There are two kinds of Rowan Atkinson character. In general, you are a Mr. Bean fan or a Blackadder fan. It must be possible to be both, as Atkinson helped create both. However, it also seems worth noting that the first series, when it was The Black Adder, frankly feels like the most Bean of the lot. He had less of a hand in the later eras of the show. So if you like one and not the other, it’s quite simple to see the disconnect between them. Though Atkinson’s own stage performances can also lean more into the snarky wordplay end of things.
Atkinson is really an accomplished performer all the way around. He’s done stage and screen, movies and television. In 1984, he acted in a play with a ten-year-old Christian Bale. He’s a qualified electrical engineer who was actually working toward a doctorate. It’s amazing. He’s even done some quite serious acting, playing Inspector Maigret in a decent British series of the mysteries. He may be known for comedy, and rightfully so, but it’s such a small part of what he does.
Now, there are similarities to the character across all four versions, of course. He’s grasping and greedy and a social climber. Prince Edmund wants to be king. Lord Edmund probably wouldn’t mind marrying the queen. Edmund the butler takes shameless advantage of the Prince Regent. Captain Edmund mostly wants to get out of the war entirely, but he wouldn’t mind getting out of the war and being rich. All four have people above them that they don’t respect. Whether they should or not is a different conversation, of course.
I feel, however, that Edmund gets smarter over the course of history. It’s not just that Prince Edmund is a dopey Mr. Bean type. By World War I, the family line has obviously reached the point where even their royal ancestry is forgotten. There’s no bragging rights, even. Edmund’s got to survive on his wits, and the family has for ages, so he’s used to using his intelligence. Unfortunately, he’s not in a time and place where all the intelligence in the world won’t save him because he’s forced to follow the orders of people considerably less smart than he is, leading to one of the most heartbreaking endings in television history.
It wouldn’t at all surprise me to know that John Oliver is fully aware of the credentials of the person whose role he took in playing Zazu. Come to that, Not the Nine O’Clock News probably influenced him as well. Rowan Atkinson helped shape the British comedy landscape in a way that doesn’t necessarily get talked about as much but can be seen if you pay attention. He’s afraid of being typecast as Mr. Bean, and I know my partner and I judge all of his appearances by how close they are to Blackadder.