Views & Reviews In and Out of Hospital

The NHS film unit

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 23 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3828
  1. James Owen Drife, retired professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, Leeds
  1. J.O.Drife{at}

    When I heard that the British Film Institute has a mediatheque on tour showing old films about coal, I felt a rush of nostalgia. I grew up in a Scottish mining village where “NCB,” the logo of the National Coal Board, had a much higher profile than the NHS. The local cinema didn’t do social realism, however, and until recently I had never heard of the NCB Film Unit.

    Its spiritual forerunner, the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit, is better known because of its 1936 classic Night Mail, a documentary about the London to Glasgow postal train, with music by Benjamin Britten and verse by W H Auden. The GPO Film Unit was influenced by Soviet cinema, and its first director, John Grierson, was a socially conscious Scotsman in the tradition of Lord Reith, founder of the BBC.

    The NCB Film Unit, apparently, was set up in 1953 by another Scot with a conscience—Donald Alexander, a Cambridge graduate who had been appalled at the effects of the Depression on the Welsh valleys. Despite the dangers of filming underground it produced over 900 films before it closed in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike.

    The NHS, two years younger than the NCB, failed to follow in its cinematic footsteps despite being, like the GPO and NCB in their day, the nation’s biggest employer. You can see why. Grierson and Alexander set out to exalt working men. Doctors and nurses were nice middle class people who did not need propaganda to glorify or educate them.

    Pity, but it’s not too late. Both those units were created in times of austerity. Now that the NHS is the only surviving relic of Britain’s socialist past, its faceless leaders should ensure that its heroic workforce is immortalised on DVD. Brief Encounter could celebrate the 5 minute appointment system, and a biopic about the endless succession of health secretaries could be called . . . well, Inglourious Basterds is too obvious, but perhaps Tarantino could be persuaded to do some pro bono directing.

    The GPO Film Unit was subsumed into the Central Office of Information, which, its website says, “is the Government’s centre of excellence for marketing and communications” and “is given annual ministerial targets to achieve.” Say the word, minister. And if a Scots accent is still needed for voiceovers, I’m available.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3828

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