There’s usually a sight-gag or three that pays off in these “Johnny English” films, movies based on a James Bond riff Rowan Atkinson cooked up for a scandal-plagued UK bank back in their pre-scandal days.
Frankly, even for “Blackadder” and “Mr. Bean” fans, these are better in concept than in reality. But he’s a funny man with a large classic (and fast) car collection, so “Johnny English Strikes Again” Oct. 26.
Below the video, check out an interview I did with Rowan A., back in the day.
No, those rumors of Rowan Atkinson’s retirement, fired by British tabloid reports that he was “down” after 2003’s Johnny English failed to be as big a hit in America as it was in the UK, aren’t true.
“He’s too funny to ever retire,” says Kristin Scott Thomas, his co-star in Keeping Mum.
But Atkinson is ready to hang up the sports coat and funny little tie of his most beloved creation, “the naive, vindictive child trapped in a man’s body,” Mr. Bean.
“I have never thought Mr. Bean should get old,” Atkinson says from New York. “I’ve always regarded him as a pretty ageless, timeless sort of character. And even though I think he looks OK in the new movie, and physically I was able to do whatever I wanted to do with the character, in a few years’ time, that may not be the case.
“One should acknowledge that time and tide wait for no man, even a man-boy like Mr. Bean.”
So Mr. Bean’s Holiday, an international smash hit just now opening in America, will be Bean’s swan song, “his nice little farewell. Perhaps we’ve done all we can with him.”
Bean’s Holiday allowed Atkinson, also famous for BBC TV’s Black Adder comedies, to take Bean back to the basics and pay homage to a great influence on his own life. Bean doesn’t talk, or at least he doesn’t most of the time. “He chatted rather a bit more than I would have liked” in his 1997 Hollywood film, Bean, the actor complains. So Atkinson wanted to give him a proper sendoff, in a film that directly connects him to another famous silent comic figure, Jacques Tati.
“It was a pivotal moment in my life when, at 17, a film of his was brought to my school and shown,” says Atkinson. “It was a memorable day because that was before movies were on cassette or DVD. This came in huge boxes.
“And the movie was Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Tati’s masterpiece. It was a window on a world, really, a particular style of visual comedy that I instantly admired. I would never presume to claim that we do anything similar. But we have been greatly influenced by him, certainly.”
Bean is a joint creation, cooked up by Atkinson and his one-time college chum and longtime collaborator Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and who wrote and directed Love, Actually.
“One day [Richard], who’s very verbal, decided we should experiment with visual comedy, no words,” Atkinson recalls. “We started on this sketch about a man who can’t stay awake. That was where it began. On the basis of that short description, we developed a comedy routine about a man who can’t stay awake, and Mr. Bean was born.”
They didn’t call him that, not for years, as the character became a stage creation and Atkinson became a well-known comic figure himself. “He was just `What Rowan did when he wasn’t talking’ in the stage act.”
But stage led to small screen and Bean, with his gangly frame, his pop-eyes, his natty suit and his tiny Mini Cooper, became a phenomenon. In a 2003 interview with this reporter, Atkinson griped about playing the character for the rest of his life, which he could certainly do, as popular as Bean has proven to be.
“And I would go slowly mad.”
But he was game for one last go-round as Bean, taking the character to France “where he doesn’t speak the language, therefore he doesn’t need to talk.” He could go back “to that childish place” where Bean lives and concentrate on the physical bits, which he works out in workshop sessions with the writers. He could pay tribute to Jacques Tati.
And he could move on.
Perhaps, Atkinson, now 52, will do a sequel to Johnny English, which made more than $100 million overseas (and $28 million here). But he and his Johnny English director, Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors), have another idea, one with literary cachet and with a role seemingly written with Atkinson in mind.
“He’s always wanted to do a big-screen version of David Copperfield, the Charles Dickens story,” says Atkinson. “And he’s always been keen for me to play Mr. Micawber.” The role was once played by the great W.C. Fields in a 1930s film, and Dickens modeled the character, a dapper, broke, yet always hopeful father of four, on his own father.
With Atkinson leaving Bean behind, he’s ready to tackle something of ambition, substance and words.
“Peter’s keen. But I’m quite keen to play Micawber, I have to say. Perhaps that will happen next year.”