The story continues: O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital

If…. was effectively the high point of Anderson’s career, at least as a film director. It was followed by two other films featuring Malcolm MacDowell in the role of Mick Travis – O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982) – neither of which enjoyed much commercial or critical success. These three films are sometimes described as a trilogy. They have the same scriptwriter, David Sherwin, and many of the same crew. In addition to MacDowell, many of the actors from If…. reappear, sometimes with the same character names, and the later films make several references back to the previous ones. However, the later films are not sequels. Mick Travis in the later films is not really the same character as the Mick Travis of If….: in O Lucky Man! he is largely conformist, naïve and eager to please, while in a more marginal role in Britannia Hospital he plays a cynical representative of the media. While acknowledging that the films are not quite a trilogy, Anderson argued that they were nevertheless ‘a philosophical sequence’: the ideas they dealt with were similar, he said, but he hoped that there was a ‘development in maturity’ or in ‘thought and feeling’ across them. Most reviewers would probably beg to disagree with this.

I don’t intend to consider either of these films in great detail, not least because they go beyond my remit here. O Lucky Man! does arguably represent a transition to adulthood – Mick is frequently described as a ‘boy’, and according to Anderson’s early publicity, the film was going to be about ‘what happens after school’ – but neither of them are essentially ‘youth’ movies. Rather, both might more aptly be seen as ‘state of the nation’ films, albeit in different ways. O Lucky Man! is a picaresque ‘road movie’, in which we follow a character through a sequence of different locations, while Britannia Hospital is closer to a situation comedy. Nevertheless, both are clearly attempting to provide a wide-ranging critical or satirical portrait of the key social institutions of their time. The first part of O Lucky Man! focuses on forms of corruption, in business, government, the police force and the law; while the shorter second part offers an equally scathing critique of the various organizations or groups that have attempted to provide solutions (such as liberal charities, religious groups, and political activists). The setting of Britannia Hospital is more focused, but its targets are equally wide-ranging, including science, politics, business, the media, royalty and left-wing radicalism.

Very briefly, O Lucky Man! follows the adventures of Mick Travis across the country, as he moves from one job and one social sphere (and indeed one sexual encounter) to another. He begins as a trainee coffee salesman, encounters a group of corrupt policemen at a sex club, is apprehended and tortured by the secret service at a nuclear power plant, is apparently saved by the church, becomes the subject of a genetic research experiment, takes up with a group of rock musicians, becomes the assistant to a businessman selling chemical weapons to Africa, is unjustly convicted and eventually ends up in jail. Mick’s ‘progress’ continues after his release: having read numerous philosophy books in prison, he abandons his pursuit of material success. He encounters the Salvation Army, attempts to prevent a downtrodden housewife from committing suicide, distributes soup to vagrants, and finally turns up at an audition, where he is given a part by a director, played by Lindsay Anderson, in a film that sounds a lot like If…. O Lucky Man! is almost three hours long, and the events I have described are only the half of it.

As its title suggests, Britannia Hospital is set in a hospital – although, much more obviously than the school in If…., this is a metaphorical hospital that somehow stands for the nation as a whole. The action takes place on a day when a new research wing of the hospital is due to be opened by the Queen Mother. The hospital staff are on strike, partly over the issue of private patients, and the hospital is surrounded by demonstrators protesting about the presence in a private room of a corrupt African dictator and his entourage. Meanwhile, a domineering (and probably insane) professor who runs the plush, high-tech research wing is conducting genetic experiments in order to create an ideal life form – experiments that eventually include an investigative reporter (Mick Travis) who is seeking to expose him. The hard-pressed hospital administrator struggles to cope with these challenges, while negotiating the demands of the police, the Queen Mother’s minders, the trades unions, the private patents and the protesters.

O Lucky Man! is probably Anderson’s most ‘Brechtian’ film. Its use of music is particularly striking in this respect. Alan Price’s songs, performed in a studio with a visible film crew, operate in a similar way to those of the street singer in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, for example. While the songs themselves are melodic and easygoing, they interrupt the action and provide a kind of commentary on it – in some cases, helping to make the messages clearer, while in others providing ironic counterpoint. More broadly, the film constantly reminds us that it is constructed. Like If…., it is broken into sections, although the intertitles are largely descriptive rather than providing much by way of commentary. The film is also replete with knowing references to other literary and film texts: it invokes Browning, Coleridge, Gorky, Eisenstein and Ford, as well as MacDowell’s earlier role in Stanley Kubrick’s notorious Clockwork Orange (1971). According to Erik Hedling, the plot owes a great deal to Preston Sturges’s eccentric Hollywood film Sullivan’s Travels, as well as to Voltaire’s Candide, and many other sources besides. As with If…., Anderson provides ample opportunities for critics to play Hunt the Symbol; and here again, the script overflows with self-consciously clever epigrammatic lines. (This ‘art film’ tendency – and indeed the ‘Brechtian’ elements – are less apparent in Britannia Hospital.)

In both films, the use of actors is also quite non-naturalistic. Several of the actors play two or more parts – something that (like the use of black-and-white in If….) appears to have been introduced for logistical reasons during the filming. As in Brecht’s plays, many of the parts are ‘social types’ rather than psychologically rounded personalities: the evil capitalist, the oppressed working-class housewife, the mad scientist, the corrupt third world leader, and so on. Most of them are essentially caricatures, and they are performed in deliberately stylized, exaggerated ways. Both films – and particularly Britannia Hospital – use actors who were very well known at the time for their roles in television sitcoms.

In this respect, and in terms of narrative, both films might be described as allegories. O Lucky Man! in particular has the structure of a moral fable, in the manner of Pilgrim’s Progress: the hero moves almost schematically through a range of social institutions, and finds each of them wanting in various ways. By the end of the film, Mick has effectively reached rock bottom: he finds himself penniless in the middle of London, and goes to the audition in response to a placard saying ‘star wanted – try your luck’ that he sees in the street (notably carried by another of the actors from If….). At the audition, Anderson (‘playing’ the film’s director) modestly occupies a role akin to a Zen master: he repeatedly asks Mick to smile, and when he refuses to do so, he slaps him round the face with his script, perhaps precipitating some kind of enlightenment. In writing about the film, Anderson was fairly explicit about this dimension, noting also that there is a discussion of Zen Buddhism playing at one point on Mick’s car radio – although an expert in the field would almost certainly regard this view of Zen as utterly superficial.

The climax of Britannia Hospital is even more sardonic and cynical. To an assembled audience of the entire cast, the Professor gives a lengthy speech about the impending environmental apocalypse, global war and inequality, ignorance and deprivation, and then proposes that his experiment will create ‘a new human being of pure brain… a new beginning for mankind’. The large brain he has created will, he says, eventually be replaced by a tiny silicon chip. Needless to say, this Frankenstein-like experiment is a disastrous failure; and the film ends with the Professor’s new creation ‘Genesis’ reciting Hamlet’s speech ‘what a piece of work is man!’, endlessly looping the phrase ‘like a god’ as the screen cuts to black. It is difficult to imagine a more nihilistic conclusion.

Certainly, there is little hint in either film that revolutionary politics might provide a way out, despite the corruption and hypocrisy of the powers that be. In O Lucky Man!, this possibility is merely dismissed in a passing piece of graffiti that informs us that ‘revolution is the opium of the intellectuals’. By Britannia Hospital, we have come a step further. Anderson originally conceived of the film as an attack on ‘doctrinaire Leftists’ opposed to private medicine; and he described the strikes that were occurring around this time as symptomatic of ‘semi-socialist Britain’. (The film is not in any sense a prescient critique of the privatization of the National Health Service.) The workers are shown to be lazy, racist and stupid, and their union representatives are self-serving hypocrites; while the protesters who appear at the hospital gates are easily fooled. While If…. might have been read as an incitement to revolution, neither of these films could ever be interpreted in such a way.

Ultimately, however, there is a gap between intention and outcome with both films. Britannia Hospital in particular borders on the unwatchable, not only in my view but in that of many critics. The film was very poorly received in Britain, partly because of an incoherent publicity campaign, but also because of Anderson’s persistent tendency to provoke the journalists who interviewed him. Privately, it seems, he was aware of the film’s failings, but he also took the negative response as further evidence of the stupefied conformism of the mass audience. The film was better received in the USA and in some parts of Europe, but its failure in the UK merely confirmed Anderson’s familiar self-image as a misunderstood and embattled martyr to his art.

Anderson described both films as comedies, but they provide very little to laugh about. There are many moments in both that are positively cringe-worthy, although the performance of Arthur Lowe in blackface as an African dictator in O Lucky Man! is perhaps the most astonishing. As with If…., Anderson and his supporters have claimed that these elements are ‘Brechtian’, although there is a danger that this becomes a justification for things that are merely misjudged and inept. Britannia Hospital resembles nothing so much as a Carry On film; yet despite including some good comic acting, it has little of the vulgar gusto of those films, and it signally fails to be funny. It is certainly questionable whether any of this has a ‘Brechtian’ effect: it may distance us from the action, but it can hardly be seen to invite the more considered, rational debate Brecht was seeking to promote. On the contrary, the films push home their pre-determined messages with a clod-hopping lack of complexity or subtlety.

Some academic critics at the time – most notably Colin MacCabe – were keen to celebrate the ‘Brechtianism’ of Jean-Luc Godard (in films like Tout Va Bien), while dismissing the ‘vulgarisation and depoliticisation’ of Brecht in Anderson’s films. MacCabe argues that, far from identifying the ‘contradictions within the society’ as Godard does, Anderson’s O Lucky Man! merely reaffirms ‘that endless message of the reactionary petit-bourgeois intellectual – that we can do nothing against the relentless and evil progress of society (run as it is by a bunch of omnipotent capitalists with the morality of gangsters) except note our superiority to it.’ Certainly by the time we get to Britannia Hospital, it’s hard to dissent from this: across the ‘trilogy’, Anderson appears to become increasingly embittered, misanthropic and cynical – adopting a curmudgeonly tone that is echoed in much of his writing as well. At the same time, one might well ask whether ‘Brechtianism’ can ever really work in cinema – as compared with the stage, for which it was intended (and in this respect, I wouldn’t share MacCabe’s wholesale enthusiasm for Godard, whose work at this time has not aged well).



Towards the end of his life, in the early 1990s, Anderson was in discussion with David Sherwin and others about the possibility of making a genuine sequel to If…. Paramount apparently commissioned a script, and permission was granted to film at Cheltenham College, despite the objections of the former headmaster, who wrote a stinging criticism of the making of the original film. A summary of If(2)…., as it was known, can be found in Paul Sutton’s book. It reads partly like a knowing parody, in which MacDowell acts the role of a film star revisiting the school, while others reprise their roles in comic or satirical form, or alternatively receive their come-uppance. However, it also comes across as a rather self-righteous, sentimental parable, complete with sententious moral lessons. The reputation and popular memory of the first film may not entirely correspond with how it appears in retrospect today; but we should probably be grateful that this sequel was never made.


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