Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Lindsay Anderson|
|Produced by||Clive Parsons|
|Written by||David Sherwin|
|Music by||Alan Price|
|Edited by||Michael Ellis|
|Budget||$2.5 million or $4 million or £2.5 million|
Britannia Hospital is a 1982 British black comedy film, directed by Lindsay Anderson, which targets the National Health Service and contemporary British society. It was entered into the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and Fantasporto.
Britannia Hospital is the final part of Anderson's trilogy of films, written by David Sherwin, that follow the adventures of Mick Travis (portrayed by Malcolm McDowell) as he travels through a strange and sometimes surreal Britain. From his days at boarding school in if.... (1968) to his journey from coffee salesman to film star in O Lucky Man! (1973), Travis' adventures finally come to an end in Britannia Hospital, which sees him as a muckraking reporter investigating the bizarre activities of Professor Millar, played by Graham Crowden, whom he had had a run-in with in O Lucky Man. All three films have characters in common. Some of the characters from if.... that did not turn up in O Lucky Man return for Britannia Hospital.
The absurdities of human behaviour as we move into the twenty-first century are too extreme--and too dangerous--to permit us the luxury of sentimentalism or tears. But by looking at humanity objectively and without indulgence, we may hope to save it. Laughter can help.-- Lindsay Anderson
A new wing at Britannia Hospital is to be opened, and the Queen Mother--referred to as HRH--is due to arrive. The administrator of the hospital, Potter (Leonard Rossiter), is confronted with demonstrators protesting against an African dictator who is a VIP patient, striking ancillary workers (opposed to the exotic gastronomic demands of the hospital's private patients) and a less-than-cooperative Professor Millar (Graham Crowden), the head of the new wing. Rather than cancel the royal visit, Potter decides to go out and reason with the protestors. He strikes a deal with the protest leader--the private patients of Britannia Hospital are to be ejected and, in return, the protestors allow a number of ambulances into the hospital. However, unbeknown to the protestors, these ambulances actually contain the Queen Mother and her entourage.
Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) is a reporter who is shooting a clandestine documentary about the hospital and its dubious practices. He manages to get inside and starts to investigate Millar's sinister scientific experimentation, including the murder of a patient, Macready (Alan Bates). As mayhem ensues outside, Travis is also murdered and his head used as part of a grim Frankenstein-like experiment which goes hideously wrong.
Eventually, the protestors break into the hospital and attempt to disrupt Millar's presentation of his Genesis Project, in which he claims he has perfected mankind. In front of the assembled audience of Royalty and commoners, Genesis is revealed--a brain wired to machinery. Genesis is given a chance to speak and, in a robotic voice, utters the "What a piece of work is a man" speech from Hamlet, until it continuously repeats the line "How like a God".
Lindsay Anderson says the film had its origins in 1975 with a newspaper story about the "siege of Charing Cross Hospital, when there was a big demonstration against fee-paying private patients led by a union official known as Granny Brookstern. This immediately struck me as absurd. If you stand outside a hospital and stop ambulances going in in the name of humanity you are involved in a wonderfully absurd paradox. The story got even more wild with accusations that Granny Brookstern and the Labo[u]r Minister of Health had themselves been private patients; and so I started building up a private scrapbook of newsworthy absurdities."
Anderson said he was inspired by Amiel's theory that the only true principle of humanity is justice. "The man who would today say that liberty and equality are bad principles is a brave man but perhaps a necessary one since, unless they include justice, they are pernicious and self-destructive. That is at the heart of 'Britannia Hospital,' though I hope it's not a preachy film but a parable. A parable is a heavenly story with a earthly meaning. I hope this is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning."
Anderson did an outline and sent it to Lew Grade who was not interested. 20th Century Fox under Sandy Lieberson signed Anderson to a two-picture deal, of which one was to be Britannia Hospital. (The other was to be Dress Grey written by Gore Vidal). Anderson arranged for David Sherwin to write a script.
Sherwin said the film was not "about a hospital about all. It's about everything. It's not even a film that's just about Britain."
Lieberson left Fox and the studio dropped the project. Mamoun Hassan of the National Film Finance Corporation said he thought they were "too shocked by it".
Then producer Clive Parsons championed the project. He raised $1 million from Britain's National Film Finance Corporation and $3 million from EMI. Hassan says that there was discussion at the NFFC whether they should support a film by Anderson, who had made a number of movies, but ultimately decided he was an "outsider". Hassan attributes the fact that the budget was raised to Parson's persistence, and the fact the script had been around a number of years so some of the shock had "worn off". Nonetheless he called it "a risk... a very black comedy."
Filming started August 1981.
McDowell said he did the film just for his expenses, and no fee, because there was not enough money in the budget to pay his normal fee and he wanted to work with Anderson again. Mark Hamill also did the part free plus expenses when original choice Treat Williams bowed out.
During filming, Anderson needed another $1 million and two extra weeks to finish the film.
The film ends with a question mark, not a solution, and people don't like that. They want to be let off the hook, and this film impales the audience on rather a large hook. I think that if we are going to find solutions, we're not going to get any help from God, or any pre-sold political notions. The big question remains whether we are good enough or intelligent enough to survive.
Most British critics lambasted the film on release, although Dilys Powell reviewed it positively, David Robinson listed it among his top ten for the year, and Geoff Daniel chose it as his film of the year. Critic Ian Haydn Smith considers Britannia Hospital the "nadir" of Anderson's career. "Replacing satire with broad comedy, the film fails on every level in its attempt to critique the state of the National Health Service". The film won the "Audience Jury Award" at Fantasporto.