DIRECTED BY: Richard Lester
PLOT: After the Bomb falls, a family who lives on a still-functioning subway train travels to the
surface in search of a nurse for their pregnant daughter.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: 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.
COMMENTS: 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. 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” squad, 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. Looking like it was shot in a Welsh garbage dump, with heaping mountains of discarded boots and crockery and the police flying through the sky in a burnt-out VW bug attached to a balloon, the movie anticipates the junkyard visuals of post-apocalyptic films to follow. Tonally, however, Bed Sitting Room is miles away from the cutthroat scavenger worlds of Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog; it’s Theater of the Absurd performed by vaudevillians. 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 symbolic head of state; they patriotically sing “God save Mrs. Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytonstone,” in honor of the woman 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!”) 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. In the end it’s all more silly than satirical, but there is some affectionate lampooning of British propriety. In a 1988 interview Spike Milligan said his purpose in the play was to show that after the Bomb, “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.” That is a sentiment we suspect that Mrs. Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytonstone would fully endorse.
The Bed Sitting Room (and the work of Lester, Milligan and their cronies in general) was an obvious influence on Monty Python (whose television series debuted on the BBC the very same year). Unlike the Pythons, however, this cataclysmic farce was a big flop with audiences, and Lester did not work again for four years. Promoters acknowledged the film’s “specialized” appeal 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 is rarely screened and has never been released on DVD in Region 1, but at the time of this writing it is available on Netflix’s instant streaming service (which may be the wave of the future for obscure films).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“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
(This movie was nominated for review by “Sandra.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)