Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Anarchy in the UK

O LUCKY MAN! (1973) 
BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982)

A leading theatre director, Lindsay Anderson was also an eloquent and perceptive critic, editing Sequence - still widely regarded as the most influential film magazine ever published in Britain.

O LUCKY MAN!  and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL complete a trilogy of boldly conceived and literate films from director Lindsay Anderson, scriptwriter David Sherwin, and actor Malcolm McDowell as everyman Mick Travis, which began with the schoolboy rebellion allegory if… (1968). Despite the shared name, Travis isn’t the same character in the three, nor do the stories follow-on; they do, however, jointly illustrate through fantasy and satire the sobering reality of how our institutions succeed in dehumanisation.

A study of Britain during the first half of the 1970s - using McDowell's real-life experiences as a coffee salesman as its springboard - O LUCKY MAN! is an energetic piece of work. Within its lumbering three-hour timeframe, Travis starts off as an ambitious coffee salesman who finds unexpected riches in the North East, narrowly avoids being blown up by the army and killed in the name of science, makes a fortune associating with a corrupt businessman, and finally becomes a movie star. At the end, Mick is lucky not because he is successful, but because he has survived a world where cruelty is random and kindness rare.


O LUCKY MAN! shows Britain retreating from its imperial past but managing to retain some influence in the world by means of corrupt dealings with foreign dictators.

Anderson has described O LUCKY MAN! as an “epic in the classical, poetic sense.” Travis changes careers frequently and philosophies as many times, enjoying good fortune and enduring considerable injustice and suffering. Because of this, the character bears marked similarities to Perceval, the archetypal quester of medieval romance. The film has aged well because many of the issues it explores - the class divide, the corruption of authority, the immorality of international affairs and the ruthlessness of science - are all still relevant. Science comes off especially badly at the Millar (Graham Crowden) research laboratory, where Mick narrowly avoids having his genes spliced with those of an animal – he’s luckier than another who has had his head grafted onto the body of a sheep. Sherwin’s script hits out in all directions, giving the work a disjointed feel of a series of prolonged sketches; apart from McDowell, the only real constants within its anarchy is the score of Alan Price, who provides a commentary for the serendipitous events. His lyrics could act as a warning, but atypically remain unheard.

With the imminent visit of the Queen Mother, Britannia Hospital couldn’t be any less prepared. In the opening sequence to BRITANNIA HOSPITAL, an elderly patient in an ambulance is blocked for entering by striking workers. The old man is only let through because he is about to die, and even inside the staff decline to attend to him because their shift is over. Also, kitchen workers refuse to prepare food until a union leader (Robin Askwith!) is bought off with promises of O.B.E.’s. Later, in a scene which plays like an anticipation of RE-ANIMATOR (1985), Dr Millar (Crowden, in his recurring role) - a surgeon conducting deranged experiments with public funds - inadvertedly rips the head off his Frankenstein creation.
 
BRITANNIA HOSPITAL - lost when initially released during the Falklands conflict - is an English political cartoon similar to MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE.

Much more than a scathing satire on British healthcare - and unfairly dismissed as by far the lesser entry of the trilogy - BRITANNIA HOSPITAL acts as a grotesque sledgehammer to where the world was heading. Anderson presents a society incapable of accepting any responsibility, or communicating in anything other than demand. There are no heroes - here, Travis is reduced to an investigative reporter whose head is used for Millar’s monster, and even the hospital administrator (Leonard Rossiter) fells a striking worker with a shovel. However mad, Millar is the only authority figure who inspires loyalty from his staff, and the only character who cares about the world around him. In his climactic monologue, Millar prophetically announces that a “motion picture entertainer of North America will receive enough money in a month as would feed a starving South American tribe for a hundred years.”