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Blackadder (1983-89)

Courtesy of John Lloyd, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson

Main image of Blackadder (1983-89)
BBC2, tx. 15/6/1983 - 2/11/1989
4 series of 6 x 30 min episodes each plus 1 special, colour
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerJohn Lloyd
ScriptsRichard Curtis, Ben Elton, Rowan Atkinson
Theme MusicHoward Goodall

Cast: Rowan Atkinson (Edmund Blackadder); Tony Robinson (Baldrick); Tim McInnerny (Lord Percy/Captain Darling); Brian Blessed (Richard IV); Miranda Richardson (Queen Elizabeth I); Stephen Fry (Lord/General Melchett); Patsy Byrne (Nursie); Hugh Laurie (Prince George/Lt Colthurst St Barleigh)

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The adventures of Edmund Blackadder and his various descendants.

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The quartet of historical sitcoms collectively known as Blackadder has become so firmly established as a BBC comedy benchmark that it's quite startling to recall how close it came to being cancelled after the first series. In this, it's an exemplary example not just of comic writing and performance, but also of the virtues of rethinking the overall concept partway through and improving it beyond recognition.

Each was set in a particular historical epoch - the late medieval era in The Black Adder (1983), Elizabethan England in Blackadder II (1985), the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries in Blackadder the Third (1987) and World War I in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989). Although each era had its own distinctive flavour, there were several constants, notably Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder, initially a cringing, none too bright weaselly coward who quickly mutated into the cynical wisecracker of the last three series. His squire/servant/underling Baldrick (Tony Robinson) also changed over time, dropping several dozen IQ points between the 15th and 20th centuries to the point where his catchphrase "I have a cunning plan" meant anything but.

Other regular performers included Tim McInnerny (the foppish Lord Percy of the first two series, the frustrated Captain Darling of the fourth), Stephen Fry (Lord Melchett to General Melchett via the Duke of Wellington) and Hugh Laurie (Prince/Captain George), though it was the then up-and-coming Miranda Richardson who stole most of the plaudits for her extraordinary characterisation of Queen Elizabeth I as a cross between Caligula and Just William's Violet Elizabeth Bott.

Originally written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, the first series was shot on location on a lavish budget. It received understandably mixed reviews (Atkinson himself later described it as "not particularly good'), and was only recommissioned on condition that costs were substantially cut. The far more experienced Ben Elton replaced Atkinson as co-writer, and the rest is, quite literally, history.

Its winning formula fused surprisingly sophisticated historical and literary allusions with shamelessly crude jokes, often in the same exchange. The prospect of its characters suddenly dying a violent death provided a constant source of tension and gags, though when they really were killed off at the end of the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, the result was so unexpectedly moving that the programme was later repeated as part of an otherwise wholly serious BBC2 Armistice Day programme without anyone batting an eyelid.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The Black Adder (5:03)
2. Blackadder II (4:28)
3. Blackadder the Third (7:14)
4. Blackadder Goes Forth (3:43)
Complete episode - Blackadder II: 'Head' (26:48)
Atkinson, Rowan (1955-)
Baker, Tom (1936-)
Blessed, Brian (1936-)
Curtis, Richard (1956-)
Elton, Ben (1958-)
Fry, Stephen (1957-)
Laurie, Hugh (1959-)
Margolyes, Miriam (1941-)
Richardson, Miranda (1959-)