Hero or Villain? Rowan Atkinson

 

On paper, Rowan Atkinson should be easy to hate. A multi-millionaire petrol head, whose brother nearly ran Ukip, a friend of the Prince of Wales, purveyor of hit-and-miss comedy and cash-in spin-offs. A rubber-faced, slimmed down Jeremy Clarkson.

Yet, in a career that spans four decades, he has set the comedy bar higher than almost any actor of his generation, and his return to the West End stage, announced last week, is surely a cause for celebration.

Not least because it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the role of a "pleasant, agreeable, but utterly hopeless" teacher in Quartermaine's Terms, a cast type he has made his own.

Atkinson deserves hero worship alone for delivering the punchline in the greatest one-joke sketch ever written. In Not The Nine O'Clock News's brilliant "Swedish Chemist Shop", he approaches the counter and tells Mel Smith in a thick Scandinavian accent he would like a deodorant. "Bowwwl or ayre-soll?" Atkinson replies: "Neither. I want it fur ma armputs."

Atkinson has been stealing scenes ever since. While the extraordinarily expensive, and frustratingly unfunny first series of Blackadder, which he co-wrote with Ben Elton, stumbled, his virtuoso performances in the subsequent series secured his place in the hall of British comedy fame. Never have so many laughs been achieved from the affected pronunciation of the word: "Bob."

Mr Bean continues to divide opinion, but the mute slapstick propelled him into the global stratosphere, spawning cartoons and two feature films. Johnny English too. No wonder he's reportedly worth £100m.

Having overcome a stutter he remains awkwardly shy, a difficult chat-show guest. Grumpy even. But he is an old-fashioned actor, who happens to be brilliant at comedy. Only a true great great actor could lift The Thin Blue Line above "cancelled after one series" obscurity.

Policemen, teachers, butlers, Army officers. His novice vicar in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Figures of authority who come up short. Is there anything more British? No doubt Atkinson's first play for 25 years will add to his back catalogue of flawed English stereotypes.

You'd have to be mad to think anything else. Proper pants-on-head, pencils-up-nose mad. Wibble.

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