The Bed Sitting Room DVD review

A 1960s cult comic curio of British eccentricity, we review The Bed Sitting Room on DVD...

The Bed Sitting Room

As the 1960s come to an end and the dawning of a new era lays ahead, a strange surreal vision of post-apocalyptic Britain hits the cinemas. Or rather, it doesn’t quite make it beyond the preview theatre. Nervous studio MGM, who invested in its production, were not so bewitched, but bewildered and bamboozled by their finished feature. Was it a social drama or a comedy? It seem to defy categorisation.

Based on a stage play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, The Bed Sitting Room was destined to be a curious adaptation to screen to say the least. Even today, it’s a baffling delight that owes as much to Samuel Beckett as it does to the comic talent that infuse every scene. 

Directed by Richard (Superman II) Lester, the man’s who hallmark of frantic comedy had worked wonders for the Beatles on their classic Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, it had the makings of similar anarchic humour and he had already worked with Milligan right back on The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film in 1960.

So how do I describe the plot? Well, we’re in post-apocalyptic Britain, where ‘the great nuclear misunderstanding’ lasted two minutes and 28 seconds (including signing the peace treaty), and an assortment of people are trying to make a living in the ruins of London. A small family group has been attempting to keep together on an old tube train but once they climb the escalator they are ejected into this muddy wilderness, where they wander aimlessly amongst the ruins of civilization. It doesn’t save dad from turning into a parrot, however, nor mum into a wardrobe, both housed in the titular room, which used to be Lord Fortnum (Richardson).

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The film is like the missing link between the anarchic realms of The Goons and the surreal world of Monty Python. A surreal satire that has individuals searching for a meaning to life in these urban swamps but also produces a situation that denies any. It gathers together the cream of British comedy actors such as Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Cooke, Dudley Moore, Marty Feldman, Arthur Lowe, and Roy Kinnear alongside distinguished stage actors such as Ralph Richardson and Michael Hordern, who, along with Kinnear and Rita Tushingham (The Knack), had worked with Lester before.

The story meanders through mountains of shoes or deserts of half-sunk cars without really cohering into a satisfactory whole, but the cast, remarkably, display a bewildering confidence in their performances, seemingly knowing what they think they are doing, even if they’re searching for a way to make sense of their muddy surroundings and navigate their course to a nice cup of tea or thirst-quenching pint. Considering it had first been performed on stage, it shares similar sensibilities to the works of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, especially Waiting For Godot, although exactly what this disparate band of survivors is waiting for remains ever elusive.

In many ways, it plays like a surreal satire with institutions finding their last vestiges in lone representatives – the NHS (Marty Feldman), BBC (Frank Thornton), the GPO (now Royal Mail) (Spike Milligan) and power companies in the form of a fast-pedalling cyclist. If he runs out of steam, so does the tube and everything else. As for British royalty, well, the Queen is dead, long live her charlady, Mrs Ethel Shroake of 393A High St, Leytonstone (Dandy Nichols, Till Death Do Us Part‘s ‘Silly Old Moo’) 

Equally, a brief scene with a pipe-smoking, gaberdeen mac-wearing Prime Minister gives a nod to Harold Wilson’s time in Number Ten, pinpointing the era in which the film is set, although it does not seem dated despite such references.

A pinch of social anarchy, reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson’s 1969 film If.., gives an added touch of satire. With the dome of St Paul’s poking up through the water, it also brings to mind the legendary apocalyptic tale made in 1968, Planet of the Apes, and the discovery of the Statue of Llberty in its final scene.

The Bed Sitting Room baffled audiences and critics alike on its release in 1969, and even on its 40th anniversary, it remains elusively engaging, but is deserving of its high-definition restoration. 

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The DVD also includes a trio of rare 1967 interviews with Lester, Milligan and Cook, all part of a proposed TV series which was never broadcast. Produced and presented by Bernard Braden, they offer engaging insights into unique individuals who have left a memorable legacy.

Additionally, there’s the ever-invaluable booklet of background notes, biogs, and reviews of the time. It’s the perfect title to launch the BFI’s new Flipside label, a cult comic curio of British eccentricity to curl up on the couch and watch. Just make sure you don’t turn into one.

3 stars

Rating:

3 out of 5