In 1976, after watching a student revue at the Edinburgh Fringe, the doyen of TV comedy producers, John Lloyd, made a prediction. One day, he said, the young, dark-haired, rubber-faced, electrical engineering student he had just seen “would be more famous than Chaplin”.
The name of the student? Rowan Atkinson.
Blackadder (Atkinson) and Baldrick (Tony Robinson)
Creating Blackadder was a cunning plan….
Three years later, Lloyd invited Atkinson and three other newcomers, Gryff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith and Pamela Stephenson, to star in a new satirical comedy series called Not The Nine O’Clock News.
Whereas previous comedy cults like ITMA, the Goons and Monty Python based their material on surreal and absurd themes, Not… was far more hard-hitting. After all, this was the era of Thatcher and Reagan, Cruise and Pershing: a time of structural decline in British industry and mass unemployment.
No subject, including religion, was beyond the programme’s scope. One of the show’s best-remembered skits featured a photograph of Muslim worshippers in a mosque bowing to the ground with the voice-over: “And the search goes on for the Ayatollah Khomeini’s contact lens.”
Atkinson once said the above sketch was “not respectful, but comedy takes no prisoners”, so it is no surprise he is in opposition to the government’s current proposals to make it a crime to incite religious hatred.
Launching a campaign against the legislation and joined by a group of writers, MPs and the National Secular Society, he said: “The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.
“And a law which attempts to say you can criticise and ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.”
Atkinson’s spat with the government, which has denied that it seeks to clamp down on comedians, is the latest chapter in a story which has seen him transformed from a young boy at Durham Choristers’ School into one of the biggest comedy stars the UK has ever produced.
His wide-ranging abilities as a performer – who else could make a success of both the overtly verbose Edmund Blackadder and the almost totally mute Mr Bean? – have brought Atkinson worldwide fame and an estimated Â£55m fortune.
Not The Nine O’Clock News cast
Not The Nine O’Clock News was more daring than previous comedy
But it wasn’t always so. Although Atkinson was born into a wealthy farming family and studied at both Newcastle and Oxford universities, he was unsure his foray into comedy would be successful.
Indeed until the success of Blackadder in 1983, he continued to describe himself in his passport, as “engineer”.
Still only 49, he seems to be more committed to his collection of cars, which includes a Â£600,000 McLaren F1, than to his comedy career. Stephen Fry, best man at Atkinson’s wedding to Sunetra in 1990, says “he hasn’t an ounce of showbiz in him”.
Even so, while racing his Aston Martins or driving large lorries – he has a Heavy Goods Vehicle licence – Rowan Atkinson continues to tease journalists about the possible return of Blackadder.
But the man who has often delighted audiences by taking the rise out of clergymen – who will ever forget his show-stopping cameo in Four Weddings and A Funeral where he talked of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Goat?” – now sees himself as a defender of comedic freedom.
And that, to Rowan Atkinson, is no laughing matter.