Britannia Hospital is suffering a crisis amongst its staff and patients as all ambulances must be checked in with the trade unionists before entering, and when they are admitted, they might very well be left to die in a corridor by workers taking their tea break. Even the workers in the kitchens are refusing to work because they are not allowed to cook for the private patients and see this as an insult, and one of the private patients is a corrupt leader of a Third World nation which means there are a growing number of protesters outside. Meanwhile, Professor Millar (Graham Crowden) enters the new hospital research wing to continue his experiments, a building which is to be officially opened by royalty that day - but not if the unions have anything to say about it...
Written by David Sherwin, this bleak satire was the last in the loose trilogy of director Lindsay Anderson's Mick Travis stories, all featuring Malcolm McDowell in that role, only this time around the film is so cluttered he isn't offered as much to do. It takes a sour view of Britain as a run-down hospital, and packs in as many state-of-the-nation potshots as possible, with the country suffering under the blight of terrorism, cutbacks, strikes, riots, class war and racism, and that's just for starters. One running joke sees the telephone lines constantly putting the caller through to the wrong person as an example of the frustrating way things have declined, but here you're not sure if there ever was a golden age for the United Kingdom.
Travis is now a investigative journalist (having made his fortune in America), and has brought back with him the very latest recording equipment to stage an expose on Millar's practices. In a large van parked outside the gates are his team, including Mark Hamill, one of a host of recognisable faces brought on board for the film. As they receive his transmissions, Travis breaks into the Millar building and snoops around eventually becoming more involved with the experiments than he would have liked. And what is Millar attempting to do? He's a modern day Frankenstein with refrigerated cabinets full of body parts and a dedicated team of doctors and nurses who turn a blind eye to his professional abuses.
Coming straight out of the turbulent seventies it's not surprising to have the jokes concentrate on the conflict between workers and bosses, but Anderson and company don't take any sides as both are portrayed as selfish as the other, more concerned with getting one up one their rivals than getting the job done. As Potter, Leonard Rossiter (an excellent piece of casting) has to use all the diplomacy at his disposal to get operations running smoothly for the royal visit, and is not above being devious or even murderous in getting his way. The upper class visitors include a tiny lord and a man in drag as his wife, yet more instances to have you wondering whereabouts the humour is being aimed.
If you can call it humour, as it's not particularly funny even if it has your attention in wanting to see how far it will go next. One moment of apparent sincerity sees one of the protesters, a young woman, hold up a flower as a peace offering to a line of riot police only to be savagely beaten down, thus triggering the rumpus that brings the story to its climax. But mostly it thumbs its nose at everyone within reach, leaving no one character to sympathise with and with a bad tempered tone to further alienate the viewer. It criticises mercilessly without putting forward any solutions of its own, but it is weird enough to deserve its cult following, with a finale consisting of Millar's pompous speech to inadvertently show how hopeless the hopes of the human race really are. Always arresting, but rarely satisfying, Britannia Hospital is filled with memorable scenes (liquidised brain, anyone?) yet all over the place as social commentary. Music by Alan Price.