Thursday, September 12, 2013

More From the 1960's--Serious Comedy from Master Director Richard Lester


Richard Lester (pictured above) is an eighty-one year old Anglo-American director who made his place in new wave cinema with a short called "The Running, Jumping and Standing Still" film with Peter Sellers. He famously did The Beatles first two films,  Hard Day's Night" (1964) and "Help" the next year.  

He later made some spot-on satires like "The Knack...and How  to Get It" (1965) about sexual mores among the middle-class young in a rapidly less austere landscape (London at the dawn of its peak in trends in fashion, politics and pop entertainment ). His masterpiece in my opinion was "Petulia (1968) with George C. Scott and Julie Christie, about a  middle-aged San Francisco-based doctor whose affair with a "kooky" young woman is anything but casual. And then came "The Bed Sitting Room" (1969)  , a likely box-office fizzle in the USA but  film which captures the madness of nuclear war and its effect on the human psyche better than more serious films. 
From Wikipedia:  "The film is set in London on the third or fourth anniversary of a nuclear war which lasted two minutes and twenty-eight seconds, including signing the peace treaty. Three (or possibly four) years after the nuclear holocaust, the survivors wander amidst the debris. Penelope is 17 months pregnant and lives with her lover, Alan, and her parents in a tube train on the (still functioning) Circle Line.
"Other survivors include Captain Bules Martin, who holds a "Defeat of England" medal, as he was unable to save Buckingham Palacefrom disintegration during the war. Lord Fortnum (Richardson) is fearful that he will mutate into the "bed sitting room" of the title. Mate is a fireguard, except that there is nothing left to burn. Shelter Man is a Regional Seat of Government who survived the war in a fallout shelter and spends his days looking at old films (without a projector) and reminiscing about the time he shot his wife and his mother as they pleaded with him to let them in his shelter. Similarly, the "National Health Service" is the name of a male nurse, although overwhelmed by the extent of the war. Finally, there are two policemen, who hover overhead in the shell of a Morris Minor Panda carthat has been made into a makeshift balloon, and shout "keep moving" at any survivors they see to offset the 'danger' of them becoming a 'target' in the unlikely event of another outbreak of hostilities."
Two clips (seen below),  "Primitive London" and "London Raw", were very likely not made by Lester, but by some clueless twits who shall remain nameless and may well have been from San Jose, California,  judging by their taste in cinema.

Not your usual light-hearted fare for a comedy.  
 After the 1960's fizzled out, Lester went on to make more commercial films like "The Three Musketeers" (1973), "Juggernaut" (1974), "The Four Musketeers" (1975) and "Cuba" (1979) with Sean Connery and Brooke Adams and "Superman II (1980), which was co-directed by Richard Donner.    The disappointing and forgettable "Superman III" was his apex helming big budget  Hollywood films--and also one of his least inspired.   His very last feature film to date was, perhaps fittingly, a concert film for Paul McCartney.  
These films were put out by the BFI as part of a package of movies that highlight some of the highs and lows of British cinema in the 1960's. One of the highs (although not a great film, perhaps) was the black comedy "The Bed Sitting Room" 1969 about post-apocalypse UK where all concerns about class structure (or any structure) have gone away thanks to the rapid decline in population due to nuclear war.

Lester also made a thoughtful and direct anti-war comedy, "How I Won the War" (1967), with Michael Crawford,  John Lennon  and one of Lester's favorite actors, Roy Kinnear, who died sadly from an accident during the making of Lester's, "The Return of the Musketeers" (1989).

 Among other things, "HIWTW" threw a light on the commercial and popular notions about World War II and showed some of the dirty business (the blight of commercialism, cold-blooded killing, stupid generals sending men to die on impossible or impractical missions, and the famous "ghost soldiers" in the film who are off to Vietnam in twenty years.) Here is  the original trailer for the film:  


  1. I saw the Bed Sitting Room at the Odeon Cinema, Sutton Coldfield shortly after it was released, it was part of the late 60s obsession with anything 'offbeat' in which Dick Lester was deeply implicated. During my early youthful forays into the "The [Big] Smoke" as we then referred to the capital, I would head for late night Picadilly (the 'Dilly) which was attractive precisely because it was the sleaze capital of England at the time, maybe it still is for all I know...I don't do so many late nights out nowadays.
    But the world conjured up in the West End scenes in the film and the odd sounding voiceover were pretty alien to a kid from the West Midlands like me
    That is not to say that the 60s didn't happen outside London, it certainly did.... but the "Happenings" of Dick Lester's films never really happened like that in my world. It seemed odd at the time and I think it seems even odder today that portrayals of the swinging set of London's West End rarely mentions the junkies on Gerard Street, the runaways and street urchins that congregated around Picadilly Circus after dark. I think films like the Bedsitting Room, Help and A Hard Days Night have not stood the test of time. Beatlemania of course was real enough then but films about it now seem somewhat lightweight and hallucinogenic, which is I think what was intended of them at the time, it just doesn't seem relevant anymore I suppose.

    I really appreciate you posting these reviews and accounts for films and film makers Doug, they are leading me into a revisionist history of the 1960s. As you recently mentioned yourself Doug John Kerry has gone from being a 60s pacifist hipster to a sabre rattling hawk, while another close friend of John Lennon, Uri Geller was by his own more recent admission a Mossad agent at the time, probably still is. Richard Lester for me is a man of that time, a celebrity of the psychedelic revolution and promoter of Beatlemania and CND. Thanks for the retrospective Doug it is good to revisit these long forgotten experiences like watching The Bedsitting Room again and recalling what I and my friends thought of it at the time. I think we thought it was alright, I liked Spike Milligan's bit in it I remember, but I don't think we as a group were set alight by it as I recall, it is a bit like a bad dream I think, whacky but somehow a bit of a 'downer' in the end. That's how I remember it anyway Doug.

    1. I had the chance to see both the "Bed Sitting Room" first on late-night television on a rainy weekend night in the 70s. It struck as one of those "Only-in-England" films that I enjoyed for their sheer audacity and satirical reproach. You just couldn't see a movie like this in 1969 in the USA. To many sacred cows sent up so casually. It would have been too earnest if an American director had done it and probably the distributor would have insisted on a happy ending.

      Reflecting some more here, I agree "Bed-Sit" is indeed a downer, AA. But I think it serves us as a testimony to the times rather than an entertainment. Compared to the ultra-serious end-of-the-world films it made about as much sense in its absurdity as the US-made end-of-the world films like Stanley Kramer's nightmarish yet dour "On the Beach" (1959) "Fail-Safe" (1964), "The Bedford Incident" (1965) and tv-film "The Day After" (1983) with all their earnestness.

      Seeing it later in a college theater revival with "How I Won The War" I was struck how much time had moved on in the culture--and, mind you, this was 1981, just a dozen years from the sixties! Lennon was dead, and Lester was directing movies about a guy flying around in a red-white and blue uniform and cape. His humor was no longer out there--it was barely visible. He was a working guy on a job, like the rest of us, but he had a good run as my grandmother would say for a decade of so.

      This spirit of these early Lester films--outre' comedies seemed to have past away even then. What makes these films--and "A Hard Day's Night" worth writing about is their very capturing of an ephemeral time in the Anglosphere when satire held sway as a way of looking at the world and both the bloody past and the potentially short-term future.

      Lester really is a director for the 60's in short, but, outside of "Petulia" I am afraid you're right---the films he made must be seen with the context of their times. Therefore screening these comedies today would almost require a explanatory essay to hand-out to an audience. I think the kids of today at that college I was at long ago might something like 1967 "Bedazzled" better, with more funny business and Raquel Welch (as "Lust") in all her pre-feminist voluptuous selfhood.

      Indeed the San Francisco of "The Summer of Love" (1967) also didn't happen for many the way it is remembered. From what I've read and seen on film in documentaries it was a lot of junkies better off back in Chicago and Des Moines (especially the girls) and pasty-cheeked cops in crew-cuts looking to cuff-and-stuff "hippies" into the blue and white paddy wagons.

      I'm glad you touched on Secretary of State John Kerry's spooky transformation---one all too common it seems when the headiness of power changes leaders more than their own experiences in war and memories of a blinkered establishment talking about "a light at the end of the tunnel", the joys of (South) Vietnamization and the bomb-razed ending furnished by Nixonian leadership.

      "How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?" he said to a committee of Congressmen in 1972. One might ask "Where did Kerry's idealism and keen radar for the absurdity of choosing one side of killing as more inhumane than another....Remember napalm, Mr Kerry? That was chemical warfare too.

      So in the end Richard Lester captured something but its resonance has left even those of us who know where he was coming from a bit flummoxed as to its lasting value, I must now admit. Seeing these films is seeing a time now cast in amber, films more to be amazed by their mere existence than lasting value.

  2. I think you make some excellent points here Doug. You are right these fims stand as cultural artifacts of the Affluent Society in post Apocalyptic hysteria when all you did need was love for 18 months or so anyway.
    I think the 60s are fascinating times globally. Psychedelia was a product sold to a pretty desperate public on global distribution and interestingly in the context of other conversations we have had it saw progress in the rediscovery of its (our) roots in native American culture, Asian mysticism, Shamanic traditions of Africa and Europe and the archaeological discovery of our social origins with the advent of 19th century antiquarianism.....I suppose the film 2001: A Space Odyssey sums up that modern-post modern watershed rather neatly at a time when humanity was making its first forays into space in search of our origins in nature.

    I suppose I should watch the Bed Sitting Room and How I Won The War again all the way through now, all these years later (preferably in a cinema like the first time) and see what I make of them nowadays Doug. I think the process of seeing our own lives become history in this image and sound saturated digital world we inhabit like no generation has done before us, this it seems to me, has made us into our own ancestor for the first time ever, no longer merely a fading memory but immortalised by the artifacts that gave our lives their meaning at that earlier time in the evolution of the ourselves in particular and humanity in general.

    I suppose that must be the true 'value' of Dick Lester's films and all the outpourings of the image creators worldwide since the technology became available to capture a moment and as you say Doug ...'cast it in amber'.

    Mind you, that would come as no surprise at all to Euripides I suppose because in the end as LP Hartly so sagely wrote "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" while paradoxically Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 AD - 180 AD) in his Meditations states "the universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it." while Henry David Thoreau says in Walden.... "things do not change; we change."

    I'm sure John Kerry can identify with that latter sentiment, but leaving all that aside for now, I think your observation that [these are] ...."films more to be amazed by their mere existence than lasting value" is the definitive answer to the question 'what are they for'?

    From where we are now on the Magical Mystery Tour the past does indeed look a lot like a foreign country to me anyway, in some ways better, in some ways worse.

    Thanks for opening up this topic of conversation with your most erudite commentary Doug.

    1. Thank you right back for your enlightened reflections on the origins of studying the past and how this is reshaping us all, AA.

      I think the notion that "we have become our own ancestors" is a marvelous term you have invented!

      It sums up the rapid changes in modern life for anyone who is lucky enough to reach middle age I would say. The films and television shows that had an imprint on our generation are, in a very real way, still with us no matter what their modern import. Once it only possible for still images, scrolls and later printed-type to carry on information about human life.

      Now our "past" speaks to us just as it was,in two dimensions at least, a very well-formed "fata morgana" coming to a movie theater, television or a DVD player near you, I and a few billion others.

      The past is certainly a tricky thing, as your LP Hartly and Marcus Aurelius quotes show so aptly.

      In most of human history as I recall we as cultural animals were members of small groups whose "past-tripping" only came from story-telling sessions, inexact memory retention, formal rituals and private dreams. But the marriage of photography and voice and captured movement has redefined that old data-collection process.

      The "dreams" and mirages of the long dead remain intact, no shamans needed. I suppose this was always true in part with painting and sculpture, but now old images "move and breathe" does remain us more powerfully of our own personal time-space voyage.

      Being own "ancestors" thanks to this technology gives us a second or multiple chance to see and reassess memories--which I personally find are often very inexact. We are indeed the first generations of people to experience this. Rather amazing I think.

      Imagine a "poor player" from Shakespeare's London of the early Stuart Era as an old man describing a play as it was performed then, to an audience of young players 40 years later in the Restoration Era. It would have to be imperfect. But not we only need a theater or a DVD player or You Tube to again see the "plays and the players" so to speak, and the "news-makers" of that time as well.

      Thanks for your enlightening responses on this topic, AA.