12 Things You Might Not Know About Blackadder Goes Forth

BBC
BBC

by James Hunt

Set largely in the trenches of World War I, Blackadder Goes Forth might be the most popular of the four seasons of Blackadder, not least of which is because of a now-legendary emotional final scene which paid tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives during the conflict. But while those final moments are seared into the collective memory of comedy fans worldwide, there's still a lot about them—and the rest of Blackadder Goes Forth (which is currently streaming for American audiences on Hulu)—that you might not know.

1. THE WRITERS AND ACTORS ARGUED. A LOT.

One of the things everyone working on previous series of Blackadder said they enjoyed was the camaraderie of the show, so it may have been a shock to all involved when things started to get tense on Blackadder Goes Forth. The established cast—which featured several comic writer-performers, including Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Rowan Atkinson—were more prone to question and alter the script, which writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton felt was unproductive.

Tony Robinson, who played Private Baldrick, later claimed that "the writers felt we were unilaterally altering the script for the worse" and that "by the end, they felt we had run away with it."

2. CAPTAIN DARLING WAS NAMED BY STEPHEN FRY.

Of course, the spirit of collaboration wasn't completely absent from the series. Originally given the rather bland name of "Captain Cartwright," it was Stephen Fry who suggested giving Tim McInnerny's character the surname Darling, taking the name from an old classmate. It was initially resisted for being a one-joke idea, but if you've seen the series you'll know they eventually got a lot of mileage out of it.

3. TIM MCINNERNY AGREED TO RETURN FOR A FOURTH SEASON, BUT ONLY IF HE WAS A NEW CHARACTER.

After Blackadder II, Tim McInnerny found that his popularity as Lord Percy was weighing uneasily on his career as a dramatic actor. After staying largely absent during Blackadder The Third, he returned for Blackadder's Christmas Carol, and Blackadder Goes Forth, on the condition that he be allowed to play a character who was not related to his earlier incarnation.

4. BLACKADDER'S ATTEMPT TO FEIGN MADNESS WAS BASED ON ROWAN ATKINSON'S ACTUAL BEHAVIOR.

In the final episode, Goodbyeee, Blackadder attempts to feign madness by wearing underpants on his head and sticking two pencils up his nose. This plan was based on Rowan Atkinson's habit of sticking pencils up his nose to entertain his castmates during read-throughs and script editing sessions.

5. A LOT OF GOATS WERE NAMED AFTER PRIVATE BALDRICK.

The popularity of the series within the British Armed Forces meant—according to producer John Lloyd, at least—that at one point, half of all regimental goats had the name Baldrick. "You can see why," Tony Robinson, who played the private, told The Sun in 2017 of the character's popularity, who was knighted in 2013 for public and political service. “He is an every man and most armies, by and large, are comprised of every men who have to act on the whim of a senior person they think is more stupid than they are. A lot of regimental goats are called Baldrick.”

Further evidence of the show's popularity can be seen from records of the first Gulf War, during which many British camps in Iraq were named after characters from the series.

6. DARLING'S NERVOUS TIC WAS REAL ... BUT NOT INTENTIONALLY.

As Captain Darling, Tim McInnerny affected a nervous tic in his eye—but the six-week rehearsal and shooting schedule meant that he performed the gesture so often that it eventually became involuntary. It took a further two months for him to rid himself of it, and for some time he feared it would never disappear.

7. A LAWYER'S NAME HAD TO BE CHANGED TO MEET ADVERTISING RESTRICTIONS.

In the second episode, Corporal Punishment, the brilliant lawyer Blackadder attempts to summon to defend him is named Bob Massingbird—though if you watch the remastered edition you can see that the name has been dubbed over the footage. Originally, the character is referred to as Bob Moxon-Browne, which was the name of one of Rowan Atkinson's friends, who was also a lawyer. It was changed at the last minute when it was decided that, due to Blackadder's personal endorsement, it technically qualified as advertising, which is restricted by the non-commercial BBC.

8. THE SERIES USED FOOTAGE FROM A CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER MOVIE.

Since the show was set in World War I, appropriate footage of aerial dogfights (seen in the episode Private Plane) was hard to come by. The footage used actually comes from a 1976 British/French war film called Aces High, which starred Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Plummer, and John Gielgud. The film tells the story of a single week for the Royal Flying Corps squadron, with notable emphasis on the high death rate of pilots.

9. THE FINAL SCENE WAS CREATED BY ACCIDENT.

A scene from 'Blackadder Goes Forth'
BBC

Call it a happy accident, creative serendipity, or just good luck, but the series was never intended to conclude with the much-lauded final scene as it aired. Originally, the intention was to show the cast gunned down and end, as previous seasons had, with their deaths. But at the time a combination of factors meant that the footage of the final scene was so bad that it was almost unusable. By slowing down what little they had and cross-fading to a field of poppies, the production was able to create a new ending which quickly became one of the most famous and powerful conclusions to any sitcom ever.

"The tone is just right," David Sims wrote for The A.V. Club of the series's final moments. "We don’t see them brutally cut down with machine gun fire (the set they’re running across is hardly pristine and the decision was made to cut away from it as quickly as possible), but the field of poppies is such a quietly devastating image in its own right."

10. THE FINAL CLOSING THEME WAS RECORDED IN AN EMPTY GYM.

While it's now easy to produce certain production effects using a simple digital filter, the haunting echo on the piano-based arrangement of the theme tune which closes the season wasn't created through digital trickery. Instead it was produced by musician Howard Goodall recording a piano played in an empty gymnasium.

11. THERE WAS ORIGINALLY A TWIST ENDING.

We've noted that the original ending scene was different from the one that aired, but it also contained an interesting twist. Although the cast fell to the ground dead, it was then revealed that Blackadder only feigned death as he gets up and sneaks away, leaving his fallen comrades behind. This version of the final scene is available on the remastered DVD collection as part of the documentary Blackadder Rides Again. A further epilogue scene was cut before it was filmed, and would've featured Blackadder as an old man and grandfather who had survived the war.

12. THE SERIES WAS SO GOOD, IT HAD TO END. BUT A REVIVAL HAS BEEN TEASED.

Rowan Atkinson in 'Blackadder Goes Forth'
BBC

In many ways, the high quality of Blackadder Goes Forth was its undoing. The feeling among the writers and cast was that any fifth Blackadder series would be critically savaged if it failed to match the high bar set by the fourth season. It was felt by most of those involved that a fifth series would be a no-win situation, creatively speaking. And when the series's long-time producer John Lloyd left the BBC, that seemed to provide the final nail in the coffin.

Still, the series's original creators and cast have often teased the idea of a fifth season. “I do think a new series of Blackadder is [in] the cards,” Robinson told The Sun in 2015. “I have spoken to virtually all the cast about this now. The only problem is Hugh [Laurie]’s fee," he joked. "He’s a huge star now—or so he’d like to think.”

Just last year, Atkinson said that he was "extremely nervous" to speculate that a new season could happen, and while he stated that "There are no plans to do anything," he did share what a fifth season might have looked like. "There was a plan 20 years ago that got nowhere which was called Redadder, which I quite liked," Atkinson said during the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival.

"It was set in Russia in 1917 and Blackadder and Baldrick were working for the Tsar," he continued. "They had blue stripes around their caps and then the Revolution happened, and Rik Mayall unsurprisingly was playing Rasputin. And after the Revolution they are in exactly the same office and they have red caps. And it was quite a good idea and it was filmic in scale."

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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