When it was established 70 years ago, few could have imagined the impact nor the longevity of the National Health Service (NHS). Healthcare became free at the point of delivery and with it, the lives of those from the very poorest to the most affluent in society were irrevocably changed. Despite pressure on beds, budgets and staffing, for the 64 million people who use it, it has become a source of national pride.
A range of programming has been announced by the major broadcasters to mark the service’s 70th anniversary, including the BBC’s To Provide All People, a live action poem, written by acclaimed poet Owen Sheers and featuring an all-star cast.
After the success of Aberfan: The Green Hollow, which documented the Aberfan mining disaster where 118 children and 26 adults perished, Cardiff-based production company Vox Pictures has this time turned its attention to a different part of the South Wales valleys, Neville Hall Hospital in Abergavenny, near Aneurin Bevan’s family home in Tredegar.
Filmed on location at the hospital with unprecedented access to staff and facilities, To Provide All People is the result of months of interviews with local people and NHS workers by Sheers, woven into a seamless narrative, with distinct voices and an engrossing story.
Speaking about the programme, its director Pip Broughton explains why To Provide All People doesn’t conform to genre distinctions: “I don't think it’s like a drama. You can't cut it like a drama, shoot it like a drama or act it like a drama. It's like the actors, for example, they're not main characters, they are playing representatives of doctors, nurses and they come on site and I say to them 'it's about speaking the words' because for me the reality is the words and that's why it’s got a different tonality to a drama.”
The programme features 26 different speakers, including Michelle Fairly, Martin Freeman, Jonathan Pryce, Tamsin Greig, Celia Imrie and Meera Syal. Though it feels undeniably Welsh, there is a strong sense of the breadth and diversity of the NHS through the range of characters portrayed, from brain surgeons to cleaners.
Broughton describes how poet Owen Sheers’ ‘lyrical reportage’ contributes to the piece: “He does this extraordinary thing of interviewing all these people, so it has an authenticity to its voice, as well as a sense of poetic sensibility”
She adds, “It’s interesting because I'm not involved in that part at all. It's important that I'm not, it's a very private, intimate relationship between Owen and the people he interviews.”
Broughton, who co-owns production company Vox Pictures, elaborates on her relationship with Sheers: “He writes a poem and I make a film out of it and so I have to find a world, a visual world, a sort of lighter world which can support his words, so everything I do doesn't squash his words but gives space for his words and for the performers.”
A major contributor to the project is Eve Myles, star of the hugely successful BBC drama Keeping Faith, who has a long relationship with Broughton from their time on the show.
She says that working on a project with Sheers has seen her career come full circle, “When I got into drama school, I picked up his poetry book in my first or second week and I kept it in my satchel all year and I’d read his poetry every day.” She continues, “it’s very funny how things come around”.
After the difficult birth of her first child eight years ago, Myles feels a strong affinity with the NHS and its staff, “I’ll never, ever forget what they did for me, and the hours they put in and just how it was normal to them to be so caring and professional and clever and loving.”
Myles is joined in the programme by actor and activist Michael Sheen, a native of Port Talbot in South Wales, who in recent years has eschewed the bright lights of Hollywood to focus on issues in his home country. Speaking about his latest role, he says “I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of this project to celebrate this important public service, the hardworking staff that work in it and the fact that it’s there for people in their hour of need - regardless of who they are.
“It certainly added to the appeal that this is such a distinctly Welsh story – it was wonderful for me to be able to go to the birthplace of the NHS and tell the story that started with the Welshman Nye Bevan.”
To Provide All People is set to air on 28 June at 9pm on BBC One Wales and at 8pm on BBC Two on 30 June. The programme will also be available on BBC iPlayer.