THE BED SITTING ROOM. Post-apocalyptic satire

The Bed Sitting Room is a fascinating film, even if it is occasionally disjointed and chaotic.

Maciej Kaczmarski

4 September 2023

Richard Lester is an American known for being a perceptive observer of British culture. His acclaimed films from the 1960s, including A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) featuring the Beatles, earned him the reputation as one of the most talented chroniclers of Swinging London. The Bed Sitting Room is a sharp satire on the island mentality.

The film’s plot is pretextual, almost anecdotal. Several years after the atomic devastation of the third world war, which lasted two and a half minutes and claimed the lives of 40 million people, only about twenty people are left in England. The survivors wander through the ruined streets of London, trying to live and function normally. Among them is a three-person family living in a subway car, two policemen who observe the area from a bizarre contraption combining a wrecked car with a balloon, a deranged local official who spends his days in a fallout shelter spinning conspiracy theories, a nurse who issues death certificates for the living and advocates leaving people in appropriately furnished wombs instead of giving birth to them. Lastly, there’s Lord Fortnum, who fears he’s turning into… a one-room tenancy.

The above summary cannot capture the anarchy and madness that unfold on the screen. The Bed Sitting Room resembles a collection of loosely connected scenes and sketches, with a level of abstraction that even exceeds the norms of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Indeed, the later work of the famous comedy troupe, as well as the solo achievements of its members (especially Terry Gilliam), seem to owe much to Lester’s film. Here, people transform into apartments, wardrobes, and parrots. The new Prime Minister of England is chosen based on limb measurements, and a former monarch’s maid becomes the Queen of Great Britain because she’s the closest survivor in line for the throne. The film’s absurdity is evident right from the start, as the actors are listed not alphabetically but by height.

But there’s a method to this madness. The Bed Sitting Room, a film adaptation of Spike Milligan and John Antrobus’ play of the same name, is a mockery of British national traits: the insistence on keeping up appearances at any cost, putting on a brave face in the face of tragedy, and blind faith in authority figures (political, medical, military, etc.). Yet, it’s these very traits that turned “good old England” into a post-apocalyptic ruin. No one uses words like “war” or “bomb”; the atomic apocalypse is euphemistically referred to as a “nuclear misunderstanding.” This fictional order is maintained despite the omnipresent death and destruction. Moreover, the climax of civilization’s rebuilding is a euphoric moment when Great Britain once again becomes a nuclear superpower.

Lester shows no mercy toward the human race, which he views as a pitiful and self-destructive species. He may not be as blunt in his misanthropy as Lindsay Anderson in “If….” or the recently deceased Cormac McCarthy in his novels, but he leaves no one unscathed. The film’s continued relevance is evident in the prevailing indifference of the majority of the population to the climate crisis. “It will be okay somehow,” say the resolute inhabitants of the ruined London from the late 1960s. “It will be okay somehow,” repeats the person in A.D. 2023. The Bed Sitting Room is a fascinating film, even if it is occasionally disjointed and chaotic. It falls far short of being a masterpiece, yet it is disquieting. Perhaps because it demonstrates that nothing has changed in the human psyche since the days of the Cold War.