Blackadder …as you’ve never seen it before! The lost pilot for the hit sitcom has been unearthed for its 40th anniversary – and guess which Cold Feet star’s in it!
Without a cunning plan by the writers, Cold Feet’s middle-class management consultant Robert Bathurst might have found fame in Blackadder and no one would have heard of Tony Robinson’s dim-witted servant Baldrick.
A ‘lost’ pilot of the hit comedy presents a tantalising look at an early version of the show which went on to become one of the nation’s favourite sitcoms.
By the time it had been made into a series – broadcast 40 years ago this month – the show was very different. The setting was more historically accurate and Tony Robinson was in place as the comic sidekick Baldrick.
Poor Robert Bathurst’s character, nice-but-dim Prince Henry, Edmund Blackadder’s older brother, was cut completely and the titular role, played by Rowan Atkinson, had been reimagined.
Now, two new documentaries on Gold will feature the lost pilot – unearthed in the BBC archives – plus commentary from its stars and secrets from the show’s four series.
Blackadder: The Lost Pilot and Blackadder: A Cunning Story will air on Thursday (9pm) and Friday (9pm) on Gold
The story begins in the mid-1970s at Oxford University where aspiring writer Richard Curtis made friends with shy comedy genius Rowan Atkinson.
Following the success of sketch show Not The Nine O’Clock News – which launched in 1979 starring Rowan and co-written by Richard – the pair went on holiday to France and wrote Blackadder.
‘We thought about a detective sitcom but that changed to a historical one,’ recalls Richard. ‘We came up with the idea of Edmund, who was a bully to those below him but sucked up to the people above.’
Tony Robinson was offered the role of Blackadder’s servant Baldrick but he was busy, so the part went to actor Philip Fox.
The pilot is very funny and John Lloyd, brought in to work on the first series, admits errors were then made, including making devious Blackadder a wimp.
‘After watching the pilot I thought, why hasn’t he, as the second son, simply seized power? So we changed him but probably made the wrong call.’
The first series was expensive but not the hit they’d expected, and for the second Richard Curtis brought in writer Ben Elton – who’d had huge success with The Young Ones. With a threat of cancellation from BBC boss Michael Grade, the writers cut costly scenes from scripts.
‘We had this mad weekend taking out every special effect, every extra,’ recalls John. ‘That’s partly why in the second series the queen of England is in a tiny room like a nursery. And because our sets were smaller, it meant we could film it in front of a studio audience.’
Edmund Blackadder, butler to the Prince (Rowan Atkinson), Baldrick, a dogsbody (Tony Robinson) and The Prince Regent, their Master (Hugh Laurie). A unearthed pilot episode for the show is set to air in two new documentaries airing on Gold
Ben says he didn’t even know there’d been a pilot and is surprised to find it featured ‘his’ charismatic, clever Blackadder character. ‘I always thought that was my breakthrough,’ he says. ‘I wanted it different from the first series where Baldrick had been the clever one.’
It all paid off, with series two a huge hit. ‘Those early Blackadders involved a lot of hard work, struggle, changing our minds and learning things,’ says John. ‘The message is that struggle is worth it.’
- Blackadder: The Lost Pilot, Thursday, 9pm; Blackadder: A Cunning Story, Friday, 9pm, Gold.