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Britannia Hospital (1982)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK ltd

Main image of Britannia Hospital (1982)
35mm, 116 min, colour
DirectorLindsay Anderson
Production CompanyFilm & General Productions
ProducersDavina Belling
 Clive Parsons
ScreenplayDavid Sherwin
CinematographyMike Fash
MusicAlan Price

Cast: Malcolm McDowell (Mick Travis); Mark Hamill (Red); Leonard Rossiter (Vincent Potter); Brian Pettifer (Biles); Alan Bates (Mr McReady); Fulton Mackay (Chief Superintendent Johns); Graham Crowden (Professor Millar); Marsha Hunt (Nurse Persil)

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A strike at a hospital on the eve of a Royal visit results in mayhem, while a mad doctor uses National Health funds to create Frankenstein-type creatures.

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Britannia Hospital received, in Britain at least, an extremely hostile reaction upon its initial release. This is perhaps surprising, given that it completes Lindsay Anderson's 'Mick Travis' trilogy; the previous two films of which - If.... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973) - had both been critical and, to some extent, popular successes.

The initial negative reaction might have been because Britannia Hospital is a very different film from its predecessors. This time, for example, Mick Travis is no more than a peripheral figure. Further, Britannia Hospital is more brazenly comic; everything - including its scenes of Cronenberg-style body-horror - is played for laughs. Indeed, its comedic tone is reinforced by the presence of some of television's most accomplished comic actors, including Leonard Rossiter and Fulton Mackay, whose graceful performances also ensure that Britannia Hospital's more serious core is not submerged by all of the silliness on display.

What Britannia Hospital shares with its forerunners is a vitriolic sense of social justice. The hospital of the title acts as a microcosm for all of (Thatcherite) Britain, and demonstrates the 'powder-keg' nature of a society in which the privileged classes rub shoulders with the downtrodden. The institutions and individuals of both the political Left and the Right are held responsible for the ensuing chaos - patients die in hospital corridors as hospital-workers go on strike, while policemen viciously club protesters to the accompaniment of 'God Save the Queen'. This cruel and unforgiving depiction of human society recalls, at first, the aloof detachment of Anderson's much earlier O Dreamland (1953).

However, Britannia Hospital's final scene contextualises all that has preceded it, and serves to reveal the film as the most humane in all of Anderson's work. When Professor Millar's nightmarish 'Genesis' project - an exposed, pulsating brain wired to machinery - gives a (literally) soulless rendition of the "What a piece of work is man..." speech from Hamlet, its failings are all too apparent. Compared to such an inhumane device, people, in all their absurdity and with all their faults, are held up as something to be celebrated.

Britannia Hospital thus prompts us to avoid the future predicted by Professor Millar and his Genesis machine, and, in doing so, makes us ask what moral choices should be made in order that people might live peaceably together. In today's world, this question is of increasing relevance; as too is a film that is brave enough to pose it.

Peter Hoskin

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Video Clips
1. Time off (2:16)
2. Auld Lang Syne (4:49)
3. Evolution (4:52)
Production stills
Anderson, Lindsay (1923-1994)
Askwith, Robin (1950-)
Bates, Alan (1934-2003)
Coltrane, Robbie (1950-)
Crowden, Graham (1922-2010)
Culver, Roland (1900-1984)
Griffiths, Richard (1947-2013)
Jeffrey, Peter (1929-1999)
Lowe, Arthur (1915-1982)
McDowell, Malcolm (1943-)
Nichols, Dandy (1907-1986)
Plowright, Dame Joan (1929-)
Sherwin, David (1942-)
Smith, Liz (1921-)