Fans of the silent era comedy of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel & Hardy will be pleased to know that the art of the two-reeler is alive and well in The Best of Mr. Bean (1990-1995), a collection of five shows plus an excellent documentary from A&E Home Video. Rowan Atkinson, an almost constant presence on British television since the late-1970s but only sporadically seen in American media - in hit-and-miss roles that often didn't use him well, from lows like Never Say Never Again to the brilliant The Tall Guy, with Atkinson playing a dark send-up of his own celebrity status in "one-man" shows - suddenly became an international pop icon with his most famous character, in comedies with almost no dialogue and which thus are playable almost anywhere in the world. Indeed, fly internationally to any part of the globe and chances are that an episode of Mr. Bean will be part of the flight plan.
Atkinson's character is part-twit, part Jacques Tati's M. Hulot (the most obvious influence), part Jerry Lewis's "Kid" character. The 24-and-a-half-minute shows typically plunk Bean into generic situations and, like the best Hal Roach comedies of 60 years before, leisurely explore all their comic possibilities, from Bean's visit to a department store to eating at an expensive restaurant, from taking an examination to waiting in the receiving line at a Royal gala.
Atkinson and his team of writers (Richard Curtis, Robin Driscoll, Ben Elton, Andrew Clifford, and Paul Weiland) fortunately worked under a sympathetic British television system that permitted the Bean shows, just 14 so far, to be produced at a rate of about three a year as opposed to the standard American sitcom output of 22-24 per season. Similarly, the running time is perfect and likewise akin to that of the traditional two-reel comedy. Episodes never feel overly-milked or padded, which was not the case when Bean was expanded into a 90-minute feature in 1997 (a new film is due out next year).
The DVD offers a virtually useless text biography and filmography of Rowan Atkinson, but the 40-minute The Story of Bean (1997) is a valuable documentary about the series and offers a great portrait of both Atkinson and his character's evolution. Mixing wonderfully funny clips not just from Bean but also shows like Not the Nine O'Clock News and Black Adder, as well as interviews with everyone from collaborators like Mel Smith (director of the first Bean film and The Tall Guy) to familiar stars like Burt Reynolds and Jeff Goldblum, the show does a good job explaining Bean's appeal and the process of creating an episode.
Goldblum, for instance, calls Bean an unintentional anarchist, a good description, while Atkinson makes interesting, revealing observations, such as his preference to simply watch "how [Bean] bides his time" over the broader slapstick which has threatened to suffocate the quieter comedy. Others suggest Atkinson is "more like an actor than a comedian" in that he works everything out well in advance with enormous precision, rather than draw on improvisational inspiration.
Video & Audio
The Best of Mr. Bean is presented in its original full frame format and looks good for its age. (As usual with British TV of the period, the show uses a mix of videotape and film.) There are no subtitle options.
For those new to Mr. Bean's universe, The Best of Mr. Bean isn't a bad introduction, a safe bet before committing to A&E's boxed set of the complete series ($14.95 SRP vs. $49.95). These are great, laugh-out-loud funny shows; Buster and Stan and Oliver and all the rest would almost certainly approve.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.