British Comedy Guide was invited, alongside a handful of other publications, to sit down with global comedy icon Rowan Atkinson, to talk to him about his new show: Man Vs Bee. The nine-part Netflix series sees him playing Trevor Bingley, a recently divorced, down-on-his luck father-of-one who finds employment as a house sitter. His first assignment: looking after an upmarket, luxurious, modern country mansion.
Man Vs Bee is very physical; similar to the style you honed in Mr. Bean. Why did you decide to do this particular show, at this point: something so big, accessible, and visual?
Well, you know, why do you do things? You do things because you think there's a good idea that you're going to be inspired to create and act in. And it was this idea that [writer] Will Davies brought us: it started off actually without a bee, the idea of just a house sitter. And the show was called - even actually after we shot it - House Sitter. Netflix - in their wisdom - don't like any title that is too poetic or oblique, they like something that states the facts very, very clearly, and is easily read; Man Vs Bee seemed to be a sort of shorter, sharper, more succinct way of telling the story.
We just liked the idea of a house sitter who was clearly under qualified for the task he had, which was to look after a very wealthy couple's house, full of extremely valuable objects. That felt like a funny idea. And then the bee really became a catalyst to generate the story, to enable us to see him mistreating the house in different ways. In order to do that we felt Mr Bean wouldn't have been the right character. He's too much of a two dimensional character really. You know, a self serving, narcissistic, anarchist. That wasn't really what we wanted; we wanted a slightly more rounded person.
Inevitably, if I'm going to be acting out a character without words, you're going to see something which occasionally is redolent of Mr Bean. A facial expressions or something - there's going to be something there that reminds you of Mr. Bean. And, of course, it's impossible to view it without one's preconditioning if you've seen me as Mr Bean.
There are jokes which are redolent of the kind of difficulty that Mr Bean might get into, but I think Trevor is quite a different character. To play a genuinely good natured and sweet character is quite rare for me, because Mr Bean certainly isn't. Johnny English isn't really, he's another sort of self-consumed weirdo. And The Black Adder was pretty inward looking, ironic... a sort of cynic. Trevor Bingley is not.
Your main companions are a dog and a [CGI] bee. What was it like working with nobody on set to bounce off of?
Well, as Mr Bean I'm someone who's often on set, or in a situation, without any other actors. So I'm quite used to sort of self-generated motivation, I suppose, to tell the story or whatever you want the scene to tell.
The dog was tricky, as dogs often are: very well trained, very sweet. But, I guess it's related to the very rigorous, very repetitive training that dogs have to go through in order to do the amazing things that they do: they're easily put off. Suddenly, there's a loud bang, or someone comes in the door the wrong way or something. And then suddenly, for two hours, you can't shoot with them.
You're thinking, "we're supposed to be shooting the dog in these two hours, what else can we shoot?" and suddenly, the shooting schedule goes out the window. So that was occasionally tricky.
But the bee, yeah, wasn't there. That was probably the hardest thing. I mean, it sometimes was there, on the end of a rod. We had the puppeteers who came in and they performed it and I was able to follow something, but a lot of the time I had to imagine it. It wasn't there at all. So yeah, a slightly lonely experience, which is hard. But I've been there before.
The scenes with Tom Basden, who came to the front door as the policeman... it was just fantastic when he turned up, because finally you could have a normal dialogue; you actually had another human being to act with.
The Tom Basden scenes were actually really, really interesting. Quite a lot of sort of improvisation. That was a genuine relief. Suddenly you felt that you were sharing the responsibility for entertainment.
What's the appeal of this style of comedy, why does it appeal to you? Why do you think you're so suited to physical and visual comedy?
I guess it must be a combination of some skill, and aptitude, and an interest in the discipline of visual comedy, which is something I've done quite a lot of.
I've always been inspired by visual comedians, and in particular, by a French comedian called Jacques Tati, of whom you may have heard. I remember watching his old movies when I was very young and that was a great inspiration.
It's just having the opportunity to do that sort of thing, and having the aptitude to make it work, I suppose, or try to make it work. It's something that not many people do in the modern world. There might be slightly more of it now than there ever was, but certainly, when I was being brought up and the kind of television that I used to watch, it was entirely verbally dominated because television grew out of radio, and radio, by its very nature, has to be verbal.
That same sort of verbal tradition was simply translated into the medium of television. So when we did Mr. Bean for the first time, that was quite odd, because no one really had done purely visual comedy for whatever it was, you know, for nearly 75 years, so it was quite an odd thing to do, but it was something that seemed to land with people; that actually they were prepared to accept comedy without words in the 1990s, and so I'm glad we did it.
Man Vs Bee is in a Mr. Bean tradition I suppose, to a certain extent, even though the character I think is quite distinct.
The series seems to encapsulate a lot of the emotions that we felt in lockdown - the constant irritations and stress, frustrations with technology, confinement. Was it something born out of lockdown?
I wish I could say that it was born out of lockdown, but it was born before lockdown. It was made during lockdown. It's undoubtedly been my covid project.
We delivered three months late to Netflix because of covid. Just endless production delays and post production delays. But I can't say it was inspired by lockdown; it was it was all effectively conceived before March 2020. But yes, it's certainly relatable.
A journalist asked me the other day whether I thought that the bee was taking revenge for the fact that the house had been built on an area of outstanding natural beauty and that's why the bee was taking revenge on anyone who happened to be in the house, to which I said "Maybe...?" But that's not in the script.
It's amazing, actually, how we and Netflix and all these people who were churning out the stuff that's coming out now managed to keep it going, because it wasn't at all easy. Very, very expensive. Which is why of course there's lots of expensive stuff coming out, and very little cheap stuff. You know, this has been the crisis really in the last two or three years in terms of the production of simple, low budget films. They haven't been able to afford to make them because they can't afford the covid structures. If things go wrong, if the lead actor gets ill, they can't afford to shut down for three months, like Mission Impossible 7 can, and come back again. It's been very, very hard.
Has Trevor got more legs for another series?
I can't see another series as I sit here now, but never say never.
The stress of playing a Mr Bean - which is very real for me; mental stress and occasionally physical stress, but mainly mental stress - is sort of similar for Trevor Bingley in Man Vs Bee. Because, whatever I do, I always think I can do it better. And that's a stressful thing, when you're on a film set just feeling "mmm, well that was okay, but surely there's something better out there".
I've always felt this in every part I've played. The only one where I felt a bit more relaxed, surprisingly, was The Black Adder because there was a great sense in that show of the shared responsibility. There were so many awfully good performers around you, with whom you felt you were sharing the burden. Whereas with Mr. Bean, occasionally you're dealing with one other person, but usually the job of making it funny was down to you. The same with Man Vs Bee.
Shooting is horrible as far as I'm concerned. It's not a pleasurable experience at all, it's something you have to do in order to get to the end of the film and tell the story. Post production I enjoy; I'm always involved very intimately with the editing and the music, the sound and the sound mix and all that. I'm very, very keen to be involved in all that. And the pre-production, all the development of the script...
The meat in the sandwich is the horrible bit. The bits of bread either side are fine - pre-production and post production - but the production is no fun at all. But it's something you have to get through. And of course, it's the bit that I'm supposed to be good at. I'm not supposed to be good at editing, particularly. But the acting bit I never find easy at all. Which is why, as I say, I enjoyed the bits with Tom Basden, because finally you could share a scene with someone and share the fun, share the pain.
You and he have a great scene with the bee down your trousers...
Unusually for me, an awful lot of what I did there was just invented on the day, which I don't normally do. Normally I rehearse things to within an inch of their lives. But actually, most of that was me just being silly and trying to choose the best bits.
How do you create all the visual comedy; the choreographing of the physical performance? Do you write it all in the script, or do you sort of workshop it on set...?
It's a good question. It is exactly how we used to do the Mr. Bean live action shows, which was, basically, the processes of writing and rehearsal run parallel to one another. Robin Driscoll and the co-writer would come in with one sentence, "Mr Bean goes to the dentist", and then you spend the whole day with a dentist chair and dentists' tools, and I get in the chair and we go 'is there something about the chair going up and down?', 'What about the drill? How could that go wrong?'. And you work through it in a very practical way.
In Man Vs Bee we had this idea of 'so we want to put the bee in the microwave'. How's he going to trap him in the microwave? What's the mechanics of that? You sit in a rehearsal room with props and little kitchen units and you try and work it out long, long before shooting. This is weeks or months in advance, and it's only then that you eventually get to a very detailed script, which you then shoot.
Unfortunately you tend to have to go through it all over again once you get on the real set. For example, you suddenly think 'Oh, hang on, this isn't gonna work because the bee is at the wrong end of the room, and we've forgotten that'.
Just to go back to a previous point, there's no plans for a second series?
Never say never, but there are no ideas, there are no plans.
Normally at this stage I suppose someone might be suggesting, if there's a judgement that this may be a successful series, of commissioning another; but I wouldn't be interested in that at the moment.
But then I tend to need a lot of sort of 'decompression' time after a show and after a project. I can't entertain the idea of doing something, anything, for a long time. But with the passage of time, maybe I'll become more sympathetic to the idea.
Again, never say never.
Maigret was abandoned, which wasn't my decision. That was ITV's decision to pull the plug, which is fine. They made some judgement about what kind of shows they wanted to make and, I guess, how well our show was or was not going down.
Picking up on something else you said earlier, about the sandwich and the meat in the middle - the acting - being the part you didn't like. Would you ever dislike it so much that you might say 'I don't want to do this anymore'?
This is why I mentioned The Black Adder, the idea of being part of a larger troupe of people doing things. I don't think I'll ever tire of that, but I haven't done that very often. The Black Adder was a relative rarity. With singular characters you're very much at the top of the pyramid and everyone's looking to you to make it work. That stress is considerable and not really desirable.
But I tend to say after every time I do something 'I don't want to do this anymore', and then, six months out, you think 'it's a pretty good idea' and then you get dragged in. This has been really hard, this project, because of the covid complications; the number of ups and downs, the number of delays.
Physically demanding as well?
Yeah. I did okay. Physiotherapy is a marvellous thing. That helped a lot, to keep me vaguely able to do it. Yeah, so physically, I feel okay with it.
How much you can relate to the character? Do you share any of his frustrations? How much technology do you have in your own house?
I can't talk about my own life or my own possessions... I enjoy him as a character. I'm glad to play a slightly nicer man than I normally play.
I'm less technophobic than he is. My degrees are in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. That was a long time ago, but technology doesn't scare me. In terms of its operation: but in terms of its consequences, the consequences of the internet are monumental. I can use the internet like anyone else can, but not connected at all with social media. So I don't know much about mechanisms there. But it'll take us 40 years, I think, to adapt and to truly understand our relationship with social media, and with the internet. We're only in the foothills of beginning to understand its pluses and minuses, and we've done nothing about the minuses. It's still kind of the Wild West. The social consequences are absolutely astronomic. We're only in the foothills of understanding that.
The world of comedy has changed. When you go about writing comedy, are you more self-conscious?
Things have become very judgmental. Far more judgmental than they used to be of the arts generally, and of comedy in particular.
Comedy is in rather a strange place, because there are those who would seek to contain what you should be making jokes about with a perfectly admirable desire to make society kinder, or more accommodating, or more inclusive. Which is fine, for everyone to be nicer to one another - it sounds like a pretty admirable thing to want to pursue.
But, the problem is, that's not how comedy works. Comedy is not about being nice. If your primary aim as a comedian is to be kind, then you're not going to produce comedy of any note, I think it's fair to say. You may produce some comedy, but it's not going to be remembered for long, in my opinion.
The problem is that every joke has a victim, being that's what a joke is. It may not be a real human - it may be a fictional victim or a group or a society or a company - [but] there's always a victim and therefore you're always going to cause offence to somebody. And that is inevitable, but that is countered to some people's ideals about how society should be, that victimisation is always wrong. Well that depends, I say. It very much depends.