Films are often buried by critics and distributors for being too ‘absurd’ or ‘offensive’, but more often than not they have simply predated their audience by a few generations and need to be cryogenically frozen until their message is able to resonate with the human psyche. Sometimes these films are forgotten – or worse, picked up by stoned students and left to languish for eternity in pretentious ‘cult’ purgatory – but occasionally an unassuming group of cineastes will find just such a celluloid treasure while trawling through the trash heaps of cinema, and hoist it up on their shoulders for all to see. Fortunately for all of us, The Flipside have dedicated their time to finding these buried jewels and, with a helping hand from the BFI Southbank, screening them for the audiences they were made for all those years ago.
The Bed Sitting Room (1969) is Richard Lester’s absurdist take on a play by the oft-forgotten and chronically underrated kingpin of surreal comedy, Spike Milligan. It is almost a shame that Monty Python’s Flying Circus arrived in the same year and changed the landscape of filmic comedy forever; because this film easily matches, and in many ways exceeds, the complicated weaving of irony and honesty, subtlety and outrageousness, brutal realism and absurdity, that made Python such a global phenomenon.
The film follows a rag-tag bunch of survivors on the third or fourth (nobody really knows) anniversary of the Third World War, which lasted 2 minutes and 28 seconds, including the signing of the peace treaty. Britain is a smouldering ruin, mountains of debris rise from a scarred and barren landscape, and rivers of lava trickle in muddy streams and necessitate the wearing of Wellington boots. Various British institutions are represented by individuals, and thereby shown to be as blithering, inactive, and unreliable as we now know them to be: the national grid is powered by a filthy but determined man on a bicycle; National Health Service is a maniacal, towering man in a nurse’s uniform who is clearly overwhelmed by the nuclear fallout; the police force, played by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, is unable to help anybody or do anything more constructive than floating around in a balloon and ordering people to “move on” so that they cannot be targeted in the “unlikely” event of retaliation; and the Monarchy is represented by Mrs. Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytenstone (a maid at the palace who was deemed to be next in line to the throne on the basis of her proximity to royalty).
In the midst of this chaos we meet Penelope and her family who live on a circle line train which still inexplicably moves round the circuit. Penelope is 17 months pregnant with Alan’s child (Alan lives a few carriages down). We also meet Capt. Bules Martin – a medical practitioner who carries a ‘Defeat of England’ medal after his failure to protect the palace during the war – and Lord Fortnum – a displaced aristocrat with an unshakeable fear that he is turning into a bed sitting room. When Fortnum does finally transform into a bed sitting room, he seems resigned to his fate and asks only that no “coloured people or children” be allowed to take up residence. Penelope’s mother, having turned into a cupboard, is used to decorate the bed sitting room, and the rest of the characters eventually take up residence there. Penelope is married off to Martin due to his more promising future, and her father is chosen as the next Prime Minister due to his prodigious inside leg measurements.
I could go on and on explaining the rambling tapestry of visual and satirical humour that clutters this film like the piles of crockery and rubber boots maligning the landscape. The film was evidently too weird for the late 60s, and in a generation where major studios were financing Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on their drug-induced escapades across America, this film was still considered too odd and risky for general release. But it is a film that now needs to be projected on the walls of Whitehall and spread across the internet like wildfire. It has so much to say to our generation: impotent national institutions that have no weight or value in our day to day lives; the chaos and confusion that comes with every conflict we are apparently involved in (did we win? Are we still fighting? How did it start? How long did it last?); the laughable consequences of the British ‘stiff-upper-lip’ that prevents us from dealing with all the elephants that crowd our national psyche.
The screening was followed by a Q&A with director Richard Lester, and he proved to be as affable, demure, and sincerely funny as his reputation and filmography suggest. He will forever be remembered for his work with The Beatles, but I hope more people from our generation will come to love and spread the word of this extraordinary and unusual masterpiece.
The BFI Southbank can be a difficult place for a real film lover to visit in the summer months (especially with the opening of the new riverside bar, which leaves the place looking more like a giant Benugo bar with a few screen crammed awkwardly in the middle somewhere near the toilets), but I hope that a few of you will consider The Flipside’s next series of forgotten gems there in June.