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How history helped Britain’s comedies
The many links of Fawlty Towers and Blackadder
To hear Rowan Atkinson tell it, the impetus behind Britain’s
television series in the 1980s was to be “as unlike
as we could.” And yet, by the time the series reached its third-season comic apex, it actually resembled nothing so much as a historically repositioned version of the earlier classic.
Both 1975’s and the four seasons (and various reunions) of arrive on DVD this week in remastered re-issues, complete with new interviews with casts and crew. was the brainchild of former Monty Python troupe member John Cleese, who had once stayed at a hotel called the Gleneagle, run by an odious proprietor named Donald Sinclair.
Sinclair’s antics have become the stuff of legend since the Pythons were abused by him. One story is that when Eric Idle left his briefcase by the front desk, Sinclair moved it outside and claimed he thought it was a bomb. In another version, the briefcase winds up in a potting shed; in yet another, it’s tossed over a cliff. Everyone agrees, however, that Sinclair once reprimanded Terry Gilliam for improper placement of cutlery at dinner.
After the Python years ended, Cleese was given the chance to do a new comedy series and mused seven magic words: “What about that hotel we stayed in?” The result is 12 episodes of inspired lunacy in which Cleese plays Basil Fawlty, a man who thinks his hotel would be a place of perfection if it weren’t for all the annoying guests. Adding to his grief: the missus, played by Prunella Scales; the maid, Polly (Cleese’s then-wife, Connie Booth); and a daft Spanish waiter named Manuel, the character made immortal by Andrew Sachs. (He was later hired by corporate speakers to disrupt their meetings, in character, for comic effect.)
Sachs recalls in a new interview that he had originally balked at doing a Spanish accent, and asked if Manuel might be rewritten as a German. (The actor was born in Berlin in 1930 and escaped as a boy.) He laughs at the idea now: “Can you imagine Manuel as a German waiter? The hotel would be a perfect success, wouldn’t it?”
Cleese notes in his interview that part of the success of the show (if not the hotel) was that comic charm, timing. He urged the actors to rush through their performances, even if the studio audience was laughing too hard to hear the lines, because he knew that those watching the show on TV would laugh less and need a faster pace. This strategy worked well during one particularly leaden taping, which Cleese later learned was the result of a studio audience full of Icelandic TV executives who had wanted to see a British comedy being made but didn’t
Fawlty understand the jokes. “I remember there was a faint smell of cod,” Cleese says with a smirk.
Atkinson, who starred in and helped write Blackadder (or The Black Adder as it was first known), says he’d been approached by a TV executive who “asked me to write an essay on what kind of comedy program I would like to be involved in.” This led to a comedy set in the late 15th century — a fact that lends irony to Atkinson’s avowal that one should “try to learn from the past rather than reject it outright.”
The first six episodes, which aired in 1983, suffered from a bloated cast and a lack of comic focus. Stephen Fry, who appears in all but the first season, explains the early problems with what he calls his tennis theory of comedy, “which sounds very pompous and indeed is I promise you.” He says that watching the first series is like taking in a tennis match where the players are excellent but you can’t see the ball.
By the time the series had been cancelled and then resurrected for a second go in 1987, Atkinson and company were playing with a visible ball. They also had (like Fawlty Towers before them) a simple series of sets and a pared-down cast with a focus on Blackadder (Atkinson) and Baldrick (Tony Robinson), who in many ways resembled Cleese’s smarmy innkeeper and his inept manservant, Manuel.
The new Blackadder box set includes all four seasons of the show, set during England’s Tudor, Elizabethan, Regency and First World War periods. It also contains The Cavalier Years, a sketch comedy special from 1988; Blackadder’s Christmas Carol from the same year; a time-travel reunion episode from 1999 called “Black Adder Back and Forth”; and Blackadder Rides Again, a 2008 documentary made on the 25th anniversary of the first series.
Through the years of Blackadder, good writing was always key. Robinson, who notes that “it took me a long time to get [Baldrick] as stupid as was required,” remarks that a simple line written by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis would be added to by the cast of the series (most of them professional writers in their own right) until something emerged along the lines of: “I have a horrid suspicion that Baldrick’s plan will be the stupidest thing we’ve heard since Lord Nelson’s famous signal at the Battle of the Nile: ‘England knows Lady Hamilton’s a virgin. Poke my eye out and cut off my arm if I’m wrong.’ ” That’s not historically accurate, by the way. Like the transgressions of hot-blooded hoteliers, history often gets funnier in the retelling.
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