Britannia Hospital. (15.)
Directed by Lindsay Anderson. 1982.
Starring Leonard Rossiter, Graham Crowden, Brian Pettifer, Fulton Mackay, Jill Bennett, Joan Plowright, Robin Askwith and Malcolm McDowell. Out on Limited Edition Blu-ray from Indicator Powerhouse Films on June 29th. 112 mins.
Lindsay Anderson's last British film, a scathing satire in which an NHS hospital is a microcosm of our nation's failings, was reviled on its releases during the Falklands War but may seem timely now. Rossiter (magnificent, obviously) is the chief administrator running a chaotic, crumbling hospital gearing up for a visit from the Queen Mum as striking unionists picket the gates to protest about an African dictator staying in the private wing. Meanwhile, in a lavishly financed research wing, a mad scientist (Crowden) is working on his world-changing project, and journalist Mick Travis, (McDowell, playing the character he'd previously portrayed in Anderson's If and O Lucky Man,) tries to sneak in and find out what he's up to.
It is blunt, sledgehammer stuff but then the early 80s were blunt, sledgehammer times. And that's ultimately its glory: the crazed frenzy of its assault on everything that crosses its path. It doesn't have a good word for anyone. Seen today the union-bashing comes across as excessive – early on pickets hold up an ambulance with a critically ill patient in it to check he really is ill and then hospital porters refuse to shift him and leave him to die because they have finished their shift.
If it all seems a bit Tory now, back then the Winter of Discontent was still a fresh and bitter memory. It came out in Fatcha's Britain but it is as much a reflection on the '70s and at that time. Plus, Anderson and scriptwriter David Sherwin couldn't have imagined then how quickly and comprehensively the unions would be smashed in the years after it came out. When one union leader proclaims, “the old days are gone forever – Britannia belongs to the people now,” I think it is one of the few lines that isn't meant to be ironic.
The film got horrible reviews when it came out and was barely seen. I remember seeing it about a year after it came out and thinking it was terrible. Time has been kind to it: now we appreciate all the marvellous and mostly departed talents involved that bit more. This sprawling, unwieldy creation has 75 speaking parts, at least half of which are filled by someone famous (Arthur Lowe, Alan Bates and Mark Hamill pop up) or by someone you recognise because they were, or would go on to be, in that thing.
You couldn't exactly call it nostalgic but it is oddly comforting. If you despair that the world has never been in such a wretched position; that Britain has been revealed to be a tinpot hovel that is being run rings round by the rest of the world yet clings to a deluded sense of its importance: well, turns out we were always like that. And somehow we've bumbled along this far. Who knows, we may even have a few more years left in us yet. In the 80s some of the snider reviews complained that the humour was low brow, but that's exactly as it should be: British history is a series of Carry On films that we never tire of.