The Battle of Bosworth Field, waged in 1485, is undeniably a pivotal moment in our nation's history – but it's not exactly natural sitcom material is it? For one thing, many people would be hard-pressed to name the antagonists (they were Richard III and Henry Tudor, thickos). And would a "period sitcom" not run the risk of being about as funny as a Shakespeare comedy?
But Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson went and did it anyway – mainly because they were terrified of Fawlty Towers. The year was 1982, and John Cleese's series was being recognised as a modern classic when Curtis and Atkinson sat down to write their sitcom. Convinced that they were going to be unfavourably compared to Cleese, they decided to get as far away from Fawlty Towers as possible. Which is why, in Rowan's words, they "ended up in 1485". Talk about overcompensating…
Making it happen
The Black Adder cost £1 million to make – a frankly ludicrous sum for an early 80s sitcom. It paid for massive sets and epic location shoots, giving the series a lavish, far more cinematic atmosphere than the later Blackadders. The character of "the Black Adder" himself is also very different to his successors, being weak and weaselly rather than suave and sly.
Interestingly, Curtis and Atkinson did toy with the idea of a sly Edmund in the pilot episode, which was made to impress BBC bigwigs and was never aired. This original original Blackadder was far more like the latter Edmunds than the snivelling wretch they decided to go with in the first series. The pilot's Baldrick was also rather different, chiefly because he wasn't played by Tony Robinson. The actor, a chap named Philip Fox, was deemed unsuitable for the part and dropped in favour of the more diminutive Robinson. That's the cutthroat world of showbiz for you.
Look, it's him off that thing!
Every series of Blackadder has its share of celebrity guest appearances to point out to one's pig-ignorant friends. But it could be argued that the most noteworthy cameo of all takes place in the very first episode of The Black Adder, which is graced with the presence of comedy legend Peter Cook. He plays Richard III, while the similarly mythic Brian Blessed is at his beardy, bellowing best as King Richard IV. But as far as Rowan Atkinson himself is concerned, the greatest single performance in The Black Adder belongs to Jim Broadbent, who turns up as a Spanish interpreter.
The cunningest episode?
So which episode of The Black Adder deserves to be crowned the finest of the series? Those of a nostalgic bent might well point to the first episode, The Foretelling, simply because it sets up the whole Blackadder universe and presents such fanboy-pleasing moments as the first meeting between Edmund and Baldrick.
But we must insist on the accolade going to the last episode, The Black Seal. It is after all the most evil of the series, and the one in which Edmund finally begins to act like a true Blackadder and plot to capture the throne for himself. It also boasts one of the most cunning and catastrophic plans ever hatched by Baldrick, and there's even a fleeing cameo by one Rik Mayall. (No, series one newbies, he doesn't play Flashheart.)