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I’ve not been a great fan of Rowan Atkinson ever since he inflicted the tiresome Mr Bean on the world. And that’s despite his brilliant early work for Not the Nine O’Clock News and as Blackadder some decades ago. Partly, I’ll admit, this is because I once bore a vague resemblance to Atkinson, dressed like Bean, drove a “classic” Mini and was thus laughed at by children in the street. I also went off Atkinson because I just didn’t “get” Bean. Innovative, ingenious and wildly popular as he was. Physical comedy isn’t for everyone.
So I didn’t harbour great hopes for Man vs Bee, which for long stretches does veer into Beanishness, as if Netflix had wanted another Mr Bean of their own, a Beanflix if you like, but for whatever reason couldn’t have the original. Hence Atkinson/Bean is reinvented as Trevor Bingley, a pleasant, well-meaning idiot who has lost his previous jobs through being clumsy and incompetent, funnily enough, and is now a house sitter. Easy, you might think.
Trevor’s first assignment is to look after a huge opulent hi-tech home packed with fine art and a fleet of rare classic cars in the climate-controlled garage. It belongs to an obscenely rich couple (Jing Lusi and Julian Rhind-Tutt), off for their exotic holiday. They make the cardinal error of failing to instruct Trevor about how their large and complex home works, leaving him to read a thick manual. Obviously, he mistakes a ton of Pea and Ham soup from the manual and proceeds to cook it. Pursued, pestered and persecuted by what seems to be a malevolent bee – and aided unwittingly by the rather dim pet dog, Cupcake, left behind by the plutocrats – Trevor predictably ends up destroying the lovely home, though in inventive and unexpected ways.
Thus, when the temperamentally destructive Cupcake chases the mischievous bee into the air-conditioned library and gets locked in, Trevor is left helplessly looking on as the dog eats a priceless medieval illuminated manuscript (the pin to the room lock having been barbecued earlier). Trevor then takes a claw hammer to the reinforced glass but it bounces off and the sharp end embeds itself in a Mondrian, tearing a huge hole in it. It’s all that sort of Beanery, albeit enhanced by occasionally being given a “bee’s eye view” of proceedings, which adds to the gladiatorial feel. Over the course of the next few of these short episodes, Trevor – outsmarted by the bumblebee – destroys precious antiquities, artworks and the first Jaguar E-type ever built, and he eventually blows the place up.
During video phone conversations with his estranged wife Jess (played sweetly by Claudie Blakley) and daughter Maddy (equally sweetly from India Fowler), and contemplating his absurd war with his antisocial insect enemy, Bingley begins to see how he has lost his whole sense of perspective about what really matters in his life. Thus Man vs Bee gradually grows into a kind of Aesopian parable. When we discover that most of what Bingley destroys are mere replicas and flakes, and his employment as house sitter is part of a greedy insurance fraud involving a rigged burglary, Bingley stands not only redeemed but vindicated.
The fantastical plots and twists work surprisingly well in the end, after all the Beanery. The only glaring flaws are that Trevor and Jess seem much too nice to be divorced, and I refuse to believe that bumblebees like peanut butter (the premise of Bingley’s frantic attempts to trap it). I also didn’t need the rather crude product placement, on behalf of Miele and Waitrose, to remind me that posh folk like their stuff.
As you’d expect from a Netflix production, it’s smartly produced and directed, and Atkinson as Bingley is much more engaging than Bean, and is still game enough to spend much of his time on screen in his underpants. The bee, by the way, survives, and is looking forward to the second series and some more peanut butter.
‘Man vs Bee’ can be streamed on Netflix from Friday 24 June