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Blackadder: 30 years of laughter

Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson in Blackadder The Third
Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson in Blackadder The Third

The first episode of Blackadder was aired thirty years ago today, 15 June 1983. Blackadder encompasses four series of a BBC 1 period British sitcom, along with several one-off special instalments. The series stars Rowan Atkinson as anti-hero Edmund Blackadder and Tony Robinson as Blackadder’s dogsbody, Baldrick.

Although each series is set in a different era, all follow the “misfortunes” of Edmund Blackadder, who is a member of a British family dynasty present at many significant periods and places in British history. It is implied in each series that the Blackadder character is a descendant of the previous one, although it is never mentioned how any of the Blackadders (who are usually single and not in a relationship) manage to father children. As the generations progress, each Blackadder becomes increasingly clever and calculating, while the family’s social status steadily falls. However, each Blackadder remains a cynical, cowardly opportunist, maintaining and increasing his own status and fortunes, regardless of his surroundings.

The life of each of the Blackadders is also entwined with their servant, all from the Baldrick family line. Each generation acts as the dogsbody to his respective Blackadder. They decrease in intelligence, and in personal hygiene standards, just as their masters’ intellect increases. Each Blackadder and Baldrick is also saddled with the company of a dim-witted aristocrat whose presence Blackadder must somehow tolerate. This role was taken in the first two series by Lord Percy Percy, played by Tim McInnerny; with Hugh Laurie playing the role in the third and fourth series, as Prince George, Prince Regent; and Lieutenant George, respectively.

Each series was set in a different period of British history, beginning in 1485 and ending in 1917, and comprised of six half-hour episodes. The first series, made in 1983, was called The Black Adder  and was set in the fictional reign of “Richard IV”. This was followed by a second series, Blackadder II (1985) set during the reign of Elizabeth I, a third series Blackadder the Third (1987) set during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the reign of George III, and finally Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) in 1917, set in the trenches of the Great War.

The Blackadder pilot was shot but never aired on UK TV. In the pilot Baldrick is played by Philip Fox and the character of Prince Edmund is much closer to the intelligent, conniving Blackadder of the later series than the snivelling, weak idiot of the original. Set in the year 1582, the script of the pilot is roughly the same as the episode “Born to be King”, albeit with some different jokes, with some lines appearing in other episodes of the series.

Numerous specials have also been aired creating many memorable scenes. Blackadder: The Cavalier Years is set during the English Civil War and was shown as part of Comic Relief’Red Nose Day on Friday 5 February 1988. In this 15-minute episode Sir Edmund Blackadder and his servant, Baldrick, are the last two men loyal to the defeated King Charles I of England (played by Stephen Fry). However, due to a misunderstanding between Oliver Cromwell (guest-star Warren Clarke) and Baldrick, the king is arrested and sent to the Tower of London. The rest of the episode revolves around Blackadder’s attempts to save the king, as well as improve his standing.

The second special was broadcast on Friday 23 December 1988. In a twist on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Blackadder is the “kindest and loveliest” man in England. The Spirit of Christmas shows Blackadder the contrary antics of his ancestors and descendants, and reluctantly informs him that if he turns evil his descendants will enjoy power and fortune, while if he remains the same a future Blackadder will live shamefully subjugated to a future incompetent Baldrick. This remarkable encounter causes him to proclaim, “Bad guys have all the fun”, and adopt the personality with which viewers are more familiar.

Blackadder: Back & Forth was originally shown in the Millennium Dome in 2000, followed by a screening on Sky One in the same year (and later on BBC1). It is set on the turn of the millennium, and features Lord Blackadder placing a bet with his friends – modern versions of Queenie (Miranda Richardson), Melchett (Stephen Fry), George (Hugh Laurie) and Darling (Tim McInnerny) – that he has built a working time machine. While this is intended as a clever con trick, the machine, surprisingly, works, sending Blackadder and Baldrick back to the time of the dinosaurs, where they manage to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs, through the use of Baldrick’s best, worst and only pair of underpants as a weapon against a hungry T. Rex. Finding that Baldrick has forgotten to write dates on the machine’s dials, the rest of the film follows their attempts to find their way back to 1999, often creating huge historical anomalies in the process which must be corrected before the end. The film includes cameo appearances from Kate Moss and Colin Firth.

The first series titled The Black Adder was written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, while subsequent episodes were written by Curtis and Ben Elton. The shows were produced by John Lloyd. In 2000 the fourth series, Blackadder Goes Forth, ranked at 16 in the “100 Greatest British Television Programmes“, a list created by the British Film Institute. Also in the 2004 TV poll to find “Britain’s Best Sitcom“, Blackadder was voted the second-best British sitcom of all time. It was also ranked as the 20th-best TV show of all time by Empire magazine.

With all of this in mind I hope you will enjoy the genius comedy stylings that is Blackadder as much as I do.

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