Blackadder's Tony Robinson on why another actor originally played Baldrick

Philip Fox as Baldrick in the Blackadder pilot alongside Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder
Philip Fox, not Tony Robinson, played Baldrick in the Blackadder pilot (Image credit: BBC)

Forty years ago, Rowan Atkinson's historical rotter Edmund Blackadder slithered onto our screens in the first episode of what would become one of the best-loved and most-quoted British sitcoms of all time. But the path to comedy greatness was, as Lord Melchett (Stephen Fry) might say, as twisty and turny as a "twisty turny thing"! 

To mark the anniversary, Sir Tony Robinson, who played Blackadder's downtrodden but loyal servant Baldrick across four series of the BBC hit, is turning back the clock to tell the story of the previously unseen pilot for the show, which is rather different from the first season, The Black Adder, that aired in 1983. Most notably, Sir Tony himself is not in it! 

In the GOLD documentary Blackadder: The Lost Pilot, the 76-year-old actor talks to writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton about the evolution of the show, before introducing a screening of the never-before-broadcast episode. 

Here, Sir Tony reflects on how the cunning plan to make a period sitcom came together to create TV history…


Tony Robinson fronts the GOLD show on the Blackadder pilot (Image credit: UKTV)

You were originally cast as Baldrick, but someone else plays him in the pilot episode. Why? 

"There was a strike at the BBC, and I went away and got a job at the National Theatre. So then, when the pilot did go ahead, Philip Fox played Baldrick! But afterwards they said they still wanted me to play the part in the series." 

Does it feel like 40 years since you first played Baldrick? 

"Yes, a lot of comedy water has passed under the bridge since way back then!"

What was it like appearing on a commemorative series of postage stamps to mark the anniversary of Blackadder?

"That is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me, to be honest!"

One of the Royal Mail's Blackadder stamps

Blackadder goes first class! (Image credit: Royal Mail)

Did you watch the pilot episode after it had been made? 

"Funnily enough, while interviewing the people involved for this documentary, no one can remember whether they saw it — and neither can I!" 

What’s it like now seeing another actor portray Baldrick? 

"It’s so different from my performance, and much straighter. I’m sure it was awful for Philip not to go on to play Baldrick, but I’ve had the same thing happen to me. Remember that 1979 Dennis Potter drama Blue Remembered Hills? I was sacked from that after three days because I was miscast! But that’s part and parcel of an actor's life." 

Is it a blessing or a curse still to be talking about Blackadder? 

"I'm happy to do it, because Blackadder transformed my life! Most of the people in it already had, or were going to have, stellar careers anyway, but I was just a jobbing actor. Then, overnight, I was viewed in the way people looked at Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry! I’m still proud as punch about Blackadder." 

Did you have high expectations when you read the script? 

"I knew the script for the pilot was pants, and that the script for the first series wasn’t as good as we could get it. But as an actor, you have to believe every joke is funny, and every character is brilliant, and the plot is as it should be, otherwise you can’t do your job properly." 

What was the immediate impact on your career? 

"I had about two years where suddenly I was identified as someone who could play the lead in comedy shows. I did pilot after pilot, but none of them were picked up!"

Baldrick and Edmund

Tony Robinson as Baldrick and Rowan Atkinson as Edmund in series two of Blackadder (Image credit: BBC)

Do you have any souvenirs from the show? 

"I haven’t, but when I went to New Zealand to interview the film director Peter Jackson, he said, ‘I’ve got something to show you’. It transpired he was a huge Baldrick fan, and owned my costume from the second series [Blackadder II, 1986], which he’d bought in an auction! He asked me to try it on, but I said, 'That won’t fit round my tummy any more!'"

Actor Ardal O’Hanlon says watching Baldrick helped him create Dougal McGuire in the 1990s C4 sitcom Father Ted. Who did you draw on to portray him? 

"I’d been working with masks at the National Theatre, and learned about how having that impassive face can make the audience invest their own imaginations. Also, I was very influenced by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel." 

Blackadder Goes Forth

Tony Robinson as Private Baldrick and Rowan Atkinson as Captain Blackadder in Blackadder Goes Forth (Image credit: BBC)

Baldrick is put through the mill across the four series. What was the most uncomfortable moment or situation playing him? 

"Wearing the First World War costume in series four [Blackadder Goes Forth, 1989]! How people fought for four years in those dreadful uniforms, with all that stuff that they had to carry with them, I have no idea."

Back in March, you reprised the role of Baldrick to read a Bedtime Story in aid of Comic Relief, which proved popular with adults and children alike. Do you think the character has a special appeal for youngsters? 

"Funnily enough, my granddaughter saw me as Baldrick reading that bedtime story on TV and the next time she saw me, she said, ‘Hello, Baldrick!’ It was that realization that myself and the character were the same person, and it was a lovely moment!" 

Richard Curtis

Tony Robinson with Blackadder co-creator Richard Curtis (Image credit: UKTV)

Have the cast been reunited many times over the past 40 years? 

"I saw Richard Curtis [who created the show with Rowan Atkinson] a few weeks ago, and we slipped back into the same old relationship straight away. It’s a bit like the people you were at school with — you can peel away all those adult layers, and there are still those younger people underneath! I think that’s how we all feel about each other."

Do you ever rewatch the series? 

"I always only watch my work once. But sometimes I’ll come into a room, or walk past a television shop, and it will be on, and that’s always kind of weird. But I’m still very proud of them." 

Where can I watch Blackadder and Blackadder: The Lost Pilot?

Blackadder: The Lost Pilot is on GOLD on Thursday 15 June at 9 pm. 

Seasons one to four of Blackadder are available on BBC iPlayer, Sky Box Sets, NOW & Virgin. 

Ian MacEwan
Senior Writer

Ian writes about TV and film for TV Times, What’s on TV and TV & Satellite Week magazines. He co-hosts the weekly TV streaming podcast, Bingewatch.