The spy parody with more Bond DNA than you’d expect

Ben Miller, Rowan Atkinson and Natalie Imbruglia in Johnny English 2003. (Alamy)

Ben Miller, Rowan Atkinson and Natalie Imbruglia in Johnny English 2003. (Alamy)

It’s been 20 years since the UK release of Johnny English, a British spy spoof stacked on James Bond’s past and future, starting with Rowan Atkinson himself.

Atkinson’s first encounter with Bond dates back to 1983 with Never Say Never Again, the “unofficial” remake of Thunderball produced by rights holder Kevin McClory.

Original Bond actor Sean Connery returned to the role for the first time in 16 years, and Atkinson starred as Nigel Small-Fawcett, a British Foreign Office representative who liaises with 007 in the Bahamas.

To know more: Why Sean Connery broke his promise never to play Bond again

From the name down, it really is the comic relief in that movie. Next, Atkinson appeared as accident-prone spy Richard Latham in a series of globetrotting credit card ads from 1992 to 1997.

SEAN CONNERY as James Bond 007 and ROWAN ATKINSON in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN 1983 director IRVIN KERSHNER executive producer Kevin McClory UK/USA/West Germany Talia Film II Productions / Woodcote / Producers Sales Organization (PSO) / Warner Bros.

Sean Connery and Rowan Atkinson in Never Say Never Again from 1983. (Warner Bros./Alamy)

Backed by British production company Working Title, the star wanted to make a feature-length spy film, which paved the way for Johnny English.

In the press releases for the film, Atkinson reflected: ‘Those commercials, even though they were only sixty seconds long, had a cinematic feel. They were elaborate and atmospheric with very high production values. They just looked like a mini-movie, so it seemed logical to make a maxi-movie.’

By renaming the character Johnny English, the film repeats a series of gags from wholesale advertising, such as Atkinson nailing himself with a tranquilizer hidden in a ballpoint pen. The storyline also promotes English to Agent One in the British intelligence department MI7, at the same time as private prison tycoon Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) organizes a hostile takeover of the UK.

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It doesn’t outright 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 parody can avoid a crossover. Beyond genre and gadgets, the connection with 007 runs deeper than the gags…

The writing is on the wall…


Rowan Atkinson in Johnny English 2003. (Alamy)

When the project was originally announced in 2000, Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were brought on board to write the film, then titled ‘A Touch Of Weevel’.

Purvis and Wade came to the film after writing Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond film The World Is Not Enough — the first of seven Bond films they helped write — and in a 2004 interview with James’ fansite Bond MI6-HQ, have revealed that their original intention was to spoof Graham Greene’s spy stories rather than Ian Fleming and the 007 franchise.

Their script focused on the end of the British Empire and “a few spies with nothing to do conspiring to hang up 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 far more of an outright parody of James Bond.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UP TO 48 HOURS AFTER DATE AND TIME CREATED. PHOTO CREDIT MANDATORY DAVE M. BENETT/WIREIMAGE REQUIRED) Writers Neal Purvis ( L) and Robert Wade attend the Royal World Premiere of 'Skyfall' at Royal Albert Hall on October 23, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Dave M. Benett/WireImage)

Screenwriters Neal Purvis (left) and Robert Wade at the Royal World Premiere of Skyfall in 2012. (Dave M. Benett/WireImage)

Purvis reflects: “It was embarrassing for us to some extent […] I mean, you can’t be James Bond and write a parody of Bond, you can’t do that.”

At this point, they were already writing 2002’s Die Another Day, so rewrites were undertaken by William Davies, who had had a near-bust with the Bond franchise when he co-wrote a treatment for Timothy Dalton’s unmade third film early 90s.

To know more: New Bond book to address King’s coronation storyline

Davies was also credited with story or screenplay credit for Johnny English’s two sequels. Purvis and Wade went on to write Bond, working on Die Another Day and all five Daniel Craig films as 007.

A man for all seasons

John Malkovich and Rowan Atkinson in Johnny English 2003 (Alamy)

John Malkovich and Rowan Atkinson in the 2003 film Johnny English. (Alamy)

With its UK-focused storyline, Johnny English was a predominantly domestic production, filmed at Shepperton Studios and on location in London and St Albans from July to October 2002. As for the international shoot, director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors ) and crew also spent two days filming in Monte Carlo, whose casino featured in both Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye.

Malkovich, Natalie Imbruglia and Ben Miller star opposite Atkinson, but there are further ties to Bond in the supporting cast. MI7 head Pegasus is played by Tim Pigott-Smith, who would later play an insensitive British Foreign Secretary in 2008’s Quantum Of Solace, and the Prime Minister is played by Kevin McNally, who had an early role as a member of the British Navy crew in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Rowan Atkinson and Natalie Imbruglia in Johnny English 2003. (Alamy)

Rowan Atkinson and Natalie Imbruglia in the 2003 film Johnny English. (Alamy)

Interestingly, where Purvis and Wade’s script had the Englishman driving a Bristol, the film instead gives him an Aston Martin DB7 Vantage, which car lover Atkinson owned in real life. At the time, Pierce Brosnan’s films controversially featured BMWs as their heroic cars (they returned in 2002’s Die Another Day) and the DB7 is regarded in some circles as a Bond car that never was.

Instead he has his moment in a gadget-laden car chase through London in Johnny English.


Rowan Atkinson in the 2003 spy spoof Johnny English. (Alamy)

As for post-production, no Bond film is complete without the theme song and opening credits, and Johnny English dutifully takes aim at the tradition. In addition to Edward Shearmur’s Bond-style soundtrack, the film is completed by A Man For All Seasons, starring Robbie Williams.

To know more: Die Another Day director looks back on the controversial Bond film

Straight from Williams’ swing phase in the early 2000s, this song has more one-way puns in its lyrics than any Bond theme since Lulu’s The Man With The Golden Gun.

The lyrics were all by Robbie, but the melody came from none other than Hans Zimmer, who later scored Daniel Craig’s swan song No Time To Die and also worked on the title song with Billie Eilish and Finneas.

Oh, and if you’re really looking for a musical connection: the band playing a party at Sauvage’s London venue is BOND…the female British-Australian string quartet BOND, not the male spy.

Johnny English would be back

Rosamund Pike and Rowan Atkinson in 2011's Johnny English Reborn. (Alamy)

Rosamund Pike and Rowan Atkinson in 2011’s Johnny English Reborn. (Alamy)

Released in the UK in April 2003, the film was a moderate success at the worldwide box office, topping the UK box office for three weeks and eventually grossing $160m worldwide on a $40m budget, taking 25 million pounds at the UK box office alone.

Notoriously a perfectionist, Atkinson admitted he wasn’t happy with how the first film turned out, but returned for two sequels that go more directly to Bond in places.

To know more: Every Bond film ranked

Taking its cues from Daniel Craig’s films, 2011’s Johnny English Reborn revolves around a Quantum-like syndicate called the Vortex. Rosamund Pike, who made her film debut playing Miranda Frost in Die Another Day, also stars as behavioral psychologist Kate Sumner.

Olga Kurylenko and Rowan Atkinson in the 2018 film Johnny English Strikes Back.  (Alamy)

Olga Kurylenko and Rowan Atkinson in the 2018 film Johnny English Strikes Back. (Alamy)

Meanwhile, Olga Kurylenko has gone from playing Bolivian agent Camille Montes in Quantum Of Solace to Russian spy Ophelia Bhuletova in Johnny English Strikes Back. Bringing things full circle, the 2018 sequel effectively remakes Never Say Never Again but with Atkinson’s bumbling English as an aging spy dodging 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 would be any more Johnny English films, but like Connery before him, he added, “never say never.”

Johnny English is available to rent or purchase on VOD.

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