Blackadder begat Love Actually, House, M.D. and much more
When most Americans tuned in to the anticipated Red Nose Day Actually special last month, it is a safe bet most merely thought back to their fond memories of its theatrical 2003 predecessor. Those who recalled Rowan Atkinson’s role as the jewelry clerk Rufus may have secondarily spilled the name “Bean” in their buildup chat.
That is fine if that suits your taste for humor. But more of us born on this side of the Atlantic could stand to learn more about Blackadder, the series that kickstarted Atkinson’s career and that of Actually franchise director Richard Curtis.
And which, as far as this author is concerned, remains the most memorable work of both men. Though produced in the 1980s, it is just that strong for its highbrow, history-fed humor.
Tuesday, June 20, marks 35 years since Atkinson and Curtis activated their brainchild, convening a cast and filming a pilot that never saw the small screen. Still in their 20s at the time, the tandem built on the experiment and produced a quartet of six-episode miniseries that the BBC picked up.
Each show placed the titular Edmund Blackadder (portrayed by Atkinson) in a noteworthy period of British history. With each miniseries, Edmund evolved as a timeless and understandable cynic through his demanding and frustrating positions in society.
Following the last edition in 1989, Mr. Bean broke out en route to two feature films released on both sides of the pond. But Atkinson is at his best when his character speaks complete, coherent and preferably clever or caustic sentences. In the unaired pilot, and again from the second version of the program onward, Edmund Blackadder is almost as venomously tongued as his serpentine namesake.
This author had his introduction to the series in a high-school European history class. As part of the World War I unit, our cultured teacher screened the premiere episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, wherein Edmund is a captain in the British trenches.
Names of the real-life figures we had covered in lectures and reading assignments perked up our ears. And Edmund made us laugh, then think, when he proposed Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s “resignation and suicide” as a way of improving the mood in the trenches.
Perhaps Captain Blackadder was ahead of his time in his view of the man who decades later acquired the epithet “butcher.” Or maybe he was speaking to the genuine, but ignored, sense of futility and misery among those who were seeing and living the effects of the war.
One of those soldiers was played by none other than Hugh Laurie, who by the time of this author’s history lesson had hit his stride in American drama as the title character on House, M.D.
Gregory House bears some of the same bitter inclinations as Edmund Blackadder. In his stressful position at a hospital, his situation is especially comparable to that of the trench-bound Edmund. But in the captain’s company as Lieutenant George, along with the era’s incarnation of Blackadder’s low-watt sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson), Laurie is pure comic relief as a participant who is still seeing nothing but the propagated glory of the Great War.
That is until he and the other boots on the ground break from that mood in the surprisingly, though fittingly, emotional series finale. In it, the protagonists try to avoid, then psychologically brace themselves as best they can for a deadly onslaught through no man’s land.
Besides the actors, the writer Curtis set a tone for his versatility that way. He came through with it again for international filmgoers when he secured sentimental elements into Love Actually and its recent follow-up.
Fellow Blackadder alumnus Stephen Fry, who portrayed the general in the World War I edition, has since earned his own multicontinental accolades while dabbling in different genres. He garnered a Golden Globe nomination in 1998 for playing Oscar Wild in a biopic, and later a recurring role on Bones and a guest spot on Veep.
Fry’s Blackadder debut coincided with the franchise’s turn for the better. After the first miniseries established Atkinson’s title character as a marble-missing medieval prince, the second edition revisited elements of what failed to grow legs on its first try 35 years ago. The fastidious caricature of Queen Elizabeth was brought back by Miranda Richardson, she of future fame as Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter movies.
As his first role on Blackadder, Fry portrayed a royal officer who twists himself into prize-winning pretzel art to gain Elizabeth’s favor over Lord Blackadder. Just as his descendent will be under Laurie’s Prince Regent of the 18th century and Fry’s general, Blackadder is openly perturbed by his thankless, dead-end, sometimes absurdly futile and sometimes life-threateningly compromising monkey-in-the-middle roles.
Does any of that sound familiar over here in the real world of the nation that broke off from Britain around the time of that Regency? Exactly, and that makes the top layer of the series’ appeal.
Several individuals all but ensured their futures in entertainment by joining this project 35 years ago or by hopping on board for what followed. But as a unit in the ’80s, they gave multiple Western countries a fun way to learn the past and make more critical connections to the present than just those between Atkinson, Curtis and Actually.