Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Anglofiles: Blackadder

Last year was the 25th anniversary of the TV show BLACKADDER, which starred Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder in various eras of English history. Happy Anniversary! Thanks to the BBC for issuing a digitally remastered deluxe set of all 4 BLACKADDER series, plus all the specials including one that I hadn't seen, THE CAVALIER YEARS with Stephen Fry doing his best impersonation of the current Prince Charles while playing Charles I.

I remember the very first time I saw BLACKADDER. I was doing my semester abroad in college, and I turned the television on one Sunday night and there it was. It was the very first series set in Medieval England. Only in this version, he wasn't Edmund Blackadder, he was Edmund Plantagenet, a rather weak, oafish, lily-livered coward. Baldrick, if you can believe it, was the clever one. Truthfully, it wasn't very funny.  The next time I saw BLACKADDER, was the second series with Queen Elizabeth I. This series introduce the Edmund Blackadder we've all come to love. Sarcastic, selfish, and slightly cruel. Miranda Richardson's portrayal of Good Queen Bess is still one of my favorites of all the actresses who have played Elizabeth I. She's childish, funny, flirtacious but woe to anyone who gets on her bad side. She can turn around iin an instant and threaten to kill you in a second.

In fact, I saw at least one episode every series on a trip to England. The last series premiered in 1989 and I remember watching it in the tiny flat in Earl's Court that I lived in with 5 other Americans. In many ways, I think BLACKADDER GOES FORTH is my favorite, although it is the most poignant. Perhaps it is because my mother died that fall, and Blackadder and his men don't survive going over the top in World War I.

What I loved about the series was that the character of Blackadder had no censor.  Even when he was flattering either the Queen or the Prince Regent, it just skirted the edge of being inappropriate. And Blackadder didn't always win, which would have been so boring. And when he did win, it was with a scheme so clever that it makes you marvel at the writers. For example: during the second season episode called MONEY, Blackadder owes the Black Monks 1,000 pounds. He cleverly hires a painter to paint the Black Monk in flagrante delictor with a prostitute who turns out to be Percy. But it was also manna for history geeks. The show's writers knew there stuff and they threw in Sir Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, William Pitt the Younger, Wellington, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and other historical figures into the mix. It was fabulous to get the little in-jokes that might have gone over the heads of people who don't know a great deal of English history. It's also one of the reasons that BLACKADDER hasn't aged as a sitcom.

The new DVD collection also includes a documentary on the making of the series with Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis (writer), Ben Elton (writer), Tim McInnerney, Rik Mayal, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Tony Robinson sharing their memories along with the director John Lloyd. What really intrigued me was the talk of whether or not there would be 5th series, and if there had been what it would have been. Rowan Atkinson expressed affection, as did Stephen Fry for Blackadder to be in a POW camp during WWII. The only problem with that is how to keep it from being a British version of Hogan's Heroes. Another idea was to set it in the 1960's and have Blackadder be a Brian Epstein like manager who discovers  a Beatlesque band with Baldrick as Bald Rick, the drummer. By far my favorite was the suggestion of Blackadder in the Old West. Now that one has real possibilities given the number of 2nd and 3rd sons of the English aristocracy who went out West hoping to make their fortunes and were completely out of their depth.

Can you imagine Blackadder having to deal with like Jesse James of Billy the Kid or somehow getting into the middle of the OK Corral? Miranda Richardson mentioned that she would have loved to have played Calamity Jane. That would have been hysterical. Like BLACKADDER meets DEADWOOD.  Frankly that one has legs as at least a special. Perhaps a co-production between the BBC and HBO? It will probably never happen since Hugh Laurie is so busy with HOUSE now but it would be better than another Mr. Bean movie. Can we put that character to rest?

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