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8 March 2023

Allelujah is Alan Bennett’s ode to the NHS

His 2018 play, set in a Yorkshire geriatric ward, is now a starry movie – with a pandemic-focused final act.

By David Sexton

Alan Bennett’s 2018 play Allelujah!, which was directed by Nicholas Hytner and ran at the Bridge Theatre in London, was fondly received. In these pages, Mark Lawson praised it as Bennett’s “brightest, tightest and most satisfying play since The Madness of George III (1991)”.

Set in an old-fashioned geriatric ward in a Yorkshire hospital called “the Beth”, which is under threat from NHS cuts, Allelujah! provided scope for Bennett’s relish for both traditional institutions and game oldsters, backed up by much finger-wagging about the inhumanity of mean-minded economies when it comes to the loving care that the elderly deserve.

When he was approached about adapting the play for a film, Bennett, who is now 88, gave his blessing but told the producers to act as if he were dead. Heidi Thomas, the creator of Call the Midwife, took on the script and Richard Eyre was appointed to direct. The re-casting was starry, with Judi Dench and David Bradley playing patients, and Jennifer Saunders taking on the senior nurse in charge of the ward, Sister Gilpin.

By the time production was underway, however, the pandemic had struck. The film was eventually shot in 2021 and includes a brief new final act, set in April 2020 in a Covid intensive-care unit. Here, the film’s hero, the gorgeous, saintly Punjabi medic Dr Valentine (Bally Gill in his first major film role), holds a dying man’s hand and makes an impassioned address to camera, speaking for the NHS in its 75th anniversary year: “We may buckle, but we do not waver. We are tested, but we do not flinch. We are here when night falls, here when the darkness eases into dawn. We are here for your first cry, your last breath, when you are broken, when you bleed, when others recoil or reject you. We will be here for you when you are old. We would die for you. We are love itself. And for love, there is no charge.”

Even if it’s a lot for one T-shirt, this is an irresistibly affecting speech – whether penned by Bennett or by Thomas – partly because it evokes so powerfully those frightening days when we all banged pots and pans on our doorsteps for our carers. But we were prepped for it: Allelujah wears its heart on its sleeve throughout, and we’re in no doubt as to who we are being asked to support.

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Like most of Bennett’s work, Allelujah is effectively a sketch show. The episodes are strung together on a rather creaky superstructure of familiar devices to carry us through its 99 minutes (the hospital is preparing a ceremony to award Sister Gilpin for a lifetime’s service; a TV crew is filming a documentary about the institution’s attempts to resist closure). But these are preferable to its crude plot developments: Sister Gilpin, it emerges, has been pushed by the demand for beds into managing the last days of her patients a little too actively. Colin (Russell Tovey), the son of the ward’s gruffest patient Joe (Bradley), happens to be the management consultant intent on closing down the hospital. After seeing the care his old man is receiving, he has a change of heart about his whole career.

[See also: Lukas Dhont’s Close explores the abrupt end of boyhood]

The difficulty with being moved by all of this, however, is that everybody present once again speaks Bennettese. They do not so much converse as deliver a series of aphorisms and micro-monologues, all ending with a deflating specificity or misplaced commonplace for a dying fall. This is a style that Bennett has perfected over a lifetime and used to good effect in his diaries, but it feels very mannered when granted to all the characters. Nor does such speech convincingly convey real emotion, when the script reaches for that.

Allelujah is set in a fantasy land; such picturesque geriatric hospitals have largely been abolished in favour of private care homes. Many of these are a good deal grimmer and treat patients with much more severe dementia than those at the Beth, which seems like a retirement home for our most distinguished thesps.

Since appearing as the angel of the Beth, Gill has seen his own grandmother though a geriatric ward and been so affected by the experience that, rather remarkably, he has said he couldn’t make the film now. “What Alan Bennett created is a very different world to what actually is happening and what that care actually looks like,” he said. Despite its apparent timeliness – with the NHS anniversary, strikes, and the furore over the government’s early decision in the pandemic to discharge patients from hospitals into care homes without testing for Covid – Allelujah, an English antique, or curio at least, scarcely connects with reality at all, however much we may all want to honour our carers.

“Allelujah” is in cinemas from 17 March

[See also: Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is a major and personal work]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid