This piece is reproduced from Chortle. It first appeared in January 2011.
Twenty five years ago this month, British television comedy came as close to achieving perfection as it has ever done before or since. Blackadder II (otherwise known as ‘the Elizabethan one’) first appeared on our screens.
Of course, Blackadder itself started in 1983, so we’ve already marked its quarter-century. What need is there to mark the anniversary of its second series?
In my view, Blackadder II is worth celebrating simply because it is a breed apart from either its predecessor or sequels. The first series, set during the Wars of the Roses, was, for the most part, as overblown as it was overbudget. While it undeniably had its moments, the end result, written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, was close to being a TV flop. Blackadder II therefore came very close to not being made at all.
A large measure of the success of the second series is undeniably down to the Blackadder himself, Rowan Atkinson. Wisely leaving the writing to Curtis and new partner Ben Elton, Atkinson also abandoned the foppish, Mr Bean-like – and frankly annoying – persona he had hastily adopted for the first series. Very much at ease in a new beard and costume (producer John Lloyd has even suggested the part made Atkinson aware of his own sexuality in a way he hadn’t been before), the new Blackadder was devious and deeply sarcastic.
Whether displaying his skills as one of England’s finest liars (‘Oh my God, Percy! A giant hummingbird is about to eat your hat and cloak!’), attempting to teach Baldrick mathematics (‘For you the Renaissance was something that happened to other people wasn’t it?’) or simply saying ‘Bob’ (apparently said in a way to mask Atkinson’s own slight speech impediment), the performance is a comic masterclass.
Virtually everyone else in the cast is on career best form too. While Tony Robinson arguably overdoes Baldrick’s stupidity in the later series, this time he gets it exactly right. Having been an intelligent character in the first series whose ‘cunning plans’ were genuinely good, in this series, perhaps balanced by Tim McInnery’s equally gormless Lord Percy, his performance is perfect.
And then, there is Queenie. In a career otherwise undistinguished by many comedy roles, Miranda Richardson, then hot after a dramatic turn in Mike Newell’s Dance With A Stranger, gives the performance of her life as the last Tudor monarch, throwing the convention of Elizabeth as a hardened almost masculine leader on its head by portraying her as a spoilt, coquettish but potentially dangerous child.
With a then up-and-coming Stephen Fry as the obsequious Lord Melchett and Patsy Byrne as the barmy udder-fixated Nursie, it really is the cast from heaven. And even this ignores the contribution of guest stars Tom Baker as mad Captain Rum (‘You have a woman’s hand, m’lady!’) or Rik Mayall as the memorably lascivious Lord Flashheart, a character who despite only being in one scene, could potentially have had a series of his own.
Could something as good as Blackadder II be made today? I don’t see why not but it’s hard to imagine that lightning would strike twice. Perhaps it was just tremendous good fortune that it caught so many figures of the ‘alternative’ comedy scene at the peak of their game. Yes, Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth are great series too. But neither are quite what Blackadder II is.
And finally, isn’t it about time the reputation of Ben Elton enjoyed something of a reassessment? Currently one of the most hated men in comedy after his overexposure in the Eighties and perceived ‘selling out’ his co-authorship of the three great Blackadder series is often overlooked. But come on! Richard Curtis didn’t write it all himself. And to misquote the series ‘life without Blackadder II would be like a broken pencil. Pointless’.
Read more: Blackadder II: The perfect TV comedy? : Correspondents 2011 : Chortle : The UK Comedy Guide