Scene Stealers pays homage to the forgotten figures in pop culture that elevate the medium that they are in, whether it’s a standout in a small but memorable role, as the glue guy that holds everything together or as a subtle addition that makes something that much better (or borderline watchable). This feature honors those who may not be the stars but that doesn’t make them any less important.
ACID TONGUED AND RUBBER FACED, THE GENIUS OF ROWAN ATKINSON
He’s been called the man with the rubber face and a modern-day Buster Keaton, but the talents of English comedy icon Rowan Atkinson are so varied it’s impossible to find one sentence to describe him. There are indeed few performers as unique and singularly talented as Rowan Atkinson, a performer equally as comfortable in authoritative roles as he is in bumbling silent personifications. Though sadly largely typecast by North American audiences, an examination of his career reveals a profound comedic genius in a variety of roles; a true bona fide master of his craft. Whether he is playing a suave arrogant bastard, a condescending figure of authority (officers, priests, etc.) or a simple-minded buffoon, Rowan Atkinson shines in every role he tackles.
England’s prolific output of comedic gold has a deeply cherished history; so many influential acts, performers, and writers have emerged from the UK who have all profoundly shaped the world of comedy. From early classics like The Benny Hill Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Beyond The Fringe to modern-day creations like Bottom, The Vicar of Dibley, and Only Fools and Horses, the creative forces behind these shows all firmly secured their place in history.
Of the many names to spring forward as part of the new generation of comics post-Python, that of Rowan Atkinson is undoubtedly one of the certified greats. The year was 1976 and the immense impact of Monty Python was still ever-present (their television show had ended in 1974 and their first film “The Holy Grail” was released in 1975), leaving up and coming comics a huge torch to carry forward. The influence of the group and other names like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore fueled new performers to leave their mark.
Rowan Atkinson’s entrance onto the scene was thus fortuitous; influenced but not directly competing with his idols let his and many other creative juices erupt. Educated at Oxford University (with degrees in electrical engineering), Atkinson began to show his acting chops early on with performances with the University’s Experimental Theatre Club and The Oxford Revue as part of the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was during this time that he first met writer Richard Curtis and composer Howard Goodall, collaborators instrumental in his greatest career successes.
Lanky and odd-looking Atkinson was a quiet, reserved person that Curtis initially described as resembling “a cushion”. Yet when he got up on stage and began to perform he transformed into an unexpected and incredibly talented person, leaving audiences amazed and in stitches. From his sketches as a bumbling simple-minded man-child (the original prototype for Mr. Bean) to his critically acclaimed “School Master” sketch – the ability to deliver brilliant mime and acerbic deadpan confirmed this was a performer unlike any seen before.
As his fame began to grow so did the opportunities made available to him including an episodic radio program entitled The Atkinson People, a one-man show at London’s Hampstead Theatre, and his first foray into mainstream television with BBC 2’s Not The Nine O’Clock News.
A sketch show in ways similar to Saturday Night Live, “Not The Nine O’Clock News parodied politics, society, celebrities, and other newsmakers while adding a tinge of absurdity. During its run from 1979-1982, Atkinson and his fellow castmates (Pamela Stephenson, Griff Rhys Jones, and Mel Smith) provided audiences with some wonderfully bizarre and hysterical material; Atkinson’s genius would flourish as the clear standout of the group destined for greater heights. His wide-ranging portfolio of characters could never have been clearer.
Indeed by the show’s end, Atkinson would be back to work in creating a comedy series beloved not just in the UK but around the world and widely considered one of the greatest in British history: Blackadder.
Reteaming with Richard Curtis (with whom he co-created and wrote) and Howard Goodall (who composed the series’ music), “The Blackadder” premiered in 1983 taking audiences by surprise for its unconventional story material and lavish sets. A comic interpretation of English medieval history, it told the alternate history of King Richard IV (Brian Blessed) and his jealous son Prince Edmund (Atkinson) in 1485 and his attempts to usurp the throne. Along the way his schemes often backfire, resulting in truly unique comic circumstances.
Though praised for its originality, the first season of Blackadder was met with mixed critical reviews and had a high budget the BBC simply did not want to front again. Thus it was decided to tweak the original formula to ensure that Blackadder would live another day. Comic writer Ben Elton was brought on board to join Curtis (leaving Atkinson to perform) and the show would be shot on BBC built sets rather than on location (season one was filmed at Alnwick Castle). Additionally, the weak, sniveling Edmund of the first season would now be a suave, arrogant, intellectual cynic. These changes would prove to be the winning ticket catapulting the series to the levels of esteem it enjoys today.
As a ‘historical’ sitcom each season of Blackadder would be set in different eras of English history, with each character being descendants of the former incarnations. “Blackadder II” (1986) had the Elizabethan Age as a backdrop, “Blackadder The Third” (1987) featured the English Regency of the 19th century, while “Blackadder Goes Forth” (1989) was set in a British trench during the First World War in 1917. With its wonderfully witty and sharply written scripts, “Blackadder” in all its versions delighted viewers and featured masterful performances from all, especially Atkinson. Featuring his trademark acerbic wit and sarcasm Blackadder’s banter with Baldrick, Percy, George (Hugh Laurie), Queenie and Melchett (Stephen Fry) and others were of pure comic gold.
Atkinson’s delivery of his lines and ability to convey a pompous attitude disinterested in others well being were affirmations of his talents and true highlights of his career. For his work on Blackadder and Not the Nine O’Clock News, he won two BAFTA TV Awards. In a poll conducted in 2004 by the BBC Blackadder was voted as the second-best British sitcom in history. Yet just when audiences thought they had seen the full range of Rowan Atkinson’s abilities, he returned to early material from his university days to create another iconic comedy creation, and arguably his best-known role.
“Mr. Bean” premiered in 1990 and brought Atkinson back to his first mime roles. As the titular character, he portrayed a simple-minded man and his daily escapades. But Mr. Bean was not solely innocent and child-like, for he too had a mean streak and an air of indifference to others’ feelings. Largely silent, the role allowed Atkinson to transcend linguistic boundaries and provide comedy through facial and body expressions. Indeed the show won an International Emmy Award and Atkinson’s face achieved a high level of fame outside of the UK (Re-runs of Blackadder has begun to appear in the United States during Mr. Bean’s initial run).
Written by Atkinson and Curtis and again featuring a Howard Goodall theme, “Mr. Bean” attracted new viewers who may have been intimidated by Blackadder’s intellectual humor. The show’s universality and unusual protagonist won its way into the hearts of audiences around the world. Two feature films would result, “Bean” (1997) and “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” (2007). While an undoubted brilliant example of Atkinson’s talent, the role has most unfortunately left him ignorantly typecast to many audiences. The close association between his face and the role is a great disservice to this vastly talented performer, capable of so much.
But Rowan Atkinson has continued beyond “Mr. Bean” in providing great comic creations proving why he is so much more than just one character. He joined writer Ben Elton again for the series “The Thin Blue Line” (1995-1996) as Inspector Raymond Fowler, and returned to the big screen in several memorable roles including voicing Zazu in The Lion King, appearing in Scooby-Doo, Rat Race, Keeping Mum and of course starring in the Johnny English spy spoof series. (The third installment released in 2018). On the stage, he has revised his university material for new audiences and recently played Fagin in the West End production of “Oliver!”, while currently starring on the ITV program “Maigret”.
Through each of his roles, whether he is miming or eloquently using the English language for maximum comedic purpose, Rowan Atkinson has consistently provided laughs and admiration for 40 years. His range of expressions, both bodily and vocally, have enriched viewing audiences and his inherent genius has never faltered. Even in shows or films that are not of the best quality, Atkinson’s performances always leave an impression. For his incredible catalog of comedic talent, Rowan Atkinson has solidified himself as truly one of the greatest British comics and a definite jewel in the history of world comedy.