15 Jun 2023
2 November, 1989. Every Blackadder fan recalls the day it finished.
Excitement at learning how the fourth and last series would end. But also misery, knowing there would be no more. The poignancy of that perfect final scene - the compadres rushing out over the top, to a certain death. The end of the cast. The end of everything. Forever. Cut to 2022, and conversations with Kirsty Hanson at UKTV about comedy specials for Gold.
1983 saw the launch of Blackadder One. How to mark the 40th anniversary of one of the UK’s definitive comedies? Creative Directors - or at least me - don’t always have bandwidth to input into a first origination trawl, but Blackadder was THE defining comedy of my adolescence. The first time my whole family sat down religiously to appreciate something together, like adults. My very first Appointment To View. Blackadder is personal. Time to roll up your sleeves.
When I stumbled across the existence of an unaired pilot episode, it felt revelatory. For me, this was like The Beatles’ Let It Be out-takes. After years of a yawning absence - real, original, unseen material to watch and share.
We’d tell the story of how the pilot came together, the impact it had, and show all the clips we could get.
What’s not to like? Kirsty agreed. But did the tape exist after 40 years? How on earth would you clear the rights? Would it even be possible? I’m not sure it would. Not without the unceasing charm, dogged perseverance and breathtakingly well-connected personage of our Producer, Owen Braben.
And so we began a tortuous, eight-month journey of baby-step-by-baby-step negotiation. First, with the series rights holders - John Lloyd (Owen’s friend), Ben Elton (friend of a friend), Richard Curtis (friend and sometime collaborator) and Rowan Atkinson (friend of his agent). All loved the idea. No one seemed to think it could ACTUALLY happen.
No one needed the exposure or rights fees. No one clearly remembered the pilot. Was it even a good idea to bring it to light? And yet, one by one, subjected to Owen’s sustained charm warfare, they were persuaded. Even, finally, despite universal expectation, Rowan himself.
Almost as jaw-droppingly difficult were the subsequent other rights. Had the actors been originally cleared for broadcast, or only performance? We’d need to re-approach all actors and the estates of the deceased to negotiate afresh if so. A minefield.
BBC Studios revealed they had the original tape! But we sweated for week after week as they battled to establish if we could show it. A No now would mean the death of all the work and hope invested.
Then finally, 34 weeks after first pitching it, the news came in. We could.
The making of the show was only slightly less complex. Particularly the storytelling. The discussion within the programme required knowledge of the pilot itself – yet we had to be sparing with the clips. Structuring the narrative was a sudoku headwrecker.
But the show itself grew and grew. We asked Tony Robinson to lead our quest. His life was transformed playing Baldrick in the series, but he didn’t play Baldrick in the pilot and knew little about it. The perfect detective.
And the guest bookings piled in. John Lloyd agreed; Howard Goodall gave us a wonderful turn on the music; Ben Elton signed up; superfan David Mitchell; and critically, Richard Curtis, to deliver the definitive account. All shared very personal reflections alongside killer revelations.
Lastly, the real icing. We managed to clear not just clips but the entire episode, that we could sit within our programme, newly expanded to feature length to accommodate. The whole pilot would be broadcast in full to a hungry audience for the very first time.
For a superfan like me, what a wonderful treat to have put together.
And the pilot itself? Were Richard and Rowan right to worry it might be best left in the dusty vaults? Would we tarnish an otherwise glorious memory?
It’s remarkably good! It’s flabby at times, a few too many characters.
But there’s lots of laughs, as well as so many distinctive elements that would become staples of the ground-breaking later series. And Rowan’s performance is magnificently on point - he birthed one of our greatest sitcom characters perfectly, even in its pre-history.
On June 15th, judge for yourself.
TOP TIPS – Tom Edwards:
Owen Braben (Producer/Writer):
Working in the world of Blackadder is never straightforward.
It’s a huge show. The rights structure is complicated. And it doesn’t feel like I’m betraying any great confidences when I say the relationships can, on occasion, be complex too.
So, against that backdrop, how exactly do you go about licensing a 40 year old pilot that’s never been aired before?
The answer is: with extraordinary difficulty!
First, we had to convince the format holders – Rowan, Richard, Ben, and John – to buy into what we wanted to do. Which wasn’t always the easiest needle to thread.
Over the course of a few months, I variously harassed everyone and promised to take a lot of people to fancy lunches at the River Cafe if they’d consider the idea. Eventually, very sweetly, everyone said yes. I think mostly so I’d stop ringing.
And then there was the small matter of the nuts and bolts of a deal with Marc Berlin, the man who’s in charge of Blackadder rights package. Marc’s been around forever and is (quite rightly) very protective of Blackadder. Again, tricky. But we got there. I think I might have mentioned lunch at the River Café again. I forget.
So, by early 2023, we had, I thought, all of our ducks in a row. The Blackadder format holders were happy. Gold were content. I think I’d even written a script, which was rather bold of me, and doubtless tempted fate.
Because there was, we learned, still a rather large fly in our ointment.
Did the BBC ever actually clear the pilot for Tx? What was in the contracts the actors signed way back in June 1982? Was there even a paper trail we could follow to make the licensing work? Nobody was quite sure. The Beeb had to spend weeks on end going through old cardboard boxes, trying to find the original paperwork.
Time ticked on. Deadlines came and went. The River Café wasn’t going to be able to help me here.
The answer came (as it so often does) from Rowan’s agent, Peter Bennett-Jones. Even though the Adder pilot had been made when Rowan was represented by someone else, PBJ had been able to find a copy of Rowan’s BBC contract from 1982. And it was a Tx contract. So if Row’s was, then it followed everyone’s would be.
We now knew we absolutely, definitely, could licence the pilot. The BBC were happy. Gold were happy. Alas, no more lounging at lunch at the River Café for me. It was time to do some actual work. We were on!