Blackadder Goes Forth

From the Times (London) October 22, 1989

Blackadder supreme as he reaches the final frontier

PATRICK STODDARD on the end of an era for a comic invention

We are gathered here today to bid a slightly premature farewell to Edmund Blackadder, who is not very much longer for this world. When the fourth series comes to what its co-writer, Richard Curtis, darkly describes as its “very definitive last episode” on BBC1 in two weeks, it is almost certainly the last we will see of the most slippery dynasty since – as Captain Blackadder might have said to Private Baldrick – the incredibly mean Emperor Ting covered his grandchildren in yak grease, pushed them down the Great Wall of China and said he’d bought them a roller coaster for Christmas.

It all seems very sad, particularly as the current series, in which Blackadder is doing everything in his power to get out of the trenches, is the most assured of the lot. The lines are not only hilarious, but often elegant, and the characters have more flesh on them than in previous incarnations. There is even some proper acting, especially in the bitter exchanges between Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder and Tim McInnerny, as his sworn enemy, Captain Darling.

The producer, John Lloyd, who has also won campaign medals for “Not The Nine O’clock News”, “Spitting Image” and “The Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy”, agrees that this is the Blackadder to end all Blackadders, but he insists that ending it was not his idea. “It’s not me who wants to throw it all away, it’s the writers,” he says plaintively. “Things do get very tense by the end of a series, because everyone involved in the thing is very clever, and very funny, and they all want to push the scripts along.”

“It’s a very exhausting process, and by the end of it we all swear we’ll never, ever, do another one. But then you start to think how rare it is to get so many good people in the same room and you talk yourself into doing another series.”

Not this time, says Curtis. “If you’re making a lemon sauce, all you need is a bit of lemon. But if you’re making chili, everybody can shove bits in, and Blackadder is a very rich chili. Everybody on the show thinks they can put in good jokes, despite the fact that Ben Elton and I think there are already quite a few good ones in there to start with. It does usually end up funnier, but it’s time to do something over which I have more control.”

This is a not particularly oblique way of saying that, for the moment, the men who make Blackadder are sick of the sight of each other – a natural consequence of creative tension and not anything that gets in the way of long-term (if combative) friendships. Curtis says: “It’s possible that we’ll all work together again, but we’re not likely to meet up two years from now and decide to do something we’ve already done four times. There were only four gospels, for God’s sake.”

In other words, the men who breathed life into Edmund Blackadder have run out of puff – a fact that Curtis and Lloyd agree upon in uncanny chorus. “Nobody can think of a new synonym to describe how small Baldrick’s brain is,” says Lloyd, while Curtis claims: “We were running out of insults for the size of Baldrick’s brain.”

More important, they are running out of eras for Blackadder to pop up in. Lloyd says: “If you look at most of the really great comedies – Fawlty Towers, Porridge – they are about characters trapped in aspic. They are all resourceful, bright people, but there’s a block they can’t get past.”

In Blackadders case, the block has usually been the one you put your head on if a truly lunatic despot decides you have forgotten your place. The heads of the medieval and Elizabethan Blackadders courtiers were never more than moments from the blade, and if the current Captain Blackadder sticks his head above the parapet as regularly as the mad general thinks he should, he’ll get it shot off.

This does not augur well. A Second World War Blackadder would offend too many people, and would anyway be a lot like the First World War Blackadder. Otherwise, we are mercifully short of life-threatening situations at the moment, so any future Blackadders would have to face less terminal threats.

There might be a good party game in dreaming up places for Blackadder to go next, although Curtis insists that if anybody tries it, they must find roles for all five members of the repertory. Blackadder the Thatcherite MP would have worked, if Rik Mayall hadn’t got in first with “The New Statesman”. Blackadder, bored lord of a crumbling country seat, might work yet. Or Blackadder the black sheep, packed off to a colonial backwater to brood among the rubber trees?

If any new series must be set in a later period than the last, how about Blackadder in Space? “We did think about a science fiction series,” says Curtis, “but then we remembered that John was a bit of an expert on space. The interference would have been awful.”

One last throw, and with it, a tiny glimmer of hope. Why not Blackadder in the Swinging Sixties? “Actually, Rik Mayall suggested that,” says Curtis. “We thought it was a wonderful idea. Rowan would be the really shifty manager of the Blackadder Five, and Tony Robinson could be the hairless drummer, Bald Rick.”