NHS on film: The modern audience

If you commission or produce film and video for the NHS, this article is the quickest way to get an essential overview.

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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 four modern films and hears from some of the commissioners and producers who made them. Part 1 looks at the launch.

The decades following the launch of the NHS reveal a changing narrative where hierarchical management is gradually replaced by more consultation. The style of film-making changes with it.

1. Let’s talk

Understanding Aggression (1960) reveals the NHS addressing its internal audience with a recognisably modern approach. Stagey mannerisms are still there, but this is a more inclusive style. Doctors and nurses meet to discuss how to work with violent behaviour in a psychiatric hospital.

The NHS on film: still from Understanding Aggression
Click to play Understanding Aggression

Directed by Margaret Thomson, it features African and Irish nurses, reflecting the NHS on film more accurately. It kicks off with old-school film channel delivery, as nurses in training watch a projected 16mm film on a screen. There’s a trippy fantasy sequence that inadvertently prefigures the late 1960s.

2. Power to the nurses

Modern Day Nightingales (1978) is a recruitment tool shot in current affairs style for a series called London Line, which was distributed worldwide outside the UK. Reporter Jumoke Debayo, who was born in Nigeria, presents from the wards at Guy’s Hospital.

Nurses have now swapped the traditional Florence Nightingale role for that of highly trained technicians. There is a sense of immediacy and authority as we dive straight into an open heart surgery scene. A nurse comments: ‘It’s probably true to say that I know more about the machines here than the doctors.’ It’s revolutionary stuff.

We no longer see chain-smoking GPs, but there’s a nice touch when the heart patient is given can of light ale 48 hours after surgery.

The NHS on film: still from Modern Day Nightingales
Click to play Modern Day Nightingales. There’s that can of light ale

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3. The patient’s view

Barbara’s Story (2012) has delivered immense impact for Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. Chief Nurse Dame Eileen Sills commissioned the first episode to create a drama that would let people absorb themselves into the story, then let them pull it apart in discussion. There would be no preaching. ‘I wanted people to step into the shoes of someone with dementia,’ she says.

Watching Barbara’s Story in the hospital lecture theatre was mandated for the whole Trust workforce over 6-9 months. Within a few weeks it caught the imagination of the workforce and people actively wanted to see it.

Over 15,000 staff have now seen it. ‘Barbara is now more famous than Florence Nightingale at Guy’s and St. Thomas’,’ adds Dame Eileen. ‘Her name is used as term for doing the right thing.’

Requests for it to be shown elsewhere soon arrived, but Dame Eileen did not want a tick box exercise. With the Burdett Trust for Nursing she developed a training package. Health Education England confirmed 1 million people worldwide have completed dementia training stemming from Barbara’s Story.

4. The future

By 2051 over 2 million people in the UK will have dementia and almost a third will live in care homes. The demands on staff are, and will be, heavy. Finding Patience – The Later Years (2016) explores what makes good person-centred dementia care in care homes.

Like Barbara’s Story, Finding Patience is a short series. Each film focuses on a different aspect of dementia care – the impact of dementia on the family and the community, or training for care home workers – while retaining the central characters and narrative.

Drama or documentary?

At the BFI’s Here’s Health: The NHS on Film event in June, experienced NHS filmmakers said they preferred drama. Pete Stevenson of The Edge Picture Company: ‘By telling a story, you get people to own their response to an issue. Telling can result in the opposite effect to the one desired.’ Chris Godwin, Inner Eye: ‘With good drama, we can engage people so that they have effectively made the film. We can distil staff stories into a central narrative which practitioners will recognise.’

What about the NHS on film now?

In part 1, we look at some amazing work produced for the launch in 1948.


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.