A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Everyone agrees that the first Blackadder series, set in the reign of a fictional Richard IV, is quite another deal from the rest. It is loud and sprawling where the others are elegant and self-contained; it has no Fry and no Laurie; it takes more historical liberties than the other three put together, extending the course of both the Black Death and the Crusades, and giving England dominion over Scotland several hundred years before the Act of Union just so it can get in a few cracks about the Scots. And–this is the biggie–the dynamic between the three central characters is completely different. The Black Adder is a malicious idiot; his servant Baldrick is the brains of the trio. Only Lord Percy Percy is the same posh twit we know and love from Series Two and Four. The whole thing is a vast, vulgar mess, full of plot holes, loose ends and inconsistencies, and with so much gratuitous stunt-riding and castle-filming that it practically sweats money.
I adore it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as much of a Series-Two-Through-Four devotee as the next cradle Blackadderite. I can recite episodes with the best of them. I’ve watched the entire run so often that I now have to limit my exposure; in the wrong mood, the familiarity of it all can quickly turn stifling. But I never tire of Series One. In fact, I am perhaps the only person I know who loves it above all others. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s just another expression of my status as VL’s Resident Philistine. Judge me for it if you like–irritatingly enough, people do. The fact remains that, no matter how highly I rate the others, The Black Adder has my heart.
A large part of it is taste. I happen to like Brian Blessed’s Richard IV even better than I like Hugh Laurie’s George IV or–if we’re talking shouting here–Stephen Fry’s Duke of Wellington (and I like them very much indeed). I like the smart Baldrick still better than the stupid one. I find The Black Adder, a volatile coward with delusions of competence and a taste for abusing the weak, much less sympathetic than his later incarnations but far more interesting to watch. He is immoral rather than amoral, cruel rather than cutting, and what holds him back is not some hilarious concatenation of circumstances, but his own depraved stupidity. Call me cynical, but I find him very believable. And I also happen to like grey stone and tapestry, and scenery-chewing histrionics, and pageantry and warhorses, and Alex Norton in kilt and ginger wig. There’s gratitude in there, too, because the series introduced me to Frank Finlay and Jim Broadbent and Peter Cook; and there’s sentimentality, because I come from the kind of family that goes around bellowing CHISWICK! FRESH HORSES! at each other and who have trusty fruit knives instead of the ordinary sort.
Maybe that’s all it is. I don’t think so, but maybe. Whatever the case, for me, life without the Black Adder would definitely lack a bit of colour. It would be like St. Leonard’s Day without the eunuchs. And really, who wants that?
The Black Adder (first broadcast 1983). DVD: 2 Entertain Video, 1999.