‘The Black Adder’ began on June 15, 30 years ago. Despite a chaotic start, it became a hit. The rest, says Dominic Cavendish, is history.
“It was a great lesson in vanity and egotism,” says veteran producerJohn Lloyd, looking back on The Black Adder, the first series of what became simply Blackadder. June 15, 2013, brings the 30th anniversary of the first episode’s broadcast on BBC One. History, the fabric of which Blackadder draws from, however tongue-in-cheekily, has started to weave the show into its own tapestry.
And yet it’s worth remembering how narrowly Blackadder avoided being trampled underfoot in the onward march of televisual endeavour. Lloyd – one of Britain’s most successful producers of comedy on radio andtelevision, responsible for Spitting Image and QI, among much else – has previously admitted to the angst, setbacks and accidental saving graces that went into the programme’s DNA.
Yet when I catch up with him, he’s more than usually emphatic about how deficient those early episodes were: “Richard [Curtis], Rowan [Atkinson] and I had come off Not the Nine O’Clock News, which was a triumph – we’d won two Baftas for the last series,” he recalls. “We were young, we thought ‘We’re brilliant, we can do anything,’ and we bit off more than we could chew.”
In the documentary trip down memory lane conducted to mark the 25th anniversary, Blackadder Rides Again, Atkinson and Lloyd retrod their steps around Alnwick Castle, Northumberland – the location for the first series’ mock-authentic version of late-medieval history, in which Brian Blessed’s Richard, Duke of York, father to Atkinson’s Edmund (“The Black Adder”), gained the English throne at the Battle of Bosworth.
Filming was a logistical nightmare and Lloyd shudders at the memory. “I was standing there in the freezing cold, looking at the dogs and the horses, surrounded by snow, thinking ‘What on Earth have we done?’ Richard and I used to stay up all night writing the scripts. We weren’t ready.”
The big joke about The Black Adder back at Television Centre was that it was the show that looked like a million dollars – and cost a million pounds (these being the days when the pound had clout). “It took months to edit,” Lloyd says. “I think one of the actors died, we took so long to edit it. We had to do retakes the whole time.” Although a second series was commissioned – despite mixed reviews – the arrival of Michael Grade as BBC One controller in 1984 spelt the bloody axe. He took one look at the cost and the ratings (not great), and cancelled the show.
The cavalry had arrived, though, in the shape of Ben Elton – nephew, it’s worth noting, of the venerated Tudor historian GR Elton. Taking over as joint scriptwriter, his whizzo idea was to get out of the boggy, lice-ridden misery of the Middle Ages and cut a sexier, punkier dash in the Elizabethan era.
It was a decision that, at a stroke, unlocked the show’s full potential for rapier wit, silly costumes, light-of-touch satire and richly detailed characterisation built around the intricacies and hypocrisies of class and power. One frantic weekend spent lopping off anything in the scripts that would require more than a minimal budget, one concerted plea for a reprieve, and the rest is the stuff of golden memories, reissued DVDs and repeats until doomsday.
Blackadder II begat Blackadder the Third – set in the Regency period – which begat Blackadder Goes Forth, bringing things from the mire and gore of the Middle Ages to the mud and blood of the First World War trenches. Lavish location shoots had given way to a studio set-up, with the scripts all the tighter and better for it. Having started out trying to subvert the traditional sitcom, the team – the talent of which no subsequent generation has yet matched – produced comedy’s answer to a cathedral, robust and built to last.
In explaining Blackadder’s enduring power, aside from the fashion-proof nature of its historical settings, we should point to its unique combination of guile and guilelessness, of perfectionism and on-the-fly invention. In artistic terms, it’s Edmund and Baldrick rolled into one.
In a neat final twist of behind-the-scenes irony, the most hallowed moment of the series came about by accident rather than design. The haunting last scene of the final series shows Blackadder and his not so merry men – Tony Robinson’s hangdog Private Baldrick, Hugh Laurie’s asinine but suddenly anxious Lieutenant George and Tim McInnerny’s ever-twitchy Captain Darling – getting felled by machine-gun fire as they go over the top.
Time itself seems to slow to a standstill – and past laughter turns into a silent act of remembrance punctuated only by birdsong. Having begun on a parodic Shakespearean note in the very first episode – with a rewrite of Richard III, performed by Peter Cook – the magnum opus arrives at a place as poignant as anything in the Histories.
The series’s knowing send-up of a simplistic Ladybird view of English history grows organically into a humble indictment, in grim monochrome fading into the blood-red of a poppy field, of the supposedly educated few whose idiocy led to such senseless slaughter.
Those closing moments were the result of happenstance. The final take was a rushed, botched job, with no time or inclination for another go. It was only in the editing suite that the possibilities of snatching artistic victory from the jaws of a deadly shambles dawned. Having started out biting off more than they could chew, they reached the apotheosis of “less is more”.
“Suddenly we were all standing there in awe,” Lloyd remembers. “My only contribution was to say ‘We’ve touched something here. Quite by accident we’ve done something extraordinary. It would be impertinent to put credits on this. We will take them off.’” And that’s what they did.