Describing Rowan Atkinson, it’s effectively a legal obligation to call him a “rubber-faced funnyman”. Or “rubber-faced clown”. Anything “rubber-faced” will do. But now that has to stop.
Atkinson’s latest role – the thoughtful, pipe-smoking French detective Inspector Maigret – airs on ITV on Easter Monday and, no matter how closely you watch, you won’t see a single twitch, gurn or wrinkled nose. Atkinson’s playing it straight for the first time in his career – and he’s not finding it easy.
“Generally speaking I haven’t played many ordinary men,” he acknowledges with a smile that’s almost shy. “I tend to play people with a slightly odd, eccentric or particular attitude to life. The problem with Maigret is – he’s ordinary. He hasn’t got a limp, a lisp, a French accent, and he has no particular love of opera or all those other things that people tend to attach to fictional detectives. He’s just an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job, in a very interesting time. I found that daunting.”
Maigret’s ordinary charm seems to have worn off on Atkinson. Previously notorious as a “difficult interview”, ITV’s new Maigret is all charm, dressed in a sober suit and speaking softly, with more than a hint of self-deprecation. At one point, discussing how Maigret may develop over future films – Atkinson’s yet to sign up for more than the first two – he’s keen to stress the performance isn’t perfectly formed, straight out of the box. “But I think it’s what I call an optimistic start.” He pauses, checks himself. “I’m sorry – as you know, for me, no glass is anything other than half-empty. I think the programme is actually very good.”
He had his reservations when ITV first approached him almost two years ago – though, to be fair, the now 61-year-old Atkinson’s split from his wife of 24 years, former BBC make-up artist Sunetra Sastry, meant he was in the middle of an awkward personal situation. (He has since been seeing 32-year-old Crashing star, Louise Ford.) It was more the quality of his performance that bothered him, he insists.
“ITV asked me if I fancied playing the role,” he nods. “I thought… perhaps not. I don’t think you can decide to play the leading role in a mainstream ITV drama without being reasonably certain that you can play the part at least as well as it can be played. If you think you’re just going to give it a go and see what happens, I don’t think that’s good enough. It went away for a while – then they said: ‘Are you sure?’ I thought about it again and decided I would. Rightly or wrongly, I thought that I could do more than have a go at it. So, I had a go at it.”
The results are unexpectedly impressive. In the first film, Maigret Sets a Trap, we find the Paris cop besieged on all sides as he struggles to find a serial killer in postwar Paris. With few lines beyond the procedural, Atkinson conveys the man’s pain as innocent women die, the soft affection of his marriage and his iron resolve to crack the case.
He accepts the compliment, but has something he wants to make clear. “The one thing I would never wish to be thought is that you play serious roles in order to achieve some kind of respectability, which you can’t get if you’re playing comedy,” he insists. “It’s quite weird the way that the arts community still has a long-lasting cynicism over the artistic value of comedy. There’s the thinking it’s just farting about for money, whereas as soon as you play a serious role, you’re doing something of meaning.” He sighs. “It’s as if they think an art is something nobody laughs at and nobody makes any money out of, which is an attitude that I would dispute.”
Certainly, if any comic performer’s work fits obviously into the box marked Art, it’s Atkinson’s. His slapstick – so prominent in his Not the Nine o’Clock News TV debut back in 1979 – is from the old school. Mr Bean is a clown in the continental sense of the word – dark, twisted and sly. In Blackadder he romped effortlessly across time, adding moments of pathos – most famously at the end of the First World War-set Blackadder Goes Forth, when he advanced into no-man’s-land and certain death.
“When you play a serious role – as far as I’m concerned – I’m using exactly the same skills as playing something more obviously comic,” he argues. “It’s slightly different muscles, but the same skillset. Although I have to admit the pipe-smoking is helpful. It’s a very important part of Maigret. He’s a ruminative person… he may not have a lisp or a limp, but at least he’s got a pipe, which is good from an acting point of view. I used to smoke a pipe when I was 20, of which I’m not proud, so I did know vaguely what to do and how to do it.”
This pipe-smoking coincided with his life-changing MSc in electrical engineering at Queen’s College, Oxford, where he began performing in the Oxford Revue – and met Richard Curtis, co-creator of Mr Bean and Blackadder. There had been talk – back in 2008 – of him retiring Bean, but he waves these rumours away.
“No, I don’t really have plans like that. You go with the parts that are offered that inspire you. I would never finally wave goodbye to any character – I feel as though I could still play him. It’s just the emphasis tends to shift. Prior to 2008, I’d always said that I’d never play a part that had been played before – because no one had played Mr Bean or Blackadder, or Johnny English… they’re roles that you create. Then I got offered the role of Fagin on stage in a revival of Oliver! – which, needless to say, has been played before, extremely successfully. But I thought it would be fun, so I had a go – and it seemed to work, so that’s good.”
One huge frustration he feels about the lavishly equipped drama Maigret is the presence of so many classic 1950s cars in such excellent condition. A keen car collector and vintage racer, Atkinson has pranged more than a few speedsters – he’s banned by the terms of his performer’s insurance from racing during, and three months before, a show. The Maigret cars aren’t racers, obviously, but for a car nut, a classic car is a classic car…
“The great frustration is that one thing that Maigret never does is drive,” he says. “He’s always driven or he gets the train or he gets the bus. I tried to change that – I said, ‘Well, why don’t we ring the changes for the 21st century and stick him in the car?’ But to Maigret devotees and followers he’s a non-driver.” He starts to drift off into a reverie. “There was a very nice Citroën 2CV van on set that I thought was sweet – with this wonderful corrugated-steel body, but they wouldn’t let me…” And without him really noticing, his features fall into such a tragic mask of despair that, for just one second, it seems fair to call him “rubber-faced” just one more time.