Monday, 23 April 2018


Somehow I managed to stagger through reading this in the latest podcast from Lisa and Andrew (available at this is the text for anyone who couldn't understand my burbled nonsense...


(For this look at an “EPISODE ONE”) we’re going back to a time before cunning plans were particularly cunning, a time before EDMUND was the smart one, and - it turns out - BALDRICK was the apparently slightly smarter one; a time before BEN ELTON was brought in to double the number of laughs on half the budget; and a time shortly before anyone thought of adding lyrics to the feem toon.

In the fine tradition of the BLACKADDER dynasty, one of these claims is an utter lie but, for the moment, I’m not going to tell you which.

So, having got myself an appalling haircut, slid on my itchiest tights, and strapped on an amusing codpiece shaped not unlike an under-excited parsnip, it’s time to settle down on a commodious armchair and watch the very first episode of “THE BLACK… VEGETABLE”

Okay, it’s not called that at all, it is – of course – the first version of a now classic comedy called “THE BLACK ADDER” from a time when that could still be written as two words, and the opening episode is called “The Foretelling”, written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson and directed by Martin Shardlow.

The whole damned dynasty starts with a blank screen, and a voiceover, and it’s a rather impressive voiceover at that because ’tis the warm, commanding, silky tones of PATRICK ALLEN that we first hear - he of the helicopter and the affordable housing - making all of us who have voices which we intend to be heard in an audio medium scuttle away back under our rocks in shame with our own comparatively unimpressive squeaking.

We are told – by means of a short illustrated lecture - that history is full of liars – Copernicus, Goebbels (which gets a slightly embarrassed titter from the laugh track), Ralph the Liar (to whom we shall return), and the one day future Tudor King HENRY THE SEVENTH, a face we do need to become familiar with, and one played - in this instance - by the mighty-nosed PETER BENSON.

Future King HENRY, currently going under the far less impressive name of HENRY TUDOR, it is claimed – for comic effect – was the one who rewrote history to portray RICHARD THE THIRD as a deformed maniac who killed his nephews in the tower.

But hang on, who is this mal-shaped comic performer menacing the amused young Princes with a comedy knife and a removable artificial hump? Why ’tis none other than comedy legend PETER COOK (I hope you heard the triple exclamation marks there) playing the loveable old King.

And when one of those princes grows up to be a big strong boy, in this rewritten history, who should he transmogrify into but – crikey! – it’s only BRIAN BLESSED - almost fresh from his career-transforming role as VULTAN in the FLASH GORDON movie.


Incidentally, if you want to see how brilliant and subtle an actor BRIAN BLESSED can be post Z-CARS, take a look at his turn as Augustus in the I, CLAUDIUS series – particularly his death scene which is as astonishing and memorable a piece of television as you are every likely to see, as the camera stays on his face forever and the life seems to actually fade from his staring, unblinking eyes.

Here we see him, rolling his eyes as he is being being crowned king in a clip from some time later in the episode, for - as we shall discover - KING RICHARD THE FOURTH was crowned shortly after The battle of Bosworth and ruled for thirteen glorious – if not exactly genuine – years in one of the alternative interpretations of history.

So now, as PATRICK’s voice reaches a crescendo and the fanfare of the opening credits finally arrive, we know our place in history and where - and when - we actually are.

You’re immediately struck by how expensive the filming all looks - despite the horrible video captions overlaid on the location film work - with all those horses running around in genuine locations, and even a comedy fall by an actual stuntman looking for all the world as if he’s plunging headlong from actual battlements.

ROWAN ATKINSON who will be playing EDMUND long before his most famous role as the ninth DOCTOR WHO – ahem - was, at this time - you may recall - a HUGE BBC star, riding the crest of a wave of success brought along by his appearances on NOT THE NINE O’CLOCK NEWS like a particularly fine stallion eager to soar over BECHERS BROOK and claim that first place in the GRAND NATIONAL by several country miles.

Well, under the circumstances, given all of the horseplay we’re about to witness, perhaps we’d better avoid the whole “stallion” analogy, but his star was very much in the ascendant and – astonishingly – there is a sense that this incarnation of the series – so very much identified with its co-writer and star - very nearly brought his career crashing right back down to earth.

And yet it looks gorgeous and – in BBC terms – lavish and expensive.

Money, as they say, has been spent. A LOT of money - if the “Banquet before the Battle of Bosworth” scene is to be believed. Later series might have had to film this entire scene from inside a cupboard with many a Hurrah! and Huzzah! heard from without, but here we are getting a serious wedge of money’s worth, and, as the camera pulls back, we catch an almost insignificant glimpse of our soon-to-be heroes at the bottom right hand corner of the screen.

BRIAN BLESSED bellows for SILENCE - which is just about as ridiculous idea as it sounds - after which, PETER COOK doesn’t so much eat up the scenery as DEVOUR it - giving an alternative and upbeat rewritten take on the famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech.

Then EDMUND, the not yet titular character, inappropriately toasts the King. He is currently in his “Useless, feckless younger sibling” guise - wearing clownish clothing, garish colours, and a terrible – but not yet as terrible as it will be – haircut. Here he finally makes his first proper appearance, much to the embarrassment of just about everyone.

And now we discover EDMUND’s useless place in the great scheme of things in the court of his Uncle Richard. BRIAN has to be told who his “other son” is by his first born son - a strangely administrative statistician type called HARRY.

He is introduced as EDMUND - which is immediately misheard as EDNA - and so a running gag is born.

Meanwhile some dark satire creeps in to the proceedings as it is suggested that EDMUND will despite all his best efforts be fighting in the battle tomorrow and his “For the enemy/with the enemy” slip of the tongue means that nobody wants him to be anywhere near them on the field of battle – wisely as it turns out – and it is suggested that they put him amongst the rabble making up the “ARROW FODDER”

“A bit of politics, there, yes indeedy…!”

He exchanges a reluctant wave with his Uncle Richard who mutters “What a little turd…!” which was, presumably, considered an acceptable and unbleepable word in BBC comedy circles back then during primetime.

Misunderstanding the situation as ever, EDMUND is pleased that the king has picked him out for a special greeting, although the even more foolish PERCY – the nearest thing to a friend EDMUND has – has failed to notice the greeting.

“I saw it my Lord” says a wine-pouring servant, fawning opportunistically to our gurning anti-hero. He is asked his name, which is BALDRICK, so EDMUND announces that he shall call him BALDRICK.

There’s a major moment in television history right there.

In reply, BALDRICK announces that “I shall call you my lord, my lord” and, with the cut of his jib having found favour with this feckless poltroon, BALDRICK is nominated to be EDMUND’s Squire in the battle to come.

And so we have finally met the trio of - not exactly - pals who will be drawing most of out attention during the rest of the programme and series, a group of varying degrees of idiot wearing a selection of bad hats.

Although such things are relative – this fellow called BALDRICK seems comparatively wise – as he pours EDMUND’s wine and it appears he is EDMUND’s personal servant, and is cunningy planning upon going up in the world to the giddy heights of wallowing in a slightly better pile of dung.

The other feckless idiot - PERCY - is loitering around like he’s a shoo-in to win any “Who’s the dimmest?” competition you might want to put him forward for, making up this full set of classic and golden comedy characters and potentially hilarious interactions.

TONY ROBINSON plays this strangely - and worryingly – almost clever version of BALDRICK, and TIM McINNERNY is PERCY. Both will pop up in other guises to a greater or lesser extent in future incarnations of the show.

Several jokes follow, most of which seem to be centred around being chopped to pieces, how to prove your manhood, mentions of water closets, and the possibility of genitalia ending up in a tree in Rutland.

Which all segues rather nicely back to the location film of PETER COOK once more, standing in a field mashing up little Billy Shakespeare’s HENRY THE FIFTH with a smattering of DICKIE THREE – or RUTLAND TREE – got to have a system - intercut with BRIAN BLESSED giving it some and PRINCE HARRY being slightly more apologetic and posh making up a very different trio to the ones we were just introduced to, as they head off towards battle upon RALPH THE LIAR’s day…

I said he’d be back.

Back in the studio, EDMUND, BALDRICK and PERCY have overslept and EDMUND’s rather wonderful mother played by the rather wonderful ELSPET GREY arrives to ask him if he wanted to go to the battle.

After a dodgy sight gag involving – ho, ho - a sundial alarm clock – we head back out to the location for some “what direction is the battle?” “horses silhouetted against the skyline” stuff, on the day of EDMUND’s first decent battle since he reached puberty, apparently.

However, when they arrive at the top of a rather convincing grassy knoll, the unseen sight of the actual battle appalls EDMUND so much that his five counties wide streak of cowardice manifests itself and he decides that he is “not needed” as things appear to be all going rather well without him, and he finds himself rather surprised that some of the people are so relaxed about it all that they’re simply “Lying down”

It is left to BALDRICK in a reversal of their future relationship to deadpan the obvious “They’re dead, my lord” and off EDMUND goes to throw up behind a Leicestershire tree.

In the midst of battle – or a few extras and some smoke if you prefer – RICHARD THE BLESS-ED finds RICHARD THE COOK horse hunting in rather a jolly way because the Battle is won, and then he does indeed find one. Unfortunately this particular horse belongs to EDMUND who promptly lops his head off for his impudence.

Fairly quickly the surprisingly bloody head is indeed revealed to be his UNCLE RICHARD and, after some head tossing with BALDRICK  in an “Oh dear Richard the Third” kind of a way, he tries putting it back on the King’s shoulders with little success, and even and administering some rather desperate CPR.

Ultimately, a convenient hut is espied, and they unceremoniously drag away the body, unfortunately leaving the head behind, the sight of this Sight gag causing much mirth on the laugh track.

By the time they get inside a particularly huge and dung-plastered studio hut, it is BALDRICK who is doing most of the heavy lifting and they finally notice that the head has been left behind. However PERCY has found it and this so-called “Brainless Son of a Prostitute” wants to use it to prove he’s a man. This head of a nobleman will be his proof, although when he discovers exactly which nobleman, another game of toss the helmet erupts between the trio.

Fortunately, they are interrupted.

Losing the battle, running away, and bursting in on them unannounced, cowardly old HENRY TUDOR turns up bellowing “All is lost! Flee!” to anyone who’ll listen. They immediately leave him to his fate, but then he mentions having ten thousand sovereigns which instantly makes them return.

A future version of EDMUND would be rubbing his hands with delight.

Back at the castle, the QUEEN is awaiting the return of the men from battle. Because these are unenlightened times – the nineteen-eighties – there are one or two rather too flippant Ravishment gags (sigh!) of the “I won’t bother to change, then” type until the drums of an approaching army are heard and EDMUND - with his advance insider trading knowledge that the KING is lost -suggests rather desperately that they really, really ought to be fleeing by now.

Run to the hills! They’re coming from hills! Run away from hills!

EDMUND lets it slip that he already knows RICHARD is dead, which, as the QUEEN puts it, has really upset the tulip cart. The victorious army approaching under a false flag being the very first cunning trick – not quite yet a cunning plan - of the series.

And after another round of utter cowardice from EDMUND, the mighty BLESSED crashes home for another round of ravishment gags with his “insatiable” wife, and finds out that the QUEEN thinks RICHARD is dead, and in the midst of a flurry of obfuscation and back-peddling from EDMUND, a rather poetic PRINCE HARRY arrives carrying the body that proves that this is indeed so.

And so, in the presence of a rather alarming knight wearing an absolutely huge set antlers on his helmet, there is a sudden coronation – BRIAN BLESSED’s RICHARD THE FOURTH is crowned, HENRY TUDOR is public enemy number one, and more Shakespeare is butchered for the yellow wobbly parts, even as they all head off to kill more prisoners.

Weren’t medieval times, brutal, eh folks?

Meanwhile, in the safety of his chambers, it dawns upon a delighted EDMUND and his chums that he is now a Prince of the Realm although their delight is muted by the arrival of PRINCE HARRY looking to get the statistics of the battle averages sorted out, in a very long-winded and crickety-cricket sort of a way.

EDMUND naturally takes all the credit for the many brave deeds he hasn’t done, and also claims credit for several things nobody has done, and the one thing he ought not to have admitted to having done. Meanwhile, PERCY is left looking foolish, which, to be fair does come fairly easily to him.

We should note, however, the first mention of The BISHOP OF BATH AND WELLS, a post that THE BLACKADDER series may have done more than anything else in recent decades to raise the public consciousness of.

Relaxing at last, EDMUND then discovers that the “Dying Man” they found in the hut has now been put in his bed by PERCY - who’s idea that such a wealthy man might reward them is immediately repeated as his own idea by EDMUND.

Well, we’ve all been in meetings like that.

Buoyed up by his own genius and the enthusiasm of his fellow conspirators, EDMUND finally transforms himself – via a false start and a couple of suggestions from BALDRICK - into THE BLACK ADDER…!!!

We cut to a comedy montage of the “That one!”  “Those shoes!” variety as EDMUND’s black outfit is constructed and revealed in all its alarming magnificence, and his very, very alarming new haircut is exposed to the world in all its ignominy.

Somewhat later, a short corridor scene shows how his power has shifted slightly, and, as he returns to his chambers to try on a Princely Coronet he - sort of - recognizes the HENRY TUDOR in his bed but ignores the doubts and and tries a little extortion instead.

And as EDMUND finally gets a quiet moment to try on the coronet he’s bought himself, PETER’s ghost reappears still calling him EDNA; rather matter of factly referring to the fact that someone cut his head off, and generally getting a bit of long overdue revenge haunting in - via some rather dodgy head floating effects.

As if life hadn’t already taken enough of a turn for the worse, his Mother comes banging at the door asking whether he has someone in there with him.

Her “Woman? Man? Sheep?” Enquiries seem very open minded, or perhaps the medieval world was far more tolerant than nowadays of that sort of thing.

After another round of comedy headless King gags, few of which would have been done any better on THE GHOSTS OF MOTLEY HALL, RICHARD disappears off to another banquet with a threatening “you’ll be seeing me later” to EDNA.

EDMUND’s Mother promises to keep as quiet about his nocturnal sheep worrying activities as she does about HARRY’s fear of spoons or his father’s very small private parts, which is encouraging, but it does give ELSBET some delicious lines to twinkle over as HENRY TUDOR adds a couple of incriminating BAAs into the proceedings.

And so we arrive at Banquet Number TWO of this rather lavish looking production, with BRIAN doing his very best food flinging, and chatting with HARRY over RICHARD’s empty chair in a very RANDALL AND HOPKIRK (DECEASED) kind of a way – although perhaps there are rather too many “I’m here!” gags, though from the supposedly invisible PETER COOK.

However, in the best tradition of MACBETH and HAMLET, only EDMUND can see his ghostly accuser, which might be a relief to everyone with a line like “Don’t Dickie me, ducky…”

The KING bangs onto the table for silence to propose a toast by BRIAN at his most booming, bidding “A curse upon the man who slew RICHARD” as RICHARD himself continues to shout “IT WAS HIM!!!” to anyone who will listen which - apart from EDMUND - is of course, nobody, until they bore him beyond death with all their endless toasts and he vanishes for apparently the last time with a weary “That’s the last you’ll see of me!”

Although for EDMUND, it isn’t.

Meanwhile a portrait of HENRY TUDOR is brought in to be desecrated, and - for EDMUND - the groat finally drops and he crawls away in terror, with PETER COOK continuing to haunt him mercilessly from every nook, cranny, and cupboard.

While we’re at it, I should point out that there’s a very familiar looking BBC Iron Maiden prop lurking in the bedchamber.

Back on location, as EDMUND chases on horseback after the now fleeing HENRY TUDOR, through the dark and eerie fog, EDMUND comes across possibly the very same three Witches – including one who it must be foretold will one day be ETHEL from EASTENDERS - that once caused MACBETH so much trouble.

And so, finally – FINALLY – we reach the “foretelling” of the episode title and find out that, against all of our expections, one day EDMUND, THE BLACK ADDER - “You shall be king!!!” and, whilst that turns out to be something of an overstatement, his comic descendants would be masters of their domain for several years to come.

Quite pleased with that good news, EDMUND gallops off into the fog as the credits roll and the cast appear in order of precedence.

And finally, as those end credits are rolling, my earlier historical lie is revealed - for there are in fact lyrics to the feem toon after all. To be honest I’d completely forgotten that there were, but then HOWARD GOODALL - for it is he on lute-and-serpent wrangling duties - does bring us the first mention in the series of a “cunning plan” and that, you might say, is very cunning indeed.

But wait, what’s this? In the post-credits, the three old crones still lurk to realise their ghastly case of mistaken identity, in reference to a completely different series about the rise of a king that we shall never see.

When not unless that bloke who wrote the additional dialogue - some bloke called BILLY SHAKESPEARE - can come up with a decent plot or three anyway…

Considering the “much loved” nature of the later BLACKADDER series, it still comes as something of a surprise to find just how different the first series is to what follows. It’s not bad, it’s just very different in both style and content, and it’s the smartness of the later series that leaves this one feeling like a tentative toe being dipped in the ocean of comic genius on a wet midwinter weekend in Bognor by an aquaphobic uncle wearing a handkerchief hat who’s been told to go off and have a paddle.

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