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TV review: Our NHS: A hidden history, and This Way Up

23 July 2021

BBC / Uplands TV / Harriet Thomas

Professor David Olusoga (left), presenter of Our NHS: A hidden history (BBC1, Thursday of last week), with Dr Malila Noone and Professor Sashi Sashidharan

Professor David Olusoga (left), presenter of Our NHS: A hidden history (BBC1, Thursday of last week), with Dr Malila Noone and Professor Sashi Sashidh...

FAITH did not come into it. In his documentary Our NHS: A hidden history (BBC1, Thursday of last week), Professor David Olusoga told a powerfully ambivalent story. Even before its inception, the British health service relied on doctors from what was then the Empire to fill GP practices; the NHS itself could not even have been launched without large-scale overseas recruitment — first from Ireland, then from the Caribbean, then India and Pakistan, and now predominantly from the Philippines and Europe.

They were invited, induced, encouraged to come; and, although scrupulously accurate, the advertisements were silent about the lowly positions that the recruits would actually fill, and did nothing to discourage misapprehensions that they would be of far higher status than the essentially bruising reality.

The programme was built around powerful, moving testimonies from those with long and distinguished careers, and illustrated by contemporary public-information newsreel and successive TV documentaries.

These followed a shaming trajectory, lifting the lid on continuing discrimination. The staff were desperately needed, but were treated with massive inequality, if not worse. However glittering their qualifications, they were shunted into the then “Cinderella” areas of the service: geriatric and mental, and hospitals in the most deprived areas. This was as true of doctors and specialists as of nurses. Today, when 40 per cent of the English and Welsh NHS is staffed by people of minority-ethnic heritage, it is by far the UK’s largest multicultural employer; but they are still mainly working in the most menial of tasks.

The ambivalence lay in — however badly they had been treated — the interviewees’ pride: they knew that their life’s work was of the greatest value, and felt profound loyalty to the NHS as, despite all its faults and failings, something quite wonderful.

Forced to work in its most unpopular and poorly funded areas, their commitment transformed these into aspects of medicine and care; so their central importance is now fully accepted.

And faith? Christian commitment to serving the poorest and neediest was one of the strongest inspirations behind the NHS. I have no doubt that it was personal belief that enabled at least some of those interviewed to rise above the appalling prejudice and discrimination that they suffered — but we didn’t hear anything about that.

Channel 4’s This Way Up, whose second series has just opened (Wednesdays from 14 July), is hailed as brilliantly acute by all critics — except this one. I find the personal angsts of these two beautiful Irish sisters extraordinarily self-indulgent. We are told about their outstanding ability in their fields of work; but we don’t see it, and I’ve never met a teacher with so little to do. We are supposed to be moved by Aine’s previous “nervous breakdown”, and radically liberated by the incessant sexual content — but neither overcomes the essential silliness of these self-centred lives.

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