Ever felt this country was a bit like a big, knackered, corrupt old NHS hospital? Top left-wing master of despair Lindsay Anderson has! Britain’s king of the shrill satirical scream had put Malcolm MacDowell through his paces in the school revolution of If… (1968) and the rambling picaresque O Lucky Man! (1970), and finally dismembered him in this medical farce in which Britain becomes a crumbling, strike-hit state health establishment, coping with terrorist bombs, a workers’ walkout and anti-capitalist demonstrations on the day of a royal visit. This much-derided comedy gleefully nicks the mantle of just about every popular British film genre from Carry On rudery to Hammer horror (the latter complete with spooky wibbly sounds straight from the school percussion cupboard).
MacDowell, admittedly, doesn’t get to do much aside from snoop about in a window cleaner’s cradle (oh, and get bodily torn limb from limb), but the choicest satirical morsels are shared out among a reliably burgeoning all-star cast: Leonard Rossiter’s harassed financial director; Joan Plowright’s confident NUPE chief; the ever-brilliant Graham Crowden’s maniacally amoral, brain-liquidising research scientist, complete with documentary film crew in permanent tow; Robin Askwith’s bolshy but easily-bought kitchen staff head (“that’s a gesture my lads and lasses would easily appreciate!”); Richard Griffiths’s anodyne DJ Cheerful Bernie (“those naughty bombers ‘ave just blown a fuse in the toaster!”); a stoned Mark Hamill laughing hysterically at film of battery hens; Brian Glover and Mike ‘Larry carries ladders round with ease’ Grady as neverending decorators and countless others including Robbie Coltrane, John Gordon Sinclair, Dandy Nichols, Alan Bates, Marsha Hunt, Arthur Lowe and good old Liz Smith.
Fittingly, it ends with staff and visiting dignitaries witnessing the unveiling of Crowden’s latest wheeze – a super-computer poised to take over from the worn-out human race – either the logical conclusion of the snowballing satirical shenanigans or a bit of a ‘couldn’t think of an ending’ cop-out, depending on your viewpoint. Whatever you think of the shape of the thing, it’s one of the most memorable cinematic messes ever vomited onto the screen. Delicate it ain’t. Anderson’s an angry old man, and he determinedly plays every symbolic character up for all they’re worth, and often a bit extra: he’ll make you see what he did there if it’s the last thing he does. But for those with a taste for the excessively overwrought state-of-the-nation film satire will find that, as a full-stop to that most wayward of film genres, it’s pretty hard to beat.