by Brian Doan
In my own life, my hand gets caught in my sleeve in most of my dramatic exits.
“It was a depressing film to work on. It was painful. And that comes over,” Richard Lester admitted to interviewer Steven Soderbergh, as they looked back at his 1969 post-apocalyptic comedy The Bed-Sitting Room in their book-length dialogue Getting Away With It. He's not kidding. Almost Swiftian in its cruel (and funny) reversals of logic, and shot by cinematographer David Watkin in a high-key lighting style that makes the waste of the landscapes shimmer and vibrate with rage, The Bed-Sitting Room is a 90-minute endurance test, at times so nauseating and upsetting that it could make even Brecht reconsider alienation. I first watched the film nine months ago, in the midst of a big Lester binge after being dazzled by his Petulia, and there were times when I had to ask myself if I wanted to eject the disc and smash it, like the broken dishware that piles up amidst Room’s post-nuclear mise-en-scene. And yet I couldn't take my eyes off it.
Despite the sensual grotesquerie of the movie’s imagery, there would be moments (the London underground sequences, the canted angles of Dudley Moore in a hot-air balloon) when the inventiveness or beautiful play of light in Lester and Watkin’s framings would bring me up short, and compel me to see what came next. The jokes in some of the sketches went on so long that they traveled from funny, to gross, to a kind of sublime offensiveness that was both revolting and riveting. The acting had exquisite tonal control, yet was sometimes drawn out in such a way as to make it feel like we’d stumbled on a rehearsal, or a documentary about the making of the movie; Lester has spoken in interviews about his preference to work quickly and not worry about mistakes, and deploying a style reliant on the accidental makes a film telling jokes about a nuclear war even more vivid. For days after, the everyday world felt transformed—I’d walk through the house or across our small college town and everything quivered, like the architecture was going to talk to me in the same posh, sad Ralph Richardson voice as the titular building. I wasn’t sure if I liked the film, but I certainly found myself thinking on it. It compelled, it obsessed, and like any good science fiction satire, it alienated in multiple ways.
Lester had directed one quasi-science-fiction film before, the gently satiric “first man in space” comedy The Mouse on the Moon (1963), and he would go on to shoot two Superman movies in the early 1980s. But it’s possible to read all of Lester's '60s films as “science fiction” of a sort, offering a blazingly modern style and image of the youth culture that seems to perpetually predict the future: from the rush of the Beatles films Help! (1965) and A Hard Day’s Night (1964), to the paradoxically ambivalent/ebullient youth of The Knack (1965) (its famous scene of Michael Crawford, Donal Donnelly and Rita Tushingham pushing and riding a cast-iron bed—the “Edwardian trampoline!”--through London as futuristically surreal a series of images as appeared in any Mod picture), to the more dystopian imagery of How I Won the War (1967) and Petulia (1968), cinematic hang-overs to the swinging party.
The Bed-Sitting Room takes the anxiety underlying so many of these playful dreamscapes to its logical end (Arnold Picker, head of distributor UA despised the film and barely gave it a release; Lester would not make another movie for four years). The film explores London a few years after a nuclear war (lasting 2 minutes, 28 seconds) has blown out the world, and left only 20 surviving citizens in England. Amidst other apocalyptically-minded movies of the period, Lester's film remains the strangest and the most haunting. His choice to open up his old Goon Show collaborator Spike Milligan's 1962 play (staged without props or scenery) by shooting outdoors and overloading the mise-en-scene with bric-a-brac was greeted by Milligan with derision, but the endless piles of shattered dishes, empty refrigerators, unspooled film reels, torn posters, and other detritus of consumerism gives the movie a literal and symbolic heft. A housewife and mother mutates into a wardrobe, and a former Parliament Lord into a low-rent bed-sitting room; their slow transformation allows us to see her drawer appear in the middle of her stomach, and to hear his voice emanate from decaying flowered wall-paper. Lester’s insistence on the textured materiality of the process is what gives it all a curdling kick (and contrasts with the shockingly quick transmogrification of the father to a roasted parrot).
The revue-style comedy also deranges. According to Soderbergh’s book, Lester was concerned that “Because it was all so illogically rooted, one was very worried about what’s forcing the audience to want to know what’s coming next. Where is the spine? There’s no clock in this film.” Like much of the critical commentary on the film, this is a statement that’s both true and far more open to a positive reading than its speaker might have imagined. As writer Neil Sinyard notes of The Bed-Sitting Room in his book-length study of the director, “Nothing much happens…We are required to bring our own cross-references to the film…It makes for a somewhat skeletal texture.” That’s a mournful observation that is entirely correct, but nearly 30 years after Sinyard wrote it (and 47 years since the film’s release), it now feels less like a problem, and more like an enticement.
A wind blows on the soundtrack, accompanied by an accordion, as the fade-in from black reveals a small yellow circle covered by an orange-red cloud, both enclosed within a blue circle dotted with lens flare; the camera slowly zooms in, as the blue circle disappears and reappears the closer we get to that off-yellow center, like we’re God bending over to glimpse an unknown planet; a high Bach trumpet appears on the soundtrack. The circular imagery fades as a thickly-textured lava, crashing over brown chocolate rock like some parody of Modernist sea imagery, is super-imposed on the Kubrickian circles. The flames and smoke from the lava are matched by a cut to an eerie close-up of a doll’s face half on fire, as it lies in the blue ash of all the burning: her remaining eye, half-lidded, registers as a deadpan response to her predicament.
The camera half-moon pans overhead a red lava that resembles a spread of spilled jam. There’s a cut to a blue, flowing river, with snow in the foreground and dead black trees cutting in a horizontal from the lower middle right to the upper middle left of the screen; ripped barbed wire seems to be entwined between the trunks. A deeper river—burying trees to the upper branches, and statues to their waists--is seen in the next shot, making a shadowy blue that’s met at the top edge of the screen by a pink landscape. It’s an ironic anti-pastoral, shrewdly counterpointed by Ken Thorne’s melodic score, which wouldn’t be out of place in a straight nature documentary.
It’s almost a relief when the next set of shots moves toward the technological--an off-center electrical tower, unspooled plastic film reels, their strips undulating in the breeze like dead octopus arms. We glimpse our first humanoid figure, a man in a helmet and mask, his shoulder pads holding up a plethora of attached scooter mirrors in a parody of Mod excess; he wears a sign with three wooden pieces, all of which read “Morris.”
The rounded tower of St. Paul’s Cathedral lies submerged two shots later, and is followed by the interior of the London Underground, a brilliant juxtaposition of modern/ancient and sacred/commercial. Lit by the overhead bulbs of station platform, it feels right that it is in this more modern space that The Bed-Sitting Room’s credits unfold: away from nature, away from religion, away even from other people, and firmly pulsing beneath it all, like the slow-but-determined train that will soon come out of the tunnel to take over the screen (the cast is listed by height). The doors of the subway train open, but no one gets on or off, as Thorne’s score swells, and the diagonal cut of the train halts in a surreally beautiful freeze-frame next to the platform’s floating trash.
I wanted to give some sense of the film’s first two minutes because of the intense thickness of the imagery, and also because its eerie lyricism contrasts sharply with the short sketches that immediately begin to follow. A man in a half-destroyed tuxedo speaks the “news” with a perfect posh accent while squatting behind a destroyed, screen-less television (when his voice fades, the viewer gets up and tweaks his nose like it’s a dial). A family living on a tube train slowly falls apart even as they attempt to maintain everyday rituals like suppertime and evening constitutionals (and even as their pregnant daughter falls in love with a man-child who suddenly appears in her sleeping bag). The remaining “government” floats above the debris in a hot-air balloon, barking orders to the remaining “utilities” (the “power company” being one man on a bike, for instance). An archivist hides in a tube-station storage space, viciously protecting the left-behind luggage and worthless film stock he’s sure still holds valuable secrets. A demented priest officiates a wedding whose couple breaks up just hours later. Mrs. Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytonstone, is the closest in line to the throne, and sits in military regalia on a horse, as a chorus half-heartedly sings a revised version of “God Save the Queen” in her honor.
This might all seem silly compared to the "to-the-barricades!" symbolism of Lester's contemporaries, but it has aged far better than more straightforward political visions of the period, and gathers a slow-building, hypnotic queasiness via repetition and the precise and committed skills of Lester’s cast (Tushingham, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Michael Horden, an eerie Ralph Richardson). The effect, by the end, is devastating: taking Watkins one step further by inverting his self-serious tone, we've felt the apocalypse via Lester's style, rather than just looking at or hearing about it.
It was a form with which Lester had a long history, and whose satiric edge played a large role in the culture within which he developed as an artist.
After an early apprenticeship as a stagehand and assistant director, Lester made his breakthrough as the director of live variety and sketch comedy shows on English television; their playfulness caught the eye of Peter Sellers, and brought Lester into The Goon Show, Sellers’ satiric collaboration with Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine and writer John Antrobus (co-writer with Milligan of the original Bed-Sitting play), which was moving from radio to TV. Lester’s work on the program lead to his direction of the Milligan/Sellers short The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959), a slapstick parody of “day in the country” narratives that indicated both Lester’s idolization of silent comics like Buster Keaton, and his expatriate’s eye for deconstructing national myths. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, and brought him to the attention of producer Walter Shenson, who hired him to make The Mouse on the Moon, and subsequently A Hard Day’s Night (the apocryphal story is that the Beatles were given a list of directors, and said, “Get the Goon fellow!”).
In his key history of Swinging London, Ready, Steady, Go!, Shawn Levy notes that this era was energized by a desire to overturn cultural shibboleths: “Satire,” Levy writes, “a brand of hipster comedy initially practiced by Americans like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl but alchemized into a vital, all-encompassing movement by young Brits, was all the rage.”
Along with The Goons, there was “Beyond The Fringe,” a revue show that brought international fame to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. That duo would go on to make Bedazzled (1967) and the seminal English cult television show, Not Only…But Also, which debuted in 1965 and whose sketch comedy took sharp aim at everything from pop stars to Prime Ministers. In 1969, four months after The Bed-Sitting Room premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, Monty Python’s Flying Circus would debut on the BBC.
Across all of these stage shows and television programs ran a fierce desire to poke at what were felt to be national mythologies of war. Lester felt a keen affinity with this desire to deconstruct: when How I Won the War was released in 1967, he famously called it an “anti-war movie movie,” and said it was designed to address what he felt was an unspoken truth: “People do like war…One of the major obscenities of war is the war film itself…I had to make the film a violent statement. You are always made aware that this is a film.” Despite a sharp cast (including John Lennon) and a growing opposition to the Vietnam War, How I Won… was a commercial failure, perhaps most famous in the broader culture as one of the oblique references in The Beatles’ apocalyptically-minded “A Day in the Life” (“I saw a film today, oh boy/The English army had just won the war”). Richard Schickel’s pan of War in Life magazine predicts the general critical response to The Bed-Sitting Room two years later: “By making war surreal rather than real, Lester trivializes it.”
The making of The Bed-Sitting Room was difficult. There were constant qualms about the script. The “depressing” quality Lester notes above came in part from the shooting conditions—much of the arid, disturbing landscape seen in the film, while filtered through David Watkin’s lens, really did exist. The hotel accommodations were subpar, a place which Lester described as “one of those old Edwardian piles…It stank of body odor, the carpets were wet, and there was the constant smell of cooked cabbage.” 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.
The film’s release was low-key, to put it euphemistically: When Arnold Picker first saw it in a UA screening room, according to Yule, he cried out, “How much longer is this shit going on?” Bed-Sitting won the little-known “Gandhi Peace Prize” at 1969’s Berlin Film Festival (in Getting Away With It, Lester drily tells Soderbergh the prize resembles “a plate you would buy at the airport”), also played at the Moscow Film Festival, and was finally dumped into British and American cinemas by its unenthusiastic distributor in early 1970. Its mixed-to-negative reviews reflected the disillusionment of the period, and the sense among some critics that Lester’s “tricks” felt worn out; they also suggested the paradox of how successfully Lester and his team had achieved their alienation effect. As Lester admitted about his films of this period, “I didn’t realize the alienation process would also alienate the audience.”
Like much of Lester’s late ‘60s output, The Bed-Sitting Room’s reputation would grow. In his 2009 review of the film’s DVD in The Guardian, Philip French observed, “The film now comes across as a grimly prophetic depiction of a world out of control and on the way to extinction”; Roger Ebert, reviewing the film in 1976, called it “dotty and savage; acerbic and slapstick and quintessentially British”; Yule notes that a mid-eighties poll of twenty UK critics showed three of them putting The Bed-Sitting Room on their lists of the ten greatest British films of all time.
That said, The Bed-Sitting Room remains the most difficult of all of Lester’s films in that great run between 1963 and 1983. It’s easy to read so much of Lester’s previous work as the run-up to the knife’s-edge satire of Room, from the bourgeoisie romping and scheming in the fields of The Running, Jumping, & Standing Still Film, to Mouse on the Moon and Help!’s jokey suspicions about England’s growing technocraticism, to the way both A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack’s youthful ebullience can’t hide the dark shadows leaning in from the edges (the famous exchange in Night between the stuffy businessman and John Lennon—“I fought the war for your type!/Bet you’re sorry you won.”—is Room’s mission statement, tonally turned inside out).
But this is that comedic string purposely played out, the “skeletal texture” (to go back to Sinyard’s description) of Lester’s cinematic body without the compensatory blasts of joy or melancholy humanism. I admire the film, even as it constantly evokes a “yes, but…” response from me; it simply crawls under my skin for days after I’ve watched it. Far more than How I Won The War, The Bed-Sitting Room seems like Lester’s true “violent statement,” not just on myths of war or the fading era of “Swinging London,” but on film-making strategies, on how far an audience will go with him. Richard Schickel was wrong—far from from trivializing war by making it “surreal rather than real,” Lester’s technique makes everything hyper-real, stretching “the alien” in a manner at once sensual and scathing. It’s no wonder that five of Lester’s next seven films are set away from the 20th century (and that the only “modern” films are Juggernaut, about a terrorist toying with a trapped audience on a boat, and Cuba, about a man overwhelmed by a revolution outside of his control). Once your characters have cooked and eaten their fatherly parrot and saluted Ethel Shroake, what else is there to say? It stinks of body odor, and there’s the constant smell of cooked cabbage.
Brian Doan is a freelance writer living and working in Oberlin, Ohio, where he binge-watches Murdoch Mysteries with his wife, and dreams of a Midwestern grocery store that will carry good boudin (he is also an Affiliate Scholar in Oberlin College's Cinema Studies program). He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida in 2010, where he wrote a dissertation on "The Anecdote and Classic Hollywood" that he is currently revising as a manuscript. He's a contributor at RogerEbert.com and has also written essays on movies, comics, and popular culture for various academic collections. If you're so inclined, you can read his musings on pretty much everything at his blog, Bubblegum Aesthetics.