Directed by Richard Lester
Written by John Antrobus, Adapted by Charles Wood, based on the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus
Featuring (in order of height) Rita Tushingham, Dudley Moore, Harry Secombe, Arthur Lowe, Roy Kinnear, Spick Milligan, Ronald Fraser, Jimmy Edwards, Michael Hordern, Peter Cook, Ralph Richardson
If listing cast members by order of height seems rather absurd, welcome to The Bed Sitting Room. That’s how the film opens and it just gets stranger from there. It’s possibly the oddest post apocalyptic tale ever filmed, short of Six String Samurai, though not as much fun.
After the credits roll, the film opens on a BBC anchorman (Thornton), dressed in a suit from mid-chest up, (Thornton) knocking at a makeshift door in the middle of a field of mud. Invited in by the inhabitant, the anchorman squats behind a hollowed out television and announces the third (or fourth) anniversary of World War Three, the shortest war in history.
In a flashback, we see the onset of the bombing, as the British Prime Minister has negotiated a rental agreement with Mao Zedong for 10 Downing Street. Expecting this action will reduce the threat of a nuclear attack (much like the marriage of royal children back in the Middle Ages), the PM is proven wrong once the bombs start dropping.
Now the few survivors must deal with starvation and strange mutations. Lord Fornum (Richardson) believes he is turning into a bed sitting room, but the doctor, Captain Martin (Hordern), can only advise him how much rent to charge once he changes.
Meanwhile, a family rides a circular loop on the underground transit system, foraging food from vending machines. Father (Lowe) soon discovers his 17-month pregnant daughter Penelope (Tushingham) is sleeping with Alan (Warwick), who occupies one of the rear cars. Out of provisions, the family exits the rail tunnels with Alan in tow, only to be followed by Nurse Arthur (Marty Feldman’s first movie role), who delivers a death certificate to Mother (Washbourne) before kidnapping Penelope in order to deliver her mutant child.
Meanwhile, a duo of police officers (Moore and Cook) patrol the area in a car body attached to a hot air balloon, prompting the survivors to keep moving lest they be targeted in another attack. Lord Fornum turns into a bed sitting room and is promptly occupied by Martin, who is also promised Penelope’s hand in marriage, as Father sees him as a man with a bright future. Mother turns into a chest of drawers and, well, I’m not going any further with this summery, because it just won’t make sense.
And the plot isn’t suppose to make a lick of sense, merely act as a vehicle for the absurdist humor of Spike Milligan. Milligan was the driving force and creator behind The Goon Show, a BBC 1951 radio show focusing on absurd humor. With costars Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe (Michael Bentine was with the show from 1951 to ‘53), the show ran until 1960 and influenced Monty Python, The Beatles and The Firesign Theatre, among others.
Director Lester was another early collaborator with members of The Goon Show. He worked with Sellers to translate the radio show into a television series (The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d) and worked on a short film, The Running Jumping & Stand Still Film, with Milligan and Sellers. This film caught the attention of The Beatles and secured Lester the job of directing A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, where his innovative work earned him the title of “Father of the Music Video” from MTV. He continued making surrealistic films (The Knack …and How to Get It, How I Won the War) before delving into more action oriented features (the Musketeer films, Superman 2 and 3) after The Bed Sitting Room.
The humor in the film (based on a 1963 play co-written by Antrobus, who worked with Milligan on a few Goon Show scripts) comes from the survivors trying to reinstall their former lifestyle into their desolate surroundings. People live in the exposed mud fields, yet prop up doors for visitors to enter. One survivor generates electricity (via a bicycle attached to a generator) that no one is able to use, while the police continue to function only by spreading fear of an impending secondary strike.
The cast is fine, and Lester’s direction conveys the sense of futility in the survivor’s attempts to live a normal, prewar life during the film’s early scenes. Yet by expanding the play into a screenplay, the narrative ends up bouncing about from one group of survivors to the other, delivering a series of scenes strung together rather than a cohesive film. Several slapstick moments (Alan’s tightrope act on an electrical tower, for one) feel forced, and the character of Nurse Arthur seems out of place, despite a fine performance by Feldman. Had the story been set in a more finite locale, as imposed by a stage production, the absurdist humor might have worked better.
Another problem arises as the film glosses over some of the real problems facing the survivors. Starvation is brought up, and becomes a key element in one scene, yet the film shows too much vegetation to leave the question of why no one is farming unanswered. This criticism might seem rather petty, as the filmmakers were likely using the forests and fields for mood and setting, rather than implying the possibility of an agricultural source of salvation. Yet, had the film centered on the vast fields of mud the film opens on, it would have been enough of an explanation. Yet even in an absurd comedy, why no one is willing to pick up a hoe needs an explanation.
The release is part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection and, as a MOD (Made on Demand) DVD, might not play on recording devices or PC drives (as before, it played on my Mac; however, my computer doesn’t have a DVD burner, which could play a factor in viewing this DVD on a computer). The picture quality is fine, though the colors look a bit washed out. However, the blandness was possibly a directorial decision by Lester rather than a flaw in the transfer or the source material. The sound quality is good, though some viewers might find the British accents and slang hard to follow at times. And the DVD comes with a theatrical trailer as its only special feature.
Though it works at times, expanding The Bed Sitting Room into a feature film seems to have drained the script of most of its humor. Though I’ve never seen the play, I suspect had the script tried to incorporate the limits of a stage performance into the film, the results might have been much better.