Atkinson’s first brush with Bond came in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, the “unofficial” Thunderball remake that was produced by rights-holder Kevin McClory.
Original Bond actor Sean Connery returned to the role for the first time in 16 years, and Atkinson co-starred as Nigel Small-Fawcett, a British Foreign Office representative who liaises with 007 in the Bahamas.
From the name down, he’s very much the comic relief in that film. Later, Atkinson appeared as accident-prone spy Richard Latham in a series of globetrotting credit card adverts from 1992 to 1997.
With backing from UK production company Working Title, the star was keen to do a feature-length spy spoof, which paved the way to Johnny English.
In the press notes for the film, Atkinson mused: ‘Those commercials, even though they were only sixty-seconds long, had a movie feel to them. They were elaborate and atmospheric with very high production values. They just felt like a mini-movie, so it seemed logical to make a maxi-movie.’
Renaming the character Johnny English, the film repeats a number of gags from the ads wholesale, such as Atkinson spiking himself with a tranquiliser concealed in a ballpoint pen. The plot also promotes English to Agent One in British intelligence department MI7, at the same time as private prison magnate Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) mounts a hostile takeover of the United Kingdom.
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It doesn’t overtly spoof James Bond like the Austin Powers films do, but inevitably, Bond is such a traditional part of the British film industry that no British spy spoof can avoid some crossover. Beyond the genre and the gadgets, the 007 connection runs deeper than gags…
Writing’s on the wall…
When the project was originally announced in 2000, Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were attached to write the film, then titled 'A Touch Of Weevel'.
Purvis and Wade came to the film after writing the third Pierce Brosnan Bond film The World Is Not Enough — the first of seven Bond films they've had a hand in writing — and in a 2004 interview with James Bond fansite MI6-HQ, they revealed that their original intention was to spoof Graham Greene spy stories rather than Ian Fleming and the 007 franchise.
Their script focused on the end of the British Empire and "some spies who had nothing to do sort of conspiring to re-hang the Iron Curtain". But in the wake of 9/11 and the run-up to the “war on terror”, priorities realigned, and Johnny English became much more of an outright James Bond parody.
Purvis reflected: "it was embarrassing for us to a certain extent […] I mean you can't do the James Bond and write a Bond spoof, you can't do that."
By this point, they were well underway writing 2002's Die Another Day, so rewrites were undertaken by William Davies, who’d had a near-miss with the Bond franchise when he co-wrote a treatment for Timothy Dalton’s unmade third film in the early 1990s.
Davies was further credited with either story or script on the two Johnny English sequels. Purvis and Wade have continued to be the Bond screenwriters of record, working on Die Another Day and all five of Daniel Craig’s films as 007.
A man for all seasons
With its UK-centric plot, Johnny English was a largely domestic production, shooting at Shepperton Studios and on location in London and St Albans from July to October 2002. As for international shooting, director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors) and the crew also spent two days shooting in Monte Carlo, whose casino featured in both Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye.
Malkovich, Natalie Imbruglia, and Ben Miller star alongside Atkinson, but there are further Bond connections in the supporting cast. MI7 head honcho Pegasus is played by Tim Pigott-Smith, who would later play a callous UK Foreign Secretary in 2008’s Quantum Of Solace, and the Prime Minister is played by Kevin McNally, who had an early role as a British Navy crewman in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.
Interestingly, where Purvis and Wade’s script had English driving a Bristol, the film instead gives him an Aston Martin DB7 Vantage, which the car-loving Atkinson owned in real life. At the time, Pierce Brosnan’s films featured had controversially featured BMWs as their hero cars (they returned in 2002's Die Another Day) and the DB7 is regarded in some quarters as a Bond car that never was.
It gets its moment in a gadget-laden car chase through London in Johnny English instead.
As for post-production, no Bond film is complete without its theme song and opening titles, and Johnny English duly takes aim at the tradition. In addition to the Bond-flavoured score by Edward Shearmur, the film is topped and tailed by A Man For All Seasons, performed by Robbie Williams.
Straight out of Williams’ swing phase in the early 2000s, this song has more single-entendre puns in its lyrics than any Bond theme since Lulu’s The Man With The Golden Gun.
The lyrics were all Robbie’s, but the tune came from none other than Hans Zimmer, who later went on to compose the score for Daniel Craig’s swansong No Time To Die and also worked on its title song with Billie Eilish and Finneas.
Oh, and if you’re really looking for a musical connection: the band who play at a party at Sauvage’s London headquarters is BOND… the female British-Australian string quartet BOND, not the male spy.
Johnny English would return
Released in the UK in April 2003, the film was a decent hit at the worldwide box office, topping the British box office for three weeks and ultimately grossing $160m worldwide off a $40m budget, taking £25m at the UK box office alone.
Notoriously a perfectionist, Atkinson admitted he wasn’t satisfied with how the first film turned out, but returned for two sequels that go to Bond more directly in places.
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Taking a leaf from the Daniel Craig movies, 2011’s Johnny English Reborn revolves around a Quantum-like syndicate called Vortex. It also casts Rosamund Pike, who made her feature film debut playing Miranda Frost in Die Another Day, as behavioural psychologist Kate Sumner.
Meanwhile, Olga Kurylenko went from playing Bolivian agent Camille Montes in Quantum Of Solace to Russian spy Ophelia Bhuletova in Johnny English Strikes Again. Bringing things full circle, the 2018 sequel effectively remounts Never Say Never Again but with Atkinson’s bumbling English as an old spy who avoids a future in teaching when he’s called back to action.
Finally, in a Reddit AMA to promote the third film Atkinson said he doubted there’d be any further Johnny English films, but like Connery before him, he added: ‘never say never’.
Johnny English is available to rent or buy on VOD.