'I wasn't too sure that I'd be able to act in a serious role...'
He's not ready to retire Mr Bean or Blackadder just yet, but Rowan Atkinson is taking a big sideways step in ITV's Maigret. He discusses doubts, ageing and why comedy deserves as much respect as drama with Keeley Bolger
Renowned as he is for his comedy performances in Not The Nine O'Clock News, Blackadder and Mr Bean, success hasn't shielded Rowan Atkinson from the deep-rooted snobbery levelled at comic actors within showbiz circles.
Now 61, Atkinson is trying a different tack with his leading role in ITV's new detective drama Maigret, as the eponymous 'self-contained' police officer. It's a more serious role, but one he insists he accepted because it was "interesting", and not because it might gain him kudos.
"One thing I would never wish it to be thought is that you play serious roles in order to achieve some kind of respectability, which it's more difficult to get if you're playing comedy roles," explains the actor, smartly kitted out today in a suit, chatting at a screening for the upcoming two-part series.
"It's quite weird the way the arts community, for want of a better word, still have a long-lasting cynicism of the importance, or the artistic value of comedy; you know [the idea that] comedy is just farting about for money, whereas as soon as you play a serious role - aha, now you're an actor, now you're doing something of meaning."
Although "slightly different muscles" are flexed in a dramatic performance, essentially, Atkinson says he's using "exactly the same skills, whatever they are" in Maigret, which is based on the novels by the late Belgian author Georges Simenon.
For French detective Jules Maigret, a role previously played by Michael Gambon and Richard Harris, that meant putting to bed his physical comedy and affections - something he admits he was initially doubtful he could do.
Long associated with Mr Bean and the sly but inept Edmund Blackadder, his comic alter egos are firmly embedded in British TV history, with even his brief appearances as a bumbling vicar in Four Weddings And A Funeral, and as an overly attentive shop assistant in Love Actually, proving to be scene-stealing.
Funny as these performances are, he maintains he's not "on a mission to make Maigret more comic".
"You go through the part in your head, you read the role and you read the speeches, and you think, 'Can I do this? Can I find a way of doing this?'" he adds.
So much so that County Durham-born Atkinson initially turned down the role after ruminating over it for three months.
But so keen were the casting team that they approached him again, getting their much-hoped for 'yes' the second time around.
"It's the demands, in many ways, of modern television drama. It's very low-key and naturalistic, and generally speaking, the characters I've played haven't been low-key or naturalistic," says the Johnny English star.
"I like to relish words and sentences and phraseology, and there's not much facility for that. What directors in television drama constantly tell you is, 'Don't act it; don't try; don't empathise that word', whereas even someone like the Blackadder, he's a reasonably low-key character, but he did relish the lines he had and the words he was given - so lots of inflection. It's sort of inflection-free acting [with Maigret]. I really wasn't sure if I could do it.
"When we were shooting, it was a couple of weeks before I settled into not worrying, to finding a way of delivering those lines."
The first of the two standalone films, set in the Fifties, sees Paris gripped with terror as four women are murdered on the streets of Montmartre in a seemingly unconnected attack.
Chief Inspector Maigret, who is under huge public and professional pressure to find the killer before he strikes again, sets a trap which ultimately leads to a thrilling climax.
"Maigret hasn't got a limp and he hasn't got a lisp and he hasn't got a French accent and he hasn't got a particular love of opera, or all those other things that people tend to attach to many fictional detectives," notes Atkinson, who has two adult children with ex-wife Sunetra and is now in a relationship with actress Louise Ford.
"He's just an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job in a very interesting time."
He insists his own life is much the same.
"I've lived with recognisability for several decades now; you get used to it and you get used to dealing with it," says the actor.
"People very rarely ask you for an autograph now, it's always a photograph. I lead a normal life in a normal way, but you learn. If you're going to travel by tube, which surprisingly I do quite a lot, you know where to stand, where to face and what time of day to go."
Although he doesn't have a list of dream roles, he would like to maintain his comedy credentials, but admits age can be a barrier.
"There is that slightly dull feeling sometimes that people think you should get serious when you get old, and unfortunately, you do lose in the audience's eyes a degree of comic authority as you get older.
"There's something about over-45s in comedy... It's great if you get something like Dad's Army, in which everyone was extremely old, and that, generally speaking, their joke is about being old. You're stupid or you're short-sighted or you're incontinent, or whatever your little ageing characteristic is.
"But I don't want to lose touch with comedy," Atkinson adds, "and I'm sure I won't."
The first Maigret film is on ITV on Monday, 9pm