Sunday, 15 April 2007


I was filled with horror—no, mildly irritated—to read that outside the UK Mr Bean has become an “iconic figure” representing “an English archetype”, an "international symbol of Britishness", and that although the world is bowled over by his comic persona and his latest film is grossing millions everywhere, it is widely believed that we English do not laugh at him because we cannot laugh at ourselves.

Let’s get this quite straight: the reason we do not laugh at Mr Bean is that he is not funny. In his early days Rowan Atkinson was very funny, and Blackadder is a masterpiece, but Mr Bean gurning and falling about is not funny at all.

And in no way does Mr Bean typify the English: I have never met an Englishman remotely like him. Pierre Daninos in The Notebooks of Major Thompson created a much funnier caricature of Englishness and that wasn’t particularly accurate either.

When we see ourselves caricatured effectively we certainly laugh without restraint; nearly forty years ago a certain bunch of comics portrayed us to ourselves as ineffective, feeble, loony, and with a penchant for cross-dressing. Whether this was entirely accurate or not is irrelevant: we loved them because they were funny. Lesser breeds didn’t get it at all for years, though finally they did.

Mr Bean is one of several totally unfunny Englishmen to go down a storm outside his native land. Norman Wisdom is apparently very big in Romania and so of course is Benny Hill in the States: back home their comic acts sank without trace years ago. There is also an ancient English sketch which has become a cult classic, shown on German TV every New Year to the huge delight of millions of viewers. It wasn’t funny, and never had been.

National differences in sense of humour are not surprising: why should something that makes them roll in the aisles in Bradford have the same effect in Prague or Des Moines? We don’t really expect to share each other’s tastes in comedy, but in other fields people are often oblivious of differences in national viewpoints: it is sad, for example, when others blithely assume that we share their view of our country’s leaders. Many times I have been at a loss when American acquaintances, meaning to be friendly, tell me of their admiration for Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair. What can I say which will not hurt their feelings?

Back in 1997 I might have lost a few (not very close) friends when foreigners wrote to me saying nice things about Diana, if I had not lied when responding. Had I been honest I would have told them that although of course it is sad when any young woman dies, their condolences were misplaced, for I had never admired her much, and that national mourning, closed shops and widespread sobbing seemed to me excessive for the mistress of a dodgy Egyptian playboy.

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