Monumental undertaking a reference work for series' fans

THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE BLACK ADDER <br> <b> J. F. Roberts </b> <br> <i> Cornerstone

''History has known a great many bastards but it has been chronicled by almost as many,'' writes J.F. Roberts, by way of introduction to The True History of the Black Adder.

This was the premise for the ''Blackadder'' television series, which ran for four seasons between 1983 and 1989 - 24 episodes in all - plus several other one-off specials.

For their first series, the original writers, Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, conceived a sweeping comedy saga, set immediately at the end of the Wars of the Roses, in which they declared that particular history was a fiction, created by Henry Tudor to justify his usurpation of the throne and later cemented into the British psyche by that master propagandist William Shakespeare.

That first series was almost the last. It was outrageously expensive to make and the BBC bridled at a second series until producer John Lloyd convinced his superiors it could be made in a traditional studio sitcom format, at far less cost. They relented, the series survived and the rest is history - of a sort.

In a monumental undertaking (it took me more than a fortnight to plough through it) Roberts has set out to record the series' origins and history and to delve into the life of every major actor in it. The sheer amount of information is overwhelming and the minutiae, in copious footnotes and asides, is sometimes discouraging. I wondered whether we really needed to know, for example, that producer Lloyd ''never slept with Pamela Anderson'' during their time on Not the Nine O'Clock News.

For all that, it is an excellent piece of research, complemented by four sets of colour plates (one for each series) and several script out-takes, not all of which made it to screen. The several appendices include an outline for an unrecorded Christmas story special, penned by Curtis, in which the Black Adder appears as a Basil Fawlty-like Bethlehem inn-keeper (Baldrick is Manuel).

There is an extensive bibliography, videography and audiography, and cast listings and broadcast dates for each episode. Perhaps it is best considered as a reference work for fans of the series, rather than a solid read. For that purpose, the nine-page index may be considered a valuable addition.

Gary Newton is a Dunedin subeditor.