Although Alan Bennett’s play Allelujah debuted on stage in 2018, it feels more urgent today than ever before.
As I’m writing up this interview feature, news is breaking that NHS unions have reached a pay deal with the government after months of strike action.
It’s perhaps an understatement to say that our beloved NHS is currently in tatters, meaning the time feels right for a film adaptation to hit our screens.
Set in the geriatric ward of a small Yorkshire hospital that is threated with closure, Allelujah sees how the staff, patients, and community attempt to fight back despite facing obstacle after obstacle.
Leading the charge is the young Dr. Valentine who is beautifully played by newcomer Bally Gill, acting as our guide throughout the story.
The actor jumped at the chance to be part of the project, telling Zavvi that he rarely sees stories about the NHS on-screen, and so takes these opportunities when he can.
“When you are auditioning, you aren’t given too much information, just the basics, so here that was Allelujah and Alan Bennett. However, that sold it to me!
“But upon reading it, I was drawn in by this character who is an outsider coming into the NHS, then giving his opinions via voiceover, the positives and negatives of the system.
“And we just don’t have many stories about the NHS. I was fortunate to be in [TV show] This Is Going To Hurt which deals with the NHS in a very different way, but nonetheless I’m glad to be in two stories about it, looking at issues we are experiencing with it, particularly now.
“It was an important piece to be a part of now but this conversation and these issues have always been there – it’s important that we tell those stories.
“People feel underpaid, undervalued, and overworked in that sector – if we can give a voice to those people through art and this film, I’m game for that.
“But I also was nervous – you are giving a voice to these people that we just hear stats about in the media, there’s a responsibility to that.”
Like everyone in the UK, Gill has his own personal connection with the NHS describing it as “something that means the world” to him.
However, his co-star David Bradley, who portrays elderly patient Joe Colman, has a particularly special bond given that the 80-year-old actor is in fact older than the NHS itself (which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year).
As Bradley told Zavvi, he’s been there from the very beginning: “I’ve been a beneficiary of the NHS since it was created and it has saved my bacon on more than one occasion.
“It’s something that I used to take for granted as an institution that was always there but with the pandemic, we looked at other countries that don’t have this and thought – ‘can you imagine what that is like? What would our world look like without it?’
“It’s woken me and many others up to what losing it would mean.”
The film directly asks this question and even brings in the pandemic, with screenwriter Heidi Thomas updating the play which was penned pre-COVID.
However, Bradley is keen to emphasise that whilst the film is a passionate love letter to the NHS, celebrating its humanity and spirit, it never preaches its point thanks to Bennett’s smart writing:
“I mean, of course a film about the NHS is endemically political as it’s a political issue, but it doesn’t preach or tell us how to feel – nobody is being bashed and nobody is being lectured to as Bennett is far too clever a writer for that.
“He writes about people and the inhabitants of the hospice – the workers and residents – they aren’t stereotypes. Nobody is waving a flag in your face, it lets you think for yourself.”
Bradley is right that Allelujah is all about the people, with one of the most interesting relationships being between his character Joe and son Colin (Russell Tovey).
As a consultant to the Minister Of Health, Colin is partly responsible for the closure the Bethlehem Hospital is facing, which naturally causes some conflict between him and his father Joe, who is currently being treated there.
Through exploring this complicated relationship, the film shows that amidst the friction, love can still be found, as Bradley explains:
“There’s a growing rift between them – his attitude towards his son’s politics has driven a wedge between them. Joe is stuck in that groove and Colin can no longer face it – they aren’t on the same playing field, they have grown apart.
“But he is prepared to come see his father who starts to acknowledge that his son is doing well despite his politics – he’s proud of that.
“They do have these moments together which shows that they are capable of love but are just unsure how to show it, which is human. They are struggling to make that leap and come together which is heartbreaking.”
Dr. Valentine faces similar issues with Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders), the hospital’s most distinguished nurse who is preparing to receive a medal for her outstanding commitment.
Valentine’s idealism often clashes with Gilpin’s pragmatism although as Gill states, they share the same aim: “I think that they both care for people but do that in very different ways.
“He’s idealistic and optimistic, also coming from a culture where when you get to a certain age, you look after your grandparents and parents. He believes in that, he cares about the elderly, he loves understanding them, and learning from them.
“Sister Gilpin meanwhile is very pragmatic and is doing what she thinks is the right course, which leads to conflict later on with her and Dr. Valentine – he faces a dilemma, but they both genuinely care.
“Their ages are different, what he has seen compared to her, and their cultures are very different too, but they are both trying to do the same thing.”
As Gill teases there, tension between the two reaches boiling point when the third act twist comes into play, a reveal so unexpected I had to put down my cup of tea in shock.
To say anything more would spoil the surprise, but we can tell you that Gill admits he also didn’t see it coming: “I had to read it like three times to make sure that I had got it!
“It challenges audiences, raising important questions about care for the elderly, and makes it really hard to describe what genre this film is.
“It’s heartwarming but there’s also dark humour and it asks big questions, which is what I really love about it.”
The film certainly brings up plenty of talking points, with perhaps the biggest question of all being ‘how do we solve the issues the NHS is facing right now?’
Gill believes that in answer to this, we could learn a lot from his character: “Unfortunately it’s in tatters and needs a restructure rather than just money being thrown at it.
“It also needs to stop being passed between political arguments of left-wing versus right-wing. Instead the NHS needs what Valentine gives it in the film – love, affection, and understanding.
“And we need to do something soon and quickly whilst we still have the chance to do so. We are losing a lost of good people who care which is sad, and if we don’t solve it soon, then we are in real trouble.”
Bradley agrees, also speaking to the urgency of the issue, concluding: “The subject matter has found its time now – it was relevant before but recent events have really shown that it needs addressing.
“We need to get people talking about it and preserve our NHS. We all stood up and clapped which is fantastic, but it’s not enough. I’m hoping this will provoke that conversation and make a difference.
“I hope that people are entertained but also grow more conscious of what we are in danger of losing if we don’t pay attention and appreciate what sacrifices people make on our behalf, the NHS staff.”