Alan Morrison on

Owen Sheers

To Provide All People: A Poem in the Voice of the NHS

BBC Wales

Syrupy at the point of delivery

There’s a nice line near the opening of Owen Sheers’ film-poem paean to the NHS in its 70th year, the Samaritan-like ‘to lay a hand on the wound of a stranger’, which has the resonance of a biblical aphorism –and is quite possibly paraphrased from the New Testament– and could even possibly be a new motto for the National Health Service. And this trope sets the tone for what’s to follow: sometimes thoughtful and touching, sometimes oversimplified and syrupy poetic perspectives on an institution which many in the liberal-centrist commentariat term the nation’s ‘secular religion’. The deeply reverent, hallowed tones and montages of Sheers’ rather awkwardly and dully titled To Provide All People treats the institution under the spotlight implicitly as a kind of cultural creed, a national faith or religion.

Indeed, the word ‘heal’ is intoned almost holily throughout, until one might begin to think that NHS actually stands for National Healing Service. And this gushing religiousness is the film-poem’s undoing: too many misty-eyed close ups of numerous and seemingly haphazard enunciators, replete with broken-toned, whispery deliveries, cloys after a while, especially since there doesn’t seem to be any real tonal change at any point of the epic 58 minutes (though admittedly much of the fault here lies with whoever directed it).

Much as it is gratifying and heartening to witness such an unadulterated encomium on the NHS and its founding by the late great Nye Bevan (represented as a suited blur in the background of some smudgy shots) in time for its 70th birthday and against its worst crisis since its crucial inception under the interminable Jeremy Hunt (Sheers takes a fair few swipes at contemporary Tory vandalism of the NHS through backdoor privatisation), this film-poem seems to tip from sentiment into treacle.

The NHS is spoken of rightly as an exceptional and nation-changing socialist intervention at the most fundamental level of society, but Sheers’ tribute ends up coming across as too religious in tone and utopian in depiction to be taken completely seriously, while the very name Bevan is spoken by various in such hushed tones that one might think he was the Second Coming (though his political achievements, like Keir Hardie’s before him, come perhaps closest to parliamentary Messianism).

But the trouble is a lot of this comes across as a rather simplistic ‘political’ depiction. For starters, the NHS isn’t entirely “free at the point of delivery” if one takes into account prescription charges, which keep rising –in England at any rate– and are bluntly extortionate; Bevan famously resigned from Attlee’s Cabinet only two years after founding the NHS because the Labour Government found it impossible to move the institution forward financially without charging for prescriptions (and this was necessitated because of a stubborn, middle-class-baiting insistence on universalism i.e. providing something free for everyone, including the wealthiest, rather than focusing the resources on those without the means to access private health care).

And as for the parlous state of privately-infiltrated NHS dentistry, well, where to start…? Suffice it to say that whilst rudimentary treatments are provided ‘on the NHS’, anything over and above standard fillings and extractions comes with charges for every patient, the unemployed included, and, most puzzlingly of all, these treatments, such as hygienist appointments, are preventative treatments, which neither makes practical nor ethical sense.

So there is a small element of myth in how our nation, or rather, the liberal-centrist middle classes, depict the NHS, even if in the main it is still a vital and fundamentally humanitarian institution (although since creeping privatisation, it is becoming less humane by the year). The point of how the market corrupts the spirit of the institution is the most powerful part of Sheers’ film-poem: cue an NHS brain surgeon talking of the impossibility of treating a ‘broken soul’ –as opposed to treating a physical brain or, in the case of a psychologist, a ‘mind’– in this case, that of the NHS. This is an important point made well by Sheers. And he also does Bevan much service by emphasizing how he had to conquer the reactionary resistance to state-funded healthcare of most of the British medical profession of the time (by famously “stuffing their mouths with gold”).

But much else feels rose-tinted. Bluntly, Sheers’ film-poem is drenched in a certain kind of middle-class NHS-sentimentalism frequently expressed by those who are not so dependent on its’ increasingly stretched and atomised services. Services which today incorporate such passive-aggressive obstacles as GP surgeries only giving appointments out between 8 and 8.30am; mental health teams often so incompetent they end up exacerbating patients’ conditions rather than alleviating them; and prescription charges that go up so often and by so much that they must already price many lower income households out of treatment altogether, unless they are able to qualify for very specific exemptions. Universalism, though a nice idea in theory, when applied to such a grotesquely unequal society as the UK, borders on the absurd, as well as the downright unfair when it comes to prescription charges.

The problem here is pretty fundamental: is this the right poet for the subject? Whilst Sheers had ordinary enough origins, and attended a comprehensive school in Wales, he later progressed onto New College, Oxford, and then onto an MA in Creative Writing at the prestigious UEA, scooping an Eric Gregory Award, and then cleaning up through a domino of prizes and high profile TV and radio commissions ever since. He is also a TV presenter and documentary host. In short, Sheers is part of the cultural establishment, in a privileged place in terms of career and profile, none of which would necessarily matter if it wasn’t for the sense from this almost soporific film-poem of a commission ‘going through the motions’ by pressing generic emotional buttons in order to elicit certain responses from its audience, rather than something authentically passionate. That it relies mainly on first-hand accounts from actual NHS staff would seem to be more a necessity than a choice.

And To Provide All People very much leaves the impression of being a commission, an ode with a deadline, a work-in-progress, as opposed to a fully-fledged poem; it is an event due to its celebration of the 70th anniversary of the NHS, less so due to its content. It wears its Welshness on its sleeve, all the hospital characters intoning their mini-monologues with earthy Welsh accents, and this links to the nationality of NHS founder, Nye Bevan, who is ubiquitous as a saintly meme, as well as to the author’s own Welsh roots. But is there something else being communicated here, perhaps unconsciously?

The talented Martin Sheen might have intoned his lines early on as if privately relishing a perceived opportunity to be his generation’s Richard Burton reading from some modern equivalent to Under Milk Wood, but whilst Sheen is an actor great in range (while Burton’s greatness lay in his preternatural presence, inimitable voice and pitch-perfect poetry-reading), Sheers is, if anything, the opposite to Dylan Thomas. Whilst Thomas unashamedly languished in language of which he seemed to have an almost magical grasp, Sheers rations it, coming from the opposite end of the poetic spectrum: the pared-down prose-inflected contemporary poetics propagated by university creative writing departments such as, well, the one he graduated from –what one might term ‘constipated poetics’.

Not that Sheers is I think nursing any real desire to be anything other than himself –and, indeed, would probably covet much more comparisons with another Welsh poet, the hugely gifted Alun Lewis, on whom he has written much, than with Thomas; but one suspects the director of this film-poem at least half-consciously worked on these assumptions, if the meditative opening is anything to go by –and this is, after all, a play for voices set in Wales.

Much of the actual writing in this film-poem feels workmanlike and prosaic –common symptoms of much contemporary mainstream poetry (there is also something journalistic about this type of poetry whose more senior exponents include the likes of Hugo Williams, Blake Morrison and James Fenton). Added to this are parts of the text that speak too simplistically about such deeply complex issues as mental health as to beg the question: is the only way to write an important poetic work on such a fundamental theme as the NHS to write it in the most plainest way possible, bar, as said, the occasional aphorismic flourish which punctuates the longer prosaic passages…? I would say emphatically not: it is possible to compose an important poetic work for the masses without resorting to mawkishness and simplicity.

Perhaps Sheers is just over-worked and swamped with too many commissions and could do with some of his peers taking up some of the slack? If one is not careful, prolific commissioned works start to come across as hackery. Perhaps this particular commission could have been complemented by a poet more comfortable with political themes? If we apply Cyril Connolly's taxonomy of the different species of writers from his Enemies of Promise (1938), Sheers would probably fit more the "thin harvest" category than the "militant thistle" (the political poet/writer). There are so many capable poets in the UK, hundreds of them, so why does the BBC and other commissioning bodies unimaginatively utilise such a small and limited rota of Armitages, Sheerses, Tempests and Duffys? It’s becoming tiresome.

I was also rather puzzled by the continual emphasis by Sheers on the ‘individualism’ inherent in the NHS as a ‘system’ –as if the writer is constantly concerned that using the term ‘system’ implies some sort of Big State/Soviet Bloc mentality and thus needs to be constantly counterbalanced with the term ‘individual’. This for me is another symptom of post-Thatcherism-accommodating pink centrism typical of the overrepresented Oxbridge commentariat.

(The other problem is, much as it pains one to admit, the NHS isn’t this nation’s ‘secular religion’, as it is often fancifully termed –that pedestal is rather depressingly occupied by employment. Work is our nation’s masochistic ‘secular cult’, to the point that anyone who is out of work is automatically suspected of idleness and dishonesty and stigmatised, scapegoated and outcast thus. More pointedly, there are ‘work coaches’ infiltrating NHS mental health services, GP surgeries, and soon even hospitals –such is our national pathological obsession with a mythical ‘work cure’ for all ills. While there is nothing wrong with occupation, and, indeed, it is absolutely fundamental to any sense of human accomplishment, employment is something else: it is as much about behavioural control as it is about productivity, especially in capitalist society.

While it’s heartening to have such an emotional encomium to the NHS at a time when it is being heinously undermined by a Tory government, a bit more grit, guts and anger wouldn’t have gone amiss –key characteristics, after all, of the vitriolic Bevan himself– so that the whole thing didn’t tip into mawkishness, which sadly this film-poem does frequently, and to such a point as to make it potentially easy satirical fodder for the pro-market Right which might pick it apart for its sometimes embarrassing evangelism.

It all felt a bit too much like a formulaic political broadcast, albeit one at least infused with some ingredients of ideology –not least rhetorical rudiments of the revived democratic socialism of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour with a mention somewhere in the film of its' 2017 manifesto title, ‘for the many, not the few’. Even such an excellent cast of largely Welsh veteran character actors –Martin Sheen, Jonathan Price, Sîan Phillips et al– couldn’t quite lift the words from the commonplace and predictable. It felt like second-hand sentiment, perhaps, again, a casualty of Sheers’ commission to form a ‘poem’ around the anecdotes of real life NHS staff.

And that title: rather prosaic… The more obvious title would have been the oft-repeated Free at the Point of Delivery… Or, better still, From Cradle to Grave…? Or would that have been a bit too obvious for postmodernist tastes…? Sometimes obvious is better if it makes for a more striking title… Nevertheless, this film-poem does what it says on the tin…

Alan Morrison © 2018