Rather by accident, I saw the feature film Mr Bean’s Holiday yesterday. Catching the opening credits while channel-hopping, I imagined that I’d stay with it for a few minutes and ended up, well, almost captivated. It’s a well-constructed comedy about Mr Bean’s haphazardous trip through France in the company of a lost child. It adroitly develops its situations with logical illogicality, and boasts a great comic turn by Willem Dafoe as a film director of stupendous pretentiousness. I’ve never been a particular fan of Bean, though given his position as the leading modern silent (or semi-silent) figure on the screen today, I have felt before now that I should devote some space to the phenomenon. Because Mr Bean has been a worldwide phenomenon, and the interesting thing is to try and work out why.
There can be few who have not been exposed to Mr Bean in one form or another, but just to recap: the character is played by British comedian Rowan Atkinson, and has antecedents in various gauche figures that Atkinson has played in comedy routines throughout his career. Mr Bean was originally a television series in the UK, broadcast by ITV. The first episode was broadcast 1 January 1990, and there were thirteen half-hour episodes made 1900-1995, a fourteenth being released on video only. They attracted considerable audiences at home as well as being sold to nearly 250 territories worldwide, the word being spread in part by exposure on airlines. Two feature films, Bean (1997) and Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007), have been made, and a spin-off 26-episode animated series (2002).
Mr Bean himself is a social misfit. Habitually dressed in tweed jacket and tie, he is like some figure from an earlier age – the dingy, repressed 1950s – somehow thrust into our modern times (the TV series opens with Bean falling to ground down a shaft of light, as though an alien figure or someone who has time-travelled). He approaches the challenges of the modern world with resourceful ignorance. The simplest of activities, like going to the shops or a trip to the dentist, become extraordinary challenges through Bean’s stubborn obliviousness to the obvious, coupled with his ingenious (though completely unnecessary) tactics for getting round such obstacles. Unaware of the social niceties, Bean is pure selfishness. He will always take advantage of others and is wholly insensitive to anyone else’s situation. There is a nasty side to him.
Bean’s approach in life is to proceed in a straight line where anyone else would turn corners. This is exemplified literally on two occasions in Mr Bean’s Holiday. Firstly Bean, having arrived in Paris, gets a wrong taxi and finds himself on the outskirts at La Défense rather than the Gare du Lyon. So he gets out his compass and walks back in a straight line, through shops and restaurants, over busy crossroads, causing mayhem along the way while never looking up from his compass. And of course he gets to his destination. Then, at the end of the film, when he sees the beach at Cannes he has been trying to get to all film, he walks in a straight line, again head down, concentrating solely on his compass, and avoids falling from his first storey position by walking down a line of vehicles arranged side by side which conveniently have formed themselves into steps. It’s a gag worthy of Keaton.
But should Mr Bean be mentioned in the same sentence as Buster Keaton? He is a silent comedian, for the most part, occasionally reverting to some mumbled words. The Bean programmes and films are weakest where they require dialogue to explain situations (which makes the 1997 feature film Bean particularly poor, because it spends so much time trying to explain Bean and the situations he creates). Mr Bean’s Holiday succeeds because almost all of the gags are visual ones, not least because the action takes place in France and Bean only knows three words of French (Oui, Non and … Gracias). So it is silent comedy, and with a worldwide appeal to a degree built on that form of comedy that needs no translation and can appeal to all.
But is he as good as Keaton, or Chaplin, or Lloyd or any of the 1920s master of the art? Well, no and yes. He is not the same as Keaton and his ilk, but then he is not of their age and he is doing different things. The fact that he is different does not mean that he is unworthy of consideration as ‘silent’ comic figure of importance. There is not the craft that one sees in the finest of the silent era comedians, a craft built up through years spent on the variety stage and then honed through the studio expertise of Keystone, Roach et al. But there is craft there, and the gags are not pastiches of 1920s comedies (the failing of many a would-be modern slapstick comedy) but of their time – and skilfully so. Take a look at the sequence from The Return of Mr Bean above. Watch the brief, single-shot sequence where Bean goes up an escalator and see with what skill the camera is in just the right place to makes his ascent feel funny even when he seems to be doing something entirely normal; then, when they have got us laughing at the obvious, we are caught by surprise as Bean is held up at the top of the escalator by the heels of his shoes.
This is a great visual gag, but it’s a gag that comes out of a present-day situation and is grounded in character. Someone else wouldn’t be so funny in the same situation. It is his innocence of any of the lessons of common experience that makes us laugh as soon as we see him approach any common situation, because we know that he will be unable to face the ordinary in an ordinary way. There is laughter in the anticipation, and then laughter at the surprise of the execution.
So there is craft there, and some real if variable visual wit. But another issue is human appeal. The great silent comedians were both misfits and Everyman figures at the same time. They were beset by misfortunes that could happen to any of us. Bean’s misfortunes are his own. They usually, and credibly, get the girl. Bean lives alone, and the occasional appearance of a girlfriend in the TV series leaves us flummoxed by the sheer unlikelihood of it (still more the attraction that he may have for Emma de Caunes in Mr Bean’s Holiday). Bean is not like us but rather the complete opposite of us (or at least we hope so). Keaton, Lloyd et al are sympathetic characters; Bean is wholly unsympathetic. We never feel sorry for him, even if we are happy enough for him to win in the end.
What is this the secret to his worldwide popularity? There seems to be more that such audiences recognise than simply his obtuse reactions to the everyday. It may lie in his Britishness – Mr Bean certainly has become associated by many non-British audiences with a certain supposed type of uptight Englishman abroad: over-dressed, inhibited, and as inept with people as he is with any language other than his own (see Patrick Barkham’s 2007 article on this in The Guardian). But Mr Bean was initially a huge hit on UK television, and we’re not that fond of laughing at ourselves in a way that others may be laughing at us.
Instead I think it’s got something to do with Mr Bean being perversely smarter than us. He is unfettered by the habits and mores that control our lives, making us laugh at ourselves just as much as we laugh at him. His lateral approaches to life’s hazards (such as the scene in The Trouble with Mr Bean where he dresses himself while driving a car because he is late for an appointment) mock us for being so constrained by lack of imagination when faced with everyday problems. In an odd way, we would all like to be like Mr Bean for his absence of social constraints – while at the same time hugely grateful that we are not anything like him at all.
Rowan Atkinson has noted the influence of Jacques Tati on the character (a gag when Bean cycles past a bunch of racing cyclists in Mr Bean’s Holiday is lifted from Jour de fête). There are certainly some parallels between two. They are both innocents abroad devising their own ways of overcoming modern life’s complexities. Both are silent comedians in a sound world, caught out of time. But Bean has nothing of Tati’s grace. This may have something to do with the televisual nature of his comedy, or simply that we live in a graceless age. Whatever the reason, there is craft but not art in Mr Bean; it does not uplift us, or make us feel that there is a better life out there somewhere. Yet equally it does not operate much as satire. It is hard to say what it is, if we do not learn from it.
Yet there are lessons to be learned. I’ve been scouring Google Scholar for academic papers on Mr Bean and I can find none that consider the films or programmes as art, but several that use the series as illustration of social situations, to measure responses to humour, or to study cognition. Mr Bean clearly serves as something that is emblematic of the human condition. This, however, is where I have had a problem with Bean up til now. He does not seem to be one of us. Not just his eccentric behaviour, but Atkinson’s taste for face-pulling take the character beyond a point where he can be recognisable as a human being. And yet the key to laughter is recognition, and Mr Bean makes the world laugh (Mr Bean’s Holiday grossed $230m worldwide). Mr Bean is what we become when we lose our humanity. The cause of our laughter may be relief.
Note: Originally published on The Bioscope 28 March 2011 and reproduced here with some small emendations.