Fears of a clown – The Rowan Atkinson interview
He’s the rubber-faced joker with millions in the bank and a 007 spoof on the way, yet Rowan Atkinson would still swap the burden of comedy for the joy of fixing a plug.
Sunday March 30, 2003
In early 1976 a group of young Oxford students would meet to discuss sketch material for the summer review. Richard Curtis noticed this rather odd electrical engineering PhD student who always turned up but failed to utter a single word. In the final meeting, the 19-year-old Curtis read out what he describes as a ‘rather feeble sketch’. Then the dark, silent one stood up and overcame his stutter. ‘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.’
Within three years, Rowan Atkinson was a star. The excessively shy farmer’s son had grown up obsessed with all things electrical – Curtis says he was always locked away in his room at Oxford with a fusing iron, making an electric organ – and it seems the comedy was almost an accident. Still, by 1979 he was appearing in the ground-breaking satirical sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News alongside Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson (with Curtis as co-writer). Not the Nine O’Clock News was as short-lived as it was vital but it showcased a new generation of comic talent.
For a few years Atkinson went off and did his own thing (including The Secret Policeman’s Ball) before meeting up with Curtis again in the early Eighties to create Blackadder. Co-written by Curtis and starring Atkinson, Tim McInnerny and Tony Robinson, later joined by Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Miranda Richardson, it was a surprise hit. Wordy, dense and super-smart, it was not ostensibly mainstream but became so popular that it was unable to maintain cult status for long and television repeats continued throughout the Nineties.
By the end of the Eighties, Atkinson’s portrayal of the caustic Lord Edmund Blackadder had won him several awards; he was taken seriously and held in high regard. Then he brought Mr Bean to television. The character had existed for 10 years before he was even given a name; Curtis recalls sitting around at Oxford watching Atkinson perform silent sketches of this hopelessly self-centred, unaware character. ‘I’ve never laughed so much in my life,’ says the co-writer of Mr Bean, barely able to hold in a snigger even now. But while the deceptively simple Mr Bean has won an Emmy and a Golden Rose of Montreux, to name but two overseas awards, it has never been recognised here in the same way.
Whether or not you find its silent slapstick funny, Mr Bean is a phenomenon; the highest-rating comedy show on commercial TV in the Nineties, it has been sold to more than 245 countries and 50 airlines. The film Bean took £152 million worldwide, making it the third highest-grossing UK film ever. Such international success, of course, means that Atkinson, worth in excess of £65m, is one of TV’s wealthiest stars. And Curtis, who has been friends with him for almost 30 years, has some good news: ‘Row just improves with age.’
Rowan Atkinson leads the way into a suite at the Dorchester. Although it’s a sunny day, the room is shadowy and, pulling strange faces, he flicks all the lights on and off in a slightly manic style before finding the appropriate setting. He sits on the sofa and pours a cup of Earl Grey, milk no sugar. He has a reputation for being awkward and even rude with the press; perhaps this is partly due to the stammer which has never quite gone away.
As long as he’s not wound up, Atkinson is polite, gentle, dry. He is well-spoken, coming from a family of wealthy farmers in the Northeast who sent him to Durham’s historic Chorister school (Tony Blair was a fellow pupil). Curtis says Atkinson is ‘very unhaunted by fame’. This may be true in the sense that he is very private and unimpressed by celebrity, but it doesn’t mean that, at 48, he’s necessarily at ease with himself professionally.
We talk about his new film, Johnny English, in which he plays a hapless spy: Bean does 007. Based on his character in the Barclaycard commercials, it is directed by Peter Howitt and co-stars Ben Miller, Natalie Imbruglia and John Malkovich. There are some very funny scenes in which Atkinson – borrowing a little from John Cleese, his childhood hero – proves that accumulating all that money has done nothing to take the edge off his comedy.
I ask if he enjoyed making Johnny English. He sits back in the sofa, stretching out his famously long legs. ‘Nope, 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. It’s particularly bad with Mr Bean because then you don’t even have valuable props… sorry, that’s a terrible word. Support.’
He sips his tea. ‘I loved doing Blackadder because there was a fantastic sense of shared responsibility; there were half a dozen very able performers so there was a great sense of sharing the worry. But I always feel that whatever I do, I could do better. I suppose it is perfectionism.’ A wry smile. ‘I have to say that I’ve always believed perfectionism is more of a disease than a quality. I do try to go with the flow but I can’t let go. I’ve been involved in every stage of Johnny English and now I can’t wait to see the back of it. In the nicest possible way, of course.’
Atkinson is not so self-critical that he is unable to realise the quality of his back catalogue. ‘If enough time passes, I can forget the torment of the process. I was on a plane about a year ago and I watched an episode of Blackadder that I’d never seen before. I couldn’t remember any of the lines or being in any of the scenes.’ He laughs. ‘But there was one joke. Someone asked, “Do you always have a cigarette after making love?” And the response was: “Yes, I do. Back home I’m a 20-a-day man.” Feeble joke, but funny.’
He says the Blackadder set was often stressful, with a number of people slightly unhappy about what was going on and who was saying what and to whom. ‘Occasionally it got a bit frosty and negative. But, generally speaking, it was just people staring at the ceiling and thinking about a line for 25 minutes. It was fun but tiring. Very tiring.’ He appears to wilt as he remembers.
According to Curtis, Atkinson is resistant to hard labour. He feels better if he can see the immediate result of his work, which is why he often gets led astray by some practical task. ‘We would have a rehearsal for something and Row would be missing for an hour,’ says Curtis. ‘He was off changing plugs; he enjoys technical pottering. He doesn’t like shouldering the burden to succeed creatively at all.’
In some ways it’s remarkable that Atkinson manages to do any work at all. He hardly needs the money and the perfectionism must, at times, prove almost debilitating. When he’s not working, Atkinson spends time with his wife and two young children in their rambling Home Counties mansion. Or, he occasionally writes about cars and races his Aston Martin V8 Zagato (he takes this very seriously, too, although he has yet to win a race). Despite owning six or seven cars, he doesn’t like to be thought of as a car collector. He doesn’t think his hobby should be about showing off.
He drives the family around in an Audi A8 and drives himself in a McLaren F1. He was in the McLaren when he rear-ended a woman’s Rover Metro while driving along the A6, which of course made all the tabloids the next day. He wriggles around, raising an eyebrow at the mention of it. ‘Ah yes. The prang was embarrassingly low-speed and therefore not related to my handling of the car, thank God. I was very, very lucky.’
Although the cars are fun and work is often painful, he admits we will probably see more of Mr Bean: ‘When the film came out in 1997, I’d been playing Bean on TV for six or seven years and that felt long enough. Now I’m beginning to think about doing another movie. I love playing him. I find him absolutely fascinating. It’s such a fantastic escape to be able to play a character so completely… unpleasant and vindictive.’
He claims not to miss the creative process when he’s taking time off but does occasionally wish he was involved in a project such as Not the Nine O’Clock News, especially at times of political tension. For a long time after the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan era, politics lacked caricatures, but the world has changed again in the past 18 months. ‘I remember sitting around with Richard Curtis the month after 11 September thinking of a sketch in which I’d play Osama bin Laden. Wearing a beard, I’d probably bear a slight resemblance to him. We thought of him slipping out of his cave and singing “Reviewing the Situation” from Oliver! and then scuttling back inside.’
He starts to giggle. ‘Richard penned these absolutely outrageous and extremely amusing lyrics which we knew we’d never dare do, partly because we’re not involved in any topical comedy programme but also because we’re a lot more scared now than we were in 1976 when we first met.’ He sighs. ‘Still, there’s a part of me that yearns for that… danger.’
Curtis, in turn, thinks Atkinson is being nostalgic. ‘Row has this sentimental yearning for satire, but the truth is that we were the least satirical of the Not the Nine O’Clock News lot. 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. Row definitely misses the speed of Not the Nine O’Clock News .’
Atkinson loves what he’s seen of Alan Partridge and The Office. The low-key, reality-based comedy that has emerged in the past few years has impressed him. He has occasionally experimented with naturalistic comedy but has found he’s much better at extreme, exaggerated performances. He will always suit slapstick and always excel at visual, physical comedy.
While he’s interested in what his family and friends think about his work, they are not a motivating force; he doesn’t feel as though he needs their approval. ‘It’s myself and the audience out there who I’m interested in,’ he says. Is he confident about his instincts? ‘I think I have an inner confidence that my tastes are pretty simple, that what I find funny finds a wide audience. I’m not particularly intellectual or clever or minority-focused in my creative instincts. And I’m certainly not aware of suppressing more sophisticated ambitions.’
Although he is happy enough to promote Johnny English because he believes it’s a good British comedy, Rowan Atkinson isn’t hanging around. ‘I’m very good at having time off. I tend to take whole years off – I had 1994 and 1997 off. I find it very easy; I just love pottering around doing normal things.’ He sits back in the sofa and smiles. ‘I’m not planning to do anything for the rest of this year or next. Or anything else. Ever.’ He laughs. ‘Well, maybe one more Mr Bean movie…’
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003