Atkinson speaks in long, careful sentences that strive for balance. His speech is analytical, almost donnish; occasionally he stammers. When he is relaxed, he will mug for the tape, though slightly. I have the impression of a man who holds himself tightly under control. Trevor is, he says, “a very sweet and good-natured man [who] has his obsessive side. Which means he gets obsessed with problems that actually there’s no need to get obsessed with.” I have developed an urge to save Trevor, and Atkinson explains why this is impossible, even undesirable. “‘Just leave the blooming bee alone,’ would be a sound piece of advice to convey to him but he doesn’t,” he says. “He can’t.” He obviously likes Trevor: “I think he’s one of the more pleasant people I’ve played.” I ask him – of all the people you have played, who are you closest to? Walter Goodfellow, he says, the vicar in the 2005 black comedy Keeping Mum: a gentle, bookish introvert so fixated on writing the perfect sermon he doesn’t notice his wife is sleeping with Patrick Swayze.

I tell him I found Trevor’s story unbearable because I care about him, and he can speak to this. “Tragedy and comedy are extremely close bedfellows,” Atkinson says, “and you can’t really have one without the other. Every joke has a victim, whether fictional or non-fictional or notional, ideological or human and therefore, there’s always someone suffering if there’s a joke. I suppose you have to accept that’s the way it is.” I think of his early short film Dead on Time, the story of a man who is told he has only 30 minutes to live and tries to cram a lifetime into those minutes. For instance, he reads the back page of War and Peace. It’s a misdiagnosis though, and when the doctor shouts, from across a road, that he won’t die, he erupts with joy. Then he is killed by a lorry.

Until he was 20, Atkinson thought he would be an electrical engineer. He was born in Consett, near Newcastle, to a wealthy farming family. He was educated at the Chorister School in Durham and then at St Bees, a private school on the Irish Sea. He was a “reasonably happy” child, he says, “but quite quiet. I was quite a quiet, relatively introspective child who changed when he performed. I found a way of being extremely unshy.” He says he is not like some comedians, who are always funny, like Peter Cook, who he performed with in Blackadder: but these ones, I notice, can be self-destructive. They are not functional, like he is. They tend to alcoholism. They die young. “I definitely need a script,” he notes, “and quite a lot of rehearsal to be funny.”

He loved cinema. He ran the school film society and once watched Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot four times in one day. He loved mending things too: he kept a screwdriver in his top pocket, tinkered with tractors, and learnt to rewire a house. He can still rewire a house, he says: “even with the advance of technology since the last century”. At the Edinburgh Festival, he mended the photocopier in the fringe office. At the Almeida Theatre in Islington, he wired a plug. He finds it “very pleasing and satisfying”. It feels like an ordering of his world; and, of course, now I imagine him as an electrician; a mechanic; a plumber. He has, at least superficially, that quality of sublime ordinariness.

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