Mr Bean discovers silence is golden

He may be a mute oaf on television but in the boardroom Rowan Atkinson, alias Mr Bean, hatches the kind of money-making schemes of which Blackadder would be proud.

The comedian is one of a growing number of performers whose annual pay tops pounds 1m and whose pay rises rival those of the most obese of City fat cats.

The latest survey by the Labour Research Department into directors' pay shows that more and more singers, comedians and actors are paying themselves as directors through companies, enjoying rises of up to 180 per cent a year.

Atkinson, who gave himself a 17 per cent increase to pounds 1,341,750 through his company Hindmeck, has benefited enormously from the international success of Mr Bean. Although he made only 13 episodes, the programme has been shown in 82 countries, generating video sales of more than 2 million. His success means that last year he was paid more than Paul McCartney, even though the former Beatle gave himself a 180 per cent rise, to pounds 869,455, through his company MPL Communications. He and his fellow Beatle, George Harrison, and Yoko Ono, the widow of John Lennon, stand to make more millions from the three-part Anthology. As directors of Apple Corps, Ono and Harrison last year paid themselves pounds 2,692,250 each, a rise of 78 per cent on the previous year.

The biggest pop earner last year was Elton John, who paid himself pounds 10,417,942 through Happenstance/J.Bondi Ltd, with a 2 per cent pay rise.

Other artists managed to give themselves enormous pay packets while taking cuts in salary. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, of Really Useful/Escaway, took a cut of 65 per cent but still found himself on pounds 6,134,682; Phil Collins a reduction of 73 per cent but paid pounds 5,916,160; and Eric Clapton a drop of 56 per cent but paid pounds 5,880,330. The pay of Mark Knopfler slid by 3.6 per cent to pounds 2,755,000.

"Top artists have always earned huge amounts of money, so it should come as no surprise," said Steve Redmond, editor of Music Week. "In 1912, Florence Lawrence, the first film star, was earning $250 dollars a week, which was an awful lot. However, by 1919 Fatty Arbuckle was earning a guaranteed minimum of $1m.

"Directors' pay is an interesting way of seeing who is doing well - for example, Eric Clapton seemed to have faded away a few years ago, but then he had an enormous hit with Unplugged," said Mr Redmond.

The pay of senior executives at quoted companies already on more than pounds 500,000 a year has risen by an average 15.9 per cent compared with the previous year's 10.1 per cent, according to the union-funded research. The average outside the boardroom is about 3 per cent.

Of the 175 top directors found by Labour Research, 106 enjoyed increases of more than 10 per cent, while 20 saw their pay more than double.The highest rise was awarded to Sam Chisholm, chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting, whose 609 per cent increase took his pay to pounds 4,716,000.

Ian McCartney, Labour's employment spokesman, said shareholders were contacting the party to express their exasperation at the "huge" increases enjoyed by the top directors. "This has become the unacceptable face of corporate Britain," he said. "It's a question of boom in the boardroom and bust for the workforce."

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