Britannia Hospital is usually described as the third part of Lindsay Anderson’s Michael Travis trilogy, although compared to If... and O Lucky Man Travis’s role is relatively minor in this one. It’s a movie that was thoroughly reviled upon its release in 1982 although it’s likely to find slightly more favour among modern audiences. It had much the same effect on Anderson’s career as Peeping Tom had on Michael Powell’s career in 1960 and for much the same reasons - it was not the movie that Anderson’s admirers or British film critics in general wanted from him.
Britannia Hospital is celebrating the 500th anniversary of its founding, but all is not well behind the wall of this venerable institution. In fact there is a great deal of bad craziness going on, as well as corruption and greed and all-round chaos. Things come to a head during a Royal Visit. There are protests against the special treatment of private patients and protests against the presence of a vicious Third World dictator in the hospital, while an investigative reporter (Mick Travis from the earlier films, again played by Malcolm MacDowell) is following up reports of bizarre experiments being carried out by the hospital’s most eminent surgeon, Professor Millar. The protests escalate into a full-scale riot, just as Professor Millar’s experiments are about to climax in true mad scientist fashion with his creation of a replacement for human beings.
It’s easy to see why this movie was so unpopular at the time. Anderson takes aim at an array of sacred cows, including those sacred to both the political left and the political right. While trendy film critics at the time would have enjoyed seeing the Royal Family, the police and the medical profession getting a pasting they would have been outraged that unions and human rights protesters got targeted as well. And Anderson’s style, already over-the-top in the earlier Mick Travis films, was becoming more and more outrageous. In Britannia Hospital he combines the surrealism of 1973’s O Lucky Man with a large dose of bad taste and gore and with humour that at times would not be out of place in a Carry On movie. The British film industry and British critics were just not ready for a blood-drenched art-house Carry On movie.
The movie was also attacked for what was seen as its excessive cynicism. It is unquestionably a bitter and cynical movie, a movie that reflects a comprehensive loss of faith in almost everything, but the point that was missed was that it is a bitter and cynical movie by a man who was not naturally bitter and cynical. It’s a plea for humanity in a world of greed and hypocrisy. The political satire of the movie doesn’t come from support for or opposition to any political ideology. It’s aimed at those who use political ideologies as a cloak for opportunism. Nobody in Britannia Hospital cares about the patients. The union representatives, the administrators, the Palace officials organising the Royal visit and the high-flying surgeons are all equally indifferent to the fate of the unfortunate patients. They are so engrossed in their power struggles that they hardly even seem aware that they are supposed to be caring for the sick. Even greater contempt is reserved for the media.
The wonderful Graham Crowden is at his scenery-chewing best as the crazed Professor Millar. There’s a galaxy of talented actors in this one, all overacting their hearts out. While it doesn’t reach the heights of greatness that Anderson scaled with If... and O Lucky Man it’s a movie that is well worth a look, and the history of our civilisation since 1882 would suggest that Anderson’s bitterness and cynicism were well and truly justified.