Rowan Atkinson talks about Mr Bean, Blackadder and Johnny English
Atkinson speaks in long, careful sentences that seek balance. His speech is analytical, almost donnish; sometimes he stammers. When relaxed, it sucks in the tape, albeit slightly. I have the impression of a man who controls himself tightly. Trevor is, he says, “a very sweet, good-natured man [who] has its obsessive side. Which means he becomes obsessed with issues that he actually doesn’t need to be obsessed with. I’ve developed an urge to save Trevor, and Atkinson explains why it’s impossible, even undesirable. “Just leave the flower bee alone” would be good advice to give him, but he doesn’t,” he says. “He can not.” He obviously likes Trevor: “I think he’s one of the nicest people I’ve played with.” I ask him – of all the people you’ve played with, who are you closest to? Walter Goodfellow, he says, the vicar in the 2005 dark comedy keep mom: a sweet, bookish introvert so obsessed with writing the perfect sermon that he doesn’t notice his wife sleeping with Patrick Swayze.
I tell him that I found Trevor’s story unbearable because I care about him, and he can talk about it. “Tragedy and comedy are extremely close,” says Atkinson, “and you can’t really have one without the other. Every joke has a victim, whether fictional or non-fictional or fictional, ideological or human. and therefore there is always someone who suffers if there is a joke. I guess you have to accept that it is like that. I think of his first short film Finished on time, the story of a man who is told he only has 30 minutes to live and tries to cram a lifetime into those minutes. For example, he reads the last page of War and peace. It’s a misdiagnosis though, and when the doctor shouts from across a road that he won’t die, he bursts into joy. Then he is killed by a truck.
Until the age of 20, Atkinson thought he would be an electrical engineer. He was born in Consett, near Newcastle, to a wealthy farming family. He was educated at the Chorister School in Durham and later at St Bees, a private school on the Irish Sea. He was a “reasonably happy” child, he said, “but quite calm. I was a fairly calm, relatively introspective child who changed when he played. I found a way to be extremely unshy. He says he’s not like some comedians, who are always funny, like Peter Cook, who he starred with in black viper: but these, I notice, can be self-destructive. They are not functional, like him. They tend to alcoholism. They die young. “I really need a script,” he notes, “and lots of rehearsals to be funny.”
He loved the cinema. He ran the school’s film company and once watched Jacques Tati’s film Mr. Hulot’s Holidays four times in one day. He also loved fixing things: he kept a screwdriver in his top pocket, tinkered with tractors, and learned to rewire a house. He can still rewire a house, he says, “even with the advancement of technology over the last century.” At the Edinburgh Festival he repaired the photocopier in the marginal office. At the Almeida Theater in Islington, he wired a socket. He finds it “very pleasant and satisfying”. It looks like an order from his world; and, of course, now I imagine him as an electrician; a mechanic; a plumber. He has, at least superficially, this ordinarily sublime quality.