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.