The Real Rowan Atkinson
His face is instantly recognized in America as the childish Mr. Bean, but Rowan Atkinson has much more to his credit as a thoughtful comedic performer. Much smarter than his most famous portrayal, Atkinson first appeared in England's Not The Nine O'Clock News , a show which ran from 1979 to 1982. I haven't actually seen the series, though I've recently watched skits on YouTube, as it's difficult to run into in America, but unlike like many great British shows (Brass Eye and The Day Today being two of my favs, which I purchased on Amazon and can hardly watch because of region restrictions) the DVD is available on Region 1, meaning it's available in a North American DVD format.
The series starred, alongside Atkinson, Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith and Pamela Stephenson. It was formatted like many skit shows of the time, of course drawing influence from Monty Python, even performing a skit parodying the controversy surrounding Monty Python's second film Life of Brian . Atkinson was one of the regular performers on the show, a character actor like his costars. The series helps display his talents without putting him as a main focus. But that's where Blackadder comes in.
Not The Nine O'Clock News: Monty Pythonist Worshippers
Blackadder was a surprisingly long-running series which ran from 1983 to 1989, and was separated into four separate series, with six episodes each. Each series of the Blackadder program focused on a different “Blackadder”, the first series focusing on a devious, selfish and borderline-retarded Prince Edmund Blackadder (Atkinson), whose father constantly forgets he exists until reminded by someone, and is generally disliked by most with the exception of his somewhat smarter assistants and servants Baldrick (played by Tony Robinson) and Percy (portrayed by Tim McInnerny). The first series follows Edmund's attempts in the 1400's to gain power in British royalty, scheming alongside Percy and Baldrick, but things don't often work out as planned. As the show progressed into the later series, with each one focusing on a descendent of the previous Blackadder, from the 1500s to World War I, Blackadder grows more intelligent and witty with every descendent. Simultaneously, Percy's (who's absent in the third and forth series, replaced by Hugh Laurie as the Prince of Wales and a foot soldier in the forth) ironically grows dumber, and Baldrick's kin degenerate mentally throughout the generations as well. Despite Blackadder's growing intellect and cynicism, his position in social class decreases with each series; he goes from the title of Prince to a simple Captain in war by the end of the show. The series also co-starred Stephen Fry (Americans might know him from V for Vendetta as the television show host) and there were even a couple small roles for Jim Broadbent (the crazy old Inspector in Hot Fuzz) who I've seen pop up in a lot of things.
The Christmas Special was also very fun, with a reverse take on A Christmas Carol, with the ghost of Christmas Spirit (played by Robbie Coltrane, the actor who portrayed Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, and here looks and sounds just like him) informing Blackadder that being mean may actually get him farther in life than being nice.
The show was written by both Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis in the beginning, later written by Ben Elton instead of Atkinson, and it relies on Atkinson's verbal humor and smarts rather than what's typically seen of him on-screen, and is a great show if you're in the mood for some witty, high brow comedy, even if some of the jokes may fly over your head if you're American like myself. Of course Mr. Bean came right after, Atkinson's biggest accomplishment in terms of gaining a following.
The reason Mr. Bean is probably Rowan Atkinson's biggest achievement regarding publicity is because of the common nature that Bean represents in all of us, the playful child within us all. Unfortunately, the American film Bean, released in 1997, was my theatrical introduction to this character, but even if the film may not have been much more than America's attempt to cash in on Bean, I still have a special place for it. And of course it led me to the television series, which started in 1989 and only lasted for fourteen episodes, but I love the show's comic tone, and there's a huge amount of sympathy to be had for Mr. Bean (the scene at the nightclub where he's rejected by his girl always touches me to some degree), but his little schemes for revenge are always vindicating and hilarious, and sometimes a little unnecessarily cruel. Mr. Bean is Atkinson's display of physical humor, and like Black Adder, he co-wrote the series with Richard Curtis. Probably the most impressive thing about the show is how unlike Rowan Atkinson Mr. Bean is. Bean is infantile, neurotic, and somewhat idiotic, albeit clever, and Atkinson is a calm, serious, articulate and extremely intelligent individual. It's the childlike, silent Bean that connects on a more International level, and appeals to the kid we all have been.
Rowan Atkinson has since done many films, such as Hot Shots: Part Deux in which he had a small speaking role, and moved on to more American films like Bean, Johnny English, Rat Race and Mr. Bean's Holiday, which is the one I don't wish to see as I feel it was an unnecessary addition to the Bean character and attempt to introduce him to younger audiences. He also played the Doctor in a Doctor Who comic relief sketch. Atkinson has rightfully earned a more than plentiful amount of money for his work, as he has over £100 million in funds, and has gained a passion for racing 60s-style English cars. He's also known for crashing his McLaren F1, a really nice car I'm disappointed he crippled, though thankful he's alright, but he could always buy ten more. Atkinson's also expressed interest in Porsches, but has mentioned in an interview, “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. I don't go around saying that Porsches are a pile of dung, but I do know that psychologically I couldn't handle owning one.”
One awesome DVD I have is something called Rowan Atkinson Live, a collection of one- to two-man skits he performed in '89 at an American University. Many of these skits were written in the early 80s, one of them even being a Mr. Bean sketch performed live on stage. It's a great collection of skits and displays the wide range of comedy Atkinson is able to not only write, but perform. Probably my favorite pieces in the entire show are the first sketch, where Atkinson plays Satan introducing Hell's newest recruits, and the last involving an invisible drum set (I won't say more). But it's a great DVD to possess if you really enjoy both physical humor and clever dialogue/monologue.
Rowan is a comedic genius, but contrary to what you might believe about his wit as the Blackadder character, Atkinson's stated before that it takes him time to think of clever lines and writing and that his humor isn't spontaneous. In interviews he's notoriously passionate yet very serious about his topics, and isn't known to crack jokes or poke fun as an interviewee.
I'm not sure what Atkinson's got in the books other than a Johnny English sequel in the works called Johnny English Reborn, but he's certainly left his mark in the world of comedy with his very few beloved characters and the legacies they've left behind.
A BBC interview with Parkinson
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