Author’s Note: Apologies for the poor quality of the screenshots, but the footage from the original Blackadder pilot is 36 years old!
Running from 1983-1989, Blackadder is, without a doubt, one of the most timeless sitcoms ever broadcast on British television. Starring Rowan Atkinson as the titular Blackadder, and Tony Robinson as his dogsbody, Baldrick; Blackadder would take us on a scintillating journey through four eras of British history, filled with cunning plans, conniving wit and imbecilic aristocrats.
Despite the success of Seasons 2-4, most Blackadder fans would have no qualms in admitting that Season 1’s depiction of the final years from the British Medieval Period were a bit of a hit and miss. Even some members of the show’s cast and crew have admitted problems with the first season.
However, episode one of Season 1 (The Foretelling) wasn’t the first episode of Blackadder ever produced. That honour instead belongs to the original pilot titled The Black Adder.
Because the original tapes containing the pilot became damaged over the years, the BBC have deemed the episode not suitable for broadcast. As such the full episode has never been made publicly available; though a few short clips have been included in various retrospectives and documentaries over the years.
Like the six regular episodes of Season 1, the pilot kicks off with scrolling text giving us a date and background to the story we are about to see (though without a voiceover).
It is Europe, 400 years ago. In Spain War rages, as Christians from every land fight off the threatening terror of Turkish Invasion. The French… are in uneasy peace. But in England, under the tutelage of a powerful king, the Ship of State ploughs a steady course as the court awaits the Queen’s Birthday and the return of a Scottish Hero from the War….
Disregarding the odd grammatical mistake, what is most revealing is the date, which sets the episode 400 years ago. As the pilot was produced in 1982, that would place the episode in 1582, slapbang in the middle of the Elizabethan era. Around 24 years into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and a further 21 years before she passed away.
You only have to look at the costume worn by Elspet Grey, one of only four actors to return for Season 1, to see that her guise is heavily influenced by Elizabeth I (though she is never named as such during the episode).
Still, it’s common knowledge that Elizabeth I was known as “The Virgin Queen”, having never married or procreated. As a result it becomes quickly apparent that, unlike the more structured time periods of the main four seasons, the pilot was a little more free-wheeling in its historical accuracy.
Interestingly, that free-wheeling approach seems to have rubbed producer John Lloyd the wrong way. While Lloyd is now famous for being the producer behind all four seasons of Blackadder, he originally had no involvement due to being worn out by his work on Not the Nine O’Clock News; and having already committed to another BBC comedy. (Instead the pilot was produced by Geoff Posner.)
According to Blackadder – The Whole Rotten Saga, a 2008 documentary released to celebrate the 25th anniversary, Lloyd felt:
(the show) should be set in real history, so that you’ve never heard of Blackadder and Baldrick, but you’ve heard of the people around them.
Consequently, the setting of Season 1 would end up being pushed back nearly 100 years to the tail end of the English Middle Ages. (The first episode of Season 1 is set in 1485).
The basic plot of the pilot offers the most significant similarity between this early example of Blackadder and the future Season 1. That’s not particularly surprising as the original script for the pilot was essentially reused for episode two of the series run, Born To Be King.
Both episodes centre around the return of Scottish hero, Dougal McAngus (played in both by Alex Norton, the third returning actor), and his ever increasing conflict with Prince Edmund. While there are some scenes and pieces of dialogue that are a little different (such as the pilot being set on the Queen’s birthday rather than the fictional St. Leonard’s Day); the large majority of the narrative remains pretty much identical.
The same can’t be said for the performers in each version though. While the general structure of the ensemble is a carbon copy (A King, a Queen, two Princes, Baldrick and Percy); the actors playing some of them are vastly different.
It’s difficult to measure their performances objectively. When you’ve watched the cast of the main series over and over again for nearly 35 years (Yikes!); any deviation from that classic ensemble seems like sacrilege. That said, of the three, Robert Bathurst is the one that hews closest to his character’s presentation in the main series. If Bathurst had continued on from the pilot, it’s safe to say it wouldn’t have made too much difference to the final product.
The other two, however, are a whole different ballgame. While neither of them are bad, they just… don’t feel right. In the case of Philip Fox as Baldrick, though his character is written like the intellectually stunted moron of later seasons, his interactions with the other characters just doesn’t have the same chemistry that Tony Robinson would end up bringing.
(Fun fact: Robinson was originally offered and accepted the role of Baldrick for the pilot. But when the shooting dates were pushed back, he had to drop out due to his commitments to the National Theatre. Once the decision was made to reshoot a year later, he had become available and was able to join the cast.)
But if Fox and Robinson were playing entirely different ballgames, then John Savident and Brian Blessed might as well be playing entirely different species. Compared to Blessed’s over-the-top and insane portrayal of a warmongering crusader, Savident is just
boring normal. It’s clear that, in spite of the humorous lines, Savident interpreted his character as royalty first and comedian second. Hence a lot of the humour that we see in Blessed’s performance ends up being lost.
For all that, the most relevant change turns out to be one that should never have been made at all. Specifically the presentation of Edmund Blackadder’s character.
As fans of the show already know, Prince Edmund in Season 1 isn’t quite the same as he is in future portrayals. He’s not particularly intelligent or quick of thought, often being out-witted by Baldrick or Percy. But in the pilot, Atkinson’s performance is devilishly brilliant. With a sharp tongue and scathing intellect, he’s much closer to the charismatic and gifted character we see from Season 2 onward.
It’s incomprehensible why this change took place. According to some sources, writer Richard Curtis has suggested the adjustment was made because they wanted the character to be more complex than what was seen in the pilot. Though if you read J.F. Roberts excellent book, The True History of the Blackadder: The Unadulterated Tale of the Creation of a Comedy Legend, you get the impression they were pretty much making it up as they go along!
Despite fading into history, the original Blackadder pilot isn’t just a historical curiosity. It should honestly be considered a fascinating instance of a show, not only getting it right the first time; but also an example of just how close we were to getting four full seasons of Blackadder greatness.
Featured Image: By C. Walter Hodges – Folger Shakespeare Library CC BY 4.0; All other images © British Broadcasting Corperation.