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In the late sixties, Richard 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. And 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 post-apocalyptic tale set in London in the aftermath of World War III and 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. Obviously, nobody wanted to see a surreal farce about the last remaining survivors of a nuclear war and Stanley Kubrick had already covered similar territory five years earlier with his brilliant black comedy, Dr. Strangelove (1964). But the failure of The Bed-Sitting Room had more to do with bad timing than anything else, and today the movie is more relevant than ever.
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. But 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.
But not even these renowned actors and comedians could convince moviegoers to see The Bed-Sitting Room 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."
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 five 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). It's doubtful he will 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.
Producer: Richard Lester, Oscar Lewenstein
Director: Richard Lester
Screenplay: John Antrobus, Spike Milligan, Charles Wood
Art Direction: Asheton Gordon
Cinematography: David Watkin
Editing: John Victor Smith
Music: Ken Thorne
Principal Cast: Rita Tushingham (Penelope), Ralph Richardson (Lord Fortnum), Peter Cook (Inspector), Dudley Moore (Sergeant), Spike Milligan (Mate), Harry Secombe (Shelter Man), Michael Hordern (Bules Martin), Roy Kinnear (Plastic Mac Man), Arthur Lowe (Father), Mona Washbourne (Mother), Marty Feldman (Nurse Arthur).
By Jeff Stafford