Whether playing a Christmas gift wrapper in Love Actually, or enjoying a spring break in Cannes, Rowan Atkinson is a man for all seasons. However, the British comedy star shocked MILF appreciators in 2015 when he divorced from his glamorous wife Sunetra Sastry to be with Louise Ford, a woman 28 years his junior. In his autobiography, Stephen Fry said that Sastry, who worked as a make-up artist on the second season of Blackadder (1986), was one of only two women he was attracted to. The actor, who describes himself as “pretty damned gay”, wrote that “he [was] quite seriously considering asking her out on a date” until Atkinson swooped in. Three years after the divorce, perhaps in a bid to earn some quick cash after a costly separation, Atkinson assailed the public with a third film as the clumsy agent Johnny English, a Bond parody who encapsulates Britain’s uncertain place in the 21st century better than 007 himself.
The first Johnny English film was a likeable comedy that filled the gap for British spy fare in the post-Brosnan, pre-Craig period of the Bond franchise in 2003. Johnny English was released on April 11th, less than a month after US and British forces invaded Iraq under the flimsy pretence of searching for WMDs, a quest whose basis was rooted in bad intelligence. Against this geopolitical backdrop, the figure of Atkinson’s Johnny English as a bumbling British secret agent functions as a coy yet sinister bit of propaganda by way of endearing self-deprecation. The French villain played by John Malkovich would also inject the film with a dose of Euroscepticism, supplementing Boris Johnson’s own work as a Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the early 1990s. Malkovich’s plan to turn Britain into a giant prison would seem to foreshadow Johnson’s own pledge to create 10,000 new prison places shortly after taking office as Prime Minister in 2019. The true threat to the British people has always come from those who lead us, as opposed to some foreign interlopers.
In 2011, Johnny English truly went global with the sequel Johnny English: Reborn. The production values were greater this time, with an extended action sequence shot on location in Macau and Hong Kong. Atkinson’s Mr. Bean has long been popular in Asian territories and the new globetrotting Johnny English was likely an attempt to appeal to this wider audience. Nevertheless, the film was terrible, actively making English an unlikeable cretin through his mistreatment of a protégé played by an emerging Daniel Kaluuya. Yet, there remained a hint of prophecy to the film since English’s fictional agency MI7 is shown to be embracing Toshiba as a corporate partner.
This, at last, brings us to Johnny English Strikes Again in 2018, a film so bland and uninspired, one cannot help but entertain the post-divorce cash grab theory. Post-Referendum Johnny English was far cheaper, largely confined to the British Isles, and deploying some slapdash green screen backdrops that would make a mid-00s CBBC show blush. The villain here is a Silicon Valley tech bro (played by the unremarkable Jake Lacy) who dupes Emma Thompson’s Prime Minister (Theresa May was still desperately clutching the keys to Downing Street at this point) into transferring Britain’s digital infrastructure onto his American servers. Lacy’s speeches about data passed me by until the end of November this year, when the new head of MI6 Richard Moore announced that the secretive agency would be working with tech companies in a bid to keep up with Russia and China. According to Moore, “MI6 cannot develop the tools it needs in-house to counter hybrid physical and virtual threats.” Suddenly those Toshiba signs in Johnny English: Reborn have a bit more bite to them.
The career of Johnny English may at first glance seem an inconsequential footnote in the UK’s history. He’s not singularly iconic like Mr. Bean, and he’s forever in the shadow of James Bond as a parody. Yet, like the flecks of faecal matter one invariably finds in a cup of water collected from the River Thames, Johnny English remains a vital part of the culture in the Great British petri dish, telling us something about who we are as a country, and where we may be headed.