ATKINSON, ROWAN

British Actor

By the mid-1990s Rowan Atkinson had achieved a certain ubiquity in British popular-cultural life, with comedy series (and their reruns) on television, character roles in leading films, and even life-size cutouts placed in branches of a major bank--a consequence of his advertisments for the bank. Yet, despite Atkinson's high profile, his career has been one of cautious progressions, refining and modestly extending his repertoire of comic personae. As one of his regular writers, Ben Elton, has commented, Atkinson is content to await the roles and vehicles that will suit him rather than constantly seek the limelight.

After revue work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and London's Hampstead Theatre in the 1970s, Atkinson first achieved prominence as one quarter of the team in the BBC's satirical review Not the Nine O'Clock News (broadcast on BBC2 while the Nine O'Clock News occupied BBC1). After a decade in which British satire had diminished, in the wake of the expiration of the Monty Python series, a "second wave" was thereby ushered in just as a new Conservative Government took power in 1979. The four performers--also including Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, who later formed a successful production company together, and talented comedienne Pamela Stephenson--had similar university backgrounds to those of the earlier generations of British television satire since Beyond the Fringe. But the show's rapid-sketch format, often accompanied by a driving soundtrack, was less concerned with elaborate deflations of British political and social institutions or Pythonesque surreal narratives; instead, it was rather more a combination of guerilla sniping and playful parody, loosely held together by fake news announcements (the most political and topical parts of the programme). Though the quality of the writing varied hugely, Atkinson succeeded most clearly in developing an individual presence through what were to become his comic trademarks--the gawky physicality, the abundance of comic facial expressions from sneering distaste to sublime idiocy, his shifting mood changes and vocal registers from nerdish obsequiousness to bombast, and his ability to create bizarre characterisations, such as his ranting audience member (planted among the show's actual studio audience) or his nonsense-speaker of biblical passages.

From being the "first among equals" in Not the Nine O'Clock News Atkinson moved centre stage to play Edmund Blackadder in the highly innovative Blackadder (also for the BBC), co-written by Elton and Richard Curtis, the latter a writer of Atkinson's stage shows. The first series was set in a medieval English court, with Edmund Blackadder as a hapless prince in waiting; subsequent series travelled forwards in time to portray successive generations of Blackadders, in which Edmund became courtier in Elizabethan England, then courtier during the Regency period, and finally Captain Blackadder in the trenches of World War I. With a regular core cast, who constantly refined their performances as the writers honed their scripts, the series combined, with increasing success, a sharpening satirical thrust with an escapist, schoolboyish sense of the absurd. The format served Atkinson extremely well in allowing him to play out variations on a character-theme, balancing consistency with change. While all the incarnations of Edmund Blackadder pitted the rational, frustrated, and much put-upon--though intellectually superior--individual against environments in which the insane, tyrannical, and psycopathic vied for dominance, the youthful, gawky Prince of the first series evolved through the wishful, self-aggrandising courtier of the 1800s, to the older, moustachioed, world-weary soldier attempting merely to stay alive amid the mayhem of war. While the Blackadder series undoubtedly took time to find its feet, the attention to detail in all matters, from script to opening credits and period pastiche music, produced in the World War I series a highly successful blend of brilliantly conceived and executed characterisations, a situation combining historical absurdity and tragedy, and a poignant narrative trajectory towards final disaster: in the last episode, Blackadder and his entourage finally did go "over the top" into no man's land and to their deaths, as in one last trick of time the trenches dissolved into the eerily silent fields that they are today. In his portrayal of the cynical yet basically decent Captain Blackadder, Atkinson created a kind of English middle-class version of Hasek's Schweik, whose attempts to evade pointless self-sacrifice turn him unwittingly into a "little-man" hero in a world of pathological generals and power brokers. Atkinson's own career write-up describes Blackadder as a "situation tragedy", and though the comment may be meant humorously, the phrase neatly summarises the series' genre-transgressing qualities.

If Blackadder exploited Atkinson's skills at very English forms of witty verbal comedy and one-upmanship, his persona in the Mr Bean series linked him with another tradition--that of silent film comics, notably Buster Keaton. Though silent-comedy "specials" have made occasional appearances on British television, this was an innovative attempt to pursue the mode throughout a string of episodes. Inevitably, Atkinson also became, to a much greater degree extent than previously, conceiver and creater of a character, though Curtis again had writing credits. In Mr Bean Atkinson portrays a kind of small-minded, nerdish bachelor, simultaneously appallingly innocent of the ways of the world, yet, in his solipsistic lifestyle, deeply selfish and mean-spirited: the pathetic and the contemptible are here closely allied. It is a comedy of ineptitude, as Bean's attempts to meet women, decorate his flat, host a New Year's Eve party, and so on, all become calamitous, his incapabilities compunded by a seemingly malevolent fate. With its sources in some of his earlier characterisations, Atkinson has been able to exploit his physical gawkiness and plunder his repertoire of expressions in the role. While Blackadder's university wit achieved popularity with mainly younger audiences, the Mr Bean format of eccentric protaganist in perpetual conflict with his intractable world took Atkinson fully into the mainstream, with its appeal to all ages. And, though having some specific resonances for British audiences in its ambience of drab bed-sitter life, its deliberate and almost Beckettian reductionism--man versus the world (and the word) and its objects--has meant the series has translated to other cultures, and has been commercially successful around the world. At the time of writing, a feature-film version is in the making by Atkinson's own production company.

 


Rowan Atkinson
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

Atkinson's latest television role has been a kind of merging of the otherworldliness of Mr Bean with the witty barbs of Blackadder. He plays a middle-ranking, idealistic, uniformed policeman, with an absolute respect for the values of the law and the job, often ridiculed by his more cynical colleagues. This new series, widely seen as writer Ben Elton's attempt to create a character-based comedy in similar vein to the classic Dad's Army (much-adored by Elton and many others), has thus far received mixed reviews. Since the gentler, insinuating humour of such comedy by its nature takes time to have its effects, as audiences need to build up sufficient familiarity with the charcters and their traits and foibles, it is at present too early to tell whether this bold attempt to reinvigorate an older formula will succeed in terms of ratings or critical estimation. For Atkinson, though, it is something of a logical progression--a variation not a revolution, and a further integration into the comic mainstream.

So far Atkinson has given no sign of any desire to break out of the character portrayals for which he is renowned. Though his film work has included some strongly defined subsidiary roles (such as his bumbling ingénu vicar in Four Weddings and a Funeral), he has not attempted to make the move into serious drama, and has never had call to portray genuine and serious emotions. (Indeed, almost all of his comic characters exude a separateness from other human beings--Blackadder is generally uninterested in women, Bean cannot make contact with prospective partners or friends, and Atkinson's policeman has a fragile relationship with a female colleague constantly undermined by his feebleness and passionlessness.) This apparent avoidance of roles demanding emotional display may indicate limitations in his acting range. But Atkinson himself may well regard it more as a choice to concentrate on a steady perfection and crafting of the kind of comic characterisation now so closely identified with him.

-Mark Hawkins-Dady

ROWAN (SEBASTIAN) ATKINSON. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 6 January 1955. Attended Durham Cathedral Choristers' School; St Bees School; Newcastle University; Queen's College, Oxford(BSc, MSc). Married Sunetra Sastry in 1990; one son. Launched career as professional comedian, actor and writer after experience in university revues; established reputation in Not the Nine O'Clock News alternative comedy series and later acclaimed as the characters Blackadder and Mr Bean; youngest person to have a one-man show in London's West End, 1981; runs Tiger Television production company. Recipient: Variety Club BBC Personality of the Year award, 1980; BAFTA Best Light Entertainment Performance award, 1989. Address: PBJ Management Ltd, 5 Soho Square, London W1V 5DE, U.K.

TELEVISION SERIES

1979 Canned Laughter
1979-82 Not the Nine O'Clock News (also co-writer)
1983 The Black Adder
1985 Blackadder II
1987 Blackadder the Third
1989 Blackadder Goes Forth
1990-91 Mr Bean (also co-writer)
1991-94 The Return of Mr Bean (also co-writer)
1991-94 The Curse of Mr Bean (also co-writer)
1995 The Thin Blue Line

TELEVISION SPECIALS

1987 Just for Laughs II
1989 Blackadder's Christmas Carol

FILMS

The Secret Policeman's Ball, 1981 (also co-writer); The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, 1982; Never Say Never Again, 1983; The Tall Guy, 1989; The Appointment of Dennis Jennings, 1989; The Witches, 1990; Camden Town Boy, 1991; Hot Shots! Part Deux, 1993; The Lion King, 1994 (voice only); Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994.

STAGE

Beyond a Joke, 1978; Rowan Atkinson, 1981; The Nerd, 1984; The New Revue, 1986; The Sneeze, 1988.

FURTHER READING

O'Connor, John J. "Mr. Bean." The New York Times, 2 April 1992.

O'Steen, Kathleen. "Mr Bean." Variety (Los Angeles), 6 April 1992.

Schine, Cathleen. "Blackadder." Vogue (New York), February 1990.