The third in a loose trilogy of films from the great Lindsay Anderson which set out to satirise Britain’s dominant institutions – education in If…. (1968), the justice system in O Lucky Man! (1973) – Britannia Hospital’s focal target, as the title implies, would appear to be the NHS. In truth however, Anderson and scriptwriter David Sherwin are very much in scattergun mode here: the plot, such as it is, incorporates workers, unions and protestors, all of whom wander into their crosshairs as much as the establishment, the bureaucrats and the media.
Malcolm McDowell reprises his role of Mick Travis from the previous two films, here an investigative reporter, probing rumours of illicit medical research taking place at the titular hospital. Simultaneously, a new wing of the hospital due to be opened by the Queen Mother has attracted a horde of demonstrators, protesting the VIP treatment of an African dictator who, it’s reported, is also a cannibal. Soon HRH shows up with an entourage which includes a dwarf and a man in drag, the experiments of Professor Millar (Graham Crowden in all his barking, megalomanic glory) begin to go awry, and a reanimated headless corpse is on the loose.
If this sounds like there’s an awful lot going on, that’s because there is. A good deal of the absurdity at play in Britannia Hospital is down to the fact that the film is crowded not just with a Boschian roster of characters and overlapping storylines but also with endless styles and registers, carrying echoes of Fellini and Resnais one moment, a dated Carry On knock-off and a rickety 1970’s Dr Who adventure the next.
Accordingly, Britannia Hospital was panned on release and swiftly forgotten, presumably having failed to live up to the other two ‘Mick Travis’ films, both of which owe their success to the spiky turns from their magnetic star. McDowell’s character is here just one among many, but Britannia Hospital’s chief pleasure is how its comprehensively gloomy (yet entirely bonkers) assessment of British society relies on a formidable comic talent, with reliably elegant performances from Leonard Rossiter, Joan Plowright, Fulton Mackay and Arthur Lowe amongst a great many others from the 70’s sitcom stable. The film’s real knockout moment however is its final scene, one which remains as affecting as it is prescient, with Crowden unveiling to a packed auditorium The Genesis Project the unconscionable fruits of his research and a nightmarish glimpse into a future which now seems uncannily close to our present.