Britannia Hospital

britanniahospitalI come home from the opening-day matinee of Britannia Hospital, open the paper, and am astounded by this picture of a guy in Boston who had his right hand amputated off his nerve-dead right arm and sewn on to the end of his left arm (his left hand having been lost in an accident). I immediately start flashing on some of the most absurd elements of Britannia Hospital, like the mad scientist (Graham Crowden) who sews up a human being out of a collection of body parts as a special presentation for Her Majesty’s visit to the hospital. At least it seemed absurd while I was watching the movie; now I can’t be quite so sure. And that would probably suit Lindsay Anderson and his scenarist, David Sherwin, just fine.

Anderson and Sherwin have Something to Say, and this kind of satire is nothing if not ambitious; the surprising thing is that so much of it is so madly enjoyable. Yes, the hospital exists as a great big metaphor for England today, but Anderson works the metaphor with such glee that the hospital starts to simmer with its own life, above and beyond the thematic concerns and political commentary of the filmmakers.

The events of the movie take place over one hectic day – the day the Queen is visiting the hospital to officially open the new research facility (it’s the place where the Frankensteinian experiments are underway). Just about every union servicing the hospital is striking over something or other; soon the picketers outside are joined by protesters calling for the release of the cannibalistic leader of an African nation, who is enjoying cushy private care in the private ward. The frenzy escalates when a terrorist bomb swells the ranks of t he incoming wounded. There’s also a mysterious video journalist (Malcolm McDowell) who is trying to get the scoop on the Frankenstein surgery, and winds up getting closer to the action than he expected. To top it all off, it looks like the entrance hallway isn’t going to get repainted in time for HRH ‘s visit.

A t the center of all this is the Britannia’s chief administrator, played by Leonard Rossiter. Rossiter is a brilliant actor – he was the jealous suitor Captain Quin in Barry Lyndon – but his character is one of the  things in Britannia Hospital that don’t quite come together; to some extent, Anderson asks us to take for granted this man’s all-consuming love for the hospital. (Maybe the character suffers by comparison to George C. Scott’s magnificent doctor in the Paddy Chayefsky Hospital, also a pretentious but enjoyable medical madness movie.) Still, Rossiter has some great scenes, especially the one in which he silkily strokes the head of the cooks’ union into unloading the Royal non-union food off the Royal non­-union trucks. The rest of the cast is uniformly good: Crowden is the ultimate god-like surgeon, blithely sticking a half a human brain into a Cuisinart and offering the resulting goo as a pre-operation aperitif; McDowell looks young and roguish again, as he becomes part of a scientific experiment of the kind that he barely avoided in a memorably horrific sequence in Anderson’s extraordinary O Lucky Man; Mark Hamill, oddly enough, is one of McDowell’s assistants; Alan Bates and Arthur Lowe are dying patients; Joan Plowright is a union representative with an awkward curtsey for the Queen; Gordon John Sinclair of Gregory’s Girl is a cook named Gregory.

Anderson lets his hand get a bit heavy toward the end; for instance, shots of the cops knocking the protesters about are accompanied by “God Save the Queen” ­although even this has a practical reason: the band is there for the new building opening, and they’re playing loud so HRH isn’t bothered by the sound of the riot going on. The somewhat Kubrickian ending, with Britannia bidding fair to rule the brain waves, may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea; I found it easy to make the final leap, because Anderson had me going with the film from its first few scenes. One warning: If you’re downstairs at the Harvard Exit watching The Meaning of Life and getting grossed out, don’t go upstairs to Britannia Hospital expecting things to be less stomach-turning; the latter film has some pretty gross stuff, too. But – it’s lyrically gross, you know?

First published in The Informer, April 1983

A big swing from Anderson, and “a bit” heavy-handed, for sure. Still, the world needs more movies like this. 

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