“Nobody ever got the point about what it was about. What we were trying to say through all this laughter and fun, was that if they dropped the bomb on a major civilisation, the moment the cloud had dispersed and sufficient people had died, the survivors would set up all over again and have Barclays Bank, Barclay cards, garages, hates, cinemas and all…just go right back to square one. I think man has no option but to continue his own stupidity.”–Spike Milligan
DIRECTED BY: Richard Lester
FEATURING: Rita Tushingham, Michael Hordern, Ralph Richardson, Richard Warwick, Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne, Marty Feldman, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook
PLOT: After a nuclear bomb is dropped on Britain, about twenty survivors prowl the wreckage, including 17-months pregnant Penelope and her parents and lover, who live on a still-functioning subway car. Aboveground, Lord Fortnum seeks the opinion of a doctor, who confirms his suspicions that nuclear mutation will soon turn him into a bed sitting room. When the chocolates taken from vending machines run out, the family makes its way to the surface, where Penelope finds herself engaged to the doctor, the mother turns into a wardrobe, and the entire family moves into Lord Fortnum.
- The Bed Sitting Room began its life as a one-act play, written by comedian Spike Milligan and John Antrobus in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Promoters acknowledged the film’s limited commercial prospects by issuing a poster with the tagline “we’ve got a BOMB* on our hands” and the footnote (“*BOMB – a motion picture so brilliantly funny it goes over most people’s heads”).
- The film bombed so hard, in fact, that director Richard Lester could not find work for four years afterwards, and when he returned to movies he toned down the absurdism of his early films and worked in a mainstream idiom, returning with the action-comedy The Three Musketeers (1973) and going on to direct blockbusters like Superman II (1980).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The BBC, tidy tuxedo on top his top half, sackcloth on the bottom, squatting in an empty television frame on a blasted salt flat to deliver exposition.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: BBC post-bomb broadcasts; dad’s a parrot and mom’s a wardrobe; a doctor living inside his patient
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Twenty very British survivors of the apocalypse go about their business amidst the rubble, despite mutations that gradually change them into furniture or bargain housing. This absurd anxiety nightmare about the Bomb could only have come out of the Swinging Sixties; it’s one of the weirder relics of an era when filmmakers felt it was their patriotic duty to laugh in the face of the imminent apocalypse.
“Trailers from Hell” annotated original trailer for The Bed Sitting Room
COMMENTS: The original play “The Bed Sitting Room” was written by comedian Spike Milligan and John Antrobus in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that time, at the height of Cold War paranoia, nuked-up powers were playing games of chicken with each other, and worldwide nuclear annihilation seemed inevitable. In the average person’s eyes the world and its leaders had gone insane, and who better to depict the inevitable aftermath of our self-destructive impulses than Milligan and his “Goon Show” cronies, under the cheerfully absurd direction of A Hard Days Night‘s Richard Lester? The results are a ridiculous apocalypse the likes of which has never been depicted on screen before.
Tonally, The Bed Sitting Room is eons away from the bleak, cutthroat scavenger worlds of Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog; it’s Theater of the Absurd performed by vaudevillians. There’s (almost literally) a gag a minute, and although many wind up as duds, enough get through to ignite your sense of black humor. The jokes are almost feather-light, contrasting with the inherent horror of the situation. “I’m not eating,” complains a patient. When the doctor asks why, he answers matter-of-factly, “can’t get the stuff.” In another scene a lonely recluse asks “would you do for me what my first wife did?” to a nervous middle aged woman who’s fallen into his fallout shelter. Having no choice, she reluctantly agrees, and he hands her pots, pans and teacups to throw at him as he dodges them shouting “she means nothing to me!” The movie is full of corny one-liners that are uncomfortably ludicrous coming from refugees of a collapsed civilization; other aspects of post-nuke England are even weirder. Radiation causes some survivors to spontaneously mutate into cupboards, parrots or (of course) bed sitting rooms. The holocaust even caused bug-eyed comic Marty Feldman to dress in nurse drag.
Sometimes it seems like the only thing that survived the “nuclear misunderstanding” intact were civil servants and the British class structure. A man on a bicycle generates the electricity that keeps the Underground running, officials roam the wasteland personally delivering death certificates to survivors, and the BBC keeps broadcasting by sending a correspondent around to give live reports from inside of the empty shells of television sets. The Queen may have burnt up into an irradiated husk and blown away, but the survivors have switched allegiances to a new head of state; they patriotically sing “God save Mrs. Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytonstone,” in honor of the charwoman who’s next in line for the throne after 40 million citizens were incinerated. A father still prefers to marry his daughter to a man of breeding, rather than the father of her child; maybe he can get a political appointment out of the connection… Even after Armageddon, the British keep plugging on as they always have. After the bomb drops Australians might grow mohawks and go racing about the Outback in muscle cars fighting over oil and water, but in the United Kingdom, there are proper channels to be followed; you may be starving for food and supplies but you’ll still think twice about breaking into a locked room (“that’s public property!”) It’s the broken British system that led the survivors into this devastation, yet they persist in their fallacious loyalty out of habit and duty. The survivors lack the imagination to create a new world, so, like the mall-walking zombies of Dawn of the Dead, they simply go about their business as they always have in a world that makes even less sense than it did before.
The art direction helps to sell this dismally absurd vision of the world to come. To conjure its grungy, blasted future, The Bed Sitting Room was actually shot in a garbage dump, with amazing found locations like heaping mountains of discarded boots and crockery. Everything is either covered in chalky dust or drowned in mud, and the landscape is littered with rusted-out husks of old automobiles. Green and orange filters are used to give the sunset that unhealthy, unnatural nuclear glow. The police fly through the sky in a burnt-out VW bug attached to a balloon. The local cathedral is three-quarters buried underwater, so the prelate wears a snorkel as he perform his duties. And of course, there’s the triumphal post-war arch built out of discarded washing machines. Although the milieu is whimsical, the junkyard-in-a-desert ambiance was doubtlessly influential on the more “serious” post-apocalypse films that followed.
An incredible cast of the stiffest upper lips available at the time should have, but didn’t, sell this comedy to the masses. Of the twenty known survivors of the “nuclear misunderstanding,” we get to meet just about every one, up to and including a cameo from no less a personage as Mrs. Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytonstone. To the extent that there is a main character, the scattered story centers around Lester favorite Rita Tushingham, whose pregnancy becomes the closest thing to a plot point in the film. Michael Hordern, who decides to court the eligible bachelorette later in the picture, occupies perhaps the second most significant role. Bedazzled‘s Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are the flying cops, making sure the surviving populace keeps constantly moving to increase their chances of surviving Spike Milligan runs around the set delivering cream pies to the face. Sir Ralph Richardson, of course, plays the title character with all the pomp and misplaced dignity we would hope for from a bargain apartment. You may notice other British comic character actors scavenging a living among the rubble. Even Mao Zedong, who survived the bomb that fell during the signing of the peace treaty at 10 Downing Street, shows up in the background every now and then.
The Bed Sitting Room‘s satire may have been too bitter and anxious for a world growing increasingly weary of that darn threat of nuclear annihilation, and its surreal brand of comedy was just slightly ahead of its time. Like the mutated baby of Spike Milligan, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” would debut on the BBC the same year that Bed Sitting Room was released. “Python” was a hit, but its spiritual forefather was a resounding flop. The Pythons may have been more palatable because their brand of silliness was apolitical, allowing Brits to laugh at their foibles without undue acrimony, while the tone of The Bed Sitting Room was almost accusatory: this is what the world is becoming, it says, and your reverence for England’s faded glory only perpetuates the madness. Even after the bomb drops, Brits will continue their obsession with arbitrary social status, preserving the ancient titles of nobility and arranging upwardly mobile marriages as if Buckingham Palace was still standing. The jokes hit too close to home for British audiences, and not close enough for Americans. Lester slunk off into exile for a few years and returned chastened, never to try his hand at weird comedy again. Poor Mrs. Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytonstone, never got the respect she deserved; she died, presumably, forgotten and unnoticed, without even an Elton John ballad to mourn her passing,
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The absurdist chaos becomes numbing; this perpetual giggle almost seems to require a bomb.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker
“…the black-as-coal, surrealistic comedy of The Bed-Sitting Room effectively did its job of commenting sardonically on the chilling after-effects of nuclear holocaust…but at the price of thoroughly depressing its meager audience. I would guess that if that summation was put forth to Antrobus and particularly Milligan, they might have agreed that such an audience reaction was just what they were looking for: a Beckett-like surrealism that challenges an audience out of their complacent outlook.”–Paul Mavis, DVD Talk (DVD)
“A field day for funny collection of Brits. Weird picture originated in a well-known weird place, the mind of ‘Goon Show’ alumnus Spike Milligan… the players manage to keep the laughs flying thick and fast.”–TV Guide
IMDB LINK: The Bed Sitting Room (1969)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Bed Sitting Room (1969) – Turner Classic Movies’ Bed Sitting Room page links two movie clips, the trailer, and an essay by Jeff Stafford
LIST CANDIDATE: THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969) – This site’s initial review of the film
DVD INFO: After bombing in theaters in both Britain and the U.S., The Bed Sitting Room was never officially released on Region 1 DVD, although MGM did release it on DVD-R in 2012 (buy). That release should be skipped unless you simply don’t have a Blu-ray player, because in 2016 Kino Lorber issued the film on Blu-ray (buy), looking wonderful (and every bit as dusty as it should be). There are no meaningful extras, just trailers for Bed Sitting Room (one with commentary from “Trailers from Hell”‘s John Landis and one unedited) and other 1960s Richard Lester films.
Brits and fans with multi-region players may want instead to look for BFI’s “Flipside” edition, which includes 1967 interviews with Lester, Spike Milligan, and Peter Cook, along with an informative booklet. (The interviews obviously pre-date Bed Sitting Room). The BFI offering can be found on DVD (buy), Blu-ray (buy) or both (buy).
(This movie was originally nominated for review by “Sandra.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
4 thoughts on “230. THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)”
Here are the comments from the original Bed Sitting Room List Candidate review, cut and pasted here to facilitate discussion:
from The Awful Doctor Orloff
August 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm
Oh, I think this one has to be on the list! Firstly, it takes the exact opposite approach to the usual “Lord of the Flies” trope, and shows polite. middle-class British people whose primary reaction to a devastating nuclear holocaust is embarrassment – at one point nuclear war is referred to as “the naughty thing” as if it was masturbation or something! The only comparable film I can think of is Delicatessen, which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have existed without this.
But more significantly, it’s a sincere attempt by a gifted director to film a work by somebody who was a personal friend of his, but which simply wasn’t truly filmable. You can see where the problem lies by reading the paperback of the stage-play (which is still easily obtainable because absolutely everything Spike Milligan ever wrote is). It’s about as funny as a sick baby (and does in fact geature a sick baby), Yet it ran for years. How so? Because Spike Milligan, a superb clown but a very poor conventional actor, wrote it as a framework around which he could improvise.
Which works just fine in a fairly small theatre, but not so well if you’re trying to make a movie. However, Spike’s character in the stage-play (Captain Pontius Kak), despite being the main character, was oddly incidental to the plot, because if Spike was going to change his lines every night but everyone else wasn’t, he had to be. So, given Spike’s proven inability to carry a starring role in a film, Richard Lester was able to reduce his part to a series of almost wordless cameos while retaining the central story.
The trouble is, what he ended up with was a film which, because it was written by and around one man who was barely in it, is extremely episodic and lacks a real center – almost exactly the same thing happened to “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” (another potential LIst candidate, by the way), which should have starred Vivian Stanshall, only he was such a severe alcoholic that he couldn’t be trusted to make a major contribution to the movie.
Also, just about every scene in this movie, with the exception of some early scenes in the London Underground and a handful of others, looks suspiciously like a stage-play being performed for some unexplained reason in a quarry. Which is exactly what it was.
That being said, Richard Lester is no slouch when it comes to directing, even if his material is somewhat odd. And the cast is practically a Who’s Who of British 1970s comedy and character actors. The utter strangeness never lets up – in my opinion, one of the best jokes has to be Lord Fortnum, having learned that atomic radiation has doomed him to turn into a bedsitting room, stumbling around an utterly featureless wasteland in a desperate attempt to find a suitably upper-class district of what used to be London.
The peculiar shift of tone at the very end, as if Spike wrote the whole thing on autopilot and then caught on at the last minute that actually thermonuclear war wasn’t funny, would be very jarring if Richard Lester wasn’t smart enough to downplay it so much that you barely notice it, but all the same, this is one of the most oddly-structured movies ever. It’s interesting to note that the one time Spike Milligan was ever given complete artistic control over a movie, the result was “The Great MacGonagall”, an utter failure which was basically a poorly-filmed semi-improvised stage play with a jarring shift of tone at the end – exactly what this film would have been if Richard Lester hadn’t known what he was doing. (And since it’s an incredibly strange film featuring a scene where Peter Sellers in drag as Queen Victoria shows a soft-core porn slide-show and is married to Hitler, maybe it should be on the LIst as well, if only because of the “why did this ever get made?” factor.)
So ultimately this is an ambitious failure with a great deal of quirky charm which isn’t quite like any other film you’ll ever see. Definitely it belongs on the List! By the way, in Region 2, it was recent;y re-released in a digitally cleaned-up version, and I think you can now get it in stunning Blu-Ray. Altogether now: “God save Mrs. Ethel Shroake…”
from Steve Mobia
August 14, 2014 at 1:00 am
This film has some of the most beautiful apocalyptic imagery ever lensed. Intensely imaginative in every way. And, oh, of course very weird. I’d say any film that posits people who stop moving will turn into furniture deserves to be on the list.
October 31, 2015 at 7:44 am
I was mesmerized by this film when I stumbled across it on public television decades ago. It was beautiful and hilarious and supremely strange.
I would think its inclusion on the list of official weird was inevitable.
The BBC just broadcast that Penelope was actually 18 months…you know…along the way. Not 17. Good god man! You’re confusing people.
PS. I never imagined that one day I’d be disputing the fact that somebody was 18 not 17 months pregnant. 🤩
PPS. This reply took me 2 minutes and 28 seconds to write.
I admit I fibbed, because 18 months pregnant would have sounded just too unbelievable.