When Blackadder arrived on New Zealand screens, the 80s British comedy quickly achieved cult status. But when a rumour spread that several minutes of every episode were being edited out by TVNZ, things got weird.
I was once sent a turnip in the mail. It was 1990. The parcel arrived on my desk at TVNZ in Auckland where I was the TV One programmer. It was sent as a form of protest against the editing of the comedy Blackadder (burning playgrounds hadn’t been thought of back then). I didn’t know it was a turnip until the newspaper wrapping had been peeled back. I remember the fetid smell, just as you’d expect a sweaty tuber wrapped in newspaper, having travelled 1,430km from Dunedin to Auckland, to smell. I don’t know for sure that it came from Dunedin, but at the time enraged Otago University students were making a lot of noise about the editing of their favourite TV programme.
In British television comedy history, Blackadder attracts almost the kind of reverence given to Monty Python. It features almost as many quotable quotes. “I have a cunning plan.” “It’s so [insert adjective], you could rip the head off it and call it a [insert noun].” Rowan Atkinson plays Edmund Blackadder, the conniving antagonist, and his dim witted dogsbody Baldrick is played by Tony Robinson. Baldrick is obsessed with turnips. I presume that was the connection.
When the series started screening on TVNZ in the 1980s, it quickly achieved cult status, especially among university students. In 1990, when a repeat of the first series was showing, a rumour got out that several minutes of every episode were being edited out by TVNZ. It was true. As the programmer at the time, along with my colleague Glenn Usmar, I copped a lot of flak for that. Thirty-three years later, it’s time to explain.
To understand what happened, you need to realise that Blackadder was made by the BBC, a non-commercial broadcaster with a non-commercial schedule to fill. TVNZ was (and still is) a commercial environment. Programmes on TVNZ at that time had to be around 23 minutes in length for a half hour, or 46 minutes for an hour, to allow space for advertising. Compare this with the standard BBC programmes which were around 29 minutes or 58 minutes in duration. Add advertising plus programme promotions to 29 minutes of Blackadder, and it took up 40 minutes in TVNZ’s programme schedule.
Blackadder was considered a little raunchy back then so it was in the schedule to start at 9.30pm on a Monday night. Accordingly, the late news that followed was scheduled to start 40 minutes later at 10 past 10pm. And this really upset the then head of news. He wanted his late news to start on the dot of 10pm. I said it couldn’t be done without editing five minutes out of Blackadder. The response was an unhelpful: so what? Who will notice or care? My boss, the head of programming for channels One and 2, was an Australian who didn’t know who Rowan Atkinson was, and wasn’t terribly interested in the debate.
At our weekly board of management meeting, I argued the case vociferously for not editing. Sadly the board backed the news department and so the editing began. As did the rumours and the outrage. Glenn and I were as horrified as our viewers. As were the presentation staff whose job it was to prepare programmes for going to air. Most of them were huge fans of the programme. It was around this time that the turnip arrived.
Blackadder was not the only programme to be edited. Many other BBC programmes were edited to fit. Other British schedule stalwarts like Coronation Street were also edited but in Coro’s case, it was comparatively little. This was because Coro had been made for the commercial ITV network in the UK, to fit a commercial format.
I don’t know if the BBC knew what we were doing to their comedy taonga. It wouldn’t have taken much to figure it out, but they never said. At that time, I understand that TVNZ purchased more BBC product than any other offshore market. We had a bulk deal giving us first dibs on all their product such as comedies like Keeping Up Appearances and many of the Montana Sunday Theatre dramas. We were an important customer to them.
Apart from hiccups like the Blackadder debacle, being a programmer was a great job back in the day. Watching loads of potential content, deciding what to buy and when to schedule it. One day someone told me about this new technology that meant in the future, television viewers would be able to watch what they liked, when they liked. You would be able to watch unedited episodes of Blackadder at 9.30 at night or 9.30 in the morning. Television programmers would be out of a job. A cunning plan indeed.
Update, 1.30pm, June 13: A reference to Blackadder first screening on New Zealand television in 1990 was removed as the show was in fact shown here several years earlier.
Dr Maureen Sinton (Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki) is a former radio and television producer, TV One programmer and now lecturer at Te Ara Poutama, the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Development at AUT. She was TV One programmer from 1989 to 1993, and later the programmer for Prime Television at the time of its start-up.