Screening and Q&A for Britannia Hospital (Lindsay Anderson, 1982) – 14 May 2012

This abrasive state-of the-nation comedy, with echoes of Eisenstein, Frankenstein, as well as Fawlty Towers, is one of Lindsay Anderson’s least known films. Following If….(1968) and O Lucky Man (1973), it is the final part of a loose trilogy, all scripted by David Sherwin and featuring Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis. Poorly received by critics and audiences at the time, in Britain at least, and rarely revived since, it remains an uncomfortable film, bleakly satirical in tone.  Thirty years on, this welcome screening underlined Anderson’s reputation as an uncompromising and provocative director, and the film’s diagnosis of Britain had many contemporary resonances.

The event was chaired by Charles Drazin, of Queen Mary’s Film Studies Department, and also a board member of the Lindsay Anderson Memorial Foundation.  This works to promote Anderson’s enormous contribution to British culture, spanning over 45 years as a critic, filmmaker and theatre director. The introduction and Q & A with Ted Craig, who assisted Anderson on this film, and the added presence of two of the actors involved, gave fascinating insights into the film’s production and the problems it faced on release, especially as a critique of nationalism during the Falklands conflict.

The hospital of the title is clearly a metaphor for Britain.  Dilapidated and dysfunctional, it’s shown as riven by the warring interests of a ludicrous elite, incompetent managers, and a lazy, bloated workforce.  With a backdrop of riots and terrorism, this strongly evokes the transitional era between the dying days of the 1970s – the ‘winter of discontent’ – and the false new dawn of Thatcherism, an ethos strongly suggested by the hospital’s incongruous Millar Wing, a clinical corporate space devoted to sinister experimentation. The occasion of a royal visit by ‘HRH’, eventually revealed as the Queen Mother in a brilliant visual gag, leads to farce and then violence. The film’s ambiguous ending seems uncertain about the future of the country, and of humanity itself.

Britannia Hospital seems to show Anderson at his most scathing and cynical, its tone is far from the revolutionary zeal of If…. . As a response to the mood of the time it might be compared to the Stephen Frears/Hanif Kureishi films My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), or Derek jarman’s The Last of England (1987). It also offers an interesting riposte to the nostalgia and jingoism of Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), in which Anderson appears as a supercilious Oxford don.   The film perhaps also expresses the frustrations of working in the British film industry in this difficult period, with state support disappearing and without, as Ted Craig noted, the Hollywood investment which the earlier films in the trilogy had enjoyed.

 

Adrian Garvey

Queen Mary PhD Student