"There are no friends anymore."
In August 1967, filmmaker Richard Lester's chauffeur called at the home of playwright Joe Orton to collect him for a script conference about a Rolling Stones musical they were preparing for United Artists (a screenplay originally intended for the Beatles, but rejected by the band's management). But Orton was lying dead on the floor, bludgeoned to death by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell.
It's not quite clear how much Lester told UA about this setback, but suddenly he was making an entirely different film, an adaptation of Spike Milligan and John Antrobus's play The Bed Sitting Room, an absurdist black comedy which Philip K. Dick might have subtitled "Or How We Got Along After the Bomb."
Three, or is it four, years after the nuclear misunderstanding, the twenty people who are known to have survived the two and a half minute holocaust are going about their business amid the "bits of doric and ionic columns" that were how Lester imagined an exploded society: everybody carries on before, even if the social structures no longer exist to make sense of their lives. Individuals, long institutionalized, have become institutions: the BBC is a man in the top third of a dinner suit, traveling from door to door and putting his head inside empty TV sets to broadcast reruns of past events: "And that, I'm afraid, was the end of the news." A single man on a bicycle provides electricity for the entire nation, and the National Health Service is one nurse.
"Probably atomic mutation. There's a lot of it about."
Apart from the madness of a fragmented society carrying on as if nothing had happened, the play made Ionesco-like use of the comic (im)possibilities of mutation, by having a housewife transform into a cupboard, a policeman into a dog, and the prime minister into a parrot, who is then cooked an eaten by his family after he commits suicide by jumping off his perch. The PM's daughter, having carried a monster child for eighteen months, finally delivers it (a squalling, unseen monster), only for it to die. In the play, it too is eaten, but Lester and scenarist Charles Wood evidently drew the line at that.
Best of all, Lord Fortnum of Alamein transmogrifies into a full-blown bed-sitting room (all without the aid of special effects; as Joe Dante observes, "Radiation can do that.") As the only surviving domicile in the Greater London area he is then bickered over by various of the starving survivors, until a deus ex bedsit ending rings the curtain down on mankind's last act.
"Mustn't grumble too much."
To put this caustic and demented vision onscreen (motivated by a serious conviction that people were in real danger of forgetting the threat of atomic annihilation) Lester assembled a disparate and impressive cast of comic players. Credited in order of height. Crowning the thespian pyramid was Ralph Richardson as Lord Fortnum, an actor mad enough to completely invest all his Shakespearian gravitas in the ludicrous role. Lord Fortnum isn't afraid of losing his humanity as wallpaper replaces skin and gas meters jangle around his legs, he's simply mortified that this metamorphosis marks a come-down in social rank. "You can't have lords turning into things like that." Astonishingly, Richardson manages to wring tears from the spectacle of snobbery undone by uranium 235.
The best jokes all stem from this surreal clash of British good manners with brutal and tragic circumstances. In one bizarre interlude, the matronly Mona Washbourne is abducted by crazed Welsh survivalist Harry Secombe, who compels her to "do what my wife used to do." Mona tremulously agrees, "As long as you're quick." She then throws plates at him while he begs for mercy: "Mildred, you're worse than your mother!" What creates the truly bizarre and disturbing disconnect is that, while carrying out the actions of a bullying housewife, Washbourne somehow conveys the emotions of a woman undergoing sexual molestation. Secombe, while dodging plates and pleading, conveys arousal and climax. Horrible, funny, and deeply weird.
Lester complained afterwards that it was very hard to create comedic situations in a world where everything has been blown up. So he was helped enormously by designer Asshetton Gorton (Blow-Up) and the locations chosen, wretched pieces of polluted ruination discovered in the English countryside, such as a valley where shattered crockery from a plate factory had been dumped for decades. Yet the bleakness of the landscapes seeped into the film, stifling the script's manic wit. Through this desert of broken china crunch Marty Feldman, Rita Tushingham, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, a stellar array of talent in weird, tattered and mud-encrusted costumes. Some of the actors, like Jimmy Edwards, are nearly forgotten today, while others like Spike Milligan himself, or Arthur Lowe, have left indelible marks in British comedy, but all represent different traditions of UK comedy, from the Royal Court to the music hall, radio and television. And the comedy is swept away by a chill, poisonous wind.
"Wait a minute, that isn't God."
Not that this is particularly a problem, it's just the nature of the particular catastrophe Lester is documenting. More troublesome is that lack of firm structure, inherited from the shambling play. After the end of the world, there isn't a lot left to get excited about in narrative terms, and the use of the young lovers (Tushingham and Richard Warwick from If...) as a kind of point of emotional connection doesn't really work. While the rest of the cast go about resolutely ignoring the atomic elephant in the room, the youngsters are inconsistent in their awareness, they fracture the mood and the madness, not through any fault in their playing, but in their conception as characters/story points. The damaged spine means the film falters a bit before the end, but it lives on splendidly in the mind's eye. Perhaps it remains relevant to us, more so than Dr Strangelove in a way, because it has nostalgia built into it. Lester said he was looking back to an earlier time when people still worried about the bomb. Ken Thorne's elegiac score - a plangent trumpet mourning at the bedside of an expiring harmonium - crystallizes the sadness, and David Watkin's photography, desaturated by day and luridly filtered by night, holds it to the light. And now the film seems to preserve a desolate sense of ending, the end of the sixties and the end of an era of British film.
The Bed Sitting Room is at last available on DVD and BluRay from the BFI.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.