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It is hard to believe that in just 14 half-hour episodes, Rowen 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.


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 Laughter. Played by Rowen 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 PhD 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.


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.

We can get an idea of how deeply Mr. Bean entered the British consciousness, from the fact that he was chosen to appear in 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.



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