THERE ARE FEW — VERY FEW — European stars whose name alone can open a movie outside their home countries. Thanks to “Bean” and “Johnny English,” Brit comedian Rowan Atkinson has a fair claim to be one of them.

Those vehicles for his rubber-faced, accident-prone shtick may not have made much impact Stateside, but they took pots of money around the world. Spy spoof “Johnny English,” in particular, proved that Atkinson could move beyond the virtually silent Mr. Bean persona and still attract auds from Munich to Tokyo.

What’s frustrating for fans, and for Brit producers who need all the stars they can get, is how sparsely Atkinson works. He’s prone to taking extended holidays of a year or more, mostly spent enjoying his vintage car collection. Since “Johnny English” shot in 2002, he has confined himself just to a single fleeting cameo in “Love Actually.”

But now Atkinson has signed up for his first leading role in nearly three years, as a village vicar in rural Britcom “Keeping Mum.”

In a distant echo of his cameo as a hapless clergyman in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” Atkinson will play a pastor so obsessed with writing the perfect sermon that he doesn’t notice his wife’s infidelity or the adolescent escapades of his kids.

Kristin Scott-Thomas (another “Four Weddings” alum) is the spouse, and Patrick Swayze the brash golf instructor with whom she dallies. Maggie Smith plays the discreet housekeeper who decides to take the situation in hand and rid the town of its dirty secrets.

The $17 million movie is directed and co-written by Welsh helmer Niall Johnson, who previously scripted the hit chiller “White Noise.” He describes “Keeping Mum,” which starts shooting Feb. 4 in Cornwall and the Isle of Man, as “a blackly comic spin on the Mary Poppins story.” The original script is by American writer Richard Russo (“Nobody’s Fool”).

Pic is being produced by former J&M topper Julia Palau and Matthew Payne via their Tusk Prods. Summit Entertainment is handling sales, with Entertainment Film Distributors taking U.K. rights. Co-financing comes from equity investor Azure Films, the Isle of Man Film Commission and Allied Irish Bank.

Meanwhile, Atkinson’s reps confirm that sequels to “Bean” and “Johnny English” are moving purposefully forward in parallel development at Working Title, with “Bean 2″ looking likely to shoot later in 2005. Two films in one year; by Atkinson’s standards, that’s positively Stakhanovite.

Buzz builds for Berlin market

Moving the American Film Market from its old February slot to the fall was supposed to create a two- (as opposed to three-) market year — Cannes in May, Santa Monica in November.

Some hope. Whatever lip service everyone might give to cutting costs, the foreign sales biz, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So as the first February looms without an AFM, and with three cold months to Cannes, sales agents and distribs are preparing to swarm like locusts upon the Berlin Film Festival.

With no new floor space available until next year in the European Film Market, Berlin’s compact arthouse bazaar, big sellers such as Summit, Focus, Pathe and Content have booked suites (three, in the case of Summit) at the Grand Hyatt hotel, the fest’s social center. Execs are already puzzling over whom they should bribe (this is Germany, after all, not Italy) to secure tables in the hotel’s two bar areas, where much Berlin biz is transacted. Bring a thermos, because there’s going to be a long wait for coffee.

“It’s going to be a weird transitional year,” says Focus co-prexy and Berlin regular David Linde. “There’s a movement among distributors towards going to Berlin, but not all of them yet. In some territories like Latin America where none used to go, now half of the distributors are going. That means we have to go to Berlin, do a substantial amount of work, and then hit the road to catch up with the buyers who weren’t there.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more