Costume comedy came of age in this milestone of mirth. Steve Clarke can’t stop laughing
It is hard to think of another great BBC sitcom blessed by such a strong pedigree as that of Blackadder. Running over four series, spanning 1983 to 1989 – plus the occasional special – the creators and stars of this comic masterpiece read like a roll call of late-20th-century British screen talent.
Richard Curtis, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, John Lloyd, Miranda Richardson, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Robinson, Rik Mayall and Ben Elton were all, at some point, involved in the different incarnations of Blackadder. Not, of course, forgetting Tim McInnerny, cast as the wonderfully camp Percy Percy and Captain – cue double entendre – Darling.
At the heart of Blackadder was Rowan Atkinson, the preternaturally gifted actor who co-wrote the first series and starred as Edmund Blackadder.
The historical setting changed for each series and respectively took place in the 15th, 16th, 18th and 20th centuries. But from series two, when writers Curtis and Elton came on board, Edmund remained essentially the same character – shrewd, conniving and totally devoid of scruples. Of course, his schemes invariably come hilariously unstuck.
Edmund’s intelligence contrasts sharply with that of his dim-witted comic foil, Baldrick, played to perfection by Robinson, and Laurie’s aristocratic numbskull, George, Prince of Wales in series three, and Lieutenant the Hon George Colthurst St Barleigh MC in Blackadder Goes Forth. The absurdities of the English class system gave Curtis and Elton much of their inspiration.
What began as a medieval farce – well, sort of – set in the fictional age of Richard IV, and continued in the courts of Elizabeth I and the Regency, ended up in darker territory, when the First World War trenches gave some bite to the comedy.
At the culmination of the final series, Blackadder Goes Forth, Captain Blackadder can no longer avoid the inevitable and leads his comrades in arms over the top to almost certain death. Has sitcom ever been so heartbreaking?
Atkinson’s relish at playing such a comic monster is a joy to watch. Most of the best lines are his in scripts that fizz with verbal pyrotechnics and are crammed with sexual jokes, some of which might now be considered too boorish for our more woke age.
Throughout Blackadder’s different reigns, the performers make everything look effortless as they deliver some brilliantly crafted lines heightened by superb comic timing.
What lay behind all this perfect tomfoolery, with its echoes of the music hall and pantomime, were years of hard graft, much of it spent at the Cambridge Footlights, the Edinburgh fringe and numerous BBC rehearsal studios, in TV and radio.
The matchless Lloyd, who produced all four series and collaborated on the scripts, served his apprenticeship as a radio producer in the 1970s before helping to nurture the comedy gold of BBC Two’s Not the Nine O’Clock News and Central Television’s Spitting Image.
Blackadder gave him what he famously described as an “epiphany”. He was referring to the previously mentioned closing sequence of Blackadder Goes Forth. “It started out as a complete disaster because the plugs were pulled by the crew but, somehow, we got lucky and it turned into this amazingly moving piece of TV,” he said. “It wasn’t deliberate, it’s just the way things turned out.”
As for the banquet of quotable lines, is it an exaggeration to say that, like Shakespeare or Dickens, some of them have entered everyday speech? Side-splitting similes come thick and fast: “Baldrick, your head is emptier than a eunuch’s underpants”, “You’re a girl with about as much talent for disguise as a giraffe in dark glasses trying to get into a polar bears-only golf club.” Or he’s “as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University”.
Quite simply, Blackadder is smart British sitcom at its very best. No wonder the show was voted the second-best sitcom of all time, pipped to the post by Only Fools and Horses. Cunning plan, anyone?
Blackadder Goes Forth is on-demand at UKTV Play.