TELEVISION star Rowan Atkinson saved his family's life by grabbing the controls of a plane at 16,000ft when the pilot passed out, it was revealed last night.

The North-East born comic, best-known for his role as the hapless Mr Bean, had chartered a private plane for himself, wife Sunetra and two children Ben and Lily while on holiday in Kenya.

They had been flying from Mombasa to Nairobi in the twin-propeller Cessna when the pilot suddenly lost consciousness.

As the plane lurched violently from side to side and its nose started to tilt downwards, Atkinson - who has never learned to fly - seized the controls.

He then brought the nose of the plane up, while his wife desperately tried to wake the pilot by shaking him and splashing water over his head.

Multi-millionaire Atkinson, who was born in Gosforth, near Newcastle, let go of the controls and slapped the pilot hard across the face several times.

Miraculously, the pilot eventually regained consciousness and was able to land the plane safely.

Last night, Atkinson's brother Rodney, who lives in Stocksfield, Northumberland, described the comic as a "cool character".

He understood the drama had happened in the last few days while Atkinson and his family were in Kenya for a holiday.

Mr Atkinson said: "He is a pretty cool person and is fascinated by anything mechanical.

"He is also very interested in aeroplanes and has hired private planes often enough, so that must have given him a chance to see what happens at the controls.

"I do know though that he has never learned to fly, although he is frequently in planes."

Rowan Atkinson, 46, is no stranger to close escapes. He has a passion for high performance cars - in contrast to the Mini he drives as Mr Bean.

Two years ago he crashed a £650,000 MacLaren he bought to celebrate the film success of Bean, which took millions at the box office. He walked away unhurt.

The youngest of three sons, Atkinson lived on a farm near the former Consett Steelworks in County Durham during his childhood. He was educated at Durham Choristers' School and went on to read electrical engineering at Newcastle University and Queen's College, Oxford.

There he met Four Weddings and a Funeral and Mr Bean writer Richard Curtis, sparking his interest in comedy. Atkinson then sprang to fame in the early 1980s as part of the Not The Nine O'Clock News team, before going on to score more success with historical comedy Blackadder.

Other high profile TV comedies he has starred in include the Thin Blue Line and, most profitably, Mr Bean.

Now he lives in the Oxfordshire village of Waterpenny with wife Sunetra Sastry, a former BBC make-up artist, and their two children.

Atkinson, who rarely does interviews, has refused to talk about the plane incident.

His agents, PBJ Management, of London, were unavailable for comment.