I haven’t been a huge Rowan Atkinson fan since he inflicted the boring Mr Bean on the whole world. And this despite his brilliant early work for Not the nine o’clock news and like Blackadder a few decades ago. In part, I admit, this is due to the fact that I once had a vague resemblance to Atkinson, dressed as Bean, he drove a “classic” Mini and therefore was mocked by the kids on the street. I also left Atkinson because I just didn’t “get” Bean. Innovative, brilliant and wildly popular as he was. Physical comedy isn’t for everyone.
So I didn’t have high hopes Man versus bee, which for long stretches turns into Beanishness, as if Netflix had wanted another Mr Bean of its own, a Beanflix if you will, but for some reason could not have had the original. Then Atkinson / Bean is reinvented as Trevor Bingley, a nice well-meaning idiot who lost his previous jobs for being clumsy and incompetent, oddly enough, and is now a house sitter. Easy, you might think.
Trevor’s first assignment is to take care of a huge, hi-tech, opulent, art-filled house and a fleet of rare vintage cars in the air-conditioned garage. He belongs to an obscenely wealthy couple (Jing Lusi and Julian Rhind-Tutt), on their way to their exotic vacation. They make the cardinal mistake of not educating Trevor on how their large and complex home works, leaving him to read a large manual. Obviously, he misses a ton of pea and ham soup from the manual and proceeds to cook it. Pursued, harassed and haunted by what appears to be an evil bee – and unwittingly aided by the rather weak dog, Cupcake, left behind by the plutocrats – Trevor predictably ends up destroying the beautiful house, albeit in imaginative and unexpected ways.
So when the destructive Cupcake temper stalks the mischievous bee into the air-conditioned library and is locked up, Trevor is left to watch helplessly as the dog eats a priceless medieval illuminated manuscript (the room lock pin had been grilled earlier. ). Trevor then takes a carpenter’s hammer on the reinforced glass, but it bounces off and the sharp end snaps into a Mondrian, making a huge hole in it. It’s all that kind of Beanery, albeit enhanced by the fact that you’re occasionally given a “bee’s eye view” of the process, which adds to the gladiator feeling. Over the course of the next of these short episodes, Trevor, outsmarted by the hornet, destroys precious antiquities, works of art and the first Jaguar E-type ever built, and ultimately blows up the place.
During video phone conversations with his ex-wife Jess (played softly 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. all his sense of perspective on what really matters in his life. Like this Man versus bee gradually it becomes a kind of Aesopian parable. When we discover that most of what Bingley destroys are mere replicas and scales, and his employment as a house sitter is part of a greedy insurance fraud involving rigged burglary, Bingley is not only redeemed but also avenged.
Fantastic textures and twists work surprisingly well in the end, after all Beanery. The only glaring flaws are that Trevor and Jess seem too cute to divorce, and I refuse to believe that bumblebees like peanut butter (the premise of Bingley’s frantic attempts to trap him). Also, I didn’t need the rather crude product positioning, on behalf of Miele and Waitrose, to remind me that elegant people like their stuff.
As you’d expect from a Netflix production, it’s intelligently produced and directed, and Atkinson as Bingley is far more engaging than Bean, and it’s still enough of a game to spend much of his screen time in his underwear. The bee, by the way, survives and is looking forward to the second series and more peanut butter.
“Man vs Bee” can be streamed on Netflix from Friday, June 24th