Black­ad­der – my part in his down­fall

A cen­tury after the Ar­mistice, pro­ducer John Lloyd re­calls Black­ad­der’s last, heart-rend­ing scene – and mourns his mil­i­tary an­ces­tors who in­spired the se­ries

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - John Lloyd

When Richard Cur­tis and Ben El­ton told me they wanted to set the fourth se­ries of Black­ad­der in the trenches of the First World War, I thought they had lost their minds – and cer­tainly all sense of taste and deco­rum.

Watch­ing the first episode in 1989, Ben’s Un­cle Ge­of­frey (the dis­tin­guished Tu­dor his­to­rian G R El­ton) was ap­palled. He wrote Ben a stiff let­ter say­ing that, while he’d en­joyed the sec­ond se­ries, the por­trayal of the Bri­tish Army was sim­plis­tic and in­sult­ing, re­mind­ing him that the en­tire El­ton fam­ily (émi­grés from Nazi Ger­many) owed their very ex­is­tence to it.

I’m from a ser­vice fam­ily. My fa­ther was in the Royal Navy, man and boy, for al­most 40 years. In the Sec­ond World War, he com­manded a flotilla of mo­tor tor­pedo boats in the Dover Pa­trol and his breezy ap­proach to the job is ref­er­enced in Hugh Lau­rie’s line in the last se­ries, when the gang joins the Royal Fly­ing Corps: ‘Up-tid­dly-up, down-tid­dly-down, and back home for tea and medals.’

As a Navy kid, I knew how to nav­i­gate and could name all the parts of a gaffrigged clip­per. At school, I was cadet petty of­fi­cer and head of the Naval Sec­tion in the Com­bined Cadet Force, and very nearly joined the Navy my­self. I still get a lump in my throat if I see a trim war­ship, lined with sailors, leav­ing or en­ter­ing a port.

But most of my fam­ily was in the Army. My full name is John Hardress Wil­fred Lloyd – John Hardress after my great-un­cle, Bri­gadier-gen­eral John Hardress-lloyd DSO and bar, and Wil­fred after my grand­fa­ther Ma­jor Wil­fred Med­hop Lloyd.

Be­fore the war, grandpa had been in the In­dian Army, but some­thing went wrong and he bought him­self out and legged it to Cal­i­for­nia. He ar­rived in San Fran­cisco the week after the 1906 earth­quake, worked as a docker hump­ing sacks of sugar, and was a hobo in the Yukon for a while, pan­ning for gold.

When war broke out, he pa­tri­ot­i­cally re­turned to Eng­land and joined the Royal Naval Bal­loon Corps as a pi­lot ob­server. Afi­ciona­dos of Black­ad­der will re­mem­ber that Cap­tain Dar­ling was also in the fic­tional ‘Women’s Bal­loon Corps’.

Wil­fred would fly his bal­loon across the Chan­nel to France and re­port back on en­emy troop move­ments. One day, he flew too high and, like a diver who as­cends too fast, got an at­tack of ‘the bends’ and was in­valided out of the Navy. He was a lot luck­ier than most.

My ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Sid Turn­penny, was in the Ter­ri­to­rial Army. He had joined the East Kent Yeo­manry, known as ‘the Buffs’ – as in ‘Steady the Buffs!’ – and was one of 62,000 men sent to Gal­lipoli by the then Sec­re­tary of War, Win­ston Churchill, along with 62,000 horses – which they rode to pull the guns. Un­like many, Sid sur­vived the ex­pe­ri­ence and of­ten talked about it.

‘My horse was shot from un­der me at Gal­lipoli,’ he used to say, ‘but at least we had some­thing to eat!’ (They made the dead horses into ris­soles, ap­par­ently.)

Af­ter­wards, he was sent to the trenches where he was badly wounded. They de­cided they’d have to cut off his leg, but had run out of mor­phine. The medics of­fered him cham­pagne to ease the pain, then found they’d run out of that too. So he was shipped back to

Blighty, where the hos­pi­tal de­cided he could keep his leg after all.

But it was never the same – he never played golf again – and nor was he. Be­fore the war, he was a cheer­ful, out­go­ing sort, but shell­shock made him with­drawn and surly. In his whole mar­riage, he never once kissed my grand­mother, nor was he ever even seen to put his arm round her.

While he of­ten spoke about his time on horse­back in the Dar­danelles, only once did he men­tion his time in the trenches. As he was dy­ing, my mother tried in vain to give him one last hug and he growled, ‘I hope I don’t have to go back to the trenches again.’

If Sid was a gal­lop­ing blend of Baldrick and Lieu­tenant Ge­orge, Gen­eral Melchett was – partly – in­spired by my grea­tun­cle. Like Stephen Fry, he was tall and

charm­ing but, un­like Melchett, he knew what he was do­ing. A bril­liant polo player with the max­i­mum 10 hand­i­cap, he was cap­tain of the Ir­ish team that took sil­ver at the 1908 Olympics. He had fought with dis­tinc­tion on the North West Fron­tier and in the First Boer War, be­com­ing one of the founders of the Tank Corps and a Che­va­lier of the Le­gion d’hon­neur. He was never heard to go, ‘Baaaah!’

Black­ad­der has al­ways been pop­u­lar in the Bri­tish armed ser­vices. The open­ing ti­tles of Black­ad­der Goes Forth were shot at Colch­ester Gar­ri­son (pic­tured), with real squad­dies from the Royal Anglian reg­i­ment, dressed in WWI uni­forms, march­ing along­side the cast.

As a re­sult, many mil­i­tary po­si­tions in the first Gulf War in 1991 were of­fi­cially named after its char­ac­ters – the Black­ad­der Lines and the Melchett

Lines, for ex­am­ple, and, at one point in the 1990s, more than half the reg­i­men­tal goats in the Bri­tish Army were called Baldrick.

Silly though much of the hu­mour is in Black­ad­der Goes Forth, the se­ri­ous­ness of what we were do­ing was ever-present dur­ing the mak­ing of it. Just to stand in the trench set look­ing up at the blue stu­dio cy­clo­rama was a chill­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Rowan Atkin­son’s over­rid­ing mem­ory of the last episode was the knot in his stom­ach dur­ing re­hearsals.

‘It was the first time’, he told me re­cently, ‘I had ex­pe­ri­enced a vis­ceral em­pa­thy to a char­ac­ter’s dilemma: I re­ally did feel some­thing aw­ful was go­ing to hap­pen to me at the end of the week. As, fic­tion­ally, it did. Per­haps se­ri­ous ac­tors get that sort of thing all the

time, but to me it was a new ex­pe­ri­ence…’

His grand­fa­ther had fought in Pales­tine dur­ing the First World War, and his fa­ther missed the boat at Dunkirk, to spend, as Rowan puts it, ‘five years as a guest of the Re­ich’.

The last episode of Black­ad­der Goes Forth is an ex­tra­or­di­nary piece of writ­ing by Ben and Richard, and it was key to the whole se­ries. Richard says that if they hadn’t been able to end it that way, they wouldn’t have writ­ten it.

It starts larky and op­ti­mistic with ev­ery­one re­call­ing their time be­fore the war and their en­thu­si­asm for join­ing up. But, as the story de­vel­ops, it slowly dark­ens. The jokes get sparser, the hu­mour drains away, and it ends with one of the most poignant scenes in tele­vi­sion; cer­tainly in sit­com.

But the fi­nal scene, where Black­ad­der and his men fi­nally go ‘over the top’, be­gan as a card-car­ry­ing disas­ter. The record­ing of the episode had gone well but, as so of­ten, we ran short of time, and the 10 o’clock dead­line where the crew could le­git­i­mately ‘pull the plugs’ was fast ap­proach­ing.

The No Man’s Land set was so huge that it had had to be built in an­other stu­dio, re­mote from the au­di­ence and out of sight of the con­trol room. The ac­tors were rushed round there with only a few min­utes of record­ing time left.

Be­cause we’d not had time to re­hearse the scene, when the lights were dimmed and the di­rec­tor, Richard Bo­den, called ‘ac­tion’, chaos en­sued. It was pitch dark; there were un­fa­mil­iar lad­ders to climb; and no one had ex­pected the py­rotech­nics. Through blind­ing flashes and deaf­en­ing bangs, the cast strug­gled to­wards the bat­tle­ground, which was pit­ted with bomb craters and strands of barbed wire. Be­tween ex­plo­sions, they could clearly be heard curs­ing and grum­bling as they banged knees and el­bows. The au­di­ence watch­ing on the stu­dio mon­i­tors sat in be­wil­dered em­bar­rass­ment at this lame con­clu­sion and the take was a com­plete write-off. As the hands of the stu­dio clock crept up to ten, the di­rec­tor and I agreed there was just time for an­other go. But it was n not to be. In t the dark­ness, R Rowan, shak­ing w with fury, g grabbed the st stu­dio man­ager’s w walkie-talkie and to tore into the pr pro­duc­tion team. ‘That was an utt ut­ter dis­grace,’ we heard him sa say over the lou loud­speaker.

‘It was in­cred­i­bly dan­ger­ous and fright­en­ing, and there’s no way we’re go­ing through it again.’

And that was that. It was a deeply dispir­it­ing end to what had been a great be­gin­ning.

That sink­ing feel­ing re­turned when we got to the edit. The pro­gramme had cut to­gether ex­tremely well and we could see we had some­thing won­der­ful on our hands. But then we were faced with the ut­terly un­broad­castable two min­utes of grumpy ac­tors go­ing ‘Ow!’ and ‘Bloody hell!’ as they am­bled gin­gerly (they were meant to be run­ning) across the lumpy ar­ti­fi­cial mud.

My head was in my hands. There was no way out of this. And then some­thing mirac­u­lous hap­pened. Bit by bit, the crew in the edit suite be­gan to trans­form the most leaden of lead into pure gold.

A com­bi­na­tion of ex­treme slow­mo­tion and mixes, fad­ing to sepia, a still shot of pop­pies hastily bor­rowed from the BBC pic­ture li­brary and slow­ing down the sound track to in­vest Howard Goodall’s sig­na­ture tune with an eerie plan­gency, pro­duced some­thing as­ton­ish­ing.

We were awestruck. And the over­whelm­ing emo­tion was not, as you might ex­pect, pride – or even re­lief – but hu­mil­ity. Some­how, we had touched the nu­mi­nous.

After the episode aired, G R El­ton wrote his nephew a sec­ond let­ter, grudg­ingly ad­mit­ting that he’d got it wrong and ex­press­ing his ap­proval. And Rowan had dozens of mov­ing let­ters from el­derly ladies whose hus­bands or

fi­ancés had not re­turned from the war, just say­ing thank you for the re­spect we had shown them.

On Sun­day 11th Novem­ber, I will be in Shin­rone, Co Of­faly, the lit­tle vil­lage where my fa­ther’s An­glo-ir­ish fam­ily comes from, at­tend­ing a Re­mem­brance Ser­vice with my brother An­drew at St Mary’s Church. We will be there to com­mem­o­rate the 38 men of the par­ish who made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice, and to give thanks for the five who re­turned alive. One of the lat­ter is listed sim­ply as Lloyd, John H.

Cap­tain Kevin Dar­ling (Tim Mcin­nerny), Gen­eral Sir Anthony Melchett (Stephen Fry), Pri­vate S Baldrick (Tony Robin­son), Cap­tain Ed­mund Black­ad­der (Rowan Atkin­son), Lt The Hon Ge­orge St Bar­leigh (Hugh Lau­rie). Colch­ester Gar­ri­son, 1989

From top: John Lloyd’s great-un­cle, Bri­gadier-gen­eral John Hardress-lloyd; fa­ther, Cap­tain Hardress L ‘Harpy’ Lloyd; and grand­fa­ther, Ma­jor Wil­fred Lloyd of the Royal Naval Bal­loon Corps. They have links, re­spec­tively, to Melchett, Ge­orge and Dar­ling

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