In focus: A celebration of health services on film

Student Nurse (1944), part of the British Council's film collection.

'Darkness brings no interval'

We've been digging through our collection of 100+ short documentaries made during the 1940s, designed to show the world how Britain lived, worked and played - and have found some real treasures exploring our health services.

Since its inception, the National Health Service has provided medical care “free at the point of use” based on need not income. During these strange times, as Covid-19 makes the world feel very different, it’s more important than ever to celebrate the wonderful work being done in hospitals and clinics across the country.

But before 5th July 1948 when the NHS was launched, health services were still striving to offer the best possible care to all sections of the population.

This film, from 1948, shines a light on the training and work of nurses. Despite being staggeringly sexist (nursing is described as “the most interesting and satisfying profession open to women”), its reverential tone recognises the vital importance of nurses to the safe and smooth running of hospitals, and their work in schools, the armed forces and other settings.

Although nursing today is a very different profession to that which is featured in this film, some things don’t change – the fact that nurses are a key part of the “perfectly-working machine” that is a busy hospital, for example, or the importance of tea to both staff and patients!

It also, inadvertently, highlights the invisible work that (mostly) women do the facilitate the work of (mostly) men: notice how many shots in the film feature women following men around, passing them notes or instruments.

This second film demonstrates how much work was going on to keep the nation healthy before the launch of the NHS. Did you know, for example, that there was an emergency breast milk service (using the most advanced scientific methods of the time, as the film emphasises) to courier donated breast milk around the country to babies who needed it?

The work featured in this film is very focused on the health and vitality of the nation – so that its children grow up strong and fit, ready to join a healthy and vital workforce. From Health Visitors offering advice on “mothercraft” to free supplies of cod liver oil, vitamins and “other stamina-giving food”, from the beginnings of health and safety legislation to mass vaccinations, many of the things we take for granted today can be seen in their infancy in this film.

In this time of Covid-19 and lock-downs around the world, daily exercise and outdoor time feel essential: “Sunshine and fresh air are the nation’s first line of defence against sickness, fatigue and nervous ailments”, after all. Encouragement to dust off your trainers and go for a (socially-distanced) jog?

This third film really does show us how far we’ve come – for a start, that iron lung is terrifying! It’s also unlikely that you would see rows and rows of beds outdoors today, or children happily sitting in front of UV lamps without protection.

The laborious and intensive process for moulding splints to fit individual children is fascinating, and the rehabilitative care is impressive. The foundations upon which the NHS was built were clearly strong.

In these difficult times, all those who work within the NHS are doing amazing things, day in, day out. In the words of the first film, “darkness brings no interval to the work of those who minister to the sick”. In fact, in dark times, the work gets harder and longer. It really is “a labour of love”, and one for which we should all be grateful.

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