Looking Back At MR BEAN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At MR BEAN

Tony gets in touch with his Inner Child.
If ever there was a comic actor who could eat his cake and have it too, that actor is Rowan Atkinson.

From the early days of his TV career on the BBC’s Not The Nine O’Clock News, Atkinson was able to showcase his skills in two very different schools of comedy – the physical and the verbal. In everything from his Obscene Schoolmaster sketch to his Songs of Praise Vicar, to his Police Sergeant interrogating Griff Rhys Jones’ Constable Savage, he demonstrated his verbal dexterity, matched with a face that was able to radiate rancour with a set of the jaw and a raise of that impeccable eyebrow.

After a slight dip occasioned by a squeaky voice in the first of his Blackadder series, Atkinson’s gift for delivering verbal comedy with a nation-winning aplomb went from strength to strength in the three following series of Blackadder, written by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis.

And that’s great. That conquers you all the audiences that speak English, appreciate wordplay and have a particularly British love of the heroic loser.

But here’s the thing about that British love of the heroic loser. It doesn’t usually travel very well.

Brits really have a hard time understanding that, but it’s why, for instance, there has never been an American version of Hancock’s Half Hour. Or an American version of Only Fools And Horses. Or really speaking, an American version of One Foot In The Grave, or Citizen Smith (Can you imagine??).

It’s also to some extent the reason why British sit-coms that depend on heroic losers tend to bomb if they’re re-made for, for instance, US audiences (Remember the US pilot of Red Dwarf?). Even the sometimes staggeringly bleak Steptoe and Son had to be remade with an entirely different ethos to become Sandford and Son and work in the States. The desperate struggle of Harold Steptoe against class barriers and his own pretension became less of a struggle, more an aspiration, and with that change made, it was intelligible to a nation that very rarely celebrates losers, but believes wholeheartedly in the aspiration to self-betterment.

So, while it’s an often-impeccable collection of half-hours, the Blackadder Chronicles is a little limited, both by its sophisticated use of language and its determinedly British ‘heroic loser’ central character.

If you want to be famous all the way around the world, you need two things. You need a comedy where the central character is a more universally recognisable archetype. And you need a comedy with as little English dialogue as possible, so that you can sell the idea to non-English-speaking countries and still have the comedy land.

It’s a brave comedian who, in the late 20th or early 21st century will abandon their words, though. Words have become the fundamental tool of comedians everywhere – they give you the voice that colours the observations for which you become known.

And yet, silent era comedians and comic actors still have a fiercely loyal fan-base. Chaplin’s Tramp (arguably the first British heroic loser of the film age – but one that was widely adopted by audiences on both sides of the Atlantic), Jacques Tati, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton. Their non-verbal, often intensely physical comedy has pretty much established itself as untouchable, a pinnacle of the form in an era with no option but to be silent.

Could ANY late 20th century comedian realistically dare to attempt to join their ranks?


Rowan Atkinson could – and Rowan Atkinson DID, with the character of Mr Bean.

Bean had been footling about in his repertoire since even before his Not The Nine O’Clock News days, and you can make the case that he even made an appearance on that show. It’s arguable that Man Walking Into A Lamppost from NTNOCN was actually an early Bean. It’s also entirely unavoidable that Bean makes an appearance in the film The Tall Guy (written by Richard Curtis, and starring Atkinson as a kind of Evil Twin version of himself, Ron Anderson). A staged beach scene with a blind man in that movie would later appear in fuller form in Mr Bean on TV.

That was the difficulty. To make the MOST of Bean, you needed scenes where the characters could be mostly silent (or at least not speak identifiable English) throughout the whole thing. And they had to be scenes that would allow Mr Bean’s unique approach to the world to be showcased and funny.

Bean’s unique approach to life has been described, not least by Atkinson himself, as being ‘a child in a man’s body.’

There’s a lot wrapped up in that description. For instance, the avoidance of embarrassment when changing from trousers to swimming trunks is achieved by putting the trunks on over the trousers, and then managing, through an incredibly convoluted procedure, to take off the trousers UNDER the trunks. That’s genius, both in terms of comedy and in terms of channelling the childlike mind through Atkinson’s physicality.

Other early sketches when Mr Bean launched in 1990 included the likes of a church service (the vicar’s voice reduced, in the style of Charlie Brown’s teacher in the Peanuts cartoons, to a wah-wah-wah, an unintelligible warble without specific words). The fundamental boredom of children when forced to sit and listen to adults waffling on is perfectly captured by Atkinson’s drooping eyelids, sudden jerking awake, and mouthing along to hymns while struggling to stay awake.

Bean is surprisingly good with other children – at least until they get creeped out, at which point, the inner child roars to the fore and he loses interest quickly. And he evolves over the course of the 15 episodes of his live-action series (there was a subsequent animated series too). His best (and potentially only) friend is Teddy, a small stuffed bear who he animates, and for whom he shows genuine concern.

That plays into the Inner Child element of his character. Somewhat peculiarly, he also has a girlfriend, who – again, playing into the Inner Child, Outer Man thing – is treated with significantly less consideration than Teddy. And he also manages to acquire an arch-enemy – while Bean drives a 1977 Mini, throughout the series, he has several run-ins with the otherwise invisible owner of a Reliant Robin. Feel free to invent your own headcanon where the Robin is driven by another man exactly the same as Bean – we have.

When we say “exactly the same as Bean,” by the way, there’s at least a chance we mean “alien.” The early episodes of the show started with him falling to earth in a beam of light, and ended with him being “beamed up” – back to wherever he came from. While his alien nature was never confirmed in the live-action show, an episode of the animated version had him beamed up to a ship full of people who looked like him – each with their own Teddy.

Mr Bean was a phenomenon from Day 1. In 20,000 cases, for 20,000 comic actors, it would never have worked. But with Rowan Atkinson making the role his own, and the likes of Ben Elton, Richard Curtis, and Robin Driscoll writing the sketches that made up each episode, it was a mercurial combination of physical comedy talent, and writers who could create scenes that served that talent to perfection.

The result is that Mr Bean is television from which it’s impossible to tear your eyes once you start. Atkinson makes the mostly-silent Bean work in ways that hold the attention even when you work out what the scene’s progress will be. The thrill – and yes, we mean thrill, even in what is essentially a set of silent comedy scenes – is in the unusual, overly-complicated, childlike solutions he finds to what, to standard adults, would be simple tasks and problems. It actually makes you re-think the way we do things, and in Mr Bean, you see something astonishing – the way a child would approach the world if you simply dropped them into the adult world without socialising them first. Yes, Mr Bean is selfish, self-revolving, and sometimes horrifyingly ‘in the moment,’ not considering the feelings of others or any consequences at all beyond his immediate objective. But in that childlike approach to the world, he’s a much more universally accessible character than the likes of Blackadder.

That’s why Mr Bean had almost 19 million viewers on TV, why he got the animated series, and went on to star in two movies. It’s why the show has been sold to 245 territories around the world. Mr Bean is one of the most hypnotic, dangerous, and hugely impressive comedy shows in the history of British sit-com.

Start a rewatch, we dare you – and we’ll see you the full 15 episodes later.

Watch Mr Bean today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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