Patient: “Oh, private insurance.”
Doctor: “Right.” Then he’d flip down the flag on a taxi meter and let it run.
Now Americans, of course, don’t have this option. If we were to say “National Health”, a conservative clown car would drive up and heave us right out of there. In Great Britain (and the majority of Europe, Asia, Japan, China, Russia, Canada and far-flung Greenland) the state takes charge of its citizens’ medical needs. If you can’t afford fancy “private insurance”, well the hospitals will care for your tired carcass regardless. It’s a working system, not however without its flaws, as with any system. The main difference between, say Great Britain and America, is that ol’ Blighty won’t let you die of the plague just because you’re penniless. If you die, it’ll be due to something else. Probably unrelated.
By Lindsay Anderson’s own admission: “Britannia Hospital (as my picture is called) is the usual over-ambitious conception, satirical, ominous and absurd – designed to annoy practically everyone.” (LA/1/9/3/5/10, Lindsay Anderson writing to Pauline Melville, 31/07/1981, The Lindsay Anderson Collection, University of Stirling.) (Unless indicated, all quotes taken from Participations, Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, Walking the talk: reflections on Indigenous media audience research methods, by Kathryn Mackenzie and Karl Magee, Stirling University, UK Volume 6, Issue 2 (November 2009). If that designation was sincere, then in 1982 Anderson definitely succeeded. According to Brit critic David Robinson, “…no major British film can ever have suffered so calamitous a debut” (David Robinson, ‘Time to reconsider a masterly vision’, The Times, 15/10/1982.), and not because the movie was seen as an unsatisfactory wrap-up of the so-called “Mick Travis Trilogy” Anderson had begun when he cast Malcolm McDowell in …If and its ambitious follow-up (co-written by McDowell), O Lucky Man.
In the Autumn of 1982, the United Kingdom and its people were under considerable stress. Unempolyment was at a record high, unseen since the ‘30s, and to top that a large number of union worker strikes broke out throughout the island. Add to that the controversial war raging in the Falklands and increasing IRA-attributed terrorist strikes, the upper-lips of all England were wilting. Hardly the best timing for a movie satirizing the nation’s health system, the monarchy, unions, class warfare, rising media chicanery and even Hammer Horrors. As Mackenzie and Magee wrote in “Participations”, “In the light of this social context it is hard to overstate the effect that negative reviews, and articles in which the film was portrayed as being ‘unpatriotic’, would have on the cinema-going public.” If the movie-going population hadn’t already dropped to another all-time low since 1972, the number of outraged might have been even greater. Barely publicized by EMI, Britannia Hospital was met with spectacularly negative reviews. And (ironically, considering the film’s primary McGuffin) with his Holiness the Pope John Paul II arriving in London that very weekend, few were keen on checking out what was being advertised as a high brow entry of the Carry On series.
The film’s set-up requires the entirety of its first act, but its tone is set during the credits. An ambulance drives slowly through the wrought-iron gates of the hospital estate, winding up a driveway choked with striking workers (including Robbie Coltrane) and angry protestors. The outrage is almost evenly split along two grievances—one involving the admittance of African despotic President Ngami, guilty of war crimes against his own people who has turned his own separate suite at the hospital into a mini-village filled with bodyguards, multiple relatives and even farm animals; the second and no-less angry mob consists of Britain’s working class who demand that the hospital discharge the wealthier “private insurance” patients who receive special treatment for their generous pocketbooks.
Joining this latter protest are the hospital’s union workers and supporters. The short kitchen staff refuse to make the special breakfasts and other meals for the upper class sickies. There’s also a matter of workers who are meant to get the hallway painted in time for the arrival of a “very special visitor”, but the paints don’t match and they’re waiting on supplies, “You may not believe it, sir, but we take pride in our work!” one says over his latest cup of tea.
Fighting through the crowds, two disinterested ambulance workers haul a dying man out of the back on a gurney, bumping and jarring him through the emergency room doors. Only a handful of late-night staff are present and none of them acknowledge the new arrival. It’s time for the drivers’ tea break and the head nurse is officially off duty. As they edge their way between the admit desk and the gurney, the neglected patient takes a final breath and dies, his arm dangling limp over the side. Two orderlies return to their card game.
Come the morning shift and things are no better. Mr. Biles (Brian Pettifer), Assistant to the Administrator, and Mr. Potter (Leonard Rossiter), Administrator, have to constantly negotiate to get anything done. Like the corpse on the gurney, for instance, blocking traffic. He gets back nothing but cheek. “Don’t you call us men. We’re staff.” To keep from running to the union, they’ll settle for double time, eggs, toast and sausage. Meanwhile, there’s the usual rigamarole in the kitchens. Union rep Ben Keating (Robin Askwith) insists on the rights of the staff and of the public patients. “It’s the same for everyone, or nothing at all!” This, of course, angers the Private patients who are outraged at the treatment. “For the amount you charge, matron, we expect more than a British rails box lunch.” And cite their years of service. “I drove a bus for 15 years to pay for this operation!”
To add to everyone’s pressures, “Her Royal Majesty (aka “HRM”) will be visiting in celebration of th Anniversary of the establishment of Britannia Hospital since its opening under Elizabeth I. Queen will be touring the facilitiesand the archways are still a shambles. Potter protests and a worker responds, “An insult to me is an insult to every unskilled worker in this hospital. Think upon that.” Within the hour, Potter is dogged by the ministers of etiquette, Sir Antony Mount (little person actor Marcus Powell) and the Lady Felicity (John Bett in drag). Scotland Yard will have snipers on the grounds. Patients have been selected for presentation. “Nothing too gruesome, I hope,” twitters Lady Felicity.
This very day also marks the grand opening of the Millar Centre for Advanced Surgical Science, named for its founder, a master of “experimental surgical Darwinism”, the sinister Dr. Millar (Graham Crowden, whom fans will recognize as the same sinister doctor who gave patients sheep legs in O Lucky Man). He eludes to his newest, greatest experiment, “Genesis”, and after greeting Dr. MacMillan (Jill Bennett) with a passionate but quite British kiss, they exchange a bit of dialogue regarding a new patient:
Millar: “How’s McReady doing?”
MacMillan: “Splendid, we’re expecting death within the hour.”
Millar: “I have high hopes for McReady.”
Unfortunately, McReady (a non-speaking cameo by Alan Bates) continues to linger. Taking advantage of the elsewhere chaos, Millar chooses to gently remove the patient from life support and sever his head with a laser saw. Also unfortunately, this act has been witnessed by TV journalist Mick Travis (McDowell), who has bribed a union window-washer to sneak him down the side of the building so he can spy with his state-of-the-art mini-camera. “Citizen of the world, that’s me. I started in coffee.” Mick’s inside man, such as she is, is Nurse Amanda Purcil (Marsha Hunt), who helps smuggle Mick into the Centre, has a go at him in a supply closet, then preps him for disguise as a doctor. Before long, they come to Dr. Millar’s personal storage room, containing banks of window freezers containing harvested body parts. Mick manages to move a torso from one freezer and hide there just in time to hear MacMillan report to Millar: “There’s a small problem with the left buttock. It will need to be replaced.”
Down on the street in the midst of a growing riot, Travis’ cameramen Red (Mark Hamill) and Sam (Frank Grimes), are far more interested in the medicinal offerings of the various countries they’ve visited and decide to try them all out at once, their backs to Mick’s camera feed.
Having already insulted the ministers of etiquette and embarrassed administration—sez Sir Geoffrey: “You’re not a doctor, you’re a vampire. To you Patients aren’t suffering beings to cure, but raw material for your egomania.”—Millar has little interest in the Important Visit save for how it will affect his own presentation of “Man Remade”. His own documentary film crew is documenting his opening. To the cameras, Millar purees a brain to demonstrate the possibility of harnessing the full potential of 10 billion neurons. And then invites the director to take a swig.
Quickly—or, maybe, quicklier—negotiations, manipulations, protests and preparations have all whipped up quite a head of steam, with Potter and Biles bribing union heads with seats at the Royal Luncheon if they’ll co-operate outside of their own best interests, which turns out to be a rather simple solution to a complex problem. They also have to contend with the increasingly radical Anti-Ngami factions who threaten the safety of HRM and the Luncheon. Meanwhile, Travis is found out by Millar and his staff, but happens to possess a number of…items that Millar can utilize in his experiment. After much skullduggery, HRM arrives but so, at that very moment, to the riot police lose control of the protestors. For Dr. Millar, this all means a much larger—and captive—audience to witness his perfection, his “Genesis”.
There’s a lot of running around in Britannia Hospital and it is a bit of a satire smoothy—heavier-handed social commentary than If… and more slapstick than O Lucky Man, yet, somehow more accessible than either of Anderson’s previous entries. It doesn’t have a patience-trying running time, nor the cultural disparity of boarding school life to keep the audience at arm’s length. Many viewers have expressed disappointment that Travis is not the central character this time around and it is true that he tends to get lost in the chaos (until the wonderful set piece which I insist was inspired by Gordon Hessler’s Scream and Scream Again). There’s a lot to take in, a lot of characters to keep track of and a lot of rules to be acknowledged before they’re discarded. This isn’t the anarchy of Monty Python, but rather something akin to the daily cruelty of The Ruling Class. And despite the incomprehensibility of some of the Northern accents, Britannia Hospital manages to speak to cultures outside of Great Britain—really anywhere that contains a broken system of bureaucracy, government and public welfare.
“When it came to promoting Britannia Hospital outside the UK, Anderson was keen to stress that it was not a parochial work. In interviews and correspondence he repeatedly stresses that the themes of Britannia Hospital are universal and have relevance to all societies, not just Britain. This point was picked up by Alexander Walker (one of the few British critics who supported the film) in an article about its screening at the Cannes Film Festival in the Evening Standard in May 1982: ‘Its British setting in a London hospital, Anderson’s metaphor for a sick Britain suffering a nervous breakdown, hasn’t stopped practically every nationality present at Cannes from recognising and applying the truth of its savage comedy to the conditions of their own ailing countries’.”
With all the hooraw surrounding the derogatorily-named “Obamacare” and constant hysteria in the US, perhaps Britannia Hospital was ahead of its time and would be more warmly-welecomed now. In 1982, however, United Artists had less idea how to promote it than EMI in the UK. It had been ten years since the US release of O Lucky Man, and while it was met favorably by critics, it didn’t do tremendously well with American audiences. A superstar in Britain, Lindsay Anderson was far from a household name in the Colonies. UA’s trailers for the film were cut to make it appear a “zany” Python-esque romp, focusing on familiar faces like McDowell and Star Wars’ Hamill, who actually had a much smaller presence in the film than Malcolm. Anderson was “ashamed” of the strategies in his native land and was appalled by the obscene attempts at “blockbusterizing” Britannia Hospital abroad.
“I am quite ashamed to find that the general English-speaking hostility towards BH and the film’s dismissal by prejudice and resentment masquerading as criticism have disturbed me more deeply than is healthy. Not caused me to doubt the work, exactly, but made me aware of the near impossibility of getting across a point of view, values of reason and morality so alien to the spirit of our times. It is not so much the strength of the opposition that has discouraged me, as the lack of support, the indifference of the ‘uncommitted’ majority, and their willingness to be led by the enemy behind the typewriter … I have very little confidence that the film will do well. I don’t know whether it could have, given the benefit of a brilliantly intelligent campaign. But that is pure fantasy anyway.”
Britannia Hospital basically came and went. The US critics reviews were kinder to Anderson, perhaps due to Anglophilia towards the director, but it never found the correct audience. While it’s returned to the spotlight in recent years, thanks to McDowell’s praise of it in interviews and, particularly, on his one-man show about Anderson titled Never Apologize, Britannia Hospital remains, as Mackenzi and Magee observe, “perhaps the most unfairly neglected of his films.” Its lack of acceptance led to Anderson temporarily retiring from film, returning only to direct The Whales of August in 1987.
It is absolutely true that, in terms of it being a “Mick Travis” film, Britannia Hospital does not measure up to what came before. On its own, however, the movie is solid and often extremely funny. It also manages to be shocking even in this modern age of torture porn and endless war. Not only in terms of the Hammer-esque grand guignol climax of Millar’s “Man Remade” operation, but also in terms of corporate neglect, worker apathy, and the appaling conditions both staff and paitents face in modern hospitals (take, for example, the hospital’s Rudyard Kipling Wing, the most expensive, up-to-date, state-of-the-art, CCTV-covered ward, capable of housing 75 patients in complete comfort, but lays unused at the moment due to lack of cleaning staff). It’s also an example of how class warfare is alive and well in the 21st Century, even in the so-called “all men created equal” realm of the United States. As one placard in the crowd reads, “Priviledge is a crime!” Answering that, as the riot breaks free of the barracades and literally chases the Royal Family into Millar’s wing, Chief Inspector Johns declares that there’s only one thing left to do.
To which, Potter replies: Potter: “Cut the Luncheon!”
Without giving away the surprise (or, perhaps, lack-thereof) of what Millar’s “Genesis” is revealed to be, I’ll leave you with his final speech. What might have seemed heavy-handed in the ‘80s seems much more relevant today:
“Friends! Fellow Members of the Human Race! We are gathered here for a purpose. Let us look together at Mankind. What do we see? We see Mastery. What wonders Mankind can perform. He can cross the oceans and continents today, as easily as our grandfathers crossed the street. Tomorrow he will as easily cross the vast territories of space. He can make deserts fertile and plant cabbages on the Moon. And what does man choose? Alone among the creatures of this world, the Human Race chooses to annihilate itself. Since the last world conflict ended, there has not been one day in which Human Beings have not been slaughtering or wounding one another, in two-hundred and thirty different wars. And man breeds as recklessly as he lays waste. By the end of the century, the population of the world will have tripled. Two-thirds of our plant species will have been destroyed. 55% of the Animal Kingdom. And 70% of our mineral resources. Out of every hundred Human Beings now living, 80 will die without ever knowing what it feels like to be fully nourished... While a tiny minority indulge themselves in absurd and extravagant luxuries. A motion picture entertainer of North America will receive as much money in a month as would feed a starving South American tribe for a hundred years! We waste! We destroy! And, we cling like savages to our superstitions. We give power to leaders of State and Church as prejudiced and small-minded as ourselves, who squander our resources on instruments of destruction... While millions continue to suffer and go hungry, condemned forever to lives of ignorance and deprivation. And why is this? It is because mankind has denied Intelligence, the unique glory of our species - the Human Brain. Man is entering an era of infinite possibility, still imprisoned in a feeble, inefficient body... Still manacled by primitive notions of morality, which have no place in an Age of Science... Still powered by a brain that has hardly developed since the species emerged from the caves. Only a new intelligence can save Mankind! Only a new Human Being of pure brain can lead man forward into the new era. I do not speak of dreams. Such a being exists already. I have created it! It is here. Now. Prepare yourselves to meet the Human of the Future. Neither Man nor Woman. Greater than either. I have given it a name. Genesis. Birth. A New Birth. A New Beginning for Mankind. People of Today, Behold Your Future!”