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Films: B is for...

Britannia Hospital

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.



  1. pessoa

    May 13, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    What a very odd film this is; something of a big-screen mash up of Agitprop theatre, Brechtian allegory and Vince Powell sitcom. Worth adding that much of the cast (including Askwith) were reunited from the earlier films in the trilogy. It pretty much killed off Anderson’s career in the UK and last thing I saw you could buy it on DVD for peanuts. I first saw this on channel 4 decades ago and its one of those films I am reluctant to recommend to someone else in case they don’t get it. This is a nice appreciation.

  2. Applemask

    May 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    “How like a God. How like a God. How like a God. How like a God.”

  3. Dickon Edwards

    November 8, 2010 at 5:41 am

    I too always feel awkward when recommending it alongside If and O Lucky Man. But I’m glad it exists.

    I remember Anderson used one clip to dramatic effect at the end of his episode of ‘BRITISH CINEMA: A PERSONAL VIEW’ (1985, ITV). It was the scene when a young female protestor offers a flower to one of the riot police. There’s a tense pause as he lowers his visor and considers the offering… Then he swacks her with his baton and the fight kicks off – to the sound of ‘Rule Britannia’. Heavy-handed metaphor, sure, but still powerful.

    ‘Withnail & I’ also ends with the same speech from Hamlet.

  4. disquietude

    August 16, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Anderson, for a Leftist and with great integrity in respect of the truth, nails the peccadiloes of both Right and Left in this messy satire. Thatcher was contemptible, but the viewer of discrimination would mark the discord of the union-bled 70s which led to her election. Now were he still alive, what an interesting Olympics opening ceremony Anderson would have conjured up.

  5. disquietude

    August 16, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    The lad from Catweazle had a brief appearance in this as well.

  6. Richard Davies

    October 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Sounds interesting, one to look out for when it’s on TV or the DVD is in the sales.

  7. Droogie

    May 4, 2020 at 5:22 pm

    I saw this on Ch 4 When I was 14 and remember the disbelief in school the next day attempting to describe certain scenes in this film to schoolmates who had not caught it, especially the bits involving MCDowells’s decapitated head. I saw it again a few years ago and it hasn’t aged as well as If… or even O Lucky Man which is now seen as an underrated classic.

  8. George White

    October 22, 2020 at 4:09 pm

    Watching this, incredible cast.
    Also bits I’dnever noticed.
    The song “he was wonderful” that Griffiths’ Savilesque DJ plays is a rather cruel soundalike of Iris Williams’ He Was Beautiful, the version-with-lyrics of the Deer Hunter theme, with a slightly OTT vocalist to simulate the unique vocal stylings of the Welsh jazz singer.

  9. Glenn Aylett

    October 22, 2020 at 9:14 pm

    This was also released when there was a series of NHS strikes in 1982 amid patriotic rejoicing over winning the Falklands War. so was quite relevant. I do recall a hospital down the road from me having its NUPE and COHSE banners at the entrance demanding a 12{30e2395aaf6397fd02d2c79d91a1fe7cbb73158454674890018aee9c53a0cb96} pay rise, , while sailors and soldiers commenting about not being able to get home at the same time from the Falklands War due to a rail strike calling for an air strike to solve the rail strike.

  10. Tom Ronson

    January 11, 2022 at 1:58 am

    Quite a peculiar film, this one. Marketed as a comedy, and whilst it certainly has a pitch-black sense of humour, it’s actually more of a howl of outrage and despair. Probably bemused as many people as it delighted, all told; strangely similar in tone and overall atmosphere to Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life too.

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