Review for The Bed Sitting Room
I think it must have something to do with my childhood during the seventies and eighties, when it seemed that the world was constantly on the brink of nuclear annihilation, but I made a point of seeking out films that depicted a post-atomic horror, partly as preparation, partly as desensitisation. There were plenty of films that could scare the pants off me, beginning with the Planet of the Apes series. I saw movies like Terminator, Threads, When the Wind Blows, Barefoot Gen, By Dawn’s Early Light, Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog, Shadowmakers, real world stories of nuclear war or fantasies of societal disintegration, and was both entertained and scared. But no post-apocalyptic movie has terrified me as much as The Bed Sitting Room, and it’s a comedy.
The nuclear ‘misunderstanding’ lasted all of 2 minutes and 28 seconds, and that includes the time it took to sign the peace treaty. On the third anniversary of the war, the twenty or so survivors try to maintain a sense of normality. The trains still run on the underground, thanks to the electricity board (one man on a bicycle). The BBC is still on the air, or rather one news presenter carrying a TV screen, the last British family are about to have a new addition, after eighteen months gestation, and Her Majesty Mrs Ethel Shroake still rules the waves. But atomic mutation is starting to have odd effects; Lord Fortnum visits his doctor fearing that he may turn into a bed sitting room.
The Bed Sitting Room gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc. The booklet lists the various processes the film went through to become Blu-ray ready, a bit of DNR, and some cleaning and repair. Grain is certainly still present though, the movie looking properly filmic with a bit of flicker at times. Detail levels are good, skin tones are natural, but the film definitely looks its age. The cinematography is excellent, and just how they managed to find so many post-apocalyptic locations in the UK in 1968 is stunning. Everything looks like a blasted landscape full of rubble and detritus.
The audio is presented in PCM 2.0 Mono English form with optional Hard of Hearing subtitles. This is where the presentation falls down, as the audio is out of sync. It isn’t a player compatibility thing; rather it’s hard baked onto the disc. As an alternative, there is the DVD in the set, but if you have the kind of player that allows you to add a delay into the audio, then around 100ms will get everything synced back up again. The subtitles are useful as the dialogue isn’t always clear, and the volume level is really quite low. I had my Home Cinema at twice its usual level before the film was watchable. The film gets some quite quirky music to go with its absurdist comedy.
You get two discs in a BD Amaray, one on a centrally hinged panel, and with the chapter listing on the inner sleeve.
You get a 28-page booklet in the case, which as well as stills from the film, also offers an essay by Michael Brooke, a 1970 review by Russell Cambell, an essay on director Richard Lester by Neil Sinyard, and some text on Bernard Braden’s Now & Then Interviews, three of which are presented on this disc.
The Blu-ray boots to an animated menu.
The film’s trailer lasts 3:15.
The Interview with Richard Lester lasts 17:47, the Spike Milligan Interview lasts 42:07, and the Peter Cook Interview lasts 31:48. This was back when interviews were intelligent, incisive, and occasionally controversial, and all three are well worth watching.
All of the on disc extras are in HD.
The Bed Sitting Room didn’t ignite the box office when it was released in 1969, and it’s easy to see why. It’s ostensibly a comedy, based on a play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, and it has an absurdist, surreal sketch show style that wouldn’t be out of place in Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe or Q. But director Richard Lester deliberately directs it off-key, making its already bleak, gallows humour downright depressing. It’s a film that you laugh at as the only rational alternative is to cry.
The bomb drops, the world ends, and the few British survivors stay quintessentially British about the whole thing, taking “Keep Calm and Carry On” to wholly illogical extremes. The infrastructure of the country still has to function, so each institution becomes a one-man distillation of its precepts. There’s one postman still delivering the post, a man on a bike generating electricity, the underwater archbishop (as Saint Paul’s is underwater), and the one-man BBC.
The sole family, living in a carriage on a Circle Line train is still concerned with social status; the scandal when the parents realise their daughter isn’t just chubby, she’s pregnant and has been for the last eighteen months! The police still keep the ruins safe from their shell of a squad car hanging from a hot air balloon, by urging everyone to keep moving to avoid radiation, and the NHS is present in the form of a nurse, as is NHS bureaucracy, as the issuing of a death certificate trumps the evidence at hand. Radiation does take its toll when people start mutating, most prominently Lord Fortnum who begins turning into the titular bed sitting room. Complaining to the doctor, he gets prescribed some rent.
It’s hard to find a narrative arc to hang a story on, and The Bed Sitting Room does play like a sketch show, moving from character to character, absurdity to absurdity. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, although there’s no Alice audience proxy, and this is as far from a wonderland as you can get. The madness of the characters can’t be disputed though, as is the gradual disintegration of the laws of reality. As well as the tone of the film, it’s this that makes the happy ending feel anything but happy. It’s just a cherry on a large cake of unease.
The Bed Sitting Room is a who’s who of British acting and comedy talent, from John Gielgud and Michael Hordern to Arthur Lowe, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. On that strength alone it should have been a hit movie, but a deliberately unfunny comedy about the apocalypse is a hard sell in any market. That doesn’t make The Bed Sitting Room worth missing though, as its dark surrealist satire on the nature of war, and the stupidity of the human race is ever relevant.