Article printed in the Sunday Times 17th January 1999
by Nicholas Hellen and Tim Tezisler
THE comedian Rowan Atkinson, who played the dastardly television character Edmund Blackadder, has hatched his most cunning plan: to rewrite British history for an official film marking the year 2000 that will be shown at the dome in Greenwich, southeast London.
He submitted a written proposal last week to Jenny Page, chief executive of the dome company, for a comic tour from the Roman occupation of Britain to the present day. The project was endorsed by Michael Grade, chairman of the dome’s creative advisory panel. The short movie, which will be screened at hourly intervals to the dome’s visitors, will feature the best of the nation’s comic talent, alongside the cast of Blackadder, the acclaimed 1980s BBC comedy series.
Atkinson will be the central figure of the film, according to the two-page proposal under consideration by the dome organisers, the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), because of the international popularity of his Mr Bean character. He is to appear in character as Blackadder in the opening and closing scenes, accompanied by his pea-brained sidekick, Baldrick, played by Tony Robinson. But through much of the movie he will play other roles, as he travels through time from one farcical scene to another. Atkinson’s popularity is at odds with the Labour party’s public image. His Mr Bean character is a socially inept mute. When Atkinson is away from the cameras he is resolutely unfunny, living quietly with his wife Sunetra and their two children.
One insider said there was no danger that the film would be hijacked by Labour to “preach” an approved version of history. “I can guarantee that anybody who watches our film will know that little bit less about our history than they did before,” said the source. In the television series, Richard III, played by Peter Cook, was accidentally beheaded by Blackadder. He replaced the severed head and pumped his arms vigorously in a futile attempt to breathe life back into the king. In another scene, when the action had moved to Elizabethan times, Baldrick attempted to go into dockyard prostitution in an effort to save himself from being cauterised with a hot poker.
Grade has invested considerable effort in persuading Atkinson and the Blackadder team to get together again in his search for the crucial “wow” factor that is deemed to be necessary to make the dome a success. For years in showbusiness circles, the prospect of a new venture for Blackadder has been dismissed as being as unlikely as reuniting the surviving Beatles. Tensions between the Blackadder team, which also included Stephen Fry, the actor, and Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, the script writers, led to its demise in 1989 at the height of its popularity. In the last tragi-comic episode, set in the trenches during the first world war, Hugh Laurie, as Lieutenant the Honourable George Colthurst St Barleigh, requested: “Permission to wobble bottom lip, sir?”, before marching off to his death. Rumours over the past decade that Blackadder might return in the guise of a 1960s hippie, a Conservative MP or an astronaut all proved unfounded. Several members of the team achieved international success, complicating still further any ambition to re-form. Atkinson earned millions from his portrayal of Mr Bean, scripted by Curtis, who also wrote the box office hit, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Elton became a playwright and a bestselling novelist.
Delicate negotiations to persuade the comics to reunite began last November. Talks were led by Grade, who as controller of BBC1 once threatened to axe Blackadder because it did not provide “enough laughs to the pound”, and two fellow advisers to the dome, Matthew Freud, the publicist, and Alan Yentob, the BBC executive.
Several reserve plans were developed, in case the project collapsed, including a reworking of the BBC1 sitcom, Only Fools and Horses, starring David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst. This may still be incorporated into the film. An insider said: “We are well on the way to getting a line-up appealing equally to overseas visitors as to coach parties from Accrington.”
Blackadder’s 30-minute millennium film is to be screened in the “Baby Dome”, an auditorium attached to the main building and housing two 2,500-seat cinemas, which is being sponsored for £12m by BSkyB, the satellite channel in which the publisher of The Sunday Times has a 40% stake. Although the comedy characters were first aired on the BBC, BSkyB will put up a strong fight to screen the film once its dome run is over. A spokesman for NMEC said: “The 30-minute film shown in Sky’s zone will be based on one of Britain’s greatest cultural exports – our sense of humour.”