The Black Adder (1983, Martin Shardlow)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Regulars: The lead character is the king’s second son, Edmund, the Duke of Edinburgh (Rowan Atkinson). He’s so embittered by his lowly standing in the family that he creates a new alter ego: the Black Adder. He has two hangers-on cum confidantes: the dim Percy, Duke of Northumberland (Tim McInnerny) and wise servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson). Atkinson goes for a weasel-like, screwed-up-face-and-whiny-voice performance, which sadly is not as funny as he thinks it is. Meanwhile, Robinson’s playing it remarkably straight and McInnerny doesn’t make much impression; neither does Edmund’s older brother, Harry, the Prince of Wales (Robert East). Edmund’s father is King Richard IV and is loud, aggressive and very, very Brian Blessedy. Queen Gertrude (Elspet Gray) is foreign and scatter-brained, and sadly underused – she’s funny, but rarely feels vital to what’s going on. An empty-headed messenger boy (David Nunn) appears in a few episodes, as does Edmund’s unwanted child bride, Princess Leia of Hungary (Natasha King). Perry Benson from You Rang, M’Lord? plays a yokel in episodes five and six, though it’s not clear if it’s meant to be the same man.

Notable guests: Peter Cook brings some blockbuster casting to the opening episode when he plays Richard III, who Edmund accidentally kills at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard then returns as a beheaded ghost to put the frighteners on Edmund. In episode two, Alex Norton appears as Scottish nobleman Dougal McAngus. A bearded Angus Deayton also gets one line as a Jumping Jew of Jerusalem. The Queen of Spain’s Beard features the stellar double act of Miriam Margolyes and Jim Broadbent as the Spanish queen, Infanta Maria Escalosa, and her translator, Don Speekingleesh. The same story includes Howard Lew Lewis from Maid Marian and her Merry Men as local man Mr Applebottom. The actor is also in episode five seemingly playing a different yokel. In episode three, Bill Wallis and David Delve play two knights who are sent to murder Edmund. Frank Finlay is the big-name guest star of episode five. Comedy double act Stephen Frost and Mark Arden appear in the same story as two dim guards, while Valentine Dyall is a member of the king’s counsel. In the final episode, Edmund forms a new gang mostly played by famous actors: Sir Wilfred Death (John Hallam), Three-Ringed Pete (Roger Sloman), Guy de Glastonbury (Patrick Malahide), Sean the Irish Bastard (Ron Cook), Friar Bellows (Paul Brooke) and Jack Large (Big Mick). In the same story, bad guy The Hawk is played by voiceover specialist Patrick Allen, while Rik Mayall crops up for an uncredited cameo (as a bonkers prisoner called Mad Gerald).

Best gags:

Episode one: The Foretelling (15 June 1983). In August 1485, Prince Edmund oversleeps and is late for the Battle of Bosworth. When he finally arrives, he mistakes the king, Richard III, for a horse thief so beheads him…
* When told that the enemy Henry Tudor will ravish her and every woman in the court, the Queen says she won’t bother getting changed.
* After the battle, Prince Harry keeps statistical totals of how many each person killed: battle averages, he calls them.
* Richard III’s head floats above his body in a prime piece of 1980s green-screen.
* “Don’t Dickie me, Duckie!”

Episode two: Born to be King (22 June 1983). In 1487, Edmund has to arrange the revelries for the King’s return from the Crusades…
* Edmund bemoans how virtuous his mother is: “She daren’t look down in case she notices her own breasts.”
* Edmund’s attempts to arrange the entertainment: “We’ve only got one act and she’s shaved her beard off.”
* Edmund says the festivities will have a spartan feel. “Greek?” asks Harry.
* When Edmund reads out a love letter of his mother’s, Percy stands behind him mouthing the words along gleefully.

Episode three: The Archbishop (29 June 1983). November 1487. A wealthy landowner leaves his fortune to the church, so the king kills the Archbishop of Canterbury for the cash, then replaces him with Edmund…
* Edmund’s ‘Black Russian’ codpiece – more or less a dildo.
* Edmund and Harry ride along on horses. Behind them, Baldrick and Percy pull a carriage.
* Edmund: “Exactly what did God do to the Sodomites?” Baldrick: “I don’t know, my lord, but I can’t imagine it was worse than what they used to do to each other.”
* Baldrick’s summation of the perks of being Archbishop: “Basically, there appears to be four major profit areas: curses, pardons, relics, and selling the sexual favours of nuns.” Edmund questions who would pay for the latter. “Foreign businessmen, other nuns…”
* Baldrick gets a splinter from holding the fragment of the cross Jesus was crucified on.
* Percy reverentially shows off that he owns a finger bone from Jesus’ corpse. Baldrick is stunned: he thought they only came in boxes of 10.

Episode four: The Queen of Spain’s Beard (6 July 1983). Richard IV has decided to marry off his son Harry to a Spanish queen… However, he’s already spoken for, so the plan moves on to Edmund.
* Harry says he’s already engaged to “Princess Leia of Hungary and the Grand Duchess Ursula of Brandenburg. And Queen Beowulfa of Iceland, and Countess Caroline of Luxembourg, Bertha of Flanders, Bertha of Brussels, Bernard of Saxe-Coburg, and Jezabel of Estonia. No, no, sorry, that should be *Betha* of Saxe-Coburg. And Jeremy of Estonia.”
* The slow-witted message boy keeps mirroring Edmund’s body language as they talk.
* The interpreter’s attempt at relating the Infanta’s flirting, putting odd emphases on almost every word.
* Baldrick’s first mooted plan (not yet cunning): to convince the Infanta that Edmund is gay. (A number of euphemisms are then trotted out: left-footer, riding side-saddle…)
* Edmund finds a local girl to marry, so he won’t have to wed the Infanta, but when the priest calls her ‘miss’, she corrects him. She’s already married.
* A terrified Baldrick is sent to sleep with the Infanta: after the bedroom door is closed, we hear the interpreter relaying her sex talk.

Episode five: Witchsmeller Persuivant (13 July 1983). Plague has struck in 1495. King Richard IV is ill, and a Witchsmeller has pointed the finger of blame at Edmund…
* The family who die from plague *instantly*, while someone’s back is turned.
* When the locals burn a witch, they also burn her cat on a tiny stake off to the side.
* During Edmund’s trial, the Witchsmeller takes a horse’s refusal to talk as it having something to hide. When it does make a sound, Harry asks, “Was that a yay or a neigh?”
* Witchsmeller: “Can you see that man standing over there?” Witness: “Which?” Witchsmeller: “That’s him!”
* The Witchsmeller asks if a witness can see the son of Satan in the room. We then see a row of onlookers, one of which has red skin and horns.

Episode six: The Black Seal (20 July 1983). St Juniper’s Day, 1498. Stripped of his title, Edmund spurns his friends and assembles a new gang so he can take his revenge…
* Three-Ringed Pete is losing an archery contest, so kills his opponent.
* Guy holds up a coach. “Did I say ‘Your money of your life’? Slip of the tongue. Your money *and* your life.”
* When we first see Jack Large, we assume he’s a giant of a man. Jack is actually the midget beating him up.
* Edmund: “All for one…” His gang: “…and each man for himself!”
* The Hawk’s torture device, which has a spike to go up the bottom, sheers to cut off the ears, axes to chop off hands, a ‘coddling grinder’ and feathers to tickle Edmund under the arms.

Best episode: The Queen of Spain’s Beard, thanks in large part to the two hilarious guest performances.

Cunning: In episode two, when Edmund says he needs a cunning plan, Baldrick says: “I have a cunning plan,” and insists it’s pretty damn cunning. (It’s to convince McAngus to stick his head down a cannon.) In the next installment, Baldrick claims he has “a cunning plan that cannot fail” – but we don’t hear it as we then cut away to two guards discussing dinner plans. Later, when they’re tied to a bonfire that’s about to be lit, Baldrick again says he has a cunning plan, but Edmund’s not interested.

History: The conceit of the series is that, once he became monarch, Henry VII (1457-1509, who came to the throne in 1485) rewrote history. Turns out, Richard III wasn’t actually a deformed maniac who imprisoned his nephews. Also, although he *was* killed at Bosworth, it wasn’t Henry Tudor’s forces that got him – he was really accidentally murdered by one of his own. After Richard III’s death, his nephew Richard IV ascended to the throne – and the series is set in this reign, which Henry later expunged from the records. As well as numerous medieval cliches, the series also satirises Thomas Becket’s 1170 murder (in episode three), 17th-century Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins (episode five) and the Robin Hood myth (episode six). The whole thing, I suppose, is based on undermining the Shakespearean take on history.

Unbroadcast pilot: In 1982, the BBC made a single trial-run episode of The Black Adder, which has never been transmitted or officially released – but is freely available on YouTube. It’s a strange beast. It’s seems to be set in Elizabethan England, although there is a king as well as a queen, neither of whom in named. It has small studio sets and no location work. Edmund is much smarter than he is in the series proper. In other words, it’s more like to the format later used in Blackadder II. The pilot has the same story as episode two, Born to be King, but there are some different actors in the regular roles: John Savident as the King, Robert Bathurst as Harry and Philip Fox as Baldrick. Sadly, many gags fall flat and the studio audience don’t seem especially impressed. At one point, Edmund and Baldrick have a discussion that involves many uses of the word cunning.

Review: Written by Richard Curtis and star Rowan Atkinson – they cooked up the idea while working together on Not The Nine O’Clock News – this just doesn’t feel right. In retrospect, many things are ‘just off’. The whole series certainly looks impressive, with big studio sets and plenty of location filming (although, the Battle of Bosworth is dramatised without the luxury of extras!). But sadly that just means more empty space where the laughs should be. Significantly, the best moments tend to come with small groups in small rooms, such as Edmund, Baldrick and Percy discussing religious relics – a scene that also pushes the show into more deliberately anachronistic territory. Another big problem is that all the characters – except maybe Baldrick, ironically – are stupid. This doesn’t make for much variety and the comedy generally lacks bite. Considering the funnier dynamic used in later series, neither Edmund nor Baldrick are as good as they could be. It’s easy to see why big changes were made for series two…

Six summers of sweet content out of 10

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