‘The Black Adder, or On Richard III in alternative history’

For those of you who enjoy a certain historically based comedy, which once set a whole series (its first) in an alternative universe in which our good King Richard III in fact won the day at Bosworth Field (only to be murdered by mistake by his horrible great-nephew Edmund, succeeded by his nephew Richard IV, and his history rewritten by a certain Henry Tudor – that last bit isn’t particularly ‘alternative’ of course), it may come as no surprise that at least one of the writers is a Ricardian.
This evening I happened upon a Question & Answer session on Twitter with Tony Robinson (Baldrick from ‘Blackadder’, of course,  as well as famed for fronting ‘Time Team’ for almost twenty years), hosted by Best of Blackadder @pitchblacksteed. (Well worth following!)
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Not one to miss an opportunity to mention King Richard, though not expecting a reply, I tweeted to ask whether Richard Curtis or Rowan Atkinson (co-writers of the first series, ‘The Black Adder’) was a Ricardian – or in fact Sir Tony himself.
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To my surprise, an instant reply came from Tony: ‘I think Richard is.’
Which would of course explain why – although the first series uses so much Shakespearean material that Master Will was credited with supplying ‘additional dialogue’ – the episodes subvert Shakespeare’s take on Richard III in so many ways.
Although legendary comic actor Peter Cook is styled not unlike Shakespeare’s depiction – including in age, being in his late forties when the show was made in 1983 – from the word go he’s shown not to be the hunchbacked, withered-armed, nephew-murdering tyrant so beloved of ‘traditional’ histories.
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While perhaps not a particularly benevolent great-uncle to that ‘little worm’ ‘Edna’, he seems happy enough to have his nephew Richard around him and even fighting at his side in the battle. (What happened to his elder nephew, Edward, is never specified…) And the ‘hump’ that is initially seen upon his back is soon revealed to be a sack of presents which he gleefully gives to his young relatives.
And on the field at Bosworth, King Richard splendidly delivers a blended version of two of the greatest speeches ever written to rally troops about to go into battle: the speeches before Harfleur and Agincourt from Henry V:
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‘Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead….
…And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon St Crispin’s Day…’
Well, here it’s Ralph the Liar’s Day, of course…
Which brings us to the depiction of Henry Tudor – a weaselly-looking man, fleeing the battlefield, knowing all is lost, and saved only by Edmund’s avarice … but as a result, living to fight another day – or at least, to sneak back into England once the entire Plantagenet royal family has been wiped out by poison by mistake. He can then rewrite the history of the past fifteen or so years at his leisure… as indeed, of course, the real Tudor did, along with his tame court ‘historians’.
Peter Benson 'The Black Adder' (1983) 1.1
In fact the introduction to the very first episode describes Henry Tudor as one of history’s ‘great liars’, right up there with Nazi propaganda supremo Joseph Goebbels and – of course – St Ralph the Liar. So I guess it’s no surprise to discover that Richard Curtis himself is a Ricardian. Who else would think to write a sit-com with what to anyone else might appear such unpromising material?
But it works, doesn’t it? Consistently voted among the very best comedy shows, ‘Blackadder’ is beloved of millions, many of whom can quote its greatest lines at length.
The first series may not be the favourite of every fan (even I think that ‘Blackadder II’ is better overall), but it is perhaps the cleverest and the one most rooted in its history. (This may of course have something to do with the fact that Ben Elton was called in for the other series and he and Curtis appear to have tempered each other’s styles – if Elton’s tendency to knob gags can be called that!) And who would have thought there would be a further three series (in additional to various ‘specials’), the very final scene of which would live in many people’s minds as one of the finest moments in the history of television: when the black and white field of poppies on the First World War battlefield slowly ‘fades’ to colour, to the sound of birdsong.
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But back to the portrayal of Richard III in ‘The Black Adder’. I remember when I first watched it, having been a Ricardian for two or three years since happening upon Josephine Tey’s ‘Daughter of Time’ in the school library. I had no idea what I was about to see – just that it was a sit-com set during the medieval period. The slow unravelling of the Shakespearean myth of Richard in that first episode was a joy that remains with me today.
Hence my jumping at the chance to ask Tony Robinson that question. Perhaps the answer was obvious – but it was good to see.
As was his next response.
When I asked him if he wasn’t a Ricardian himself (and if not, whether there was anything we could do to change that), he replied, ‘Oh I certainly am.’
Arise then, Sir Tony – loyal knight of the Order of the White Boar!
Loyaulte me lie!
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 Postscript: So how does this relate to my own book? I’m not sure – I haven’t yet figured that out. Please let me know if you find in The Order of the White Boar any echoes of my years-long devotion to Master Baldrick and his fellows! I think I refrained from quoting any of it (even at perhaps appropriate moments). Then again, of course, events in the book take place at least two years before either version (historical or alternative) of Bosworth occurred. Perhaps there will be more of a nod to it in the sequel, The King’s Man.
[potters off stage left calling casually, in the style of Peter Cook, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for…’]
Post-postscript: Just thinking what my follow-up blog post should be, perhaps an alternative history set in more recent times: what if… ‘Time Team’ had agreed to Philippa Langley’s request to excavate at the Greyfriars to try to locate King Richard’s grave? Tony has been quoted as expressing his regret that they weren’t able to. How different these past five years might have been…
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About alexmarchantblog

A Ricardian since a teenager, and following stints as an archaeologist and in publishing, Alex now lives and works in King Richard’s own country, not far from his beloved York and Middleham
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