Rowan Atkinson profile

It's a testament to Rowan Atkinson's skills that it's almost impossible to believe that the blundering Mr Bean and cruelly cunning Blackadder are one and the same person. But how did Atkinson get his start in comedy? And did you know he could give Clarkson a run for his money when it comes to cars?

Yes, Minister

Revenge of the nerd

Born in 1955, the young Rowan Atkinson was a quintessential nerd. Growing up on his parents' farm, he was shy, bashful and obsessed with all things electrical. This passion stayed with him throughout his teenage years and led him to study electrical engineering at Oxford – where he became involved with the drama society.

Another member was future Blackadder writer Richard Curtis, who remembered Rowan as a dark, shy student who barely said a word in the drama meetings – until the day he unexpectedly stood up and, reigning in his natural stammer, embarked on a comedy monologue that Curtis later called "pure genius". It was this that forged the lifelong creative partnership between the two men.

Rowan on the rise

Having performed at the 1976 Edinburgh Festival, Rowan cast aside his engineering ambitions to embrace the risky, unpredictable and heckle-filled world of comedy. Luckily, he had the talent to see him through – teaming up with a certain other young comic named Angus Deayton to play comedy clubs across the country.

The success of their show led ITV to offer Rowan a series of his own, but he turned them down to work alongside his Uni mate Richard Curtis on the influential sketch show Not the Nine O'Clock News (which also launched the careers of Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones). It ran from 1979 to 1982, and the very next year Rowan made his debut as Blackadder. Incidentally, 1983 also saw him star in Sean Connery's final Bond film, Never Say Never Again. How's that for trivia?

Bean there, done that

While Blackadder is probably Rowan's most critically acclaimed work, Mr Bean is undoubtedly his most popular, having been sold to just about every country in the world and garnered literally billions of fans.

Which is pretty staggering when you consider that the character actually evolved by accident more than a decade before the first Mr Bean was broadcast in 1990. As Rowan recalls, the persona formed when he first tried doing silent, slapstick comedy for university shows. "As soon as I was denied a means of verbal expression," he says, "I became this naïve, immature, selfish person." The character came so naturally that the only bit he and writer Richard Curtis had to really rack their brains over was the name – before settling on Bean, they considered Mr White and, believe it or not, Mr Cauliflower.

Rowan the rebel

In recent years Rowan has hit the headlines for dabbling – to use Ben Elton's once-famous catchphrase – in "a little bit of politics". But as a rebel rather than an aspiring MP.

From 2004 onwards, he's led a group of actors and writers in protest against the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which they believe could allow censorship of any comedy material that targets religion. In fact, Rowan has spoken so frequently on the subject that he began one speech by saying "I'm sorry that it's that luvvie again whingeing about freedom of speech." He's not the only outspoken Atkinson however – his brother Rodney is a conservative economist and one-time contender for the leadership of the UK Independence Party.

Rowan the racer

When he's not acting, Rowan's greatest passion is driving. In fact, he's one of Britain's foremost car buffs with a collection to make any petrolhead salivate.

An avid motoring enthusiast ever since he learnt to drive a tractor at 16, Rowan bought his first supercar after his initial spurt of success in the early 80s. The car in question was an Aston Martin V8, and he's been an Aston Martin man ever since – his collection includes the DB7 used in his film Johnny English, along with a V8 Zagato with a "COM1C" numberplate. He even races Aston Martins at car club meetings, although he also has a lot of time for his other motors – which include two McLaren F1s and the odd Bentley. Rowan is such a buff that he's actually written articles for motoring magazines, and one of his few "straight" acting roles was in a 1995 TV film called Full Throttle, about the legendary racing driver Henry Birkin.