Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The National Health (1973)

I first caught The National Health on TV around seven years ago (a channel that showed near forgotten 'classics' not too dissimilar to Talking Pictures TV which we currently have on Sky/Freeview) Despite the cast and the premise I found it a little disappointing first time around.

Second time around, and I'm afraid to say my thoughts haven't changed all that much.

Placed both literally (in terms of period) and figuratively (in terms of style) between the medically themed Carry On films and Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital, The National Health is a film version of Peter Nichols' acclaimed stage play and is described as a black comedy about the inadequacies of the NHS as Nichols saw it some thirty or so years after its inception. Thematically he explores his satire by presenting us with two scenarios; the grim reality of an underfunded male ward in a London hospital, and a film-within-a-film, entitled Nurse Norton's Affair, a spoof of the then glitzy Dr Kildare style medical soap operas imported from the US. Both scenarios are played out by the same cast, with wildly different performing styles to denote the difference between 'reality' and the 'fiction'.

Unfortunately the film is a rather toothless experiment in satire which makes me think something got lost in translation from stage to screen - or maybe it wouldn't be to my taste in the theatre either? It's possible I guess, but I'm not convinced that is the case. Past experience tells me it is the film adaptations of Peter Nichols' work that is the issue here; 1972's A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg starring Alan Bates and Janet Suzman for example is - to me - considerably inferior to the 2002 film recording of a performance at the Comedy Theatre of the play with Eddie Izzard and Victoria Hamilton. For me, Nichols just seems to work far better on the stage.

Colin Blakely is on fine form as a combative alcoholic admitted to the Princess Maria of Battenberg Hospital after losing his memory. Initially suspicious and hostile of his environs, he slowly thaws to his fellow ward mates; socialist and family man Foster (a young Bob Hoskins), Ash (Clive Swift), a former teacher who appears to have too much of an interest in young boys, old timer Flegg (Bert Palmer), the former physician but now incontinent senile Rees (Mervyn Johns) and the terminally-ill and deeply cynical cancer patient Mackie (David Hutcheson) Each of them are cared for by mousy, bespectacled Nurse Sweet (Lynn Redgrave), Sister McFee (Eleanor Bron), Nurse Powell (Shelia Scott-Wilkenson), absent minded, overworked junior medic Dr Bird (Gillian Barge) and Jim Dale as the roguish orderly Barnet, trading on his experiences in the Carry On's. Sweeping in and out of the ward is Donald Sinden's urbane surgeon Mr Carr. It is the cast who portray the medics who get to go full-on camp for the soap opera spoof, set in the slick and ultra modern Mount Verdant Hospital where the main issue seems to be who Cupid's arrow is striking for rather than who is being put under the scalpel.

Unfortunately, the melodrama spoof is now incredibly dated stalling what one presumes was the film-maker's hope for the biggest laughs. As a parody it rarely moves beyond each actor enjoying themselves by adopting the performing style of those bereft of the talent they themselves normally possess. The barbs on offer are too unfocused and seem to fall in the usual camp for early '70s humour; race. But perhaps most frustratingly of all, these spoof interludes monopolise the talents of Redgrave, Bron and Sinden, whose appearances in the 'realistic' sequences are far too fleeting. In the end, I just don't see the appeal of these great actors deliberately acting badly for laughs that don't really come.

The real interest here lies in the human drama and the black comedy in the ward, where no one ever seems to truly listen to or appreciate what anyone is saying and the notion that we have come to rely on others who are frankly unconcerned (or just too damn exhausted to be concerned) with our preservation, remains a contemporary issue.

I guess there are a few parallels to be made also with Paddy Chayefsky's The Hospital, which came out just two years earlier, but this film doesn't seem to want to condemn the NHS in the same way that Chayefsky attacked the US medical system, instead it seems more interested in pointing out the inadequacies. There are some interesting contentious issues raised that are still controversial to this day, but Nichols never really addresses where he stands with them - witness the scene in which Mackie tries to convince the optimist Foster the merits of euthanasia, not just for the sufferer but for society as a whole. Mackie dreams of a welfare state that would have clinics available to euthanise the terminally ill such as himself. But the argument goes no further when Mackie succumbs to a fit that  commences a rapid decline in his condition. Thirty-three years later, there's still no answer to be had to that argument that we can all accept or agree upon. 

So as a satire, The National Health is something of a non-starter, both in comparison to its contemporary across the pond (The Hospital) but also to its peers too; O Lucky Man! the second in the Mick Travis trilogy also released that year would better dissect modern life in the 1970s, whilst the final instalment in that loose trilogy, Britannia Hospital, would nine years later wield the scalpel on both the NHS and societies expectations when it came to care and medicine in a more scathing manner. Instead, The National Health perhaps works better as a more gritty, darkly comic reaction to the enjoyable but much more light-weight medical comedies of the previous decade, the likes of the Doctor and Carry On series.

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