IN ITS DOWNFALL
‘THE BED SITTING ROOM’
with Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham, Marty Feldman,
Arthur Low, Michael Hordern, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
(DVD-Blu-Ray, April 2019, BFI Flipside)
‘Well, things were going swimmingly until that…
until they dropped the ol’, well now, you know. I slept
through it alright. Yes, in fact, I was in England, still
a-bed, albeit in a club chair, the Third World War took place.
I didn’t get a chance to join the regiment’ – Lord Fortnum
Nuclear war is no laughing matter. Yet the world of 1969 was consumed by the Cold War Doomsday threat, suspended on the precarious “Eve Of Destruction” – ‘if the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away, there’ll be no-one to save with the world in a grave.’ How does the rational mind, growing up in the Atomic Age, contemplate that prospect of imminent thermonuclear obliteration? The existential Beat Generation celebrate the moment. Live for now, because there will be no tomorrow, while listening for that Crack Of Doom On The Hydrogen Jukebox! Jeff Nuttall writes in his luminous overview of the sixties counterculture, ‘Bomb Culture’ (1968), that ‘people who had not yet reached puberty at the time of the bomb were incapable of conceiving of life with a future,’ the only certainty is what he calls ‘the crackling certainty of Now.’ The CND oppose the Superpower End Of The World stand-off with Protest Marches and Trad Jazz. While Science Fiction runs a number of fictional simulations as a terrible warning, from John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ (1955) to Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ (1960). So is Spike Milligan’s film SF? Is it speculative fiction? Perhaps surreal absurdity is the only logical reaction to an illogical ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ megaton impasse? Duck… and Cover.
The film opens with the sound of wind. The sun blurred through a hazy sky. Flowing magma. A burning plastic doll. A JG Ballard flooded landscape. A pylon. Survivors wander amidst a ‘Mad Max’ dereliction of debris. Caught in a kind of post-traumatic state of derangement they attempt to continue elements of their former lives in bizarre replications, trying to pretend nothing has happened, while never mentioning the ‘bomb’, preferring allusion… ‘since the thing dropped – this rude thing.’
An underground tube station on the Circle Line. The train slows to a stop. No-one gets off. It accelerates away as litter blows across the deserted platform. Arthur Lowe is ‘Father’ to a dysfunctional family unit who travel endlessly around the loop. He leaps from the train onto the platform to retrieve a chocky-bar from a slot-machine. Mona Washbourne – a serious actor with a movie career going back to 1934, is Mother. She attempts to recreate normal married life, with the wonderful Rita Tushingham as their very pregnant daughter, Penelope. ‘I wish there were more people her own age on the Circle Line’ coos Mother. ‘There are no friends left’ says Lowe firmly. Armed with a red hatchet and leather patches on the sleeves of his jacket Arthur Lowe steps out of the carriage looking for missing Penelope – only to be stranded on the platform. When he fights his way back aboard he discovers his daughter writhing in a sleeping bag with naked fiancée Alan (Richard Warwick, who had been rebellious ‘Wallace’ in Lindsay Anderson’s classic 1968 film ‘If’).
As a smart Mod commuter, Alan is then grudgingly accepted into their party. Mother smiles approvingly. Father is suspicious. ‘Actually, sir, I’m a commuter chap. You know, backwards and forwards’ Alan explains. ‘That’s nice’ says Mother. ‘Forwards and backwards’ he emphasises. ‘How dare you!’ protests Father, sensing innuendo. ‘Does it get boring?’ she enquires innocently. ‘How really dare you say such things’ says Father, on full Captain Mainwaring mode, he glances at his pregnant daughter, adding ‘And do them.’ Penelope sniggers. When Alan suggests ‘I’d be interested in joining your party. I’m sure you could use another pair of hands,’ Father chastises ‘You keep your filthy commuter hands to yourself!’ This is straight ‘Carry On’-era double entendre.
Two man carry an unexploded bomb suspended from the pole they shoulder, through a desolation of wrecked cars on a former motorway.
Frank Thornton is the actor known for playing Captain Peacock in the department-store sitcom ‘Are You Being Served?’, and as ‘Truly’ Truelove in ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’. Before either of those roles he was the BBC announcer who squats behind an empty TV-set frame. ‘On this the third – or is it the fourth?, anniversary of the nuclear misunderstanding which lead to the Third World War, here is the last recorded statement of the Prime Minister, as he then was, who had just succeeded his illustrious father into office, ‘I feel I am not boasting when I remind you that this was, without a shadow of a doubt, the very shortest war in living memory. Two minutes twenty-eight seconds, up to and including the grave process of signing the peace treaty, fully blotted. The great task of burying our forty-million dead was also carried out in great expediency and good will.’ The Prime Minister in the flashback clip is intended to resemble Harold Wilson, even down to using his ‘without fear of contradiction’ soundbite. He meets Chinese Premier Mao Tse Tung (Chairman Mao Zedong) on the steps of no.10 Downing Street, to announce ‘peace in our time’, in a conscious echo of PM Neville Chamberlain’s claim concerning the Munich Agreement directly before the outbreak of World War II.
The movie dialogue catches the full alternate logic of madness. Captain Bules Martin – played by a dishevelled Michael Hordern, holds a ‘Defeat of England’ medal, as he was unable to save Buckingham Palace from total devastation. ‘Your Majesty, I’m sorry that I’ve failed you. I tried to catch the thing before it hit the Palace, but one of your corgis bit me!’ As he explains ‘I was standing by, ready to face the enemy, whoever they might be, and I couldn’t find them’ he blusters. ‘Tell me, do you know, who was the enemy?’
‘I haven’t the least idea’ responds Lord Fortnum of Alamein (Ralph Richardson) who wore a Top Hat with a miniature revolving radar on top, ‘I tell you, it’s the latest early-warning hat. It gives you that extra four minutes in bed.’ He refers to Bules Martin as ‘Doctor’ – ‘are you a doctor, Doctor?’ and asks for a prescription for malnourishment. ‘I’ve not been eating anything’ he explains. ‘Why is that?’ asks Martin. ‘I can’t get the stuff.’ ‘I thought, Doctor, I thought you might give me breakfast as a prescription against malnutrition.’ ‘Aw, yes, well, take, um, thirty-milligrams of egg on toast.’ But Fortnum confides he also has ‘a terrible morbid feeling’ that he’s turning into a Bed Sitting Room. When Martin confirms it, ‘eh, eh, that’s probably atomic mutations. There’s a lot of it about,’ he suggests ‘my advice, charge twenty quid rent, be mindful of drafts...’
Lord Fortnum decides he needs a second opinion, first demanding ‘what class of person are you? I am top-drawer, to put it mildly,’ but then he insists ‘I want it privately, on the National Health Service.’ The male nurse is a manic Marty Feldman wearing a short dress uniform and a bandolier of ammunition. He tells Fortnum ‘you’re not well enough to have a condition.’ Then, with trowel in hand, ‘in my opinion you need re-pointing. A full-scale conversion to a maisonette.’ ‘My god’ protests Fortnum ‘I’ve dropped a brick!’ He tries to find what is left of Belgravia, a more suitable address for his eventual transfiguration.
He studies a bottle of green milk. ‘The radiation’s rising. Still, one shouldn’t grumble too much.’
Writing the ground-breaking scripts for ‘The Goons’ radio series had driven Spike to the brink of nervous breakdowns, while bending the medium of sound into mental images of magnificently epic silliness. His comic-satiric novel ‘Puckoon’ (1963) preceded his semi-autobiographical series of war memoirs beginning with ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall’ (1971), while his absurdist poetry, in the tradition of Edward Lear was always a ludicrous delight. But it was while Spike was appearing as a tatterdemalion ‘Ben Gunn’ on a stage presentation of ‘Treasure Island’ during winter 1961 into 1962, produced by Bernard Miles, that they began talking around the idea of a one-act post-nuclear play to be called ‘The Bed Sitting Room’.
Co-written with John Antrobus it premiered at Canterbury’s ‘Marlow Theatre’ 12 February 1962, only to be expanded and staged by Bernard Miles at London’s ‘Mermaid Theatre’ (from 31 January 1963). Revived in 1967 it toured successfully and played the prestigious ‘Saville Theatre’. Critic John Brosnan observes that ‘the play on which the film was based was a much-improvised piece of slapstick, and what remains of the original material clashes awkwardly with chillingly bleak settings showing the realistic aftermath of an atomic war – the shattered dome of St Paul’s Cathedral protruding from a swamp, a line of wrecked cars along a disembodied length of motorway, a grim landscape dominated by great mounds of sludge and piles of discarded boots, broken plates and false teeth’ (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’ edited by Peter Nicholls, 1981 edition). To me, the two elements – the comedic and the chillingly bleak, not only elide together perfectly but reinforce each other.
Dick Lester had begun his directorial feature-film career with the modest Pop-exploitational ‘It’s Trad, Dad’ (1962), enlivening the Helen Shapiro musical with clever sight gags, characters who talk back to the narrator, plus sequences where the action stops, accelerates, then runs backwards. That kind of low-budget innovation made him the perfect catalyst to direct the Beatles ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964), but by then he’d already discovered the Goons – another sympathetic four-piece of co-conspirators, with Spike Milligan in particular sharing an affectionate mockery of militarism and lost imperial greatness. They’d worked together on the short eleven-minute sketch-film ‘The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film’ (1959), providing credentials that fell into place when it came to reuniting them for ‘The Bed Sitting Room’. ‘The really awful thing’ said Lester later, ‘is that we were able to film most of those scenes in England without having to fake it. All that garbage is real. A lot of it was filmed behind the Steel Corporation in Wales… endless piles of acid sludge where every tree is dead. And there’s a place in Stoke where they’ve been throwing reject plates since the war and it has become a vast landscape of broken plates.’
Nuclear weapons irradiate sixties Pop culture with the glow of radioactive isotopes. There’d been H-Bomb tests throughout the fifties – weapons with the power of multiple Hiroshima’s – with the world coming within a hair’s-breadth of all-out nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. And what Peter Watkins bleak documentary-style account of a nuclear strike – in ‘The War Game’ (1966), filmed for the BBC, and then banned by them as being too horrifying to broadcast, Spike Milligan achieves through the medium of ridicule and absurdist comedy. I watch both with an equal degree of skin-crawling fascination. They scare and mesmerise in equal measure. Was this all my tomorrows? Is this the world I would one day walk? Or at least, a fractured through-the-looking-glass version of this?
Ken Thorne’s soundtrack succeeds in delivering the impossible remit of being both jaunty and poignant, but he already had a track record of collaborations going back to Richard Lester’s ‘It’s Trad Dad!’ and the Beatles ‘Help!’ (1965), as well as for Peter Sellers ‘The Magic Christian’ (1969). He had an unexpected hit record of his own with the stately trumpet-led instrumental “Theme From The Legion’s Last Patrol” (HMV POP 1176), a no.4 on the 29 August 1963 chart beneath Billy J Kramer & The Dakotas, Freddie & The Dreamers and the Searchers.
Ex-Goon Peter Sellers had made his own contribution to satirising Cold War madness with ‘Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb’ (1964), the blackest of black comedies which ends with the start of nuclear Armageddon. It could be argued that Spike Milligan’s movie resumes from the aftermath of that appalling climax. The fulfilment of the promise that we’ll meet again…
Meanwhile, Arthur Lowe’s family determine to leave the tube-train as Penelope’s seventeen-month pregnancy extends. Alan wears a white suit. There’s a ‘The Sound Of Music’ movie-poster on the tube wall. Breaking into the Left Luggage office the family discover comic-actor ‘Professor’ Jimmy Edwards lying on the shelving. He’s been waiting there for three years ‘to be collected.’ Oddly enough, the up-escalator is still operating, although it deposits them one by one into an endless waste of desolation. The family carry a trunk between them, which they salvaged from Left Luggage, through mounds of smashed ceramics and crockery. ‘He’s not a bad lad’ concedes Arthur Lowe, as he and Alan discuss Penelope’s figure. ‘She’s got big busts, hasn’t she, for a girl her age?’ comments her father approvingly.’ Alan agrees. When Daddy observes that ‘well, this bust, especially, it seems the nipples stand out more on that one’ Mother points out that ‘Father’s very observant. He was in the Corp!’ When Penelope protests that ‘I wish you wouldn’t talk about me in front of Alan. He doesn’t want to know about my busts’ Alan protests that ‘I do! I do!’ And Penelope smiles a conspiratorial smile. All the while they’re unaware they’re being stalked by Feldman’s NHS.
Two policemen – Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore, hover overhead in the wrecked shell of a Morris Minor Panda car suspended beneath a makeshift balloon, addressing any survivors they see through a loud-hailer to ‘keep moving.’ Urging ‘you can’t stop anywhere, Sir, as you very well know. We don’t want to stay in one place long enough for the enemy to have another chance at us, do we? Not until our pre-emptive strike is launched. Do we Sir? Do we Sir!’ in the unlikely event of a renewed outbreak of hostilities.
Spike Milligan himself attempts to pedal a pushbike through a fetid lake of tyres and garbage. He delivers a slapstick pie-in-the-face.
Former fellow-Goon Harry Secombe – who had bizarrely hit no.2 on the ‘NME’ Pop chart as recently as April 1967 with his quasi-operatic rendition of the Charlie Chaplin composition “This Is My Song”, appears with a kind of Speak & Spell toy in a fall-out shelter. He’s listed in the credits as ‘Shelter Man’, and first emerges with rifle and tin hat demanding ‘Have they dropped it yet?’ As a surviving Regional Seat Of Government he spends his time searching through spools of old film he claims carry evidence proving that the military infected the bombs with germs, to inflict measles on the population in order to kill them off. Then he reminisces about the time he shot his wife and his mother as they plead with him to let them into his shelter. His current ‘wife’ Doris is a picture of a topless woman attached to the wall, concealing a food-supply which they share. ‘I was in the Army, actually. I’m a Captain’ he tells Bules Martin. ‘Oh, I say! What regiment?’ ‘Oh, we didn’t know, owing to the Official Secrets Act.’ And later he prefigures Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979), with ‘Oh, the horror. Oh, the horror! I can’t look!’ although it could reference back to Joseph Conrad’s novel – ‘Heart Of Darkness’ (1899) on which the movie was based?
Feldman’s crazed NHS Nurse stalks Penelope and her family, in order to present Mother with her death certificate. ‘What I have here, Sir, is your wife’s Death Certificate.’ Father politely thanks him, while Penelope protests ‘but, Mum is alive!’ ‘I’m afraid not, Dear’ he tells her firmly as he hands Mother the certificate. When Penelope insists ‘Mother’s alive’ Mother corrects her, ‘well, I thought I was, Dear. By rights, I should be. But how can you tell if it’s here in black and white?’ When Feldman insists ‘it’s your wife being alive that seems to be all the trouble, Sir,’ they apologise, ‘oh, I’m sorry. We don’t want to cause any trouble’ and Mother chides ‘don't argue with the Nurse, Dear. She’s bound to know best what’s best for us.’ Their blind acceptance and unthinking respect for authority overrides the evidence of their own senses. ‘Do I lie down or something?’ Mother enquires helpfully.
When Feldman attempts to snare her with a net, Mother falls into Secombe’s shelter. She opens a drawer in her chest to take out a handkerchief – perhaps a conscious reference to Salvador Dali’s surrealist painting ‘Lady With Drawers’ (1936)? She can no longer move. Her legs are becoming stiff. Hideous mutation caused by chromosomal damage inflicted as a result of atomic radiation was a symptom gleefully seized upon by both gory SF and Horror comics alike. But transformations had never happened like this before. Mother becomes a cupboard, crying plaintively ‘I’m a cupboard. Will nobody close my drawers?’ and later, as Bules Martin climbs inside her, ‘be gentle with me.’ While Father begins to exhibit birdlike traits. And Lord Fortnum calls Martin to inform him that he is now a Bed Sitting Room, with a 29 Cul de Sac Place address. The lease-terms ‘No Coloureds. No Children. And definitely no coloured children’ seems grossly offensive in the light of twenty-first century sensitivities – as well as the words ‘No Wogs’ smudged into the dirt on the window, but this was another time. As the title of John ‘Johnny Rotten’ Lydon’s autobiography ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’ (1994) indicates, this was regrettably a far from uncommon attitude.
Bules Martin enters the Bed Sitting Room. Then the Mao Tse Tung figure pushes the cupboard-that-is-Mother into the room. Finding himself alone, Father is measured by Peter Cook & Dudley Moore of the Police, ‘I must say, they seemed rather impressed by my inside leg’ he gloats as he guiltily attempts to conceal the chest taken from the Left Luggage department. After attempts to dispose of the incriminating trunk it is retrieved by the Police flying car. Only to discover the fugitive Jimmy Edwards inside the trunk!
Penelope hunts for missing Mummy, assisted by Alan who climbs a pylon but only succeeds in short-circuiting the man who cycles to generate the existing electricity supply. Milligan – as ‘Mate’, confronts Ronald Fraser – as ‘The Army, to demand ‘are you the bloke officer what was in charge with the nuclear detergent in the last atomic war?’ ‘I am he’ admits Fraser. ‘Bad news. It has been returned to sender’ says Mate. ‘Sixty-five million pounds it costs to develop that bomb... We could have won, you know. Damnable bad luck!’ In another ludicrous mime with all the comic precision of old silent comedy, Roy Kinnear sets up a barber’s chair in the desert. He holds up a photo in place of a mirror.
Bules Martin asks Father’s permission to court Penelope and she follows him reluctantly along the seashore where he makes a heart for her in the sand. Father agrees, believing it will help him in his ambition to become Prime Minister. There’s a mock-wedding ceremony held using the submerged dome of St Paul’s Cathedral as an appropriate backdrop. An underwater Vicar reads extracts from the DH Lawrence novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ as the new Bible. The book had achieved notoriety following its celebrated obscenity trial at the Old Bailey. Once the ceremony is over Milligan places a parking meter beside the marital bed. But as Bules Martin runs off to get his virility test, Penelope is soon writhing around with Alan in a bed on the roof of the Bed Sitting Room itself, where she goes into labour.
‘What she has need of is medical science’ advises Feldman’s NHS midwife, he recommends that the baby stays inside her womb, ‘we have this new system. Instead of moving the baby out, we move the furniture in.’ And ‘we should have asked ourselves, ‘Is it really necessary for people to leave the womb nowadays? That’s when most of the trouble seems to start in this wicked world.’ She’d already told Alan ‘I can’t go through with this. Having this monster,’ but by now it’s too late, she delivers it. Father, who has moved into the Bed Sitting Room, is selected to become Prime Minister, ‘I always knew my inside leg would lead to power.’ While she pushes the unseen baby in a supermarket shopping trolly, but by the time she goes to show Father the baby, he has been mutated into a green parakeet, only to be cooked and eaten. Lifting the serving dish on the silver salver and carving the tiny bird-body. ‘We’ve never had it so good’ gloats Milligan – quoting Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s optimistic 1957 speech. ‘In the hurly-burly of post-atomic living’ people head back inside the Bed Sitting Room.
In a sequence that vaguely prefigures the Barry Hines-scripted TV-movie ‘Threads’ (1984) in which atomic war results in a nuclear winter, and Jane (Victoria O’Keefe) gives birth to a presumably disfigured baby which she looks at with an expression of sheer revulsion, Penelope and Alan find their baby dead in its carrying bag.
When Pete & Dud begin to demolish the Bed Sitting Room Fortnum speaks up seemingly as the voice of god, but is promptly disabused by Bules Martin’s ‘here, hold on a second. You don’t sound like god. You sound like Lord Fortnum.’ Who admits, ‘I – eh, I also do impressions.’ Radiation mist swirls around them. ‘Do you think we’ve come to the end of it all?’ queries Penelope. ‘We’ll just have to keep going’ says a stoic Alan, ‘we’re British.’
In a seeming fantasy fast-forward Penelope has a normal healthy child and they walk in fields of flowers. Peter Cook delivers a spoof-inspirational Churchillian speech of hope and optimism, ‘the lion shall lie down with the lamb, the goat shall give suck to the tiny bee...,’ while holding out the promise that surgeons have developed a mutation-cure that entails full-body transplant. Finally, a military band pays homage to Mrs Ethel Shroake (Dandy Nichols) of 393A High Street, Leytonstone, who’s been traced as the last survivor in succession to the throne. Nuclear war is no laughing matter. The Cold War thermonuclear stalemate would continue. ‘God Save Mrs Ethel Shroake, Long Live Mrs Ethel Shroake, God Save Mrs Ethel Shroake...’
‘That, I’m afraid, was the end of the news. Our next
scheduled program will be on August Bank Holiday,
when Charlton Heston will wrestle his Holiness, the Pope,
for the sportsman of the year title. Until then, all walk
backwards into long shot while ‘Good Night’ is given’
‘THE BED SITTING ROOM’ (United Artists, June 1969, Berlin, 25 March 1970, UK) Produced by Oscar Lewenstein & Richard Lester. Directed by Richard Lester. Written by Spike Milligan & John Antrobus, adapted from their play and with additional dialogue by Charles Wood. Ralph Richardson (as Lord Fortnum of Alamein), Rita Tushingham (as Penelope), Michael Hordern (as Bules Martin), Arthur Lowe (as Father), Mona Washbourne (as Mother), Peter Cook (as Police Inspector), Dudley Moore (as Police Sergeant), Spike Milligan (as Mate), Harry Secombe (as Shelter Man), Marty Feldman (as NHS Nurse Arthur), Jimmy Edwards (as Nigel), Roy Kinnear (as Plastic Mac Man), Ronald Fraser (as The Army), Richard Warwick (as Alan), Frank Thornton (as The BBC), Dandy Nichols (as Mrs Ethel Shroake), Jack Shepherd (as Underwater Vicar), Henry Woolf (as Electricity Man), Cecil Cheng (as Chinaman ‘Mao Tse Tung’), Bill Wallis (as The Prime Minister), Ronnie Brody (‘Ronald J Brody’ as The Chauffeur), Gordon Rollings (as Drip-Feed Patient), Edward Malin (‘Eddie Main’ as Club Waiter), Chris Konyils (as Policeman). Music by Ken Thorne. 91-minutes.
(DVD-Blu-Ray, April 2019, BFI Flipside, presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition, with original trailer, three ‘Bernard Braden Now And Then’ interviews from 1967, Richard Lester (18-mins), Spike Milligan (41-mins) and Peter Cook (31-mins), with fully Illustrated booklet with film notes, contemporary review, original promotional materials and biographies.