The Blackadder saga ran to four series, each set in a different period of history: The Black Adder, set in the fifteenth century; Blackadder II in the Elizabethan Era; Blackadder the Third in the Georgian Regency; and Blackadder Goes Forth in the First World War. That's not the whole story, though – there have also been three special episodes broadcast; two in 1988 and another eleven years later.
The first of 1988 specials is stretching the word a little. Running to only fifteen minutes long, Blackadder: The Cavalier Years is too long to be called a sketch but only half the length of an ordinary episode. Produced for that year's Red Nose Day telethon in aid of Comic Relief, it aired on February 5th. While Blackadder episodes usually run in chronological order through history towards the present, The Cavalier Years was produced and broadcast after the third series but takes place before it. It's 1649, the end of the English Civil War. King Charles I is on the run, and only two men remain loyal to him. Unfortunately, those two men are Sir Edmund Blackadder and his hanger-on, Baldrick.
King Charles is played by long-term Blackadder star Stephen Fry. Underneath the seventeenth century finery, Fry plays the King as a parody of his namesake, Charles, the Prince of Wales, and does so enjoy meeting new people. When Oliver Cromwell – an expansive performance by Warren Clarke (A Clockwork Orange) – and his cronies attend Blackadder's home, Baldrick accidentally gives away that they're sheltering the King. Arrested and tried for treason, Charles is scheduled for execution, and Blackadder and Baldrick take the job – well, someone's got to do it, right? However, Baldrick concocts an ingenious plan to replace the King's head with a pumpkin so Blackadder can just pretend to behead him. Unsurprisingly, this doesn't quite convince the baying crowds.
It's a very silly little episode, far from the Blackadder's best but suitably entertaining for a quick charity special and a cut above most of the fluff that populates telethons. As well as the central cast of Atkinson, Robinson, Fry and Clarke, there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Hugh Laurie as one of Cromwell's guards, while Tim McInnerny can just about be heard calling from off screen as part of the crowd for the execution.
At the other end of the year on December 23rd, things got back into chronological order with the saga's Victorian-set Christmas special. Blackadder's Christmas Carol is a proper event episode, extra long at nearly 45 minutes and acting as a celebration of the series so far. In an ingenious inversion of the classic story of A Christmas Carol, the kind and gracious Ebenezer Blackadder is haunted by the terrible actions of his ancestors. This Blackadder is the complete opposite of the others, the most sweet and generous man in all of England. In fact, he's a bit too generous, constantly taken advantage of the supposedly needy people of London ("Mrs Scratchit, Tiny Tom is fifteen and built like a brick privy!") and his own goddaughter Millicent (Nicola Bryant, not long before seen as companion Peri on Doctor Who). The only person loyal to him is Baldrick, and now neither of them has any food or money left for Christmas.
On the night before Christmas, Ebenezer is visited by the Spirit of Christmas, played by Robbie Coltrane (Cracker, the Harry Potter series), making a return appearance to the programme after his brilliant portrayal of Dr. Samuel Johnson the year before. Modelled very much after the food-and-drink-loving Ghost of Christmas Present from the book, this ghost is on his rounds for "four hauntings and a scare the bugger to death," but just popped in to say hello to Blackadder because he's such a nice chap. Prompted by a drink, he goes on to tell Blackadder about his dreadful ancestors, via flashbacks to times gone by. It's a brilliant excuse to revisit the programme's greatest hits. The less popular first series is sadly ignored (although its inclusion would have probably overstuffed the turkey anyway), and we get brand new scenes set during the second and third series.
A lesser production would have just used clips from past episodes, but not Blackadder, which creates entirely new scenes perfectly capturing the humour of the previous two series. Stephen Fry, Miranda Richardson and Patsy Byrne all return as Lord Melchett, Queenie and Nursey for the Blackadder II segment, while Hugh Laurie reprises his role as Prince George for the Blackadder the Third scene (with Philip Pope – Chelmsford 123, Who Dares Wins - making a brief but very funny appearance as Lord Nelson). They're both Christmas-themed, naturally, and they show the ancestral Blackadders at their devious and cold-hearted worst, both ending up quids-in due their conniving.
Kind-hearted Ebenezer Blackadder is intrigued, and begs the spirit to show him the future. What will happen if he changed his ways and became self-serving and cruel like his ancestors? What follows is a unique glimpse of a sci-fi version of Blackadder, to a time when Miranda Richardson's Queen Asphyxia XIX rules the universe, aided by her triple-husbandoid (played by Fry, Laurie and Byrne, the latter dressed up like some sort of cubist Dalek). Grand Admiral Blackadder and his nameless servant (a far future Baldrick, of course, in fetish wear) have completed their campaign of galactic conquest, and Blackadder usurps the court, marries the Queen and becomes supreme commander of the universe. One the other hand, if Ebenezer sticks to kindly ways, his far future descendant will become slave to Admiral Baldrick, the worst galactic conquistador in the universe.
It's a very silly diversion to a new universe for Blackadder, but it's clearly the weakest part of the special and just isn't all that funny. It does give Ebenezer the final push to become an utter bastard, though, and he turns his life around, stealing and swindling his riches back. Because it's Blackadder, though, things can't quite go to plan, and he accidentally insults Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Miriam Margolyes and Jim Broadbent, making overdue returns to the programme) and does himself out of £50,000 for being the nicest man in England (and this was when £50,000 was a lot of money).
Aside from the flabby future section, Blackadder's Christmas Carol is a brilliant special, cleverly inverting that most Christmassy of Christmas books and celebrating Blackadder's past at the same time. There are some particularly grim jokes on offer (although the follow-up of using a puppy as the baby Jesus in the Nativity scene is cut short in most edits, losing the part when Baldrick says they're going to nail him to a cross for Easter).
The Christmas special was followed by Blackadder Goes Forth, and that was it for full-length Blackadder episodes for a decade, until the next and final special. The cleverly-titled Blackadder Back & Forth was a short film designed as a single, final episode of the saga, in celebration of the new millennium. Unlike the previous programmes, the special was made by Tiger Aspect Productions for the BBC in conjunction with Sky. It was commissioned as special presentation for the Millennium Dome, shown in the SkyScape cinema constructed just outside and began showing on December 6th 1999, and somehow this seems more ancient than any Elizabethan courtly intrigue.
A packed half-hour adventure, Blackadder Back & Forth saw the Lord Edmund Blackadder hold a Millennium New Year's Eve party for his friends. All the regulars are back, with Fry as Bishop Flavius Melchett, McInnerny as the Archdeacon Darling, Laurie as Major Viscount George Bufton-Tufton and the seemingly ageless Richardson as the drunken Lady Elizabeth. And, of course, Baldrick, the odd-job man, temporary cook and sceptic tank cleaner, who arrives wearing even less than he did in the future segment of Christmas Carol. This Blackadder is a prankster and a swindler, and bets his chums £10,000 each that he can fetch any item they desire from history using his brand-new time machine, built by Baldrick from Leonardo da Vinci's original plans.
Planning to fake the entire thing, Blackadder is shocked when the time machine actually works, rendering Baldrick, "rather surprisingly, the greatest genius who ever lived." (It's amusing seeing Rowan Atkinson flying through space and time in a tiny box-like craft, given that earlier that year he had played the star role in the Comic Relief skit Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death). Lost in time and space, the pair fight off a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex, before landing back in Blackadder's house during the Elizabethan period, currently a holiday home for the Queen. Richardson is at her timeless best as Queenie, Fry is Lord Melchett again and Patsy Byrne is back as Nursey in one of her last screen appearances. It's the only scene in the special that goes back to a previous Blackadder series (it's easy to imagine a feature-length special visiting all of them), and also features a cameo by Colin Firth (just after Shakespeare in Love and just before Bridget Jones's Diary) lending some star quality as Shakespeare. Who Blackadder immediately lays out with a punch.
From there on it's a whistle-stop tour of history, visiting next Sherwood Forest, where the time travellers are taken prisoner by Robin Hood, played in full Flashheart-style by Rik Mayall, accompanied by his Merry Men and Maid Marian, played by model Kate Moss (who's better than you might expect). From there it's off to the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon (Simon Russell Beale - A Dance to the Music of Time, MI-5) stands ready to face the Duke of Wellington (Fry again), each of them supported by a Darling. There's some standard mocking of the French from the English side, as is traditional for Blackadder, but at least the French side gets to have a go at the English back this time. Disappointingly, Fry doesn't perform Wellington with the same shouting lunacy as he did in Blackadder the Third. A final brief stop-off in Roman Britain sees everyone dress up, as Centurion Blaccadicus and Legionary Baldricus are joined by Consul Georgius and General Melchius, all in increasingly short skirts.
Blackadder and Baldrick finally work out how to pilot the time machine properly and arrive back at Blackadder Hall, but their careless careering through history (with multiple fatalities) means that no one remembers who Robin Hood is, Shakespeare is remembered as the man who invented the ball-point pen, and the French won Waterloo. Great Britain is now part of the French Empire – apparently the worst fate imaginable for Blackadder – forcing them to go back into history and fix all the cock-ups. Arriving home again, everything is as it should be, but a careless word from Melchett about the risks to history by an unscrupulous person with a time machine sees Blackadder take one more secret trip. The special ends with King Edmund the Third, his wife, Queen Marian, and Prime Minister Baldrick welcoming in the new millennium on television.
Blackadder Back & Forth is a triumphant end to the Blackadder story, never letting up for a moment and is a solid half-hour of excellent material. Even the music is excellent, with a beautiful new version of the classic theme leading into the special (over doctored historical images now featuring Blackadders past) and an up-to-date version of the epic song from The Black Adder over the closing credits. The only real negative element is a bizarre moment of product placement for co-sponsors Tesco. The eventual television broadcast was delayed due to a dispute between Sky and the BBC over who had the premiere rights (in the end, Sky showed it first in 2000, the Beeb had the home video rights and eventually showed it on BBC One in 2002).
The episode declares itself the final part of the Blackadder saga, but also cheekily declares that part two will be coming in Summer 3000. Over the last twenty-odd years, there have been various rumours and discussion about a revival for the saga, from a new television series (Robinson has suggested there have been talks of a 1960s set series with the regulars forming a band, while Atkinson prefers a parody of Colditz) to a full-length feature film (there was some early work on a script for a Russian Revolution-set film named Red Adder, but this never went forward). To my mind, a bold direction for a new television series would be as an anthology, with each episode set in a different period (you could even have Robinson as himself, introducing episodes at archaeological sites in the manner of his series Time Team). A full revival has been made more difficult by the rocketing careers of the main cast, with Atkinson, Richardson and Fry now movie stars and Laurie one of the highest-paid and in-demand actors due to his enormous success as the star of House. In the end, though, all you really need for Blackadder would be Blackadder himself and Baldrick; everyone else is negotiable.
That's not to say that there's been nothing else on the Blackadder front over the years. Various short skits have been performed, often live, with whichever cast members were available at the time. An early example was "The Shakespeare Sketch," performed in 1989 at the Sadlers Wells Theatre as part of an AIDS benefit concert. This saw Shakespeare (here played by Hugh Laurie) at a meeting with his crabby agent (Atkinson), and while it's not officially a Blackadder production, it was written by Elton and Curtis, and Atkinson clearly plays the nameless agent as Blackadder.
Since the series proper ended, there's been an abundance of one-off sketches, most often at royal events. "Blackadder and the King's Birthday," performed for Prince Charles' 50th birthday gala in 1998, starred Atkinson as Blackadder (possibly the same one as in The Cavalier Years) and Fry as King Charles II, which he performed in the style of General Melchett ("It's my party and I'll baaaaahhh if I want to!") "Blackadder: The Army Years" for the 2000 Royal Variety Performance at the Dominion featured only Atkinson, as Lord Edmund Blackadder of Her Royal Highness' Regiment of Shirkers, and was written and introduced by Ben Elton, who compered the event. Seen twenty years on in the Brexit world, it's mocking of the Eurozone doesn't seem quite so funny.
For the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002, the BBC showed a special programme called Jubilee Girl, which acted as a behind-the-scenes programme for the Jubilee concert. Atkinson appeared in character as Sir Osmond Darling-Blackadder on Jubilee Girl and advertisements for the event. Since then, the occasional sketches have been inspired by current events. In 2012, a sketch about the banking crisis was performed as part of "We Are Most Amused," a gala event for the Prince's Trust. It starred Miranda Hart (Miranda), Sanjheev Bhaskar (Goodness, Gracious Me) and Helen Lederer (Absolutely Fabulous) as an inquiry board who interrogate Sir Edmund Blackadder, the extremely wealthy Chief Executive of Melchett, Melchett and Darling Bank, and his gardener, Sodoff Baldrick.
The most recent skit arrived this year, televised as part of the 2020 telethon The Big Night In, an unusual joint venture by the BBC's two charities Comic Relief and Children in Need to support those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Uniquely, this short didn't feature Blackadder at all (although he and Baldrick were mentioned), but had Stephen Fry as a new incarnation of Melchett, although he basically played him as Stephen Fry. It saw him take a video call with Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge. It did its bit for charity and showed exactly why you should never ask a member of the royal family to try to act.
None of these sketches have ever been officially released on home video, but they're all easily found on YouTube and similar if you're in need of a Blackadder fix. Whether we'll ever see Blackadder back in a full-length production is impossible to know, but in a way, the limits of the programme make it all the more precious. Four series, three specials and a smattering of sketches, and that's all you get of this national treasure.
Review: Daniel Tessier
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 December 14th, 2020. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.