Blackadder consistently makes it into the top three of all-time best British sitcoms lists (Fawlty Towers and Only Fools and Horses are usually the other two) and well it should. Four series in total (with a selection of specials and further sketches during subsequent years): each one focusing on a different era of the Blackadder dynasty, each one consistently funny, and in the case of the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, incredibly moving. The first series, The Black Adder, was written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson after they developed the idea whilst working together on Not the Nine O’Clock News. It focuses on Prince Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh; second son of King Richard IV and a constant disappointment to him.
Edmund spends his time trying to impress his father, before finally giving up on this in the final episode and attempting to overthrow him from the throne. Being blessed with just a tiny smattering of brain cells plus a dim-witted best friend in Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny) makes this an ambitious plan however. Throughout the ages Edmund (also played by Atkinson) proves himself to be deceitful, manipulative and willing to do anything for money or to get himself out of trouble, but in series one he starts off as snivelling and unlikeable as well. Despite this he has an ever-faithful companion through the annals of time; his manservant Balderick (Tony Robinson), who in this first series gets his one and only chance at being the intelligent one.
Shooting a fair few of the scenes at big locations (Alnwick Castle in Northumberland for one), and using a pretty huge cast of main characters and extras in period costumes proved to be expensive, and Atkinson has since admitted it wasn’t as consistently funny as they’d have liked. A rethink was needed.
For the second series Richard Curtis took Ben Elton as a writing partner and they scaled down the production. The Black Adder became simply Blackadder, and several generations down the line Edmund has metamorphosed into a sarcastic, clever and highly-cynical nobleman, albeit still with a cowardly, devious streak. We are introduced to the brilliant Miranda Richardson as the equally brilliant Queen Elizabeth I. All-powerful yet still immensely childlike; she somehow rules the country with the help of her sidekicks the Lord Chamberlain Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry) and Nursie (Patsy Byrne), the Queen’s totally loopy former nanny. Blackadder spends his time delivering scathing put-downs to the returning Balderick and Lord Percy, whilst trying to out-toady Melchett to keep in the Queen’s favour. This series features the first appearance from the dashing Lord Flashheart (Rik Mayall), who enters as Blackadder’s friend and leaves as his betrayer when he runs away with Blackadder’s fiancée Bob (it’s a long story). Hugh Laurie also puts in a wonderfully lunatic display in the last episode as Ludwig, a psychotic German kidnapper and highly talented impressionist of both people and sheep.
Series three transports the comedy to the Regency era, with Hugh Laurie returning to play the Prince Regent, the incredibly stupid son of the incredibly mad King George III. Blackadder is ever more devious and by far the most intelligent person in the Royal Household, but despite his plotting he still doesn’t manage to make it out of servitude. A Prime Minister barely out of nappies, Dr Johnson, the Scarlett Pimpernel, a pair of the ‘luvviest’ actors imaginable, a highwayman (well, woman) who hates squirrels, and the Duke of Wellington all stop by the palace, but none of them are remotely instrumental in helping Blackadder to climb up the social ladder to where he believes he belongs.
Series four finds huge amounts of humour (both light hearted and much darker) amongst the terrifying insanity of the First World War, and this time the audience can justifiably be sympathetic towards Blackadder’s cowardly tendencies – who wouldn’t want to get out of the situation he’s in by whatever means they could? Fry’s General Melchett has a marvellous moustache, shouts ‘baaaah’ a lot, and on the whole is wonderfully reminiscent of those top military personnel who managed to be immensely brave about the whole war effort from a comfortable office nowhere near the fighting. McInnery’s Captain Darling is his pen-pushing, snidey right-hand man who under pressure admits that he once tried to transfer to the Women’s Auxillary Balloon Corps. Captain Blackadder is trapped in intolerable conditions in the trenches with Lieutenant George and Private Balderick; they’re optimistically naïve and still believe all the propaganda that tells them that this conflict is a good thing, which makes it hard for Blackadder to know whether it’s them or the war itself that is driving him mad.
Blackadder is a comedy that you can watch, laugh at and quote a hundred times over, and no matter which time period is your favourite the humour is timeless.