Allelujah: Judi Dench's latest film is shot in Yorkshire and sings the praises of the NHS
It had a tower and I remember driving past as the tower was being demolished and I thought that’s rather a good omen,” he said.
Set in a fictional geriatric hospital, Allelujah was adapted by screenwriter Heidi Thomas from the admired 2018 stage play of the same name (but minus the exclamation mark) by Alan Bennett.
Nicknamed “the Beth”, the hospital is a vital, caring institution, which is nevertheless earmarked for closure. The Beth is a “sort of metaphor” for the NHS, he says.
On one side are ranged the beancounters in Westminster, who want to replace supposedly inefficient hospitals like the Beth, with “centres of excellence”.
The threat of closure galvanises a campaign to save it and supporters invite in a news crew to plead their case by interviewing the patients and preparations for a concert to honour their top nurse, played by Jennifer Saunders.
But the plan doesn’t quite come off as expected..
Eyre remarks on the area’s incredible transformation since he last filmed there in the 1980s. The film shows several views of Wakefield, and an outdoor scene is set in a local park.
He said: “We set the film in Wakefield, it could have been in other Yorkshire towns, in Halifax, it’s that sort of size.
“Going back every mine has disappeared and the whole countryside has been landscaped. It is rather fine, Wakefield, and I though it was the right place to set it, rather than in Bradford or Leeds.”
Variety magazine described the cast as “a gathering of Britain’s national treasures, in effect, in aid of the greatest national treasure of all” - and the film is an unashamed love letter to the NHS concentrating on a neglected group - the elderly and infirm.
Eyre has worked with most of the actors before including Dame Judi Dench - now incredibly 88 years old - who plays Mary, a retired librarian. Other veterans include Derek Jacobi, David Bradley and Julia McKenzie.
For Dench, Bradley and Jacobi, it’s the first chance they’ve had to work together, despite knowing each other for many years. Dench and Bradley first met 60 years ago at an amateur dramatic group in York.
Eyre said it was a “very comfortable experience” to work with actors he knows well: “I think there is a mistaken view that directing is all about giving orders, it’s not, it’s about asking questions as much as giving answers.”
Bradley, known for playing Argus Filch in the Harry Potter film series, plays ex miner Jo, in one of the few beds in the hospital, who has a strained relationship with his Department of Health management consultant son Colin (Russell Tovey)
The Conservative government adviser tells his dad hospitals like the Beth make “zero economic sense”. However the course of the film shows the non believer won over by the kindness he witnesses every day at the Beth.
But the message of the overriding goodness of the NHS is upended by a jarring “sting in the tale”.
And some may also feel the Covid bolt-on at the very end, a postscript for the cinematic adaption, in which consultant Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) makes a plea for support and understanding for frontline NHS workers is over preachy.