Blackadder II (1986)
by Daniel Tessier
The second series of the Blackadder saga saved the concept. After the enormously expensive mediaeval extravaganza The Black Adder had received a mixed reception, the series was revived on the understanding it would undergo a complete revamp and be made far more cheaply. This retooling took almost three years to put into place, and saw comedian (and later novelist) Ben Elton take over from star Rowan Atkinson as co-writer, beginning a partnership with Richard Curtis that would continue through the Blackadder story.
Calling back to the un-broadcast pilot episode, Blackadder II (pronounced either as “Blackadder Two” or “Blackadder the Second,” depending who you ask) had an Elizabethan setting. This was a sensible move; the Elizabethan era is one familiar to virtually everyone in Britain, taught to every schoolchild and with a clear and recognisable visual style. This alone would have improved the reception of the second series over the first. The court of Queen Elizabeth I is also a brilliant source of both opportunity and danger for the lead character. Blackadder himself is a very different character to that of Prince Edmund in the first series, but Atkinson's performance is virtually identical to the one he gave in the pilot. Edmund, the Lord Blackadder, the (presumably illegitimate) great-grandson of Prince Edmund, is as much of a schemer and opportunist, but is a confident, charming and intelligent man.
The new Blackadder is still not what you'd call heroic, but the story is now fully on his side as he connives his way through life. A true anti-hero, he has a privileged position as one of Elizabeth's favourite in court, but he is fully aware of how precarious this is. Having wasted his fortune, he gets by on bragging, arrogance and powerful connections, something that has brought him as many enemies as allies. Not for nothing do the local peasants tend to say, “Whoops, I've trodden in an Edmund,” when they encounter some dog's deposit on the pavement.
Blackadder would be nothing without his underlings of course, and here the series also corrects the set-up to be in-line with the pilot. Tony Robinson returns as Baldrick, Blackadder's smelly manservant, the original Baldrick's descendants seemingly having passed down the family like a hereditary disease. Whereas the Baldrick of the first series was more intelligent than the lead, here he is, in the words of the writers, “the stupidest man who ever lived.”Nonetheless, his cunning plans are often the last resort and save the day after Blackadder's own schemes have been tried and failed. Baldrick is now exactly the sort of idiot that Blackadder needs as a henchman, and the relationship continues like this throughout the saga. Blackadder II also gives us Baldrick's ongoing obsession with turnips (although noticeably the writers have confused the turnip with the parsnip in this series, a more amusingly-shaped vegetable).
If Baldrick is the stupidest man alive, Blackadder's other hanger-on gives him a run for his money. Tim McInnerny returns as Lord Percy Percy, heir to the Duchy of Northumberland, logically as powerful as Blackadder but endlessly mocked, abused and belittled by him. Percy is an idiot, of course, as well as being a congenital coward, although this version also has a romantic streak and is constantly on the lookout for the next pretty girl he can try his luck with. For all his subservience and misplaced loyalty to Blackadder, he's as opportunistic in his own way and when Edmund is out of the picture he quickly takes his place in court.
As essential the central trio were to the success of the series, the real star was arguably Miranda Richardson as Queen Elizabeth (Queenie to her fans). Already known for her award-winning part in Dance with a Stranger, plus television roles on The Hard Wood and A Woman of Substance, Queenie would become Richardson's best loved role. Richardson plays the Queen as a spoilt child, capricious and fickle. She plays pointless practical jokes on her favourites at court and will send anyone who falls out of her favour to the chopping block. Inspired by the historical Elizabeth's list of suitors, Queenie is also a randy adolescent who is keen to appear available to any handsome man in court, and Blackadder has one eye on a royal marriage at all times. Richardson's Queenie is gleefully vicious and infectiously charming, an absolute stand-out performance.
Queenie was supported by Nursie (birth name Bernard), her strange, insane nursemaid who had raised her from infancy and still sat on her right hand. Played with joyful lunacy by Patsy Byrne (The Cherry Orchard, The Alf Garnett Saga, I, Claudius), Nursie gives both Baldrick and Percy a run for their money as most feeble-minded person at court, and has to be reminded that Elizabeth no longer requires breastfeeding and nappy changes.
Rounding out the core cast was Stephen Fry as Lord Melchett, implicitly a member of the clergy and Blackadder's rival for court favourite. Already a well-known face in alternative comedy and having appeared in The Young Ones, Alfresco and The Crystal Cube (a TV pilot he scripted with Hugh Laurie), Melchett was a breakthrough role in television comedy for Fry. The sly, brown-nosing Melchett made for a low-level enemy for Blackadder through the series, someone with whom he had to continually fight for the Queen's affections.
Although these six maintained a solid cast through the series, each episode featured at least one significant guest actor. Fry's comedy partner Hugh Laurie, a year before they took audiences by storm in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, appeared in both the fifth and sixth episodes, (“Beer” and “Chains”), beginning a continuous run of Blackadder episodes until the saga ended. “Beer” saw him in the fairly minor role of Blackadder's drunken friend Simon Partridge (aka Farters Parters), while in “Chains” he was given the choice role of the villainous Prince Ludwig, although as the German villain was master of disguise, it's quite possible that Ludwig and Partridge were the same person. “Beer” also featured Miriam Margolyes appearing, after her role as the Spanish Infanta in The Black Adder, as Edmund's puritanical aunt Lady Whiteadder. (The original plan for Jim Broadbent to also reappear with here was kiboshed by his previous commitments; instead Lord Whiteadder was played by Daniel Thorndike.)
Other guest stars included Ronald Lacey (Porridge, Raiders of the Lost Ark) as the Baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells in episode four, “Money,” and Bill Wallis (another first series returnee) as Ploppy the Gaoler in “Head” (recorded as episode one but broadcast second). Episode three, “Potato,” featured not only Simon Jones (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) as Sir Walter Raleigh, another rival for Queenie's affections, but fourth Doctor Who Tom Baker, who gave a characteristically restrained performance as legless seadog Captain Redbeard Rum.
The most memorable guest roles were in the first episode, “Bells,” which saw Blackadder fall in love with his new manservant Kate (short for Bob). The first screen appearance by Elton's schoolfriend Gabrielle Glaister, the secretly female Bob became a firm favourite with fans, helped by Atkinson's uniquely animated way of saying, “Bob.” More noteworthy still was Rik Mayall's scene-stealing appearance at the episodes climax as Lord Flashheart, the sexiest rapscallion in the Old World. Mayall, already a major name for The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents... and A Kick Up the Eighties, had made a rival of Atkinson by stealing the scene in the final episode of The Black Adder, with an uncredited performance as Mad Gerald. Never one to take kindly to having his show taken away from him, Atkinson's ire was increased when Mayall literally swung onto the set, stole Blackadder's girl and chucked out the scripted jokes in favour of his own. Atkinson's ability to cope with a scene-stealer must have improved somewhat by the time Tom Baker made his appearance, or perhaps he'd simply given up after Mayall's assault on the production.
Both Mayall and Glaister would return for Blackadder Goes Forth in 1989 as descendants of their characters, with Mayall also appearing as Robin Hood in 1999's Blackadder Back and Forth and Glaister appearing as the Elizabethan Bob once more in Ben Elton's Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow in 2016.Unlike the first series, which exists very much in isolation, Blackadder II made a huge impact on the future of the saga. Queenie, Melchett and Nursie would reappear in their original setting in the two specials, Blackadder's Christmas Carol and Blackadder Back and Forth, and Melchett would be reinvented for the fourth series. Although the core cast didn't remain, the regulars except for Byrne would make at least guest appearances in each iteration of the saga until its end.
While the characters were a major part of why Blackadder II was a bigger success than the first series, the writing as a whole was smoother, swifter and more consistently funny. Mandie Fletcher's direction also helped keep things more fast-paced than the sometimes ponderous first series, with complex effects and costume changes kept to a minimum. As well as the smaller cast, the removal of location filming and the reduced sets helped keep the production contained and, importantly, affordable. Two standing sets – Blackadder's house and the rather modest Royal Court – remained in use for each episode, with one or two small extra sets made up for each episode. While Fletcher said that it was “like doing Shakespeare in front of an audience – not at all like a sitcom,” the second series was far more like the traditional sitcom than the first. It was also less Shakespearean in style, in spite of “Bells” being in debt to Twelfth Night and the fact that William Shakespeare could have justifiably made an appearance in the series. (He was referenced, having helped Queenie with the title to her poem “Edmund,” but would have to wait till later productions to appear.) Even the music was faster and more modern, with the opening titles moving from a mock-Elizabethan recorder to electric guitar, and the closing titles featuring countertenor Jeremy Jackman as a minstrel who would endlessly pillory Blackadder.
While Atkinson remained pessimistic about the possibility of a third series, Elton and Curtis were making plans before Blackadder II was even broadcast. With the six episodes being a great success, the future of the Blackadder dynasty was assured, and Blackadder the Third was not far behind.
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on September 1st, 2020. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.