Three years ago, or was it four, there was a nuclear attack on Britain as part of World War Three, and it left the population devastated, with forty million dead. Now, the BBC (Frank Thornton) travels the wreckage presenting the final news bulletin before the bombs dropped, to let the survivors know what the situation is. He recalls the Prime Minister's reassurances that arrived that bit too late, and that Lord Fortnum (Ralph Richardson), complete with an early warning system in his top hat, escaped the attack and is now numbered among those who are left. But he is not feeling too well: could the radiation be drastically altering people?
In 1984, the BBC broadcast a feature length drama about what would happen to the United Kingdom should there be an atomic missile attack on the country, and it was called Threads. Its impact continues to be felt to this day, yet in a curious way, Britain had already made a bleak envisioning of those circumstances, it's just that back in 1969, The Bed Sitting Room was supposed to be a comedy. It was based on the play by Spike Milligan (who also appeared in the film version) and John Antrobus, which was reportedly very funny, mainly thanks to Milligan's ad libs.
However, film leaves far less room for spontaneity, and the jokes here - there are a lot of them, too - tend to die on the screen as if afflicted by the radiation that the characters are so concerned about. It's not that they're not funny, as in isolation they could have been part of a sketch - Monty Python is often mentioned in connection with the sense of humour displayed here - it's simply that director Richard Lester and his cohorts went too far in creating a landscape of Britain after a nuclear holocaust. Indeed, the whole film is incredibly depressing as the survivors try and fail to act as if the country is little changed.
That in spite of the desolation they are existing in, but this blind optimism does them no favours, and as a study of British pluck under pressure, it renders the population looking as though their faith in their society has led to utter insanity. So we see this assembly of well-known faces of the time, a mixture of comic actors of two generations, and feel nothing but pity for them: you assuredly don't laugh very much as the overall sense of barren ruination seeps into your mind the more you watch, making for a very odd experience as you know you're meant to be laughing, but the fears it taps into strike a little too close to home.
As a selection of surreal moments, its is compelling, as Ralph Richardson turns into the bed sitting room of the title, the electricity is provided by one enthusiastic man on a bicycle, and the police consists of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore floating above the landscape in a wrecked car suspended by a hot air balloon, calling through a megaphone with useless orders. After living on the London Underground since the disaster, a family led by Arthur Lowe decide to venture up to the surface, where his daughter Rita Tushingham finally gives birth after about a year and a half of pregnancy. That doesn't end well either. Perhaps the weirdest thing about this film is that it has a happy ending, but this links in with that misplaced optimism too, so there's not much comfort that can be garnered from it. This is an engaging film inasmuch as it keeps you watching if only because of its star power, but it's more the chilly fascination that does that. Music by Ken Thorne.
[The BFI's DVD has a selection of vintage interviews and a trailer along with an informative booklet as extras.]
Efforts like Royal Flash, Robin and Marian, gay bathhouse comedy The Ritz and Cuba made less impact, but in the eighties Lester was called in to salvage the Superman series after Richard Donner walked off Superman II; Lester also directed Superman III. Finders Keepers was a flop comedy, and Return of the Musketeers had a tragic development when one of his regular cast, Roy Kinnear, died while filming. Lester then decided to give up directing, with Paul McCartney concert Get Back his last film.