BIG INTERVIEW Tony Robinson on Blackadder: 'It remains in people’s memory as an iconic piece of comedy'

Tony Robinson. Picture by Paul Marc Mitchell
Tony Robinson. Picture by Paul Marc Mitchell

Given its thoroughly deserved status as one of the all-time great British sitcoms, it's perhaps surprising to hear now that Blackadder very nearly never made it past its first series.

With the benefit of hindsight, in that initial series, The Black Adder, was clearly finding its feet, and many of the elements that came to define it were yet to appear.

One such element was the key relationship between Rowan Atkinson's titular noble, and his servant Baldrick, played by Tony Robinson. Set during the fictional reign of Brian Blessed's Richard IV (kindly Richard III – played by Peter Cook – was triumphant at Bosworth, only to be accidentally killed by Blackadder), the lord is the buffoon while his aide is the brains.

Hot off the back of Not The Nine O'Clock News, Atkinson and writer Richard Curtis had put together the new show.

Tony is speaking to The Guide ahead of a Q&A about the show he will be taking part in at the inaugural Big Mouth Comedy Festival at Portsmouth Guildhall next weekend.

As he recalls, his invitation to be part of the programme was inauspicious. 

'The original pilot, when I got it through the letterbox, quite arbitrarily, I thought: "Oh wow, a new series starring Rowan Atkinson". I’d always wanted to be in that kind of comedy, but never thought I would be able to because I wasn’t in that charmed circle of Oxford/Cambridge, or even university – I left school at 16. Then I read it, and this part I was being offered, I couldn’t even find it at first. I had to read it through twice, it was only eight lines, and it was all "yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir". And it really wasn’t very funny. But, wow, I’ve been offered this role, somebody somewhere has recognised my comedy genius, it starts on Monday and I’m skint, so I’ll go up and do it.

'It wasn’t until later I discovered that every other vaguely funny actor in Equity had been offered it and turned it down, because it really wasn’t very good, and it wasn’t a very big or funny part. But I thought if I can be associated with those blokes, I felt I had something to offer and they would recognise I had something to offer, and it worked just like that from day one.

'I was absolutely at ease with them both socially and creatively. Then at the end of the first week the head of BBC light entertainment walked in and said, I’m sorry, it’s been cancelled., there’s been an industrial dispute. It wasn’t until almost a year later that we got the first series out.'

And once it aired in mid-1983, it looked like that was it.

Rowan Atkinson as Captain Edmund Blackadder (left) with Tony Robinson as Private Baldrick in Blackadder Goes Forth.

Rowan Atkinson as Captain Edmund Blackadder (left) with Tony Robinson as Private Baldrick in Blackadder Goes Forth.

'It was a typical post-university thing to write – a comedy about the most complex and least understood period of British history and we don’t even tell it, we tell a false version of it!

'It was as though we were going in there with our arms, legs and head cut off and then being told, right now go in there and be funny.

'But I adored those blokes, and in fact I got a lot of spin-off work through having done it, with Mel [Smith] and Griff [Rhys-Jones] and the people who later became [TV production powerhouse] Hat Trick, so it had done me very well, but the BBC didn’t even want a second series, so as far as I was concerned, that was that.'

But they did get a second series, and this was where things really gelled, as a number of changes came in – Blackadder was now the scheming courtier, and Baldrick was the fool who always had a not-so-cunning 'cunning plan' close to hand. And they also got a new writer in, as Atkinson stepped back to focus on the acting.

'The real changes were in personnel, Rowan realised that we needed a new anarchic comic brain. Ben Elton had just had this enormous success with The Young Ones. Him coming in as a very fresh, energetic critical eye, really galvanised Richard.'

And of course there was Miranda Richardson as the spoilt brat Queenie, who loved nothing more than cutting off the heads of those who upset her.

'Getting Miranda in as Queen Elizabeth was superb. For the first three days, that role seemed like a non-starter, it didn’t seem funny, it was a black hole at the centre of the show.

'It was a combination of Miranda and the producer John Lloyd working and working and working at it–- none of the rest of us got a look in in that first week it was all about how to make Queen Elizabeth funny, then the moment Miranda found it, it became the hinge on which the whole second series swung.

'Everything else fell into place, including having Baldrick really stupid and having Stephen Fry coming in [as the obsequious Lord Melchett] – again another great comic mind, being very outspoken and inspirational.

'It’s like Leicester City a couple of years ago, they’d been there or thereabouts, and suddenly everything clicked. It’s probably not an analogy we should stretch too far though...'

It was a hugely fertile period for UK TV comedy.

'You only realise these things in retrospect,' says Tony. 'At the time it’s a load of blokes having fun and getting slightly irritated when things weren’t working.'

It was at this point that the cast also started to get more hands on.

'We all had input. Not so much in the first series, which was very script-oriented. But once you’ve got people like Stephen and later Hugh and Robbie [Coltrane] and Rik [Mayall] in, obviously their comic minds would hare off in all directions and it was a bit of a free-for-all.

'First of all Ben and Richard welcomed that, because our hit rate was pretty good and when we altered things, by and large it was for the better.

'But as the series progressed and we got more and more control, Ben and Richard were left gasping at the huge changes we had made in the script. They got increasingly hacked off and in retrospect, you can’t really blame them!'

Does he have a favourite series?

'I don’t think I can really answer that because all of the series were about problem solving. You’re dropped into a place you’ve never been to before, how do you make a decent fist of getting out of it?

'If I see them now, I think: "That bit worked well", "that bit didn’t work so well", or "that bit worked fantastically", so there are bits of all of them I’m very proud of, and bits that make me squirm.'

So which bits makes him squirm, then?

'Probably the most successful of the second series was called Beer, there were lots of false breasts and boozing. We all thought it was really gross, rather childish and over the top in a not very clever way. It didn’t have the fine wit we all so aspired to, and everyone else thought it was hysterically funny. Or anyone aged 16-23 and male anyway…'

Since the end of the fourth and final series, set in the trenches of the First World War, there has been only one full reunion, Back and Forth, which was shown in the Millennium Dome in 2000.

Would Tony go back to Blackadder again?

'I would do it like a shot because I enjoyed working them so much.'

However, he admits it's unlikely to happen. The ongoing success of its stars since then would make it a logistical nightmare to bring them all back together. He also believes there's another good reason not to resurrect the show as it was.

'But I think the big argument is that it finished on such a fantastic high, it remains in people’s memory as an iconic piece of British comedy. If we came back, no matter how funny it was, people wouldn’t feel it as that funny because they wouldn’t be in the same place as they were when they saw it in the late 80s/early 90s and they would be comparing it with the world as they knew it, and I doubt whether it would work.

'It might be that it’s possible to do Blackadder in a different form, a live show or on 70mm, but not as another six-part series.'

The climax of the fourth series has come to be regarded as a classic, with its poignant finale which saw Blackadder and his colleagues finally going over the top. It even gets shown in classrooms as a teaching aid.

Looking back on the show, Tony adds: 'I’m enormously proud that I was not only invited but encouraged to be a central part of its creation. When I look around at the extraordinary world-renowned minds I was working with  and I was just giving them lip!'

The Blackadder Q&A takes place as part of the two-day Big Mouth Comedy Festival on Sunday, March 11 from 2pm. Other acts appearing across the festival include Seann Walsh, Andy Parsons, Russell Kane, up-and-coming acts, and many more. Tickets cost from £19 for an afternoon session through to £71 for the full weekend. Go to bigmouthcomedyfestival.co.uk.