Case Studies

The NHS on film: The big launch

NHS on film part 1: image of calendar from launch film

A look back at the film history of the NHS through three of its earliest films.

At its best, the NHS on film has set new standards for other producers to follow. For #NHS70, we have selected just seven films from this vast body of work. This article looks at three launch films, while Part 2 looks at four modern films and hears from some of the commissioners and producers who made them.

Challenge? What challenge?

As a comms professional, imagine the brief in 1947. You have to communicate the launch of a wildly ambitious and unprecedented national initiative. There’s very little time before launch. It will quickly become the nation’s largest employer by a wide margin, and will have an immediate and ongoing impact on every one of 50 million citizens. And most of your audience has no clue how it’s going to work.

Up for it?

Film played a key comms role even before launch, mostly through cinema exhibition aimed at the general public. The BFI’s Here’s Health: The NHS on Film event in 2018 raced through 70 years of NHS film history. The screenings included essential context from a panel of people who commission them and producers who make them.

Alexia Clifford, Deputy Director of Marketing at Public Health England: ‘Moving images are crucial to bringing health topics to life in a way that will make people change the way they live their lives.’

1: Act fast on the basics

Faced with such an immense comms challenge, the NHS started with practical messages. If you think short films are a product of social media, think again. Doctor’s Dilemma (1948) is 60 seconds of stripped-down, hard-hitting call to action. Commissioned by the recently-formed COI, it was part of an integrated multimedia campaign.

NHS on film part 1: Still from Doctor's Dilemma, 1948
Click to play

This is social video for the cinema. Modern producers use captions to support mute viewing on mobile devices. Here, the captions reinforce the voice track on a simple core message: ‘Don’t forget to choose your doctor now’.

2: Drama in the details

There was so much more to communicate than just registering with your GP.

Engaging the audience in bigger issues was often achieved with drama. In Here’s Health (1948), a chain-smoking GP (played by real GP Dafydd Thomas) deals with a case that spans the old world and the new. It’s Christmas 1947, and a working-class woman injures her leg hanging decorations. The GP worries about inadequate medical facilities and how much the treatment will cost the family. He looks forward to better healthcare after the NHS is created.

Another COI commission, the film’s message overwhelms the drama. But it shows how drama helped deliver the complex messages the public education campaign had to communicate. Writer/producer Budge Cooper and her director husband Donald Alexander made Here’s Health to fit the low-budget short feature style.

NHS on film part 1: Still from Here's Health
Click to play Here's Health

It even features an in-joke for film-makers. A Dr Grierson appears in tribute to John Grierson, the pioneer of British documentary who invented the word itself.

3: Bring it to life

In complete contrast to the earnest tone of Here’s Health, Your Very Good Health hooked the audience with colour, music and humour. It’s a brilliant piece of animation that cuts through the confusion in under 9 minutes.

NHS on film part 1: Your Very Good Health
Click to play Your Very Good Health

Your Very Good Health was the work of another husband and wife team, Joyce Batchelor and John Halas, who in 1954 produced the animated feature Animal Farm. They had made over 70 propaganda shorts during World War II, and their finely-tuned skills make this film stand out.

What about the NHS on film now?

In part 2, we dive into modern NHS films and hear from some of the commissioners and producers who made them.

Moving Image is deeply grateful to Patrick Russell and his colleagues at the BFI for curating these films. The NHS on Film collection on the BFI Player is a great resource. BFI Player is the best way to enjoy landmark classic and cult film across the decades.

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