A SPECIAL TV documentary this week celebrates a 1980s comedy classic: Blackadder. Steven Russell hatched a cunning plan and paid a nostalgic visit to Mrs Miggins’s pie shop with actress Helen Atkinson Wood.
SOMEWHERE in Essex (we won’t blow his cover) is a real Laughing Policeman – an officer obsessed with the comedy classic Blackadder. We know this because he’s a friend of the sister-in-law of Helen Atkinson Wood, who “larked around in a mad wig” in the third series.
“He simply knows every single script and, every time I see him, he tells me reams of it. It’s fantastic to hear it back,” chuckles the actress who played pie shop owner Mrs Miggins, complete with wooden teeth, beauty spot and ringlets.
“There are, and I would call him one, complete anoraks who know lots of that sort of thing. It’s one of those ‘anorak sports’ – the trainspotting of the comedy world!”
It’s 25 years since Britain was first repulsed and fascinated by Edmund Blackadder in equal measure. Then, he was trying to seize the throne of Britain, aided by dim manservant Baldrick (Tony Robinson) – famous for his “cunning plans” that are in reality complete gibberish. Three more series followed during the1980s, with Blackadder taking different historical identities (but possessing similar Machiavellian character traits) as the action moved from 1485 to 1917.
It all came about after Rowan Atkinson, one of the stars of the satirical show Not the Nine O’Clock News, and producer John Lloyd toyed with the idea of making an historical comedy. With writer Richard Curtis (who like Helen Atkinson Wood has a home on the Suffolk coast) they dreamed up the character of The Black Adder.
In 1987 the actress got a call from John Lloyd, asking her to join the fun for the six-episode third series. Helen’s list of credits included The Young Ones, The Lenny Henry Show, Girls on Top, and a Comic Strip Presents episode alongside Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
And did she bite his hand off? “I think I probably said ‘yes please’ before he actually got to the end of the sentence.”
As well as joining an established TV hit, it offered the chance of a reunion with chums she’d known for years. Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis and actor Tim McInnerny were contemporaries at Oxford, where they’d enjoyed studenty meals together: “20 different ways of preparing pasta or baked potatoes.”
Ben Elton she’d met in an airing cupboard during a game of sardines at the Edinburgh fringe, where she was part of the Radio Active roadshow – a parody of local radio stations, with co-conspirators such as Angus Deayton – and he was doing a stand-up set with Comic Strip japesters like Rik Mayall.
Entering the BBC rehearsal rooms at White City brought “that Christmas-morning feeling in your tummy. Comedy and laughter, we all feel better for it, so it is a great thing to be around. It’s not like you’re going in to rehearse Ibsen; you’re going in to have the time of your life”.
With all that talent on show, there was oodles of creative fizz.
“It was the sort of production where people would pile in with ideas,” Helen confirms. “If you’re talking about having Stephen Fry (the Duke of Wellington) in a rehearsal room, you’re not looking at somebody who is just going to walk onto a set, having learned their lines, and just say them. They’re going to come in with lots of suggestions.
“It was a very thrilling thing to be part of. Every rehearsal was full of your favourite people or those you admired. It drew together, I suppose, the cream of all the comedy talent at the time.
“The list is endless. You go through the cast lists . . . people like Chris Barrie, who was there fleetingly; Tony Robinson – always scrubbing around, trying to get his teeth into a turnip; Hugh Laurie; Robbie Coltrane. And there were lots of great guest players, such as Tim McInnerny playing the Scarlet Pimpernel; and Miranda Richardson was a highwaywoman, I think.”
“Parts for women were so thin on the ground that it was tremendous to be one of the few. There was (in the second series) Miranda Richardson as Queenie, and Nursie . . . and then who? The women brought a different texture to Blackadder. Mrs Miggins was a very warm-hearted character: different from Blackadder, who was so oily, and different from Baldrick, who was . . . well . . . fiddling with his turnips; and different from the Prince Regent, who was so barking!
“She was also a no-nonsense, Northern character – which of course fitted me like a glove.” (The actress divides her time between north London and a Suffolk home near Walberswick, but grew up in Cheshire.)
With the key players knowing each other so well, there was the opportunity to have a few giggles.
“I think when Richard and Ben were creating the character, the fact a horse’s willy got mentioned is no accident, me being the keen horsewoman that I am” – Miss East Cheshire Pony Club, no less – “although, of course, you won’t commit that to the pages of your paper! (Oh yes we will.) The willy reference was about a suspiciously-shaped sausage that arrived for the Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Why does she think the show’s popularity has endured over a quarter of a century?
“I think the long and the short of it is that it is literally packed with jokes. I don’t think it’s any more sophisticated a reason than that. At the heart of Blackadder is just an endless stream of funny, funny, funny ideas and well-drawn comedy characters and non-stop jokes. That’s why it and things like Dad’s Army still have appeal – and it’s quite rare.
“Sometimes people really enjoy sitting back and not having to be politically challenged by their comedy or dip into surreal, grotesque things, like Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen – which I’m not saying will not stand the test of time, I’m not saying that for a moment, but that’s the beauty of Blackadder.”
Mrs Miggins made her final bow in the last episode of the series, on October 22, 1987. She fell for Blackadder’s cousin, McAdder – “the most dangerous man ever to wear a skirt in Europe” – and followed him to the Highlands.
Not long afterwards, Helen took over from Dawn French in a West End play called Silly Cow, written and directed by Ben Elton. Bewigged theatrical roles followed – Madame Arcarti in Blithe Spirit, for example, and Viola in Twelfth Night – and a part in the TV drama Your Cheatin’ Heart (where, while we’re on matters tonsorial, she cut and bleached her own hair, and cultivated a Glaswegian accent).
She’s added a TV-presenting string to her bow since then, and appeared on shows such as Call My Bluff, Have I Got News For You and QI.
Blackadder had one more outing before the 1980s ended. The fourth series had an edge of pathos that highlighted the futility of war. The last scene saw Blackadder and his men go over the top into no-man’s-land and likely death. The final image showed the field many years later, full of poppies.
“I don’t think anybody could watch the last episode and not be affected by it,” reflects Helen. “It showed that not only did you care about the characters, after all that time, there was a kind of political poignancy to it, too.”
– Blackadder: The Whole Rotten Saga is on G.O.L.D. (formerly UKTV Gold) at 9pm on Thursday, October 9.
It tells the behind-the-scenes story of the show and features interviews with key players, including Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Miranda Richardson, Helen Atkinson Wood, Tim McInnerny and Jim Broadbent. There is also rare footage of rehearsals.
MRS MIGGINS ON PAL ROWAN:-
BLACKADDER had a cast of stars, but Rowan Atkinson was undoubtedly the fulcrum. As well as being in at the birth, he co-wrote the first series and was, throughout, the leading man.
Helen Atkinson Wood (no relation, by the way) has known him all her adult life. They met during university days at Oxford and went off to the Edinburgh fringe. She remembers how, at the start of his comedy career, the way he ate a packet of cream crackers would have an audience helpless with laughter.
“He’s a consummate professional. He knows what he wants and does it brilliantly. He’s exacting and studied. He understands natural clowning, but is a person who takes his comedy seriously.”
The actor is a very private person, controlled in his behaviour, but that doesn’t rule out laughs.
“Funnily enough, not many of the people involved were the type to be rolling around on the floor. It’s more to do with wit, a different sort of comedy. They don’t exactly go around stony-faced, but everyone is pretty dry and ironic with their humour.”
FACTFILE: BLACKADDER BASICS:-
First series (screened on the BBC in 1983): Set in the 15th Century. Edmund Plantagenet, one of King Richard IV’s sons, opts for a tough new image by adopting the title The Black Adder (after rejecting another possible moniker: The Black Vegetable).
In the last episode he dreams up a plot to seize the crown for himself, but swallows a fatal dose of poisoned wine and rules for just half a minute.
Written by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, it won an International Emmy award, but clinched a second series only after a tighter budget was set, including studio recordings instead of location shoots.
Blackadder II (1986): Set in Elizabethan England. Edmund, the bastard great-great-grandson of the series I Blackadder, was a schemer par excellence.
Tony Robinson was back as Baldrick. A great cast included Miranda Richardson as the capricious Elizabeth I and Stephen Fry as the Lord Chamberlain. Rowan Atkinson concentrated on acting and Ben Elton shared writing duties with Richard Curtis.
Blackadder the Third (1987): Set during the reign of George III.
Blackadder Goes Forth (1989): Set during the First World War, with Blackadder and gang in the trenches
SUFFOLK’S BLACKADDER CONNECTION:-
SUFFOLK got a mention – of sorts – in Blackadder the Third:
Prince Regent: Erm, so what is a robber button?
Edmund: A rotten borough, sir, is a constituency where the owner of the land corruptly controls both the voters and the MP.
Prince Regent: Good, yes . . . and a robber button is . . . ?
Edmund: Could we leave that for a moment? Dunny-on-the-Wold is a tuppenny-ha’penny place. Half an acre of sodden marshland in the Suffolk fens with an empty town hall on it. Population: three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named Colin, and a small hen in its late 40s.
Prince Regent: So, no people at all, then, apart from Colin?
Edmund: Colin is a dog, sir.
BLACKADDER IN ESSEX:-
BLACKADDER came to Essex in the autumn of 1989 when Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson filmed at Colchester Garrison for the fourth and final series.
Soldiers of the 3rd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment joined the comedy starts to recreate a 1914 parade ground at Cavalry Barracks. The regimental band dressed in scarlet tunics to play a new adaptation of the Blackadder theme, and then 50 whistling soldiers in First World War battle-dress took up the tune to play over the opening credits.
The soldiers who volunteered to march for the cameras had to have their hair cut shorter and don an old-style uniform. Corporal Steven Neville said the filming was enjoyable, but said of the old-style uniforms: “They are wool, so they itch a lot, and they’d be impossible in the cold and wet.”