|written by Richard Curtis & Rowan Atkinson; directed by Martin Shardlow|
starring Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Tim McInnerny, Robert East & Brian Blessed
An innovative and influential '80s sitcom that kept reinventing itself, Blackadder was the embodiment of intelligent cynicism, witty farce, historical playfulness, and delectable dialogue that often (famously) took the form of protracted similes. It was my favourite comedy growing up; seeding a three-pronged interest in comedy, writing and history. As a young boy, I even compiled a homemade dictionary of Edmund Blackadder's put-downs and transcribed the BBC audio cassette tapes (pre-empting the release of the script-book two decades later)—so yes, you can say I'm a passionate fan...
Almost universally seen as the poorest entry of the Blackadder saga, this first series is nonetheless an interesting failure. Here Edmund's a rubber-faced coward and numskull, in stark contrast to his wily namesake descendants, while Baldrick's the one hatching "cunning plans" that mostly live up to that description, instead of a smelly cretin obsessed with turnips. It's so unlike the subsequent series that it's fascinating to see the roots of a comedy giant, and strange to know they almost got the chemistry right first time—as the unaired pilot involved a brainy Edmund and a brainless Baldrick, before they decided to take the show in an opposite, wrong direction.
What works about this episode is how it goes down the show's usual direction of tormenting poor Edmund (herding sheep in mid-winter, being snared in a trap, tricked into almost revealing his royal lineage isn't real, eventually disavowed of all his possessions), but does so in a way that makes the prince more sympathetic because MacAngus is such a sneaky monster. And, as I said, the way Edmund hits rock bottom, but manages a narrow triumph in the denouement (blasting MacAngus' head off with a canon he's asked to inspect), is oddly cathartic. This is the first time Edmund's been anything other than a weird, creepy loser in the eyes of the audience, and instead becomes a pitiable underdog triumphing against a comparative goliath. It's a shame more episodes didn't follow similar arcs.
By the time his childhood arch nemesis The Hawk (series narrator Patrick Allen) has been revealed in almost supernatural style, throwing Edmund into a dungeon with snails and a lunatic for company, "The Black Seal" has become a rather enjoyable romp. It's the first and only episode of Series 1 to tell a story that justifies the production's otherwise unnecessarily large canvas, and while the last ever episode of Blackadder is famous for poignantly killing off its characters, I’d argue that Edmund's demise is almost as effective (although you have to accept he'd be dumb enough to taste wine he suspects is poisoned). Maybe it's because Edmund's such a feeble twerp, or that his injuries were so horrific (hands chopped off, ears snipped off...), or just the fact the theme tune is ridiculously haunting when sang by a choir, but I found it all oddly moving. As a kid, it suddenly got very dusty in my bedroom.
I'll also credit The Black Adder for providing Atkinson with the chance to play a different character to the two character-types he was subsequently typecast as: the pompous, verbose cynics of later Blackadder's, and man-child Mr Bean. This Edmund owes very little to either of those creations, being more of a gangly, spineless simpleton with a crowing laugh.
Overall, almost three decades later it's still hard to imagine The Black Adder being anyone's favourite incarnation of this beloved character, but it's reasonable entertainment if you separate it from what came next. I quite like how it has a very different identity (more comedy-drama than sitcom), and there's something oddly beguiling about Atkinson's wormy performance (maybe because the character's essentially an embittered teenager who hates his family), but, unfortunately, it's not especially funny, which is what really matters.
BBC / 6x 33-mins (approx.)