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Johnny English Reborn - Rowan Atkinson interview

Johnny English Reborn

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ROWAN Atkinson talks about some of the challenges of making Johnny English Reborn and why members of the Royal family continue to make such excellent comedic targets.

He also talks about the potential of developing Johnny English into an even bigger franchise and why he doesn’t envy the creators of James Bond.

Q. Can we presume that the climatic scene in this film has scuppered your chances of getting a Knighthood?
Rowan Atkinson: I don’t know [smiles]. It’s not something one should ever have an ambition for, is it, a knighthood? One should discreetly not talk about it and then express surprise and joy when it actually arrives so I don’t think I’m going to pass any comment on that. Although, it’s actually this very room (French Salon at Claridge’s) where I stood and did a cabaret with Stephen Fry for the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday!

But seriously, the reason why the Queen, or members of the Royal Family has featured quite a lot in jokes I’ve been involved with for the past 30 years is because it’s a great and revered institution where certain codes of behaviour are expected and therefore if you can put in the middle of those conventions a character who is going to behave unconventionally then you have the potential for a joke and our last scene is the just the latest manifestation for that kind of thing, using the British Establishment and its conventions of behaviour as a springboard for a joke.

Q. Johnny English is obviously a much-loved character, so why did you wait until now to bring him back?
Rowan Atkinson: I think we always wanted to return to him actually. Immediately after the release of the first movie in 2003 there was talk of a sequel, that there was another film to be made… a possibly a better film to be made or made in a different way and the first script meeting that I remember attending for this film was in 2004 and we worked on the film for a year or so, a year and a half, and then we decided to abandon it and make the Mr Bean sequel instead. So, that’s what we did and made Mr Bean’s Holiday in 2006. That came out in 2007 and then I did my Fagin in the musical in the West End in 2008/09 and then eventually we got round to picking up the baton again with the intention of doing a sequel again so I’m sorry it has taken so long but it’s just down to distractions and laziness, basically, that has taken it so long to get here.

Q. Why do you and Daniel Day Lewis take five years to get a film out?
Rowan Atkinson: That does sound like an expression of utter laziness, every four or five years. One of the problems that I have is the need to be part of the process from beginning to end, I sometimes yearn for a world in which an actor just turns up for six weeks and does his bit and then goes off and makes another film, but because I tend to be part of the script-writing process and then there’s the shooting and then the post-production that tends to dribble on for months and months and months and I tend to want to be part of that and contribute at all those sections of the production and that means that the project turns into years rather than months so even if I made films back-to-back I’d probably only make one every three years so if you want to do anything else, a bit of theatre or take time off, then inevitably it is going to be every four or five years that the films appear. But you can’t go on like that forever. That rate of production is quite slow so eventually I will just run out of time. But that’s the reason why it is the way it is.

Q. Do you have any funny stories from the set of Johnny English Reborn? It must be hard to keep a straight face at times?
Rowan Atkinson: I always dread that question because I never have any. My personal problem is that I take the business of film-making so seriously that I find it very difficult to relax. We are putting together a blooper reel, where things go wrong and everybody falls about laughing , and I find it incredibly difficult to fall about laughing. When things go wrong I tend to close up. We had exactly the same problem with Blackadder and all those TV shows that I did, they are always looking for the moment where the glass breaks or the door knob comes off in your hand and there was never any reaction from me whatsoever.

Q. Given the use of gadgets in the film, is there a gadget you can’t do without?
Rowan Atkinson: I like gadgets, I like anything on wheels of course, so the cars and high-speed wheelchairs I was happy with. The gadget that I would most value [from the movie] would be that which changes your registration number from inside the car, that’s the one which I would enjoy the most. It’s just a steal from Goldfinger but ours was a more hi-tech version of the one in Goldfinger, I’d find that very useful. And I find waste disposal units very useful, especially for tea… getting rid of leafed tea.

Q. Could Johnny English become a franchise like Bond or Bourne?
Rowan Atkinson: God I hope not. It’s interesting, people think we’ve been influenced a lot and I suppose we have been influenced subconsciously by the changes, if you like, that have taken place in Bourne and Bond and there’s no doubt that creatively it’s easier to do, if you had to plan a new Johnny English movie it would probably be easier than a new James Bond movie, because James Bond is the constant creative challenge of this character that was created in the 1950s, this kind of Cold War, glamorous figure, and you’re constantly trying to adapt it for a new world and now for the 21st century, I don’t envy the people in charge of James Bond their task.

So, I don’t know, it has the potential. I get the feeling that by any objective measure that this is a better film than the previous one and because of its extra size and glamour and engagement with the audience it’s probably contemporary enough to have a greater impact in the film world than the first movie, which would be nice, and I think if it does that it has the potential to be as large or small as you like depending on how cleverly you handle it, but, you know, I’m not particularly ambitious on that front.

Q. So, what makes Johnny English so popular as a character?
Rowan Atkinson: I think in the end, the way we present him, the character is more three-dimensional, I think he’s more engaging actually than (before). I think you root for the character in Johnny English Reborn more than you did in the first one, I think you want him to succeed, you think he’s a good bloke, he may not be as good as he thinks he is – which is his fatal flaw – but at the same time you know he means well and he wants to succeed for Queen and country, which is why what he does to the Queen is so horrific for both his and our point of view.

Read our interview with Rosamund Pike