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A Cunning Plan – The Rise of the Black Adder

On 22 August 1485, the scene was set for one of the most significant conflicts in the history of Britain: the Battle of Bosworth Field. Lancaster and York, two factions of the House of Plantagenet, had fought for the thirty years for control of the throne, during an era that has since become known to historians as the Wars of the Roses.

Richard III’s accession to become King of England has since become the subject of much speculation and controversy, particularly surrounding the fate of his predecessor, the twelve-year-old Edward V. Along with his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, Edward V had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, and perhaps due to the propaganda of the time, it is often believed that Richard III had ordered their executions.

Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, also had a claim to the throne and, after spending many years in exile in France, returned home to England with an army of supporters, intent on challenging the king’s rule. Richard III was killed on Bosworth Field and his crown placed on the head of Henry Tudor. With his enemy finally defeated, Richmond was crowned Henry VII. This finally brought the Wars of the Roses to an end and marked the dawn of the Tudor dynasty, which would reign over England for over a hundred years. These series of events hardly seemed the basis for comedy.

The 1980s would mark a new era for British sitcoms, in which higher production values and risque humour would raise the bar on what was allowed to be shown in a half-hour comedy. While the previous decade had produced shows that were often based around one, relatively cheap location such as a shop, the 1980s saw characters venturing into deep space and the trenches of the First World War.

Following the lead of The Young Ones, which had given the sitcom formula a surreal and somewhat adult spin, The Black Adder (retitled Blackadder for the second series) mixed historical fact with satirical fiction, charting the legacy of the devious Blackadder dynasty from the Middle Ages to the distant future. Originally conceived by former university friends Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, the show debuted in 1983 to mixed reviews, but by the end of the decade it had become one of the most beloved sitcoms in the country. Thirty years on, its memorable characters and iconic catchphrases have secured its place in British pop culture.

The original concept for The Black Adder was set four hundred years ago, in a realm under the ruling of an unnamed king, who impatiently awaits for the return of his troops from Spain. While his eldest son, Henry, shows an interest in art and a loyalty to his father, the younger sibling, Edmund, is a repellent and devious cretin who has been left with the responsibility of organising the upcoming festivities. Edmund is followed by his two squires, Percy and Baldrick, who participated in his desperate and loathsome acts of self-preservation.

The focal point of the party is the return of Dougal McAngus, a Scottish war hero recently returned from Spain, whom Edmund takes an instant dislike to. To make matters worse, the king has awarded McAngus lands in his native Scotland that are ruled over by Edmund. Hungry for vengeance but wary of his crimes being discovered, he offers McAngus the eponymous role in his performance piece for the evening entitled The Death of the Scotsman, with the intention of murdering him during the play but making it appear to be an accident.

But prior to him taking the stage, McAngus informs Edmund that in his possession he has letters written by the Queen which question whether or not Henry is a legitimate heir to the throne. After interrupting the performance in an effort to save McAngus, Edmund summons an audience with the court, in which he presents the letters as evidence, only to discover that due to the dates they were written, it is his own lineage that is thrown into question. Under orders of the king, Edmund and McAngus fight a sword duel while the crowd watch from the sidelines but, facing his enemy’s blade, Edmund reluctantly pleads for mercy.

In one last desperate attempt to rid the court of McAngus, Edmund takes him on a tour of the castle which ends with them inspecting a large cannon, which Edmund sets off as McAngus leans inside for a closer look. The episode ends with Edmund rushing in shouting, ‘Mother, father, you must come quickly. There’s been a terrible accident!’ As everyone runs from the room, Percy turns suspiciously to Edmund, who raises his fists in the air in triumph.

The pilot episode proved to be a disappointment for all involved and remained unaired, with the biggest criticism being its lack of direction. While Atkinson had created a relatively interesting character in Edmund, who demands the viewer’s sympathy while also being contemptuous and two-faced, many of the roles seemed miscast. John Savident, whose credits had included a supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s notorious classic A Clockwork Orange, was cast the king, while Henry was portrayed by Robert Bathurst, later known to Red Dwarf fans for his brief appearance as Todhunter in the first episode.

The Black Adder

The Black Adder

Atkinson had written the character of Percy with his close friend Tim McInnerny in mind, but when their first choice for Baldrick, theatre actor Tony Robinson, was unavailable at the time of filming, the part was eventually offered to the unknown Philip Fox. With the exception of Atkinson and McInnerny, the only other actors to survive the major overhaul that the show would receive would be Elspet Gray and Alex Norton, in the roles of the Queen and McAngus, respectively. The future of The Black Adder seemed uncertain, but with Atkinson’s former producer John Lloyd, whom he had worked with on Not the Nine O’Clock News, finally onboard, the show would be re-developed from the ground up.

While the pilot would be set in some unspecified sixteenth-century era, the rewrites would see the action take place a century earlier, following the events of Bosworth Field. Creating an alternative history, it is revealed that Henry Tudor had created lies surrounding Richard III, who in fact did not kill the two children in the Tower and was particularly close to one of his nephews, Richard, who in reality would become the First Duke of York. But in The Black Adder, as the battle comes to an end, the king searches for a horse and happens upon Edmund’s who, not realising it is Richard III, beheads him.

The king’s favourite nephew is then crowned ruler and so begins the reign of Richard IV, while Henry Tudor is forced into hiding, where he creates propaganda to soil the reputation of the king. In the new version of the script, Edmund – who dubs himself the Black Adder – is an even more obnoxious and cowardly leech who desperately wants to overthrow his father and replace his brother (now renamed Harry) as the heir to the throne. Robinson, finally taking the role of Baldrick, becomes his faithful servant, while McInnerny’s Percy now carries the title of a Lord.

The screenplay for the new pilot, entitled The Foretelling, would incorporate dialogue from William Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry V, even crediting the playwright with additional material. The king, a weak point of the original episode, was to become more theatrical and dominant thanks to the casting of cult actor Brian Blessed, best known to viewers at the time from his role in the recent blockbuster Flash Gordon. The final role to be filled was Robert East, who would replace Bathurst as Edmund’s son.

The pilot would be recycled for the episode Born to Be King, while The Foretelling would mark an appearance from legendary comic star Peter Cook, who would relish the opportunity to play Richard III with such insanity. Cook was already familiar with Atkinson, having appeared together at the benefit show The Secret Policeman’s Ball four years earlier and the TV special Peter Cook & Co., and his presence in The Black Adder lent the show a credibility it had lacked in its previous incarnation.

While the pilot, shot in a cheap-looking studio, had lacked any kind of visual style, for the series the producers decided to shoot mostly on location, with Alnwick Castle in Northumberland being chosen, having already been featured in Universal’s 1971 drama Mary, Queen of Scots. One of the most ambitious episodes was Witchsmeller Pursuivant, which paid homage to Ken Russell’s controversial classic The Devils, with Edmund wrongly accused of witchcraft, forcing his brother to summon for a professional witch hunter.

After being found guilty in court, Edmund, Baldrick and Percy have their heads shaved and are then tied to stakes in the middle of the town square, where they are burned alive, similar to the fate of Russell’s protagonist. In The Black Seal, the Plantagenet dynasty is brought to the end at the hands of Philip, the Duke of Burgundy, who is known to his enemies as the Hawk. Recuiting the most evil men in the land, the Hawk betrays Edmund by torturing him, then leaves him for dead but is poisoned by Baldrick and Percy. But due to a tragic mistake, the entire realm are also killed, with only the two servants remaining.

The Black Adder was broadcast over a six-week period from 15 June to 20 July 1983, but either due to its unusual format of shooting a historical comedy on location or its unpolished scripts and performances, the show failed to achieve the acclaim its creators had longed for. The show had been blessed with a host of guest stars, with not only Cook making an appearance but also Miriam Margolyes, Jim Broadbent, Rik Mayall and a pre-fame Angus Deayton showing their faces.

Even Curtis later expressed his disappointment at the end result, ‘When we did the first series, we had huge cinematic dreams, and so we got ourselves just technically in a very dodgy situation, which was that there was no audience, and we’d always worked in front of an audience.’ There had also been some uncertainty early on regarding the character of Edmund, the driving force behind the series, with producer John Lloyd initially expressing concerns over whether or not he was amusing. Atkinson had changed Edmund considerably from the way he had written and portrayed him in the pilot, and after the negative reviews he would return to his earlier performance for inspiration on the later series.

Blackadder II

Blackadder II

Blackadder II would air three years later, during which time Atkinson would appear in the unofficial James Bond sequel Never Say Never Again. With its star deciding to step down from co-writing, Curtis teamed up with rising stand-up comic Ben Elton, who had proved himself a considerable talent on The Young Ones. His wit and intelligence would be just what Blackadder needed, and the second series was met with considerable acclaim. ‘It is interesting how an amusing costume a daft haircut, an amusing character doth not make,’ admitted Atkinson in the retrospective Blackadder Rides Again, who would refine Edmund Blackadder through the Elizabethan era, the British Regency and, finally, the trenches of the Great War.

With each incarnation of the show, Baldrick would become less intelligent and more a target for Edmund’s hostility, while Atkinson would add a sophistication to his performance. After returning to the characters of the second and third series for Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, as well as introducing Ebenezer Blackadder and a futuristic version of Edmund set in deep space, he would finally make his swan song at the turn of the millennium, Blackadder: Back & Forth, in which the eponymous hero and the ever-faithful Baldrick would travel through time and cross paths with Shakespeare, Robin Hood and the Duke of Wellington.

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