In the News: Rowan Atkinson - The recluse who engineered his way to stardom

BACK in his student days, Rowan Atkinson wanted to be an electrical engineer. It is an image that is hard to match with the rubber-faced comedian whose alter-ego, Mr Bean, is one of the best-known comic creations on British television, writes Kate Watson-Smyth.

The antics of the accident-prone nerd have delighted British audiences for years and he has become a national institution - even appearing on Blind Date - but it took Hollywood to propel him into superstar league.

The success of Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie helped Atkinson earn an estimated pounds 11.5m last year - eclipsing established British stars including Lord Attenborough, Sir Anthony Hopkins and John Cleese.

In a nation currently obsessed with being cool, it is interesting that Mr Bean should have caught public imagination to such an extent. He epitomises the gawky, socially-inept outsider and looks like a put-upon Latin teacher. When thwarted, he is petulantly vengeful but when satisfied, he resembles a hideous cackling gargoyle.

The inspiration for Mr Bean has long been debated and Atkinson's brother Rodney has been named as the most likely source, but it is a charge he vigorously denies.

A businessman who lives with their widowed mother in Northumberland, Rodney is possibly the only person in the UK to have read the Maastricht Treaty word for word. In 1993 he launched an unsuccessful case to have the former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd prosecuted for treason.

However, Atkinson says Mr Bean is based on what he was like as a nine- year-old. Mercilessly teased at school, he was the butt of playground bullies who thought he looked like an alien and although a bright child he was quickly marked out as "strange". He claims that the age of 12 was the last time he "ever did something funny off stage or away from the TV cameras".

By the time he left prep school "adolescent self-consciousness had set in" and he became deadly serious. Now he insists he is "quiet, even dull" when not performing and "too self-conscious even to play charades".

His first public appearance was at the Edinburgh Festival at the age of 17, but he was still not planning a career on the stage.

He took a degree in electrical engineering at Newcastle University, gaining the highest marks in his year and believed that was where his future lay. But later at Oxford, studying for an MSc, he met up with Richard Curtis, writer of Four Weddings and A Funeral, in which Atkinson had a cameo, and co-writer of the hugely popular Blackadder series. He also met the composer Howard Goodall, who wrote the themes for Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line, the less successful police comedy.

In 1976 Atkinson was spotted at the Edinburgh Festival by television producer John Lloyd. "I rushed backstage after the show and introduced myself. I was convinced he would be more famous than Chaplin," he said. Lloyd went onto produce Atkinson in Not The Nine O'Clock News, which also brought stardom to Pamela Stevenson, Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith.

He is famously reclusive and rarely gives interviews, preferring to live quietly with his wife Sunetra and their two children. Following the success of Mr Bean he is now planning to take a year off.

Peter Bennett-Jones, his agent, said: "Rowan is having a rest for a year and we will think about his next projects after that. We would never say never about another Bean film but we are not thinking about it at the moment."

He also scotched rumours about a film being made around Atkinson's incompetent government agent from the Barclaycard advertisements.

ATKINSON AND BLAIR

Rowan Atkinson went to the same school as Tony Blair. The Prime Minster was 13 and already a model pupil in the top form at Durham's historic Chorister school when Atkinson arrived at the age of 11. Former headmaster Canon John Grove says the two boys were like chalk and cheese: "Rowan was shy with a slight stutter and a slightly rubbery face, just like the one he has now." Of Mr Blair he says: "He was outgoing. If you needed a volunteer, he was the boy who always had his hand up."

HOW BEAN WAS BORN

Atkinson based Bean on what he was like as a nine-year-old. At school he was mercilessly teased by playground bullies who thought he looked like an alien. His nicknames were Doople, Zoonie, Greenman and Gruman. "There's a lot of Mr Bean in me," says Atkinson. "He's socially inept, selfish and has no manners - yet he can be sweet, innocent and well-meaning."

ATKINSON THE RECLUSE

One of the more reclusive figures in British showbusiness, Atkinson, 43, owns a pounds 500,000 18th-century rectory in Oxfordshire - where he lives with his wife Sunetra and their two children - and a pounds 650,000 house in Chelsea.

BOOMING BEAN

Mr Bean is the most popular comedy on British television. Audiences reach as high as 18m; even repeats attract 12m viewers. It has been shown in 94 countries and sold more than seven million videos but only 14 half- hour episodes have been made.

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