Andrew Todd watches the unaired pilot of Blackadder, one of English comedy’s foundation stones, and finds a very rough draft with shards of brilliance. //
Blackadder is a cultural keystone as vital to English TV comedy as Fawlty Towers or The Office. Over its four series, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson delivered what is still some of the funniest comedy ever produced. It’s hard to find a TV fan who isn’t familiar with Blackadder and Baldrick – whether it be from the Richard III riff of the first series, the Elizabethan second, the Regency third, or the all-time genius World War One satire Blackadder Goes Forth. But unbeknownst to most audiences, the show started out somewhat different to any of those incarnations, in an unaired pilot titled simply, The Black Adder.
From the very start, things are familiar, yet not quite right. The theme music is the same we’ve all become familiar with, but the opening titles feel cheap, much like the rest of the one-off production. Unlike the finished series, it’s historically dubious – set “400 years ago”, and while the Queen is clearly modelled after Elizabeth I, she’s married with two sons – hardly befitting the Virgin Queen.
The pilot’s story is the same as the first-series episode ‘Born To Be King’ – a Scottish war hero returns to overwhelming praise, and Blackadder, desperate to climb the order of accession to the throne, seeks revenge. There’s a play within a play; doubts of lineage; a swordfight. It’s the same Shakespearean pastiche that the first series thrived upon. The basic character setups and the story’s clever status reversals changed little from pilot to series – they’re rock-solid. What did change, and desperately needed to, was the jokes.
Put simply, the jokes in the Blackadder pilot are half-baked in both their writing and their delivery. The substance of them is identical to that of the final show, but they’re effectively a first draft. The routines aren’t as well-paced. The chemistry and comic timing of the cast isn’t quite right, and there’s far too much reliance on mugging and pratfalls to make up for it. Baldrick, played here by Philip Fox, is more of a big dumb lunk than the greasy, empty-eyed wretch Tony Robinson so effortlessly inhabited. The play-within-a-play sequence is frankly embarrassing, a static wide shot which feels more like a stagey physical comedy routine than a television show.
Yet even these beta versions of jokes sing in the hands of Rowan Atkinson. While the Blackadder of the first series is a snivelling, bowl-cut wimp, the pilot’s version of the character is more akin to the conniving bastard of Blackadder II – always the smartest guy in the room and weary of having to deal with his inferiors. The pilot only comes alive with Atkinson’s terrific introduction, as he turns, glowering, to the audience, almost spitting that “the eunuchs have cancelled”.
From then on, Atkinson is maybe too shouty and one-note, but he’s got energy that eclipses the rest of the cast and shows great affinity with the material (largely due to having co-written it). It’s a testament to his skill as a performer that he managed to make the character so different in the aired version with almost precisely the same material.
The Blackadder pilot is manifestly not as good as the finished show. At times, it’s downright terrible. The characters haven’t been developed fully, the chemistry’s off, and the script still has rough edges. But it doesn’t have to be the series’ equal. If anything, it’s a testament to the power of the creative process – of going back to correct what you got wrong, or what could be made more right. Were it not for the mistakes made in the pilot, Blackadder might have ended up a series with slight, yet important differences to what actually aired. Without the pilot, we may never have gotten the masterwork of TV comedy we know and love. That’s a parallel universe I don’t want to live in. Luckily, we don’t have to.