It seems right to start a biography at the beginning of one’s life. Therefore, this biography will begin with Rowan’s early childhood and how those around him influenced what he would grow up to be.
Rowan Sebastian Atkinson was born on 6 January 1955 to Eric and Ella May. They were considered middle working class. This lived in Stocksfield and would commute to a farm that the family owned. Rowan had two older brothers named Rodney and Rupert. These two brothers were going to go into careers in finance, therefore leaving the farm to be inherited by Rowan.
As was the tradition in those times, many families did not own their own TV which didn’t exclude Rowan’s family. However, Rowan’s Grandfather Edward owned a chain of cinemas and Rowan often would see the latest films here. His family didn’t get a television until he was 12 years of age. It was at this time when John Cleese was making his presence known to the viewers in comedies such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus which became one of Rowan’s favorite comedy acts. By the early 1970s he was able to recite by heart many skits from these shows. However, this did not make his unique as many other children his age were fond of Monty Python.
What did set his apart from his classmates was his fascination with nonverbal comedy. One of his favorite films was Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday starring the French comedian Jacques Tati. Soon Rowan also knew every one of his physical comic tactics.
What was even more amazing was the fact that Rowan could imitate physical comedians like Jacques Tati very well. His appearance added to the hilarity at which Rowan would mimic. In his early teens his “eyes bulged, ears stuck out and his lips and nose seemed to go on forever”(11). His appearance earned him nicknames from classmates such as Dopie, Zoonie, Moonman, Green Man, and Gruman. This didn’t effect Rowan in a negative sense. In fact, this encouraged him and he often used his looks to pull funny faces in front of classmates for laughter.
Rowan went to school at Durham Cathedral Choristers’ School along with people such as Tony Blair. He appeared in many school plays along with his classmates. Eventually he received a scholarship to a public school called St. Bees.
Rowan was an active member of school. He was in charge of running the school’s film society and would often book skits by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Jacques Tati which all mirror his interest for unusual and physical comedy.
Rowan received very high marks in the acedemic part of school but along with that he was a mischief maker and enjoyed practical jokes. He found himself at odds with authority figures and in detention more often than not. As a child he smoked a lot, although he gave up this habit as he entered adulthood. His problem with authority figures often gave him good ideas for his later career sketches along with the practical jokes he would play. One time Rowan and a group of friends taught the toddler of an Instructor to say “f**k off” for revenge. Later, Rowan stated, “I never meant any harm or offense to anyone – I was just trying to enjoy myself. Because, make no mistake, life is short”(14).
Despite his funny faces and knack for comical practical jokes, Rowan prefered to remain in the shadows of the theater. He often ran the back stage lighting and such. However, when he was on stage he was wonderful. Before leaving St. Bees to get a higher education, Rowan’s headmaster pulled him aside and said that Rowan should seriously consider a career in entertainment. Obviously Rowan had impressed a business-driven headmaster as he had also entertained his classmates. Rowan had performed successfully at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival twice, but Rowan wasn’t convinced. He was a bright student and wanted to pursue his interest of mechanics and engineering. Another fact that was present in Rowan’s mind was the fact that, contrary to his ability to amuse others, he was very quiet and shy in personality and only open with good friends. He was fascinated with taking apart machinery and putting it back together again on the farm, which didn’t leave room to ‘make funny faces’.
He continued on to received his B.Sc. in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Newcastle University and, at age 20, graduated with the highest marks of his year.
He then went on to Queen’s College, Oxford to get his M.Sc. in Engineering Science. The year was 1976 and it would be here that he would start to change towards a career in comedy. It all started to take shape when he met and became friends with the English student Richard Curtis. Curtis was almost the opposite of Atkinson. While Rowan enjoyed verbal comedy, Curtis was witty with his love for words. Another music scholar named Howard Goodall also became friends with Rowan. These three went on to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Unlike Rowan’s habit in the past, he performed new skits instead of doing old ‘classic’ skits from his idols. At the Festival was an Agent named Richard Armitage who was John Cleese’s agent. Richard Armitage loved what he saw of Rowan on stage, especially the fact that about 90% of Rowan’s acting was nonverbal, and soon became Rowan’s agent. Rowan wasn’t affected by this at all and stilled viewed everything as a hobby, including the BBC Radio 3 series he had “The Atkinson People”.
“BEYOND A JOKE”
In 1978, Rowan’s Edinburgh show called “Beyond a Joke” was shown in London’s Hampstead Theatre. This was a very large step for Rowan. People in the audience included John Cleese, who later said, “He was making people laugh with some material I’d have paid money to avoid”(24) and Peter Cook, “It is impossible not to be funny when you are around the man [Rowan]. He’s positively inspiring”(24). Another important person who saw the show was Humphrey Barclay who signed the Atkinson team up to make a pilot for Canned Laughter just six months after Rowan had graduated from the University. This was the first time Rowan had made it on television series and was a success. Both Canned Laughter and Beyond a Joke featured skits that would later be seen on many of Rowan’s solo works and Mr. Bean.
Another big event for Rowan happened when he was asked in 1979 to be in a charity event called The Secret Policeman’s Ball for Amnesty Internation at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Amnesty Internation is an organization to aid in human rights. This show was performed live for four late night shows and was actually produced by John Cleese himself. Rowan appeared with other famous comedians such as John Cleese, Michael Palin, Billy Connolly, Alan Bennet, Peter Cook, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, and Terry Jones. Performing for this, he did his The Schoolmaster and The Pianist sketches, along with appearing alongside John Cleese, Terry Jones and Michael Palin for the Four Yorkershiremen. To be seen with so many famous stars gave Rowan a lot of attention and praise. More importantly, though, the praise was given more for Rowan’s ability to make people laugh just by staring at the just so, or by saying a word while twisting his lips into different shapes.
“NOT THE NINE O’CLOCK NEWS”
In April of 1979, viewers turned on their television sets to watch the first episode of the BBC series Not the Nine O’Clock News starring Rowan Atkinson along with Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Australian actress Pamela Stephenson. The political news spoof show had a slow start, but soon became a huge success, winning the Silver Rose at Montreux’s annual television awards gala along with a best selling book and album by 1980.
Rowan was now a comedian star and he gained everyone’s attention. Rowan was still extremely shy and hated all of the attention. He was only comfortable while on stage, pretending to be somebody else. He would describe himself to interviewers as a “performer with a comic bias”(31), but not a comedian himself. The fact of it was he would have much prefered to stay at home and work on his growing collection of classic, fast cars. He kept to himself and could rarely be seen at any public function. In November of 1980, he said, “The rate of my success has frightened me…[fans] tend to scream at me across restaurants, ‘Give us a funny face, Rowan,’ which I truly hate”(36). He later told the Daily Mail, “I don’t recall ever consciously deciding to go into this business. One day it was just a time-consuming hobby, the next day it had become 51% of my life, and suddenly, it was my job.”(36) He also stated, “People think because I can make them laugh on the stage, I’ll be able to make them laugh in person. That isn’t the case at all. I am essentially a rather quiet, dull person who just happens to be a performer”(68).
Rowan still enjoyed doing small projects and stage performances. In November of 1980, he appeared in front of the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance. In December he was appointed to the board of directors of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. He was also voted Royal Variety Club Showbiz Personality of the Year and the Society of West End Theatres 1981’s Comedy Performer of the Year. He also was in many small movies such as Death, Whatever Happened to Bernard Fripp?, and Summertime. He had a small cameo in the 1983 bond film Never Say Never Again as Mr. Small-Fawcett.
“THE BLACK ADDER SERIES ONE AND TWO”
Rowan returned to doing his own work when he teamed up with Richard Curtis to make a BBC series called The Black Adder. The film takes place in medieval England under the rule of Richard III and Richard IV. Rowan plays Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh, next in line after Richard IV for the throne of England. The film aired on 15 June 1983. There were many problems with this Blackadder. It takes place during a very dark and cold period in England’s history and it is extremely difficult to add humor, even slapstick and crude humor, to this. While the series wasn’t a failure, it wasn’t considered a success also. Comedian stars such as Peter Cook, Brian Blessed, Rik Mayall, Angus Deayton along with Tony Robinson and Tim McInnerney add to the shows appeal.
The second series was aired in 1985 and was more successful. The show was shot on a set, contrary to being filmed on location like the first episodes. This series takes place in the court of Queen Elizabeth. The characters are actually descendants of the orignal characters. Rowan Atkinson stars again (of course!) as the bastard great-grandson Edmund Blackadder of the original Black Adder. Miranda Richardson does a wonderful job of playing Queen Elizabeth, along with Stephen Fry and Patsy Byrne.
To read a review of the Blackadder episodes, click Blackadder Episode Reviews
“PLAYS AND BROADWAY”
Rowan Atkinson returned to the stage to play in Larry Shue’s comedy play titled The Nerd. It opened at the Aldwych Theatre and followed with mixed reviews. None of them pleased Rowan and he finally accepted to do a show at Broadway. The show was in October of 1986. While Rowan did many other stand-up live shows and plays to prepare for it, nothing could have prepared him for what happened. The show was at the Atkinson Theater and titled Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson accordingly. The show closed after only 14 performances and foul reviews particularly from Frank Rich from The New York Times. He wrote that Rowan Atkinson was “the Butcher of Broadway”(62) and that “the molding of English and American cultures is not yet complete”(62). While Rowan took great exception to the reviews, he was also relieved to be home and out of Broadway, writing it off as a utterly horrible experience. However, Frank Rich wasn’t finished with his bashing of British humor and also wrote, “As long as teh British public maintains its fondness for toilet humor there will always be an England. Mr. Atkinson is very big on toilet jokes and he is very big in England…”(62) Everyone didn’t share his oppinion, though, including writers from Newsday who said that Rowan “brings us a brand of British humor that travels well”(62).
Rowan stayed clear of Broadway. Instead he focused his energy on projects such as a low-budget black and white film with Steven Wright called Appointments of Dennis Jennings in 1989, and he appeared in a collection of short playlets titled The Sneeze with Timothy West and Cheryl Campbell.
In April of 1989, while in the spirit of taking on more ‘serious’ and less ‘toilet-humor’ parts, Rowan co-starred along with Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson in the movie The Tall Guy. Goldblum plays a struggling actor who gets a job as a sidekick to a nasty and mean man named Ron Atkinson (played by Rowan Atkinson). This movie has made many parallels to real life. Goldblum is compared to Angus Deayton, who starred with Rowan Atkinson in his Live! performance and ‘Ron Anderson’ is compared to Rowan Atkinson. The actor says that this is just a major exaggeration.
“THE BLACK ADDER SERIES THREE, FOUR AND A CHRISTMAS CAROL”
Rowan Atkinson returned with writers Elton and Curtis and actors Tony Robinson and Hugh Laurie to make a third Blackadder. Blackadder III is set in the court of Prince Regent in the 1790s. Instead of having noble blood, like in the past Blackadders, Edmund Blackadder is now the dimwitted Prince’s butler. Of course, Baldrick is as ever Edmunds faithful sidekick. The show aired in 1987 and was a hit.
In 1988 brought a special episode of Blackadder called Blackadder A Christmas Carol and brought all of the stars together in a spoof on the original Christmas Carol story.
The fourth Blackadder, aired in November of 1989, is almost as different as night and day from the others. While it provides the usual humor, it is set during World War I among the trenches and soldiers. Blackadder Goes Forth has Rowan Atkinson on the Western Front in 1917 as Captain Edmund Blackadder. The series takes on a serious side and the ending in the sixth and final episode leaves viewers without a smile on their lips, but rather tears in their eyes. The series appears to wrap up with other three, bringing back stars in guest appearances such as Miranda Richardson, Gabrielle Glaister, and Rick Mayall. Of course, the regular cast includes Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tim McInnerney, and Tony Robinson.
The Blackadder series was voted the Best Comedy Show of the Year in 1990.
To read a review of the Blackadder episodes, click Blackadder Episode Reviews
“PERSONAL HOBBIES AND BEAN”
On New Year’s Day of 1990, the first episode of Mr. Bean brought an estimate 13 million to the television to watch. Mr. Bean was an immediate success and appealed to all countries because Rowan used as little language as possible. He returned to his early days with help from co-writers Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll and familiar Not the Nine O’Clock News director John Howard Davies by concentrating more on ‘pulling funny faces’ and getting laughs. This was not a regular series, rather 30-minute episodes that would be filmed at random. The idea was to keep Mr. Bean special so that it doesn’t lose its touch. Critics and viewers alike were in agreement that Mr. Bean is special and it ended up winning awards such as the BAFTA for Best Light and Entertainment Performer and the Golden Rose at Montreux. The Bean episodes also produced a book called The Diary of Mr. Bean by Rowan Atkinsona and Robin Driscoll.
To read a review of the Mr. Bean episodes, click Mr. Bean Episode Reviews
Rowan Atkinson’s career had suddenly become fast-paced once again and he was more increasingly in the public eye. He kept his personal life separate and secret from the public eye, however, a feat that most celebrities cannot boast of. He married in February of 1990 in New York to long time girlfriend Sunetra Sastry. Apart from Bean, he also took a part in The Witches, the BBC Comedy by Richard Curtis The Genie, a cameo appearance in Hot Shots Part Deux, he was even behind the scenes as the voice of Zazu in The Lion King, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. He then surprised many by making his own car documentray called The Driven Man in which he talks to many people about cars and shows many his passion for cars. He also started to appear in Barclaycard ads as the character of Richard Latham. He teamed up with Ben Elton once again and made The Thin Blue Line in the autumn of 1995 which was a british comedy sitcom about a police station led my Inspector Fowler. During this time, his wife Sunetra gave birth to two children, Ben and Lily making Rowan Atkinson a father.
Suffice it to say that since Mr. Bean, Rowan Atkinson has kept very busy. He continues keep busy, with a growing list of credits:
Canned Laughter, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, Mr. Bean, The Thin Blue Line, Blackadder Back and Forth (featured at the Millennium Dome)
MOVIE CREDITS AND LIVE AUDIENCE PRODUCTIONS:
Dr. Who – The Curse of Fatal Death, Maybe Baby, Never say Never Again, The Driven Man, The Witches, Secret Policeman’s Ball, Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, Heroes & Villains, Rowan Atkinson Live!, Bean The Movie, Tall Guy, Full Throttle (the story of race driver Sir Henry Birkin), The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, BBC production of Bernard and the Genie, Hot Shots; Part Duex, Four Weddings and a Funeral, voice of the bird: Zazu, in The Lion King, Death, Whatever Happened to Bernard Fripp?, Summertime