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The return of the prodigal spy

The legendary Rowan Atkinson is back in Johnny English Strikes Again. Paula Fleri-Soler take a behind-the-scenes look at the film.

Rowan Atkinson in Johnny English Strikes Again.

Rowan Atkinson in Johnny English Strikes Again.

The UK is in peril. Five days before the Prime Minister is to host her first G12 summit, MI7’s security is breached and every agent in the field identified and exposed.

The only hope of finding the perpetrator is to bring an agent out of retirement. But, with most of them either dead or close to it, the head of MI7 is left with only one choice. And his name is English… Johnny English.

Seven years after his last adventure, and 15 after his first outing, acclaimed actor and comedy writer Rowan Atkinson returns to one of the iconic roles he has played throughout his eclectic career.

When the idea for a third Johnny English film was pitched to him, Atkinson gradually began to warm to the idea. “If you think you can have another go at something, you tend to think: why not, as long as you feel mentally and physically capable of doing the job.”

Co-producer Chris Clark, who returns to the series for a third outing after producing the first two films, knew what the scripting process for Johnny English Strikes Again would entail.

“As we’ve discovered, it takes many years to develop to a position that we’re happy with,” he says. “There’s a lot of dedication that’s needed.”

The film’s writer William Davies was joined by Atkinson, Clark and co-producer Tim Bevan for some intensive brainstorming. The script development process sees ideas, set pieces and storylines presented, with Atkinson studying each for potential.

The thing about Rowan is he knows exactly what’s true to the character and the way the character is going to be in a certain situation

“Rowan is completely across everything from the word go,” says Clark. “He doesn’t write it per se, but he brings whole comic sequences to the table or he then collaborates with the writer and whoever else is in the room.”

Davies notes it’s a case of being “guided by Rowan’s instincts about what’s going to be right for the character”, fleshing out amorphous ideas until they “gradually become more shaped along the way”.

Atkinson admits he finds this process exciting. “Shooting a movie, I’ve always found incredibly difficult and stressful and worrying,” he admits.

“But when you’re just sitting in a room with some like-minded souls thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if this happened? Then, it’s fun. That’s what drives you.”

As the process unfolded, the team hit on a theme: analogue versus digital. From this, theplot and villain for Johnny English Strikes Again began to take shape.

The story opens with a cyber-attack on MI7 and, with nobody left to defend Britain’s national security, the Prime Minister is left to turn to former agents to help save the day.

Now teaching geography at a prep school in deepest, darkest Lincolnshire, after being forced into early retirement, Johnny English is one of the agents called upon to find the cyber-criminal.

A man who, perhaps, was more in his prime in the pre-digital days, Johnny English remains the perfect symbol for the analogue world.

“The more the world becomes digitised, the more extraordinary analogue is,” says Davies.

“There’s something so physical and appealing about it. And of course, analogue has an advantage over the digital high tech of 21st century. Analogue is invisible to the digital world.”

Representing the hi-tech digital world is American billionaire Jason Volta, the head of a tech company who meets with the Prime Minister to convince her to hand Britain’s digital security matters over to his company. While the PM also pressures EU leaders to do the same, little does she realise that Volta is the one behind the security. While Johnny English stumbles upon his scheme, when nobody believes him, he must set out to find proof.

Davies praises Atkinson for his innate comic sensibilities and the way he understands the Johnny English character.

“The thing about Rowan is he knows exactly what’s true to the character and the way the character is going to be in a certain situation,” he says. “The world around Johnny has to feel as real as possible to be funny. Rowan is very careful about how that stuff is calibrated.”

“It’s that physicality that people of all generations endlessly find funny,” says Tim Bevan.

“He’s got this fantastic elastic face and elastic body that lends itself to physical comedy like virtually no one else in the world.”

Also showing

King of Thieves: A crew of retired crooks pulls off a major heist in London’s jewellery district, but this quickly turns into a nightmare when greed takes over.

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