Allelujah’s Richard Eyre on his new film about the geriatric ward and the state of government ‘panic’
I It used to be thought that directing was all about commanding – about knowing the answers to all questions,” says Richard Eyre. “Now I feel the opposite.” One of the titans of British theater since the 1970s, Eyre has of course done his part to take charge in the past. Directed by Ian McKellen in one of the definitive productions of Richard III. By Daniel Day-Lewis in hamlet, in which the actor walked off the stage mid-performance and never returned. From the National Theatre, during his 10-year tenure as creative director between 1987 and 1997, championing the work of hot-headed artists such as David Hare and Howard Brenton.
He’s gritted his teeth on screen Play for today before moving on to films like 2006’s Notes from a Scandal and the BBC’s 2018 King Lear starring Anthony Hopkins and Florence Pugh, who has become a star. Eyre, now 79, chats to me via video chat from his west London home about his latest project, alleluia, which focuses on the geriatric ward of an NHS hospital at risk of closure. It’s aptly a film that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, just weary questions and bittersweet musings about the slingshots and darts of old age.
alleluia began as a play which premiered at London’s Bridge Theater in 2018, directed by Nicholas Hytner. Written by Leeds-born satirist Alan Bennett, alleluia centers around a fictional hospital in Yorkshire known as “Beth” – short for Bethlehem – and the colorful characters who populate it. On the one hand we have the acclaimed nurse Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders) and the idealistic newcomer Dr. Valentine (Bally Gil). On the other hand, the sick patients. Russell Tovey plays a ministerial aide whose worldview is turned upside down when his father (David Bradley) is placed in Beth’s care. The film is both a love letter to the NHS and a grim indictment of government cuts; The callous urge to “move on” patients and free up beds for new ones hits disconcertingly close to home.
The challenge for Eyre and screenwriter Heidi Thomas (the creator of Call the midwife), was to take the stage play and make it “realistic” while retaining the “Bennett-ness of it”. “Here was a film that dealt with extremely important issues: caring for the sick and caring for the elderly,” says Eyre, “which I think are absolutely central to our society. But because it’s Alan Bennett, it’s not heavy-handed and polemical. It’s human and funny, and gets to the point without hitting you over the head.”
The film has a special personal meaning for Eyre. “My mother was very ill for many years,” he says. “She had Alzheimer’s and was given excellent care in an NHS geriatric unit very similar to the one in the film. The nursing staff actually showed up for her funeral, which was incredibly moving.” According to Eyre, his mother was pulled from the station for “the very reason you see in the film”: the requirement to constantly free beds. “She was placed in a nursing home and died a week later,” he says. “Because there was no one left to take care of her.”
Portraying Beth’s patients, the venerable cast includes Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi (unforgettable in the title role of the BBC classic I, Claudius) and Bradley (known to TV audiences as game of Thronesby Walder Frey). Eyre and Dench have worked together repeatedly over the years, beginning with his film debut in 1981 The cherry orchard. “She’s just a really old friend,” he says. “You don’t have to instruct Judi, just point her in the right direction.”
Dench, 88, recently opened up about not being able to read scripts because of her deteriorating eyesight: e.g alleluia, she had the script read to her and she memorized it. Eyre says, “She’s just so incredibly skilled that no matter how disabled she is, she can kind of sense everything – without obviously being aware of where the camera is, she’ll always be in an interesting and expressive position .”
There is no glamor in the roles of Dench, Jacobi and Bradley. In one scene, Bradley’s character is stripped naked in the shower; another sees him rendered incontinent. I can’t help but wonder how it feels for these revered stage actors to be so weak, so exposed, on film. “When they accept the role, they accept that they’re at an age where you’re all too aware that dignity is a luxury,” says Eyre. “But it depends on how you’re treated. It was a very loving environment – not least because I’m the same age. It is in my best interest as much as yours.”
The lack of strong film roles for older actors is well known at this point; it’s something Eyre noticed from the director’s chair. “I think my generation is guilty of ageism,” he says, “because we were the generation — the ’60s generation — that fetishized youth. The young people, we had a contempt for old people and that proved to be a very corrosive attitude.”
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a free 30-day trial
It’s hard to argue alleluia without mentioning its twist – which came midway through the stage play but is used as a late carpet move in the film – so be warned spoilers follow. Toward the end of the film, it is revealed that Saunders’ character, Sister Gilpin, is actually acting as an “angel of mercy,” euthanizing patients to end their outrage and ensure a steady supply of empty beds. “It raises a complicated moral issue,” says Eyre, “and makes for what they call a ‘fridge moment’ — if something later explodes. That moment after you’ve seen a movie where you come home, you open the fridge and suddenly you’re like, ‘Do you think she was wrong?’”
There are, says Eyre, ethical shades in Sister Gilpin’s actions. The director supports efforts to legalize euthanasia and has written a play on the subject that has yet to be performed. But in alleluiathe character’s crimes are nonetheless the result of top-down pressure from the Conservative Government’s fiscal and ideological attacks on the NHS as an institution.
“You think this Nurse Gilpin manages to make the best of a bad job considering she has an endless demand for beds to put old people who are sick in a geriatric ward,” explains eyre “And the consequence, when they get better, is that she has to vacate the bed and send them to what David Bradley’s character describes as a ‘s***hole’ – a bad nursing home. So she tries to make things work, to do what the system asks of her. I hope it actually gets people to say, ‘[Her actions] are clearly wrong… but why does this have to happen?’
“And yes, she takes the wrong solution,” he adds. “But you could say that it puts people out of their misery.”
In the UK, euthanasia legislation has repeatedly been thrown out of Parliament despite bipartisan support. With euthanasia legal in several European countries, calls for a more compassionate approach are mounting. A fundamental problem is our country’s aging population, the fact that there are “a significant number of people who are older and yet not fitter,” explains Eyre. “You can’t ignore that. I just pray that some governments will take this into account and not offer any short-term solutions. It used to be said that a week is a long time in politics. Now it seems like an hour is a long time. You have to step back and say how do we deal with these things? I don’t know, but it’s definitely not going to happen.
“The current government is in a state of total panic right now,” he continues. “Day by day, hour by hour, they’re just trying to keep the pieces together. The NHS is clearly underfunded. It’s clearly overwhelmed. And it’s not an isolated problem. You can’t sort the NHS without sorting aged care and social care – they can’t be separated.”
One solution, Eyre argues, would be a health tax with mortgages — that is, a standalone tax that is segregated from the rest of the budget, much like the TV license fee. “Of course the Treasury absolutely hates the idea of fixed taxes because it means they can’t move things – which takes away their power,” he adds.
Despite the heaviness of its subject matter, it has a defiant edge alleluia; it is less a dirge for a vanished institution than a call to save it. Is Eyre optimistic about the future of the National Health Service? Type of. “I hope that when a Labor government comes to power – it almost certainly will – that it sits back and says ‘The NHS is the priority.’
“Rather than just trying to plug leaks in the ship, they need to look at healthcare and elder care holistically,” he adds. “If they don’t, I despair.”
Allelujah hits UK cinemas on March 17th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/richard-eyre-allelujah-interview-nhs-b2301346.html Allelujah’s Richard Eyre on his new film about the geriatric ward and the state of government ‘panic’