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By Phil Hall | May 25, 2007

BOOTLEG FILES 182: “The Bed Sitting Room” (1969 comedy set in post-apocalyptic London).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.


REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A major flop in its day, the film’s reputation has yet to be salvaged.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Someday before the end of the world.

Over in the U.K., Spike Milligan is revered as a comedy icon. His unique mixture of outrageous cerebral puns and equally wild slapstick fueled his star power for decades and inspired a generation of comic performers, most notably the Monty Python crew. But in the U.S., Milligan is mostly unknown except by reputation – and not as a standalone performer, but as a cohort of Peter Sellers from the 1950s BBC Radio series “The Goon Show.”

Milligan’s unknown quantity in the U.S. is hardly accidental. His metier was radio and television, but his prime TV offerings were never broadcast in the U.S. and his radio work barely reached American airwaves (episodes of “The Goon Show” have been available on tape and disc in the U.S., but they’re not particularly popular when compared to other British imports). Unlike Sellers, his work in films was relatively spotty and forgettable.

Milligan had one chance to reach Americans in the 1969 film “The Bed Sitting Room,” which was adapted from a 1963 play that he co-wrote with John Antrobus. The film is a unique presentation of Milligan’s brand of humor, and in some ways it is his most profoundly funny creation. Unfortunately, the film was one of the biggest commercial flops of 1969 and its failure guaranteed that Milligan would not achieve stardom on this side of the Atlantic.

“The Bed Sitting Room” takes place in London approximately three years following World War III, a nuclear conflict that last two hours and 28 minutes (that includes the signing of the peace treaty). In the aftermath of the global annihilation, the nuclear fallout has brought about bizarre effects on the survivors: without warning, they begin to mutate into animals, inanimate objects or (in reference to the title) a full-furnished room.

But nuclear holocaust or not, the British still have their stiff-upper-lip traditions and the survivors continue to go about their routines as if nothing strange happened. The royal family was wiped out in World War III, but the monarchy is preserved: it is determined that Mrs. Ethel Shroake is the next in line to the throne and the national anthem is revised with the lyrics: “God save Mrs Ethel Shroake, long live Mrs Ethel Shroake, God save Mrs Ethel Shroake of 393A High Street, Leytonstone.”

A BBC newscaster, wearing an intact tuxedo jacket but ragged pants (at one time, BBC TV newscasters read the news in tuxedos) wanders the wreckage of bombed-out London and finds a person sitting in front of the empty frame of a television set. The newscaster crawls into the set and provides the day’s newscast to his one-person audience.

Above the ruins, a pair of constables are on patrol in a Volkswagen tied to a hot air balloon. “Keep moving, everybody, that’s the spirit!” they exhort to the straggling souls wandering below them.

Lord Fortnum of Alamein, the last surviving member of the aristocracy, is appalled to learn that he is mutating into a bed sitting room. If he is going to be come a residence, he insists on his ossified class restrictions. “Hurry up!” yells Lord Fortunum. “Put a card in the window: no coloreds, no children, and definitely no colored children!”

So is there a point to all of this? Not really, and that is the point. “The Bed Sitting Room” is basically an extended skein of comic bits set in post-nuclear London. The humor, in typical Milligan fashion, runs the gamut from the bizarre to the playfully silly. Puns are dropped playfully without warning and nutty non-sequiturs dot the landscape. For the most part, it is difficult to catch everything in one viewing – and, as it turned out, many people who only saw it once didn’t catch all of the funny stuff.

In the course of “The Bed Sitting Room,” the following antics occur:

A postman travels across the wasteland carrying a large pie. He is muttering to himself, spouting off lines such as: “And in come the three bears – the daddy bear said, ‘Who’s been sleeping in my porridge?’ – and the mummy bear said, ‘That’s no porridge, that was my wife!'” After a long journey, he reaches what he believes is his destination and asks the man at the address for his name. Realizing he is at the correct address, he takes the pie and shoves it in the man’s face.

A woman goes to a medical examination and is told by the nurse that she is dead. When she insists she isn’t, the nurse holds up the death certificate and insists: “Well, you can’t argue with it. There it is in black and white.”

Two men observe the remains of the dome of St. Paul’s, the great cathedral designed by Sir Christopher Wren. “It looks like Wren,” says one man about the dome. His friend disagrees, noting: “It’s cloudy, but I don’t think it’s going to Wren.”

An older man seeks to win the trust of a young man. “Think of me as if I was your father,” says the older man. The young man, reminded of his father, clenches his fists and begins to pummel the older man.

In the midst of the madness is a serious subplot: a young woman is 17 months pregnant. Her baby would be the first born after the nuclear war. Alas, the child is a stillborn.

Yes, “The Bed Sitting Room” is a weird and frequently deranged experience. Frankly, the film is very uneven – when it is funny, it is screamingly funny. When it hits slow patches (especially with the serious subplot on the doomed birth), it becomes a bit of an endurance test.

To its credit, it offers one of the most astonishing line-ups of British talent ever put on screen: Milligan as the postman, Sir Ralph Richardson as Lord Fortnum, Mona Washbourne as the not-dead woman, Marty Feldman (in his film debut) as the nurse who insists she is dead, Arthur Lowe (“Dad’s Army,” “Bless Me Father”) as the older man who gets pummeled, Frank Thornton (Captain Peacock from “Are You Being Served?) as the BBC newscaster, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as the constables in the Volkswagen balloon, Milligan’s “Goon Show” alum Harry Secombe as “the regional seat of government,” Rita Tushingham as the excessively pregnant girl, plus Michael Hordern, Roy Kinnear, Ronald Fraser and Dandy Nichols as Mrs. Ethel Shroake.

“The Bed Sitting Room” was directed by Richard Lester, who was best known for making movie stars out of the Beatles via “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” This film, however, came at a low point in his career. His three previous films – “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “How I Won the War” and “Petulia” – were commercial flops, and United Artists gave him a rather princely $1 million budget to bring “The Bed Sitting Room” to the screen.

American critics were generally favorable to “The Bed Sitting Room,” but audiences hated the film. United Artists, realizing that the film’s warped humor generated little appreciation with the moviegoing public, abruptly pulled the movie after a very short release. That decision cost the studio a great deal of money, and the commercial failure damaged Lester’s reputation to the point that he wouldn’t direct another film until 1974’s “The Three Musketeers,” an entertaining (if conventional) movie which helped put him back in Hollywood’s good graces.

As for Milligan, the failure of “The Bed Sitting Room” made no dent in his career. He concentrated on other creative pursuits for the remainder of his life, never bothering to seek out American audiences. In fact, most Americans wouldn’t see Milligan again until 1979, when he was a guest on “The Muppet Show” and when he had a cameo role in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”

“The Bed Sitting Room” has never been released in any American home entertainment format. It has turned up on TV and in several retro screenings, so it doesn’t appear that there’s a problem holding up a DVD release. Except, of course, for the fact the film has a poor reputation. Bootleg copies are very easy to locate, for anyone who is curious.

Maybe someday in the near future, a brave boutique distributor will license the movie from United Artists and send it out into the world again. Or perhaps United Artists will dust it off and try again. Either way, there is the possibility that “The Bed Sitting Room” will find a cult following in a second go-round.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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