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Authors: J. F. Roberts

Tags: #Humor, #General

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BOOK: The True History of the Blackadder
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: 18 September 1956, Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire
Born to William and Mary McInnerny in a corner of what is now part of Greater Manchester, Tim McInnerny’s background may be a degree less highfalutin than his Harrovian and Etonian colleagues, but a desire to perform was clearly in the blood – Lizzie, his younger sister, is also a successful star of stage and screen. While others in this history went through the public-school system, Tim graduated from grammar school, the Marling School in Stroud, before earning his place at Wadham College, Oxford. He paused for a year’s backpacking around the world (and being held up at gunpoint by a gang of drunken Italian policemen, for a laugh) before launching himself into the Oxonian theatre scene in 1975.

Rowan couldn’t hog all the limelight at the Oxford Revue shows, and Curtis had plenty of sketches which wouldn’t have suited him anyway –
many of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, involving love and relationships, including the clever ‘Prompt’, originally penned for Tim and Helen.


We thought we’d just slip back on and have a private word … First perhaps we should get introduced. Her name’s Helen.


And his name’s Tim.


And together we make Tim and Helen. (
.) We thought we might, I don’t know why, just, you know, talk about how we first met, how we fell in love … Right, well, Helen, you start away.


OK. Um … Prompt.


) I don’t know what to say really.


I don’t know what to say really, I’m not very good at … Prompt.




Improvisation. Prompt.


Come on, Helen. Think!


What do you mean, ‘Come on’? … You just don’t seem to care at all any longer, Tim.


Oh I do care, Helen, for heaven’s sake, I … Prompt?

All the young sketch performers knew that Atkinson was a different breed of performer, and even if they never shared a stage, friendships soon budded. Atkinson-Wood recalls, ‘When I first met him he was nervous, and he was odd. I mean, there was a lot of sort of nervousness about being around women generally, which of course was fantastically endearing.’ To add to this great herd of thespians, Bridget Jones creator Helen Fielding dated Curtis during her time at Oxford, and elsewhere in their year you could find two future TV executives, Kevin Lygo and
Jon Plowman, and comedy writer Tony Sarchet. But Atkinson, once his comedic cat was out of the bag, immediately stood apart from all of his contemporaries.

He prepared himself to unleash his stage persona for the first time by returning to his halls, his bedroom littered with coils of insulated wire and electrical tinkerings for the synthesiser that would never be completed, and gazed at himself in the mirror. ‘I don’t think it was a time when people who pulled faces were admired,’ he once admitted to the
, but amid the undergraduate linguists, all trying to outdo each other with their witticisms, he knew there was something in his features which gave him an edge. ‘I remember when I discovered how extreme my facial expressions could be for comic effect, and practising them, and thinking, “Gosh, that looks pretty funny to me, I think I’ll try that tomorrow night in front of a paying audience, and see how they react.”’ He was sure the malleable chops and elastic facial muscles that had entertained his school chums at St Bees could be just as funny to his sophisticated college colleagues, and he set to, creating an act that used his abilities to the full, without requiring a single word to be written down.

When he emerged onstage at the first show, hair sculpted into
topiary, clad in crumpled pyjamas (later, a shockingly clinging leotard), the spectators weren’t sure whether to laugh or call the authorities – but they settled for the former. This fledgling act consisted of Rowan appearing from the shadows with a mysterious crumpled envelope, proffering it to the audience, and then jealously snatching it back with a wash of emotions – suspicion, pride, anger, confusion – playing over his striking features, ‘like Peter Lorre in a panic’. Despite the simplicity of the act, he could make it last for twice the length of most sketches, keeping the laughter rolling, abating and returning for far longer than would seem plausible. Although a lifelong cynic when it came to mime (an art form he described as ‘so worthy of draughty community halls’), Rowan was clearly a natural – or, rather, he
was a pedantic technician, with every single tic and nuance perfected and primed well in advance.

By the time that year’s revue was ready for the Playhouse,
the bevy of ambitious comics who had first met to discuss the show had been whittled right down – there were few who could keep up with Atkinson, but Curtis had immediately recognised his new friend’s comic powers, and the two began working closely together almost immediately, experimenting with Rowan’s comic machinery in much the same way that he himself tinkered with anything that required a plug. ‘I was doing a tremendous amount of visual stuff at the time, and it was that side of me that I think Richard particularly latched on to,’ he recalls; although Curtis puts it more humbly: ‘Rowan was clearly so much better than all the rest of us put together that I hung on to his coat-tails for a decade.’

Overly humble or not, the critics of the
Oxford Mail
would have agreed. After the first night of the Easter revue, Atkinson was paid a gushing tribute which made it clear that his former headmaster had been right about his performing potential, and there was to be no more talk of life as an engineer – or indeed as a student. Atkinson himself estimated that in his first term, his time at Oxford had been 90 per cent study to 10 per cent performing (and that included his stint as drummer in a hard-rock band). But after this first revue, the ratio was switched.

Remembering his earliest acclaim in 1988, he outlined the original formation of a plan that was to have immediate success: ‘I’d got a very good notice in the
Oxford Mail
, that redoubtable publication of the Midlands. It really was an extremely good crit. It was very much one of these, you know, “the next John Cleese” sort of things. I remember asking this other man, who was doing Zoology or something, what you did if you wanted to be in show business and he said, “Try and find out who the agents of the people you admire are and write to them.” So I
did, and I wrote to nine agents that summer before I went to Edinburgh, saying, “Now look, I’m going to do the Edinburgh Fringe,” and I enclosed a photocopy of the review. Nobody replied, except Richard Armitage. He flew up especially to see me and we worked together from the day that he came.’

The son of the composer Noel Gay, Armitage was a theatrical legend who had played with the Grades when they were children, taken over Noel Gay artist management in 1950, and had showbiz running through every major artery. He was also John Cleese’s agent, which made Atkinson all the more overjoyed to be scooped up. Armitage claimed that he was first drawn to Atkinson by his letter, which humbly began ‘Dear Sir or Madam’, but one sight of the 1976 revue was enough for Armitage to add the 21-year-old to his personal stable. This was also good news for Mrs Atkinson, who was terrified for her youngest son, making his way in the seamy world of showbiz. ‘She thought it was full of bouncing cheques and homosexuals and nasty men in velvet bow ties, so I got a really well-dressed middle-class agent who looked like a bank manager and that reassured her a lot. She found that not everyone wears bow ties, so her view was modified to an extent.’

The 1976 Edinburgh show, staged at St Mary’s Street Hall (just round the corner from where Lloyd was performing in
The Unpleasantness at Brodie’s Close
) was a semi-refined hotchpotch of the best of the Oxford Revue, but the production basically amounted to Curtis and Atkinson travelling up in Rowan’s VW camper van – this ‘Oxford Theatre Group’ only had one star, already tooled up to take the comedy scene by storm.

However, there was the matter of actual study. Returning for their second year at Oxford, Rowan and Richard moved into a house together on Woodstock Road, and began to revel in being the driving force of the university’s comedy scene. Rowan naturally found himself on the revue stall at that year’s freshers’ fair – just in time to meet a musical master, and make a friend for life.

Howard Goodall was born in Bromley, but the family moved to
Rutland, and then Oxford, when he was still small – and music was the younger son’s obsession from the very start. He became a chorister aged eight while attending New College prep school, then began to master the organ at Stowe school in Buckinghamshire, before forming a band (featuring his older brother Ashley) at Lord William’s school in Thame. When he landed a place studying Music at Christ Church college in 1976, it would have been little surprise to anyone to learn that he was headed for a first.

‘In my first week at university I went to the freshers’ fair and I had decided that I wanted to be involved, as a musician, with the revue. So I went to the desk, and I said to the guy, “Look, I’d really like to be involved musically, I don’t know how.” We talked for a little bit, and he said, “Well, someone will come and see you.” It turned out the guy behind the desk was Rowan Atkinson, and then when I went back to my room that afternoon, Richard Curtis came to see me, and he said, “Me and Rowan are doing a show, like a student revue, in three weeks’ time at the Oxford Playhouse. Would you like to do the music?” So I said, “Yeah!”’ Goodall expected nothing more at first than a bit of scene-shifting, but he was instantly put to work at the keyboard crafting material with Oxford’s brightest duo. Seeing his new chum in the spotlight, he was as stunned as anyone. ‘When they saw him for the first time, people were just really helpless. For whole periods of the show, they would be just out of control laughing so much, because it was so different.’

With Atkinson, Curtis and Goodall working on the faces, words and music, the Oxford Playhouse shows went from strength to strength – one early audience member who was impressed enough to pop round backstage for a private chat about TV opportunities was the celebrated LWT producer Humphrey Barclay, beating the BBC’s Bill Cotton by a whole year. Barclay recalled his first impressions of the new talent whom everyone was whispering about: ‘While clearly still an undergraduate performer, he displayed the rare talent of physical comedy: not knockabout, but visually creative, in the style of Jacques Tati or Robert
Hirsch of the Comédie Française, instantly conjuring hilarious characters by contortions of his flexibly angular body and his odd deadpan face. I didn’t laugh at everything, but hugely at most of the show, and when the odd sketch didn’t appeal to me, I took in the fact that the house around me was falling about. Here was a talent to amuse, big time.’ By coincidence the show’s rave reviews had already caught the attention of those higher up the LWT echelons, and John Birt and Michael Grade detailed Barclay to bring Atkinson into the fold.

Amid all this success, however, Atkinson’s 1977 Fringe experience began as an absolute disaster. The friend from the Dundee University Theatre Group whom Atkinson had been working with on and off for years convinced him to do away with anything else which had been going on in the revue. ‘We kind of took it over. I think we were completely cruel and selfish in setting up virtually a one-man show, but I can’t remember. You forget these things,’ Atkinson didn’t quite recall in 1988. ‘The first night was awful. It was his fault really and I think he would accept the blame. It was full of long parodies of Brecht and the like, which if you’re going to get away with it anywhere then Edinburgh will let you get away with it, but it wasn’t really the stuff of popular entertainment. I’m someone who’s always preferred to entertain
people rather than
people. I thought it wasn’t working, so I cancelled it for three nights and we rustled up a new revue.’ Eager punters were ushered across the road to the pub for a few days as Atkinson marshalled his trusted friends around him to come up with a plan B. The resultant one-man revue – featuring more than one man, plus Helen, who was at the Fringe performing in Goodall’s musical,
The Loved One
– was to become the basis of Atkinson’s breakthrough show the following year.

BOOK: The True History of the Blackadder
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