MY DELICIOUS MRS BEAN; Shy Rowan was struck dumb on chaotic first date.
As the dusky beauty watched her companion nervously twiddling with his fork, it could have been a scene from Mr Bean.
It was textbook Rowan Atkinson at his unintentionally hilarious best. But for nervous Sunetra Sastry it was no laughing matter.
The only time the painfully-shy actor broke the silence was to ask her to pass the ketchup.
"``He then disappeared to the lavatory for 15 minutes without explanation," recalls one friend. "He told her later that he'd broken his zip and had to find a waiter with a safety-pin.""
But today, despite their disastrous first date, Rowan and Sunetra Atkinson are one of the most well-matched couples in show business.
This week, at the star-studded premiere of his film Bean, which opens at cinemas across the country tomorrow, Sunetra never strayed more than a few feet from her husband's side.
And as he pulled her through the crowds, it was clear that Rowan, 42, didn't want to share her with anyone.
But not even the reclusive comic could resist admiring her in public.
"She's delicious, isn't she?" he beamed to one guest. "And she's staying by my side," he added, clutching her hand.
Sunetra shares her husband's notorious shyness and reluctance to give interviews. "I'm not saying anything - I'm a chip off the old block," she said to a journalist who simply complimented her on her emerald green gown.
It is seven years since the actor married make-up artist Sunetra, 36. He fell for her on the set of Blackadder as she tenderly powdered his nose and chin every day before filming.
She was only his second serious relationship, but the beautiful mother of two understands more than anyone his intense need for privacy.
While his former lover, actress Leslie Ash, publicly hinted that she would like him to go down on one knee, Sunetra never uttered a word.
But although they are soulmates, their backgrounds could not be more different. While he was brought up on a Durham farm, she was the daughter of a mechanical engineer in the West London borough of Ealing.
She grew up in one of the few mixed-race families in the area after her Indian dad Siddhavattam met and married her English mum Marita.
She was in her late twenties when Rowan first set eyes on her. But it was months before the actor - who says he never bothered with women until he was in his mid-twenties - found the courage to ask her out.
Despite their disastrous start, it did not take them long to realise they were made for each other. They moved into a flat in Earls Court, London, and Rowan made her director of one of his companies.
They went on to have a lot of fun. A friend says: "She was the only woman who really managed to get him to unwind.
"It surprised nobody when he wanted to marry her. He needed to be with somebody who could help provide him with stability. He could never have married an actress."''
Only actor-writer Stephen Fry and one of Sunetra's girlfriends were witnesses when they wed in a secret ceremony at New York's trendy Russian Tea Room restaurant. A week later, they threw a pounds 10,000 party for 80 friends at the Savoy in London.
Rowan and Sunetra spend most of their time at the five-bedroomed former rectory in the village of Waterperry, eight miles from Oxford city centre. The actor bought it in 1982 for pounds 200,000 within hours of spotting a picture of it in Country Life.
There they care for their two children, Benjamin and baby Lily, and Rowan's impressive fleet of cars - including a Rolls-Royce, a Mercedes and an Aston Martin.
They are careful to blend into the village background. And because Rowan hates being recognised, Sunetra looks after all the day-to-day chores such as shopping.
On the rare occasions his neighbours see him, he's likely to be pottering to the shops in the nearby village of Wheatley in his perfectly-preserved 30-year-old Morris Traveller. Or reading the lesson in the ancient village church of St Mary, or attending a parish council meeting.
Sunetra is much more tolerant of his fanatical love of cars than most wives would be. Filming a new Barclaycard ad in New York, Rowan was told by the director to look lovingly at a girl getting out of a car.
"Look at her as if you are looking at your wife," said the man.
Sunetra, who was watching filming, called out: "No, that will never work. Tell him to think of his Aston Martin.
"He takes cars seriously. They are not just trophies to adorn the drive.
"He's very knowledgeable about the engineering and is the first person you would ask if you are thinking of changing your car."
Despite his wealth and success, only in the last few years has Rowan finally found happiness. And it is all thanks to Sunetra.
He dotes on his children and has an enjoyable life outside work with his family and non-showbiz friends.
HE LOVES eating out with friends and going on holiday to France, where he indulges his taste for fine food and wine.
One friend says: "Everything seems to have just fallen into place for him, unlike some of his showbiz contemporaries. It's as if the sun has come out."
And though Rowan is never funny off stage - he claims to know only one joke - he is very articulate and witty when relaxed with his inner circle.
But there won't be a series of Bean films, predicts Rowan's agent, Peter Bennett-Jones.
The star is interested only in new creative challenges and spending most of his time with his family.
And Rowan would not want greater fame to intrude on that very nice life.
"Sometimes I honestly wonder what I'm doing in show business," he admits. "I'm just not the type.
"It's as though I wandered in accidentally and there's no way out.
"Half of me is shy, even dull. I hate telling jokes. I can't perform at parties.
"People who meet me for the first time leave thinking: 'What a miserable git.'"
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|Author:||Carey, Gill Swain/Tanith|
|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Aug 7, 1997|
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