Perhaps best known as Blackadder’s Mrs Miggins, actor Helen Atkinson-Wood talks to Dan Carrier about her love of art
06 February, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
GREASEPAINT mixes well with watercolour for actor Helen Atkinson-Wood.
The Islington-based thespian has combined a career of comedy on stage and screen with down time spent standing at an easel.
Helen, whose roles include a raft of British comedies including playing pie shop owner Mrs Miggins in the hit BBC series Blackadder, has a new exhibition of her work at Burgh House in New End, Hampstead.
Featuring sea and landscapes, the collection includes works she has completed over a number of years. The visual arts have always been part of her life – she studied fine art at Ruskin College, Oxford, though she admits her choice of college was partly based on the knowledge that she would have plenty of opportunities to act by joining the drama society.
“I had always harboured an ambition to act but my parents were not so keen on the idea,” she says. “I placated them by saying I was off to do art, which had been my strongest subject.
“I did do a lot of acting at school and relished continuing this at Oxford. I spent a lot of time dressing up and playing men’s roles. I had a very deep voice and, after all, men got all the best parts.”
At Oxford her talents were matched by a group of peers who went on to create some of the funniest characters in recent British comedy.
She began working in revues at the university, and it was while doing this she met Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis.
“It was an inspirational place to be,” she recalls.
“Rowan and Richard were in different years to me and took me on board and under their wing. It was the start of my comedy career and a start of a lifetime of friendship with these remarkable people.”
Examples of her Suffolk landscapes
Helen joined Rowan for a show in Edinburgh.
“He made me the butt of his jokes. It was clear he was a comedy genius,” she recalls. “Above all, they were always great to work with – because they had this gentle sense about them. I came from a non-theatrical background, and so did they.
“They had this confidence mixed with kindness.”
She says Curtis’s stellar career as writer and director has not changed the person she met as an undergraduate.
“Richard’s key element of his personality has remained intact – trying to be nice to other people.
“You only have to look at his charitable work and his work for the United Nations. His convictions have remained the same.”
Helen worked on shows such as the Comic Strip with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, The Lenny Henry Show and The Young Ones.
She appeared with Victoria Wood – “head and shoulders above everybody else, she was an absolute inspiration”.
And then, in 1987, Blackadder producer John Lloyd called her and offered a role in series three – set in the Regency period, she brought to life Mrs Miggins, a wonky-toothed pie shop owner with a zestful approach to life.
Up till Helen’s casting, Miggins had only appeared in conversations between Blackadder and his sidekick Baldrick in a previous series.
“Of course, I had watched Blackadder and loved it,” she says. “They called me and said they had created this character with me in mind. I knew Richard and I’d met Ben Elton at Edinburgh before. They said they had this delicious character for me to play.”
Helen as Mrs Miggins with Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie in Blackadder The Third
Filming episodes was like a joyful university reunion.
“You would walk into rehearsal at Elstree studios and there would be this marvellous array of comic actors, people like Hugh Laurie, all with ideas and jokes and things to share.
“Then you’d record the episode later at BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane,” she recalls.
“Every day it was just full of gags. Each week was different. They were so inventive – you never quite knew what to expect next.”
More recently, appearances on TV shows such as Call My Bluff and QI saw her then invited to take part in a new show called Watercolour Challenge. The daytime TV show encouraged amateur painters to discover their inner artist and have their works judged by a professional – and it reignited her love with brushes and canvases.
“I hadn’t painted seriously for some time,” she says. “It brought back to me quite how much I enjoy it.”
With a home in the Suffolk village of Walberswick as well as Islington, she has a diverse range of landscapes and seascapes to aim her brushes at. She also works as a travel writer – giving her further scope to find new subjects.
With plenty of work in the diary, including a tour of the comedy show Radio Active she starred in coming up, how does she find the time needed to concentrate on her art?
“It’s simple, really,” she says.
“My car is full of horse tack, horse feed – I am a keen rider – and amongst it all are my watercolours too. Everywhere I go I take a set of paints and brushes with me.”
• Picture This an exhibition by Helen Atkinson Wood, is at Burgh House, New End Sq, NW3 1LT, from February 12 to 16, 020 7431 0144, burghhouse.museumssites.com