A drunken man (Colin Blakely) is taken into this London hospital without any idea of who he is, but obviously needing treatment for alcoholism. The ward he ends up in is populated by a selection of other gentlemen, including the one who has just been discharged, thus freeing a bed for the mystery chap. This patient making an exit is young motorbike enthusiast Kenneth (John Hamill), a likely lad who has a quip for them all and an unwanted advance on Nurse Sweet (Lynn Redgrave), and they joke if he continues to ride the way he does he'll be back soon enough...
You'll have to watch the film to find out if that prediction comes true, but in the meantime you would be treated to a pitch black comedy about the state of the British nation as screenwriter Peter Nichols, here adapting his own play, saw it. The device of taking a small location and rendering it a microcosm of society was a common one for theatre, and television welcomed it as well, but most audiences expected movies to be more opened out and, well, cinematic if that doesn't sound too obvious, which might have been why in spite of glowing reviews the film version of The National Health did not receive the same reception as its theatrical equivalent.
With that in mind, that you were watching one of those filmed plays, you might have thought a trip to the nearest stage to witness the thespians do their thing might be preferable, especially as the play was still running when the screen variation was made, but short of a revival, the best way to watch Nichols' work was to see this production, which may have had a lukewarm reaction among audiences of the day, but regarded now can deliver a clutch of truly excellent performances and some acid observations still holding true for the Britain of today. The National Health Service remains beleaguered in the twenty-first century, mainly because the population insists on getting ill.
Although the idea that the service is a bottomless money pit into which successive governments can throw any amount of billions with no headway apparent was at the heart of this, Nichols only had one character, Foster (Bob Hoskins), come right out and say he thought it was a vital part of a socialised Britain. The other patients merely accept it, or actively criticise it, with the elderly Mackie (David Hutcheson) railing against being made to stay alive for as long as possible when he would rather die, and not only that but rather see millions of others die too since they are nothing but a burden on the country who serve no real purpose, with solely sentimentality fuelling the drive to keep us all living as long as possible.
Whether those were the beliefs of Nichols or not was unclear as Mackie does spiral off his arguments into misanthropy and racism, but then plenty of the characters here are revealed to have unpleasant sides, be they ex-teacher Ash (Clive Swift) who has an unhealthy interest in young boys, or the casual prejudices brought out in everyday conversation with the others. This is presented as real life in all its grimness, as opposed to the airy-fairy fantasy that people would prefer to see life as, here played out as a TV soap opera with the staff of the hospital as their more glamorous equivalents, all very ironic. Many noted among some excellent acting it was Jim Dale who unexpectedly scooped the honours, as Barnet the orderly who always has a joke which masks his loathing of his job and the patients; his gallows humour is both clear-eyed and sobering, while still managing to make you laugh. If there was a flaw, it was that for all its criticism of medical care as not fit for purpose, it didn't point out the alternative was even worse, but this was bracing, curiously sympathetic satire whichever way you looked at it. Music by Carl Davis.