TV Discussion

The Black Adder – Pilot Error!

Every year, of the dozens of pilot episodes that are made for TV, some don’t get picked up, while others are changed significantly or even remade when they become a full series. Our series Pilot Error! takes a look at some of them, including the ones that got away.

Thursday June 15th 2023 marks the 40th anniversary of the debut on BBC 1 of The Black Adder. Co-created and written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, two chaps who had risen up through the ranks of Light Entertainment from the Oxbridge set, with a cunning plan to produce a sitcom which would stand apart from the usual domestic suburban fare. It ultimately ended up spanning four series across the course of a decade, and – on the cusp of becoming a quadragenarian – was recently voted funniest British sitcom of all time.

However, the course of Edmund Blackadder having episodes of his life being played out weekly at half past nine by some great heroic actor of the age had more twists and turns than a twisty-turny thing. The saga could have ended up looking very different, with a false start having been recorded almost a year to the very day before the first episode was broadcast. For more than four decades, there has been an unseen pilot episode, which has been stuck in the archives more firmly than when Sticky the Stick Insect got stuck on a sticky bun.

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That is, until now. The untransmitted first pass at The Black Adder is about to be freed from the vaults for all to see, as a part of the show’s ruby jubilee celebrations, something that deserves our most enthusiastic contrafibularities. Viewers will no longer have cause to be anaspeptic, frasmotic, even compunctuous to have been caused such pericombobulation by Auntie Beeb. To tell this story, we have to journey back in time to Oxford in the mid-1970s, where so many of the key players would cross paths while in higher education.

The University of Oxford’s Experimental Theatre Club (ETC) was home to the student revue troupe which went under the name of the Etceteras. Following publication of an advert in the University newspaper seeking prospective new members of the Etceteras in 1975, Richard Curtis would first encounter Rowan Atkinson, during a meeting in a don’s room. Curtis is often quoted as saying that his first impression of Atkinson was that he was just like part of the furniture or a stuffed toy, as Atkinson was simply sat there saying nothing at all for the first two meetings.

It was only during the third session – when the group were in the process of sorting out the content and the running order for the 1976 Oxford Revue – that Atkinson suddenly sprang into life and performed two complete sketches, something which stunned everyone present, and marked out Atkinson’s star quality. While at Oxford, Curtis and Atkinson would also encounter other individuals who would each have their very own part to play in the Blackadder saga, like Tim McInnerny – who was a member of Oxford University Dramatic Society – and Howard Goodall.

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It was during a run of the Oxford Revue up at the Edinburgh Festival which would bring Atkinson to the attention of John Lloyd, a young BBC producer. Lloyd – a Cambridge graduate who had become friends with Douglas Adams during their stint at University – was doing a Radio 2 programme called Late Night Extra, and he happened to see the show, which starred Atkinson, with support from Curtis and Goodall. It was when Lloyd changed departments at the BBC and was given the chance to make a comedy programme for TV that he recalled the Revue which had made such an impact upon him.

The show – Not The Nine O’Clock News – would employ the talents of Curtis and Goodall on writing and musical duties, and also combine Atkinson’s performance skills on camera with other Oxbridge alumni Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, along with Antipodean actress Pamela Stephenson. It was at the end of Not The Nine O’Clock News’ run of four series that Atkinson and Curtis’ thoughts began to turn to just what the next project for them would be, having done sketch comedy. Their next endeavour would end up being a sitcom, only not the one which had originally been intended.

John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers had come to a close in 1979 after a total of 12 episodes across two series, and even though it had looked to have checked out for good (because who would be foolhardy enough as to think about reviving it), it had already established itself as a classic, as well as casting a long shadow over those who would follow it. Curtis and Atkinson were therefore firmly determined not to do anything which could bear comparison, so consideration was given as to just what they could do which would manage to give their com a markedly different sit.

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Initially, Curtis devised a setup where Atkinson would play a lawyer’s clerk who would end up investigating a run of cycle thefts which had taken place in Camden Town. However, it was only after trying to wrangle the notion into a workable script that they had to admit defeat (meaning that it would be almost a decade-and-half before Atkinson would get to tackle crime against a comic backdrop in Ben Elton’s series The Thin Blue Line). Inspiration, however, would come from out of the blue. Or Lincoln green, to be more precise.

It has been reported that the pair have given due credit to a daytime screening of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures Of Robin Hood for giving them inspiration to use a historical setting for their comedy (although the only broadcast that seems to fit the bill was on BBC One on Sunday April 11th 1982, which does seem awfully close to the pilot’s production). There had been a precedent to have historically-based comedies, most notably Up Pompeii!, which had itself started out as a pilot episode, broadcast as part of the Comedy Playhouse series in 1969, before quickly becoming a full series.

A spiritual successor – also starring Frankie Howerd – made its debut in 1973, titled Whoops Baghdad, and there would be an Up Pompeii! film adaptation (minus the exclamation mark) in 1971, with two sequels – Up The Chastity Belt and Up The Front. Playing the Roman slave Lurcio, Medieval serf Lurkalot, and WWI solider Private Lurk, Howerd’s portrayals of what arguably appeared to be people with a common (if, rather unlikely) lineage could have given the inspiration for the series which followed The Black Adder, with the actors reprising what were essentially the same characters but set in different eras.

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The initial pilot script was set in a deliberately opaque period of history, unlike what would eventually become the version which would reach our television screens as The Black Adder in 1983, which was firmly set in 1485. The opening crawl of the pilot episode, however, would say that the events taking place were “400 years ago”, making it during the Elizabethan era. Curtis and Atkinson took their script – which was at that stage called ‘Prince Edmund and his Two Friends’ – to their former producer on Not The Nine O’Clock News, John Lloyd, to see if he would be interested in making it.

However, while Lloyd would subsequently go on to produce The Black Adder when it went to a full series, as well as each of its successors – Blackadder II, Blackadder The Third, and Blackadder Goes Forth – it was not the right time for him to take the reins. Still recovering from the strain of making Not The Nine O’Clock News, Lloyd was also committed to a pilot for NTNOCN’s Pamela Stephenson, a vehicle which was to be dubbed Stephenson’s Rocket. However, a producer for the pilot was found in the form of John Howard Davies, the then-Head of Comedy at the BBC.

Geoff Posner – who had got his breakthrough directing Not The Nine O’Clock News – was picked to direct the pilot, and Howard Goodall was picked to write the theme music, which would be reused in various forms throughout the four series of the Blackadder saga. Tim McInnerny was selected to play Percy, Duke of Northumberland, with Elspet Gray portraying Edmund’s mother, the Queen of England, both of whom kept their roles when The Black Adder was commissioned to be a full series. Instead of Brian Blessed, John Savident was to be King of England, with Robert Bathurst as Edmund’s brother Henry, Prince of Wales.

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The part of Baldrick proved to be rather trickier to cast, and it was John Howard Davies who saved the day. He had recalled a BBC Bristol production from a couple of years previously that had featured an actor named Tony Robinson, somebody who he had made a note of. Unaccustomed to receiving any offers of work without needing to audition, Robinson signed on for the part, meaning that the pilot was now fully cast. With the various pieces of the jigsaw now in place, the production had a studio date booked in for May 1982, and everything looked set for the production to go before the cameras.

The name of the pilot script had also been amended from the original ‘Prince Edmund and his Two Friends’, with Curtis and Atkinson having been given a steer from Tony Curtis. Having recalled Curtis’ 1954 feature The Black Shield of Falworth, it seemed that having a name prefaced with ‘Black’ would be a suitably historic or Medieval touch, hence The Black Adder. It has been denied that the actual source of this was Dr. Eric Blackadder, the BBC’s Chief Medical Officer in 1982. He had only become aware of the apparent use of his surname when production had started on The Black Adder as a full series, and tried to persuade BBC Director General Alasdair Milne to rename the show.

A fly in the ointment came when industrial action took place in May, meaning that the pilot shoot would miss its planned studio date. The consequence of this change was that Tony Robinson would not be available for the rescheduled filming the following month, as he was already committed to being in Greece to perform with the National Theatre on the date for the new studio recording. Having already signed a year-long contract for such a prestigious company, there was no way that Robinson would be available to shoot. As a result, it meant that the part of Baldrick was recast, with actor Philip Fox taking Robinson’s place.

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The Black Adder was finally recorded on Sunday 20th June 1982 in studio TC8 at BBC’s Television Centre. TC8 had been used for recording such comedies as Fawlty Towers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Are You Being Served?, to name but a few. The storyline would be familiar to anyone who has seen the episode of The Black Adder called ‘Born To Be King’, as the script was rewritten by Curtis and Atkinson to become part of the full series. Unlike in the series of The Black Adder, the character of Prince Edmund is more competent, devious and calculating in the pilot, and is closer to how Blackadders across the ages would be written in later series.

The completed pilot was felt to be a near-miss, bearing the germ of a potentially good idea, but requiring more work to be carried out. Lloyd was approached once again, and – now recuperated and freed from all his other commitments – he viewed the pilot, coming up with ideas as to how the concept could be reworked, such as setting the show in a recognisably defined period of English history. With his time working with the National Theatre now at an end, Tony Robinson was also now free to take up the mantle of Baldrick. Despite a bumpy start – with Blackadder II almost not getting a commission from Controller Michael Grade – Blackadder would go on to become the comedy behemoth we know today,

Yet despite Blackadder having been released on VHS, DVD, and now made available on streaming services such as BBC iPlayer, the pilot episode of The Black Adder had never been made available to the public. Well, legitimately at least, with bootleg copies having somehow getting into circulation and ending up on various video hosting sites briefly, before being quickly taken down. Until now, the only way to see any clips of the pilot in the public realm was in the programme’s 25th anniversary documentary Blackadder Rides Again, as well as an embedded video which is on a History of the BBC page on the Corporation’s website.

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However, it appeared The Black Adder’s pilot would remain unseen and unavailable, and tales persisted that the master tape had sustained damage, making it unsuitable for either broadcast or release. However, it was announced by digital channel GOLD in April 2023 that – as part of their events to mark the show’s 40th anniversary – a new documentary had been commissioned. Hosted by Tony Robinson, Blackadder: The Lost Pilot would tell the story of the series’ origins, and would culminate in a screening of the pilot for the first time anywhere.

So now, with the broadcast of the pilot episode of The Black Adder taking place on Thursday June 15th 2023, fans of the Blackadder dynasty must surely be as happy as a Frenchman who’s invented a pair of self-removing trousers. Permission to shout ‘Bravo’ at an annoyingly loud volume? Granted.

The Black Adder pilot will air at 9pm on 15th June, on Gold.

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