Rowan on the road - Rowan Atkinson

David E Langtord continues his series on Oxfordshire motorsport heroes who have inspired his work.

Rowan Atkinson, Oxfordshire resident and a graduate of Queen's College, Oxford, is renowned throughout the world for his natural talent as a comedy actor. For this reason few of us know much about his ability as a serious actor, having played the leading role in the biographical film following the career of Sir Henry Birkin, a racing driver with the world famous Bentley team in the 1920s and 1930s. Birkin's story was shown in 1995 as a TV film, entitled Full Throttle. The cast, along with Rowan Atkinson (pictured) as Sir Henry 'Tim' Birkin, included Crispin Bonham-Carter as Michael Burn, and Geoffrey Palmer as Sir Stanley Birkin.

'Tim' Birkin was a Boys' Own-style contemporary hero, whose enthusiasm for his chosen sport brought him adulation from British followers during a decade when Germany was trying every technical trick in the book to out-perform their opponents on the Grand Prix circuits of Europe.

At around the same time, Germany had an unlikely hero in Richard Seaman, the English driver for the Mercedes-Benz 'Silver Arrows' team, who drove their three-litre cars to so many supreme grand prix victories before losing his life at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the Belgian Ardennes.

His loss was so deeply felt in the Reich that Adolf Hitler personally sent a wreath (measuring some six feet in width) to Seaman's funeral in London.

'Tim' Birkin's admirable efforts to break the German hold on the grand prix circuits as well as Le Mans, was worthy of the tribute paid by the film. As an accomplished racing driver himself, Rowan Atkinson drew from his own race track experience to portray the role in the film as accurately as possible. In consequence it received favourable reviews at the time of the TV broadcast.


Rowan Atkinson
The Aston Martin DB2 of 1951 vintage, which Rowan drove on the day.

I first encountered Rowan (pictured) the racing driver purely by chance one weekend in 1998, when the Aston Martin owners club of which he was a member, held one of their annual race meetings at Wiscombe Park, the beautiful speed hill climb course set in spectacular countryside between Seaton and Sidmouth in South Devon. The Sunday of this particular weekend was shared by the Reliant Scimitar and Sabre club, and, as a Scimitar driver, I happened to be there at the same time. Always inspired by the noise and atmosphere of a motor racing event, I carry a camera and sketch pad with me at all times. However, on this occasion the illustration is mainly from memory, and shows the Aston Martin DB2 of 1951 vintage, which Rowan drove on the day.

There are a number of websites detailing Rowan Atkinson's biographical history, from childhood spent on his parents' farm near Consett, County Durham, where he first acquired a taste for things mechanical by driving a tractor – and his mother's Morris Minor. This interest became strong enough to earn him a degree in electrical and electronic engineering at Newcastle University, culminating in a master's degree in engineering science at Queen's College, Oxford. At Oxford he met Richard Curtis, an alliance which took him into the comedy acting profession, initially staging reviews at the Oxford Playhouse.

Thanks to this highly successful career, he has been able to indulge his passion for fast, and very expensive, cars. Among a bevy of Aston Martins is a beautifully extravagant McLaren Formula 1 sports car.

During an interview with a motoring magazine in 1999, Rowan Atkinson described his passion for motor sport in a down-to- earth manner. He is a realist with no desire for stardom on the race track, participating as many people do for the pure satisfaction of 'getting it right'. The aesthetics of motor racing, like getting a picture 'right', or a special stage performance. 'Getting it right' is the purpose of any art form, and that includes the art of motorsport.

During a Radio 4 interview many years ago, the well-known broadcaster and art connoisseur, Brian Sewell, revealed his secret passion for speedway. It struck a chord immediately. It is not simply a 'macho' boy's game, it is a passion in a very artistic sense. Leonardo would probably share that passion were he alive today, given his love of technology.


• For details of D.E. Langford's work or call 01865 434359.
March 2007 Oxfordshire Limited Edition 57