Rowan Atkinson: ‘In a proper free society, you should be allowed to make jokes about absolutely anything’

The actor talks to Patrick Freyne about Mr Bean and Blackadder, cancel culture and his first starring TV role in decades

Rowan Atkinson, who shares a head with both Mr Bean and Blackadder, is on the press circuit for a new Netflix show, Man vs Bee. He appears on my computer screen apologetically late with a press person nearby trying to keep everything to a tight schedule.

Atkinson doesn’t do many interviews and he seems a bit distracted. His first answers tend towards the unspecific. His earliest memories of being funny he outlines like this: “I remember when I was 10 or 11, standing up in front of my fellow pupils in the school changing rooms and entertaining them in some silly way. I can’t remember the details, luckily.”

It was in the 1970s as a student that he really discovered his comedic mojo, working with his long-time collaborator Richard Curtis at the Oxford Revue. “We started working together [and] created the endless sort of vicars and priests that I’ve played over the years ... Comedy very often works in partnerships.”

When did he realise he was good at comedy? “I would never claim to be good at it,” he says. “I’ve been successful in a number of areas by trying. With the passage of time, you begin to realise that maybe you do know more about it than some people. I don’t analyse it in an academic sense. I don’t write treatises or theses on it. It’s just about instinct, isn’t it? That’s the only piece of advice I was ever given by a head of comedy at the BBC: ‘Follow your instinct’, which I suppose is good advice for anybody. You look at a line that’s written and you have an idea and you think, ‘Does that feel ... funny?’ And if it does, I’ll try and put it in a script. I’ll make it part of a sketch, part of a scene in a movie. Usually it’s in the process of bouncing off somebody else.”

Though the TV iteration wasn’t filmed until the early 1990s, Mr Bean made his first theatrical appearance in the late 1970s. “Bean was created — though he didn’t have a name — by Richard and I, when rehearsing and preparing for a revue at the end of fringe in 1979. I’ve always been very inspired by the French comedian Jacques Tati. I loved his style of comedy, these situations that evolve entirely visually, without anybody saying anything and so I [said]: ‘Why don’t we create some sketches without words?’ It was just a matter of the two of us sitting in this theatre saying, ‘Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?’ And I think the first one was the church sketch, which was in the very first Mr Bean [series], about a guy in a church who can’t stay awake because the sermon is so boring. And at the same time we developed the ‘changing into the swimming trunks on the beach’ sketch, which we did on that day in that theatre.”

Did you have a sense of Mr Bean’s character? “The odd thing about Mr Bean is that he wasn’t created, he was just the person I naturally became when I was denied words to express myself. If I have to express myself visually then I became a version of Mr Bean.”

How does someone “write” sketches like that? “I’d improvise something and [Richard Curtis] would write down roughly what I’d done, and then he’d say, ‘Do you want to bring your left arm over and put that under your knee instead?’ And I’d do that it and he’d ...” He mimes typing. “It’s where the writing and rehearsal processes are completely concurrent. With the Mr Bean live-action thing, Robin Driscoll said, ‘Let’s do a sketch set in a dentist. So we got a dentist’s chair in and we got some tools and then I’d improvise something and Robin would say, ‘What about the drill? What about those charts?’ The sketch is just one sentence at the beginning of the day. At the end of the day, it’s 40 sentences.”

Captain Slackbladder

Edmund Blackadder, the other persona with which Atkinson is most associated, is very different from Bean. “It’s a strange pairing of characters,” he says. “They have quite distinct audiences. I love the witty cynicism of the Blackadder. Blackadder definitely had a more upmarket audience. Mr Bean was really quite disliked by the cognoscenti ... They thought it was just tat, really, children’s entertainment, not for them. The Blackadder is definitely more verbal and in a more British tradition. But the two have, I think, sustained. They both had a longevity. I’m surprised, particularly with Blackadder. You’d have 12- and 14-year-olds, coming up to you now and saying, ‘I’ve just discovered the Blackadder’, and I think: ‘You’re too late!’ ”

Blackadder almost ended after its unusually expensive, medieval-era first series. “After the first series, our producer, John Lloyd, said: ‘It looks like a million dollars and cost a million pounds.’ A million pounds in those days for six shows was quite an extraordinary amount of money.” It looked doomed initially: “The BBC thought it was too expensive and not funny enough, so they cancelled it.”

But Curtis and Atkinson had already begun to reconceptualise things for the second series, even bringing in comic firebrand Ben Elton to co-write. “I remember our producer handing over the scripts [to the BBC], saying, ‘I know you’ve cancelled the series, but do you mind reading these before you confirm the cancellation.’ We had two or three half-hour scripts to show them and say, ‘Look how much cheaper this is!’ We had decided to move away from people riding horses through snowy landscapes. Instead, it was going to be a three-set sitcom — the queen’s room, Blackadder’s room, somewhere else, a traditional sitcom format — but set it in the Elizabethan era.”

Blackadder also featured anarchic young upstarts such as Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. And Elton was, Atkinson notes, “the definitive alternative comic” at the time. Did Atkinson consider himself part of the “alternative comedy” boom of the 1980s? He shakes his head. “I’m not shaking my head as though the last thing I want to be associated with is alternative comedy. It’s just alternative comedy came along a bit later than I did, and I don’t think what I’ve done is particularly alternative. It’s a pretty traditional kind of comedy, not particularly radical, but it happened to be vaguely coincidental, within a few years, of what became known as alternative comedy.”

Where do his own comedy roots lie? “John Cleese in particular was a great hero when I was a teenager and a student, and Beyond the Fringe — the Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett thing — I didn’t see much of that on screen, but I listened to the records a lot. I remember at school when I was 16 or 17 rehashing old Beyond the Fringe sketches for school revues.”

He shares with Cleese an affinity for lampooning a certain type of archaic British authority figure. “Monty Python did it in a far more surreal way than Beyond the Fringe did it, but nevertheless our [shared] yardsticks were the Church of England, the aristocracy and the army. They were the three pillars of the old-fashioned British establishment about which we enjoyed making jokes and we continued to do that into [early 1980s satirical sketch show] Not the Nine O’Clock News. Those three things that I mentioned are very much in decline. If our movement was supposed to be a revolutionary one, making fun of the absurdities and the inconsistencies and the blinkeredness of establishment people, then in many ways, it succeeded, because those people have been overcome and sidelined.”

Cancel culture

In recent decades he has seen the rise of “a whole different form of establishment”. He has, in the past, railed against what he calls “cancel culture” and has, more specifically, campaigned for the modification of the UK’s Religious Hatred Bill in the mid-noughties (to strengthen performers ability to criticise religion) and to have the notion of “insult” removed from the UK’s Public Order Bill. “It does seem to me that the job of comedy is to offend, or have the potential to offend, and it cannot be drained of that potential. Every joke has a victim. That’s the definition of a joke. Someone or something or an idea is made to look ridiculous.”

Shouldn’t comedy kick up at people in authority, and not down at those who have no power? “I think you’ve got to be very, very careful about saying what you’re allowed to make jokes about,” he says. “You’ve always got to kick up? Really? What if there’s someone extremely smug, arrogant, aggressive, self-satisfied, who happens to be below in society? They’re not all in houses of parliament or in monarchies. There are lots of extremely smug and self-satisfied people in what would be deemed lower down in society, who also deserve to be pulled up. In a proper free society, you should be allowed to make jokes about absolutely anything.”

He talks about how some on social media take jokes out of their original context in order to stir up anger (“Not all jokes are for everyone”). I argue that social media also gives a lot of people a voice they never had before. He agrees that we’re only beginning to learn how to use the technology. “It’s terribly young,” he says. “In terms of the history of man, it’s been around for a very, very short time and we’re still adjusting. Here, in this country, we’ve got something called an Online Safety Bill, which is only possibly coming into the Houses of Parliament soon. And you think ‘Isn’t that sort of 20 years late?’. But you’ve got to live with something for quite a long time to find out how you’re going to live with it.”

It’s when discussing what’s acceptable for humour that Atkinson seems most engaged with the interview. It’s also at this point that the press person tells me I have only a few minutes left. We return to the subject of Man vs Bee, a funny, anxiety-inducing show about a housesitter destroying everything in his path in pursuit of a malevolent bee. It’s Atkinson’s first starring television role in decades, though he sees it as “a 100-minute movie that happens to be divided into nine episodes”.

Time’s up. I tell him I still like to watch Blackadder. “That’s good to hear. I haven’t sat down and watched an episode for decades.”

It’s always on somewhere, I say. “Yes, it’s sort of omnipresent,” he says, looking beyond the screen. “That’s good.”

Man vs Bee is on Netflix from June 24th