Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

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Blackadder was not the sort of programme to rely on catchphrases. Most that were deployed such as “You have a woman’s hand, m’lord,” or the lecherous “woof woof! were used by one-off or very occasional visitors to the saga such as Captain Rum (Tom Baker) or Lord Flashheart (the late Rik Mayall).

A notable exception was “I have a cunning plan…” words which Blackaddder’s sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) would use to signal a usually absurd scheme to get the duo out of trouble. These included a plan to rewrite Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary in one night after Baldrick had accidentally burnt it (Baldrick’s helpful definition for the letter C (sea) being “big blue wobbly thing where mermaids live”). Another ruse involved an attempt to save Charles I (Stephen Fry) from execution by disguising a pumpkin as the King’s head.

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This is not the life of Baldrick, however, but the life of Tony Robinson. Although ultimately a tale of success (he is now a knight of the realm), it is an eventful, entertaining life although, as he freely admits, full of mistakes and less governed by any overall “cunning plan” than many.

Starting out as a child actor, appearing as one of Fagin’s gang in the original stage version of Oliver! Robinson was initially just keen to have fun and get out of school. After a long career including run ins with John Wayne and Liza Minnelli along the way, landing the role of Baldrick in 1983 didn’t seem like any sort of big deal. Indeed, as the first series was neither very  good or successful, initially it wasn’t.

But soon it had made his name and he was appearing in other Eighties comedy like Who Dares Wins and The Young Ones before writing his own Blackadder-influenced kids’ show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. The long years hosting Time Team were still to come. And, yes, hosting The Worst Jobs In History really was his own worst ever job.

It’s not all laughs: he writes movingly about his parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s (one after the other). But this is a hugely entertaining and unpretentious read. Here’s to you, Mr Robinson…

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In praise of Blackadder the Third

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This article (written by me) has been reproduced with the kind permission of Chortle. It first appeared in 2012.

‘I want to be remembered when I’m dead. I want books written about me. I want songs sung about me. And then, hundreds of years from now, I want episodes of my life to be played out weekly at half past nine by some heroic actor of the age.’ (Edmund Blackadder, Dual and Duality).

It has now been a full quarter-century since the first screening of Blackadder The Third. Under normal circumstances, the anniversary of the third series of anything would not be a cause for comment. Yet Blackadder is not a normal programme and the third series alone must rank as one of the best sitcoms of the Eighties in its own right.

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Continuing the slow social decline of the Blackadder family (from 15th Century royalty in the first series to a 20th Century Army officer by the fourth), Blackadder the Third, sees Edmund (Rowan Atkinson again) reduced to the role of butler to the idiotic foppish Prince Regent played by the then still-up-and-coming twenty-something Hugh Laurie. Despite having played two different roles in Blackadder II, as the drunken innuendo-obsessed Simon ‘Farters’ Partridge (‘Sounds a bit rude doesn’t it?’) in the acclaimed series 2 episode, ‘Beer’ and the cast’s Teutonic nemesis Mad Prince Ludwig in the final episode ‘Chains’ (‘Yes! I was one of the sheep!’), Laurie was reportedly tremendously nervous about taking on the part.

It’s easy to see why. The standard set by the second series had been incredibly high and with the regular cast slimmed down (Miranda ‘Queenie’ Richardson and Tim ‘Lord Percy’ McInnerny appear in only one episode each in new roles), a lot of weight was on Laurie and Atkinson’s shoulders, even with the excellent Tony Robinson returning as Baldrick (or rather ‘Mr S. Baldrick’). The introduction of a new character, pie-shop proprietor Mrs. Miggins (Helen Atkinson-Wood), a character referred to in Blackadder II but never seen, frankly doesn’t help the series much.

Thankfully, virtually everything else does. Hugh Laurie is perfect as Prince George, a good-natured, if lazy and spoilt clot who seems incapable of recognising his butler’s insults even when he says them directly to his face. The part would in fact be the perfect preparation for perhaps Laurie’s most successful Nineties role as Bertie Wooster, opposite a less hostile servant.

This is still not the best series of Blackadder, a position which still belongs to Blackadder II. Historically, it’s a bit confused – George is repeatedly referred to as the Prince Regent, a position he didn’t hold until 1811, by which time he was corpulent and in his fifties. Yet virtually everything else in terms of costumes and references suggests this is set in the 1780s or 1790s, while Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, the subject of one episode, was published before the Prince was actually born.

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Despite a few good lines and an excellent cameo by the late political reporter Vincent Hanna, the opening election-themed opening episode is perhaps also bit iffy by Blackadder standards. A few episodes also rely a bit too heavily on fictional versions of real characters such as Dr. Johnson (Robbie Coltrane) and the Duke of Wellington (Stephen Fry) being homicidal maniacs. They were not.

Happily, though, most of the series is sublime, reaching a peak with the brilliant closing episodes ‘Amy and Amiability’ and ‘Dual and Duality’. Blackadder’s run-in with a squirrel-hating highway woman and a memorable scene in which Hugh Laurie’s Prince is repeatedly punched make up two of the best Blackadder episodes ever produced.

And (is a spoiler alert necessary 25 years on?) the series uniquely sees a happy ending for Blackadder himself, with the butler rather confusingly replacing George as heir to the throne. Are we to assume all subsequent royals are in fact descended from him?

It hardly matters. What’s undeniable is that this remains one of the finest British sitcoms ever produced.

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Read more: Third time’s a charm… : Correspondents 2012 : Chortle : The UK Comedy Guide

In defence of Blackadder

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The year 2014, as every schoolboy knows, marks an important anniversary. It is twenty five years since the final series of perhaps the best British sitcom of all time, Blackadder: Blackadder Goes Forth.

It is a shame then, that some have used another anniversary (the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War) to attack the much loved series.

Unpopular Education Secretary Michael Gove is only the latest to do so, launching a broadside at the sitcom during a wider attack on “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders” in The Daily Mail.

“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite,” Mr. Gove has written.

Gove seems to have thrown Blackadder into the attack almost as an afterthought. Blackadder is not , after all, a “drama”. Watching the series again, it is difficult to understand what he is on about.  It is hard to see where, for example, he feels Blackadder “excuses Germany of blame” for the war.

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Presumably, he is unhappy with the portrayal of the real life Field Marshall Haig by Geoffrey Palmer in the last episode. At one point, Haig is shown callously brushing “fallen” toy soldiers off a replica battlefield with a dustpan and brush. The Education Secretary also doubtless dislikes Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the buffoonish General Melchett.

“We’re right behind you!” Melchett reassures Baldrick (Tony Robinson) as he sets off for the Front.

“About thirty five miles behind you,” Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) responds dryly.

Gove points to new revisionist histories which he says paint both the role of Haig and the merciless slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in a new light. But it is unfair to attack Blackadder for this. Not only were these new interpretations not around in 1989 when the series was made but they are highly questionable anyway. Gove argues that the Somme which occurred in 1916, more than two years before the end of the war in November 1918 can now be viewed as a “precursor to victory”.

It is worth remembering that on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme, British fatalities alone were close to twenty thousand, seven times the entire number of deaths from the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. And not a single British General died on the Somme.

Although the Daily Mail has captioned pictures surrounding Gove’s words with phrases like “Captain Coward” for Blackadder himself, this is unlikely to be a view shared by many who viewed the programme. The series, of course, ends with all the main characters charging wilfully towards death on No Man’s Land. They know they are probably going to die, but proceed anyway. What on Earth is cowardly about that? Gove argues that: ”For all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.” Nobility and courage? Don’t the deaths of Captain Blackadder, Lieutenant George, Captain Darling and Private Baldrick perfectly exemplify these qualities?

Attacking popular culture rarely works out well for politicians. Michael Gove’s botched attack on Blackadder is no exception.

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James Bond vs Doctor Who

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Two great national institutions celebrate their fiftieth anniversaries this year and next: James Bond and Doctor Who. On the face of it, the two franchises could not be more different. One is a sci-fi TV series arguably aimed at children, the other a serious of sexually charged action films. But beneath the surface, the two are more similar than they seem. Consider:

  1. Both began at a very similar time. The first Bond film Dr No was released in October 1962, the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Doctor Who first graced British TV screens on November 23rd 1963: the day after President Kennedy’s assassination.
  2. Both fizzled out in 1989: Timothy Dalton’s second Bond film License to Kill turned out to be the last for a while. Some blamed the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had fallen: who should Bond fight now? In fact, the success of Die Hard raised the stakes as far as action film budgets were concerned and with the British film industry then in the Thatcher-era doldrums, Bond couldn’t compete. Doctor Who’s end, meanwhile, is sometimes blamed on the malice of BBC controller Michael Grade. Grade freely admits he disliked the series. But in truth, like Bond, Doctor Who had been in a state of decline for some time.
  3. Both came back in the mid-Nineties (sort of):  Bond returned in style with Goldeneye in 1995 and a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan would star in three more Bond films. Doctor Who’s “comeback” in a 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann was widely seen as a flop. Although ironically the show did see the Doctor behaving more like James Bond.
  4. Both came back AGAIN about six years ago: Brosnan was replaced with Daniel Craig and the whole franchise got a reboot with Casino Royale in 2006. The year before Russell T. Davies finally re-launched Doctor Who properly with Christopher Eccleston enjoying a one series run as the Doctor and ex-teen pop star Billie Piper as assistant Rose Tyler. The Doctor has regenerated twice since then but has been with us ever since.
  5. Both franchises replace their star every few years: The Doctor famously regenerates whenever the lead actor fancies calling it quits, something that first occurred when the elderly first Doctor William Hartnell left early in the series’ life in 1966 and transformed into the physically dissimilar Patrick Troughton. The “regeneration” device has proven very handy over the years. Matt Smith became the Eleventh Doctor in 2010. As there is no obligation for the Doctor’s different personas to physically resemble each other, this has led to some wide ranging choices. Generally the actors seem to have got gradually younger over time, although all have been male. Bond, in contrast, doesn’t regenerate and is supposed to be the same character. Casting directors have generally gone for reasonably well known but never exactly famous thirty something British actors for the role: Craig is more different than any of the others, simply because he’s blonde. There is only a slight sci-fi element to Bond, of course, but it is odd that we are expected to believe the same man has stayed roughly the same age for fifty years.
  6. Doctors on average change at a faster rate than Bonds. Assuming Matt Smith is still Doctor in one year, there will have been on average one doctor for every four and a half years. Bond actors usually last for an average of just over eight years. There have been six so far.
  7. Iconic music and title sequences: The haunting Who theme has changed gradually over time as the floating head has (until recently) changed from one Doctor’s into another during the title sequence. The main Bond theme has remained unchanged through the decades although each film has, of course, seen a range of different themes by artists as diverse as Nancy Sinatra, Duran Duran, Tom Jones and (on three occasions) Shirley Bassey. The Bond title sequences have also grown increasingly imaginative and, at times, eccentric.
  8. Girls: Bond girls have ranged from Ursula Andress, Barbara Bach, Kim Basinger and Halle Berry. The Doctor, in dramatic contrast seems almost completely asexual. Yet his “companions” (who are occasionally male) have included Bonnie Langford, Katy Manning and many others.
  9. Taking the piss: Bond has been parodied extensively. The 1967 Casino Royale (an overblown mess starring Orson Welles, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen) mocked Bond from within. Since then Austin Powers and Johnny English have done so more effectively. Rowan Atkinson interestingly has parodied both Bond (in Johnny English and the TV ads which spawned it) and played a comic Doctor Who in a Comic Relief spoof alongside Julia Sawalha. Filmed in 1999, it was “The Curse of Fatal Death” was the closest thing to a new Doctor Who anyone had seen in years.
  10. The Cleese connection: At the height of his late 70s post Life of Brian/Fawlty Towers fame, John Cleese appeared in the Tom Baker Doctor Who saga City of Death in 1979 (Cleese’s friend Douglas Adams was Script Editor on the story). Much later, Cleese appeared as “R” assistant to “Q” in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. He actually took over for another “hilarious” turn as the new Q in Die Another Day in 2002. He hasn’t appeared in any Bond films since.
  11. Our Friends in the North: As author Alwyn W. Turner has pointed out, the groundbreaking Nineties BBC drama Our Friends in the North saw both future James Bond Daniel Craig and future Dr Who Christopher Eccleston playing side by side. Eccleston played Nicky Hiutchence, a bearded University drop-out who during the course of the series ran for parliament in a bid to become a Labour MP before becoming a photographer. Craig played his childhood friend “Geordie” Peacock, who falls in with the London criminal element and ultimately faces a bitter struggle with alcoholism and homelessness.

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