The National Health


‘…a stone-cold history lesson, and one of the most neglected British films of all time…’

Right now in 2021, the well-being of Britain’s National Health Service is on the minds of many in the UK, making this an ideal time to exhume this rare cinematic consideration of the matters involved.  I can’t honestly say that I’ve found myself inundated with opportunities to see The National Health, a prestigious British comedy-drama that has dropped out of circulation since it’s original release in the early 70’s, and yet here it is on Amazon. The National Health was adapted by Peter Nichols from his own play, which won a Tony nomination on Broadway in 1975, and yet it’s an incredibly British film which seeks to discuss the UK’s healthcare system by comparing it to US soap-opera clichés. Utterly forgotten in 2020, it’s due a revival as one of the most underrated British comedies of the decade it sprang from.

Nichols was already a cause celebre when The National Health was made; his Georgy Girl and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg made him a household name if you came from a vaguely theatrical household, and The National Health was something of a big deal. The concept is ingenious; a snapshot of the dingy realities of a busy NHS ward, intercut with a fictional soap opera, with the same actors appearing in both settings. Thus Jim Dale plays a blond doctor with a deep Sean Connery voice in the soap, and also a cheeky-chappie hospital porter in Nichols’ clearly autobiographical story. Lynn Redgrave does the same, a voluptuous vixen in the soap, a prim and proper matron in the other. This is a fun idea, and nibbles away at the notion that the real heroes and heroines of healthcare deserve to be celebrated for what they do, rather than have salacious fictions made up about them.

Director Jack Gold gets the cinematic potential here, with elaborate cross-cutting and ingenious visual comparisons; one imagines that the role-switching must have given a giddy energy to the stage production, and Gold’s staging creates a cinematic version of that sense of excitement. There’s also a perfect support here, from Bob Hoskins, Eleanor Bron, Mervyn Johns, Colin Blakely and Donald Sinden all enjoying their opportunity to play multiple roles. Unlike most British films of the period, there’s little in the way of sex or titillation, just a multi-layered examination of the kind of drama that goes on in a hospital ward.

Given that this is 1973, however, the time capsule nature of the film is dynamic, naming all kinds of elements that would not be depicted now. Casual racism and sexism abound, and there’s an entire plot-line dedicated to establishment figures abusing youngsters in care-homes as a way of satisfying their own (illegal) desires. From Cyril Smith to Jimmy Saville, this MO has been identified since, but only after a goverment/media/establishment cover-up that lasted four decades. Presumably that’s the reason why this film has been impossible to locate since 1973; this is a stone-cold history lesson, and one of the most neglected British films of all time, with Jim Dale/Christian Bale in particular a revelation in an energised, star-making turn.



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  1. Peter Nichols was prolific in both the theatre and TV as a playwright and in the cinema as a scriptwriter, often adapting his own plays. I think you mean ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’. I had forgotten that Nichols wrote the screenplay of Georgy Girl but the original novel was by Margaret Forster. I do think that 1970s British cinema needs more scholarly attention and The National Health seems a good pick. Pity it’s not on Talking Pictures TV.

    • I’ll fix that typo when I get home, appreciate the correction. Yes, reviewing Privates on Parade by Nichols in the next few days, but have been enjoying seeing how his work translated to the screen. As you say, this would be a great Talking Pictures revival, and shows a side of British comedy not obsessed by sex…

    • I suspect that someone has cancelled this movie for decades to stop us from seeing the accurate depiction of what the elite were trying to cover up…so YES is the answer!

      • Now, you’ve really done it, talked me into watching this movie based on your claims! You sly dog.

        The soap opera tag almost lost me, but your lure and line have done it again, Mr. Streaming Admin. 🤩

        • That’s my job, to lure in the unwary…I’ve been ferreting around with rotten British comedies from the 70’s and coming up with dud after dud, but I can genuinely recommend this as a decent film and worth a rental…

          • So, sadly, this wasn’t my cup of Mtn Dew ( or as you UK guys like to say, “tea” ). I found that the dialog was interesting and engaging as it was . . . dialog which if not mixed enough with action, looses me. I’ll have to be honest and say that I didn’t finish the movie, so I’m saying this only about the first 30 minutes.

            Not a bad movie, just not for me there 10. 🤠

            • Yup, we dodn’t have Mountain Dew here. You’re probably right about the dialogue getting priority over the action, that’s what happens when a playwright adapts their own play. I’m a sucker for seeing theatre on film, so it worked for me; I’ll try and do better with my recommends!

              • Nope, no need to switch it up. I’m sure it I watched it in a theatre setting it would make all the difference. I’m a little more frazzled or fraggled about how you don’t have Mountain Dew!! What?!

                  • Well damn, now I’m trying to figure out what component is offensive of it. High fructose corn syrup or the Yellow #21? Nope! It’s the “Brominated vegetable oil”. Now, what does it looks like? That’s right people . . . it looks like a catapillar:


                    AND, this is what it does:

                    Health effects
                    There are case reports of adverse effects associated with excessive consumption of BVO-containing products. One case reported that a man who consumed two to four liters of a soda containing BVO on a daily basis experienced memory loss, tremors, fatigue, loss of muscle coordination, headache, and ptosis of the right eyelid, as well as elevated serum chloride.[29] In the two months it took to correctly diagnose the problem, the patient also lost the ability to walk. Eventually, bromism was diagnosed and hemodialysis was prescribed which resulted in a reversal of the disorder.[30]

                    Now, I have heard SOME people say, “Well, it’s no mind because things of these nature should be taken in moderation and a little bit of poison has proven sometimes to be good for you.” 😲

                    On a lighter note, it looks like you guys have Rockstars, which honestly I would take any day over a Mtn Dew. 🤠

                    • Yup, Bookstooge seems to drink a lot of this kind of thing, and it seems to have unmoored him from any semblance of mental coherence, so I’d handle it with care. Similarly, I can’t send you a nice haggis because it’s a banned substance…

  2. A movie whose time has definitely come. Not a hit in its day but scoring a bull’s eye in many ways. Audiences had been spoiled by the smutty approach to anything in a white coat by the Carry On pictures.

    • And I kind of expected this to be the link between Carry on Doctor and Confessions of a something….but it really isn’t, great idea, terrific writing, and Jim Dale in great form…as good as The Hospital, I thought…have not seen this film kicking around in any form for decades…

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