SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you haven’t yet watched the final episode of “Man vs Bee.”
It was three years ago that director David Kerr unexpectedly got a call from an old producer colleague, Chris Clark, with whom he’d worked on 2018’s “Johnny English” sequel “Johnny English Strikes Again.” Clark had been developing an idea with “Johnny English” and “Mr Bean” star Rowan Atkinson and wondered if Kerr would be interested in helming the project.
“It was a really simple premise,” Kerr tells Variety. “You’ve got this man in a fancy house full of priceless artwork, with a tiny antagonist. But I can immediately see that it was potentially a wonderful vehicle for Rowan, and for his unique talent.”
The next step was to convene with Atkinson, one of Britain’s most famous and reclusive comedians, in his garden (thanks to COVID-19 restrictions) to discuss Atkinson’s character, Trevor, the show’s tone and “what the bee really meant.”
“It was really important to all of us that Trevor shouldn’t just be Mr. Bean,” Kerr says. “I mean, obviously it’s the same face and body that Rowan brings to both characters. But I think Trevor was supposed to be much more of a real guy, really. He’s something of an everyman.”
There is also no doubt some similarity between Trevor, who “has a decidedly obsessive streak,” according to Kerr, and Atkinson himself. In a virtual press conference on Thursday, the comedian admitted he is always chasing flawlessness in his work, sometimes to his own detriment. “I am a bit of a perfectionist,” Atkinson said. “But I’m a great believer that perfectionism is as much a disease as it is a quality. I mean, I think it can be quite corrosive, it’s a thing that can just give you stress, when, actually, very often there’s no need to be as stressed as I get.”
“He’s extraordinary,” Kerr tells Variety of Atkinson. “He’s got a master’s degree in engineering, and he brings that sort of eye for detail to his performance; he’s incredibly rigorous.” Yet surprisingly, given he’s built an entire career on being funny, in a recent interview with The Times of London, Atkinson said he almost never laughs. “I rarely laugh, physically, out loud at anything,” he told the newspaper. “I can just see when [a joke] works.”
“It’s fair to say he’s incredibly serious about his comedy; he’s really methodical,” Kerr says when asked about Atkinson’s comments. “And he thinks a lot about his character.” Kerr describes himself as also “fairly precise” when it comes to planning and shot design, which is probably why he has found himself working with Atkinson a number of times, on commercials as well as the “Johnny English” sequel.
Working with the bee was equally challenging, although it was in fact entirely CGI, made by animators at Framestore. “That put enormous pressure on us because it’s called ‘Man vs Bee’ so you better deliver the bee,” says Kerr of needing to make the insect look convincing. “It’s the co-star. [Otherwise] you’re calling the show ‘Man.’”
From the onset, the consensus was the bee was not a cartoon character: it wouldn’t wear a top hat or break the fourth wall “Fleabag” style. But equally, the bee needed some kind of anthropomorphic filter in order to both give it a connection with viewers and give viewers an insight into Trevor’s spiraling mental state as his obsessiveness takes hold.
“Bees don’t do facial expressions,” Kerr explains. “So you can’t have a bee raising an eyebrow or its lips wrinkling [in] a smile or anything. So you’re relying on things like how it rubs its antenna together and cleans them or whether it leans back on its hind quarters, or how quickly or quietly it sort of moves its wings.”
“It’s these really subtle physical details that you rely on to deliver your attitude or to suggest emotion.”
Has Kerr now exhausted all possible bee scenarios or is there a likelihood Atkinson and his nemesis will be back for season 2? “Both man and bee survive,” Kerr says. “So yeah, the possibility is there…ultimately, it comes down to Rowan, who will rarely be rushed into anything.”
Kerr is aware that the humor of the Johnny English movies and even “Man vs Bee” is not to everyone’s liking. “I know the show, ultimately, will be seen by lots of people as being silly and sort of ‘low art,’ frankly,” he says. “So it’s a paradox really, that there’s a huge amount of intellectual consideration given to these bits of action.”
While the show is undoubtedly carried by Atkinson’s Chaplin-esque physical humor, the plot — about one man’s obsession — can be found in even the greatest literary works. “I like to think of ‘Man vs Bee’ as Moby Dick in miniature,” Kerr admits. “Instead of, you know, a massive whale, we have a tiny apian antagonist. And instead of Captain Ahab, we have poor old Trevor. But there is the same kind of obsessive quest power in each of those stories. And I hope something of the epic sweep has come through in ‘Man vs Bee.’”