The Importance of Bean: A Philosophical Analysis of ‘Mr. Bean’
To understand the nature of Bean is to understand the nature of man itself.
Mr Bean, a British series written by Rowan Atkinson and broadcast by ITV in the 1990s, is widely appreciated in terms of its contributions to comedy. The series has enjoyed success and mass appeal. It is popular with children, who identify with the anarchic and silly behaviour of its titular character.
There is little academic appreciation of Mr. Bean. The titular character does not grace the journals of media theory in the same manner as Jacques Tati and his film Monseiur Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Despite recognition Atkinson is an intelligent comedian, his work has not been appraised in a similar way.
The few scholars that have written on Mr. Bean have noted this unusual trend. Patricia Neville, in Comedy, Mr. Bean, and the representation of masculinities in contemporary society, notes that ‘despite (its) success, very little academic attention has been paid to the character or the series’ for several reasons:
(Mr. Bean) does not easily comply with the conventions of media genre analysis. Mr Bean was an occasional comedy series…there was a lack of a fully-drawn and permanent cast of supporting characters that could help expand the plot …(and the) dependency on visual comedy contrasts sharply with most television comedies that derive their comic relief from their cast of characters.
It generally does not help that Rowan Atkinson fucking hates being Mr. Bean. Atkinson caustically spoke of the character in an interview to Radio Times: ‘I don’t much enjoy playing him. I find it stressful and exhausting. I look forward to the end of it’. He implied that he would never play as Bean again.
There is also the fact that the character and physical comedy of Mr. Bean is inelegant. Atkinson often depicts the titular character in promotions through grotesque gurns and vacant smiles. There is an incorrect impression to be made that Mr. Bean is a foolish comedy because it is about a foolish character.
For a comedian and actor who is generally intelligent and well-spoken, there is a cruel irony in finding fame from a character who is so antithetical. Rowan Atkinson must live every day knowing that his legacy is not of Blackadder, not of his countless contributions to stage, television and film comedy, but this:
In solidarity with Mr. Atkinson and his unenviable position as being forever seen as Bean, this article aims to rehabilitate Mr. Bean as a profound comedy.
It is the thesis of this article that inherent in Mr. Bean is a robust opportunity to discuss the moral and psychological implications of being, both in terms of oneself and in relation to the world. It is the thesis of this article that to understand the nature of Bean is to understand the nature of man itself.
Bean and self
Mr Bean is centred on one man. A chorus of Latin calls in the opening title, ecce homo qui est faba: ‘Behold the man who is a bean’. We are called to witness this man. The humour is intended to lie in the fact that Mr. Bean is, in fact, a very dull, ordinary man. But Mr. Bean, in fact, is quite extraordinary.
Our introduction to the titular character is of a man rejected by the cosmos itself, cast down from a ray of light. He is, in a sense, the modern Icarus. He is a man too innocent for the depths of Hell, too imperfect for Heaven’s grace, and so here he lies fallen from the skies, doomed to earthly purgatory.
Many viewers have assumed that Mr. Bean is an alien. It is true that Rowan Atkinson, the series creator, admitted to the Buffalo News the character ‘has a alien aspect to him’. But this underscores the moral play that runs throughout Mr. Bean, and in turn provides the character with such unusual appeal.
Mr. Bean is about a man who, much like Sisyphus, is fated to repeat the same errors, and suffer the same consequences. Mr. Bean is an unwitting sinner. He is shown to lack the insight that his misfortunes predicate his suffering. He cannot better himself because he cannot conceive of what it is to be better.
Consider ‘The Curse of Mr. Bean’ (S1E03), a title that conveys the cosmic horrors inherent in Mr. Bean’s daily life. Ordinary tasks such as visiting a pool become insurmountable endurances. He confronts terror and humiliation. He is stripped of his trunks. Worst of all, he is attacked and mocked by children.
None of Mr. Bean’s miseries in this case were unavoidable. But, as an architect of his own misfortune, Mr. Bean cannot merely leap from the diving board. He must cling to the rails and struggle with his own will to do so. It is in his nature, as a comic and dramatic character, to confront problems in this way.
The difference between the inconveniences of Mr Bean and ours are that he is a man whose nature constantly at odds with the world. The conflicts of Mr. Bean are fought alone. He is not one to seek support or abandon his many grievances because to oppose the conventional world is in his very nature.
Mr. Bean is compelled to live out an individually oppositional way of being. This friction is where the comedy is intended to lie, as Mr. Bean devises increasingly complex and poorly-contrived solutions to ordinary problems that, to ordinary people, necessitate simple and painless solutions.
For instance, in an infamous scene in ‘Do It Yourself, Mr. Bean’ (S1E09), Mr. Bean rigs his Mini to drive it from above to carry a sofa home. This generally doesn’t make any fucking sense, but the threat of losing his car, being arrested, or being flung from the sofa like a ragdoll does not deter Mr. Bean.
Could Mr. Bean simply just paid his parking ticket, as in ‘The Curse of Mr. Bean’? Could he not hire a contractor instead of destroying his apartment with paint, as in ‘Do It Yourself Mr. Bean’? This is not the point. What is more important is that Mr. Bean has defeated his demons for another day.
Rowan Atkinson conceived of Mr. Bean as a rather erratic, impulsive figure. ‘He’s a child in a grown man’s body. He can’t stop himself, so he meddles, like a child does. He lacks social grace,’ Atkinson said of the character. Asked in an interview by Daily Echo about the appeal of the character, he replied it lies in:
…the fact that people enjoy seeing that Bean dares to go where we do not dare to go. Mr Bean has a natural anarchy within him to be brave enough to break outside that social norm and to just do what he wants. People enjoy that.
In a sense, much of the humour of Mr. Bean is intended to lie in the character’s unmediated impulses. Mr. Bean is a man directed by his id. He is not deterred by simple trifles as moral conscience or self-restraint. Often in the series does Mr. Bean commit acts that others would consider criminal. He does not care.
One example of this ethos is in ‘Mr. Bean Rides Again’ (S1E06). Mr. Bean witnesses a man having a heart attack and basically fucking kills him. He attempts to use jump leads to shock him, electrocuting the man. As an ambulance arrives, he disables it by using its battery to start his Mini.
Mr. Bean finds redemption only for the fact that he is not an asshole. It is true that he is irascible, inconsiderate, and vindictive. But he is more amoral than he is immoral. It is his moral incapacity that saves him from the sins of his actions. In his cluelessness is a childlike, almost pacifying innocence.
Despite this, viewers find catharsis in Mr. Bean’s chaotic responses to daily conflicts. It acts as a sort of wish fulfilment. In his rule-breaking and queue-skipping lies a rejection of the values of decorum and civility that viewers are socialised to respect, particularly British viewers, who are usually boring.
That said, Mr. Bean is seen to possess some level of social conscience. The most obvious example is ‘Mind the Baby, Mr. Bean’ (S1E10), where, under comically unfortunate circumstances, Mr. Bean attempts to reunite a baby with their mother. Suffice to say, he does not kill the baby in this situation.
It may be best to say that Mr. Bean’s egoistic self-interest sees all social and moral issues as problems to be solved. Most often, these problems are purely personal. In ‘Mind the Baby, Mr. Bean’, it is only by mere coincidence that his priorities (‘getting rid of a baby’) align with others (‘retrieving lost baby’).
In this character analysis, we have established that Mr. Bean is not a complete psychopath, but a nuanced and motivated being. His internalised nature and oppositional thinking, as well as his problem-solving mentality, provide an interesting parody and critique of egoistic self-interest as a model for morality.
Bean in society
The thesis of this section is that Mr. Bean signifies ordinary social values of the 1990s that are now radical in context to modern audience. It is therefore a plausible argument that Mr. Bean can be viewed and discussed as a creative work with implications of political relevance, particularly in social policy.
The premise of Mr. Bean is inherently utopian. It depicts a fantastical image of the status of a man in working-class Britain. Mr. Bean suffers no miseries of poverty or deprivation. His life, at its worst, is only a series of mundane comic inconveniences. He lives comfortably, toils little, and lives within his means.
Mr. Bean does not do work, at least in the capitalist sense. He does not have a job. His efforts never lead to the generation of capital, his labor is not a commodity to be exchanged for value. In a sense, Mr. Bean’s life is the epitome of a liberation of man from work as a form of economic coercion.
Mr. Bean lives in a dated but spacious apartment suitable for his needs. From the radical renovations of ‘Do It Yourself Mr. Bean’, one can assume that Mr. Bean is likely an owner-occupier, a fading dream for many British households. In this episode, Mr. Bean purchases a £250 sofa, today worth almost £430.
Mr. Bean reaps the fruits of the capitalistic system as a consumer in other, more frivolous ways. In ‘The Return of Mr. Bean’ (S1E02) he attends a fancy restaurant, purchases on credit, and visits a royal premiere. Although his tastes are conspicuously simply, he clearly has some means to live well.
For Mr. Bean’s life to have appeared pedestrian in the 1990s says much about how far the social context has shifted. Many British audiences would have had no problems entertaining that a bumbling, unemployed man owned a shitty apartment and even shittier car. That assumption is no longer the case today.
In summary, whilst Mr. Bean meant to satirise the plainness of twentieth century working-class living standards, it does so in a way that is filled with unusual tensions that now seem awfully generous depictions of daily life today. Many people would probably like to live like Mr. Bean now. I would.
Conclusion — What does it mean to be Bean?
What can we learn from Mr. Bean? It is an understanding of how a man living life less ordinary operates on its own values and reasons for being. When we confront these subjectivities, what reason is there to judge on what terms a man lives his life? Is it possible that Mr. Bean is more free than any of us?
Audiences are meant to feel sorry for Mr. Bean. He is depicted as isolated and unable to relate to people. In ‘Do It Yourself, Mr. Bean’, the two ‘friends’ he invites to his New Years party are visibly uncomfortable. He has a hideous girlfriend who barely tolerates him. His best friend is a stuffed teddy bear.
Bob Dylan was once quoted by the New York Daily News, ‘A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night, and in between, he does what he wants to do’. If success is a union of man with his will, unconstrained by the burdens imposed by society, is not Mr. Bean an wildly successful man?
Mr. Bean provides a vision of a post-social value system. Every day Mr. Bean wakes, and every day he encounters the horrors of everyday life. Bean’s raison d’être is to survive those horrors without compromising his attitude towards the world. If he can make it to the end of the day, put on his pyjamas, and tuck himself in bed with Teddy at his site, then everything is right with the world.