At the Britannia Hospital, which celebrates its 500th anniversary, the Queen Mother and the Japanese ambassador are to open the new Millar Centre for Advanced Surgical Science, partly funded by Banzai Chemicals of Tokyo.
The celebration is, however, disturbed by industrial action, broken-down telecommunications and fierce demonstrations against the African dictator Ngami (Val Pringle) who is a private patient.
Further, there are the disturbances caused by police violence and Professor Millar’s disastrous experiments with human corpses.
Director Lindsay Anderson directly relates the characters of the film to the audience. At the end, demonstrators, striking workers, royalty, police, hospital managers, all gather to experience Millar’s demonstration of ‘Genesis’ – the new man – consisting of a human brain situated in a pyramid-shaped computer.
They are positioned as in a cinema, voyeuristically enjoying the spectacle, at least partly representing the ‘real’ audience of Britannia Hospital.
Nobody evades Anderson’s satire. The trade unions become the object of particularly harsh commentary. COHSE’s (Confederation of Health Service Employees) Phyllis Grimshaw (Joan Plowright), AEU’s (Amalgamated Engineering Union) Tom Sharkey (Dave Atkins), and particularly NUPE’s (National Union of Public Employees) Ben Keating (Robin Askwith), are all ready and willing to set aside the interests of their members for personal gain.
When the kitchen staff refuse to unload a truck of “ambassador-class” lunches, ordered from Fortnum & Mason, the director, Potter (Leonard Rossiter), secures Keating’s co-operation by promising him a place at the royal table.
At such occasions, Potter continues, it is not unlikely that a worker representative might receive some kind of official recognition, like an MBE. “What about an OBE?” Keating greedily asks.
Keating, of course, manages to calm the masses, and when Rochester (Valentine Dyall), the Fortnum man, suddenly starts to sing Auld Lang Syne, and everyone – Potter and Keating included – holds each other’s hand and sings along (pictured below), the effect becomes one of profound irony.
Even more subdued is the mass faced by the leader of the demonstration, Elisha Odingu (Rufus Collins), or indeed in front of the demonic Professor Millar (Graham Crowden), the scientist who controls everyone: demonstrators, striking workers and his own medical team. Millar is the high priest of modern society, ruler of life and death, and funded by Japanese imperialism.
However, it is not only the trade union, the masses or the scientist who come in for satire. Corrupt policemen, snobbish aristocracy, sensationalist journalism and even royalty also get their fair share of abuse.
The police are represented by the conceited chief of police (Fulton Mackay), who has dangerously placed snipers all over the area, the aristocrats by the racist General Wetherby (Roland Culver), who certainly did not spend 50 years in India to share rooms with a bunch of ‘wogs’ (typically, this expression is also employed by the members of NUPE who want to send President Ngami “back to wogland”).
The television team headed by Peter Mancini (Peter Machin) humbly documents Millar’s obvious madness. Sammy, another journalist, played by Anderson’s friend Frank Grimes, becomes a part representing the whole when, smoking pot, he laughs hysterically at a TV programme about the breeding of broilers, without seeing the metaphorical relation to his own reality.
Buckingham Palace in its turn is represented by Sir Anthony Mount, hilariously played by the midget Marcus Powell, Scottish drag artist John Betts’s Lady Felicity Ramsden, an upper-class lady obsessed with meaningless questions of etiquette.
The Queen Mother herself (Gladys Crosbie) is understandably more toned down, and Anderson emphasised that he did not want to attack any individual representative of the royal family: What is under attack is the function of the monarchy. Royalty has a debilitating effect simply by being there and using its enormously sentimentalised appeal to anaesthetise us all and lull us into accepting the Establishment view of things.
Nobody cares about the fate of individuals in this condemned society – At the very beginning, the hospital staff let a patient die on his stretcher because it is time to have tea.
To Millar, nobody matters: Macready (Alan Bates), a patient in a coma who refuses to die conveniently, is simply murdered by the professor who needs the head to create his grotesque monster. Potter in his turn promptly kills a striking electrician who refuses to turn on the electricity.
The media is held responsible for this social chaos. The hospital has its own cable radio and the disc jockey, Cheerful Bernie (Richard Griffiths) is at the very centre of the narrative, being cut in from time to time, signifying the power of media to control everything.
In the hospital, TV cameras watch over everything. Since lack of cleaning staff has made one of the wards empty, the nurse watches TV on her screen, instead of watching the beds. If people are not watching television, they turn to tabloids, preferably the Daily Mail or the Sun.
The choice of actors in part parodies popular television comedy. Leonard Rossiter was, of course, a leading comedian in the series Rising Damp, and Fulton MacKay clearly alludes to his role in Porridge.
In many self-reflexive, critical gestures, Anderson scrutinises the repressive role of cameras in modern society. When Nurse Persil (a reference to the commercial Anderson directed for Persil in 1963?) films the royal party, the images are sent to the cable car, now occupied by demonstrators, who realise that the Queen Mother and her entourage after all managed to get into the hospital.
The moving images are revealing, but are at the same time so one-dimensional as to cause the coming disaster. The camera, in reality, becomes a weapon, aimed at the people themselves; this is particularly illustrated by Travis when, surrounded by Millar’s operation team, he tries to threaten his antagonists by pretending that his camera is a gun.
He starts ‘shooting’, while the BBC cameramen ‘shoot’ him, parodying a Fordian showdown. The metaphor of the camera as potentially lethal had been developed by Michael Powell in Peeping Tom, a film that equals the desire to watch with the lust to kill.
Paradoxically, Professor Millar becomes the spokesman for Anderson and Sherwin when questioning the future of the human race. In his speech, Millar underlines the fact that man, instead of embracing peaceful co-existence and a rational deployment of modern technology, has chosen to exterminate itself in 230 different wars since the end of the Second World War.
Furthermore, the assets of humanity are ridiculously distributed: “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” exclaims Millar.
Even if many of Millar’s statements seem apt, his insane creation, the human being of the future, is more questionable: “Neither man nor woman, greater than either. Genesis, birth, a new birth” Millar shouts.
The question posed at the end of the film is “Is man intelligent enough to survive?” The speech concluding the film is not sentimental; it’s much more the speech of an angry rationalist who is appalled and irritated by the stupidity of mankind.
He proposes that the only solution is intelligence. But, of course, having made this speech, which most people would agree with, he then proposes a solution that is even crazier and more horrifying than anything the establishment represents.
He produces the idea of a disembodied intelligence, this brain we see, which he tells us will be combined into a silicon chip.
So, the challenge at the end is a question, If only intelligence can save us how can that intelligence be controlled?
Chief Superintendent Johns
Nurse Amanda Persil
Marsha A Hunt