Tony Robinson: Why I originally turned down Baldrick role in Blackadder
Comedy favourite Blackadder had a couple of false starts – and nearly had a completely different actor as the hopeless sidekick.
Watching The Black Adder’s pilot episode, two things immediately leap out. With a nascent Edmund swaggering and conniving in the Elizabethan court, it feels like a test run not for its patchy debut series, but the more polished Blackadder II. And Sir Tony Robinson is nowhere to be seen.
Baldrick is present, but he’s beardless and played by Philip Fox, later a reliable character actor with turns in Midsomer Murders and Walking the Dead.
Robinson had in fact been offered the role, three days before cameras were set to roll in 1982.
“The BBC head of comedy at the time, John Howard Davies, had seen me in a show for BBC in the southwest, something that never even made it to national television, thought I was funny and had written my name down in a book. Basically, he cast it unseen, which for me in those days was unheard of.”
Alas, a BBC strike, and the too-good-to-be-true offer of a year-long National Theatre contract, put paid to that. Still, when the BBC commissioned it a year later, Robinson again got the call, and the rest is history – kind of. A strike derailed production, again, but Robinson had been paid up front and jetted off to New York with £9,000 in his pocket before even shooting a frame.
He's never met Fox but empathises with the ‘Sliding Doors’ moment on a show whose enormous popularity no-one could have foreseen. Robinson himself was fired three days into Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills in 1979: “They thought I was miscast and in retrospect, they were probably right. But it’s still the most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me.”
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The mythical pilot has intrigued him ever since and now, with the help of co-creator Richard Curtis and producer John Lloyd he tells the story for Gold’s documentary Blackadder: The Lost Pilot – which culminates with its first full showing on TV.
At the time, Rowan Atkinson was hot property thanks to Not the Nine O’Clock News and while the pilot is inevitably rough around the edges, it’s clear why the BBC was throwing money at a vehicle for his magnetic screen presence. Which made the decision to reconfigure Edmund as a buffoon for that first series, with no audience to play off, beyond perplexing.
“In a way, series 1 was itself a pilot,” Robinson reflects. “In the first week’s rehearsal, immediately we knew what was wrong and what was right, but it was already on the production line and we couldn’t really change it that much.
“Throughout the first series, we were trying to polish it, all the while knowing that if we could just throw away some bits and start again, we could do something with a different dynamic.”
Robinson was delighted – and frustrated – to observe that the pilot has “flashes that are really, really good”. (Indeed, Curtis and Atkinson reused some dialogue in later episodes.) Though he warns viewers scene one is “tedious”, he’s glad Gold has chosen to show it warts and all.
“There’s a desperate attempt to explain the whole concept and like any first scene ever, it gets a blue pencil through it very quickly. It just shows you how inspiration travels – you can start off with something ghastly and then you make the leap, and suddenly you’ve got something interesting.”
He reckons today’s TV bosses could learn a lot from watching it. “Nowadays, a pilot isn't something that allows you to experiment, to throw away the bits that didn't work and beef up the good bits,” he laments. “It’s become something to prove to the commissioning editor how wonderful the whole thing is, and that's a terribly constraining influence.”
Given that this pilot was a proof-of-concept that was never intended for public consumption, why did Robinson feel the need to go back?
“Although everyone would assume - and I can understand why - that I'm a specialist on Blackadder, really, I was an employee just like any other freelancer. I would go in for six weeks to do rehearsals for each series and then go away again.
“So an awful lot of the politics of how the series was made, the decisions to cast certain people, why there were gaps between the series, I’ve never really quizzed anybody about and I really wanted to find out more.
“I think it's fascinating to see how something originated, and how any creator is struggling for ideas and inspiration. There are lots of great poems where they've found the original version – ‘I wandered lonely as a pudding’ or whatever, where the artist has crossed out ‘pudding’ and put in ‘cloud’.”
For Robinson, its tentative start demonstrates “the great strength of Blackadder and in some ways its weakness: it was a collective, and it was always a collaborative effort”.
He fondly recalls working with “the most dazzling comic minds of the moment”. A school leaver at 16, Robinson felt validated by this primarily Oxbridge set. “I was the new boy, which is ironic because I was a decade older than all of them!” says the actor, now 76. “Accepting me as one of them was one of the high points of my life.”
As the team bonded and grew, so the show built in confidence to become the rock-solid comedy classic we know and love it as today. From series 2, Curtis and new co-writer Ben Elton would strip back the side characters and expensive locations and put its core players in the spotlight. And with each leap forward in history, successive generations of Baldrick somehow became increasingly stupid and Blackadder more exasperated with the idiots around him.
“The number of brain cells Baldrick had in the various series was constantly a matter of debate,” laughs Robinson. “But we all felt that for the character of Blackadder to work, he needed to seem very bright – like with Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half Hour, at home and ruling the roost with Hattie Jacques and Bill Kerr butting in.”
But as for how all involved made this leap in thinking some 42 years ago, Robinson found his colleagues’ memories are inevitably a little hazy.
“I asked them all, ‘Do you remember seeing the pilot and what was it like?’ And they said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t remember seeing it at all’. And I would say, ‘You know, the one that I wasn’t in’. ‘Oh really?’
“They must have all seen it. But in the dim and distant past it was just a small, fairly irrelevant thing. It's only now with the hindsight of history that we can realise quite what an extraordinary thing it was.”
The latest issue of Radio Times magazine, featuring our interview with Sir Tony Robinson, is out now.
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