Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Nation's Health @ the BFI Southbank - 10th May 2011

Kicking off a 3-week season at BFI Southbank exploring British television's long relationship with the medical profession, was a rare screening for Euston's first exploration of the subject matter, author G F Newman's uncompromising 4-parter The Nation's Health.

Originally screened on Channel 4 in 1983 and one of the less well known Euston Films productions, it was a welcome opportunity for me to see the serial for the first time and to hear Newman himself in a Q&A afterwards.

The Nation's Health is four linked plays, each approx. 1hr 25m, about the NHS in the early 1980s, as seen through the eyes of junior doctor Jessie Marvill - played by Vivienne Ritchie - when she joins the surgical staff of teaching hospital St Clair's.  Over the course of the 2 years covered in the serial, she experiences different branches of healthcare, all the while gradually becoming disillusioned by the lack of humanity on display, with the medical fraternity increasingly removed from the patients and interested only in the cure and never the cause of their ailments.

ER, it ain't.

The serial had a circuitous route to the screen.  Newman was most famous for his earlier 4-part exploration of the British judicial system, BBC2's Law and Order from 1978 - which has no connection to the later Dick Wolf-created franchise.  When its producer Tony Garnett left the BBC in 1979, he tried to interest Euston and its Chief Executive Verity Lambert in a Newman series about organised crime in the 1960s, but she felt the company had covered this ground enough.

Lambert was, however, interested to hear any other ideas the writer might have to offer and when he suggested a series dealing with healthcare in the same way as his earlier series had dealt with the law, she jumped at it.

Originally slated for ITV, around this time Channel 4 was gearing up towards transmission and it became evident to all that this was the better home for the idea, with their remit to offer 'distinctive' programming catering to minorities.  Newly appointed Senior Commissioning Editor for Fiction, David Rose felt that it was exactly "what we should be doing".

The cost proved to be a sticking point on negotiations however, and in the end Thames ended up footing most of the bill for what was a very long shoot.  Filming began in May 1982 with the project originally intended to be ready for Channel 4's launch in November.  However, it was not and didn't go out until October of 1983, which may be partly why it has disappeared into obscurity.  Had it been integral to the channel's launch, it would've proved more of a talking point.

So what did I think of it?  Bearing in mind I have lived through 15 years of the sublime ER since The Nation's Health was made and am therefore used to a much faster pace of medical drama, I liked it.  I had no difficulty with the demanding running time and found it to be compelling stuff.

Is G F Newman's stance perhaps a little too one-sided?  In the Q&A afterwards he proved to be just as sceptical 28 years later about the pharmaceutical industry - but then this is the author's prerogative.  He was honest enough to admit that if there is a lack of balance in the piece, it is down to his skills as a writer back then.

It is bloody depressing mind you.  I don't recall hoping against hope never to fall seriously ill so much in watching a hospital drama before.  The decline is relentless, with little hope of improvement on display.

Verity Lambert felt afterwards that the public didn't go for The Nation's Health, perhaps finding it slightly inaccessible.  A shame, given that it's such an interesting series the likes of which we are unlikely to see nowadays.  "What recent drama has made you angry?" Newman rhetorically asked during the Q&A.

The author proved a satisfyingly formidable presence in the talk, convinced the pharmaceutical-medical construct would never allow such a critical series to be produced now; and vehement in his belief that life expectancy has increased over the last couple of decades thanks to greater public awareness of how to live healthily and not on account of any medical breakthroughs.

A worthwhile evening at the BFI Southbank celebrating a Euston Films production.  The Nation's Health is available on DVD from Network.

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