Mr Bean first came to our attention when the pilot episode won the prestigious Golden Rose of Montreux in 1990. Another twelve episodes were then broadcast at intermittent intervals over the next five years before the character transferred to the silver screen with the hugely successful Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie in 1997. Directed by Mel Smith, it cemented the worldwide popularity of the character but since then his creator and alter ego Rowan Atkinson has decided to keep the character in the background, preferring to expand on his bit-part Hollywood career rather than overexploit his most successful character. A five year hiatus was only broken when ITV started broadcasting a cartoon version, voiced by Atkinson and aimed specifically at the childrenís market, in 2002 and now, with this release of the first volume of the original live-action episodes onto DVD, Atkinson is once more donning his tweed jacket and pulling out his much-battered teddy to introduce the character properly to a new generation, making welcome appearances in character on such shows as Blue Peter and promising a second big screen adventure to come.
For some it has been too long an absence (especially considering the projects Atkinson has been involved with in the meantime, most notably the execrable Johnny English) but for others it will be an unwelcome reunion as Mr Bean is a character who seems to divide opinion firmly down the middle. As with many of the most successful comedies through the ages, the world is split between those who think Mr Bean is one of the funniest creations ever to grace our screens and those who find him as amusing as having root canal surgery. Humour is a very individual thing and it is easy to see why the character could be seen as annoying by those not on his wavelength. For those that do respond though, there is much to enjoy.
After Blackadder, which was based largely on witty wordplay and literary reference, itís clear that Atkinson wanted to break loose and employ a more physical style of comedy, a refined slapstick inspired more by the silent movie days. (Indeed, in a recent interview with the Radio Times, the comedian confessed that he had no particular affinity with the Blackadder style of comedy). There is a long screen tradition of the man-child as comic hero stretching all the way back to Chaplin and Keaton, and Mr Bean, clearly based on such forefathers, is probably the purest modern example of it (itís no coincidence that the episodes are largely dialogue-free.) Like them, he is purposefully an artificial comic character, as opposed to a regular ďreal worldĒ sitcom character, making him a very flexible creation, one whose occupations and interests are moulded to whatever situations his creators wish to put him in. For example in one episode heís taking an advanced trigonometry exam and in another he has a deep appreciation for ancient scripture and art work, while in a third he evidently works in some capacity in the film industry - all diverse and seemingly contradictory occupations that because of the style of the character works with nary a question from the viewer. This approach, of thinking of a situation first and then popping the character in to see what happens second, is the technique that Chaplin pioneered and built his career on.
As he operates by a different rule book to the rest of us, Mr Bean continually makes life difficult for himself by failing to see the easiest way out of any given predicament, instead digging himself ever deeper into holes via a mixture of ingenuity and lunacy, mixed in with an occasional selfish streak. He also, like many children, takes situations or instructions absolutely literally Ė for example, he thinks you cannot make any noise at all in a library, even if itís just a floorboard squeaking, and acts accordingly. This worldview is the main source for the comedy, richly tapped by main writers Atkinson and Robin Driscoll, who often pops up in episodes as well, usually as a victim or bemused witness to Mr Beanís frolics. Another regular collaborator is Richard Curtis, a part of his CV often forgotten these days, and, for the pilot episode only, Ben Elton contributes too (itís easy to see his gags in the episode Ė the appearance of the Pink Panther being the most obvious example). Combined, the only real crime they make is relying too often on Mr Bean's trousers as a source of humour - a motif that seems to crop up at least once an episode. Other than that, they manage (in general) to avoid the pitfalls a character like this could easily fall into it.
Although the basic premise is easy, itís a very tricky style of comedy to get right Ė mess up, and you end up looking just desperate for a laugh (see ITVís ill-judged Mr Bean-alternative, the painful Baldy Man, for an example). Fortunately Rowan Atkinson is one of our finest comic talents and, in Mr Bean, finds a perfect comic foil. He doesnít so much play the character as embody him, every movement, every gesture, every facial expression, bringing to life a character who in lesser hands would have seemed little more than a one-joke caricature. Atkinson gives Mr Bean three dimensions, a feat, given the often absurd nature of his adventures, you would scarcely think possible. Even those who donít find him amusing must give him credit for the artistry he brings to the part and the skill he uses to flesh him out. It is his performance that guarantees that the character belongs in a live-action, as opposed to cartoonish, world. It also means thereís something for adults to enjoy and appreciate Ė while the youngsters can laugh at the very fact Mr Bean is attempting to cheat in an exam, the adults can laugh at how he does it. This makes the show that rare thing: a true family programme, another point in its favour.
That said, heís definitely not for everyone. If you donít find him funny, no amount of rhetoric will ever convince you otherwise, and thatís fair enough Ė as said, humour is an individual matter. Itís hard to imagine there are many people nowadays who havenít been exposed to the character in one form or another, so this DVD will not convert anybody new to the characterís charms. For those that do enjoy him though, itís an excuse to go back and revisit the beginnings, and see Rowan Atkinson finally break free, once and for all, from the shackles of Blackadderís legacy.
The three episodes each have their own merits and flaws, so now follows a look at each one in turn.
Although there are some cosmetic differences between this original pilot episode and later instalments (the angelic opening sequence is not yet in place, Mr Beanís mini is a bright orange rather than the green/yellow in subsequent chapters, thereís no sign of Teddy among his mascots during the exam) fundamentally the character is launched fully formed Ė thereís no difference between him here and in his last episode.
It came as somewhat of a surprise, not having seen this episode for some years, that it is made up of only three sketches. The first, in which Mr Bean takes a maths exam, is, according to my father, one of the funniest things heís ever seen, and while I wouldnít go that far it is certainly very amusing. From the start Beanís character, half unpleasant, half trying to conform, is firmly established, whether heís sniggering at a fellow studentís perceived failure to revise the correct material or his subsequent desperate attempts to crib from that same student. His one-up-manship in the matter of writing materials is a particular highlight, and a good demonstration of Atkinsonís immaculate comic timing.
The second sketch is by far the weakest. Mr Bean decides to go for a swim on a remote beach, only to discover someone else has set up camp there. Unwilling to get changed into his bathers in front of the other guy, he devises an elaborate way of putting them on and getting his trousers off while managing to preserve his modesty. Although there are some chuckles to be had here, most notably from his attempts at a casual pose, this is too slight to merit repeat viewings while the punchline is signposted from the very beginning.
The third sketch features Mr Bean attending a church service and finding the whole thing tedious beyond belief. This is another good example of Atkinsonís fine physical comic talent, while Beanís singing of the second carol, in which he knows only the chorus, is a situation weíve all been in. Good fun.
Overall, this was a good opening episode for the series. Although some of the material has dated slightly, it is well put together and, with its fine central performance, never gets boring. Itís just a bit of a shame thereís not more of it. 7/10
The Return of Mr Bean
Easily the best of the three instalments on this disk, this second episode hits the ground running with Mr Beanís unique solution to not having any change for a busker and continues on in confident form for the remainder of the show. Although once again made up of sketches, each one has more going on in it than during the pilot, making up for a much more satisfying whole.
The first has Mr Bean visiting a department store, having just acquired, to his evident delight, an American Express card. All goes well as he tests out the shopís various products until he gets to the checkout and, by an unfortunate mistake, loses his card into another manís wallet. Mr Bean is not one to give up his new acquisition without a fight though, and is determined to hold onto the card, and therefore wallet, no matter where the man ends upÖ Although the individual pieces that go into this sequence are mostly slight (aside from the climax), together they combine together to pleasing effect, painting a picture of a man who lives in a world very different from the rest of us.
The second sketch has Mr Bean celebrating his birthday at a fancy, and expensive, restaurant. Faced with such problems as undercooked meat, expensive prices, a violinist with a sense of humour and Trigger from Only Fools and Horses serving him, he ensures itís a birthday not to be forgotten, although he bites off more than he can chew (no pun intended) at the end. This is a fun sketch which also introduces the pathos of the character that later episodes would build on.
The last sketch features Mr Bean waiting in line to meet the Queen at a film premiere. Although this is the slightest of the three sequences on offer, thereís much to be enjoyed as he realises that his personal preparation for the event is a little lacking. Although the punch line is a retread of a joke from The Naked Gun, it doesnít make it any the less amusing, while sharp eyed viewers will spot an early appearance in the line up of the actress who would go on to play future girlfriend Irma Gobb, Matilda Ziegler. 8/10
Hair by Mr Bean of London
This episode was never broadcast but was issued on the Unseen Bean VHS release. Although at first seemingly an odd choice to put on this first DVD (it was one of the last episodes to be made) its style is much more similar to the cartoon series that (eventually) followed it, making it perhaps more familiar ground to youngsters coming to the flesh-and-blood Mr Bean for the first time. Unfortunately, this also means itís the weakest of the three episodes on the DVD.
Made up, once again, of three main sequences, the first is the most successful, although that isnít saying much. Taking place in a barber shop, most of Mr Beanís antics are rather predictable, with only a gag involving a mirror raising a chuckle. The second, set during a local village fete, goes on far too long, especially the pet show, although it does also include the highlight of the episode, when Mr Bean gets rather too enthusiastic at the ďSoak the HeadmasterĒ stall. The final sequence, set on a railway station, goes nowhere fast and ends the episode of a dull note.
All told, itís a good thing that Atkinson and co decided to end the series soon after this was made, as they were evidently running out of steam (the broadcast final episode is similarly weak). The movie was, thankfully, a return to form and light years ahead of this tepid chapter. 3/10
The three episodes are presented on a single dual-layered disk. The menus consist of a static shot of Mr Bean and come with the option to Play All the episodes one after another or select to play them individually. The episodes are all in their original 4:3 format, but the cartoon is 16:9. The extras are found on a separate menu, and both they, and each episode, is illustrated by a still from the segment in question. Viewers are reminded that one of the extras is from the cartoon by a cartoon Mr Bean face by the menu option, to make it even easier to find, which is a nice touch. There are no subtitles and the episodes are not split up into chapters.
Fair only. While it looks better than my old VHS copies, there is still a fair bit of digital artefacting and the picture quality in general is soft and grainy, not coming close to more modern television releases.
Reviewing an audio track on a Mr Bean DVD is almost pointless, so all that can be said is that in general itís fine, if muffled at times (aside from, unsurprisingly, the cartoon, which is very crisp).
A sketch which was never included in an episode but did appear as an extra on the first VHS release. Good to see it included here too, as it is just as good as any that were finally put into one of the televised instalments.
In the Pink
An example from the animated series, this is standard kidís fare. The animators do an excellent job in capturing Atkinsonís mannerisms but the plot, in which Mr Bean tries to stop a pet shop scam, has nothing for anyone over the age of about eight.
Sadly, for the first proper Mr Bean DVD release, this is a bit of a disappointment. Evidently aimed at the younger end of the market, older fans are left a little short changed. When one considers the wealth of extras that could have been included Ė commentaries, the ITV documentary that looked specifically at the making of Hair by Mr Bean of London, the many other programmes Mr Bean has popped up on over the years Ė what we have been given is rather poor, being little more than a rehash of the original VHS release with a cartoon episode thrown in for good measure. With a good but not great picture quality, itís just fortunate that the episodes themselves stand up to the test of time, but for those whose videos havenít yet given up the ghost, this is hardly a vital purchase. Can we have a bit more effort for volume two, please?