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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

FREE MR. BEAN

Like many people around the world, I watched with great interest the drama surrounding the fates of 15 British sailors captured in the Persian Gulf and held in Iran. I have no idea if they really were in Iranian waters, but I'm glad they've been safely returned to their homes. Now maybe gas prices in the US will go back down.

In the US coverage of the aftermath, I saw a front page from The Sun. The big screaming headline said "WE WERE BLINDFOLDED AND BEATEN!" But the smaller sub-headline said, "They called me Mr. Bean."

I found this a most curious taunt. I'm aware that Rowan Atkinson's nearly silent comic creation is an international phenomenon. I was on a ferry crossing the English Channel in 1994 when I had my first exposure to Mr. Bean. It was just past midnight and hundreds of weary travelers boarded the boat that featured a casino and several restaurants. But most of the good stuff was closed and people appeared to be settling in to get some sleep. But just before we left the harbor, a voice came over the intercom.

"For your entertainment tonight, we'll be playing episodes of the bumbling Mr. Bean."

The place went nuts. Loud cheers erupted through the ship, and people who once looked like they were going down for a nap now repositioned themselves to get a better view of of the television monitors. Once the screen flickered to life, I saw a short man with an odd looking face drive a Mini into a street sign. What followed for the next 30 minutes was a series of sight gags including Mr. Bean pulling several pencils out of his jacket, and trying to change into a bathing suit without taking off his trousers. (That latter gag is actually quite an acrobatic feat and well worth taking a look at.)

Swimsuit gag notwithstanding, most of the show just sort of made me shrug. But I could see why it was a staple on international ferries. There were almost no words in any of the sketches, and the whole thing was squeaky-clean family entertainment.

So It's no surprise that the show is loved all over the world. But in Iran? Really? I don't have access to any Iranian TV schedules, but I always imagined the broadcast day was full of fiery speeches by the Prime Minister and coverage of various American flag burnings. But apparently someone has access to Mr. Bean programs over there.

And that's where Arthur Batchelor comes into the picture. He was the youngest of the British hostages, and he told newspapers that his captors called him Mr. Bean to torment him.

From the press accounts, there was nothing all that funny about Batchelor's detention. He says he feared being raped or killed during the ordeal. At one point, he was handcuffed and slapped by his captors.

"They seemed to take particular pleasure in mocking me for being young," Batchelor told the British Daily Mirror newspaper. The situation is even more unfortunate because Batchelor actually does bear a slight resemblance to Rowan Atkinson. Not a huge resemblance, mind you, but you can see what the Iranians were talking about.

What's next for Batchelor is any one's guess. He'll likely go back to serving in the Royal Navy after a short rest. Perhaps he'll write about his experiences. If he wants to make a few extra bucks, might I suggest he go to the beach and take off his trousers while still keeping his bathing suit on. Watch and learn, Arthur, watch and learn.

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