After the first season of The Black Adder, the BBC cancelled the show. But that was not the end, and the faster, sexier, funnier – cheaper! – Black-Adder II became one of the BBC’s most popular sitcoms. Andrew Pixley braves the spindly killer fish to investigate.
In 1999, writer Richard Curtis recalled the events of some 16 years earlier in the saga of The Black Adder. “The BBC cancelled it after the first series. We weren’t allowed to do the second series as it was outstandingly unsuccessful and not funny enough.” The turning point for the sequence of savage historical comedies came through a chance meeting between Richard Curtis, who co-wrote the first season with the show’s star Rowan Atkinson, and Ben Elton. Elton was from the next generation of comedy writers following on from the Curtis/Atkinson breed of Not The Nine O’clock News. His first major TV success had been as one of the writing team on the alternative and anarchic BBC2 sitcom The Young Ones, since when he had written and performed on Granada’s Alfresco with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, and was working on a BBC1 comedy serial called Happy Families.
Recalling this vital encounter in 1998, Curtis said: “I just happened to meet Ben one day and he said we should have done it with a studio audience, and from that we decided that not only would he help write it… but that it would be done in front of a studio audience.” In 1999, Elton also recounted the pair’s assessment of why The Black Adder (see TV Zone #160) had maybe not done as well as hoped: “Doing it on film in this glorious sort of vastness was probably a mistake. Rowan falling off a horse at 200 metres is not really any funnier than anyone else falling off a horse at 200 metres -get the camera in close and he’ll make you laugh.” Atkinson had been somewhat unsettled by the audience and critical reaction to The Black Adder, and he also now realized that he was finding the writing process to be far more tortuous than Curtis, his old partner. As such, it was decided that while Atkinson would continue to star, Elton would replace him on the writing chores.
By 1984, John Lloyd, the freelance producer who had overseen The Black Adder, was taking over as producer on a successful new topical comedy show – Central TV’s Spitting Image. Despite the show’s reception, Lloyd was sure that there was still more mileage in the Black Adder format and arranged for a new season to be scheduled in production at the BBC. The difference was that this time there would not be a cast of millions (even if most were extras), there would be minimal location filming, and the spontaneity of a traditional sitcom with performers reacting to the pace and mood of an audience would be captured by doing it before members of the public rather than as the previous piecemeal pre-recordings. As Elton remarked in 2003, “It needed to be a sitcom – not a mini comic movie.” Lloyd very much liked the dynamic work of Elton’s which he had seen on The Young Ones, and commissioned the two writers for another run of six shows.
The Black Adder was given a second screening over the summer of 1984 – to remind viewers that the series did still exist – and preliminary plans were made for the new episodes. However, one immediate problem was the availability of the actors. Atkinson was now engrossed in theatre work, starring in The Nerd which was due to come to London in October 1984. This was not necessarily a problem because, once the play was established, he could perform the play in the evenings and rehearse the new Black Adder during the day and record it before an audience on Sundays. However, it now seemed that one of the key cast members from the first season, Brian Blessed who had played King Richard, was now tied up filming HTV’s John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island and out of the country for some time.
The team realized that it was probably a mistake to stick to the same characters, and so set about finding a new era which would also allow greater flexibility in casting and cover the potential non-availability of Blessed. Curtis now reconsidered elements of the original pilot episode for The Black Adder to reformat the series. The setting was shifted forward almost a century to the court of Queen Elizabeth – and as such around the same timeframe as the unbroadcast test episode with its unspecified King and Queen. Also, Edmund was to be re-crafted in the mould originally adopted by Atkinson – a less comical figure with more cunning and intelligence. The new Sixteenth century Blackadder would be the clever fellow continually cursing the fact that he was surrounded by idiots, and with a rapier put-down or dose of sarcasm to suit every occasion. This Edmund was to be a descendant of the original (goodness knows how, given the former’s lack of success with women), his status being described as the great grandson in the closing lyrics to the first episode in production.
Blackadder’s two sidekicks – Baldrick and Percy – were retained as his servant and dumb friend respectively. Edmund would now be a regular face at Elizabeth’s court, his favour changing haphazardly with the childlike whims of England’s monarch. His new rival was Lord Melchett, the Lord Chamberlain, and completing the regular cast was the Queen’s insane old nursemaid.
Curtis and Elton’s collaboration on the scripts was achieved by use of the new-fangled medium of computer disc, with electronic drafts mailed back and forth between them. Each agreed that if the other cut a joke out for not being funny enough, it would not be reinstated. The decision to take a new tack on production was of immense benefit. “Let’s forget the budget,” said Elton. “Let’s get into the studio and have two wooden cardboard sets, because the money’s in Rowan’s face. It gave us the opportunity to develop dialogue, and the actors an opportunity to do their facial gymnastics”. The cunning plans glimpsed in the first series benefited from the extra discourse between characters. Of the resulting flavour from the two writers, Miranda Richardson commented in 1998: “It was the combination of, if you like, Ben the yobbo and Richard the scholar…That sort of anarchy is very English”.
Unfortunately there was still another hurdle, as Elton explained in 2003: “It was just at the point when we’d finished the sixth script that Michael Grade, Controller of BBC1, cancelled The Black Adder. He took a look at [it], looked at what it cost, looked at the reaction it got, and said ‘I’m not spending that on a sitcom. I don’t care if it is Rowan Atkinson. I’m going to cancel it’.” It transpired that what Grade did not know was that the reformatted series would be so much cheaper. Two scripts were hastily compiled and handed to Lloyd who, according to Elton, “ran to Michael Grade and said ‘Look, I know exactly why you cancelled it, but we knew that too! That’s why we’ve done Black-Adder II. This is the new thing. It’s different. It costs half as much. It’s three times as funny. You’re gonna love it.’ And to Michael Grade’s great credit he read it and reinstated it.”
As with the first series, the scripts continued their sideswipes at the work of William Shakespeare (who helped Queen Elizabeth with the title of her rather awful poem Edmund and whose comedies Blackadder considered so unfunny that Baldrick would laugh at them). In Head, Horatio’s speech “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” from Hamlet Act V is adapted for Lady Farrow’s gratitude to the Queen (and had been spoofed by Curtis before in The Foretelling from the first season). Bells included the greeting “Hail Edmund, Lord of Adders Black!” from the Wise Woman, which derived from the Witches “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Glamis…” from Act I of Macbeth. The imprisoned Melchett in Chains bemoans his situation by corrupting Gloucester’s line “As flies to wanton boys, are the gods. They kill us for their sport” from Act IV of King Lear. In Money, a solemn Percy misquotes one of the King’s speeches – “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings” -from Richard II Act III, and the mad beggar, poor Tom, encountered in the same episode, was derived from the disguise adopted by the nobleman Edgar in Act IV of King Lear (“Poor Tom’s a-cold”). From a different source, the William Greaves who died in 1563 with a spike up his bottom referred to in the same sequence was named after Curtis’ neighbour, whom the writer had promised would be written into the script. This method of execution was the fate of King Edward II and featured in the work of Christopher Marlowe. Queen Elizabeth’s legendary speech about facing the Armada at Tilbury in 1588 – “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King” – was reworked in Beer with reference to a concrete elephant.
The new scripts also included the first references to a character who would appear in subsequent years – Mrs Miggins, the bedridden owner of a local pie shop, who is mentioned in Bells, Potato and Money. The publicity material for the season indicated that the episodes took place in 1560, 1561, 1562, 1564, 1565 and 1566 (in real history, Elizabeth reigned from 1558 to 1603).
Pre-production began in Spring 1985. The BBC staff director assigned to the project was Mandie Fletcher who had eight years experience in theatre work and had directed episodes of Butterflies, The Fainthearted Feminist and had just completed the first season of Three Up, Two Down.
Of the regular cast to join Atkinson, Tony Robinson – who played Baldrick – had now become part of the regular line-up on Channel 4’s late-night sketch show Who Dares Wins which had started with a special in November 1983 and returned with a full series in May 1984; a further series was planned to broadcast from November 1985.
Percy’s alter-ego Tim Mclnnerny, had filmed a new prestige BBC drama called ‘Magnox’ (latterly Edge of Darkness) which was due for transmission that autumn.
Miranda Richardson was selected to play Queen Elizabeth because of her performance as Ruth Ellis – the last woman to be executed in England – in the 1985 film Dance With A Stranger and had also appeared in the mini-series A Woman of Substance.
Stephen Fry, who had emerged from the 1981 Cambridge Footlights, had worked with Elton on Alfresco and appeared in editions of The Young Ones; he was cast as Melchett with his writing and performing partner Hugh Laurie also given two guest roles in the series.
Several cast members from the previous series also returned in guest roles including Bill Wallis, Patrick Duncan, Miriam Margolyes, Mark Arden, Barbara Miller and Elton’s old colleague from The Young Ones Rik Mayall.
A single day’s filming was performed on Thursday 30 May 1985, prior to studio rehearsals. Fletcher took a film crew out to Wilton House in Wiltshire to shoot the closing credit sequences featuring Atkinson and an annoying beggar played by Tony Aitken, along with a romantic interlude between Edmund and Kate in Bells (which had to be trimmed in the finished programme). Appearing as Kate was Gabrielle Glaister, who had been at school with Elton. Studio recordings in front of a live audience began on Sunday 9 June with the recording of Head in TC6. Many of the studio warm-ups for these shows were handled by Elton himself, only months away from his first spell of compering Saturday Night Live.
The remaining episodes were then recorded at weekly intervals in the sequence Bells (in TC3), Potato (in TC4), Money (in TCI), Beer (in TC6) and Chains (again in TC6) Fletcher wanted to keep the action as fluid as possible for the live audience and was averse to complex costume changes or special effects which required recording to be halted. Some such items were pre-recorded in the afternoon – notably the single shot in which the cross-dressing Flashheart and Kate made their explosive departure at the end of Bells. As Fletcher explained during production: “It’s a bit like doing Shakespeare in front of an audience – it’s not at all like doing sitcom.” In her direction she aimed to make the settings look beautiful -and then have the sharp dialogue distinctly at odds with its surroundings in a collision of ancient and modern. She very much wanted to “move on from all that undergraduate camping it up”.
At the time, Atkinson was fairly sure that Black-Adder II would probably be the final appearance of Edmund and the gang, commenting: “I think we really wanted to do this second series to make some of the failings of the first series into strengths and also because there was enough life still in the storyline to make it worthwhile. Edmund’s the great loser, but this time he’s not quite such a fool, he does get out of things in the end.” Even before the series was transmitted, there was talk about making a third series, but Atkinson was still cautious. “We felt there was mileage to be exploited in doing another series,” he explained, “but to do yet another smacks to me of the American way where successful, fresh concepts and ideas are taken and ruthlessly exploited until there’s nothing left. It’s far better to do a few and leave well alone after that – progress to the next thing.”
Black-Adder II was held back for the New Year season on BBC1 in 1986, and again Atkinson promoted his new show quite heavily. Appearing on Wogan a few hours before the first broadcast, the star declared that what viewers would be seeing tonight was “significantly improved” on the first season, and was a lot faster. In the Radio Times he explained that Black-Adder II “has wider appeal. It’s more zappy and anarchic.” In Time Out, the star commented “My future credibility with the BBC probably rests with the success or failure of this series.”
With no running themes from episode to episode, the programmes could be arranged into any order. Very late in the day it was decided to transpose the first two instalments (even previews in the week of broadcast still referred to Mayall’s appearance being in the second episode). As such, Bells went out first and out of sequence. Because of this, Percy shaves off his beard during Bells, has grown it again by Head and is then clean-shaven for the remaining episodes.
Black-Adder II ran at 9.30pm on Thursday nights from 9th January to 20th February 1986, pre-empted on 30th January by an edition of Crimewatch. The critics hailed the early episodes as ‘promising’ and ‘a great improvement’ … and by the time Chains concluded the run in a finale which the Radio Times assured readers comprised everyone getting ‘horribly murdered at the end again’, the tighter scripts of Elton and Curtis with the cunning plans and prickly sarcasm had secured a strong following and consolidated the shaky position of Edmund’s great grandfather three years earlier…