Book review: The True History of the Black Adder by J. F. Roberts

A cunning plan to make a ‘swashbuckling sitcom’ became a British comedy high watermark when the first series of Blackadder was screened 30 years ago.

Tuesday, 24th September 2013, 10:00 am
The True History of the Black Adder by J. F. Roberts
The True History of the Black Adder by J. F. Roberts

For those whose sense of humour was honed on the hilarious adventures and misadventures of one of the nation’s most vilified dynasties, the dastardly Blackadder still stands as a bastion of British comedic genius.

One of the prodigiously talented founding fathers of what many would argue is the greatest sitcom of all time, Richard Curtis had initially aimed to make ‘comedy within a historical context.’

‘It’s good, but it’ll never be great,’ he observed to co-writer Ben Elton when they were making Blackadder. What he could never have dreamt was that he was lighting the touch paper of a comedy series that would become a British institution.

Sign up to our daily Burnley Express Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

And to celebrate the anniversary of one of the most oft quoted sitcoms, lifelong admirer Jem Roberts has written both a definitive guide to this comic gem and the very first in-depth examination of the whole Blackadder cult.

Using existing archive footage, a brilliant array of photographs and rare literature, plus new revelations from personal interviews with the makers including producer John Lloyd, writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, and Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson and Stephen Fry, this is nirvana for all Blackadder fans.

As an added bonus, there is also an exploration of the special episodes, which included Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, Blackadder the Cavalier Years and Blackadder Back and Forth, and extracts from Blackadder in Bethlehem, a previously unseen and unproduced Christmas special.

The irrepressibly enthusiastic Roberts relates the full scope of the tale of how the 70s alumni of three great universities – Oxford, Cambridge and not Hull, but Manchester – discovered a unique chemistry that would see them build a timeless comic masterpiece.

Alongside biographies of all the leading cast and crew, Roberts provides the fascinating cultural and social background to the series, the history of its creation and an overview of how the characters evolved over four series.

In an interview, actor Brian Blessed who played King Richard IV in the first series, says that Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder ‘is the finest comic performance in television history’ and that the series will run ‘for thousands of years.’

Hugh Laurie, one of Blackadder’s shining stars, reveals that the cast are eternally bound together and meet under the clock at Paddington Station at ten to four every year, ‘all wearing the tie.’

Indeed, Blackadder’s extended thespian family all agree that they would be proud to receive any call from John Lloyd for a new incarnation but the power to bring another Edmund Blackadder back from the dead ultimately lies with writers Ben Elton, who declared that ‘We’ll never officially close it down. Ever,’ and Richard Curtis.

Whether or not Edmund and his chums are reincarnated, their legacy is assured. As Roberts so aptly points out, ‘with its searing sarcasm, poetic wit, ironic jingoism and cheering regular doses of lavatorial filth, Blackadder remains a genuinely unifying national touchstone.’

(Arrow, paperback, £8.99)