“The Foretelling” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 6/15/1983)
Richard’s kingdom for Edmund’s horse
Blackadder may have gone on to become a comedy classic, but like so many other series, it took a while to find its feet. Pilots are hard to get right, particularly comedy pilots, so it’s not surprising that “The Foretelling” is among the series’ most uneven episodes. This is a premise pilot—rather than diving right in, the episode spends its full length introducing the characters, involving them in life-changing events, and only at the end setting our lead, Edmund, on his season-long quest for power. Given the alternate history The Black Adder (season one) establishes, it’s not surprising writers Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson felt the need to take this approach, but the Edmund we meet here is markedly different from the dastardly schemer of the next five episodes. This Edmund is a fool and while Atkinson is excellent in the lead role, watching him passively stumble into and out of messes is far less engaging than what will come later.
The episode has pacing problems as well. Several of the sequences are shaggy, to say the least, and others are straight up filler. Peter Cook returning post-decapitation as the ghost of Richard III is fun, but most of his scenes are overlong , as is Edmund’s prophesy from the witches. The most significant struggle for the pacing, though, is the episode’s unwillingness to commit to either an episodic or linear structure. Edmund’s progression from arrow fodder to The Black Adder propels much of the action, but scenes like Harry’s attempt to catalogue Edmund’s battlefield heroics or their mother’s “discovery” of a sheep in Edmund’s chambers are standalone sketches, bits that while entertaining, bring the momentum of the larger narrative screeching to a halt.
There’s still plenty in “The Foretelling” to enjoy, however. Rowan Atkinson is fantastic as the self-serving Edmund, making him every bit the simpering coward. Edmund hunches for most of the episode, or appears to thanks to his armor, giving him the profile of a vulture and making him a stand-in for Shakespeare’s Richard III while Blackadder’s Richard III is gregarious and noble. By the end of the episode, Edmund is feeling more confident and starts standing tall, but earlier he is very insecure and seems to almost reflexively hunch his shoulders whenever his faux pas put him in the hot seat, shielding his neck from possible attack and making himself as small and forgettable as possible. The man can’t keep his mouth shut and unfortunately for him, this Black Adder does not have the future ones’ cunning.
This difference in character is not all bad. One of the absolute highlights of the episode is a scene we’d never get from any of the future Blackadders—Edmund’s awkward stumbling over his knowledge of Richard III’s death. Atkinson’s timing in this scene is spot on, stretching his dialogue as far as it will go while maintaining and building tension throughout. This approach to Edmund is used with varying effectiveness throughout the pilot (with Harry and his accounting book, with the ghost of Richard III, etc.), but we also get a few glimpses here of the Black Adder to come: The withering glare Edmund fixes upon Percy in the cottage after his, “Well it’s the king, actually” is classic Blackadder and though Edmund’s bold declarations in this episode are drawn from both Percy and Baldrick (coopting the former’s plan to ransom Henry Tudor and the latter’s improvement on The Black Vegetable), Atkinson’s confident delivery is far more in keeping with who the character will become than the anxious intellectual weakling we meet at the opening feast.
“The Foretelling” also introduces viewers to a Baldrick hugely removed from the loyal, but dim lackey fans will later come to love. Here Tony Robinson is playing the clever slave, a lower class individual who assists the less intelligent, rather helpless noblemen around him while looking out for his own interests. Baldrick sees his opportunity and ingratiates himself with the not particularly astute Edmund, flattering him and becoming his squire, likely a promotion from peasant. He’s not a true representation of the stock character though, as Baldrick becomes flustered upon Edmund’s killing of Richard III, and he’s mostly a functionary in the pilot, someone for Edmund to talk to. More successful in this initial outing is Tim McInnerny as Lord Percy. McInnerny is great as the obtuse nobleman—stupid is hard to play convincingly and watching Percy struggle pick up on Edmund’s less-than-subtle prompting is an absolute joy. Percy is barely in the pilot, but he’s a lot of fun when he’s there.
Much more present is Brian Blessed, who is at his Brian Blessed-est as Richard IV, Edmund’s hearty, powerful father. Each line booms through the castle, Blessed lending gravitas to even the most absurd dialogue. His speech comparing their victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field and subsequent loss of King Richard III to beef stew is particularly delightful, with Blessed proclaiming, “But we must eat the yellow wobbly parts the Good Lord serves” with the same Shakespearean authority one might lend the St. Crispin’s (make that Ralph the Liar’s) Day speech. Peter Cook, Robert East, Peter Benson, and Elspet Gray round out the supporting cast. Cook is a treat in his few scenes as Richard III and East teases the class commentary that will rise in prominence as the series continues with Harry’s condescending, “But at least we know it’s all in a good cause, don’t we?” As Edmund’s mother, Gray gets little to do, though her reaction to the looming threat of Tudor rape and pillaging is wonderfully practical, and Benson is barely in the episode, included so Edmund has a reason to run into the witches at the end of the episode.
On the whole, this pilot may have its problems, but it also has a handful of moments that work incredibly well and several memorable performances that hint at Blackadder’s eventual greatness. Few comedies come out of the gate fully formed and tracking the show’s progress as it finds its feet is one of the true pleasures of watching season one of Blackadder.
Historical Hairsplitting: The Battle of Bosworth Field (August 22nd, 1485) was the deciding battle of the War of the Roses, with Henry Tudor defeating Richard III, whose body was discovered in 2012 under a car park in Leicester after being lost for 400 years.
Skewed Shakespeare: The pilot contains plenty of skewed Shakespeare, but my favorites both come from Richard III—his opening speech, “Now is the summer of our sweet content made o’ercast winter by these Tudor clowns” and his pre-battle rallying, “Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more! Consign their parts most private to a Rutland tree!”
Cunning Plans: This is not yet a running gag for the show, so none of our leads come up with plans of their own. Edmund does suspect their enemies of flying Richard’s banners as part of a trick, though. Also, it’s not quite cunning, but Percy brings Henry Tudor to the castle to nurse him back to health in hopes of a reward.
- Edmund’s clock being a sundial is an easy gag, but an entertaining one. The music is similarly on the nose, but effective. From the theme’s incorporation of horse-hoof sound effects (interestingly , not when Edmund is actually riding his horse) to the organ, trumpet, and drums prominent in the score, there are touches throughout that tie the episode at least vaguely to the time period.
- Edmund’s Black Adder outfit is striking and distinguishes the character, making for a far more memorable costume than his earlier garb. The ridiculously long shoes tie him visually to the clown he proves himself to be and the black makes the already pale Atkinson appear even ghostlier. The outfit basically screams villain, which makes Richard IV and Harry not noticing Edmund’s odd and obviously guilty behavior even more entertaining.
- Season one of Blackadder was filmed on location and the extensive use of Alnwick Castle, where the production filmed, and the surrounding countryside gives this pilot and the rest of the season a very distinct look.
“Born To Be King” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 7/6/1983)
Edmund pulls off event planning but flunks math
The trouble with premise pilots is that in a way, they don’t actually function as pilots. Yes they introduce the characters and the world, but they aren’t indicative of what a normal episode will look or feel like. They set up the world and hand off the responsibility of actually demonstrating what the show will be, week to week, to the second episode. These second episodes are also handed an extra burden, that of expectation. Premise pilots set up their world with sweeping narratives and high stakes and then the next episodes typically have to follow them with far more mundane tales. First episodes are tricky, but second episodes are even harder—it’s no wonder second episodes are rarely particularly engaging.
Blackadder falls prey to this common sitcom pitfall. After the life or death events of “The Foretelling,” with Edmund killing Richard III and being prophesied as a future king, “Born To Be King” is distractingly low stakes. Edmund plans a party, deals with a Scottish war hero, and in his big power grab, reads some letters. “The Foretelling” has pacing problems, not wanting to choose between episodic, scene by scene comedy or a larger character-progressing narrative. This episode fixes that issue, with each scene building upon the last and telling a cohesive story, but important as structure is, a comedy lives and dies by its humor and while “Born To Be King” has its moments, it isn’t laugh out loud funny.
Gone is the Edmund who passively stumbles into problems and is entertainingly stuck between admitting his guilt and being caught in a lie. This Edmund, the Black Adder, is much more active and though that’s a positive change for the character, writers Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson are still figuring out how to wring comedy out of him. In later series, the character will be subject to the whims of more powerful—and less rational or intelligent—superiors, whose treatment of him engenders sympathy. Here Prince Edmund is the difficult royal and Lord Dougal McAngus the wily subordinate pulling one over on him, but rather than watch McAngus set his trap for the odious Black Adder, we watch Edmund party plan. The early scene of Edmund scheming with Baldrick and Percy has potential, but execution mars this promising exchange. The dialogue, blocking, and scoring switch on a dime, becoming delightfully heightened, but the lighting remains unchanged, taking viewers out of the moment. It’s hard to be swept up into the highly stylized, conspiratorial scene when Edmund’s ridiculous hat keeps throwing random shadows across the characters’ faces every time Atkinson moves.
Edmund may not be a font of hilarity this episode, but Tim McInnerny is once again great as the entertainingly dim Percy. The comedic highlight of the episode is Percy’s digression with Edmund after he misunderstands Edmund’s, “It’s all Greek to me.” Baldrick gets little to do here, but his enthusiasm for dressing up as a bearded lady and his comfort in this garb throughout the rest of the episode is far more interesting than his bland assistant role in the pilot. Elspet Gray has a few more memorable moments in this episode, as does Brian Blessed, but more consistent is Alex Norton as McAngus. Norton brings energy and vitality whenever he enters the frame; there’s a crafty twinkle in his eye as he deals with Edmund, a good-naturedness that counterpoints Edmund’s self-involvement and endears him to the audience (as does his interest in Edmund’s wigs). Edmund sneaking up on McAngus also gives the episode its only dramatic camera move, as the camera adopts Edmund’s POV while he is pulled up into the air by one of McAngus’ snares.
For a second episode, particularly one following a premise pilot, “Born To Be King” is solid. It may have few laugh out loud moments, but it begins Blackadder’s journey to finding its voice and it establishes the kind of stakes the show is willing to play with on a weekly basis. Edmund may still be a work in progress, but Baldrick is already becoming more quirky and fun and Percy is a blast. The best for Blackadder is ahead of it and once the pieces come together, it will be a true pleasure.
Historical Hairsplitting: The Crusades began in the 11th century and in large part ended in the 13th, but crusading did continue through the 16th century. However in 1486, when this episode is set, Constantinople was under the control of Mehmed II, who had a long and peaceful rule. This being an alternate history however, maybe Richard IV’s succession after Richard III launched a whole new series of crusades. Either that, or Richard IV came up with an incredibly elaborate lie to get out of the castle for a while.
Skewed Shakespeare: This episode doesn’t have the half-quotes of the pilot, but it does draw inspiration from Shakespeare in its plotting. Edmund’s use of a show-within-the-show mimics Hamlet’s ploy to confirm Claudius’ guilt and the episode-ending duel is reminiscent of Hamlet as well (though with a comedic, rather than tragic ending). The prominence of McAngus brings to mind Macbeth and the show-within-the-show being “The Death of the Pharaoh” may well be a reference to Antony and Cleopatra.
Cunning Plans: We get our first official Cunning Plan! Edmund’s scheme with the play is far more clever, but Baldrick’s ploy with the cannon is the one that winds up working. Point to Baldrick.
- Edmund herding sheep at the beginning of the episode is fun, particularly as a reference to his mother’s suspicions of him in the pilot.
- The Jumping Jews of Jerusalem jump, a lot and humorously (even if the audience doesn’t get their comedy), Jerry Merryweather’s four chickens lay eggs, but what exactly do the eunuchs do to entertain the crowd so thoroughly?
- Edmund’s mother’s letters may be on the nose, but combined with Grey’s demeanor, the character’s disinterest in sex, and Percy’s reading of the letters over Edmund’s shoulder, they’re still pretty fun—the highlight has to be, “Dear Big Boy.”
- On a personal note, Blackadder is one of my favorite comedies and I enjoy it more each time I watch it. If I’m hard on these early episodes, it’s because I’m grading on a tough scale—the best this show has to offer, the episodes that set the A, are absolutely fantastic. I look forward to working my way through show once again and hope you’ll watch along with me for the full series, two episodes a week all summer.