What comedy fan doesn’t know the name Rowan Atkinson?
Whether it’s the snide Blackadder or the simple Mr. Bean, Atkinson has earned his comic stripes.
I got a chance to speak with Atkinson when he was promoting the spy spoof Johnny English - a film about a completely inept British agent called into action after an explosion kills all of MI5’s competent agents, leaving English to save the country.
I’d long been under the impression that Atkinson did not like doing interviews, and could be a bit of a prickly pear (in fact, I was warned of such by the publicist for the film, prior to the interview). When I’ve gone into an interview with those preconceptions, they’ve usually been quickly dismissed as soon as we get to chatting - and Rowan was no exception.
However, I did feel a bit of pressure throughout, as I got the sense that he didn’t suffer fools or puff pieces. Since I hoped I wasn’t the former and definitely wasn’t interested in the latter, I think things went well. You be the judge…
KEN PLUME: What aspects of the Johnny English character appealed to you enough to make a feature film? Because originally it was a character in a series of commercials, right?
ROWAN ATKINSON: Yeah, we made it for these commercials for a credit card in Britain. We did the campaign for about 5 years, and we must have made 13 or 14 commercials. They’re only one minute commercials, but they all had a filmic quality to them, even though they were just commercials and had a slightly ridiculous character in it - who at the time was called Richard Latham, and we rechristened him Johnny English for the sake of the movie, because it’s a name people are more likely to remember. And I did like the character, and I liked the feel of the commercials - they felt like, as I say, mini-movies. So it felt like quite a logical progression to think of maybe the character - and above all, the relationship with his sidekick, called Bough - his relationship with other people is always very interesting. In the end, what he needs by his side is the voice of reason to provide a sort of comic contrast to his flights of fantasy, which he indulges in so much… The biggest flight of fantasy being that he’s really good at his job - and that’s the role that Ben Miller playing Bough in the movie and Natalie Imbruglia playing Lorna in the movie fulfill, really. They are the voice of reason.
PLUME: Similar to the dynamic that existed within Blackadder?
ATKINSON: Yeah, except that, I suppose, as Blackadder I was the voice of reason and Baldrick was the guy with the flights of fantasy - but yes… I like partnerships. I mean, Mr. Bean was conspicuously not a partnership - although, yet again, it’s valuable to have straight men or the authority figures that Mr. Bean interacted with in a very funny way, because he’s sort of such a natural anarchist. But at the same time, Mr. Bean is a very, very self-contained character because he’s so sort-of introspective and so selfish and self-centered that there’s no particular need to have another person in the scene to make him funny - whereas something we discovered quite early on is that Johnny English really is only funny when he’s got an audience of some kind. Or when he’s got somebody to interact with… either a group of people in a room in front of whom he can make himself look ridiculous with great ease or a partner - someone to sort of…
PLUME: Bounce off of?
ATKINSON: Bounce off, exactly.
PLUME: What were the difficulties in expanding the character out in order to fill a film?
ATKINSON: Well, yeah, this is always the difficulty. It’s the difficulty we had with Mr. Bean, actually, when it went from TV to film. You certainly discover that you need to explain more about a character. In TV, and in particular in commercials, you don’t really need to explain very much at all - you just say he’s a spy and he’s a little bit theatrical and overblown and smug and he’s not very good at his job. And you don’t sort of ask any questions about that sort of thing in a commercial - but as soon as you get to a movie, and you’ve been with the character for 30 or 40 minutes, then you start asking questions like, “Why is he allowed to have this job? How has he managed to hold this job down for so long?” And that’s why at the beginning of the movie, for example, we tell the story of the fact that he is no good and everyone knows that he’s probably not very good, but he’s given the job because suddenly there’s nobody else. So he’s thrown into it, and that kind of explains why he’s there and why he’s got it. Of course then the movie actually goes on to justify why he could return. He could return in another adventure because - against all the odds - he succeeds, and that’s rather a fun aspect of the character in that even though he’s a bit of a fool and self-deluding and all those other things, he’s weirdly committed… weirdly brave, I think. He’s brave and committed and good-hearted, and he genuinely wants to save Queen and Country - it’s just that he’s got this very overblown view of himself. And that’s what provides the comedy.
PLUME: When you talk about expanding the character for the purposes of film, what were the lessons you learned in that regard from the Bean movie?
ATKINSON: Just that you have to explore more facets of the character. You can’t just have a single attitude. The great thing about sitcoms, for example, is that you can get away with a character with, really, one attitude - like Blackadder is just a relentlessly cynical man. And that’s the joke. And he’s cynical and negative in a very witty way. We would have the same problem if we tried to make a Blackadder movie - I think if you just had a relentlessly cynical man who never acknowledged the ramifications of his own actions, etc. etc., then I think it would be a very odd movie. That’s what we had to do with Mr. Bean - we had to get this very, very selfish and kind of autonomous character to acknowledge that maybe he’d done something wrong 2/3 of the way through the movie, and then the last 1/3 is him trying to put things right again. So we had to give him feelings - which actually wasn’t very easy, in which I slightly regret it in many ways, in terms of the character’s history. Because I like the fact that he’s a natural born anarchist who doesn’t give a damn about anybody else - and I quite like that aspect of Mr. Bean, but we had to kind of dilute it, or explore the possibilities. And similarly, with Johnny English, he couldn’t just carry on walking through scenes where he thought “this” and it turned out “that”. We had to have him reach the point when he was fired - which he is - from the job, and then he becomes somebody slightly different. Suddenly he’s a kind of man-on-the-run, and the establishment that he’d worked for and fought for for so long suddenly abandoned him and declared that he was no good and regretted ever putting him on the case. And that’s quite a nice character thing, when you can see him pick himself up, brush himself off, and start again - and then eventually he succeeds and everyone loves him by the end. So it’s a pretty tried and tested formula, but it was a very important thing to do with the character.
PLUME: Would you say that it was easier to adapt Johnny English than it was to bring Bean to the big screen?
ATKINSON: Hmm… That’s a good question… I don’t know. About the same. I think maybe Bean was a bit more difficult, actually. I think, in many ways, we had to compromise the character more.
PLUME: Do you think those compromises affected the audience reaction to the film? It seems a lot of people were split on either loving or hating the Bean film…
ATKINSON: Yeah, I know what you mean. I absolutely know what you mean. I don’t know, is the answer. I probably haven’t done enough listening or enough research into what people thought, but I think undoubtedly there is an aspect to Mr. Bean which is rather fun in short doses. It’s fun just to see him selfishly pursuing his own agenda - which he does so readily. I think the movie, because it had to have a story and involve other people - when we decided, rightly or wrongly, that we wanted him to acknowledge the consequences of his actions, it meant that you did end up with a compromised version of the character. So I would agree. Whereas with Johnny English, I don’t think we’ve compromised the character at all, actually. I think we’ve just given him a firmer grounding in reality.
PLUME: In recent interviews, you’ve mentioned the desire to revisit a film version of Bean…
PLUME: How different would that be from how you handled the first film?
ATKINSON: Hmmmm… These are extremely good questions that you’re asking me, if only because I was thinking about this this morning, because I’m kind of in a quandary - because Johnny English, thankfully, internationally… and whatever it does here, we don’t know… but internationally it has been very successful, so they’re already talking about, “When are you going to sit down and write a sequel?” Which is flattering and sweet and we might well do it. But, of course, I’ve always had this hankering to do more Mr. Beans someday. I didn’t want to do it straightaway, which is why we went off on the tangent of Johnny English - but if we sat down again, I don’t know. You see, whether I should just do half-hour TV episodes, or whether you could make a movie that was more episodic - more self-consciously episodic, that was a kind of “sketch movie”… more like an Austin Powers movie, where the story is not particularly important, nor is the interaction of the character with the story that important - you just enjoy the jokes for what they are.
PLUME: So it’s a matter of acknowledging that it’s a character with a clearly defined character that’s not going to vary much?
ATKINSON: Yes, exactly. I think it’s sometimes better if he doesn’t vary very much… or whether you give it a different kind of conceit… Mr. Bean sits down to write his autobiography, and he remembers all the marvelous moments in his life.
PLUME: Which would allow the character to remain true to its episodic strengths…
ATKINSON: I think the character does tend to suit an episodic thing, because what’s fun about him is that he doesn’t care about anyone else, and it’s very difficult for a main character - a lead character - in a movie to not care about anybody else.