“The contents of this book defy description”, writes the play’s editor, Bernard Miles. Spike Milligan and John Antrobus’ absurdist comedy first hit the stage back in 1963, both bewildering and delighting its audience members. Yet it should not be treated merely as nonsense; Milligan and Antrobus’ madness conceals great method within.
Maybe I’m deluded in believing this, but beyond its silly japes I find an incredibly witty and perceptive comedy in The Bedsitting Room. The premise of the play is simple: three years ago, Britain was reduced to dust by a nuclear war lasting about three minutes, “including the signing of the peace treaty”. Our protagonist, Lord Fortnum, is possessed with a fear that he will turn into a bedsitting room, through mutation induced by the fallout. And yes, that is intended to be read quite literally.
Fortnum’s chief concern doesn’t appear to be the transformation itself, but more trivial issues. He travels restlessly, hoping to move to a borough where rent will be higher. Through the quarry-esque desert landscape he wanders, looking for a more ‘expensive’ region. Ironically, it is those who don’t recognise the boundaries anymore who are mocked, with questions such as “don’t you know your London?”
Milligan’s vision portrays the death of civilisation, exposing humanity without its clothes. A comic King Lear, it takes modern society out of its paradise in order to expose how unnatural our behaviour is. Milligan, in an interview with Bernard Braden on ITV, said, “Nobody ever got the point about what it was about. What we were trying to say through all this laughter and fun, was that if they dropped the bomb on a major civilisation, the moment the cloud had dispersed and sufficient people had died, the survivors would set up all over again and have Barclays Bank, Barclay cards, garages, hates, cinemas and all […] just go right back to square one. I think man has no option but to continue his own stupidity.”
Bizarre ‘police’ patrols are the forces of authority and entropy in the play. They are presented effectively in the film adaptation, which periodically features a bulldozer passing across the scene, ready to knock down any would-be sitting rooms, with cries of “keep moving!” from a megaphone. These strange figures are the resistance to the return of civilisation, the forces of entropy and of anarchy. The writers craft a sense of human struggle against disorder, our natural battle of creating something from nothing. In one sense, there is great optimism in the establishment of the bedsitting room: it anticipates the restoration of society. Yet Antrobus and Milligan also express frustration at how we cling to tradition. They seem to state “even if the world ended, we would still be worrying about money and class”.
In a mockery of Shakespeare, Fortnum cries “a guide, a guide, my freehold for a guide!”. The line brilliantly plays upon the satirical use of the phrase, which suggests that what he needs is insignificant; yet, ironically, Fortnum fails to perceive this. Milligan creates a second layer of absurdity to his already surreal comedy by portraying the absurdity of Fortnum’s priorities in the face of his unlikely circumstances. Once compared to our own society, still so attached to these concepts, the play shows to be artificial alongside human nature, and here we can understand the depths of the authors’ criticisms.
They appear to call for a release from our artificial fancies of class, wealth, and social convention. In the film adaptation, the depiction of the circle line, still running endlessly underground, symbolises this stasis. The decision to list the cast “in order of height” rather than appearance seems to challenge these conventions, presenting the actors in a more creative and egalitarian manner.
Too political and too absurd for its time, it’s sad that the play never found mainstream success. Its influence can be marked clearly in later comedies such as Monty Python, which were surely indebted to the groundwork laid by Milligan, Antrobus and their contemporaries. I like to think the spirit of the absurd this text spread lives on in the chain of works inspired by the humble efforts of these surrealist comics.
Words by Reece Doughty