The British team of director Lindsay Anderson and writer David Sherwin established a well-earned reputation for alienating facetiousness with "If . . ." in 1969 and "O Lucky Man!" four years later. The prospect of a decade-after reunion on "Britannia Hospital," which opened recently at the MacArthur, awakened a dormant prejudice that the work itself does nothing to discourage.
The title refers to a vast, malfunctioning medical facility in London that's obviously envisioned as a metaphor for the country at large.
Two crisis situations keep the plot wheezing along. A visit by Her Majesty, otherwise known as "HRH," threatens to be disrupted by striking hospital employes and outside agitators.
In addition, the climactic event of the visit, a demonstration of some dubious medical breakthrough by the resident Frankenstein, the megalomaniac director of an "advanced center for surgical science," is threatened by a muckraking journalist, who infiltrates the premises with a miniature videocamera in hopes of documenting a monstrous scandal.
After Paddy Chayefsky's "Hospital," Michael Crichton's movie version of "Coma" and a straight parody as recent as "Young Doctors in Love," it would be a little difficult to give Anderson and Sherwin credit for a fresh and promising pretext.
However, "Britannia Hospital" is a desperately self-derivative fiasco. The journalistic snoop is called Mick Travis and played by Malcolm McDowell, who played identically named characters in "If . . ." and "O Lucky Man!" The mad doctor he wants to discredit is named Millar and played by Graham Crowden, who introduced the role in the interminably picaresque course of "O Lucky Man!" when Mick escaped from a secluded clinic specializing in grotesque, cross-species mutations in the revolting tradition of H.G. Wells' Dr. Moreau.
Crosscutting between episodes of McDowell stalking Crowden and the hospital administration attempting to appease or deceive all the factions that might force a cancellation of the royal visit, the movie would seem to have enough manueverability to keep from bogging down, but it's always heavy going. There's very little spontaneous fun.
There is a scene in which mad Dr. Millar whips up a literal snack of "brainfood" that does indeed transcend its excruciating elements. As gross-out facetiousness goes, this is a smarter gross-out than anything available in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life," to mention a similar public nuisance. Sherwin also has an ear for fleeting bits of Mediaspeak--referring to a documentary director covering his work for BBC Television, Dr. Millar boasts, "Peter is doing me in depth for the Beeb." In addition, the cast has its share of adroit and sometimes authoritative performers, who can turn even mean-spirited and fatuous material to gratuitous comic advantage. Crowden, for example, seems to be playing Dr. Millar way up in the treetops, and yet this very hysteric exaggeration gives the movie some needed cohesion, because it's an outrageous portrayal that always refocuses and commands attention. The cast even includes the occasional ringer, notably Alan Bates in a brief prone appearance as an unfortunate patient. BRITANNIA HOSPITAL
Directed by Lindsay Anderson; written by David Sherwin; cinematographer, Mike Fash; edited by Michael Ellis; music by Alan Price; produced by Davina Belling and Clive Parsons. Released by United Artists Classics. At the Circle MacArthur. This film runs 116 minutes and is rated R. THE CAST Mr. Potter/Leonard Rossiter Dr. Millar/Graham Crowden Phyllis Grimshaw/Joan Plowright Dr. MacMillan/Jill Bennett Mick Travis/Malcolm McDowell Red/Mark Hamill MacCready/Alan Bates