Blackadder Goes Forth to the West End

A week in the life of Rowan Atkinson. On Christmas Day, he and his wife Sunetra slipped quietly into a school in Kennington, south London, to bring some cheer to 2,000 troubled children brought together by the charity Kids Company. The comedian’s eyes welled up with tears, said one witness.

That night, Atkinson was interviewed for a BBC1 documentary celebrating 25 years of the comedy classic Blackadder. Looking ill at ease in the role of Rowan Atkinson, he made the surprising disclosure that there was at least one episode of Blackadder Goes Forth he had never seen until he happened to find it on his in-flight entertainment. “I’m not a great laugher, sadly,” he admitted, “but I might have sniggered at it, which was my way of saying that was very funny.”

And yesterday he was due on stage for two preview performances of the musical Oliver!, produced by Cameron Mackintosh at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It is testimony to his status as king of British comedy that, with little pedigree of stage acting and less singing, he is set to become the biggest attraction in London’s West End as the Jewish miser, Fagin. Unlike Alec Guinness in the controversial 1948 screen adaptation of Oliver Twist, Atkinson does not wear a prosthetic nose.

“I think the thing people will be most surprised about is the complexity of the character,” Rupert Goold, the production’s director, told the Observer. “I’m sure they expect him to be funny, but he’s delivered something that is really complex. Like Shylock, it’s one of those parts that you’d have a problematic relationship with because it’s been used as a rod to beat Jewish identity with. You can’t shy away from that. In the last preview I saw, Rowan had lost a little bit of his Jewish accent and I wanted that to come back because I don’t think it is an unsympathetic portrayal.”

Seldom has a performer been as inscrutably determined as Atkinson to let his work do the talking. An appearance on ITV1’s This Morning sofa became tortuous whenever the actor was asked a remotely personal question. He once refused to tell a journalist how many children he has. On another occasion, the Observer approached him at a party with an innocuous question about Blackadder; after an excruciatingly long pause, he replied: “No comment.” Even on Blue Peter, he appeared as Mr Bean rather than himself. His private persona, says Goold, is sometimes “like a ghost”.

Another Blackadder documentary, on the G.O.L.D. channel earlier this year, featured interviews with its writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and cast members including Robinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tim McInnerny and Miranda Richardson. All the old gang, in fact, except Atkinson.

Why the reticence? The evidence suggests that there is no great enigma, no great cliche about inner turmoil and the tears of a clown. Atkinson, who turns 54 next week, simply seems to lack the showbiz gene. He has a private hinterland of fast cars and family and the key to his brilliance may be that he sees it as nothing more and nothing less than a job. Goold added: “He’s got something that’s really important in comedy, which is taste, partly because he’s a very self-contained private man, so you don’t feel he’s somebody who’s desperate for a laugh. You get the sense that he would have the greatest 12 year old boy gift ideas.

‘Some comedians are so eager to have you love them that they’ll push that to the nth degree, whatever that takes, whereas with Rowan you feel he enjoys it like he enjoys the purr of the engine of one of his beloved cars. It’s a personal experience for him and that means he’s indifferent to vulgarity and cheap laughs.”

Tony Robinson, whose Baldrick tormented Blackadder with every “cunning plan”, echoes the sentiment. “He’s one of the few mega performers who genuinely has a full and fulfilling life away from showbusiness,” he said last week. “In my experience, I can’t tell you how rare that is. He has a beautiful wife and family and good on him. Yet he remains for me the consummate comedy performer of his generation.”

Robinson added: “He’s a very shy man, so it’s not like the first time that you meet someone such as Rik Mayall or Mel Smith where you’ve overwhelmed by the force of their personality. When he’s not working, you are unlikely to realise that he’s in the room, but as soon as he starts, all attention focuses on him, partly because of this extraordinary supreme talent that he’s got.”

Performing was not in his blood. Atkinson was the third son growing up on a 400-acre farm and attended Durham’s Chorister School aged 11, where he was teased 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 with Atkinson, who was “shy with a slight stutter”. He went to Newcastle University and studied engineering, before arriving at Queen’s College, Oxford, for an MSc in engineering science.

When he turned up at the Oxford sketch writing group, he reminded fellow student Richard Curtis of a cushion: sitting on a chair and saying nothing. Curtis recalled: “I thought he was a stuffed toy because he didn’t say anything for the first three meetings – just a curiously shaped object in the corner. Then just when we were trying to decide what the material should be, and we’d all been handing in sketches for months, Rowan actually stood up and did two absolutely astonishing sketches.”

Atkinson dazzled at the Edinburgh Festival and toured with Angus Deayton as his straight man. At Amnesty International’s benefit, The Secret Policeman’s Ball, in 1979 he performed a hilarious sketch as a headmaster addressing a room of schoolboys. He then joined Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson in the vanguard of alternative comedy, the sketch series Not the Nine O’Clock News. Two years later, he became the youngest performer to have a one-man show in the West End.

Then came four series as Edmund Blackadder in the sprawling comical chronicle of English history now regarded as a gold-plated classic, ranking with or even surpassing Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers. By the final series, set in the First World War trenches, Atkinson found in the character a cynical antihero worthy of Catch-22’s Yossarian. The climax touched greatness with Blackadder pretending to be mad in a failed bid to get out of the maddest situation in history.

“I just remember feeling the impending doom over my character,” Atkinson said. “I remember feeling this strange knot in the pit of my stomach. It was the first time as an actor that I had felt the predicament of my character. I was going to die at the end of the week.”

It has since been observed that the world is divided into two irreconcilable schools: fans of Blackadder and fans of Atkinson’s next manifestation, Mr Bean. The former, which started on BBC2, was Oxbridge satire with clever wordplay in the tradition of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Monty Python. The latter, on ITV, was physical humour with minimal dialogue in the tradition of Benny Hill. It has shown a similar ability to cross cultural boundaries, gaining audiences in a hundred countries. The 1997 film version, Bean, took £152m to become the most lucrative British film of all time and was followed by Mr Bean’s Holiday last year.

Atkinson, whose Eurosceptic brother Rodney is a former UK Independence Party candidate, made a rare foray into politics when he campaigned successfully against the government’s proposals to outlaw “incitement to religious hatred”, arguing that they would in effect criminalise the telling of Catholic, Jewish or Muslim jokes. He has had a mild flop, with the BBC TV series The Thin Blue Line and made several Hollywood appearances, although he once opined that the only film he was really proud of being in was Four Weddings and a Funeral

His 15 per cent stake in the film and TV company Tiger Aspect has helped generated a personal fortune estimated at anywhere from £65m to £100m. On a typical day, he is likely to be relaxing at his Chelsea townhouse or driving go-karts round the tennis court of his country pile, a former rectory in the Oxfordshire village of Waterperry.

The actor’s great extravagance is collecting vintage cars and driving them at events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed. John Lloyd, his long-time producer, once summed Atkinson up thus: “He is certainly not a workaholic. He once said to me that he wasn’t bothered about going into showbusiness, but it was the only way he could find of affording the cars he wanted. I think that’s why, in interviews, he doesn’t think his private life is anybody’s business. There’s no article to be written airing his dirty laundry. He’s just a blameless family guy.”

So don’t expect Atkinson to treat the first-night reviews of Oliver!, including his ability to sing “You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two, boys” eight times a week, as a matter of life and death. But equally, expect something special from a man who, like the best of wits, has nothing to declare but his genius.

The Atkinson Lowdown

Born: Rowan Sebastian Atkinson in Gosforth, near Newcastle, on 6 January 1955, the youngest of three sons of farmers Eric and Ella Atkinson. He married Sunestra Sastry, a make-up artist on Blackadder, at the Russian Tea Room in New York in 1990; they have two children, Lily and Benjamin.

Best of times: Critically, Blackadder, in which Atkinson coined immortal comic lines such as: “He’s madder than Mad Jack McMad, the winner of last year’s Mr Madman Competition.” Commercially, Mr Bean, in which his rubber face and elastic body earned comparisons with Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel.

Worst of times: A 1986 attempt to crack Broadway ended three weeks after New York Times critic Frank Rich condemned his “toilet humour”. In 2001, the pilot of a Cessna plane in which Atkinson and his family were flying from Mombasa to Nairobi passed out, but Atkinson took the controls and saved the day.

What he says: “Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing in showbusiness. It’s as though I wandered in accidentally and there’s no way out. People who meet me think, ‘What a miserable git.’”

What they say: “Rowan has not one ounce of showbiz in his life. It is as if God had an extra jar of comic talent and for a joke gave it to a nerdy, anoraked northern chemist.” Stephen Fry, Blackadder co-star and best man at Atkinson’s wedding.

Source: Guardian Unlimited