Monday, August 24, 2009

I have a cunning plan

My Avalon Western The Treasure of Saint Woody is published this month. This is the fifth book in a series featuring the irrepressible rogues Fergal O'Brien and Randolph McDougal. To celebrate the event I thought I'd answer the most frequent question I've been asked of where did the characters come from.

Fergal and Randolph are two snake-oil sellers who sell a universal remedy to cure all ills, but which only gives the unfortunate buyers belly-ache. Fergal is always eager to earn a fast buck, but he has a good heart, even if he keeps it buried deep, deep down. Randolph encourages Fergal to find his moral centre and he is handy enough with a gun and his fists to get them out of whatever scrapes Fergal's cunning plans get them into. Their relationship is an easy one to write as they are both friends who happily bounce off each other, but their genesis was an odd one.

I'm a fan of the British sitcom Blackadder. I'm not sure if this show has been seen in the rest of the world, but it ran for four series in the 1980s with each series dealing with a different historical period. The first series was set in Medieval times with Blackadder being a prince. The second was set in Tudor times in which an ancestor of the original character was a courtier of Elizabeth the First. In the third series another ancestor was George IV's butler, and in the final series another ancestor was a captain in the First World War. Blackadder was a devious man who continually devised dubious get-rich schemes and then when everything went wrong he spent the rest of the episode trying to stay alive. He was aided, or more usually hindered, in his endeavours by his idiotic sidekick Baldric.

The final episode in 1989 ended the series on a high with what is still perhaps British sitcoms' finest moment, an episode that managed to mix laughs with almost unbearable poignancy. For 30 gut-wrenching minutes the cast sat in the mud-filled trenches of the Somme and spent their last moments before going over the top bickering and getting on each others' nerves. Then they went into battle and were immediately cut to ribbons by machine-gun fire, like so many tens of thousands of other men did in that war to end all wars.

Twenty years on it's still impossible to watch this episode without a tear in the eye, and so appropriately this tragic finale ended the series. But throughout the nineties Blackadder Five was often been rumoured to be on the cards. In the end though everyone involved went on to have successful careers and they never found the time to make it.

Rowan Atkinson became Mr Bean, Hugh Laurie acquired a bizarre accent and became Dr Gregory House, Richard Curtis inflicted movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral on the world... But Tony Robinson, Baldric, was once asked which time period he'd like the fifth series to be set in if it were ever made. He said he'd love it to be a western. He was probably joking, but that struck a chord with me. What if a generation of the Blackadders and Baldrics had gone West, I wondered? Maybe if Richard Curtis was never going to write a fifth series, I should write it instead. I started work.

Baldric: "Ooh, My B, that nasty gunslinger says he'll be waiting for us outside the saloon at high noon."

Blackadder: "Why did I ever listen to you? I just knew coming to Dodge City was the worst idea since General Custer reckoned the Little Big Horn sounded like the right place to get a really short haircut."

Baldric: "I know. My stomach's gone all queasy."

Blackadder: "Your stomach's gone all queasy because you're still holding up your rancid pants with that rattlesnake. But it looks as if one of us is going to have to strap on a six-shooter, go out on to that windswept street and get filled with more lead than a particularly thick pencil. And let's face it, Balders, that man's you."

Baldric: "Wait, I have a cunning plan!"

Blackadder: "Baldric, your record on cunning plans is pathetic. The last one involved us trying to sell toys to Billy the Kid, but go on, tell me the cunning plan before the gunslinger turns us both into sieves."

Baldric: "Well, you know how they say there's a bullet out there with your name on it? Well, I reckon if were to carve my name on a bullet and hide it in my pants, I'd know where that bullet would be and I'd be safe."

Blackadder: "You're right, Balders. No gunslinger would ever want to investigate the contents of your pants! But sadly that plan will never work. You don’t even know how to spell your name. It's the worst cunning plan since Wyatt Earp thought the O.K. Corral sounded like a particularly quiet place for a vacation…"

After amusing myself in this way for a while I gave up. But one day while musing I wondered what would happen if I reversed both of their characters. What if Baldric wasn't a dangerously stupid man with the world's smelliest trousers and an unhealthy obsession with turnips? What if he was clever and resourceful? And what if Blackadder wasn't a man with no redeeming characteristics, but he was someone who actually cared. How would that change their relationship?

In a flash Blackadder and Baldric died and Fergal and Randolph were born. Admittedly the end result is two people who have absolutely nothing in common with the idea that gave birth to them. Although the one thing they do they do have in common with B&B is their cunning plans, and The Treasure of Saint Woody features their latest.


Elisabeth Rose said...

"Your breath comes straight from Satan's bottom."
I can't believe Blackadder is twenty years old !!! They were all on here in Aus and repeated many times.

Jane Myers Perrine said...

What a delightful post! Thank you for explaining where your characters came from--I never know with mine. Also, now I'll look out for Blackadder.


LaVerne St. George said...

This is exactly how my characters are born, Ian. You're so right. Most of the time the final people are nothing like the inspiration that bore them. I vaguely remember Blackadder here in the States, but it was not widely distributed. At any rate, you've got me intrigued. I am going right out and find a copy of your book. Thanks for the smiles!

Nicola said...

Well, I certainly want to read your series now! :) I'm also a Blackadder fan--a leech for every ailment LOL

Congrats on the latest release.

Sandy Cody said...

Fun post, Ian. It's always interesting to hear how characters come about.

Christine Bush said...

Isn't it scary how a writer's mind works? That was extremely cool... Even if I never got to see Blackadder. I WILL read The Treasure of Saint Woody!

Carol Hutchens said...

Loved this post, Ian! So interesting to read your process. I love BBC programs, but I missed this you've made me curious.

Tessa McDermid said...

Wow! I can't believe how long ago Blackadder was on. That can't be so! We couldn't always find all of the episodes but did manage several on PBS stations. I have seen the actors in many of their other forms.

And thanks for sharing how your ideas come to be. A friend read my most recent book and then asked when my 'next' was coming out - the one I'd told her about. I had to explain that she just read it - the form had changed through the writing.