AN EIGHTIES monster relocated in four different centuries, the great thing about Edmund Blackadder was his intolerance of stupidity: if he had been shown Johnny English or Mr Bean: The Movie, doubtless he would have sneered that 90 minutes watching either and death would lose its sting.
Last week, there were reports that Atkinson too had finally concluded that his recent comedy vehicles have been Reliant Robins. Friends said he had been depressed by the critical response to Johnny English this year, and checked into an Arizona clinic for five weeks. Atkinson continued his rehabilitation in England and a holiday resort in Mauritius, and has said he hopes to "find himself".
Yet despite being blasted by reviewers, Johnny English was the fifth highest grossing film of the year, contributing to Atkinson’s personal fortune of around 50m, and demonstrating that for some sections of his audience, slapstick silliness wins out over edgier material. Mr Bean, that over-extended Buster Keaton homage, can still be seen in more than 94 countries and on planes from over 50 airlines.
The Euro 96 German football team admitted to spending most of its free time during the tournament watching the original ITV series. But then this is the country that considered David Hasselhoff the very essence of rock and roll.
Yet for those who recall the student humour of the comic sketch TV series Not The Nine O’Clock News and the literary satire of Blackadder it came as a blow when Atkinson turned out to be closer to Benny Hill than anyone had suspected. Blackadder, with his fluent command of situation tragedy, emphasises Atkinson’s skills as a verbal comedian; the silent Bean, in contrast, is compounded out of twitches, grimaces, flailing limbs and unfortunate brushes with the laws of physics.
Yet for years Atkinson has been saying that his slapstick and satire successes have been at the expense of peace of mind: "I believe that perfectionism is more a disease than a quality. It can be very corrosive if not properly handled. It drives you mad because there’s no such thing as perfection, so you’re attempting to achieve something that is unachievable and that’s perennially unsatisfying."
He says the Blackadder set was often stressful, with people slightly unhappy about what was going on and it took him years to forget the fights and enjoy the performances. "I was on a plane and there was an episode of Blackadder showing that I’d never seen. We’d made it 10 years before and I didn’t recognise any of the lines or the scenes so I was able to relax because I couldn’t remember any of the arguments about the lines - whether it’s funnier to say ‘asthmatic ant’ or ‘asthmatic elephant.’"
Given his aversion to the paraphernalia of stardom, you wonder why Rowan Atkinson chose to make his living this way in the first place. His response: it was "a hobby that turned into a job".
For years, even after Not The Nine O’clock News his passport listed his occupation as "engineer".
After winning the highest marks in his year at Newcastle University, Atkinson went to Oxford to do an MSc, but the budding engineer got sidetracked when he met his lifelong friend and collaborator, writer and director Richard Curtis, with whom he created Blackadder and Mr Bean.
Student shows convinced him that acting was the right career - despite a non-showbiz upbringing where even watching TV was frowned on by his strict father.
The youngest of three boys born into a wealthy Northumberland farming family, his parents Eric and Ella expected Rowan to eventually take over the family business. At school he attended Choristers in Durham, as did Tony Blair, although Atkinson was a couple of years younger and remembers Blair only vaguely from those days as someone who smiled a lot.
Atkinson was the quiet child at the back of the class who contributed little. He wasn’t much good at sport, and he certainly wasn’t particularly popular. The other children called him Doopie. They teased him about his rubbery face and protruding eyes. Then, one day after games, he stood up in the changing room and began doing impersonations of one of the teachers. His classmates found them hilarious.
In 1976, he came to Edinburgh for a Fringe show with Curtis and the musician Howard Goodall. The show was a success, but Atkinson rejected stardom, turning down sitcom offers before making his screen debut in Not The Nine O’Clock News where he earned his "rubber-faced" sobriquet. Even then, he shunned the limelight, refusing interviews and steering clear of showbiz events.
He fell for Sunetra Sastry, a BBC makeup artist, on the set of Blackadder but it was months before the actor - who says he never bothered with women until he was in his mid-twenties - found the courage to ask her out and their first meal out was conducted in silence, broken only when shy actor asked her to pass the ketchup. He then disappeared to the lavatory for 15 minutes without explanation. Subsequently he confessed that he had broken his zip and had to find a waiter with a safety-pin.
Despite this unpromising Beany feast, the relationship deepened and in 1990 they wed in a secret ceremony at New York’s Russian Tea Room restaurant with Stephen Fry and one of Sunetra’s girlfriends as the only witnesses. Sunetra was only his second serious relationship, his first an improbably glitzy liaison with Men Behaving Badly actress Leslie Ash who has said: "I would have done anything for him, but Rowan was always completely honest. He told me he was very fond of me but didn’t think he could ever fall in love with me."
Atkinson now lives in an 18t-hcentury rectory in Oxfordshire with Sunetra and their children Ben, nine, and seven-year-old Lily, and still relishes his privacy. When the couple were expecting their daughter, nobody was told about the impending birth and later Atkinson attempted to stop Bean being sold to Italy, because that was where he, his wife Sunetra and their two children enjoyed their annual holidays. Eventually he realised this was a futile mission - but he hasn’t been back to Italy since.
Atkinson is undoubtedly an obsessive who can’t find the off-switch. He tinkers with performances at work and for relaxation tinkers with an impressive fleet of classic cars that includes a McLaren F1. Atkinson is fond of cars in much the same way that Rod Stewart is fond of blondes and says: "I find cars a tremendously valuable distraction. If work gets me down, if I’m lying awake at night, worrying, and can’t make a decision about a scene or a line, if it’s all driving me mad, I find that being in a car makes me happy. It calms me."
But even the cars sometimes fail him. In July 2001, Atkinson wrote off his 80,000 Aston Martin V8 at the Croft Racing Circuit, Durham. However, his motor skills have served him better, most crucially, last year, on a family holiday to Kenya. On a private charter flight from Mombasa to Nairobi, the pilot passed out, sending the plane plunging out of control 16,000ft over the African plain. Atkinson, with no flying experience, took the joystick and wrestled the twin-engine Cessna under control, eventually slapping the pilot awake and the family had a safe landing. It’s a mark of Atkinson’s diffidence that not only does he not brag about it, he won’t even talk about it.
In two days, the actor will celebrate his 49th birthday, perhaps still pondering his next move. His audience may be wondering whether to throw bouquets or brickbats. On the one hand, there is Mr Bean, a creation that deserves a certain something - possibly clubbing.
But recall Atkinson’s twittering vicar in Four Weddings And A Funeral summoning the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Goat, and even The Thin Blue Line doesn’t seem so bad. Not The Nine O’Clock News was often amusing and of course we will always have Blackadder’s love for a girl called Bob, and the ringing declaration that: "A man may fight for many things. His country, his friends, his principles, the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child. But personally, I’d mud-wrestle my own mother for a ton of cash, an amusing clock and a sack of French porn."
Unfortunately, you then remember the bit where Mr Bean gets his head stuck up a turkey’s bottom - and it’s back to hunting for a big stick.