How Blackadder changed the history of television comedy

The screenwriter and director Richard Curtis talks to Ian Burrell about his enduringly popular creation

Richard Curtis never expected it to turn out like this – that an idea of toying with the comedy and sheer idiocy of pivotal moments in British history would end up a whole generation later as a hefty, multi-volume resource for teachers.

Blackadder, the most successful historical television sitcom yet conceived, is more than a quarter of a century old. When the blundering Edmund Blackadder, with his absurd pointy shoes, basin haircut and equestrian ineptitude, made his first appearance in 1983 (inadvertently decapitating Richard III at Bosworth Field), Margaret Thatcher was crushing Michael Foot at the polls in real life.

Between mouthfuls of porridge, Curtis, 52, offers his theory on the lasting appeal of the show, which he co-created with its star, Rowan Atkinson. "It seems to have been a trick of fate that something historical finds it easier to last, because it was out of date when it was made," he says.

Since that first medieval incarnation of Edmund, Atkinson has embodied successive generations of the Blackadder dynasty, from the Elizabethan and Regency periods and then, perhaps most poignantly, as an army officer in the First World War trenches. That series – Blackadder Goes Forth – was made in 1989, since when Curtis (who co-wrote the last three series with Ben Elton), has gone on to become a successful screenwriter and film director. While box-office favourites such as Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary and Love Actually flowed from Curtis's pen, he was also writing another hit television comedy, The Vicar Of Dibley. As his working relationship with Atkinson, a friend from their days at Oxford University, evolved into another endearingly uncoordinated comic icon, Mr Bean, Blackadder appeared to have been consigned to the TV archives – yet it had not gone away.

When Curtis recently returned to Harrow School, where he was once head boy, he was pleasantly surprised to find that the pupils, without exception, asked him not about his blockbusting cinematic romcoms but about a geek of ages past. "They didn't give a damn about the movies," he says.

It is not only at Harrow either. "I think [Blackadder] is taught in schools, definitely the First World War series is. I think teaching might be a slightly rich interpretation of it; I think it is background atmosphere. I've got a feeling that when they do the Regency or the Elizabethan period, at some point after exams or a particularly hard prep, the DVDs go on," he says. "What is great is that they don't think, 'Oh, here's a hideously old-fashioned thing with people with mullet haircuts'. They think 'here's some comedy I like set hundreds of years ago'."

The enduring appeal of the show is helped by the success its stars subsequently enjoyed. Hugh Laurie is now internationally known as Dr Gregory House, while Stephen Fry is almost a national institution. Curtis admits: "When somebody shoves on a DVD, instead of it being people they don't know, it's people they have come across, so it does feel more germane." In recent years, the occasional live Blackadder sketch has kept alive speculation about a fifth series, and Curtis will not rule this out. In fact, he has a fine idea or, as the bumbling Baldrick (played by Tony Robinson) might put it, a "cunning plan". "It did occur to me the other day that it would have been funny to have done a fifth series set when we actually did the first series – in 1984 – with Blackadder working in No 10 and very annoyed about a series called Blackadder which showed his ancestors had been fools."

But Curtis says his concern would be that, 26 years on, he and the team members might be too self-aware and end up "writing to a formula ... putting in lots of similes and lots of silly names". "I have always said that Blackadder was a young man's show about how stupid people in authority were," adds Curtis. "There might be a time when we are all old men and we want to say how stupid young people are. That moment has not yet quite arrived."

Meanwhile, there is another time-travelling television project on his mind. As a father of four children, he has become a big fan of Dr Who since it was revitalised four years ago by the Welsh writer Russell T Davies. "I have been thinking of writing something my children would enjoy," says Curtis. "The fear of films is that you start a film when a child is 14 to amuse them and, by the time you've finished it, they are 17 and wouldn't dream of watching it. So I thought if I actually want to do something that will make my children happy, why not write for a show they do love and which turns itself around quickly, so I can be absolutely confident that I will be sitting in the living room in a year from now, watching something that they'll like."

He has not yet committed himself to writing for Dr Who, though it's a notion that appeals to him. Having been born in New Zealand and lived in various countries before arriving in Britain at the age of 11, his experiences of children's TV are quite different from his those of his peers. "To be honest, I was not really a Dr Who person in its earliest manifestations," he says. "I never really got Blue Peter or Captain Scarlett or Thunderbirds or Dr Who. In a way those are things you've got to start watching when you are five and they then leak into your bones."

Curtis is enthusiastic about the health of British TV comedy, being a fan of The IT Crowd and Flight Of The Conchords and someone who enjoys watching E4's The Inbetweeners with his children. He does voice concerns about children's history books ("it's a tough search to find a Napoleon or Wellington biography in a child-friendly form") and thinks that, although research was never its strongest suit, perhaps Blackadder can help here. "We wrote the whole second series without ever reading a book, but it's a weird thing the amount of history you know in your bones," he says. "After we'd written Blackadder II, I gave Ben a Ladybird book of Elizabethan history for Christmas and it turned out we'd covered 12 of the 13 chapters. Somewhere in your bones, you know there was exploring, beheading, religious corruption, the invention of the cigarette and so on."

He regrets that "kids don't watch old historical movies on wet Sunday afternoons" any more, but maybe Blackadder (which he thinks took its name from a "dodgy" Tony Curtis film called The Black Shield Of Falworth) can fill that void too. "Maybe what we are doing is providing the background buzz of inaccurate historical fiction," he muses.

While there might be a shortage of biographies aimed at young readers, Terry Deary's Horrible Histories series has been a publishing phenomenon, Curtis points out. "It's quite interesting that history education has moved in a Blackadder direction," he says. "It is trying to take the juiciness, violence, stupidity and oddness of old eras to look at it through a young kid's eyes."

Blackadder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition, a deluxe box set of all four series with special features, is out on DVD today.

Sport
Lionel Messi pictured after reaching the final
world cup 2014
Sport
Lionel Messi and Thomas Muller have shone brightest for Argentina and Germany respectively on their way to the World Cup final
Sport
Brazilian fans watch the match for third place between Brazil and Netherlands
Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Dutch pile on the misery in third place playoff
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?