[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
by Ken Eisler
The National Health, adapted by Peter Nichols from his own stage play, remains pure farce, but the form has undergone a marvelous cinematic sea-change. The characters, governed as before by Humours and idées fixes, enter, exit; doors slam on them—the doors, in this case, of death. The antics of these six quirky patients and their harried medical caretakers on the decaying Sir Stafford Cripps Ward, seen, let’s say, from the first balcony, must have struck audiences as grimly hilarious, though just a touch cold and detached, perhaps. But watching these hapless six on the big screen up there is another matter. You just try to distance yourself from them now.
We’re introduced to the ward via the entrance of new patient Loach (Colin Blakely), a shaky amnesiac dosshouse type whose “characterization” seems to consist chiefly of an anxiety that “they” will coerce him into taking The Cure, and his stubborn repetition of a non-sequitur observation regarding the dangers-of-smoking question. We don’t learn much more about him, really, during the next hour-and-a-half; and yet that big, earnest, baffled, worse-for-wear face seems the face, after a while, of someone we know very well indeed, painfully well. It’s the same with all the patients in the ward: the basketweaving latent homosexual with his clinging class superiority and perambulating symptoms; the acerbic old advocate of euthanasia, a terminal cancer case, whom the state won’t let die; the sturdy-looking guy who protests too much about how healthy he is, et al. They have their hobbyhorses, their tics, their amusing little compulsions. Meanwhile, their grumbling and bickering and roleplaying proposes, but the ulcer, the cancer, the bad ticker disposes. And all the while, despite the farcical apparatus and the Nicholsian black jokes, this Crazy Gang, seen from our seats in the dark amphitheater, is becoming almost uncomfortably familiar.
They’re consummately well acted, that’s part of it, of course—and that includes the personnel on the ward as well as the six patients. There’s more to it than that, though. Nichols’ writing is good farce, terrific farce—fast and funny. It also has a way of unexpectedly transcending farce. The old man who’s dying of cancer comes dangerously close to being a spokesman for the playwright. When he takes off on his favorite subject the words flow. He puts his case with humor, of a mordant sort, with elegance, with a natural no-bullshit radicalism that makes you think of Bertrand Russell. But to the other patients he’s just a prize bore and a wet blanket. Once, when he revs up yet again, quality of life and all that dreary stuff, another patient begins singing loudly to drown him out. Facile timing on the playwright/screenwriter’s part to have his last agony—that withheld blessed relief he’s been on about so annoyingly—strike him down at this very moment of rejection by unsympathetic fellow sufferers. Facile yet affecting, potentially tearjerking, even. What does Nichols do next? He has this lucid, miserable old guy pour out, in his final delirium, a semi-coherent tirade of hate-filled reactionary clichés, the empire, the inferior races, the old values, the whole inevitable, stinking, old-boy, older-generation ball of wax. Then the man attains his death, and dies, we are told, looking tranquil. The counterpointed medical soap opera, “Nurse Norton’s Affair,” seen intermittently on the ward TV set, does score some comic points with its ludicrously noble and glamorous doctors and nurses scurrying around their gleaming fantasy hospital sets, and it does further display the virtuosity of these British actors and actresses, now deliberately overacting and in some cases scarcely recognizable from their other, Cripps-ward roles—but the parody fun wears thin after a while, and Gold’s greater contribution lies in his tactful direction of those bizarre, comic scenes in the national-health ward, with their strangely gathering density.
THE NATIONAL HEALTH
Direction: Jack Gold. Screenplay: Peter Nichols, after his play. Cinematography: John Coquillon. Editing: Ralph Sheldon. Music: Carl Davis.
The Players: Jim Dale, Colin Blakely, Clive Swift, Mervyn Johns, David Hutcheson, Bert Palmer, Lynn Redgrave, Eleanor Bron, Donald Sinden.
Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler