The Bed Sitting Room Review
With the reputation of a resounding flop and a tightly pinched level of availability in the four decades since its release in cinemas, Richard Lester's 1969 post-nuclear holocaust film The Bed Sitting Room may benefit from an increased audience assured by the BFI's simultaneous release of both DVD and Blu-ray editions. It's even been given spine number 001 in the BFI Flipside initiative. For years, this has been the most difficult to view of any of Lester's major works, and a recognizable cast that includes Ralph Richardson, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Spike Milligan, and Marty Feldman has only upped the interest for those curious.
Less a film concerned with plot than a series of situations, The Bed Sitting Room begins with an inventory of the aftermath from WWIII, a conflict that lasted just two minutes, twenty-eight seconds but still managed to decimate Britain to the tune of twenty or so remaining survivors. It is now three, or might it be four, years since that "nuclear misunderstanding." A perverse sense of duty, British to the core perhaps, remains instilled in the lucky few. The BBC news reporter (Frank Thornton) takes it upon himself to carry around the shell of a television facade as he caters to whatever news item wants to be heard at the time, even wearing the disheveled upper half of a tuxedo to maintain appearances. A nurse, behaviorally female but played by a sideburn-sporting Feldman, keeps up all national health care duties. Another character (Milligan, who co-wrote the source play) is responsible for deliveries. Where he gets a cream pie is anyone's guess. And with particularly absurd glee, Moore and Cook are the bowler-hatted law enforcers who patrol the area in a wrecked police car made airborne by a giant balloon. There may be a nuclear holocaust in full swing, but that's apparently no excuse for loitering.
Plenty of additional characters are spread dryly across the wreckage. A family of husband (Arthur Lowe), wife (Mona Washbourne) and daughter (Rita Tushingham) live on a curiously still active London tube line until the latter is caught in a sleeping bag with young Allan (Richard Warwick) and her parents realize she's pregnant, now in her sixth trimester. They find the escalator out of the underground and join the burgeoning apocalypse like everyone else, though only after picking up a trunk in the lost and found area so as to not appear to be vagrants. This is the primary sort of humor emitted from Lester's film. It feels slightly mean, but perhaps nonetheless on point. No way could anyone have thought such a film would be profitable, and it seems quite the feat that it ever got made in the first place, much less by an American studio. Reading the booklet essay and hearing Lester speak with the BBC in a recent podcast, the impression one gets is that United Artists simply let the director do whatever he wanted after a couple of other ideas, one involving the Beatles and the other Mick Jagger, fell through.
Even if I can't see the film as fully working on most any level, my astonishment at how something so unpleasant and specific could've been financed through Hollywood persists. It's a movie that sounds much stranger in description than Lester allows for in actual tone. The surrealism of Ralph Richardson's Lord Fortnum first predicting and then actually mutating into the title piece of real estate, followed by other characters suddenly becoming a wardrobe, a parrot, and, finally, a dog, is done with a straight enough face to make Buñuel jealous. At no point, though, does any of this carry the necessary ambition usually associated with such politicized satire. The target always seems to be a certain way of life and way of thinking commonly associated with the British people, but it's hardly anything novel or particularly biting. Thus, we're left with a nuclear holocaust farce, played with minimal winking, that has hardly any plot and also isn't the sort of laughter-ridden material audiences typically appreciate. Indeed, the giggles in The Bed Sitting Room tend to come much later upon reflection or perhaps an additional viewing. On its own or in context, the idea of a man thinking he's due to be selected as prime minister because of his particular inseam, which also happens to be an inaccurate measurement, may not quite reach its desired effect, but it's the sort of thing that can easily cause inappropriate, uncontrollable laughter after the fact, possibly when all those surrounding you will see such an hysterical display as a potential symptom of mental illness.
Certainly mental illness would hardly be a foreign thing to associate with The Bed Sitting Room. The film often seems conceived in the throes of an intoxicated hysteria. While Lester had already proven himself to be one of the decade's more narratively experimental filmmakers, it's not difficult to question just what rationale dragged him into making this picture at this particular time. The potential to crash and burn was not only a possibility, but also a fully realized badge to be worn proudly. His previous film had been the misunderstood near-masterpiece Petulia, allowing the American director to helm a feature in his native country for the first time. What may be the most regretful aspect of these twin commercial failures is that Lester took off about five years before making another film and he never did anything so interesting again, instead turning commercial for the likes of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Robin Hood and Superman. In this regard, The Bed Sitting Room was absolutely the end of an era for Richard Lester, an iconic director of the '60s but someone who seemingly gave up on that earlier ideal. I don't think The Bed Sitting Room is so good as to be worth that creative impasse, nor would it rival some of his previous pictures. It is clearly an interesting curiosity, and just the type of movie attuned to a very specific sort of humor. Those who like it may really adore the film while I'd expect many or most of the middle of the road sorts to find it snarlingly unwatchable.
As mentioned above, The Bed Sitting Room comes to Blu-ray, region-locked to sector B, from the BFI as part of its new Flipside endeavor. The Flipside is described as "rescuing weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presenting them in new high-quality editions." And...spine numbers! Collect 'em all.
The film is brought to high definition in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It's indicated in the accompanying booklet that MGM did the transfer. I was skeptical as to whether 1.85: 1 was accurate instead of 1.66:1, but nothing in the framing here seems to indicate the latter would've been correct while the back of the case plainly lists 1.85 as the original aspect ratio. There are brief instances of speckling here and some minor deviations in the level of detail. It's otherwise a fine transfer, keeping a healthy level of grain while providing a more than reasonable attention to color and overall sharpness. There are a few scenes where filters were used to create a yellow bleeding into red effect, with orange as the meeting point. These are rendered well, at a bright, but overly so distinction. It's generally not all that of a bright-looking transfer, though the blacks never seem crushed. The dual-layered disc maintains a welcome natural look to the image, and it's difficult to have fully expected a better effort. For the material and the age of the film, it's marvelous.
The audio is just slightly less impressive. When the MGM lion roared to introduce the film, I had to quickly turn the volume down but the fully uncompressed PCM mono track soon descended back to a somewhat lowly situated outing. Some parts of the movie seem to have dialogue lower than I'd have liked as the unobstructed score escapes rather loudly. There's also a slight imbalance in the audio synchronization at times. I admittedly had to use the subtitles to catch everything, but I did notice around the 36-minute mark that mouths and voices weren't properly matched up for a few minutes. On the whole, there aren't any major problems with the mono track, and the white-colored subtitles are excellent, but the few quibbles here and there tend to mar it a tad. I'm so happy with the BFI for continuing to release such unconventional titles on Blu-ray when virtually no other English language label is on the same page, and a couple of small complaints should hardly prevent a potential purchase. This is a film controlled by MGM in the U.S. so there would seem to be no conceivable path for a rival Blu-ray edition pretty much ever.
A set of three different interviews conducted by Bernard Braden for the uncompleted Now and Then in 1967 find Richard Lester, Spike Milligan, and Peter Cook in pillarboxed 4:3 high definition prior to the production of The Bed Sitting Room. These are not excerpts from a television program (and they've never been broadcast), but rather the raw footage of the interviews. Lester's piece (17:46) finds the director first discussing How I Won the War, including a brief mention of Paths of Glory, and moving on to talk about his interest in the seriousness of comedy. A more current interview with Lester might have been nice to have, but I'll again recommend the recent BBC podcast where he discusses Petulia and The Bed Sitting Room as a worthy complement to this release. The questions in Milligan's interview (42:07) are almost entirely based on philosophical and political matters. The first reel of the interview with Cook (31:48) has him speaking on the year and a half he took off to write the Stanley Donen-directed Bedazzled, while the last twenty minutes focus squarely on politics. It's an interesting mix that makes for nonetheless fascinating watching.
The original trailer for the film (3:15), scratchy but in high definition, is also included.
An attractive 28-page booklet has been nestled inside the case. The impression this thoughtful supplement makes shouldn't be overlooked. With a cover utilizing some of the film's original poster art, the booklet includes an essay by Michael Brooke, an April 1970 review of the movie by Russell Cambell, a write-up on Lester by Neil Sinyard, and more on the Now and Then interviews found on the disc. Plus there are ample stills from the film inside, and another small insert advertising the BFI's various Blu-ray releases.