Though it was on January 1, 1990 that Mr. Bean made his television debut on England’s ITV, Rowan Atkinson began developing the character more than a decade earlier, while he was pursuing his master’s degree in electrical engineering. “I was asked in my first term at Oxford to do a sketch in this one-night show at the Oxford Playhouse, and I’d never written anything,” Atkinson recalls in The Story of Mr. Bean, a feature on The Whole Bean DVD. “I’m not really naturally a writer, so I just had to invent sort of 5 minutes of something at 48 hours’ notice. I just stood in front of the mirror and started to mess about with my face. And this strange, surreal, sort of non-speaking character evolved.”
Even the most dedicated fans have trouble reconciling the fact that only 14 episodes of the live-action series were ever produced. It did, of course, spawn two movies, an animated series, a video game, and some books, including Mr. Bean’s Definitive and Extremely Marvelous Guide to France.
Because the bulk of the comedy is physical, not narrative, Mr. Bean has not gotten lost in translation. “There doesn’t seem to be a country in the world who don’t seem to get him, who don’t seem to understand and enjoy the character of Mr. Bean,” Atkinson told ABC. “I think, and I’ve always assumed, it’s because he’s basically a child trapped in a man’s body.”
Atkinson’s creative partner at the time, and the man who helped develop the character of Mr. Bean, was writer-director-producer Richard Curtis. The two collaborated on Not the Nine O’Clock News and Blackadder before Mr. Bean ever hit the airwaves. Curtis would later make the jump to the big screen as the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and the writer-director of Love Actually, The Boat That Rocked, and About Time. (Which explains Atkinson’s cameo in Love Actually.)
Over the years, Atkinson has repeatedly cited French comedian Jacques Tati as one of the great influences on Mr. Bean. “My interest in physical comedy was from discovering a film by Jacques Tati called Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” Atkinson says in The Story of Bean. “It just struck a chord with me. I so admired it, because it was an uncompromising comic attitude and setting that I really admired.”
It wasn’t until shortly before Mr. Bean hit the airwaves (and after production had already begun) that the character actually got his name. Originally, he was going to be called Mr. White. Then the show’s creators began throwing around some vegetable names, and considered Mr. Cauliflower before deciding on Mr. Bean.
When asked about Mr. Bean’s enduring appeal during a BBC World Service radio interview earlier this year, executive producer Peter Bennett-Jones said, “I don’t think anyone could have anticipated quite how successful and long-lived it would be. Since we first went on air on January 1, 1990. Mr. Bean’s been very good to us all, so we love Mr. Bean.”