This session was so important that Andy Hollingworth has created two limited editions for the Running From Greenbaum exhibition: a standalone image, called Poker Face, and a nine-frame contact sheet.
Andy tells the background story brilliantly, so without further ado, here is Andy on photographing Rowan:
“In 1996, just after I had started photographing comedians, we had some old friends staying at the house. They were both comedy fans and we were discussing the idea of a ‘British Comedians series’ of portraits. After a few glasses of wine we grabbed the gas bill envelope and started to argue about who I should try to contact for a photograph – of course, Rowan Atkinson’s name came up.
I tried to contact him several times over the years with no joy, he was either working on a film or television series and our paths never crossed – so I gave up.
Thirteen years later I was working on a shoot with Bill Bailey in London. The photographs featured Bill in terrific hippy garb and were for The Q.I. Annual. I was really pleased that John Lloyd himself was to direct the shoot and he arrived early and we chatted over coffee in the corner of the studio. As it turned out Bill was delayed by traffic and ended up being 50 minutes late. John and I got on really well and just as Bill was arriving he mentioned that there was ‘another little shoot for the annual’ if I was interested.
As ever Bill produced some great pictures and everything went very smoothly. Towards the end of the session, my friend Carrie Quinlan brought over some cakes and waited for Bill to change back into his normal clothes before being rushed to a TV recording. After we’d all shaken hands and promised to e-mail each other with our favourite pictures John turned towards the door and I ran after him. “That shoot you mentioned – the other little one for the annual… who is it?” I asked. John looked back and with a cheery smile that I’ll never forget, remarked casually “Oh! It’s Rowan, it’ll be at my house, like I said, just a little thing… cheers, I’ll be in touch.”
And in the words of Forrest Gump – just like that – he was gone!
I looked across at Carrie and she grinned back like a complete idiot. We walked out into the concrete stairwell of the studio on the other side of the room – and jumped up and down like a pair of mad kangaroos, laughing and hollering in the echoey space. She knew exactly what this meant to me and how long I’d waited for this opportunity.
So the following month, I shot Mr.Bean, Edmund Blackadder and Johnny English – all in one morning in the living room of Britain’s greatest living producer of television comedy. I can honestly say, it was a shoot like no other. Rowan has such a clear idea in his mind about what will work visually. The shoot was based around the theme of ‘Poker Face’ and as we fired ideas and props at him, Rowan would bend and twist his face in ways that only he knows how. The flash head fired almost non-stop for almost three hours – punctuated only by questions from the man himself – after bursts of creativity, all of a sudden, proceedings were brought to a crashing halt by a calm question – “Yes! But why is that funny? What makes that funny – I don’t see…”
One rainy afternoon I counted that of the 674 pictures made that morning – there were only about a dozen that couldn’t be used. There is a man who knows what is funny! Later that day as I sat in John’s garden enjoying a three hour lunch and listening to tales of Not The Nine O’clock News, Blackadder and Spitting Image, saying only the occasional ‘wow’ and taking it all in like Harpo Marx at the Algonquin, I reflected on how wonderful chance meetings can be and how lovely an English garden can be in August.”