Blackadder  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Blackadder is the generic name that encompasses four series of an acclaimed BBC One historical sitcom, along with several one-off installments. 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.

Contents

Precursors

The plot device of a 'modern' man in ancient times is not new, and has a venerable history in fiction. Likewise there have been many books and plays using a historical setting for comedy. An early example of a movie using multiple historical periods is The Three Ages from 1923, in which Buster Keaton relives the same story three ages: the Stone Age, Roman times, and the 1920s.

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). In 1991, after 4 generations of Blackadders had come and gone, Frankie Howerd returned as the (Roman) Lurcio for one last time, in a pilot episode called "Further up Pompeii", that failed to become a series.

The Blackadder stories 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.


Overview

Although each series is set in a different time era, all follow the fortunes (or rather, misfortunes) of Edmund Blackadder (played by Atkinson), who in each is a member of an English family dynasty present at many significant periods and places in British history. Although the character starts as being quite unintelligent in the first series and gradually becomes smarter and more perceptive through each passing generation (while decreasing in social status), each Blackadder is a cynical, cowardly opportunist concerned with maintaining and increasing his own status and fortunes, regardless of his surroundings. In each series, Blackadder is usually a cynical (almost modern) voice puncturing the pretensions and stupidity of those around him, and what might — through modern eyes — be seen as the more ludicrous and insane follies of history (from the medieval religious witch-hunts and the petty whims and insanities of various British monarchs to the bloodshed and horror of World War I).

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 in its entirety, although a brief clip was shown in the 2008 documentary Blackadder Rides Again. 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.

Developments over the series

It is implied in each series that the Blackadder character is a distant descendant of the previous one, although it is never mentioned how any of the Blackadders manage to father children. The first series incarnation, Prince Edmund Plantagenet, is supposedly the originator of the Blackadder surname, after adopting the title "The Black Adder". However, in Back & Forth, Centurion Blackaddicus (presumably an ancestor) is revealed also to have had it as a name.

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):

His great-grandfather was a king
Although for only thirty seconds

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.

Similarities over the series

Theme tune

Howard Goodall's iconic theme tune has the same melody throughout all the series, but is played in roughly the style of the period in which it is set. It is performed mostly with trumpets and timpani in The Black Adder, the fanfares used suggesting typical medieval court fanfares; with a combination of recorder, string quartet and electric guitar in Blackadder II; on oboe, cello and harpsichord (in Waltz time) for Blackadder the Third; by a military band in Blackadder Goes Forth; sung by carol singers in Blackadder's Christmas Carol; and by an orchestra in Blackadder: The Cavalier Years and Blackadder: Back & Forth.

Popularity and effects on popular culture

After the first series — which had enjoyed a considerable budget for a sitcom, been shot largely on location and received a mixed reception — the BBC decided not to take up the option of a follow-up. However, in 1984, Michael Grade took over as the controller of BBC One and, after talks with the team behind The Black Adder, finally agreed that a second series could be made, albeit with a considerably reduced budget. Blackadder II was therefore to be a studio-only production (along with the inclusion of a live audience during recording, instead of showing the episodes to one after taping), with Rowan Atkinson stepping down from co-writing duties and Ben Elton taking his place. Besides adding more jokes, Elton suggested a major change in character emphasis: Baldrick would become the stupid sidekick, while Edmund Blackadder evolved into a cunning sycophant. This led to the now familiar set-up that was maintained in the following series. Only in the Back & Forth millennium special was the shooting once again on location, due to the fact that this was a production with a budget estimated at £3 million, and was a joint venture between Tiger Aspect, Sky Television, the New Millennium Experience Company and the BBC, rather than the BBC alone.

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 mentioned 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.

Mark Bolland, the Deputy Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales from 1998 until 2002, was reportedly nicknamed "Lord Blackadder" by the young princes William and Harry.

Origin of name

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.





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Blackadder" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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