Cult Movies: Richard Lester's 1960s curio The Bed Sitting Room offers a quirky comedic vision of post-apocalyptic Britain
The Bed Sitting Room
DIRECTOR Dick Lester has been the lovingly eulogised subject of this column on several occasions down the years. As the Goons-connected helmsman of The Beatles' two fabtastic forays into mainstream cinema – A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965) – and the creator of one of the great 'swinging London' fables The Knack... and How To Get It (also 1965) he enjoyed critical acclaim and box office bounty in equal measure. His films were bright, breezy and wildly kinetic in a way that only films from that allegedly groovy decade were allowed to be.
Of course, he didn't always clock up winners in that Sixties purple patch. Take The Bed Sitting Room, for example. Made in 1968 but held back by a frankly baffled United Artists until it finally surfaced in early 1970, it was a full-blown disaster that stopped the director firmly in his tracks.
On paper, of course, it seemed to have it all. A post-nuclear apocalypse surrealist satire based on a successful 1963 play by Spike Milligan and John Antobus it starred a veritable who's-who of British comic acting talent, from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to Arthur Lowe and the great Milligan himself – but it bombed at the box office to such a degree that Lester didn't work again for a full five years after its release.
Set in the aftermath of nuclear devastation, brought on in a very British way by "a misunderstanding", it tells the tall tale of Mrs Ethel Shroake (Dandy Nichols) who is crowned the post-apocalypse Queen and oversees her devastated kingdom while the heavily pregnant Penelope (Rita Tushingham) and her parents emerge from their underground shelter to find her a husband.
Meanwhile Lord Fortnum (Sir Ralph Richardson) begins his steady transformation into a full-blown bed sitting room. Mrs Brown's Boys this is not, folks.
Watching it today, via the BFI's lovingly compiled Blu-ray, it's easy to see why this fun but flawed folly failed to convince the public to book a viewing. Whimsical, wafer-thin and laden down with schoolboyish humour and creaky old class stereotypes, it's all a bit bleak and downbeat for mainstream consumption. However, as a visually beautiful slice of post-apocalyptic film making and a gleaming snapshot of British comedy talent doing their thing in all their late 60's pomp and glory it's pretty hard to beat
From a purely filmic point of view, this is a vision of post-Bomb Britain that's right up there with Threads, which recalls more fondly thought of end-of-days epics like Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Weekend. Chilling sand-blasted barren landscapes are captured with filthy fascination throughout and many of the figures who stroll through this dirty, ravaged world (Frank Thornton's impoverished BBC announcer, Peter Cook's clueless Inspector) are memorable comic creations.
The knack for oddball surrealism that Lester could always lean back on is at full strength here and, while the laughs are limited, the vision is still startling. It's bleak but beautiful in it's own strange and surreal way.