Friday, 9 September 2011

Review: THE BLACK ADDER (1983)

Friday, 9 September 2011
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...

The original 1983 series is more "black sheep" than "black adder", as it's so different to what comes after. The Black Adder was a lavish BBC series that filmed on large sets and on location in Northumberland, with dozens of extras and horses. It told the "secret history" of Edmund Plantagenet (Rowan Atkinson), the weedy youngest son of bellowing King Richard IV (Brian Blessed), who's largely ignored in favour of his equable brother Harry (Robert East). After years or bitterness, Edmund finally snaps, adopts nom de plume "The Black Adder", and secretly plots to overthrow his family and grab the throne for himself, with the help of astute servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson) and faithful Lord Percy (Tim McInnerny).

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.

The show tackled various medieval themes over its six episodes, beginning with a barefaced twist of historical facts in THE FORETELLING, where a tardy Edmund accidentally decapitates his uncle King Richard (Peter Cook) during the Battle of Bosworth Hill, only to be haunted by the king's ghost as he tries to keep a lid on the fact an injured Henry Tudor's convalescing in his chamber. It's an uninspired start; dreary and with a cold tone that strangles the comedy, which is anyway content to quote Shakespeare out of context ("my horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse" exclaims the King, after losing his steed), or dabbling with cartoon-y gags like a sun dial bedside clock. It's a weird pantomime for history nerds, with Atkinson as a pasty-faced human-owl wearing a domed hat, and the OTT Blessed almost giving himself a hernia.

Things improve with THE QUEEN OF SPAIN'S BEARD, but only very slightly. For political reasons, Edmund's forced into an arranged marriage with the Spanish Infanta (Miriam Margolyes); expecting a beautiful foreign princess bride, but discovering a corpulent man-eater who's joined at the hip by her flowery interpreter (Jim Broadbent). What follows is a spluttering farce, with Edmund trying to scupper his impending nuptials to his insatiable bride-to-be, by pretending to be gay like the Earl of Doncaster, then later marrying a peasant to be revealed as a bigamist. Less forced and stilted than the pilot, this is more pleasurable to watch, but there's still only one belly-laugh to be had (the Infanta's interpreter revealing his presence in an unlit bedroom), although the denouement amused me with Edmund having to instead marry a little girl and spend his wedding night reading her a bedtime story. Bless.

One of the better episodes is THE ARCHBISHOP, where Edmund's sent to become the Archbishop of Canterbury because it'll be useful for the King to have a son with a position of authority in the Church, as so many landowners on their death bed bequeath their land to the Church over the Crown. The episode succeeds partly because of a funny scene poking fun at phony religious relics of the period (splinters from the cross, amateur woodwork by Jesus from his carpentry days), but it's also just an entertaining episode with a decent story based on a genuine issue of the times. The cast look more comfortable together here, too, and there's a feeling the show's beginning to find its feet.

BORN TO BE KING is my favourite episode of Series 1, for a few reasons—not least how it marks one of the few times Edmund triumphs. Here, Prince Harry puts Edmund in charge of the "frolics" for a party celebrating the return of their father from a year fighting in the Crusades, which coincides with the king's boisterous best friend Dougal MacAngus (Alex Norton) arriving at the castle. A bearded alpha male, MacAngus quickly sets about ridiculing Edmund and stealing his lands, prompting Edmund to plot the Scotsman's "accidental" death during an Egyptian play he's booked.

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.

Given the juicy premise of witchcraft, WITCHSMELLER PURSUIVANT should have been much better than this. The humour is quite silly, which is fine, but it goes too far and undermines what's basically a comedy version of The Witchfinder General, with Frank Finlay playing a charlatan witch-hunter who claims Edmund has been practicing dark magic to punish him for his rudeness. This episode's the most frustrating of the six, because the potential is greatest—but it's letdown by some ridiculous moments. The worst being the frankly bizarre moment when Edmund, Baldrick and Percy briefly escaped their sentencing by teleporting out of court—thus proving they do know magic? What? It feels like the writers just didn't know how to end that scene, so suddenly started writing for Rentaghost. Utterly bizarre. Ditto the Witchsmeller being introduced with glowing red eyes in a hood, or the anachronistic Bewitched reference at the end. To end positively, the Witchsmeller's comeuppance is good, and it was fun to see they haven't forgotten the events of "The Queen Of Spain's Beard" with the return of Edmund's child wife. Bless.

The finale is the most ambitious episode, as the majority of THE BLACK SEAL was filmed outside and thus give everything the feel of a low-budget, Dark Ages version of The Magnificent Seven. Edmund is robbed of his last remaining title, Duke of Edinburgh, and finally snaps over his constant mistreatment by his father. After firing his servants Baldrick and Percy, Edmund scours the land assembling a Dirty Dozen of ne'er-do-wells who'll help him usurp the king: duelist Sir Wilfred Death (John Hallam), archer Three-Fingered Pete (Roger Sloman), highwayman Guy de Glastonbury (Patrick Malahide), daggerman Sean the Irish Bastard (Ron Cook), licentious Friar Bellows (Paul Brooke), and violent dwarf Jack Large (Big Mick). It's slightly confusing to discover Edmund has connections to England's most evil men, as we've been led to believe his decision to become "The Black Adder" is just a private alter-ego only his servants know about, but there's no denying the fun of this situation.

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.

And that concludes Blackadder's first, mostly disappointing series. The plots and subject matter of each episode were decent, it's just Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson's scripts were nowhere near funny enough to counteract the pall of seriousness that hangs over everything. It doesn't help that Edmund's often the only character intended to be comical—or, perhaps more accurately, able to succeed in that role, because the other characters are so boring and straight. An appearance by Rik Mayall (as prisoner Mad Gerald) in "The Black Seal" is a notable highlight, if only because it's one of few times Edmund shares the screen with someone else capable of getting hearty laughs. It's interesting that Mayall would go on to play randy bighead Lord Flashheart, a recurring character intended to steal laughs and the limelight from the eponymous anti-hero.

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.)