Blackadder is the generic name that encompasses four series of an acclaimed BBC One historical sitcom, along with several one-off instalments. The first series was written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, while subsequent episodes were written by Curtis and Ben Elton. The shows were produced by John Lloyd, and starred Rowan Atkinson as the eponymous anti-hero, Edmund Blackadder, and Tony Robinson as his sidekick/dogsbody, Baldrick.
In 2000, Blackadder Goes Forth ranked at 16 in the "100 Greatest British Television Programmes", a list created by the British Film Institute. Also in the 2004 TV poll to find "Britain's Best Sitcom", Blackadder was voted the second best British sitcom of all time, topped by Only Fools and Horses. It was also ranked as the 20th Best TV Show of All Time by Empire Magazine.
The lives of each of the Blackadders are also entwined with their servants, all from the Baldrick family line (played by Tony Robinson). Each generation acts as the dogsbody to their respective Blackadder. They decrease in intelligence (and in personal hygiene standards) just as their masters' intellect increases. Each Blackadder and Baldrick are also saddled with the company of a dim-witted aristocrat whose presence Blackadder must somehow tolerate. This role was taken in the first two series by Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny), in the third series by Prince George, Prince Regent, and in the fourth by Lieutenant George, the latter two played by Hugh Laurie (see George (Blackadder character)).
Each series was set in a different period of English history, beginning in 1485 and ending in 1917 (with one 1999 special set in the-then present day) comprising six half-hour episodes. The first series, made in 1983, was called The Black Adder (set in the fictional reign of 'Richard IV'). This was followed by Blackadder II in 1985 (set during the reign of Elizabeth I), Blackadder the Third in 1987 (set in the reign of George III), and finally Blackadder Goes Forth in 1989 (set in the trenches of the Great War).
In addition to these, three specials were also made: Blackadder: The Cavalier Years (set in the reign of Charles I) appeared as a 15-minute insert during the 1988 Comic Relief telethon; Blackadder's Christmas Carol (mostly set during the reign of Queen Victoria with some scenes taking place in the locations of the second and third series', as well as another many centuries hence) was a 45-minute Christmas installment, broadcast the same year; and Blackadder: Back & Forth was a 30-minute film originally shown in a special cinema at the Millennium Dome throughout 2000, and later transmitted by Sky and the BBC. A pilot episode was recorded in 1982, but has never been shown on television. It is notable for Baldrick being played by Philip Fox. Its plot was re-used for the episode "Born to be King" in Series 1. Although DVD releases have never included the pilot, copies are known to circulate online.
With each observed generation, the family's social standing is reduced, from prince, to lord, to royal butler, and finally a regular army captain. However, he concurrently goes from being an incompetent fool (in the first series) to an ever more devious strategist in matters that affect him with each succeeding series. The Macbeth-inspired witches, in "The Foretelling" (1.1) (thinking he is, in fact, Henry Tudor), promise that one day Blackadder will be king and, in "Bells" (2.1), the "wise woman" says "thou plottest, Blackadder: thou wouldst be King!" In the first series, Edmund does become king for less than a minute, but then dies after succumbing to some poisoned wine, which is alluded to in the closing credits song in "Head" (2.2):
In the second series, Blackadder comes very close to marrying Elizabeth I but fails. At the end of Blackadder the Third, the character assumes the role of Prince Regent after the real prince is killed in a duel with the Duke of Wellington and so presumably ascends the throne as George IV. After his general decline in status through the series, Blackadder, or at least the descendant of the original, finally becomes absolute monarch in Blackadder: Back & Forth through manipulation of the timeline. A Grand Admiral Blackadder of the far future is also seen in the Christmas special, and his status further rises when he manages to achieve control of the entire universe upon marrying Queen Asphyxia XIX.
While each episode was plot-driven, they were still formulaic to a degree. For example, whenever Blackadder found himself in a difficult situation (as was the case most of the time), Baldrick would invariably suggest a solution, starting with the words, "I have a cunning plan". This became the character's catch phrase and, while his ideas were usually totally unhelpful (particularly from series 2 onward), he would sometimes come up with a useful scheme.
Blackadder was referenced in the House of Commons on 21 November 2007, during the 2007 UK child benefit data scandal. Elfyn Llwyd, a Plaid Cymru MP, suggested it was "time for Blackadder to say goodbye to Darling", comparing Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to his fictional namesake, Kevin Darling.
Blackadder is a genuine surname, its usage in the UK currently documented back to the 15th century (which may explain the choice of the name, with the first series being set in this time period) although the name is thought to be mostly Scottish in origin. Dr. Eric Blackadder, Chief Medical Officer at the BBC at the time of the first programme, claims that the series is named after him. The name 'Baldrick' is also authentic—but much rarer—and has been dated in Britain all the way back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. The name is Germanic in origin.
Set in 1485 at the end of the British Middle Ages, the series is written as a secret history which contends that King Richard III won the Battle of Bosworth Field, only to be accidentally murdered, and is succeeded by Richard IV, one of the Princes in the Tower. The series follows the exploits of Richard IV's unfavoured second son Edmund, the Duke of Edinburgh (who calls himself "The Black Adder") in his various attempts to increase his standing with his father and his eventual quest to overthrow him.
Conceived while Atkinson and Curtis were working on Not the Nine O'Clock News, the series dealt comically with a number of medieval issues in Britain - witchcraft, Royal succession, European relations, the Crusades and the conflict between the Crown and the Church. The filming of the series was highly ambitious, with a large cast and much location shooting. The series also featured Shakespearean dialogue, often adapted for comic effect.
Following the BBC's request for improvements to be made to the show, several changes were made. The second series was the first to establish the familiar character of Blackadder: cunning, shrewd and witty, in sharp contrast with Prince Edmund of the first series. To make the show more cost effective, it was also shot with far fewer outdoor scenes than the first series and several, frequently used, indoor scenes, such as the Queen's throne room and Blackadder's front room.
A quote from this series was placed in third position for the top twenty-five television 'put downs' of the last 40 years by the Radio Times magazine. It was the following insult directed at Lord Percy by Edmund Blackadder: "The eyes are open, the mouth moves, but Mr Brain has long since departed, hasn't he, Percy?"
Blackadder the Third is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a period known as the Regency. In the series, E. Blackadder Esquire is the butler to the Prince of Wales (the prince is played by Hugh Laurie as a complete fop and idiot). Despite Edmund's respected intelligence and abilities, he has no personal fortune to speak of, apart from his frequently fluctuating wage packet from the Prince, as he says: 'If I'm running short of cash all I have to do is go upstairs and ask Prince Fat-head for a rise'.
As well as Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson in their usual roles, this series starred Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent, and Helen Atkinson-Wood as Mrs. Miggins. The series features rotten boroughs (or "robber buttons"), Dr. Samuel Johnson (played by Robbie Coltrane), William Pitt the Younger, the French Revolution (featuring Chris Barrie, Nigel Planer and Tim McInnerny as the Scarlet Pimpernel), over-the-top theatrical actors, squirrel-hating highwaymen, and a duel with the Duke of Wellington (played by Stephen Fry).
Except for the final episode, the episode titles are all plays on words involving military titles, e.g. "Captain Cook" (about food), "Private Plane" (involving Rik Mayall as a pilot).
The final episode of this series, "Goodbyeee...", is known for being extraordinarily poignant for a comedy – especially the final scene, which sees the main characters (Blackadder, Baldrick, George, and Darling) finally venturing forward and charging off to die in the fog and smoke of no man's land. Melchett remains at his office but blithely orders a reluctant Darling to fight with the others. "Goodbyeee ..." had no closing titles, simply fading from the protagonists charging across no man's land under fire, to a field of poppies in the sunlight: like the poem "In Flanders Fields". This particular poignant moment illustrates how the series had the capacity to be more than just a sitcom. In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, Blackadder Goes Forth was placed 16th.
The Blackadder pilot was shot but never aired in the UK. One notable difference in the pilot, as in many pilots, is the casting. Baldrick is played not by Tony Robinson, but by Philip Fox. Another significant difference is that the character of Prince Edmund presented in the pilot is much closer to the intelligent, conniving Blackadder of the later series than the sniveling, weak Edmund of the original series. The script of the pilot is roughly the same as the episode Born to be King, albeit with some different jokes, with some lines appearing in other episodes of the series.
The 15-minute episode was set in November 1648, during the last days of the Civil War. Sir Edmund Blackadder and his servant, Baldrick, are the last two men loyal to the defeated King Charles I of England (played by Stephen Fry, portrayed as a soft-spoken, ineffective, slightly dim character, with the voice and mannerisms of Charles I's namesake, the current Prince of Wales). However, due to a misunderstanding between Oliver Cromwell (guest-star Warren Clarke) and Baldrick, the King is arrested and sent to the Tower of London. The rest of the episode revolves around Blackadder's attempts to save the king, as well as improve his standing.
The second special was broadcast in 1988. In a twist on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Blackadder is the "kindest and loveliest" man in England. The Spirit of Christmas shows Blackadder the contrary antics of his ancestors and descendants, and reluctantly informs him that if he turns evil his descendents will enjoy power and fortune, while if he remains the same a future Blackadder will live shamefully subjugated to a future incompetent Baldrick. This remarkable encounter causes him to proclaim, "Bad guys have all the fun", and adopt the personality with which viewers are more familiar.
Woman's Hour is a show on BBC Radio 4 consisting of reports, interviews and debates aimed at women, and also includes short serials during the last quarter of the show. On one instance of the show, in 1988, Blackadder and Baldrick show up, travel back in time and talk to Shakespeare (not for the last time!) and others.
The purpose of the "invasion" was to raise money for Children in Need.
This non-canonical sketch was performed on stage at the Sadlers Wells Theatre on 18 September 1989. It was written for, and performed at an AIDS benefit concert directed by Stephen Fry, and features Rowan Atkinson as a Blackadder-esque character chatting with Hugh Laurie as "Bill" Shakespeare, talking about cutting various sections of Hamlet – in particular the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Ultimately, Blackadder talks Shakespeare down from an over-long speech to the familiar 'snappy' phrase. From Will's first draft:
The sketch was available on video as part of Hysteria 2 – The Second Coming, released by Palace Video on 21 May 1990.
This was the pilot for a prospective US Blackadder series. It was shot in 1992 and aired once, but failed to be picked up. Its cast was completely different and it was set in colonial Philadelphia.
A short sketch performed at the Prince of Wales' 50th Birthday Gala. It featured Rowan Atkinson as Lord Blackadder and Stephen Fry as King Charles II, and was televised on ITV (in the UK) on 14 November 1998.
Blackadder: Back & Forth was originally shown in the Millennium Dome in 2000, followed by a screening on Sky One in the same year (and later on BBC1). It is set on the turn of the millennium, and features Lord Blackadder placing a bet with his friends – modern versions of Queenie (Miranda Richardson), Melchett (Stephen Fry), George (Hugh Laurie) and Darling (Tim McInnerny) – that he has built a working time machine. While this is intended as a clever con trick, the machine, surprisingly, works, sending Blackadder and Baldrick back to the time of the dinosaurs, where they manage to cause the extinction of the dinosaurs, through the use of Baldrick's best, worst and only pair of underpants as a weapon against a hungry T.Rex. Finding that Baldrick has forgotten to write dates on the machine's dials, the rest of the film follows their attempts to find their way back to 1999, often creating huge historical anomalies in the process which must be corrected before the end. The film was notable for featuring cameo roles from all the main Blackadder actors, as well as a number of famous stars of stage and screen.
A short monologue performed at the Dominion Theatre for the Royal Variety Performance 2000. It features Rowan Atkinson as the modern-day Lord Edmund Blackadder of Her Royal Highness's regiment of Shirkers. The sketch was written and introduced by Ben Elton, who was the compère of the evening.
The Jubilee Girl was a 29 December 2002 BBC special about Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee Concert. The concert was hosted by Sir Osmond Darling-Blackadder (Keeper of Her Majesty's Lawn Sprinklers) and Dame Edna Everage. Earlier, a BBC "advertisement" for the celebrations also featured this incarnation of Blackadder, in which Sir Osmond is told to announce the event, even though he thinks it is a terrible idea:
There were a couple of ideas that had previously floated for the fifth series. Batadder was intended to be a parody of Batman with Baldrick as the counterpart of Robin (suggested by John Lloyd). This idea eventually came to surface as part of the Comic Relief sketch "Spider-Plant Man" in 2005, with Atkinson as the title hero, Robinson as Robin, Jim Broadbent as Batman and Rachel Stevens as Jane Mary. Star Adder was to be set in space in the future (suggested by Atkinson), though this too was touched upon in Blackadder's Christmas Carol.
On 10 April 2007, Hello! reported that Atkinson was moving forward with his ideas for a fifth series. He said, "I like the idea of him being a prisoner of war in Colditz. That would have the right level of authority and hierarchy which is apparent in all the Blackadders."
A post on www.BlackAdderHall.com from Ben Elton in early 2007 states that Blackadder will return in some form, whether it be a TV series or movie. Elton has since not given any more information on the putative Blackadder 5.
During an interview in August 2007 regarding his latest movie, Mr. Bean's Holiday, Atkinson was asked about the possibility of a further Blackadder series, to which the simple reply "No, no chance" was given:
Stephen Fry has expressed the view that, since the series went out on such a good "high", a film might not be a good idea.
During his June 2007 stage performance, chronicled on the Tony Robinson's Cunning Night Out DVD, Robinson states that after filming the Back & Forth special, the general idea was to reunite for another special in 2010. Robinson jokingly remarked that Hugh Laurie's success on House may make that difficult.
However, aside from the regular cast listed above, only one actor – Lee Cornes – appeared in an episode of all three Curtis-Elton series. He appeared as a guard in the episode Chains of Blackadder II; as the poet Shelley in the episode Ink and Incapability of Blackadder the Third; and as firing squad soldier Private Fraser in the episode Corporal Punishment of Blackadder Goes Forth.
More 'establishment'-style actors, some at the veteran stage of their careers, were also recruited for roles. These included Brian Blessed, John Grillo, Simon Jones, Tom Baker, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Paddick, Frank Finlay, Miriam Margolyes, Kenneth Connor, Bill Wallis, Ronald Lacey, Roger Blake, Denis Lill, Warren Clarke and Geoffrey Palmer who played Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig in Goodbyeee..., the final, fatal episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.
Unusually for a sitcom based loosely on factual events and in the historical past, a man was recruited for one episode essentially to play himself. Political commentator Vincent Hanna played a character billed as "his own great-great-great grandfather" in the episode Dish and Dishonesty of Blackadder the Third. Hanna was asked to take part because the scene was of a by-election in which Baldrick was a candidate and, in the style of modern television, Hanna gave a long-running "live" commentary of events at the count (and interviewed candidates and election agents) to a crowd through the town hall window.
The only character types to retain the same name throughout were:
Some characters recurred as their own presumed descendants:
A few actors have made multiple guest appearances playing different characters, notably:
In TV comedies, perhaps the most obvious 'ancestor' of the Blackadder series is Up Pompeii!. The series, starring Frankie Howerd as Lurcio, was set in ancient Rome and made similar play with historical characters. Even the apparent 'reincarnation' device found in Blackadder is also used. The TV series inspired three feature films, the first of which, Up Pompeii!, was also set in Imperial Rome with Howerd as Lurcio. The film ended with the eruption of Vesuvius and had a final scene set in the present day, in which the actors all played tourists closely resembling their ancient roles, with Howerd being a tour guide, showing them around the ruins of Pompeii. The second was set in medieval times and called Up the Chastity Belt, with Howerd's character as 'Lurkalot' (cf The Black Adder). In this, Howerd's character is discovered to be a double of Richard Lionheart, and later assumes the throne under his identity while the real king leads a bawdy life as Lurkalot (cf Blackadder the Third). Most strikingly, the third and final Up ... film, Up the Front, sees Howerd's character reborn as 'Private Lurk' and fighting in the First World War (cf Blackadder Goes Forth).
The shows draw on a variety of literary, historical, and film backgrounds for its story and characters. The first two series draw heavily upon the works of William Shakespeare. The first episode of The Black Adder, The Foretelling, references Richard III (the characters and setting), Macbeth (the three witches predicting Blackadder's rise to power and the appearance of King Richard's ghost at the dinner), and King Lear (the witches are named Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia). Bells, the first episode of the second series, draws on Twelfth Night with its cross-dressing "Bob" character. The third series parodies at various points classic novels such as The Scarlet Pimpernel (Nob and Nobility), Cyrano de Bergerac (Amy and Amiability), and The Prince and the Pauper (Duel and Duality), and the titles themselves parody Sense and Sensibility. There are also many references to classic films, for instance Blackadder's forming of his dark army in The Black Seal is parodic of The Magnificent Seven (down to Blackadder holding up fingers to indicate the number of men he has), the Season 1 episode The Archbishop explicitly parodies Becket.