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Back in October 2012, the media got very excited over a new book on the Black Adder TV show. What attracted their attention was not the quality or comprehensiveness of the book (though it has both), but the author's discovery of fragments of a "lost" script for a Christmas episode written by Adder co-creator Richard Curtis.
Having the reviews focus so much on this one aspect actually did the book a disservice. The "lost" script is clearly a very early draft, little more than a rough outline of a couple of scenes. Whilst it is an interesting curio, it is not actually particularly funny (if only because it is so underdeveloped and large parts are either still missing or were never written). This book deserves more than to be remembered for a few weak jokes from an episode that never was. It's a comprehensive history of the Black Adder series from the very early days when Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis were first kicking around the ideas for a historical sitcom, through to the deeply poignant closing credits of the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth and beyond.
As with all books of this type, it's often difficult to work out how much direct access the author had to the key players. It's clear that he has had some, but it's also obvious that some people were more willing collaborators than others and that in some instances the author has perhaps been forced to fill in the blanks using other sources. Certainly, there are plenty of quotes and anecdotes that have been lifted from earlier interviews or celebrations of the series (particularly the Blackadder Rides Again programme). At the same time, this doesn't feel like one of those lazy cash-ins that simply stitches together already available information and presents it as a "new account". It contained numerous new insights or bits of trivia that I was not aware of. If nothing else, this is one of those books that you can use to annoy your partner by frequently turning to them and saying "Oh, that's interesting. Did you know..."
The book aims to be a comprehensive account of how all four series (plus specials) came to be and (logically enough) it is split into sections, with each part providing key information about the cast, how the series was filmed and any other relevant information. Again, this is not simply a lazy cash-in giving an episode-by-episode synopsis of each series; it is a genuine attempt to get behind the scenes of the making of Blackadder and see how it was shaped and influenced by both internal and external factors.
With this in mind, extensive biographical information is provided on each of the lead actors and each series is set in the context of its own time. This is not just the context of the comedy circuit at the time, but also the wider context of what was happening in society more generally. The historical context to each series is also explored to explain how the scripts integrated those elements to make it more accurate (although accuracy was always willingly sacrificed in favour of a good joke). This might strike some as rather boring and a little irrelevant, but the author does a good job of showing how all these various influences came together to create the show that is so fondly remembered.
Ironically, the one aspect of the narrative which doesn't work is the one which gives this book its title ("The True History"). The author frames this using the supposed discovery of a set of historical documents "The Black Adder Chronicles" which "prove" that historians have been duped for years and that the true history of England is the one seen in Black Adder (The Yorkist victory at Bosworth Field, Edmund becoming Prince Regent) and that propaganda has been used to erase the Black Adders from real history. I know this is done in a firmly tongue-in-cheek way, but it didn't really gel for me and was deeply dull and unfunny. Given the high quality of the material elsewhere, there is really no need to rely on weak gimmicks that feel like an idea for a rejected Black Adder script. Thankfully, this element forms only a tiny part of the overall book and the reliance on these "documents" gets less and less as the book goes on.
There are times when the author does rather assume that the reader's knowledge of the British comedy scene in the seventies and eighties is as encyclopaedia as his own. For example, he will make references to well-known scripts that Atkinson performed during his Not the Nine O'Clock News days and simply assume that the reader is familiar with them. Or he will take quotes from an episode of Black Adder out of context and immediately assume that the reader will pick up on them. In fairness, this is the sort of book which you are only going to be reading if you already have quite a major interest in the series or personalities involved, so this can be forgiven to some extent.
The book is generally well-written in an interesting and informative style. If there's one criticism, it's that's the author can occasionally be a little bit verbose and wander off on tangents that have only the vaguest relevance to the main subject matter. He also does love a long sentence - broken up with various punctuation marks (and utilising every form of punctuation known to man), which themselves often wander around and meander off the point, all within the course of a single sentence, before returning again to the original purpose of the sentence which was, of course, to point how annoying long winded sentences can sometimes be. Now re-read that last sentence. If its long-winded nature put you off, imagine how frustrating a book full of such prose might be. The author's love of words also makes for a rather long book (over 460 pages in the hardback edition) and towards the end, I have to confess that my attention was starting to wander a little. These final chapters also become something of a love-fest with unstintingly gushing praise for all concerned, which does become a touch over the top and nauseating.
Still, despite one or two stylistic niggles, this is a fascinating glimpse into how one of Britain's best loved comedies came to be. Forget the gimmick the book was sold on; there is far more of interest than a few pages from a weak, undeveloped script. Whether you are a keen fan of Blackadder or just want to know more about this iconic series, you'll find plenty to like in The True History of the Black Adder.
It's just a shame they released it on 11 October to catch the Christmas market, and not on St Leonard's Day (6 November)
The True History of the Black Adder
J F Roberts
Preface Publishing, 2012
(Note: throughout this review, I have used the spellings Black Adder and Blackadder interchangeably. The author never quite seems able to decide which is the correct usage, so I feel perfectly comfortable using both!)
(C) Copyright SWSt 2013