Mr Bean turns the handle of money-making machine

The pathetic comic character has a serious side, writes Chris Blackhurst

It Is one of those classic Mr Bean moments, when the nerdy, pervy main character does something so gross that audiences almost pinch themselves in disbelief. In Rowan Atkinson's new cinema film, Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie, a patient lies in an operating theatre undergoing surgery. Along comes Mr Bean who pops a yellow M&M into the hole caused by the surgery. He leans over, digs around in the wound, finds the sweet and puts it in his mouth. Everyone rolls around with laughter.

Atkinson, though, has the last laugh. This is product placement on the big screen. Mr Bean is fronting a pounds 1m advertising campaign for M&Ms. The campaign starts next week with the opening of the film in the UK. Packets of M&Ms will carry a competition to win a Mr Bean mini.

Clearly, the social misfit, face-pulling character is not so daft as he seems. A study of Atkinson's company records at Companies House in London reveals the truth behind Mr Bean: that this pathetic, disaster- prone outsider is a money-making machine, probably the biggest there has ever been in UK comedy.

According to the latest records, Atkinson's main private company, Hindmeck, has an annual income of pounds 1.9m. The previous year, the total was pounds 1.6m. Mr Atkinson is the sole director of the company and his wife, Sunetra, is the company secretary. He pays himself a salary of pounds 1.34m.

He is also a director, along with his fellow Mr Bean associates, of Tiger Television, which made a pre-tax profit of pounds 451,000, and of Tiger Aspect Productions, which made pounds 960,000.

Only 13 half-hour episodes of Mr Bean, produced by Tiger Aspect, have ever been made. Their slapstick mime transcends all national barriers. They are shown on more airlines than any other in-flight feature - over 50 at the last count - and sold to 94 countries, including Bahrain, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. More than 6.5 million copies of his videos have been sold worldwide.

In this country, since the demise of Benny Hill, Mr Bean is the top-rated ITV comedy show with a regular audience of more than 18 million. In the US, where Atkinson's own one-man, non-Bean show on Broadway was a flop in 1986, thanks to Mr Bean being aired on public service broadcasting channels, he is becoming a star.

It will be years before the success of his movie appears on accounts at Companies House. All the signs are that Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie could surpass even Four Weddings and a Funeral - in which Atkinson had a part as a vicar - as the most successful British film of recent times.

Like Four Weddings, the Mr Bean film involves the same team of Atkinson and Richard Curtis as writer. Their approach has been calculating, leaving nothing to chance - in other words, a complete contrast to the hapless Mr Bean. Australia, where Mr Bean is popular, was treated as the test- bed for the movie.

Despite his success here, Atkinson views this country with scepticism, never feeling quite sure how his audience will react. British critics are sniffier than in other countries, and people here are as anxious to knock as they are to praise. In Australia, where the audience is less demanding, the film's success should have removed any lingering worries about the UK.

In three weeks in Australia the film has taken $10.4m, putting it at the top of the box-office, ahead of Batman & Robin in terms of cost. The film cost pounds 8m to make and is on course to recouping that amount from Australia alone.

After Australia came Holland and New Zealand. This week's Variety, the cinema trade magazine, is ecstatic. Bean, said the magazine, "garnered a wow $2m in 11 days in Holland and $579,000 in four days on 42 [screens] in New Zealand".

It opens here next week and in the US in October. To give the film a push in the US, Hollywood stars, including Burt Reynolds, were added to the cast. Preview screenings in the US were encouraging - Mr Bean's recognition factor was 40 per cent.

The catch-phrase in rehearsals, recalled Mr Curtis in an interview, was: "Will they get it in Egypt?" "If we wanted a sign which said 'haberdashery', Ro would say, 'Will they get it in Egypt?' and we'd have a pair of underpants instead."

Similarly, if a joke looks as though it is becoming too clever and sophisticated, Mr Atkinson will bring it back to the level of his ideal viewer, a nine- year-old boy. He may be simple but Mr Bean is very clever.

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