a witch, and who just can’t get Henry Tulip’s name right). She’s calm, still, poised and a very different “Queen Elizabeth” to Miranda Richardson’s later squeaky, oversexed, sociopathic version. She doesn’t get to do much, although her presence motivates the main thrust – and I use that phrase precisely – of the plot.
This pilot script was later used as the basis of Born To Be King, from the first series. All of the main beats of that latter version are present here, although we’re leading up to The Queen’s Birthday, rather than that most beloved of English Public Holidays, St Leonard’s Day.
“What’s Father given you for a birthday present?” asks Bathurst.
“Ah, it’s something rather nice”, says Gray.
“A Coach, perhaps?”
“Jewellry, Gold, Silver or something?”
A great gag in itself, but it also sets things up later for the moment when the King gifts all of Edmund’s Scottish properties to the returning Dugal McAngus the conquering Scotsman. This script is really tightly constructed.
Meanwhile, the Queen’s other son Edmund is having problems with The Entertainment. As in the transmitted version, The Eunuchs Have Cancelled. It’s time to meet our “hero”, and his faithful companions Percy and Baldrick.
He may be beardless, but in almost every other respect that’s Edmund from Blackadder II leaping fully-formed from the screen. Perhaps not quite as laconic as his latter incarnation, Atkinson’s got it nailed. There’s a boiling, volcanic anger - almost rage- in this version that is all but absent from any other Blackadders. He gets angry from time to time later, but he’s pretty much furious in every scene in this pilot. It won’t be seen again in this form but those sudden explosions of fury that all of the later Edmunds exhibit will form a fundamental part of his character, and that’s all to the good.
Tim McInnerny’s pretty much got what he wants to do with his character sorted out straightaway but – there’s no getting around this – that’s Baldrick on the right there. This is the one thing that really sets this pilot apart from the rest of the series, and may well be the reason for its ongoing absence from any commercial release. Almost more than Atkinson as Blackadder, Tony Robinson is synonymous with the series and Baldrick – for all his latter catchphrase driven, easy-laugh-getting tendencies involving dung, turnips and cunning plans – is one of the most recognisable aspects of the show.
Philip Fox isn’t exactly terrible as the character. He’s just… disinterested. Robinson’s a much more naturalistic, conversational actor. This Baldrick’s very stagy and very mannered, which works wonderfully during the scenes where he’s taking part in the play which is supposed to end up in McAngus’s murder later on. It’s just… when it’s just him, McInnerny and Atkinson together there’s a spark missing. All the lines are there, they’re absolutely fine… but they don’t flow. The audience can tell as well, as their response is muted compared to the same gags when delivered later on by Robinson.
Fox himself took the time out to email the fansite Blackadder Hall. According to him he was let go with no explanation from the production team. So far as this viewer can tell it’s a simple matter of the onscreen partnership not sparking the way it should but we’ll probably never know, short of asking director Geoff Posner. It’s a shame for Fox but he doesn’t seem to have let it get him down – a healthy career has ensued and he’ll later turn up as The Head Teacher in the peerless People Like Us amongst many other notable performances.
The plot more or less covers the same ground from here on in as Born To Be King. McAngus returns triumphantly from foreign parts, played here as he would be in the transmitted episode by Alex Norton (albeit a considerably more groomed and less scraggly version).
His motivation for dropping Edmund in it is a lot less clear here, despite a promising rumble between the two when they first meet. In Born To Be King it’s obvious that McAngus has manouevered Edmund into making a prat of himself just for his own amusement. Here, he seems to do it out of stupidity. After all, he loses Selkirk, Roxburgh and P-Peebles if Edmund gets his way and ascends to the rank of heir to the throne.
There’s a crafty bit of scene setting involving Edmund getting his head stuck in a spiked helmet which leads to some impressive stunt-work from Norton and Atkinson. While Edmund’s listening behind a door McAngus slams it right in his face, driving the spike of the helmet clean through to the other side. No stunt-doubles here – it’s the two actors themselves and I shudder to think of how much pain Atkinson went through before they got it right.
This leads into the “Queen’s letters” conversation as per the broadcast episode before Edmund loses his property and gains a burning urge to murder a Scotsman. He’s going to kill McAngus in the middle of the entertainments and make it look like an accident, again as per Born To Be King. Since this is a studio-bound production there’s no room for Edmund stalking McAngus through the forest to the sound of a delicately plucked Cimbalom. Neither does Edmund suddenly get caught in a rabbit trap (with camera view correspondingly shifting rapidly to upside-down). We also lose Norton’s casual “oh, and eh, watch out for the weasel pit” moment as well, which is a shame .
Thankfully, there’s still time to see the main act and The Jumping Jesuits of Jerusalem (transmuted to Jumping Jews in the remake) are mystifying the Royal Court exactly as per broadcast. Oengus MacNamara still does the wonderful “How did it go?” “Not bad, but I don’t think they really understood it” gag while peeling off his false beard to reveal the real one underneath. The version in Born To Be King is much better though – mainly because it’s Angus Deayton doing it.
In this case, the play is much more central to the episode and considerably less Egyptian (sadly this does mean we lose Dominick Prique and the Wooferoonies with their remarkable warmup routine – their “whah-ooooooh!” antics backstage are one of the highlights of the episode). However, this does put Percy and Baldrick on stage right from the start – leading to this pearler of bad-Shakespearean dialogue:
PERCY Today, Fair Buttock – the birthday is of that beloved-and-much-sainted-Dame, who rules this land with Queenly Name.
BALDRICK ‘Tis so my lord. The land is full of great rejoicing.
PERCY Aye, though art a’right, Buttock.
BALDRICK Aye, and a left one too, if truth be known.
That’s just the start of it. More or less all of the dialogue after this is in rhyming couplets which must have been hell for McInnerny and Fox, given that the next ten minutes or so descend to levels of physical violence that Edmonson and Mayall might have thought twice about. As Edmund desperately tries to stop the phenomenally drunk McAngus from being hung live on stage he delivers a beating to both of his co-stars that really does look incredibly painful. Atkinson kicks Fox in the nuts and breaks a chair over his back, hits McInnerny square in the face and then slips the noose around his neck… it’s remarkable and a real testament to the presence of an honest to goodness fight arranger – step forward Malcolm Ranson – on set. Meanwhile, that really is Alex Norton being hung by the neck until almost dead.
As the play concludes with the rescue – just about – of The Scotsman, the pitter-patter of applause from the court is drowned out by what sounds like an ovation from the studio audience. Well deserved, as what could seem like a good five or six minutes of padding comes across as well played, beautifully staged and above all – crammed full of great jokes. I particularly like Edmund giving a “come on then” gesture to a book wielding Percy. Percy misinterprets this and gives Edmund the book – who then wallops him in the face with it. Bliss.
Next morning we’re back at the main plot as Edmund’s machinations reach their conclusion. The Queen’s ill-considered youthful discretions are revealed – and yes, she still wishes to find herself in “That Kingdom Between The Saffron Sheets Where You And Your Ruler Are The Only Ruler”. Posner’s direction favours a slow zoom on Atkinson’s face at this point which does lose the fantastic work that McInnerny’s doing – mouthing the words of the letters along with Edmund as if he’s read them hundreds of times already.
John Lloyd favours a much more sensible two-shot with McInnerny well and truly present and it works considerably better.
Following the revelation of just how badly Edmund’s cocked it up (with a moment of Atkinson face-comedy that almost rivals his “Great Boo’s Up” moment from Blackadder II), there’s a vigorous, enthusiastic and convincing swordfight between Edmund and McAngus which inadvertantly reveals just what a Scotsman has under his kilt, much to the delight of the studio audience. Before anyone gets too excited, it’s a respectable pair of BBC shorts. Filthy swines that yez are.
While it’s a cut above the usual BBC Studio Swordfights – traditionally under-rehearsed, underplayed and underwhelming – it’s still nowhere as good as Born To Be King’s triumphant staging, which might be my favourite moment from all of the first series – Edmund advancing towards McAngus while carrying out a ridiculous amount of flamboyant swordplay to a twisting, curlicued Howard Goodall soundtrack. McAngus of course, isn’t moving a muscle, just standing staring at him – until he snaps Edmund’s sword in half with a single blow of his broadsword. It’s a shame, but the fight’s fantastic and it’s just a matter or personal preference. I just love the way the broadcast scene is staged.
Edmund’s then forced to beg for mercy. In Born To Be King he’s considerably more craven, hand wringing and cringing under McAngus’s sword:
EDMUND I’ll give you everything I own! Everything!
McANGUS Uh huh?
EDMUND I’m, I’m hardly a rich man.
KING You’re hardly a man at all! (laughs)
EDMUND But but my horse must be worth a thousand ducats. I can sell my wardrobe – the pride of my life – my swords, my curtains, my socks, and my fighting cocks. My servants I can live without, except perhaps he who oils my rack. (King yawns) And then my most intimate treasures: my collection of antique codpieces, my wigs for state occasions, my wigs for private occassions, and my wigs — heh — for humourous occassions; my collection of pokers, my Grendel- stretchers, my ornamental pumphries, and, of course, my autographed miniature of Judas Iscariot.
Here, it’s delivered much more coldly, almost as if Edmund doesn’t care -
EDMUND I plead… for God’s Mercy. I’ve been treacherous, selfish and disloyal. I’ve allowed the spirit of evil to enter my heart, and it has set me against Mother, Brother… and friend (glares at McAngus). I beg your forgiveness, I’m in awe of your courage, and wish you nothing but happiness and success with your new charge.
After which, Edmund stalks off to camera right, to find Percy standing like this…
Into the home strait now, and the absence of Brian Blessed means that nobody misses the scent of blood in their nostrils, and neither does the Queen have a headache. McAngus is introduced to the royal cannon, there’s rather a messy accident, drains are still blamed and Edmund’s still in freezeframe celebratory mode – although here he doesn’t leap into the air, contenting himself with a triumphant “yyyyeeees!” gesture – then it’s all over and the credits roll to another standing ovation from the studio audience. The template’s set for the next eight years or so of classic BBC comedy. Almost. They’ll get to it eventually.
When I first saw this – many many years ago – I was so tuned in to how I perceived Blackadder to be that I loathed it. Hated it with a passion. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve mellowed a lot towards it. In almost every respect I still prefer Born To Be King. It’s better staged, everyone’s more sure of their lines and the bigger budget allows things to open up wonderfully. The location shooting adds to the effect more than you might think until you watch both versions back to back.
Poor old John Savident ghosts through this, merely there to facilitate the plot by giving over Edmund’s lands to McAngus. Apart from that there’s no need for his presence at all. Elspet Gray is delightfully low-key, as is Bathurst – again we’d probably care for their characters a lot more if they’d made it to series. As it is, with the shift back a hundred years in setting, Gray becomes one of The Black Adder’s major strengths and Robert East’s Prince Harry matches her scene for scene. Bathurst doesn’t get enough time to establish a character here but he’s fine in what he does. East’s just more assured in the part.
The script’s wonderful, packed with one-liners, assured comedy and masses of insults in the finest Blackadder tradition. Atkinson and McInnerny know exactly what they’re doing right from the start. If you’ve seen that footage from the readthrough of Blackadder Goes Forth you’ll know just how much care Atkinson puts into his performances. I’m not even remotely surprised to find he’s got it nailed almost from the first shot. Fox… well, he may have found depths (or shallows) in Baldrick if he’d been retained in series, but we’ll never know. As it is, this little bit of television archaeology is the only evidence of a Baldrick who at times is even stupider than the one Robinson eventually evolved the character into, and it’s fascinating. A real what-might-have-been. The production team did choose well when they got Robinson. No shame in what Fox does, it’s just that elusive chemistry doesn’t really start bubbling until Tony comes along.
As things stand I’m really glad that they didn’t go down this route when things went to series. The Elizabethan format needed time to mature – actually, what it needed was Ben Elton, who really brings out the best in Richard Curtis in series 2 to 4. If they’d gone with this, we’d have lost the wonderful atmosphere and slower, almost stately pacing of The Black Adder, and that would have been a shame. This pilot episode’s not an ignoble failure as I long thought it to be. It’s a compelling glimpse of what might have been, and cherishable as an example of how nearly they got it right even from the earliest stages. Almost but not quite there. Compulsive viewing, nonetheless. Well worth seeking out.