FILM REVIEW: The Bed-Sitting Room (1969)

The Bed-Sitting Room (UK, 1969)
Directed by Richard Lester
Starring Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore

Nobody makes cult films like the British. From the chilling horror of The Wicker Man to the high-camp lunacy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Britain has produced more than its fair share of cinematic oddities which were just too much for the mainstream. And no film is more emblematic of this particular brand of oddness than The Bed-Sitting Room, a film which makes even The Man Who Fell to Earth feel disciplined and coherent.The Bed-Sitting Room began as a one-act play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, who had collaborated in the later years of The Goon Show. After a successful run at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, it was extended into a full-length play and ran in London to critical acclaim throughout 1963. After a successful revival four years later, Richard Lester entered into discussions about making a film version.

Although Lester became successful through his work with The Beatles, his career had been kick-started by Milligan; their eleven-minute short, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, was Oscar-nominated in 1960. As the decade wore on, Lester's output became more blackly comic in tone, particularly with the 'anti-anti-war' satire How I Won the War. Under these circumstances, The Bed-Sitting Room seemed the ideal project for the budding director.The presence of Milligan, both as a co-writer and in a supporting role, does lend comparisons to The Goon Show. Aside from its surreal, absurdist humour and madcap cast of characters, the plot is similar to an episode called 'The Nadger Plague', in which Eccles and Neddie Seagoon end up being turned into a gas stove and clock respectively. But in fact, the film is closer to Milligan's later work on the Q series, being every bit as visually outrageous and every bit as inconsistent.

This inconsistency derives mainly from the fact that there is no 'restraining device' on Milligan's humour - there is nothing to stop him or the plot wandering off on some stream of manic energy. In The Goon Show, having an audience meant that there was a cut-off point for the humour, either by laughter or by the 30-minute time limit. Even though The Bed-Sitting Room barely makes it to 90 minutes, bits of it feel much longer because there is no natural brake on proceedings. The lines come so quickly and the jokes from so far out of left-field, that we are given far too little time to stop, laugh and take it all in.On top of this, Lester is not the most accomplished director when it comes to narrative. Like Nicholas Roeg after him, his films often contain very odd experiments with colour; there is one whole section in which the screen is bathed in a mixture of red and green light, for no apparent reason. And like The Man Who Fell to Earth, the film gives very little clue as to the passage of time. In place of pace, we have long, lingering shots of the devastation of London, which in some way foreshadow the junkyard scenes in Superman III. The film has so many characters and stories running around and it really struggles to bring them altogether, even for a couple of scenes.Just as The Goon Show often poked fun at the army, health service and labour exchange, so The Bed-Sitting Room is a comedy about various British institutions. The film takes place after a "nuclear misunderstanding" which led to the shortest war in history - "two minutes, 28 seconds, including the signing of the peace treaty." All the institutions that made up mass society (the army, the postal service, the NHS and the church) are now being run by lone survivors. The film begins with a BBC newsreader moving from one abode to another, reading the last recorded bulletin before the bombs fell.

When questioned about the film's meaning, Milligan said it was a story of how, after the dust had settled, man would simply rebuild society and carry on as if nothing happened. Though it's a cliché, the film embodies the British spirit of 'keep calm and carry on'. One of the characters actually offers "we're British" as an explanation when asked why the survivors are carrying on, trying to live their lives as if nothing happened. Nobody ever talks about the bomb specifically, and the main advice of the police is just to "keep moving", never mind where to.By having characters carrying on as if nothing had changed, The Bed-Sitting Room is making two very different points. Firstly, it demonstrates how impersonal most social institutions are: without masses of people working as cogs in the machine, they are little more than empty shells. It makes no sense to have the whole National Grid being powered by a man on a bicycle. Neither is it common sense to crown the Queen's tea lady as ruler of the British Empire. The Bed-Sitting Room is absurdist both in premise and in purpose: it is absurd to cling on to the past and the familiar when the world has so irrevocably changed.

But if the film attacks institutions, it is a lot kinder to the characters that inhabit them. Out of the myriad plot threads and episodic bouts of nonsense, there emerges a central story about a pregnant woman and her lover; in the manner of Children of Men, she is effectively carrying the future of humanity. The second message of the film is that even in the midst of all this chaos and clinging futilely to the past, there is some kind of hope for the future. The film ends with a parody of the second coming, as Roy Kinnear warns people to repent and Peter Cook descends from the sky and tells the survivors that everything will be alright.Although The Bed-Sitting Room is designed to be a comedy, you won't spend an awful lot of time laughing. The film is not a failure because of that, since there are a great many comedies which don't provoke outright hilarity. You'd be hard-pressed, for instance, to find anyone who laughed during the montage of atomic explosions at the end of Dr. Strangelove. A number of moments will raise a chuckle, like Harold Wilson agreeing the rent of 10 Downing St. with Mao Zedong, or the scenes of Marty Feldman's mad nurse screaming down a zip wire and crashing into a tree. But the primary response to the film will be a mixture of sadness and bewilderment.There is a huge vein of Beckett-esque pathos surrounding these characters - the play was once described as "Waiting for Godot with better jokes". Two characters in the film end up mutating into inanimate objects; Lord Fortnum becomes the bed-sitting room, and Mother becomes a wardrobe. A third character, played by Arthur Lowe, ends up as a parrot which is eaten for dinner. When these characters 'speak' in echoed sentences, it is like hearing the ghosts of the past - the people who inhabited this world and these rooms, both of which are now seemingly useless.

There is, equally, a copious amount of scenes which cause you to stare at the screen in total bafflement. Take Harry Secombe's character, who lives underground, staring at old film stock and ranting about 'Haig the butcher'. In one very odd scene, he asks Mother to be his wife, because a cut-out on the wall cannot satisfy him. Instead of a bawdy sex scene, she then starts throwing crockery at Secombe, who tries to explain that he wasn't having an affair. Such oddness is textbook Milligan, but it comes so far out of nowhere that we fail to understand its relevance, either in that moment or in the story as a whole.The Bed-Sitting Room is a really ramshackle concoction and a bona fide cult film. It is absolutely a product of its time, and a classic example of a film which simply cannot be re-made. It's not as consistently funny as either The Goon Show or Monty Python's Flying Circus, and it does require an awful lot of patience. But there is some joy to be had both from its message and from watching an all-star cast of British eccentrics clearly having a ball. Recommend viewing for all who seek to be baffled.

Rating: 3/5
Verdict: Very British and very baffling


Post a Comment