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Rowan Atkinson - Interview

Transcribed and provided by the ever-Bladderish artist soon to be formerly known as GenMelchit, supposedly from a Canadian radio interview sometime in the distant past.


RA: Very well, thank you.
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INT: When did you discover your face?
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RA: That's a good question. I think I was about 20. It was when I first -I had just arrived a Oxford University. I had already got a degree in electrical and electronic engineering, which is my background. And I'd just arrived from another University, arrived at Oxford, and towards the end of my first month there, someone was doing or was staging a show, was, was staging a review, you know, one night stand, at a theater in Oxford and they asked me if I'd do something in it, because they knew that I'd been in school plays or they had heard that I'd been interested in theater and performing. So they said, "Would you like to do a sketch?", and I, um, and I, I had never written any words before in my life, and I just looked in the mirror and started to improvise. Really it was the first time I had just stood in front of a mirror and had a look at my face, and explored it and stretched it, and tweaked it, and just had fun with it. Suddenly this, sort of, attitude and this character and this absurdity started to evolve, and this bizarre little five minute sketch evolved, which was really the precursor to 'Mr. Bean' as he now is, about this guy who didn't speak but just burbled and came out and tried to give away this piece of paper to anyone in the audience who would have it. And this burblblb (does Mr. Bean mumble). He was just this man who came out on stage in this most peculiar way. And that was it, really. That was the sketch. That was, to be honest, the first time and the last time, really, that I looked in the mirror, and explored my facial range.
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INT: But, were you used to being a funny person, at this point, or were you only funny on stage?
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RA: No, no, I was only funny on stage, really. I, I, think I was funny as a person toward my classmates when I was very young. You know, when I was a child, up to about the age of 12.
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INT: Intentionally funny?
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RA: Yes, intent-well, heheh, yes. Good question. I think intentionally funny, until I was about 12. I remember I used to stand up in school changing rooms and did something that used to entertain...........
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INT: You're leaving much to the imagination, there now!
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RA: Can't imagine what, but anyway it seemed to cause amusement. But, of course, as soon as the adolescent self consciousness set in, really, I, I, I haven't done it since. I mean I can do it when I'm very relaxed, and with good friends, then I think I can be amusing. But generally speaking, I tend to be quiet and introspective.
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INT: What is it about Oxford University that produced such great comic minds, over the years? 'Beyond the Fringe' came out of Oxford, did it not?
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RA: I don't know what it was, the, the people who, at least in my eyes, started the tradition was the 'Beyond the Fringe' era, was Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and-
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INT: Jonathan Miller
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RA: -and Jonathan Miller, and Alan Bennet who's now best known as a playwright and filmwriter. And, so that was the late 50's. But when I was at Oxford, I mean half of those that we've mentioned were at Cambridge, and indeed it was the same with Monty Python's Flying Circus. Monty Python crowd; half of them came from Cambridge, and half of them came from Oxford. But, there seems to be this jewel, this sort of two headed tradition of doing comedy, of doing sketches, and that kind of thing.
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INT: Is it a British thing where we think that, you know, there's so much of British culture that's held back, and the class system sort of hold everyone rigidly in place, and-
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RA: Yea, I mean, I think there must be a degree to which it's a relief, to people who are studying philosophy, or law, or electronic engineering, like I was, who sit and think, "God, I want to do something else. I want to express myself in a different way. I have a performing inclination." Of course, some would say if you have a performing inclination, then you should become a lawyer. That's a platform we use, or a priest. You know, anywhere you lecture and pontificate to people. Or you can become an actor, and I suppose it might have started as an escape valve, and I sometimes feel that myself, because some of the joy I get from playing Mr. Bean, and why, I think some of the joy that people get from watching Mr. Bean is the fact that he does things that you would never dare do. Even though he is an adult, he behaves in the most outrageous and childish way, with no -totally self centered- with no sensitivity, no idea of social conventions whatsoever-
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INT: But sometimes he is aware he is breaking social conventions, and he tries to pull himself back in-
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RA: Yes, but, but sometimes he is very happy to leave people in the dung, you know. Quite happy to cause a problem. And what's interesting about him as a comic character is that the custard pie hardly ever ends up on his face. You know he's always just dodging [inaudible because the interviewer will not shut up], and then he'll be off, out of it. And that sort of reinforces to me that fact that he causes so much trouble, and never really pays a price for it, which I think he should.
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INT: We know you first from 'Black Adder', at least that's the way you came to us in North America.
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RA: Yes, that's right.
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INT: 'Black Adder' is a literate program. It helps if you have some sense of historical perspective when you watch it.
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RA: [again interviewer talks over] -and you need a good understanding of English because it's full of English idiom and cynicism and irony and metaphors and, you know, bizarre sort of- so , I mean the Spanish wouldn't find it easy to immediately pick up on the comedy-
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INT: Like Mr. Bean-
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RA: -of 'Black Adder', but Mr. Bean furnishes, uhh, you know people whose first culture is not England or the English. I don't know why that is, because you cannot, I mean even though there are hardly any words spoken in Mr. Bean, as you know. But, merely removing the words from comedy in no way guarantees international acceptability. You can't presume, "Oh he's not saying anything, therefore the Venezuelans will love it.". You can't say that. It's unreasonable. Yet, for some reason the Venezuelans and the Spanish, and the Germans, and the Australians or Canadians or whatever- DO seem to find something in Mr. Bean that they can identify with. And I think it is this child in him, actually I think, it's this selfless kind of innocence, but vindictiveness -this selfishness, which I think is so fascinating.
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INT: I have some facts here about Mr. Bean: 2 million Mr. Bean tapes have been sold in the UK; Mr. Bean's Diary reached #1 on the Sunday Best Seller's List; it's been sold to 82 countries; in 1990, it won the Golden Rose at Montreaux; in 91, an international Emmy; it's won the Canadian Rocky Award three times; the American Cable Ace Award. It has won no British awards. What do you make of that?
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RA: I think that's true isn't it? What a good point. Umm, I don't know- There is a sort of a, there is a cynicism about 'Mr. Bean', in Britain. Certainly amongst the, what used to be called the chattering classes, you know the educated, middle class, or media people, who write newspapers and who tend to run award ceremonies. They simply prefer their comedy to be more verbal, to be more cynical, to be harder, more ironic. They like the 'The Black Adder', far more. 'The Black Adder' was occasionally awarded something. They find 'Mr. Bean' too easy, too accessible. There's something too manifest about it. He's too much 'there'. I mean, it doesn't worry me greatly, because I know- I think I've tried to explain why there isn't this sort of liking. It's not that it isn't a liking in Britain. It's just that it isn't a liking amongst a certain sector of society, who seem to be a little more cynical, or just don't enjoy it.
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INT: Which do you prefer? You moved from- you did 'Black Adder', then you did 'Mr. Bean'. Now you're back doing very, very verbal comedy in 'Thin Blue Line'.
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RA: Yes, that's right, yes.
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INT: So, for you was doing 'Mr. Bean' sort of taking off the shackles of this very high verbiage and irony, and doing this childlike character, was that a release for you? Or, or-
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RA: It's always a release whenever you do anything different. I mean it's nice, well we haven't done anything in 'Black Adder' since I started doing 'Mr. Bean'. But it's great to go, as you mentioned, this new police sitcom called 'The Thin Blue Line', which we did a series of in England last year, and we're gonna do another series this summer. And that is very verbal, more in a Black Adder tradition, and no doubt it's fun going from one to the other. It's fun going from 'Black Adder to 'Mr. Bean', but it's fun going from 'Mr. Bean' to 'The Thin Blue Line', which is- it's just fun doing something new and different. Which is why, sadly, I'm not sure we're going to be doing many more Mr. Bean.
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INT: At least not for television. You're doing the movie.
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RA: TV show. We are trying to do the movie. We've been trying to do it for about 3 or 4 years, and it's taken a long time to get around to it, but we've gotten to a second draft screenplay which is really looking kind of good.
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INT: This is the thing that amazes us in North America: British people know when something is finished. Jennifer Saunders, who did Absolutely Fabulous said, "I'm done, it's over. I'm finished, don't expect any more." With you, with Mr. Bean, now, are you telling us that this character, not exhausted, but it's time to finish him before he becomes-
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RA: There comes- I suppose we have a bit more respect for creativity, and the importance of creativity to the individual. And, we put a lot more value, or at least I personally put a lot more value, on the creative values and creative challenges of something than the commercial necessities. Not so much in Canada, but certainly in the US, as I'm sure you know, money is all, and if they can get another 26 programs of the same thing even though it advances the culture or those actor's careers not at all it doesn't matter. The only important thing is it's big bucks, and you've got to make the programs. We still have a tradition certainly in English television; it's faded a bit in the last five years, but we still have a tradition where the important thing is the quality and the challenging nature of the programming. Get that right, then- if you get the quality right, then the marketability or whatever; your ability to sell videos or your ability to earn money or whatever, will follow naturally. But try to be creatively lead rather than market lead. And that's important to me.
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INT: You've certainly done that right. The market has been very kind to Mr. Bean, and Mr. Bean has obviously produced just enough material for the market. You are so unlike your character, in person, but there's a-
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RA: (laughs) Well, thank you.
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INT: (laughs) There was a scene in an Italian restaurant with you and your wife, that is very Mr. Bean-like, that I read about. Do you know the one I'm talking about?
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RA: A scene in Mr. Bean?
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INT: No, in your own life. I read a story in-
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RA: Where did you read that?
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INT: I think it had to do with the tablecloth.
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RA: Uhhhhhh..... did I spill the wine? Or did I put the tablecloth in my....
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INT: I think you put it into your pants.
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RA: I uh.... no I don't recall it well. I might have put it in my sweater.
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INT: (laughs) Are you prone to such incidents in real life?
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RA: I try to avoid them if I can, because I don't think- I'll tell you this much. I don't think I'm any more prone than anyone else is, but.... the problem is that because you're known for acting characters who are prone to those kinds of things. Then they think, Oh he's just like Mr. Bean, you ought to see him. He spilled his wine, or he knocked that table over, or he went in that door instead of that door. Which, I mean, we're all prone to that kind of mishap. But it is excruciatingly embarrassing when it happens to me, because people tend to notice you doing it. You know, shoplifting, if it was ever something to which you were inclined, certainly goes out of the window when you become famous. And so I just try and lead as normal and as straight and as clean a life as I can.
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INT: Well, thank you for Mr. Bean and thank you for talking with us.
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RA: My pleasure. Thank you very much for your time. Thank you.


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