The Bed Sitting Room (1969)
“The Great Nuclear Misunderstanding Lasted 2 Minutes And 28 Seconds (including the peace treaty)”
The Bed Sitting Room (1969)
Director: Richard Lester
Cast: Rita Tushingham, Ralph Richardson, Peter Cook
Synopsis: Among the ruins of a London devastated by nuclear war, the survivors ineffectually cling to increasingly meaningless social structures.
Following a nuclear war lasting just two minutes and twenty-eight seconds (including the signing of the peace treaty), the population of Britain has been decimated, and the country is a blasted landscape (which looks suspiciously like a quarry) of grey rock littered with mountains of shoes and tea-cups and half-burnt dolls. An assortment of eccentric figures struggle to live as ordinary a life as possible while, above their heads, two police officers in a wrecked car suspended from a hot air balloon repeatedly beseech them to move on for their own safety. The survivors include a former BBC newsreader (Frank Thornton – Are You Being Served) in a tattered dinner jacket and grubby long johns who reads the news to individuals from behind the empty frame of a TV, a man in a female nurse’s outfit (big-screen debutant Marty Feldman – Young Frankenstein), a man too frightened to emerge from his fall-out shelter (Harry Secombe), a former doctor (Michael Hordern – Alexander the Great, I Was Monty’s Double), and Lord Fortnum (Ralph Richardson – Things to Come, The Four Feathers), a former politician who is starting to feel decidedly queer. Into this strange world stumble young Penelope (Rita Tushingham – Straight On Till Morning, The Wee Man) and her mother (Mona Washbourne – Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter) and father (Arthur Lowe – Kind Hearts and Coronets, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall), forced aboveground after living in a perpetually circling tube train powered by a man on a bicycle. Penelope is seventeen months pregnant, and her parents are growing a little worried. Meanwhile, Fortnum receives the shattering news that he is slowly transforming into a bed sitting room.
You have to wonder what it must have been like to see the world through the eyes of Spike Milligan. Everything about life was absurd to him, and while his skewed perspective paved the way for a unique form of surreal humour, it would sometimes cripple him psychologically in the form of prolonged bouts of severe depression. Perhaps part of that psychological miasma was a sense of despair over the pettiness of people, the compartmentalising of our lives, and our inability to change. Certainly, elements of all these perceived flaws can be found within the often surreal, sardonic humour of The Bed Sitting Room, and its attitude seems to be one of a deep-rooted despair towards its characters. Fortnum is mortified more by the fact that he is turning into, of all things, a common bed sitting room in an unfashionable area of London, than by the fact of his transformation; the police are incapable of deviating from their pre-designed roles in a world in which they are now worthless, the BBC mindlessly parrots the same piece of news over and over, and religion is archaic, ridiculous and irrelevant.
Milligan’s humour was always an acquired taste, and The Bed Sitting Room is typical of the anarchic route it would often take. Most won’t find it particularly funny, but it’s undeniably clever, and will provoke rewarding trains of thought for those willing to invest a little effort while watching. It certainly boasts a prestigious cast – and, surprisingly, a relatively old one considering the edgy, avant-garde nature of the material – all of whom handle difficult roles with an admirable level of confidence and commitment. The Bed Sitting Room might not be the most enjoyable or entertaining viewing experience, but it’s certainly one that stays with you.
(Reviewed 20th March 2016)