By Maisie Marston
Setting the scene, a projection of the view from Mark Thomas’ rehearsal room rolls, showing Lisson Grove Health Centre in its seemingly slow operation. When Thomas takes the stage, you’re shocked into consciousness. He paints a picture of pre-1948 Britain where his grandmother would put aside money for healthcare, having to choose which family member’s illness warranted emptying the pot. As Thomas reminds us, the NHS was created to fight fear, not just illness.
Thomas is best known for the Channel 4 show ‘The Mark Thomas Product’, a satirical standup format which ran between 1996 and 2002, but his more recent work has seen him take on the role of a documentarian as well as a comedian. His production Showtime from the Frontline was about a comedy club he set up in a refugee camp in Palestine, and now Check Up: Our NHS at 70 gives a blunt review of a public service in crisis.
The show is presented through a number of healthcare professionals Thomas met on residency with the NHS, and rooted in his recollection of time spent with a GP. The GP enthusiastically rattles off all of the ways Thomas’ 55-year-old body could malfunction, acting as a reminder of how reliant we all are on a functioning health service. The stage floor is coated in a hospital-style block colour design, and on the left there is a trolley which Thomas regularly uses to pump antibacterial gel from as he rapidly switches onto stories about being in operating theatres and on wards. On the right, he has a hospital curtain which doubles up as a projector screen for the pictures of doctors, nurses, politicians and economists he uses to tell the NHS’ story.
Throughout the show you are constantly humbled by the work of healthcare professionals. He races you through a story about a patient who arrives in the emergency department and doesn’t survive; the 35 members of staff involved are all left to recuperate from the experience in an extraordinarily short space of time. In contrast, dementia nurses on another side of the hospital still make time to put on a World Cup football party for their patients. Thomas recalls the nurses giving out non-alcoholic cocktails to the patients who would become drunk, having forgotten there was no alcohol in the drinks whatsoever.
Amongst the poignant stories and occasional laughs, Thomas has a resounding message. Recalling his conversation with Epidemiologist Michael Marmot, he says that in the Kensington district, the life expectancy is 22 years shorter for those who reside in the Grenfell Tower area than it is by Harrods. The two locations are just three miles apart. What sticks with you is that, as Thomas said in his interview with Quench, Marmot’s academic research found that “the main determinants of someone’s health lies largely outside the NHS”. Problems liked a bad diet, unemployment, homelessness and bad housing all have health outcomes, and it is made strikingly obvious that the burden needs to be shouldered by both the NHS and social care. Clearly, class is still a determinant for your health, despite the NHS’s 1948 promise to everyone “rich or poor”.
The picture painted by Thomas is of a political institution which is under-invested in and being ripped apart by privatisation. In an interview with former health minister Frank Dobson, Thomas gets him to condemn the private finance initiative (PFI), and in later interviews with economists, it becomes blatantly clear that the NHS is a money pit that we are not pouring enough money into. Thomas expresses his worry to hear people refer to patients as customers, and it serves as a deafening reminder that the NHS needs to be treated differently.
Thomas does confess during the show that he is ‘a bit of a lefty’, but the show remains incredibly honest. He regularly admits he liked many of the people that he met who had opposing views, and he constantly balances the personal with the institutional reality.
So, what does Thomas prescribe to a suffering NHS? As he told Quench, making sure that “your pen doesn’t slip to the Tory box”. But, what is to be taken from his show is that the NHS and social care are in dire need of funding, and its role in British society is indisputable.
The show is currently touring the UK, and is due to be performed in front of the Department of Health.
Photo Credit: Steve Ullathorn