Man vs Bee director David Kerr describes working with Rowan Atkinson

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read if you haven’t seen the last episode of Man vs Bee.

Three years ago, director David Kerr received an unexpected call from an old fellow producer, Chris Clark, with whom he worked on the 2018 Johnny English sequel Johnny English Strikes Again. Clark had come up with an idea with Johnny English and Mr Bean star Rowan Atkinson and wondered if Kerr would be interested in directing the project.

“It was a really simple premise,” says Kerr diversity. “You have this man in a fancy house full of priceless artwork with a tiny antagonist. But I can see right away that it was a wonderful vehicle for Rowan and his unique talent.”

The next step was to meet up with Atkinson, one of Britain’s most famous and reclusive comedians, in his garden (thanks to the COVID-19 restrictions) to discuss Atkinson’s character Trevor, the tone of the show and ‘what the bee really meant’ to discuss.

“It was very important to all of us that Trevor shouldn’t just be Mr. Bean,” says Kerr. “I mean, obviously it’s the same face and body that Rowan gives to both characters. But I think Trevor should be a lot more of a real guy. He’s something of an everyman.”

There’s also undoubtedly a certain resemblance between Trevor, who Kerr says “has a decidedly obsessive streak,” and Atkinson himself. In a virtual news conference on Thursday, the comedian admitted he always strives for impeccability in his work, sometimes his own Disadvantage. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” Atkinson said. “But I firmly believe that perfectionism is both a disease and a trait. I mean, I think it can be pretty jarring, it’s a thing that can only stress you out, although actually very often there’s no need to be as stressed out as I get.”

“He’s exceptional,” says Kerr diversity by Atkinson. “He has a master’s degree in engineering and he brings that kind of attention to detail to his performance; he’s incredibly strict.” But surprisingly, having built his entire career on being funny, Atkinson said in a recent interview with the Times of London that he almost never laughs. “I rarely physically laugh out loud at anything,” he told the newspaper. “I can only see when [a joke] is working.”

“It’s fair to say that he’s incredibly serious about his comedy; he’s really methodical,” says Kerr when asked about Atkinson’s comments. “And he thinks about his character a lot.” Kerr also describes himself as “pretty precise” about the planning and design of the recordings, which is probably why he’s worked with Atkinson a number of times, both on commercials and the sequel to Johnny English.

Working with the bee was just as challenging even though it was actually CGI done by animators at Framestore. “That put a lot of pressure on us because it’s ‘man versus bee,’ so you better deliver the bee,” Kerr says of the need to make the insect look convincing. “It’s the co-star. [Otherwise] You call the show ‘man’.”

From the start it was agreed that the bee was not a cartoon character: it would not wear a top hat or break the fourth wall Fleabag style. But equally, the bee needed some sort of anthropomorphic filter to both connect with viewers and give viewers a glimpse into Trevor’s spiraling mental state as his obsession takes hold.

“Bees don’t make facial expressions,” explains Kerr. “So it can’t be that a bee raises an eyebrow or purses its lips [in] a smile or something. So you rely on how it rubs and cleans its antennae together, or whether it leans on its hindquarters, or how quickly or quietly it moves its wings.”

“It’s those really subtle physical details that you rely on to convey your attitude or to suggest emotions.”

Has Kerr exhausted all possible bee scenarios now, or is there a chance Atkinson and his nemesis will be back in Season 2? “Both humans and bees survive,” says Kerr. “So yes, the opportunity is there…ultimately it comes down to Rowan, who rarely rushes into anything.”

Kerr is aware that the humor in the Johnny English movies, and even Man vs Bee, isn’t for everyone. “I know the show will end up being seen by a lot of people as silly and sort of ‘low art,’ frankly,” he says. “So it’s really a paradox that so much intellectual attention is given to these little action scenes.”

While the show is undoubtedly driven by Atkinson’s Chaplin-esque physical humor, the plot – about one man’s obsession – can be found in even the greatest works of literature. “I like to think of ‘Man vs Bee’ as Moby Dick in miniature,” admits Kerr. “Instead of a massive whale, we have a tiny apian antagonist. And instead of Captain Ahab, we have poor old Trevor. But there’s the same kind of obsessive searching power in each of these stories. And I’m hoping that some of the epic momentum in ‘Man vs Bee’ came through.” Man vs Bee director David Kerr describes working with Rowan Atkinson

Charles Jones

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