Mark Thomas’ new show does not set out to romanticise the NHS. He’s not blind to its failings. Globally there are far more effective healthcare systems. The UK ranks dismayingly low in terms of cancer survival rates and the whole system is under great strain, caused in part by it being treated as a private utility. But, for all its flaws, it trumps the alternative: a life lived in fear of illness, when only the wealthy can afford decent care.
Using a familiar mixture of reportage, interviews, and storytelling – he spent a month shadowing doctors – Thomas performs with his customary passion. The NHS has been undermined by those who would seek to profit from it and it is stretched to breaking point, but it is worth treasuring.
As ever, what stops this feeling like a lecture or a polemic is Thomas’ knack for capturing people’s humanity, from former secretary of state for health, Frank Dobson, the architect of PFI – which he now cites as his greatest regret – to the surgeon carrying out life-changing gastric-sleeve surgery, to the dementia nurses creating small strategies to help people manage their conditions.
He blends the wider political picture with small stories, capturing the intensity of the resuscitation room or the integrity of a Tower Hamlets GP. He stresses how much the NHS is interconnected with other social services, also eroded under austerity, and how poverty is still a massive factor when it comes to people’s long-term health. By necessity he skims over some issues, but the show never loses sight of the thing that keeps the NHS afloat – the commitment and care of the people who work for it.