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Rowan Atkinson

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Rowan Atkinson
CBE
Rowan Atkinson 2011 2 cropped.jpg
Rowan Atkinson at the premiere for Johnny English Reborn in September 2011
Birth nameRowan Sebastian Atkinson
Born (1955-01-06) 6 January 1955 (age 66)
Consett, County Durham, England
Medium
Alma mater
Years active1978–present
Spouse
Sunetra Sastry
(m. 1990; div. 2015)
Partner(s)Louise Ford[1]
Relative(s)Rodney Atkinson (brother)
SignatureSignature of Rowan Atkinson.svg

Rowan Sebastian Atkinson CBE (born 6 January 1955) is an English actor, comedian, and writer. He is best known for his work on the sitcoms Blackadder (1983–1989) and Mr. Bean (1990–1995). Atkinson first came to prominence in the BBC sketch comedy show Not the Nine O'Clock News (1979–1982), receiving the 1981 BAFTA for Best Entertainment Performance, and via his participation in The Secret Policeman's Ball (1979). His other work includes the James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983), playing a bumbling vicar in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), voicing the red-billed hornbill Zazu in The Lion King (1994), and playing jewellery salesman Rufus in Love Actually (2003). Atkinson also featured in the BBC sitcom The Thin Blue Line (1995–1996). His work in theatre includes the role of Fagin in the 2009 West End revival of the musical Oliver!.

Atkinson was listed in The Observer as one of the 50 funniest actors in British comedy in 2007,[3] and among the top 50 comedians ever, in a 2005 poll of fellow comedians.[4] Throughout his career, he has collaborated with screenwriter Richard Curtis and composer Howard Goodall, both of whom he met at the Oxford University Dramatic Society during the 1970s. In addition to his 1981 BAFTA, Atkinson received an Olivier Award for his 1981 West End theatre performance in Rowan Atkinson in Revue. He has had cinematic success with his performances in the Mr. Bean film adaptations Bean (1997) and Mr. Bean's Holiday (2007), and also in the Johnny English film series (2003–2018). He also appeared as the titular character in Maigret (2016–2017). Atkinson was appointed a CBE in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to drama and charity.

Early life

Atkinson was born in Consett, County Durham, England, on 6 January 1955.[5][6][7] The youngest of four boys, his parents were Eric Atkinson, a farmer and company director, and Ella May (née Bainbridge), who married on 29 June 1945.[7] His three older brothers are Paul, who died as an infant; Rodney, a Eurosceptic economist who narrowly lost the UK Independence Party leadership election in 2000; and Rupert.[8][9]

Atkinson was brought up Anglican,[10] and was educated at Durham Choristers School, a preparatory school, and then at St Bees School. Rodney, Rowan and their older brother Rupert were brought up in Consett and went to school with the future Prime Minister, Tony Blair, at Durham Choristers.[11] After receiving top grades in science A levels,[12] he secured a place at Newcastle University, where he received a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering.[13] In 1975, he continued for the degree of MSc in Electrical Engineering at The Queen's College, Oxford, the same college where his father matriculated in 1935,[14] and which made Atkinson an Honorary Fellow in 2006.[15] His MSc thesis, published in 1978, considered the application of self-tuning control.[16]

Atkinson briefly embarked in doctoral work before devoting his full attention to acting.[17] First winning national attention in The Oxford Revue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 1976,[13] he had already written and performed sketches for shows in Oxford by the Etceteras – the revue group of the Experimental Theatre Club (ETC) – and for the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS), meeting writer Richard Curtis,[13] and composer Howard Goodall, with whom he would continue to collaborate during his career.

Career

Radio

Atkinson starred in a series of comedy shows for BBC Radio 3 in 1979 called The Atkinson People. It consisted of a series of satirical interviews with fictional great men, who were played by Atkinson himself. The series was written by Atkinson and Richard Curtis, and produced by Griff Rhys Jones.[18]

Television

After university, Atkinson did a one-off pilot for London Weekend Television in 1979 called Canned Laughter. Atkinson then went on to do Not the Nine O'Clock News for the BBC, produced by his friend John Lloyd. He featured in the show with Pamela Stephenson, Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, and was one of the main sketch writers.

The success of Not the Nine O'Clock News led to him taking the lead role of Edmund Blackadder in Blackadder. The first series The Black Adder (1983), set in medieval period, Atkinson co-wrote with Richard Curtis. After a three-year gap, in part due to budgetary concerns, a second series was broadcast, written by Curtis and Ben Elton. Blackadder II (1986) followed the fortunes of one of the descendants of Atkinson's original character, this time in the Elizabethan era. The same pattern was repeated in the two more sequels Blackadder the Third (1987), set in the Regency era, and Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), set in World War I. The Blackadder series became one of the most successful of all BBC situation comedies, spawning television specials including Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988), Blackadder: The Cavalier Years (1988), and later Blackadder: Back & Forth (1999), which was set at the turn of the Millennium. The final scene of "Blackadder Goes Forth" (when Blackadder and his men go "over the top" and charge into No-Man's-Land) has been described as "bold and highly poignant".[19] Possessing an acerbic wit and armed with numerous quick put-downs (which are often wasted on those at whom they are directed), in a 2001 Channel 4 poll Edmund Blackadder was ranked third (behind Homer Simpson from The Simpsons and Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers) on their list of the 100 Greatest TV Characters.[20][21] During the 2014 centennial of the start of World War I, Conservative Party politician Michael Gove and war historian Max Hastings complained about the so-called "Blackadder version of history".[22][23][24]

Atkinson in 1997, promoting Bean. In 2014, young adults from abroad named Mr. Bean among a group of people they most associated with British culture.[25]

Atkinson's other creation, the hapless Mr. Bean, first appeared on New Year's Day in 1990 in a half-hour special for Thames Television. The character of Mr. Bean has been likened to a modern-day Buster Keaton,[26] but Atkinson himself has stated that Jacques Tati's character Monsieur Hulot was the main inspiration.[27] Atkinson states, "The essence of Mr Bean is that he's entirely selfish and self-centred and doesn't actually acknowledge the outside world. He's a child in a man's body. Which is what most visual comedians are about: Stan Laurel, Chaplin, Benny Hill."[28]

Several sequels to Mr. Bean appeared on television until 1995, and the character later appeared in a feature film. Bean (1997) was directed by Mel Smith, Atkinson's colleague in Not the Nine O'Clock News. A second film, Mr. Bean's Holiday, was released in 2007. Atkinson portrayed Inspector Raymond Fowler in The Thin Blue Line (1995–96), a television sitcom written by Ben Elton, which takes place in a police station located in fictitious Gasforth.

Atkinson has fronted campaigns for Kronenbourg,[29] Fujifilm, and Give Blood. He appeared as a hapless and error-prone espionage agent named Richard Lathum in a long-running series of adverts for Barclaycard, on which character his title role in Johnny English, Johnny English Reborn and Johnny English Strikes Again was based. In 1999, he played the Doctor in The Curse of Fatal Death, a special Doctor Who serial produced for the charity telethon Comic Relief.[30] Atkinson appeared as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car on the BBC's Top Gear in July 2011, driving the Kia Cee'd around the track in 1:42.2. Placing him at the top of the leaderboard, his lap time was significantly quicker than the previous high-profile record holder Tom Cruise, whose time was a 1:44.2.[31]

Atkinson appeared at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in London as Mr. Bean in a comedy sketch during a performance of "Chariots of Fire", playing a repeated single note on synthesizer.[32] He then lapsed into a dream sequence in which he joined the runners from the film of the same name (about the 1924 Summer Olympics), beating them in their iconic run along West Sands at St. Andrews, by riding in a minicab and tripping the front runner.[33] Atkinson starred as Jules Maigret in Maigret, a series of television films from ITV.[34]

Retirement of Mr. Bean Live

In November 2012, it emerged that Rowan Atkinson intended to retire Mr. Bean. "The stuff that has been most commercially successful for me – basically quite physical, quite childish – I increasingly feel I'm going to do a lot less of," Atkinson told The Daily Telegraph's Review. "Apart from the fact that your physical ability starts to decline, I also think someone in their 50s being childlike becomes a little sad. You've got to be careful."[35] He has also said that the role typecast him to a degree.[36] Despite these comments, Atkinson said in 2016 that he would never retire the character of Mr. Bean.[37]

In October 2014, Atkinson also appeared as Mr. Bean in a TV advert for Snickers.[38] In 2015, he starred alongside Ben Miller and Rebecca Front in a sketch for BBC Red Nose Day in which Mr. Bean attends a funeral.[39]

In 2017, he appeared as Mr. Bean in the Chinese film Huan Le Xi Ju Ren.[40] In October 2018, Atkinson (as Mr. Bean) received YouTube's Diamond Play Button for his channel surpassing 10 million subscribers on the video platform. Among the most-watched channels in the world, in 2018 it had more than 6.5 billion views.[41][42] Mr. Bean is also among the most-followed Facebook pages with 94 million followers in July 2020, "more than the likes of Rihanna, Manchester United or Harry Potter".[42]

Animated Mr. Bean

In January 2014, ITV announced a new animated series featuring Mr. Bean with Rowan Atkinson returning to the role. It was expected to be released online as a Web-series later in 2014, as a television broadcast followed shortly after.[43]

On 6 February 2018, Regular Capital announced that there would be a fifth series of Mr. Bean: The Animated Series in 2019 (voiced by Atkinson). Consisting of 26 episodes, the first two segments, "Game Over" and "Special Delivery", aired on 29 April 2019 on CITV in the UK as well as on Turner channels worldwide.[44][45] All five series (104 episodes) were also sold to Chinese children's channel CCTV-14 in February 2019.[42]

Film

Atkinson at the 2011 premiere of Johnny English Reborn

Atkinson's film career began with a supporting part in the "unofficial" James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1983) and a leading role in Dead on Time (also 1983) with Nigel Hawthorne. He was in the 1988 Oscar-winning short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings. He appeared in Mel Smith's directorial debut The Tall Guy (1989) and appeared alongside Anjelica Huston and Mai Zetterling in The Witches (1990), a film adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's novel. He played the part of Dexter Hayman in Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), a parody of Rambo III, starring Charlie Sheen.

Atkinson gained further recognition as a verbally bumbling vicar in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, written and directed by his long time collaborator Richard Curtis), and featured in Disney's The Lion King (also 1994) as the voice of Zazu the red-billed hornbill. He also sang the song "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" in The Lion King. Atkinson continued to appear in supporting roles in comedies, including Rat Race (2001), Scooby-Doo (2002), jewellery salesman Rufus in another Richard Curtis British-set romantic comedy, Love Actually (2003), and the crime comedy Keeping Mum (2005), which also starred Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, and Patrick Swayze.

In addition to his supporting roles, Atkinson has also had success as a leading man. His television character Mr. Bean debuted on the big screen with Bean (1997) to international success. A sequel, Mr. Bean's Holiday (2007), (again inspired to some extent by Jacques Tati in his film Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot), also became an international success. He has also starred in the James Bond parody Johnny English film series (2003–2018).[46]

Theatre

Rowan Atkinson performed live on-stage skits – also appearing with members of Monty Python – in The Secret Policeman's Ball (1979) in London for Amnesty International.[47] Atkinson undertook a four-month tour of the UK in 1980. A recording of the stage performance was subsequently released as Live in Belfast.

In 1984, Atkinson appeared in a West End version of the comedy play The Nerd alongside a 10-year-old Christian Bale.[48] The Sneeze and Other Stories, seven short Anton Chekhov plays, translated and adapted by Michael Frayn, were performed by Rowan Atkinson, Timothy West and Cheryl Campbell at the Aldwych Theatre, London in 1988 and early 1989.[49]

Oliver! billboard at the West End's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 2009.

In 2009, during the West End revival of the musical Oliver! based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, Atkinson played the role of Fagin.[50] His portrayal and singing of Fagin at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London gained favourable reviews and he was nominated for an Olivier Award for best actor in a musical or entertainment.[51]

On 28 November 2012, Rowan Atkinson reprised the role of Blackadder at the "We are Most Amused" comedy gala for The Prince's Trust at the Royal Albert Hall in London. He was joined by Tony Robinson as Baldrick. The sketch involved the first new Blackadder material for 10 years, with Blackadder as CEO of Melchett, Melchett and Darling bank facing an enquiry over the banking crisis.[52]

In February 2013, Atkinson took on the titular role in a 12-week production (directed by Richard Eyre) of the Simon Gray play Quartermaine's Terms at Wyndham's Theatre in London with costars Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) and Felicity Montagu (I'm Alan Partridge).[53] In December 2013, he revived his schoolmaster sketch for Royal Free Hospital's Rocks with Laughter at the Adelphi Theatre.[54] A few days prior, he performed a selection of sketches in a small coffee venue in front of only 30 people.[55]

Comic style

Best known for his use of physical comedy in his Mr. Bean persona, Atkinson's other characters rely more on language. Atkinson often plays authority figures (especially priests or vicars) speaking absurd lines with a completely deadpan delivery.

One of his better-known comic devices is over-articulation of the "B" sound, such as his pronunciation of "Bob" in the Blackadder II episode "Bells". Atkinson has a stammer,[56][57] and the over-articulation is a technique to overcome problematic consonants.[58]

Atkinson's often visually based style, which has been compared to that of Buster Keaton,[26] sets him apart from most modern television and film comics, who rely heavily on dialogue, as well as stand-up comedy which is mostly based on monologues. This talent for visual comedy has led to Atkinson being called "the man with the rubber face"; comedic reference was made to this in an episode of Blackadder the Third ("Sense and Senility"), in which Baldrick (Tony Robinson) refers to his master, Mr. E. Blackadder, as a "lazy, big-nosed, rubber-faced bastard".[59]

Influences

Atkinson's early comedy influences were the sketch comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe, made up of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, major figures of the 1960s British satire boom, and then Monty Python. Atkinson states, "I remember watching them avidly as students at university."[60] He continued to be influenced by the work of John Cleese following his Monty Python days, regarding Cleese as being "a major, major inspiration", adding, "I think that he and I are quite different in our style and our approach, but certainly it was comedy I liked to watch. He was very physical. Yes, very physical and very angry."[60] He was also influenced by Peter Sellers, whose characters Hrundi Bakshi from The Party (1968) and Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther films influenced Atkinson's characters Mr. Bean and Johnny English.[61]

On Barry Humphries' Dame Edna Everage, he states, "I loved that character – again, it's the veneer of respectability disguising suburban prejudice of a really quite vicious and dismissive nature."[60] Of visual comedians, Atkinson regards Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as influential.[60] He was also inspired by French comedian Jacques Tati, stating, "Mr. Hulot's Holiday I remember seeing when I was 17 – that was a major inspiration. He opened a window to a world that I'd never looked out on before, and I thought, "God, that's interesting," how a comic situation can be developed as purely visual and yet it's not under-cranked, it's not speeded-up, it's more deliberate; it takes its time. And I enjoyed that."[60]

Personal life

Rowan Atkinson at the Mr. Bean's Holiday premiere at Leicester Square in London (2007)

In March 2001, while Atkinson was on a holiday trip to Kenya, the pilot of his private plane fainted. Atkinson managed to maintain the plane in the air until the pilot recovered and was able to land the plane at Nairobi's Wilson Airport.[62]

Marriage and children

Rowan Atkinson married Sunetra Sastry in February 1990. They have two children, Benjamin and Lily.[63] The couple first met in the late 1980s, when she was working as a makeup artist with the BBC.[64] They separated in 2014 and were divorced on 10 November 2015.[65] The family lived in Apethorpe, Northamptonshire.[66]

Atkinson is in a relationship with the comedian Louise Ford. They met while performing in a play together.[1]

Political activism

In June 2005, Atkinson led a coalition of the United Kingdom's most prominent actors and writers, including Nicholas Hytner, Stephen Fry, and Ian McEwan, to the British Parliament in an attempt to force a review of the controversial Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which they felt would give overwhelming power to religious groups to impose censorship on the arts.[67] In 2009, he criticized homophobic speech legislation, saying that the House of Lords must vote against a government attempt to remove a free-speech clause in an anti–gay hate law.[68] Atkinson opposed the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 to outlaw inciting religious hatred, arguing that, "freedom to criticise ideas – any ideas even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society. And the law which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed."[69][70]

In October 2012, he voiced his support for the Reform Section 5 campaign,[71] which aims to reform or repeal Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, particularly its statement that an insult can be grounds for arrest and punishment. It is a reaction to several recent high-profile arrests, which Atkinson sees as a restriction of freedom of expression.[72] In February 2014, Parliament passed a redaction of the statute which removed the word "insulting" following pressure from citizens.[73][74]

In 2018, Atkinson defended comments made by Boris Johnson over wearing the burqa. Atkinson wrote to The Times stating, "as a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson's joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one."[75][76]

In August 2020, Atkinson added his signature to a letter coordinated by Humanist Society Scotland along with twenty other public figures including novelist Val McDermid, playwright Alan Bissett and activist Peter Tatchell which expressed concern about the Scottish National Party's proposed Hate Crime and Public Order Bills. The letter argued the bill would "risk stifling freedom of expression."[77][78][79]

In January 2021, Atkinson criticised the rise of cancel culture on social media, likening it to "medieval mob." He furthermore stated "it's important that we're exposed to a wide spectrum of opinion, but what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob, roaming the streets looking for someone to burn," and "the problem we have online is that an algorithm decides what we want to see, which ends up creating a simplistic, binary view of society. It becomes a case of either you're with us or against us. And if you're against us, you deserve to be 'cancelled'."[80]

Atkinson has also supported the Free Speech Union and gave a keynote speech at a meeting of the group.[81]

Cars

Atkinson holds a category C+E (formerly "Class 1") lorry driving licence, gained in 1981, because lorries held a fascination for him, and to ensure employment as a young actor. He has also used this skill when filming comedy material. In 1991, he starred in the self-penned The Driven Man, a series of sketches featuring Atkinson driving around London trying to solve his obsession with cars, and discussing it with taxi drivers, policemen, used-car salesmen and psychotherapists.[82] A lover of and participant in car racing, he appeared as racing driver Henry Birkin in the television play Full Throttle in 1995.

Atkinson racing in a Jaguar Mark VII M at the Goodwood Revival motor racing festival in England in 2009

Atkinson has raced in other cars, including a Renault 5 GT Turbo for two seasons for its one make series. From 1997 to 2015, he owned a rare McLaren F1, which was involved in an accident in Cabus, near Garstang, Lancashire, with an Austin Metro in October 1999.[83] It was damaged again in a serious crash in August 2011 when it caught fire after Atkinson reportedly lost control and hit a tree.[84][85] That accident caused significant damage to the vehicle, taking over a year to be repaired and leading to the largest insurance payout in Britain, at £910,000.[86] He has previously owned a Honda NSX,[87] an Audi A8,[88] a Škoda Superb, and a Honda Civic Hybrid.[89]

The Conservative Party politician Alan Clark, a devotee of classic motor cars, recorded in his published Diaries a chance meeting with a man he later realized was Atkinson while driving through Oxfordshire in May 1984: "Just after leaving the motorway at Thame I noticed a dark red DBS V8 Aston Martin on the slip road with the bonnet up, a man unhappily bending over it. I told Jane to pull in and walked back. A DV8 in trouble is always good for a gloat." Clark writes that he gave Atkinson a lift in his Rolls-Royce to the nearest telephone box, but was disappointed in his bland reaction to being recognised, noting that: "he didn't sparkle, was rather disappointing and chétif."[90]

In July 2001, Atkinson crashed an Aston Martin V8 Zagato at an enthusiasts' meeting, but walked away unhurt. This was while he was competing in the Aston Martin Owners Club event, at the Croft Racing Circuit, Darlington.[91]

One car Atkinson has said he will not own is a Porsche: "I have a problem with Porsches. They're wonderful cars, but I know I could never live with one. Somehow, the typical Porsche people – and I wish them no ill – are not, I feel, my kind of people."[89][92]

In July 2011, Atkinson appeared as the "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" on Top Gear, driving the Kia Cee'd around the track in 1:42.2, which at the time granted him first place on the leaderboard, with only Matt LeBlanc having set a faster time in the Cee'd.[87]

Honours

Atkinson was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to drama and charity.[93][94]

Filmography

Stage

Year Title Role Notes
1981 Rowan Atkinson in Revue Various roles Also writer
Globe Theatre
Rowan Atkinson in New Revue Various roles
1984 The Nerd Willum Cubbert Aldwych Theatre
1986 Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson Various roles Also writer
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
1988 The Sneeze Various roles Aldwych Theatre
2009 Oliver! Fagin Drury Lane
2013 Quartermaine's Terms St. John Quartermaine Wyndham's Theatre

See also

References

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