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 "It seems to have been a trick of fate that something historical finds it easier to last, because it was out of date when it was made," he says.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.

News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
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

SEO Executive

£24 - 28k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical SEO Executive to join one ...

Research Analyst / Insight Analyst

£25k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Research Analyst / Insight Analyst to joi...

RTB/ Programmatic Campaign Manager

35,000 - 50,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: Our client is the world's largest...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence