For any writer who is still an avowed film fan (and doesn’t mind admitting it), delivering critiques of the cinema of the past can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s a feeling of immense joy to be had in discovering long-forgotten gems and artefacts. Sadly, we also have to constantly remind ourselves that with a few notable exceptions, such films don’t get made anymore, and that many of our favourite performers are gone forever. This in turn leads to a mournful longing for a time when artists of such calibre may return to save us from the swathes of mediocrity which currently proliferate. So far, we’re still waiting.
The Bed Sitting Room is a prime example of this, as, from what stands as possibly the finest ensemble cast outside of Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1970), only Rita Tushingham, Frank Thornton, Jack Shepherd, Henry Woolf and Bill Wallis remain alive at time of writing, and Shepherd alone is still what one would call active (with the exception of Thornton’s appearances this century in Last Of The Summer Wine, but we can gloss over that). Time marches on, and considering that many involved (Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Jimmy Edwards, Ralph Richardson, Mona Washbourne, Dandie Nichols, Spike Milligan) were born almost a century ago, their no longer being with us comes as no surprise. What is harder to take is the loss of Richard Warwick, Roy Kinnear, Marty Feldman, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, all of whom were relatively young men when the film was made, and essential parts of what we would later come to regard as the Sixties zeitgeist- although director Richard Lester abhorred this term and disliked being linked with it in any way. And maybe it’s possible that whilst from an everyday perspective, we take the demise of celebrities as a matter of course, seeing them all assembled together in a film that essentially deals with the subjects of death, demise, apocalypse and atrophy comes as a harsh reminder of our own mortality.
The script (adapted from a play by Milligan and long-time collaborator John Antrobus, who also thankfully still lives) sets its story in London after a nuclear war which took all of two minutes to devastate and decimate the entire nation, referred to in a typically British way as a “misunderstanding” after a Chamberlain-esque attempt at peacekeeping by the Prime Minister (Wallis). There are obvious overtones of Beckett, and it is to Waiting for Godot that the film has been most often compared, even though ironically no definitive adaptation of that work has ever been made. But unlike the Irishman’s play, which focuses primarily on two characters, and retains some semblance of linearity, The Bed Sitting Room is manifold, rambling, and unconventional in its structure, jumping from one seemingly unconnected event to another in a manner which demands (and therefore tests the limits of) the viewer’s full attention.
There are, however, several narrative threads which are easy to detect. London (actually a quarry some 20 miles away in Chobham in this case) stands as a desert, an oasis of rusted cars and rubble among which the survivors (numbering less than 100), attempt to carry on like before. This is a practical impossibility, demonstrated early on when Frank Thornton, introducing himself as ‘the BBC’ (i.e. its only surviving employee) sticks his head through the television screen of Bules Martin (Michael Hordern) and attempts to read the news, only to be informed by Mate, the world’s last postman (Milligan) to get out because it’s “his turn on the television”. Likewise, the National Health Service is now one man, Marty Feldman, who trails o’er the broken landscape with one bed, one curtain and a bag of faulty appliances: the Army is reduced to Ronald Fraser, standing eternally on guard waiting for the enemy which never arrives, and the police (Cook and Moore) are a two-man force operating from a panda car tied to an air balloon, left with little power except to tell people to ‘keep moving’ and harass them for minor traffic misdemeanours.
This last refers directly to Milligan’s own experiences, but also confirms our long held suspicion that those left in positions of power, particularly after any conflict, are those least qualified for the job, although in this instance their superiors haven’t survived either (no mention is ever made of secret bunkers housing society’s elite, so we assume they have perished along with the proles) and were in no way preferable. This also applies to royalty, who have all been wiped out and are now represented by the figurehead of their former charlady, Mrs Ethel Shroke of High Street Leytonstone (Dandie Nichols). This makes for an amusingly revamped National Anthem, although she herself remains enigmatically unseen till the final reel.
Meanwhile, the final “nuclear family”- consisting of Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne and adult daughter Rita Tushingham (now 18 months pregnant) are living in a tube train, conveniently situated on the Circle Line (read into that what you will) which also houses Tushingham’s secret boyfriend (Warwick), but only runs when Woolf, supplying the entire nation’s power, has generated enough electricity via bicycle-pedalling (later referenced nicely in the “White Hole” episode of Red Dwarf IV) Even then, the train tends to spin so fast, as also does the escalator, that its inhabitants want to quickly get off, something else into which any number of metaphors might be read. Everyone is fully aware of their circumstances, and no-one lives in denial, but in that typically British way, no-one grumbles or complains either, choosing to get on with their lives as if stepping off the same escalator into a skip or rowing across a waterlogged Hyde Park in a boat were the most natural thing on earth.
What isn’t natural, but nevertheless to be expected is the atomic mutation from which the film takes its name, as Ralph Richardson’s staid, stuffy Lord Fortnum finds himself turning into a bedsitting room, complete with en-suite facilities. This condition can neither be treated successfully by Feldman (who in a parody of Wilson’s labour government, has been overrun by administrators, and advises Richardson to get himself renovated) or Hordern, who can only point out that his patient looks rather white (“Both my parents were white”, comes the droll reply) Zany Goon humour, or a pointed dig at our own commodity-obsessed, quaint, traditional society, even in supposedly psychedelic 1968, which was pretty quaint in itself, and now seems with hindsight almost as far away as the 40s? Milligan and Antrobus offer no straight answers, but it’s a fascinating ride trying to understand the questions. Was the film, and therefore the play which begat it, a reaction to the worldwide atmosphere of doom and “mutually assured destruction” generated by the Bay Of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam war, which slunk and slithered like a black disease under the floorboards of the otherwise “swinging” decade? Maybe not directly, but it still helps to view it in that context if only for the sake of balance.
It will come as no surprise to hear that the film was universally panned on release by critics, fans and industry workers alike (“How much more of this shit do I have to sit through?” enquired one numbskull number-cruncher of Lester during a preliminary screening). Ironically, although we who write about such films often long for a return to times past, it took until at least the 1980s for people to appreciate the inherent genius in this work (strangely, the same length of time it took for people to appreciate half the best music of the late 1960s), and even by their usual narrow standards, pundits were amazingly far of the mark. Pauline Kael, for instance, claimed the film to be a comedic misfire, not funny in the slightest. This is patently untrue. There are numerous laughs to be had- not just at the bureaucratic ineptitude of those providing “public services”, but at the futility of their interpersonal relationships and their inability to communicate with each other.
Hordern’s pursuit of Tushingham is wonderfully farcical: having persuaded Lowe to let him wed her due to his supposed ‘status’, which of course means nothing in a post-nuclear world, he still fails to consummate the marriage (conducted in the shadow of a rusted half- visible dome of a sunken St Pauls by underwater vicar Jack Shepherd, looking for some reason about a decade older than he had in All Neat In Black Stockings earlier the same year!) as the minute his back’s turned, she jumps back into bed with Warwick, something her father doesn’t seem to mind provided she actually got married first!! Even funnier is the exchange between Lowe and Warwick, where the former asks his daughter’s paramour to “treat me like your father” and promptly gets throttled by the younger man, who explains that he hated his patriarch, at which point the substitution of a favourite uncle is suggested, and Warwick subsequently asks his elder for sixpence. Richardson, meanwhile, is less worried about the process of actually turning into a building and more about its postal address, (which sadly for him turns out to be the unfashionable 29 Cul De Sac Place, Paddington) urging Milligan, who seems to want to squat in him, to not let him out to “coloureds, children, and definitely no coloured children”. This not only accurately satirises the sentiment of the day, but man’s obsession, even in the 20th century, with money, class petty officialdom and meaningless pieces of paper- and what could be more British than that?
Kinnear (as the rubber-obsessed ‘plastic mac man’) and Secombe (the shelter dweller) pretty much play exaggerated versions of themselves, but that was always what they excelled at anyway. Secombe is actually gifted one of the finest comedic sequences when he urges Washbourne, who has fallen into his underground domain, to “do what for me what my first wife did”, an initially frightening prospect for her until she realises he actually wants her to fling plates at his head whilst loudly disagreeing with him!! The origins of such jokes may be entrenched firmly in the music hall, end-of-pier, mother-in-law traditions of comedy, but the incongruity of watching the characters attempt to deliver this material in such a grim setting is the architect of several of the film’s most beautiful moments, ably assisted by the set designs of Asheton Gorton (the man largely responsible for the outward appearance of Lester’s earlier The Knack and Antonioni’s not-quite-Britgiallo Blow Up), and the wide, expansive, red-filtered cinematography of David Watkin, who captures perfectly the stretching vista of rusted vehicular, melted dolls and skeletal remains of life’s accoutrements, and would later use a similar approach when filming the desert landscapes of Ken Russell’s The Devils.
Without these factors, The Bed Sitting Room would be a different entity altogether, and anyone who understands cinema will realise that it’s not only the director of any film who’s responsible for its aesthetic content. But it would be churlish to deny Lester’s undoubted ability as a film-maker- a skill which reached its peak in the mid-70s with works as diverse as The Three Musketeers, Juggernaut and Robin And Marian, and which sadly, he has not put to use since Roy Kinnear’s death in a horse riding accident during the filming of Return of the Musketeers in 1989. Undoubtedly the finest expatriate American filmmaker working in the UK at the time, he manages to turn what is essentially a difficult script for a stagey play into something approaching a cinematic vision, shielding it from the interference of backers United Artists at all times despite the personal stress involved, and manages to switch focus from slapstick to pathos to tragedy (the death of Tushingham’s unseen baby) through sci-fi to horror (the gradual transformation of Washbourne into a wardrobe, complete with painful-looking drawer-breasts, and the cannibalistic devouring of Lowe upon his changing into an oven-ready chicken) at a moment’s notice with the greatest of ease. Quite apart from that, any man who could tolerate the combined egos of the Fab Four (who in turn hired him due to their admiration of his early collaboration with Milligan, The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film) not once but twice, and coax great performances from them on both occasions, surely deserves some kind of award as a matter of courtesy.
Could The Bed Sitting Room be seen as a horror film? In theory, perhaps, but definitely not in its final execution. Its outward appearance is as bleak as the films and TV shows it could be said to have influenced- No Blade Of Grass, The Changes, Glen And Randa, Survivors, Stalker, maybe even Mad Max, and its obvious acknowledgement of 1950s ‘atomic radiation’ monster movies shows through- but even in the grimmest, bleakest, moments, Lester offers us some morsel of twisted, perverse hope. However, Cook’s final proclamation of dubious “peace, posterity and stability” now Britain is once more a first-class nuclear power, delivered like a sermon as he descends from his panda-balloon to placate the diminished crowd, is less of a celebration, and more of a warning, as he states: “At times of national emergency, you often find a new leader tends to emerge. Here I am, so watch it.”
Only two minutes earlier the same people had been on their knees begging “God” for various favours, before realising (his denunciation of Milligan as “Labour scum” being the dead giveaway) that they were only hearing Lord Fortnum, well-known bed-sitting-room and impressionist: the minute a more placatory messiah appears (“that’s God”, comments Hordern, “I recognise the voice”) allegiances are immediately switched. As I write this 40 years on, with the country once more teetering on the brink of general election and the substitution of one body of ineffectual idiots for another, I can think of no better synonym for Britain. How ironic that it took an American director to point this out to us (not only here, but in his preceding How I Won The War), although ultimately the people it needs pointing out to are not the type that would ever watch a surrealistic (for want of a better term) post-apocalyptic black comedy, and therein lies the ongoing problem.
Thankfully some of the people that did watch the film (screened irregularly on television since the late 70s) went on to work for the BFI and still found it resonant and relevant enough, if not more so, in 2009 to warrant a DVD release on the excellent Flipside label, which promises regular issues of weird and wonderful British movies often forgotten by uneducated audiences and prejudiced tastemakers. As well as seeing the film rescued from the maws of obscurity (in much the same way as Jimmy Edwards, in the role of abandoned human suitcase Nigel, is retrieved from a left luggage compartment and once more thrust into the outside world), the viewer will experience much delight and pleasure in not only the splendid remastering job (crisp, clear and most importantly, restored to its original widescreen) but the almost comprehensive booklet, featuring notes from a variety of sources on the film and its maker, including the original Monthly Film Bulletin review by Russell Cambell.
Extras come in the form of several previously unreleased, self-financed interviews with Milligan, Cook and Lester shot and conducted by Bernard Braden (another North American who knew exactly how to perceive Britain) for a still-unreleased series called Now And Then, which took the then-unprecedented step of being filmed “on spec” with no buyer in sight: little did Braden or his wife Barbara Kelly suspect that it would take 40 years to find one in the shape of the BFI, who now own all 330 (!!) Looking at them now, it is perhaps understandable that their raw, warts’n’all, almost guerrilla-like approach would have confused people more used at the time to the orthodoxy offered by the likes of Malcolm Muggeridge, but in terms of honesty, directness and empathy with the interviewees, they are peerless, and any number of hairs in the gate cannot detract from the ability the interviewer has to communicate on a one-to-one level with his subjects without the slightest condescension or concession to ‘product’.
All have highpoints, and provide rare insight (Peter Cook’s assertion that he will use less comedic caricature voices in future seems particularly poignant in the light of what he actually preceded to do) but the 40-minute conversation (for that is what it is, an informal and unbound discussion between two friends) with Milligan is the standout. Almost 50 at the time of filming but looking surprisingly youthful, alert and almost dapper in cap and red cardigan (perhaps mirroring the jazz musicians he idolised so much), he is unafraid, despite expressing obvious reservations at the potential of Braden’s project, to answer all questions with candour, even when asked about a traffic offence he initially doesn’t want to discuss, and lets forth with several opinions which he may not have expressed in more formal surroundings. One can only wonder what other delights are in store as the rest of these interviews surface gradually to air.
One also wonders what other treats (apart from the recent releases of Arnold Louis Miller’s excellent mondo snapshots Primitive London and London In The Raw) BFI Flipside have up their sleeves, but this will do nicely to be going on with. As Tushingham’s bemused, floating yet beautiful heroine Penelope points out, we may not “even know who’s won the war”, but the continued visibility of this film, 40 years after financiers tried to stifle it, audiences shunned it, and critics failed to understand it, is a victory for Lester, Milligan, Antrobus, Gorton and the entire cast, and a resounding triumph for art over commerciality and so-called common sense.