Before and after ‘Bean’: A talk with Rowan Atkinson, continued
In Thursday’s Times, I spoke with Rowan Atkinson, the actor, regarding his world-famous character, the mostly silent Mr. Bean, and the 25th anniversary of the TV series that bears his name. (The character, nameless, preceded the series in a variety of onstage sketches.) All 14 episodes have been given a new polish and released on video as “The Whole Bean” (Shout! Factory).
Bean has lived on intermittently in commercials, cartoons, two movies and an appearance as a symbol of British culture in the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, among other things. But there is more to Atkinson than this strange rubbery man causing havoc on the way to making himself comfortable; and there was more to our talk than talk of Bean -- hence this supplementary Q&A.
By 24, he was performing onstage alongside Peter Cook, members of Monty Python and other legends of British comedy.
He was 28 when “Blackadder” debuted, with Atkinson, in different historical eras, as the worst man in Britain. Like “Bean,” which began in work for the stage, it was co-created with his friend since Oxford, Richard Curtis, who with “Four Weddings and a Funeral” would later invent the modern British rom-com. “Bean” was, in turn, followed by the very verbal “Thin Blue Line,” a sitcom by Ben Elton (also a “Bean” writer), in which Atkinson played a suburban policeman.
Among many other stage and screen appearances, including the role of Fagin in a 2009 revival of “Oliver!,” there would be two movies featuring the Bond-like “Johnny English,” which received mix reviews but earned a lot of money. Upcoming are a brace of television films (for ITV) in which Atkinson will play George Simenon’s “Inspector Maigret.” That is exciting news from both ends of the equation.
“I’m someone who tends to concentrate on only one thing at a time,” Atkinson told me. “I’m not someone who juggles a lot of balls in the air. I like knowing. I like to focus on one thing, get it done, take a break and then work on another thing.”
What were your early comedy influences?
Rowan Atkinson: My early comedy influences I suppose would have been Beyond the Fringe, a comedy revue sketch troupe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, and then Monty Python -- I remember watching them avidly as students at university. And then latterly more of what John Cleese did -- a major, major inspiration; 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. So that’s good. And then Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everege. I loved that character -- again, it’s the veneer of respectability disguising suburban prejudice of a really quite vicious and dismissive nature. And then in terms of visual stuff, Chaplin and Keaton and Harold Lloyd and all those. A British comedian you might not have known called Norman Wisdom -- I can’t say I was a big fan of his, but at least there was a tradition. And I think it was particularly a French comedian called Jacques Tati. I loved his movies, and you know, “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, Benny Hill comedy -- it’s more deliberate; it takes its time. And I enjoyed that.
You showed it at your school, I believe.
Before the days of even videocassettes, when the only way of showing a film to a school was to get four spools of 16-mm celluloid and mount them onto a projector and shine them on to a big screen; and I was in charge of the so-called film society, and then there was I think what was called the sixth form film society, the senior version for the more sophisticated tastes, and we got “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” and I played it over and over again over a weekend on the wall of a study on an image about 6 inches by 4, just enjoying it so much. Something about it really got to me.
You studied electrical engineering.
Yes, and I was genuinely interested in it, and I think if I had my life again I might do the same thing. It was quite an unconventional thing amongst my friends, most of whom were what you might call of a more artistic bent, doing classic or French literature or English at Oxford; but I already had a degree, I was at Oxford doing postgraduate research, I already had a degree from Newcastle University, that was electrical and electronic engineering. I really enjoyed it -- it was what I wanted to do, and I suppose at the time I probably did think that if I didn’t do something else, I’ll be happy being an engineer. I think I had a feel, simply because I’d done a lot of acting and things at school, and I was definitely interested in theater and show business. I think the technical side of show biz is where I might have ended up, recording studio or cameraman or that sort of job. But I enjoyed it; it wasn’t something I was doing just to be at university.
There was a fairly conscious decision when I got my first degree, which I got when I was quite young -- when I was only 20 and I thought, “Well, I’m a bit young to get a job” -- to go somewhere where I could explore the theatrical side of me more. And in terms of the people I admired that was probably Oxford or Cambridge. I could’ve gone to Cambridge and done work there, but the application form was much longer and the Oxford one was really short; and my father had been there. I wound up going to Oxford, and that was where I met Richard Curtis and the whole thing took off. It was the best decision I ever made.
Can you see any of your engineering training in your comedy?
It’s difficult to say. I mean, I’m a pretty logical person. I like comedy that’s clear because I think that you only laugh at comedy that’s clear; it’s got to be logical and believable. I don’t know whether that’s indicative of a logical mind or a scientific mind. But I like things to be constructed well, I like things that are rehearsed. I’m not an improviser; I’m not very spontaneous. I like things to be planned. So I think all those things are indicative at least of a structure.
Did you have any stage training?
No, I didn’t go to drama school or anything. I’ve just sort of done it. It was only really when I got to Oxford that I just started pulling faces in front of the mirror. One of the very early sketches I did -- it was the beginning of 1975, and I said I’d do a sketch in a show in the university theater, and Sunday night I remember thinking, “What am I going to do?” And I just devised this weird sketch of a man who comes on with a tiny piece of paper and tries to hand it to members of the audience, and then gets annoyed when they try to take it off him. It was a complicated sort of thing, but he was rather pathetic, spouting rubbish in a sort of gobbledygook language and pulling faces, and I never really registered my face, believe it or not, as a means of comedy expression until that point.
The body is a funny thing, which is why I’m a great believer in a Charlie Chaplin adage about shooting comedy, which is that life is a tragedy in close-up and a comedy in long shot. I always have that at the forefront of my mind when we’re doing Bean, to pull back. Close-ups of Bean aren’t very interesting. If you want to express how a person is, the absurdity of life is better viewed from afar. And I think Chaplin absolutely hit the nail on the head with that philosophy. The whole body is important; close-ups are all right if the joke is purely verbal; but even then, I don’t think it should ever be closer than the waist. [Laughs.] The closer you go in, the more tragic the presentation in my view, or the more dramatic; I mean it can be fantastic of course in film generally, but for comedy, you may want to sit back.
When you were still in your early 20s, you were playing in sketches with Peter Cook and the Pythons in “The Secret’s Policeman’s Ball.” That must have been kind of amazing.
Yes, it was. I wish in many ways I could recapture that amazement of youth because inevitably as you get older, you become more cynical and more careworn, and I’m not aware of having any heroes anymore or people I want to meet. I met them all 30 years ago, and I don’t feel the need to meet any more. I’m fairly unfazed by anyone of any status, which is good in a way and a shame in another way. I remember at the time it was a great privilege; but at the same time, I suppose, even at that tender age, I was very aware that you have to hold your own. The celebrity thing of, “Oh, isn’t it fun that I’m working with a famous person,” that must take second place to “What work am I doing? What kind of work is this? Is it good work?” And I think even then, I had a professional instinct, if you like, to believe that the important thing was the work and not the status of those involved in it.
Was Mr. Bean an attempt to do something distinct from your previous TV series, “Blackadder”? In most respects, they seem 180 degrees away from each other.
It was 180 degrees away, and of course there’s hardly any connection you can make between them, they’re so radically different. Blackadder, extremely verbal, the character rather static, rather sardonic, rather adult. Whereas Bean is essentially a child trapped in a man’s body with all the selfishness and vindictiveness and potentially nastiness of a child. I’m sometimes asked what the common factor is, and I don’t think there are any other than they reflect I suppose the diversity of my own tastes, because I found them both funny in completely different ways. And Richard Curtis, because he co-wrote both characters and series, I suppose he also has that diversity, that we can play with words or we can play with no words -- we’re not that bothered. However, the audience is far more divided -- those who like the Blackadder tend not to like Bean very much.
They are both schemers.
Yes, that’s true. They both can be very unscrupulous, one in a more adult way, the other in a more childish way.
Has your view of Bean changed over the years?
I don’t know. I don’t think about my relationship with him very much except that I always enjoy him whenever I go back to him. I still find him genuinely funny. There’s something about him that tickles me. Childishness is funny and always will be; I enjoy watching him, and I enjoy playing him.
The thing about “Bean” is it started as a sketch about a man who can’t stay awake, and then just in writing endless sketches around a man denied verbal expression, a character started to evolve; most comedy characters who are purely visual have a childlike naivete -- and I think, in Bean, a childlike unpleasantness to a greater degree than in, say, Jacques Tati, who was actually a relentlessly pleasant character, his Mr. Hulot.
With the TV show, he didn’t have any friends at first, and then we gave him a couple of friends; he didn’t even have a flat, and then we gave him a flat. And slowly the character developed -- we didn’t give him a name for 10 years, because we didn’t need one -- he was just this guy who appeared onstage. So it was 1989 when we were going to put him on TV for the first time that we had to christen him. We went through a few things -- you know, vegetables are always funny. Mr. White he was called for a while, I remember. We ended up with Bean because it was a single syllable and began with a “b,” and I think there’s something always funny about that. So Mr. Bean it was.
But I’ve been really enjoying voicing the animated series, because the character has sort of changed subtly again. I can’t say why or how he’s changed except that he’s talking more than he used to, but I’m playing it thinking, “This is good, and it’s different from how he used to be.”
Do you follow current comedy at all?
I don’t follow it much to be honest. I admire the people one might think I would admire, the people like Steve Carell or Ben Stiller -- some of the movies are a bit strong for my taste. And I love “The Big Bang Theory” -- I think the main guys in that are really, really good. But it’s very interesting when you just see traditions repeated; people may describe things as old-fashioned, but it’s amazing how there are only six jokes in the world, or whatever the adage is. And it’s sort of true -- all we’re doing is restating traditions that are centuries old and adapting them to different media and different times and different sensibilities. But the jokes are kind of the same, and always have been and always will be. Stand-up, which didn’t really exist in the U.K. very much when I was younger and now is as huge an industry as it is in America and all over the world, is not something I really follow. I like acting comedy; I like characters and dialogue. People just telling jokes, even the best people, I can enjoy them, but I don’t really admire it. I’m not engaged by it. I think I prefer characters to individuals.
Robert Lloyd tweets in individual characters @LATimesTVLloyd
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