Rowan Atkinson: Mr Bean shows his serious side

Even the most inadequately briefed guest who turns up to plug a film or TV show on British daytime television will be familiar with the format. Several minutes of fawning followed by a handful of superficially personal questions and then it's back to the green room to make way for an item on the theme of the perfect Christmas spread, or a phone-in about vasectomies gone wrong. But when the 49-year-old comedian Rowan Atkinson appeared recently on the ITV show
This Morning, he treated a chit-chat with the programme's genial hosts like a harrowing encounter with the taxman; if he had needed to rush off halfway through to have a molar pulled, you suspect it would have been a blessed relief.

Even the most inadequately briefed guest who turns up to plug a film or TV show on British daytime television will be familiar with the format. Several minutes of fawning followed by a handful of superficially personal questions and then it's back to the green room to make way for an item on the theme of the perfect Christmas spread, or a phone-in about vasectomies gone wrong. But when the 49-year-old comedian Rowan Atkinson appeared recently on the ITV show This Morning, he treated a chit-chat with the programme's genial hosts like a harrowing encounter with the taxman; if he had needed to rush off halfway through to have a molar pulled, you suspect it would have been a blessed relief.

The problem was that the presenters wanted to know something about Atkinson - anything at all, in fact. You can forgive them this minor error, though the show's researchers should perhaps have warned them that the subject of Rowan Atkinson is largely out of bounds during interviews with Rowan Atkinson.

You might wonder why a man who guards himself so fiercely should elect to be splashed all over the media this week without so much as a gold-embossed collectors' box-set to promote. Atkinson has been protesting politely against what he regards as the lunacy of a new government Bill that will extend the offence of incitement to racial hatred, under the Public Order Act 1988, to religious hatred. "To criticise a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous," he observed in a poised speech that recalled subtly the tone of his notorious headmaster sketch. "But to criticise their religion - that is a right. That is a freedom. And a law that attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas, as long as they are not religious ideas, is a very peculiar law indeed. It all points to the promotion of the idea there should be a right not to be offended... In my view, the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended."

It was a lucid, persuasive address, and there was the sense that Atkinson was a good weapon to have in this argument - or in any argument. Despite hobnobbing with royalty, and appearing as a kind of lucky mascot in his chum Richard Curtis's love-ins of British cinema - Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Love Actually (2003) - he has not softened with age. His curdled sneer suggests Elvis reincarnated as a vindictive bureaucrat. He has grown wealthy from the dopey slapstick of Mr Bean but the cruel streak running through his performance in the historical sitcom Blackadder remains intact. His uniquely pliable features are most often likened to rubber, but I think that makes him sound cosier than he is; he has a face that only a mother, and Gerald Scarfe, could love.

Glimpses of Atkinson in the public domain are rare enough that they acquire a kind of solemnity, witnessed in the too-eager laughter that greeted the dry gags in his Westminster speech. It was also there when he took his seat in the stalls at the Barbican recently, for a performance of Theatre de Complicité's The Elephant Vanishes. There was none of the automatic camaraderie that the sighting of an entertainer can engender. Atkinson's fellow theatre-goers exhibited something like reverent fear; it was as though a religious icon had just sat down in row K.

That feeling must be close to what audiences experienced when they first got an eyeful of Atkinson at the 1978 Amnesty International benefit show, The Secret Policeman's Ball, in which he performed his note-perfect one-man sketch as a headmaster addressing an imaginary classroom of unruly schoolboys. The pleasures in his delivery are numerous, from the crackling enunciation of ridiculous names as he calls the register ("Nancyboy-Potter... Orifice...Plectrum...") to the terror that he strikes into the audience with his sardonic put-downs and unheralded rage. That headmaster stays with you; he has informed Atkinson's career and persona more strongly than any other character he has played.

Performing was not initially on the agenda for the young Atkinson. He was born into a farming family in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1955, and attended Durham's Chorister school at age 11. There he was teased mercilessly by fellow pupils who thought he looked like an alien. Two years above him was Tony Blair, described by the school's headmaster as "outgoing" compared to Atkinson, who was "shy with a slight stutter". The man who would, as Mr Bean, be all fingers and thumbs, all ungainly arms and legs, demonstrated an early technical aptitude that led to him studying electrical engineering at Newcastle University, where he not only walked off with his degree but also got the highest marks of that year. He later studied for his MSc at Oxford, which is where fate, and his burgeoning interest in comedy, intervened.

Richard Curtis recalls arriving for the first rehearsal of the Oxford University Revue in early 1976. "I noticed a funny-looking fellow skulking in the corner who didn't say a word. As it turned out the funny-looking chap was Rowan Atkinson. He did a monologue about driving followed by the thing he still does now, where he mimes and talks at the same time. It was unlike anything else I had ever seen. It was pure genius. He got every single laugh in the summer show. I did have one quite funny monologue, but just before opening we decided to give it to Rowan because he would be funnier."

Atkinson and Curtis began writing and performing together, with Curtis as part straight man, part whipping boy. The experience later surfaced in Curtis's first screenplay The Tall Guy (1989), in which Jeff Goldblum plays the galumphing stooge to Atkinson's sadistic superstar, Ron Anderson. (Note the shared initials of actor and character.) The palpable bitterness as Curtis mines his recent past for comic anguish, not to mention Atkinson's gruesome relish at playing someone entirely devoid of ethics or principles, makes this a valuable insight into the dynamics of comedy double acts.

In the summer of 1976, Atkinson was spotted at the Edinburgh Festival by the television producer John Lloyd, who vowed to make him more famous than Chaplin. When you're watching Mr Bean on the malfunctioning TV set in a Portuguese hotel room, or you realise that Atkinson's face has monopolised every in-flight entertainment channel on every flight you've ever taken, it can seem very much as though Lloyd made good on his promise.

The first widespread success experienced by Atkinson was on the TV sketch series Not the Nine O'Clock News, in which Lloyd teamed him with Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson. (Curtis also came on board as co-writer.) Time has blunted that show's claws, but it was a naughty, nasty little treat that didn't outstay its welcome. Another hit awaited Atkinson in the 1980s when he and Curtis collaborated on Blackadder. The first series had great production values and dud gags; it also had no discernible hero, with Atkinson giving one of the few misjudged performances of his career, as an imbecilic coward. Ben Elton was drafted in to marshal the show's promising ideas into some kind of order, and the result was a bawdy ensemble hit that cleverly exploited the conspiratorial element in Atkinson's comic sadism. He was still a wretch, but he was a clever wretch, and the audience was made complicit in every opportunistic scheme he cooked up.

After its initial false start, the show ran for three faultless series, by which time Atkinson and Curtis had revived the Mr Bean character from their early shows together and were busy using him to take over the world. It was like the second coming of Benny Hill: in its judicious deployment of the international language of slapstick and embarrassment, the show crossed cultural boundaries and became highly regarded in most of the 94 countries where it has been seen. The 1997 film version, Bean, took a staggering £152m worldwide.

In the years since the end of Blackadder and the rise of Mr Bean, Atkinson has had one quiet flop (Elton's self-consciously twee sitcom The Thin Blue Line), two children and several years off in which he collected and raced cars. He has earned some substantial fees from voice work for Disney, as well as various low-rent, high-paying Hollywood cameos in such films as Rat Race (2001) and Scooby Doo (2002). His 15 per cent stake in the film and TV company Tiger Aspect has also gone some way toward making life in his Oxfordshire pile exceedingly comfortable. And he got some pocket money recently by suing the Daily Mail for libel after it claimed falsely that he had suffered severe depression; his winnings went to charity.

Despite his material comforts, he has nevertheless expressed a desire to recapture the spikiness of his early work on Not the Nine O'Clock News. "There's a part of me that yearns for that ... danger," he has mused. Curtis, in turn, has provided a different perspective: "Row has this sentimental yearning for satire, but the truth is that it doesn't come naturally to either of us. He was absolutely never a satirist. At the same time, I know what he means. As you get older, you get into bigger deals; comedy is all about sitcoms and films."

This might go some way to explaining Atkinson's motivation for entering the political arena this week. Mr Bean is a lucrative phenomenon, as was Atkinson's 2003 spy spoof Johnny English. But no one could claim that these successes say anything about the modern world, except possibly that there's a sucker born every minute. By standing up to be counted, and by protecting a species of comedy that he no longer feels any pressing compulsion to practise, Atkinson is also making a plea to be included - to be acknowledged as relevant and current.

The wonder would be if he proved himself in another way - by participating in a piece of work that challenged, rather than flattered, its audience. "I remember sitting around with Richard Curtis the month after 11 September thinking of a sketch in which I'd play Osama bin Laden," he said last year. "We thought of him slipping out of his cave and singing 'Reviewing the Situation' from Oliver! and then scuttling back inside. Richard penned these absolutely outrageous and extremely amusing lyrics which we knew we'd never dare do ..."

Go on, Rowan, you want to say, do it. I dare you.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 6 January 1955, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Family: Married to Sunestra Sastry since 1990; two children, Lily and Ben.

Education: Newcastle University, Oxford University.

Career: Television: Not the Nine O'Clock News (1979); Blackadder (1983-1989); Mr Bean (1989); The Thin Blue Line (1995)

Film: The Secret Policeman's Ball (1979); The Tall Guy (1989); Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994); The Lion King (1994); Bean (1997); Johnny English (2003); Love Actually (2003).

He says...: "I don't enjoy work generally. Not because I'm lazy; it's just all so stressful and worrying. I have always worried about things more than I should. I always feel that whatever I do, I could do better. I suppose it is perfectionism. I've always believed perfectionism is more of a disease than a quality."

They say...: "He hasn't got an ounce of showbiz in him." - Stephen Fry

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