What would life be like after a global apocalyptic event or would there be any life at all? It is certainly a topic that has inspired filmmakers to create an entire subgenre upon the premise. Some of the more famous and/or infamous efforts have usually focused on a handful of survivors like Arch Oboler’s low-budget message melodrama Five (1951), Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), the interracial menage-a-trois of The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) and Roger Corman’s similar three-character B-picture, The Last Woman on Earth (1960). Other variations have been more epic in scope and ambition with a distinct sci-fi/horror approach like the various film versions of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, The Road Warrior (1981) and other Mad Max sequels and clones as well as post-apocalyptic zombie flicks like World War Z (2013). Comedies about life-after-the-bomb, however, are a rarity but probably the weirdest and most deeply cynical of them all is The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), directed by Richard Lester.
In the late sixties, Lester was one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood. The freewheeling visual style, frenetic editing and youthful exuberance he brought to such films as A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the Beatles’ film debut, and The Knack (1965) seemed to capture the spirit of the swinging sixties. With the release of Petulia in 1968, he demonstrated an even wider range with a decidedly adult drama about an ill-fated romance between a doctor (George C. Scott) and a battered wife (Julie Christie). The film won unanimous rave reviews and United Artists gave him carte blanche to pick his next project. So what did he do for an encore? The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), a futuristic satire set in London in the aftermath of World War III.
It was based on a play by John Antrobus and Spike Milligan, a London-based comedy star and writer best known for his work on British television (The Goon Show). “We’ve got a bomb on our hands,” was one of the tag lines from the film’s promotional campaign, and they weren’t kidding. The film was a box-office disaster.
Apparently, nobody wanted to see a surreal farce about the last remaining survivors of a nuclear war and Stanley Kubrick had already spoofed the end of the world five years earlier with his brilliant black comedy, Dr. Strangelove (1964). Yes, the failure of The Bed-Sitting Room had more to do with bad timing than anything else, and today the movie remains a relevant if grimly amusing take on a post-nuclear holocaust society.
Filmed on location at a refuse dump in West Drayton, England, The Bed-Sitting Room is best viewed as “theatre of the absurd”; the unconventional narrative is little more than a series of bizarre and macabre sight gags and incidents revolving around a bomb-decimated civilization. To give you some idea of its strangeness, radiation poisoning causes several of the characters to mutate into something else in the course of the film: a housewife into a cupboard, a policeman into a sheepdog, a prime minister into a parrot, a member of Parliament into a bed-sitting room (hence the title).
Amid the radioactive ruins, however, these nuclear holocaust survivors go about their lives as if nothing has changed – a policeman still directs traffic even though there isn’t any, a television reporter picks through the debris, issuing news reports through hollow TV sets. Sometimes the black humor gives way to the horrific (the birth of a deformed baby), which was also the case with How I Won the War (1967), Lester’s acerbic anti-war satire. Even when the film goes too far, it’s consistently dazzling on a visual level.
Even more impressive is the cast; it’s a veritable who’s who of British cinema. Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham, Mona Washbourne, Michael Hordern and Roy Kinnear (as the Plastic Mac Man) all have memorable moments. You can also see Marty Feldman in his screen debut (he’s a male nurse in drag) and the comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as policemen.
The making of The Bed-Sitting Room was about as joyless as the film’s reception. According to Brian Doan’s excellent essay on the Bright Wall/Dark Room website, “The film ran over budget, and the last reel of the negative was accidentally destroyed (it had to be replaced by an internegative from the cutting copy, which led to a desaturation of color in the finale, damaging the bursting effect Lester and Watkin had hoped to achieve). Worst of all, Lester’s mother died of cancer during the shoot, and he couldn’t get away for the funeral…When [United Artists executive] Arnold Picker first saw it in a UA screening room, according to [Lester biographer Andrew] Yule, he cried out, “How much longer is this shit going on?”
Not even the renowned actors and comedians featured in The Bed-Sitting Room could convince moviegoers to see the movie and most critics were baffled by it. Pauline Kael’s comments reflected the genuine attitude at the time: “One laughs from time to time, but, as in so much modern English far-out satire, there’s no spirit, no rage, nothing left but ghastly, incessant sinking-island humor. We end up blank, and in need of something we can connect with, to restore perspective, because this perpetual giggle almost seems to require a bomb.”
Surprisingly, Richard Lester was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear prize at the 1969 Berlin International Film Festival and he won the festival’s C.I.D.A.L.C. Ghandi Award for his film. In recent years, The Bed-Sitting Room has been reappraised by some critics who believe the film was ahead of its time. Dave Kehr of The Chicago Reader called it “one of his [Lester’s] best efforts, a remarkably sharp and deadly satire.”
Nevertheless, The Bed-Sitting Room marked a turning point in Lester’s career. The film’s financial failure made him a Hollywood pariah – he couldn’t find work for almost four years. His comeback feature, The Three Musketeers (1973), however, was a box-office smash and re-established his reputation as a director. Since then, Lester has focused almost exclusively on highly commercial projects like Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983). He would never ever again attempt anything as offbeat or experimental as The Bed-Sitting Room (no movie studio would let him!). But, love it or hate it, it remains Lester’s most challenging film.
Long unavailable in any format in the U.S., The Bed-Sitting Room was released in a dual DVD/Blu-ray edition by KL Studio Classics in January 2016. Prior to that, a deluxe Blu-ray/DVD combo was released by BFI Flipside in the U.K. in September 2012 but U.S. viewers needed an all-region player to view it.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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