Rowan Atkinson, English actor, comedian, and screenwriter turns 65 today. While best known to audiences worldwide for his work on the sitcoms Blackadder and Mr. Bean and, more recently, for his stellar performance in Maigret, I first stumbled upon Atkinson’s brilliant talent in the BBC2 sketch comedy series, Not the Nine O’Clock News. Airing from 1979-1982, the series featured satirical sketches on current news stories and popular culture and, alongside Atkinson, featured Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones.
Created by BAFTA award-winning producer, John Lloyd (Spitting Image, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blackadder), the show’s name was derived from its schedule, as it originally aired on BBC2 at the same time serving as the comedic alternative to the Nine O’Clock News on BBC1. The show was originally scheduled to air in Fawlty Towers’ timeslot, perhaps the most difficult series on Planet Earth to have to follow.
John Cleese was to have introduced the first episode in a sketch referring to a technicians’ strike then in progress that hindered the production of the show, explaining (in character as Basil Fawlty) that there was no show that week so a “tatty revue” would be broadcast instead. However the 1979 general election intervened, and the show was pulled as too political, being replaced with repeats of American sitcom Rhoda.
Not the Nine O’Clock News also featured a number of other future notables behind the camera including writer Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Mr. Bean, Vicar of Dibley) and musical director/composer Howard Goodall, who also composed the theme songs to Red Dwarf, Blackadder, Vicar of Dibley.
Following his unforgettable comedic roles in The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Bean and Blackadder (which he co-wrote with long-time friend, Richard Curtis), Atkinson returned to the small screen in a much different role in the 2016 television adaptation of the books by Georges Simenon featuring his fictional French detective Jules Maigret. Unfortunately, only four feature length episodes were produced before the critically-acclaimed series was inexplicably cancelled by ITV in 2018.
Atkinson has listed the Beyond the Fringe group of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett as his early comedic influences in addition to Monty Python. After watching the visual side of Atkinson’s humor, it’s no surprise that he also lists the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Peter Sellers and French comedian Jacques Tati, as being very influential in his mastering of a more visual style of humor as opposed to dialogue driven humor.
Thankfully, for us, the comedic genius chose not to put neither his degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Newcastle University nor his degree of MSc in Electrical Engineering from The Queen’s College, Oxford to use. His true calling became more clear after gaining national attention as member of The Oxford Revue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1976.
In addition to Atkinson, the Oxford Revue boasted a pretty impressive laundry list of members including Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Maggie Smith, Richard Curtis, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, Katherine Parkinson, Sally Phillips and Katy Brand.
Happy 65th, Rowan Atkinson!!