It is hard to believe that in just 15 half-hour episodes, Rowan Atkinson was able to create a character that has captivated the whole planet, spawned a host of spin-offs and other series, and endured for almost 30 years, but it is true. His strange ‘child in a man’s body’ character (who might even be an alien) captivated millions around the world, and he has become a meme for silly behavior and petulance. The supporting characters too, especially the long-suffering Teddy and the green mini, are instantly recognizable and are now permanently associated with this bizarre yet ultimately endearing person. His mumbled speech made the physical comedy easy for anyone to understand without knowing English.
- 15 episodes running from 1990 to 1995 (we count the final clips episode as one of the 15)
- Featured the bizarre adventures of a man-child in a confusing world
- Starred Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean
- Broad international appeal for its physical, not verbal, humor
- Generated spin-off movies and an animated TV series of 134 episodes
A Short History
If Mr. Bean has a birthday, it must be the 8th of April 1979, when under the name ‘Mr. Box,’ he appeared in a pilot episode for an ITV show called Canned Laugher. Played by Rowan Atkinson, who also played the other two characters in that show, Mr. Box bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Bean, who first debuted under that name in the early 1980s at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a famous trial ground for actors.
Atkinson had begun his life as a choir boy at Durham Cathedral (alongside future Prime Minister Tony Blair) before studying engineering. He had always done humorous impersonations as a boy to entertain school friends and acted in school plays, but it was only when he went to Oxford to do an engineering Ph.D. that being an actor started to have serious appeal for him. It was there, in the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS), that he met the comedy writer Richard Curtis. They became life-long friends and colleagues, and Atkinson credits Curtis with encouraging his career. Curtis became co-writer for the Mr. Bean series, along with another friend of Atkinson, the actor and writer Robin Driscoll. Benjamin Elton, another associate of Atkinson from his earlier comedy days, was also a writer for some episodes.
Between 1979 and 1982, Atkinson featured in the satirical show, Not the Nine O’clock News, which parodied the BBC’s nightly news broadcast. In 1987, Atkinson appeared at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, Canada. In keeping with that country’s bilingualism, there was both an English and a French program. Atkinson asked to appear on the French stage, even though he spoke no French, and the audience was entertained by a character who mumbled rather than spoke. Atkinson wanted to test if his physical comedy was successful in the absence of language, and the incoherent mumbling became an important characteristic of Mr. Bean. It made the show accessible to millions around the world who didn’t speak English, and it made the show hugely popular globally.
The first appearance of Mr. Bean was on the 1st of January 1990, as a half-hour special for Thames Television. Further episodes appeared sporadically, between once and four times a year, until the airing of a final clips episode, number 15, on the 15th of December 1995. He also appeared in five brief sketches between 1991 and 2015 on the charity telethon Comic Relief. He made 15 guest appearances on normally factual TV programs in the UK and around the world, as well as appearing in television commercials.
Who is Mr. Bean? We know little about him, but this strange man is almost always seen in a tweed jacket and thin red tie, often communicating with a brown teddy bear called Teddy. Often treated as alive but also used as a tool where it suits Mr. Bean, Teddy acts as a foil for his stunts and an audience for his antics. Mr. Bean lives in a small flat – Flat 2, 12 Arbour Road, in the real north-London area of Highbury. His source of income is mysterious – does he have a trust fund, perhaps, from a rich family, or is he on a disability allowance? After all, it is hard to picture this person holding down a regular job, although we do see him once working as a museum guard, which seems an unlikely occupation considering his low ability to deal with boredom. Described by Atkinson as ‘a child in a man’s body,’ Bean certainly has the curiosity of a child, with very little capacity for normal, adult social interaction and a ‘creative’ approach to problem solving. He is also without scruples, cheating on an exam, for example, in the first episode, and often damaging property with impunity.
He is also more than a little paranoid, considering his long-running feud with a tiny three-wheel car, the light-blue 1972 Reliant Regal Supervan III, which appears in many episodes as a running gag. He cheats too in his own car, a 1977 British Leyland Mini 1000 Mark 4, lime-green with a black hood. He tries to escape paying a parking charge by driving out through the entrance, and the padlock he uses to secure it, as well as once removing the steering wheel, are extreme security measures that also show a perhaps more serious paranoia. He has been variously suggested as suffering from Schizotypal Personality Disorder, Schizoid Personality Disorder, or Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Other aspects of his behavior, such as his mumbling, have been ascribed to Selective Mutism, but others feel that he is most probably suffering from Generalized Anxiety, of which mumbling can be a symptom, and it is this anxiety that makes him so socially inept and bumbling.
What is almost certain is that it is Mr. Bean’s utter inability to do anything in the ordinary way that creates the humor. Thinkers as early as Socrates suggested that a display of self-ignorance invites ridicule, and Aristotle pointed out that we laugh at inferior individuals precisely because we feel pleasure at our own superiority. There is a sense of what Germans called schadenfreude in our laughter at Mr. Bean – his misfortune gives us pleasure. This is often called the Superiority Theory of humor. Children, in particular, enjoy this kind of humor, since they struggle to assert their competence among grown-ups, and someone performing worse than them is sure to be a source of relief through laughter.
If we feel superior to Mr. Bean, we probably feel nothing but sympathy for his ‘girlfriend,’ Irma Gobb (played by Matilda Ziegler), even though we only meet her in three episodes. The classic mismatched couple, Irma, is desperate for romance and marriage, but to Mr. Bean, she is just a friend and someone to act as a foil for his foibles. We become a little uncertain of his true feelings when he becomes jealous of Irma dancing with another man at a disco, and his inability to relate to her romantically could be another symptom of whatever disorders he suffers from. Finally, when he doesn’t propose marriage as expected, Irma leaves him and moves on, hopefully, to more promising husband material.
An alternative theory for Mr. Bean’s strange behavior is that he is an alien from space. Beginning in episode two, he arrives at the beginning of each show in a light beam from the sky, while Southwark Cathedral Choir sings a hymn parody, ‘Ecce homo qui est faba’ (which translates from Latin as Behold the man who is a bean). At the end of each episode, he beams back up, while the choir sings, Farewell the man who is a bean, in Latin. So is Mr. Bean sent by God, or aliens? The idea that it is aliens is re-enforced in an episode of the animated series, parodying the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he is abducted by aliens who look exactly like him, right down to their teddy bears, before being returned to earth by them in a light beam.
Although there were only 15 original episodes, Mr. Bean lived on in several forms. Atkinson made two feature-length films. The first was Bean, released in 1997, set in Los Angeles, and the second was Mr. Bean’s Holiday, from 2007, in which he takes a holiday in France, ending up on the French Riviera at the Cannes Film Festival. The films were commercial successes, with each grossing around $250 million globally. Critical reviews were mixed, but it is hard to think seriously about Mr. Bean in any medium.
He also continued to appear on television, with an animated series running first from 2002 to 2004, with 52 episodes of 22 minutes, and then in a further 78 episodes, starting from 2015. While similar to the original series, with a voice-over by Atkinson, more English is heard mixed with the mumbling, and two new characters, Mr. Bean’s landlady, Mrs. Wicket, and Scrapper, her vicious, one-eyed cat, are introduced. The arrival of Mrs. Wicket, whom Bean is constantly infuriating in one way or another, and who regularly recruits him for household tasks, such as lawn mowing, adds a new dimension to his psychology. She suggests a domineering mother figure and the possibility that his bumbling and short temper are passive-aggressive retaliation against a controlling mother.
We can get an idea of how deeply Mr. Bean entered the British consciousness from the fact that he was chosen to appear at the opening of the Summer Olympics held in London in 2012. In the sketch, he attempts, as we might expect, to cheat his way to a gold medal.
Atkinson’s mime presentation of the character was inspired, he says, by the French mime artist Jacque Tati, and his character Monsieur Hulot. Right from the beginning, he aimed to transcend the limitations of English, and he succeeded. The show enjoys immense popularity globally, and it has been broadcast in almost every country in the world, often with great success, creating a large international fan base. It received a Rose d’Or at the Swiss Light Entertainment Festival in 1991. It was also nominated for several BAFTA awards but never received any. The producer, Peter Bennett-Jones, is quoted as saying in 2015, I don’t think anyone could have anticipated quite how successful and long-lived it would be.
Places to Visit
Highbury is a district of London, near Islington, containing a mixture of 18th and 19th-century restored villas, terrace housing, and blocks of ex-council flats. A visit gives a good idea of the lives of ordinary Londoners outside the central core of the city.
- The grand 1825 façade of the original Arsenal Football Stadium (called Highbury Stadium originally) can be seen at a luxury housing complex called Highbury Square.
- At 106 Highbury New Park there is an apartment building called, “The Recording Studio.” It was originally Wessex Studios, built by Sir George Martin, the producer of The Beatles, who spent his childhood on Drayton Park, Highbury. Many bands, including the Rolling Stones, Genesis, Queen, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, recorded there.
Where to Watch
- Full sets of all the original episodes, including the two feature films, are available. The A&E Home Video version includes the original opening credits as shown on television, which are not used in other compilations.
- There is a Mr. Bean YouTube channel showing all the episodes in full.
- Netflix and Amazon Prime stream all the episodes and the movies.
- Mr. Bean’s Diary (1992)
- Mr. Bean’s Pocket Diary (1994)
These two books have identical content, but different formats
- Mr. Bean’s Diary (2002)
A different book, despite the title similarity, released to accompany the animated series
- The Story of Mr. Bean – video documentary
- The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach, by Rod A. Martin & Thomas Ford
- An Introduction to the Psychology of Humor, by Janet M. Gibson