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Review: Flipside presents The Bed Sitting Room at the NFT


In these days of the ‘hit, git and split’ approach to filmmaking, a film’s title has to say it all to its perceived audience. Today’s filmmakers seem to feel that there’s no sense in using a ‘clever’ or ‘oblique’ title if what they basically have is the second instalment of a superhero’s adventures, or another romcom with one of the cast of ‘Friends’ in it. It’s with this in mind that the casual viewer might get completely the wrong impression from the bare bones of The Bed Sitting Room.

Anyone, perhaps reasonably, expecting a ‘kitchen sink’ drama will end up very puzzled and surprised by this surreal, post-apocalyptic offering from the closing years of that golden decade. Once again, the ‘Flipside’ team have come up with three ‘Bars’ and a replay on the cinematic one-armed bandit, in securing a gorgeous print of this long neglected film for us to rave over, and hot on its heels, a DVD release for those who can’t make the trip to London’s South Bank or who were indisposed that night - good excuses only, now!

I had seen this crazy, witty, profound but hopeful film only once before, on television sometime in the late 70s/early 80s, and even then it struck me how strangely it resembled 1972’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, with which it shares many cast members, and its general atmosphere of Carollian absurdity, its characters forced by remote, grandiose authority figures to behave logically in an illogical world.

The action takes place a year or so after the nuclear holocaust (referred to here with typical politician’s understatement as ‘an unfortunate incident’), and the UK appears to have only about 20 people left alive in it. Her Majesty The Queen and her entire family were some of the victims of the ‘misunderstanding’ and her ‘nearest’ relative, Mrs Ethel Shroake, her former tea-lady, has been elevated to the that historic office, as being the person closest to her. Her country now resembles a landscape of slag heaps and rubbish dumps, in which her cast of wretched, wandering subjects attempt to return to their pre-apocalypse lives, clinging to their traditions, as far as they can. A family are eking out an existence on the London Underground system, with Father (ever-reliable Arthur Lowe) raiding platform sited chocolate machines with his trusty axe and Mother (the perfectly cast Mona Washbourne) tends to the needs of her 17-months pregnant daughter

Penelope (Rita Tushingham, delightful as ever). Henry Woolf, provides power for the ailing Underground system in his role as the entire Electricity Board, pedalling like fury with his bicycle dynamo hooked up to the mains.

The first intimations that radiation poisoning are beginning to show, are touched on in the characters who have become obsessive about their former occupations, and some are even slowly mutating into human-object hybrids. Most memorable of the obsessives, is Marty Feldman as a sinister nurse, peering out of his (her?) binoculars for new patients, sick or well, willing or not! Lord Fortnum (Ralph Richardson, again perfect casting) in his best city gent attire, refusing to believe the class system has broken down and impelled only by his desire to get back on top where he belongs. His Lordship’s chauffeur is slowly mutating into a car, his shoulders bearing a very Mod-like array of wing mirrors, his breast covered by metal ‘Morris’ badges, prefiguring the mutants that would later turn up in such films as ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’.

In case this is beginning to sound like a festival of misery, I should tell you that ‘The Bed Sitting Room’ is infused strongly with the untrammelled absurdism that made Spike Milligan such a pivotal figure in British Comedy. Originally co-written with John Antrobus for the stage in the early 60’s, and where it was a great success, the decision to take a story that was, by 1968, a little less pertinent to the state of the world’s politics must have been a difficult one for the producers to justify to their backers. I’m pleased they persuaded them, however, as the result is a remarkable piece of surreal pantomime and a very worthy addition o the already packed CV of its director, Richard Lester.

The story proceeds at its own refreshingly undisciplined pace, presenting us with characters who would have been perfectly at home in that other priceless creation of the mind of Spike Milligan, ‘The Goon Show’. Spike reprises his William ‘Mate’ Cobblers role from that brilliant radio show, a Beckettian tramp who turns up to burst the bubble of pomposity by his somewhat literal interpretations of others’ instructions.

‘I’d like that picture hanging there’ says Captain Bules Martin (Michael Hordern). ‘Mate’ duly obliges by hanging the picture on the Captain’s fingernail.

Two petty officials stalk the country in a rusty police car, supported by a hot air balloon, their officious characters played by the much missed Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. ‘Keep moving’ they solemnly intone through their megaphones to the poor, bedraggled populace, as if moving would do them any good. 

With such a low survival rate to the nuclear misunderstanding, it is perhaps hardly surprising that we encounter The Army, played with ingenious schizophrenic brio by Ronald Fraser, one side of his uniform a Field Marshal, the other a Sergeant, relentlessly barking orders at and between his two selves. 

Frank Thornton is an early face in the film, playing ‘The BBC’, an announcer in a tattered dinner suit (waist up only), delivering his news announcements personally by sitting behind an empty television set box, at the water’s edge. The scene is highly reminiscent of the opening scene to many Monty Python episodes, which were only a few years away in time.

For an artist who never forgot to acknowledge his debt to those who inspired him, like The Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, it’s sometimes a surprise that more writers in the absurdist tradition don’t always acknowledge their debt to Spike. Shows like ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ would have been unthinkable without the groundwork lay down by Spike. I would go so far as to say that the entire face of British Comedy would have been very different had this Irish/Indian nurtured genius never been born.

Encountering more unique and wildly outré characters along the way, our family, now with a very Mod boyfriend in tow (Richard Warwick) for Penelope to amuse herself with, finally find their way out of the decaying London Underground system, a situation that many of the tonight’s audience can clearly identify with. They find themselves on the shore of the polluted Thames, the daughter pursued by Captain Bules Martin, eager to carry on his family line with Rita Tushingham’s character as his unwitting bride for this other, down on his luck toff. The unfortunate Lord Fortnum has mutated into the Bed Sitting Room of the title, to his eternal shame. He was on his way to Belgravia at the time, in the hope of transforming into an elegant mansion. Wistful absurdity is cranked up well beyond the point of believability as Mona Washbourne, having already detected a Dali-esque wooden drawer in her chest, later morphs into a cupboard, blending in perfectly within the Bed Sitting Room. Arthur Lowe’s ‘Father’ is slowly mutating into a parrot, all within the confines of what appears to be a stage set for a Samuel Beckett play.

The later, hilarious marriage, post-pregnancy, of Captain Bules Martin to Penelope by an underwater Vicar (Jack Shepherd), brilliantly realised with the aid of an altar that more resembles a top-sliding cocktail cabinet, complete with cross and candlesticks inside, gave me another laugh-out-loud moment before the film’s climax. Mrs Ethel Shroake is hailed as Her Majesty the Queen, the two petty officials return, this time Dudley Moore has morphed into a particularly mangy border collie, but with Peter Cook manoeuvring himself into position as a possible future leader, appropriate for a man whose family were expecting him to enter high Civil Service office! We close on a hopeful note, with Penelope reunited with her mod boyfriend as a new spring is beginning to rise, grass and flowers poking through the wreckage and waste of the slagheap landscape.

This work of fiction/future shock drama is suffused throughout with the off-kilter humour of its principal writer, but never as just a device for mere amusement. Spike’s concern for the fate of the world, and his common humanitarianism shines through the characters and their words, right through to the new dawn at the close of the film, so often missing from the later apocalyptic films of the 1970’s and early 1980’s. It is this that made Spike such a uniquely fascinating and hugely likeable writer and person, but I’m digressing, and I think that will have to be the subject of a different article.

The screening was followed by a brief ‘Q&A’ with Richard Lester and Rita Tushingham, both of whom were sprightly and full of enthusiasm for the film they made over thirty years ago, It is very difficult to believe that so many years have passed, as they have left no mark whatever on the star’s instantly recognisable features, and the director’s attitude and enthusiasm still sparkle for what was basically a financially unsuccessful film. Richard patiently answered questions about his, sometimes unpredictable, career path, recalling how difficult it was to drum up support for subsequent projects after the Bed Sitting Room’s less than exciting showing at the box-office. The fact that the owners of the completed film ‘ummed and aahed’ until its final release, to little fanfare two years later, could not have helped its chances of recouping its modest cost. Richard recalled it was not until the mid-1970s that he had a box office success again, with ‘The Three Musketeers’ Our ‘Q&A’ was so unfortunately brief, that not ever your friend and writer could shoehorn a query in, but the packed audience, including several high profile Mods of my acquaintance, went away very happy, and I’m sure the film’s reputation will only grow with its new-found DVD release.

Once again, huge thanks to the Flipsiders for coming up trumps and finding this gem of a film, but more importantly, securing its DVD release.



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