Powerhouse Films brings back to life one of British cinema’s largely forgotten comedies – Jack Gold’s The National Health. Martin Carr takes a look at why this film fell into obscurity…
Satire is an acquired taste and specific skill. With this, the second of two reviews based on the work of playwright Peter Nichols, I have reached an impasse. I have said before that satire relies as much upon a good performance as effective writing, which is something The National Health illustrates perfectly.
Essentially a sideswipe at an ailing NHS, Nichols transfers his play from stage to screen this time with limited success. Coming across like a Carry On film minus the flagrant innuendo, The National Health seems to suffer from an identity crisis for much of its running time. Featuring turns from Lynn Redgrave, Donald Sinden, Jim Dale and strangely Bob Hoskins, director Jack Gold has trouble making various elements work.
Cutting between a rundown London hospital and its fictionalised equivalent Nichols turns in a surrealist farce, part Doctor Kildare and Diagnosis Murder without big budgets or expensive locations. Reminiscent of Eighties sitcom Only When I Laugh, The National Health rips into everything from overpopulation through to mixed race marriages and voluntary euthanasia. For some reason though the actors are intent on playing it for punchlines, which means the harder topics get lost in the scramble for humour and lose impact.
Overworked NHS staff, underfunding and misdiagnosis are the meat and potatoes of his play yet these feel glossed over, unexplored or worse still ignored. Where A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg held a metaphorical knife to your throat and made you listen, this film would rather use distraction techniques to avoid answering questions. There is none of the invention which Peter Medak showed us in Joe Egg and by transferring his own stage play the subject matter feels watered down. Jim Dale does what he would continue to do in every Carry On film until people stopped making them, while Sinden, Redgrave and Eleanor Bron seem indifferent to the potential of the material.
Without the full commitment of those involved The National Health feels lazy and uninspiring which is something I guarantee Nichols’ play is not. With awkward jump cuts dragging you from the idealised locale of Verdant hospital through to Princess Maria Battenberg, you get the feeling there are two different films here. Verdant is never given enough screen time for it to make a difference and the alternative is so drab and clichéd that only the dialogue saves us. A young Bob Hoskins fills out a thankless role being given very little to do apart from sit there with headphones on, while others are never fleshed out or relegated to walk on parts.
In truth The National Health feels like the victim of studio tampering. Disjointed and satirically falling short this is a concept which was never given the adequate support or legs to survive. Lacking in backbone, gumption and sheer balls to the wall confrontation, this is more of a damp squib than gunshot wound to the abdomen in satirist terms. If it came down to an essential purchase my money would be on A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Jack Gold
Written by: Peter Nichols
Starring: Lynn Redgrave, Colin Blakely, Eleanor Bron, Donald Sinden, Jim Dale
Released: 1973 / Genre: Comedy
Country: UK / IMDB
Top 10 Films reviewed The National Health on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films which released the film on limited edition dual format DVD/Blu-ray on August 28. The release, amongst other things, features a new audio commentary with actor Jim Dale and journalist Nick Pinkerton and a newly recorded interview with with author and playwright Peter Nichols.