A mad scientist hell bent on revolutionising humankind with incendiary technological innovation, to the point where he will perform beheadings in order to create the perfect human. An irrational mob angry at a hospital treating private patients and foreign dictators, to the point where they’re blocking the gates and preventing ambulances from delivering victims of a recent bombing. Meanwhile the hospital staff refuse to treat the victims when they do get in because they’re over the 24-hour limit set by their unions. All on the day Her Royal Highness is due to visit the hospital.
A hospital with a brand new shiny ward that isn’t being used due to a shortage of cleaning staff. A hospital where the occupants are kept docile with sausages, hymns and cheery hospital radio DJs.
Vincent Potter is not going to have a good day.
Britannia Hospital was a critical and commercial failure when it first opened in cinemas in 1982. It was dropped after barely a month and pretty much killed off the film career of its director, Lindsay Anderson. It’s also a brilliantly intelligent film, unafraid to send up both sides of the political divide for the amoral, uncompromising sellouts and weasels that they were then, and still are now. The faintly surreal black comedy is still relevant today, perhaps even more so, in an age where we still cling on irrationally to our traditional but vague vision of Britain as an empirical force with an immovable monarchy that is above scrutiny. Included are personalities as varied as militant protesters who see no irony in them blocking hospitals and ambulances (see Extinction Rebellion), investigative journalists who chase stories for the fame and the money rather than the integrity (while assisted by stoned technicians who react with unsympathetic detachment to news reports), single-minded administrators, and men in suits with twisted visions on how to improve humanity’s problems.
The film is fantastically paced with not a moment wasted. Mike Fash’s cinematography is dynamic and ahead of its time in how vaguely dreamlike it looks. No one is spared by the savage satire, which takes influences from sources as diverse as deadpan surrealism, cumulative Carry On farce and even Hammer horror. Credit must go to Alan Price of the Animals for a haunting soundtrack, and David Sherwin for a script packed with ideas and genuine feeling. If nothing else, it’s worth watching for some fabulous performances from some of the best actors that were around at that time. Blink and you’ll miss a young Robbie Coltrane in a bit part as a protestor and Mark Hamill appearing for an unpaid cameo. But the eccentric late Graham Crowden steals the show, particularly with his closing speech which is arguably one of the most underrated movie endings ever.
Watch it, and if you like it, check out Anderson’s earlier films, the revolutionary school drama If…. and the Brechtian coming-of-age epic O Lucky Man!. Also see his documentary on the Free Cinema movement, and mourn the British filmmaking innovation that was inevitably lost to the money makers and philistines. Many film buffs maintain that there was never anyone like Lindsay Anderson. It’s easy from this film to see why.
‘Britannia Hospital is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now. Watch the trailer below.