We Don’t Even Know Who Won the War

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I AM THE BBC

THE BED SITTING ROOM was shot in either ’68 or ’69 but didn’t open until 1970 so it seems the perfect transitional film to bring us into Seventies Sci-Fi Week here on Shadowplay. A wise man once said, “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over and […] we have failed to paint it black.” My Forgotten essay on the film is here and it’s called The End of History. Below you can hear from three of the principle talents involved.

Star Rita Tushingham (who comes at the top of the cast list, since it is in ascending order of height), cinematographer the late David Watkin (courtesy of Allan Thomson) and director Richard Lester. So it’s a kind of Stealth Film Club I’m springing on you here.

An apocalyptic comedy, adapted by Charles Wood from the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, filmed on location in the ruins of Britain. A score of bedraggled survivors of “the Third — or was it the Fourth? — World War” try to carry on their lives as if nothing had happened, but institutions have now contracted into individuals and random mutations are transforming citizens into architecture and furniture and one parrot. Rita Tushingham plays the sixteen-month pregnant Penelope who lives on a train on the Circle Line (as in JUGGERNAUT, we’re all stuck going round in circles).

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I WILL SAY THIS FOR HIM

My friend David Ehrenstein said “Please ask about THE BED SITTING ROOM and Richard Warwick.”

Oh, darling Richard, yes. Richard was just… he looked at me and… I’d known Richard before, he was a friend of mine, and he said, “Oh! I, I – I don’t quite know — I don’t know what he wants! Oh! How are we supposed to do this?” And I said “Just do it! Trust him, trust him.” Because for some people, if you didn’t know Richard [Lester], he was so easy and knew exactly what he wanted, you had to trust him. Because he knows comedy — the visual is so important, and that’s what it is, we’re making a film.

But Richard [Warwick] was lovely, lovely to work with. He was slightly bumbly [Rita makes untranscribable but very funny bumbly sound], but he just got on with it and got into the swing of things.

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HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THE NEW ECONOMIC COMBINED MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE CEREMONY?

I loved doing it because it was with a great group of actors. And it was an extraordinary film. Way ahead of its time.

I think, still.

Yes, me too. And when you look at it, it’s really touching. And there again, the characters had to be slightly crazy — to survive. Arthur Lowe was so touching, and Mona Washbourne, they were such lovely performances.

Michael Hordern was very funny because, my character and he get married, and I would always make fun with Michael and laugh because he was very conservative. I used to joke about, Oh, the Conservatives,” and stuff like that. He was quite stiff-upper-lip at times. Fantastic man and actor. And we had to do this scene where we’d just got married and we’re going to get into bed and there’s a meter at the side of the bed and he has to put money in it. And he had to put a board down his back, and he said to me, “Mwoh! Why am I doing this? What does this mean?” and I said, “Oh come on, Michael, surely you know?” and I always remember that because I was just sending him up, but, boy! He was very worried that he didn’t know why he should put a board down his back. Some kind of sexual enjoyment or something? He was hilarious. And lovely.

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GOOD OLD GODDY

And Spike Milligan, of course.

That must have been strange for him to be suddenly in this world that he’d written for the stage…

It didn’t seem to bother him at all because he was always in his own world. He just got on with it. He had all th costume and everything. And Ralph Richardson! Ralph doing, and was so touching when he turns into the bed-sitting room. And Mona Washbourne. And Harry Secombe!

There were so many lovely performances from people and their world has been shattered.

When I interviewed Richard I mentioned that it had just struck me that the film was about the human tendency to carry on, and that’s both inspiring and despairing, because they’ll carry on making the same mistakes.

Talking about it now…because obviously you don’t sit around and think that much about films you’ve been in, that would be a sad state of affaris, but talking to you about it, when you think of all the people who were in it, they were all so touching in their way. It came out at a time when they were expecting other things, and Richard had to do a certain kind of film, and suddenly he did this film, which was very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Probably they didn’t know how to take it. But they SHOULD, because it was all there on the screen.

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I HAVE THE PROOF

Allan Thomson’s interview with David Watkin also contains quite a bit on this film. With his permission, I quote ~

How I Won the War, The Bed Sitting Roam. Those two are very important films, very important and very good films, both of them. You see nobody has heard of The Bed Sitting Room. It’s just as important as Help! […] Just look at the cast list. And the Beatles are only a sort pop-group, for God’s sake. Let’s not get it out of proportion. A very useful pop group.

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How I Won the War and The Bed-Sitting Room got a lot of static and were criticised and all the rest of it. Maybe didn’t as well as they could have done if they were more boring but the fact is that’s the reason why people will still be looking at them …50..60..100 years from now. It depends on how long your perspective is. I have no more money than I need but I have what I need, Which is quite good in a way because it keeps me working. It’s very exasperating doing the best criteria for anything* and I quite respect the fact that films are supposed to make money, it’s nice when they do but if that is the only thing that you have in your mind you will, make bad, boring and silly films,

And that and that is the sickening fact about our case – Richard – is that he won’t do it and fucking good for him.

I mean after The Bed-Sitting Room he didn’t do anything for ages, nobody would give him a film.

The thing is it wasn’t originally going to be The Bed Sitting Room, it was going to be Up Against It. You know all that story. Well they got all this money and were ready and of course Joe Orton was murdered and they couldn’t carry on with that and they did a quick switch to The Bed Sitting Room.

They will spend money making the film and then will spoil the picture because they always say if they don’t like it, so they won’t bother to publicize or to distribute it. I mean this is one of their inanities. They’ll spend a whole lot of money turning some dreary script into a blockbuster and yet when that something that really is worth putting out they think it is no good and pull it. It happened all the time.

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MAKES ME FEEL ALL FUNNY TO READ IT

I don’t look at the script, [only] in order to find out how many nights shooting. And find out roughly what the thing is about. I will only read the script once you see. Because if I get over familiar with it then I get bored with it. And then I won’t have an idea that’s worth having, I mean this is only me, I am not talking about anyone else, I am much better to be faced with something which is fresh and the thing about reading 3 script is when to do it. If someone sends me a script and they say they are going to make the film in six weeks time. I need to know what the thing is about, so I skim through it, or very often I give it to my boyfriend and he reads it. And then I have enough idea, but if I read it now it will be a different thing by the time I am going to shoot, because it will be constantly changing by the day, pink pages, yellow pages and brown pages and all the rest of it and you get this polychrome thing that is handed to you. And I would usually read a script just a couple of days before we are going to start shooting, or better still, probably about two weeks after we have started shooting because then I know who all the characters are and it comes alive for me.

There is a lovely story about Richard which I will tell you about Richard which is in my book so you mustn’t use it. Well, I don’t know, you can use it because it’s very funny. Because I know you know in the The Bed Sitting Room people are mutating into various things, Arthur Lowe turns into a parrot and “Moaning” Washbourne as she was called turns into a wardrobe. And we had one scene in the bed-sitting room and I lit it and thought “Nothing can go wrong here,” and I just sort of settled down for a quiet snooze. And they were just about film and Dick said “It’s important that we can see Mother in this,” which is Mona. So I was not sure, there’s no sign of her. And he did it quite deliberately because Mother in fact is the wardrobe so that was Richard’s idea of a little joke, which for a moment put me out.

No, it sounds silly and outrageous but it actually makes a lot of sense because 1 find that the ideas that are the most use are the ones that come uninvited, The ones come while you are poring over a script, oh Christ, I must have an idea about that, all 1 have is a crummy idea,

It’s much better when you just come, I don’t how to light a set until I have seen it. As soon as I see it the set will tell you what to do.

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A lot of people think films are all set before shooting.

He and I are absolutely identical about this way, absolutely, I may have an idea beforehand; it may occasionally be a good one and I may occasionally try and do something about it, but for the most part, for me, I would say that it is more than 50% I would say that it is 70% in front of the set. I would rather have a really alive idea almost too late, so that there is a bit of a scurry to do it than have some dead, dead old thing that everybody has been preparing for three weeks, who wants that.

Is it the spontaneity of a new idea?

It isn’t that it is a new idea. It’s an idea that has actually sprung out of something instead of being tortured and come alive on its own. That’s why he and I probably have quite a good understanding of each other. Probably got a lot to do with it without my realizing at the time.

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AND THE ELBOWS AND THE KNEES AND THE TEETH OF GOD

I found Spike a little strange because you know I did a couple of pictures with Spike and Richard, And Spike would turn up, arrive on the musketeers and I had done the whole of The Bed-Sitting Room with him, which was a long films and Spike would turn up and I don’t expect people to sort of flock around me in a way, it is if you have worked with someone for something like three months, you know a couple of years later and they haven’t the slightest idea, they know who you are Spike hadn’t the vaguest idea not the vaguest or he wasn’t interested. When you are working for someone for three months and then you come back a few years later for another five months and all you get is ‘How do you do.’

He is the one person who never took the slightest notice of “Richard” and called him “Dick” forever. I’m all for him. It’s not a criticism or complaint it’s an account of what I remember of Spike is he never remembered me.

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A NEW LEADER TENDS TO EMERGE

From my interview with Richard Lester conducted for The Criterion Collection blu-ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.

It got tied up ecologically […], with the fact that we were able to find such places of physical degradation, so easily, in mid-summer of 1969. Those were bad times. Everyone was feeling uncomfortable,. It wasn’t good. It worried Spike that some of the images, when put on a big screen — as opposed to a pile of boots in the Aldwych Theatre or wherever it was, you could sort of get away with it, but when you get piles of teeth or boots in the wide screen of desolation — it seemed to skew the film over into something heavier than Spike had expected. And I think it worried him. And it worried me that it worried him.

The play is, in a way, even darker, but because nothing is real…

That’s right. And you’re carried along by the fact that everybody looks at Spike and laughs.

In the play they not only eat the parrot that was Arthur Lowe, they eat the mutant baby as well.

Yes, we didn’t quite go that far.

It only just occurred to me that the true subject is not the bomb but our tendency to carry on mindlessly in spite of everything,

ABSOLUTELY. My way of describing it was that if you have a beautiful Doric column and put a bomb under it and explode it, it will fall in pieces to the ground, but each piece will be a perfect little Doric column in itself. It will find a way — like the sponges that you put into a Waring blender, when you let it settle it will return to being a perfect sponge. We will find a way to carry on. And the most strident of us — Peter Cook — will come to the top. “So watch it!”

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It is the bleakest film you ever made, in a sense, because it has the complete paralysis of everything. Did that trouble you because of Milligan’s attitude or was it something you felt was a problem in the film?

I don’t think so. The troubling thing was that sense that it’s so easy for a society to do grave damage to itself. Feelings about annihilation due to nuclear accident, which was all in the air. I remember reading The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson… That sense that we have it in our power to have a great extinction and not even notice it, which is still with us all the time, is something that got muddled up with it, for me. I mean there was a place where we had Harry Secombe, and it was in the back of Port Talbot, in the back of the steelworks and the refinery and all that. And we had to have him in the water. And they said, “You can have him in the water but then you have to get him stripped down and washed within thirty seconds otherwise we won’t take any responsibility for it. This was a whole landscape filled with this dangerous water that was just there, and anybody could have walked into it.

So all this got muddled up… and it was wildly optimistic to think that anybody could make a film of the subject.

And you had Ralph Richardson.

An absolute delight. He was the one… summing him up: the film played the Berlin Film Festival, and he was sitting at a table with the mayor of Berlin and a lot of dignitaries, including the heads of United Artists. And he turned to the mayor and he said, “Oh, Mr. Mayor, I do so love your city.  It has the most wonderful [pause for breath] escalators.” And then turned and started to talk to someone next to him, and the poor mayor, first I think was mentally going through the English-German Dictionary, thinking that he’d made a terrible error, and then was just totally at a loss [laughs]. But Ralph was like that throughout life.

AH, LUNCHEON

Do you think it’s lunchtime?

Yes, I think it probably is.

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Lester spent the next five years, when he was at the peak of his powers and could easily have been making two films a year, shooting commercials in Italy. At one point he was making so much money he asked to be paid in wine. So that it’s possible the wine we had at lunch that day was earned as an indirect consequence of THE BED SITTING ROOM.

I do urge you to see the film, which is now easier to obtain than ever before. It languished in such obscurity that the makers of WHEN THE WIND BLOWS were able to claim, in the eighties, in my presence, that nobody had ever made a black comedy about life after the bomb before. Now, their film is the one that’s barely remembered and THE BED SITTING ROOM is starting to get some love.

 

 

 

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12 Responses to “We Don’t Even Know Who Won the War”

  1. Finally saw this film after having heard about it for years, in the early 80s. Didn’t quite know what to make of it, so would like to see it at least another two or three times. Rita T. is exquisite, and I will watch anything with Richardson in it.

  2. Lester also said it was quite difficult to get any action going when everything has blown up, so the film maybe works best in pieces, like the world it portrays. But ALL the pieces are magnificent, and it’s not noticeably like anything else, so I worship it.

    The only comedy as despairing and black is Britannia Hospital, I think. But The Bed Sitting Room has a sweetness to its characters that makes it even more peculiar.

  3. “Oh, Mr. Mayor, I do so love your city. It has the most wonderful [pause for breath] escalators.”

    Might Sir Ralph have been thinking of paternosters? It seems they are still common and popular in Germany.

    Seeing the film at the NFT before the DVD was released, one of the audience said that the most astonishing thing about the film was that Lester & Co had been allowed to make it and that it was a pity no-one filmed the meeting where he explained what it was about to the producers.

  4. Such a lovely film in its baroque strangeness. British and somehow Czech at the same time. It should be sub-titled Carry On Regardless for that’s it Very British theme. More than anything else The Bed-Sitting Room is a savage attack on the “Can Do — Will Do!” spirit that saw Britain through WWII. Spike remembers that and with this work says “Oh Bollocks!” quite loudly.

    Ideally it should be double-featured with Spike’s other attack on the British National Character The Great McGonagall (Joe McGrath’s cracked masterpiece)

  5. My favourite bit in The Great McGonagall is when the cast go to lunch and the camera goes with them. Breaking the fourth wall and leaving the other three behind.
    https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2008/04/14/mcgonagall-dies-again/

    There WAS no pitch meeting for The Bed Sitting Room because Lester and David Picker, who ran United Artists in Britain and whose father-in-law owned it, switched from making a Joe Orton rock musical with Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen to a Spike Milligan post-atomic absurdist play without actually telling the studio about the slight change of plan.

    When they screened it to the bosses, it was not very well received.

  6. Richard Warwick at his most overwhelming

  7. It was one of the first “post-apocalyptic” films and oddly although there have been about a 100 others it’s still unique.
    Other post-apocalyptic films either are angry and bitterly sad (Wind Blows, On the Beach, Threads) or they kind of embrace the survival aspect, treating it like another more savage Wild West (The Mad Max films, Waterworld)
    But The Bed Sitting Room doesn’t go for either of these options. It’s a long bitter chuckle of a film. It’s probably the least angry satire ever made, the destruction of civilisation was something unavoidable, because people are stupid and absurd and that’s rather funny.
    I think the main reason why the film is so hard to watch is because it only has this one tone, using it to tell some brilliant jokes, and some stunning images, but still the same tone. Like being trapped on a long car drive though a wasteland with Spike Milligan in a particularly morbid mood.
    For me, the thing that jarrs is the baby dying. Before then, the way Lester has made the film, everything has been both bleak and absurd, but the dead child is almost too real-world, too bleak, and yet everyone continues acting absurdly. I’m certain it worked better on stage. Or maybe I’m too sensitive about these things

    It’s still a stone-cold classic, and it makes me very angry that, because of the way British cinema is taught, I only discovered its genius in my 20s.

  8. A very different earlier post-apocalypse film, but one where some characters have a similar attitude to “The Bed-Sitting Room “- “If we pretend hard enough that it’s normal, perhaps it will be* – is the Czech “Konec srpna v Hotelu Ozon”/”Late August at the Hotel Ozone”.

  9. A Boy and His Dog is a sequel to The Bed Sitting Room — when Dudley Moore mutates into a dog, he ditches Peter Cook and forms a new double act with Don Johnson.

    I’ve been looking at 70s sci-for a week and they’re all starting to link up.

    James, I think part of your trouble is that the film DOESN’T have just one tone, it has a very elusive tone. When the mutant baby dies it’s meant to be tragic, and the immediate joke of Hordern trying to adopt Spike as a replacement baby (hey, Spike was the baby’s nickname in Eraserhead!) it’s meant to feel obscene.

    Mum’s death certificate is a scene that’s mocking, tender, sweet and absurd all at once.

    For me the difficulty comes from the absence of forward momentum, and the attempts to create drama out of young love being thwarted seem foredoomed. We’re past all that. “There are no friends left.”

    Where we agree is that whatever it’s faults, the film is still magnificent, I think better and certainly stranger than a “perfect” film could be.

  10. chris schneider Says:

    “Nobody had ever made a black comedy about life after the Bomb” — it isn’t a bomb, per se, but wouldn’t the monstrous toxic event of Roger Corman’s GAS-S-S-S (1970) be widespread and humanity-affecting enough to make that film– which I’ve not seen — qualify as precedent?

  11. It probably wouldn’t, since GAS-S-S-S isn’t really about that. I’m not sure it’s about anything, other than YOUTH. I kind of like it, though. There are some good actors in it who should have had bigger careers — the one who immediately went on to better things being the wondrous Bud Cort.

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