Rowan Atkinson on perfectionism, bees and a Bean stadium tour
Man vs Bee is currently streaming on Netflix
Rowan Atkinson has become a live performance institution – his expression of apathetic bewilderment and clumsy clowning developing the immortal character of Bean, following a breakaway four seasons as Blackadder.
His new Netflix show, Man vs Bee, does exactly what is says on the tragi-comic, gag-riddled tin – a classic case of humanity pitting themselves against hymenoptera. It follows an unemployed house-sitter, Trevor, who has to spend a week in a rather bougie pad owned by a pair of entitled jet-setters. As you might expect from Atkinson's other work, things go a bit awry.
A little question to kick things off – why a bee? "The bee was chosen because it's the only stinging insect that people really like", Atkinson explains at the Soho Hotel: "We didn't go with Man vs Hornet for a reason. Bees are a genuinely positive contributor to society, even if you need to be wary of them. It's important to have a sympathetic, empathetic protagonist."
But what was production like? In the past, Atkinson has often described filming on the likes of Bean or Johnny English as an arduous process – was Man vs Bee any better? "Not really no. About the same I'd say. It's so annoying that the process is so stressful – everything always feels like it's not as good as it could be. Maybe that comes from a place of perfectionism.
"Some see it as a positive, but I think perfectionism can be quite corrosive – a negative thing. It just means a continual dissatisfaction with what I'm doing." That's not to say Atkinson is uninvested – he was present for the first script meeting three years ago and was there for the final sound mix three weeks ago.
Rather than resorting to press-friendly platitudes, he readily dissects the show: "I can see there are some good bits in Man vs Bee. But then there are lots of bits in between where I'm asking 'well, why aren't they as good as the good bits'? Why does it go like this? I guess that's just in my nature." Added complications included a slightly diva-ish dog named Pixel, which was present for a number of technically challenging skits.
Though split into nine ten-minute episodes ("mini sketches", as Atkinson describes them), the show is essentially, as Atkinson puts it, one extended, hijinks-laden 100-minute movie. Filming largely involved Atkinson having to imagine his CGI adversary while shooting, or has he puts it: "Every day, I'd have to be imagining and be following how the bee would be". There are very specific ways that bees fly, and the key was to make it not too cartoonish. Often, Atkinson says, a member of the production team would waft around a bee on a stick.
Could, I ask, Man vs Bee ever work on stage? Atkinson, after all, has a history of live performance, taking on the role of Fagin in the most recent revival of Oliver! in the West End.
"Seeing as we rely largely on a CGI bee, almost certainly not," Atkinson begins, "though given the distance from the subject maybe you could do it all with me doing 'zzzz' for two hours and not have a bee at all.
"What we have always talked about is doing a Mr Bean stadium tour. Something like "Bean Town", where Bean drives his mini around different shops across the stadium – that kind of idea. Though that might not happen now, who knows."
Man vs Bee is on Netflix now.