There’s been a lot of hubub over the revival of American TV from the 80s and 90s, including the terrifying Full House sequel that’s still actually happening somehow. British television hasn’t been immune to fiddling around with its classic sitcoms either: 2009 saw a two-season Reggie Perrin remake, the Abosolutely Fabulous movie is still in the wings, and Red Dwarf refuses to retire gracefully despite a spotty 2012 season that ended the show about as well as it could.
Nevertheless, the internet (or at least the British corner of it) was abuzz last month about the possibility of a new incarnation of the quasi-historical sitcom Blackadder. Tony “Baldrick” Robinson apparently dropped hints recently that a new series (season to us Yanks) is “on the cards,” and that everyone except Hugh Laurie is onboard because “he’s a huge star now, or so he’d like to think.” (I’m sure he’s really changed his mind now, Tony!)
On the surface, this is just another needless reboot, but I’m convinced that this is a little different, and those who remember the original seasons fondly might understand why. Blackadder is really the umbrella name for four seasons of sitcoms from the 1980s, each with their own flavor and set in a different period of British history. It’s a unique case among revivals because bringing it back would almost certainly give us something recognizable and still distinct, no matter how bad.
In some form or another, all the different Blackadder seasons followed a version of the scowling, nefarious Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), his scummy subordinate Baldrick, obsessed with devising “cunning plans,” and a revolving gallery of kings, queens, soldiers, intellectuals, blowhards, and buffoons. No matter what time period he appears in, Blackadder’s general MO is to double-cross everyone and end up on top while being hilariously disrespectful to some of Britain’s most famous figures. (The Flashman novels by George Macdonald Frazier took a similar approach to history, albeit through much nastier and more specific lens.)
Part of what makes the show memorable is the way it balances familiarity with constant changes to the initial formula. The first season is the saga of “The Black Adder,” the woefully awkward son of the forgotten King Richard IV (Brian Fucking Blessed, You Heard Me). Blackadder II follows the title character as a decadent nobleman in Elizabethan times, Blackadder the Third sees him as butler to the ditzy Prince Regent (Laurie) in the 19th century, and the fourth season, Blackadder Goes Forth (har) has our antihero in the trenches of World War I, trying his best to weasel out of duty before the insane General Melchett (Stephen Fry) orders him over the top. There’s also a special, Blackadder Back & Forth, which kind of counts as the “Fifth” series, at least for DVD marketing purposes.
Now, I should probably point out here that nobody really knows anything concrete about the potential new series at this point. The new series could appear soon or never, and it’s too early to get a a real sense of what to expect. But if you’re in for some totally unfounded fannish speculation, here are some cunning questions about a possible new series to mull over.
When would it be set?
This is obviously the most essential question, and like everything else, is pretty much anyone’s guess. The most logical move would seem to be setting the new series sometime after 1918, following on the previous pattern. Beyond that, everybody has their own opinion. In the 2008 documentary Blackadder Rides Again, Stephen Fry seems weirdly adamant about a comedy in a WWII POW camp, but that may be uncomfortably close to Hogan’s Heroes, as well as probably just uncomfortable.
Of all the suggestions made by the cast and crew, the one that seems most genuinely interesting involves setting it in the 60s with Blackadder as a Brian Epstein-type band manager. It suggests a fertile time to play with, even though the 60s have been oft-parodied, and the position of Blackadder as manager, between a shit band and bloodthirsty record execs hounding him for hits, fits so well it feels like it already exists. The only downside to this idea is that we no longer have Rik Mayall to play a Screaming Lord Sutch-style shock rocker, the only profession in which his woofing Lord Flasheart would seem relatively normal.
I suppose you could set it in the present day. The few reprises of the character that have popped up here and there since the original run concluded seem to hint at that more than anything else, whether it’s Blackadder as a bank manager, soldier or groundskeeper. Really, though, if you have a series that can take place anywhere in history, why would you choose a time as boring as 2015?
Who would play who?
So, I doubt the creative team really cares about this sort of thing, but reconsidering the original series I noticed something. Starting with Blackadder II, the actor playing the main clueless antagonist/head honcho foil to Blackadder rotates among the unofficial “cast” of the show. What’s interesting is that most of the others pop up somewhere else in the cast, even if it’s just a small role.
What I’m getting at is, of all the main cast, it’s Tim McInnerny’s turn to be the asshole in charge. Shockingly enough, this doesn’t seem super-likely. McInnerny tried hard to reinvent himself in the final season as Captain Darling, a much more complex and versatile character than his role as the idiotic sidekick Percy in the first two series. The other options, as I see it, are to either reuse a previous actor as the chief figure, or bring in someone totally new. Or perhaps try something completely different and have Blackadder not struggling under one specific person. Or just bring Brian Blessed back. That would almost certainly make whether the episodes were actually good irrelevant.
Is this actually a good idea?
Look, there’s obviously not going to be any tears shed if a new season (or special, or whatever) isn’t actually “on the cards.” Blackadder Goes Forth didn’t just end on a final note: it ended with one of the most famously final episodes in Britcom history, and no matter how good a new series would be, it simply isn’t going to have that same cultural cachet. There’s certainly something to those arguments that the creators should give it a rest, already. And there’s no denying the writing definitely started feeling strained and simile-laden towards the end of the original run. Seriously, some of the dialogue in Forth is so overwritten that poor Atkinson barely has enough breath to hit punchlines without collapsing.
So why bother? Because unlike many other series, making a new Blackadder season wouldn’t destroy our memories of the original, no matter how bad it got. This is a sitcom that embraced thematic changes while upholding a few key series traditions, and the only way the fifth season would be a complete disaster would be if they didn’t at least try something new.
When I first got into the show, back in high school, it was through the local library, which had grouped the two VHS tapes each season came on into these extra-big cases, each with a different color of spine and a different Rowan sneering down at you. They looked oddly authoritative, like volumes in a set of history books. If Blackadder VI or Blackadder 6 or Blackadder ‘66 does get made, its biggest achievement will be adding another chapter to one of the few historical comedy shows to do that genre well.
That and saving us all from more Mr. Bean, and that’s a worthy cause, right?