It all began, like so much British comedy of the past 40 years, in the rarified atmosphere of Oxford University. Richard Curtis (director of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually) was a young undergraduate yearning to be a scriptwriter. He met Rowan Atkinson and the pair collaborated on a new comedy called Blackadder.
The first series, shown on BBC1 in 1983, had Atkinson (later famous as Mr Bean) playing a medieval nobleman assisted by his servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson). I remember watching this series at the time and was very disappointed. The characters were not properly developed and the script was just unfunny.
Apparently the BBC thought so as well and the series was scheduled for the axe. However, Curtis and Atkinson fought for another chance and brought in the writing talents of Ben Elton to help with the script. The second series was a different kettle of fish.
Edmund Blackadder was now an Elizabethan nobleman, a classic anti-hero and as sarcastic and cynical as they come while Baldrick was his pox-ridden idiot servant. Other character actors were brought into the mix. Miranda Richardson was wonderful as the Queen – she played it like a spoilt little girl who wields enormous power in a thoroughly capricious manner. Stephen Fry played Lord Melchett, a sycophantic courtier and Tim McInnery an effete acquaintance of Blackadder. The writer was altogether of a different calibre – and it was very, very funny. Baldrick’s phrase ‘I have a cunning plan’ entered the language.
The second series had far fewer characters and was set in Regency London (around 1800). The characters of Blackadder and Baldrick remained the same while Hugh Laurie was brought in to play the Prince Regent – and portrayed him as stupid, spoilt and as debt-ridden as he no doubt really was. My favourite episode was when Dr Johnson arrived with his first and only copy of the English Dictionary he had spent years compiling. Needless to say, Baldrick manages to light the fire with it.
But the final series, Blackadder Goes Forth is the most iconic. Set in the trenches of the First World War, it would seem an unlikely subject for humour, yet that war is now viewed in Britain as being fought by men with enormous heroism and sacrifice who were let down by moronic generals. Fry’s Melchett is now a general safely tucked away behind the front line, Tim McInnery is his sidekick Captain Darling while Blackadder and Baldrick are in the thick of battle.
This final series is the best, the pinnacle of the genre. Oddly, it’s the terrible sadness of the final episode rather than the humour for which it’s remembered all these years later. Dim upper class officer George (Hugh Laurie), Blackadder and Baldrick all have to ‘go over the top’ in a futile charge into no man’s land. The last view is of them falling under the bullets and then the scene changes to Flanders fields now, covered in poppies and the sound of birdsong.
Blackadder is a classic and although it is 25 years since the first series was shown, it will remain on the catalogue of British Comedy for years to come.