Blackadder at 35: why the writers completely reinvented him after one series

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It's June 1983, and a pivotal scene in a brand new BBC comedy is airing to millions around the country.

Rowan Atkinson's conniving historical figure has just given voice to a fiendish cunning plan. He, together with Baldrick and Percy, will nurse a seemingly wealthy man they've found back to health in order to swindle his riches.

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Smugly puffing his chest and pronouncing his own greatness, Atkinson's protagonist announces that he will henceforth be known as "The Black...Vegetable."

Consequently, it is up to Baldrick to suggest that Edmund adopt a slightly less silly name. And the cunning plan was Percy's all along.

This is a scene from the very first episode of Blackadder, 35 years ago, and it's fair to say that the now-beloved sitcom was a very different beast to begin with.

Due to the oft-forgotten first series' underwhelming reception, Blackadder would eventually be transformed from a blithering idiot to the evil genius we all know and love. Or, at least, a sly, sarcastic and barb-tongued schemer.

But it might never have had that chance.

Baldrick was the smart one

At the start, Atkinson and Richard Curtis's sitcom was more grandly called The Black Adder.

Set during the Medieval period, its staging was lofty and ambitious, with genuine historical production values and Shakespearean dialogue. But it wasn't especially funny.

Aside from Brian Blessed's boisterous presence, the odd choice piece of wit, and an enjoyable climactic episode, the first season of Blackadder is widely seen as a comedy mis-step. Several decades on fans can happily quote much of the second, third and fourth seasons at their leisure - yet many will never have even seen the initial series.

'The Black Adder' was far removed from the character, and comedy, we now recognise (Photo: BBC)

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Many of the crucial ingredients were there. Tim McInnerny as Percy, Tony Robinson as faithful servant Baldrick. But here, Baldrick was the smart one - and it was the nobleman Blackadder who lacked wits.

Literally described as a "little turd" by Peter Cook's Richard III in the opening episode, it is impossible to root for the protagonist in The Black Adder. He is an utter, gurning fool; as lacking in sense as he is morals.

Peter Cook, Jim Broadbent and Miriam Margolyes had supporting roles in the first series of Blackadder

A crucial reinvention

"It should be cherished," said McInnerny of the Medieval series' ambition and production values. "But having said that it was rough and messy and some things didn't work."

Curtis, who conceived the historical sitcom idea as he felt Fawlty Towers could not be beaten as a modern-day farce, has conceded that the initial vision was appropriately "out of date" when it was first made.

Producer John Lloyd has described the first series as "ghastly" and "a great lesson in vanity and egotism".

It was expensive to make. It took months to edit. But perhaps more importantly, its central characters struggled to capture the imagination of audiences and critics.

Fortunately, just as it seemed the whole endeavour was set to face the executioner's axe, Ben Elton was brought on as co-writer for the second series due to his work on The Young Ones. And he brought plenty of key new ideas with him.

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Where before Blackadder was a foolish, cowardly dork with pointy shoes and a bowl haircut, now he would be a confident rogue armed with razor-sharp wit and a mountain of equally cutting insults.

"Ben and I went though the vocabulary of the first series," recalls Curtis, "and then went through what we knew Rowan could do. And decided that someone that sharp and sarcastic would be fun."

"Between us we decided to reverse the dynamic, and make Baldrick the idiot and Rowan the cunning one," notes Elton.

Tony Robinson believes that making both Baldrick and Percy utterly, ridiculously stupid served a key purpose.

"The clever thing about that, is that it meant Blackadder could be as stupid as the script writers wanted him to be. But there was always someone more stupid."

Someone we can root for

In the subsequent series, Blackadder still frequently fails to succeed in his sly endeavours, but the difference on a comedy level is crucial.

As has been noted, failure and defeat is a common theme in successful sitcoms, but it is much funnier to see an arrogant, capable person brought down to earth than a complete idiot. And, perhaps more importantly, Blackadder's newly sharp mind - in contrast to the rampant idiocy around him in the court of Elizabeth, the palace of the Prince Regent, and the trenches of World War One - makes him someone we can root for.

In Blackadder Goes Forth, this becomes even more the case, when those cunning plans are designed to save his very life. It's fair to say that the historical periods chosen after series one provided much better opportunities for scathing satire.

...and even hard-hitting commentary (Photo: BBC)

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Curtis has spoken of how together he and Elton imbued their new Blackadder with a dry, cynical "20th century sensibility", albeit one that would never break the fourth wall and acknowledge that.

Elton brought focus too, trimming out the scale to hone in on the characters at the centre. The fact that Blackadder II would require only studio shooting rather than location filming also made the comedy more affordable - something frequently credited as saving its sitcom bacon.

A very different Blackadder

Elton has now gone on to forge fresh Elizabethan wit in Upstart Crow. But on Blackadder II, he and Curtis's complete reinvention of the title character is arguably their crowning comedic achievement.

In Blackadder's debut scene in 'Bells', the first time viewers had seen him since the first series, we meet him aiming arrows at a dartboard precariously positioned above Baldrick's head. Then Percy enters.

Percy: "Sorry I'm late."

Blackadder: "No, don't bother apologizing. I'm sorry you're alive."

Percy: "Oh good, I see the target's ready. I'd like to see the Spaniard who could make his way passed me.

Blackadder: "Well, go to Spain. There are millions of them."

Ah. Now that's the Edmund Blackadder we know and love.

Want to see the contrast for yourself? Blackadder series one and two are available on Netflix UK. 

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[Main image: BBC]

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