Review
Culture
5 min read

For love there is no charge

Out of mind old people are at the centre of Allelujah! Sian Brookes reviews the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play.

Sian Brookes is studying for a Doctorate at Aberdeen University. Her research focuses on developing a theological understanding of old age. She studied English and Theology at Cambridge University.

In a hall decorated for a celebration a person stands in front of a seated group, all have their arms raised in celebration.
Jazz hands at the hospital.
BBC Films.

Spoiler alert – this film review reveals significant elements of the plot. 

Allelujah! is not a film that shies away from the big issues. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a big issue this comedy/political commentary/drama/part-thriller doesn’t at least make reference to (and yes, it spreads itself across all of these genres too). With such an eclectic approach it is difficult at times to keep up with the narrative, and the deeper meaning of the film. Based on the Alan Bennett play, the plot centres around The Bethlehem, a small northern hospital for geriatric patients, which is facing closure due to the Tory government’s efficiency drive. It focuses on two members of staff, Alma Gilpin, a stoic and matter-of-fact but seemingly excellent nurse who has served the hospital her entire career, and a younger Dr Valentine. Other protagonists include an ex-miner patient and his son, a management consultant who has “made it” to London and is currently advising the Health Secretary to close hospitals such as the one in question for the sake of government finances. 

Whether it’s politics or the personal, this film has it all. It deals with levelling up, the cultural and economic gap between the north and south, the challenges of budget cuts in the NHS, the problems of a national health service claiming to 'care' but with managers more preoccupied by Westminster’s economic priorities. It depicts families waiting for older relatives to die in order to grab their inheritance, the broken relationship between an ageing man and his son, and those all-important stories of the older patients’ lives well-lived. And yet as the story line develops, a plot twist emerges which comes to overshadow the entire film, and in the process speaks to what is perhaps the most poignant of the many discussions it raises. Nurse Gilpin, who, until now has appeared consistently caring and committed to her patients, has been quietly administering fatal beakers of milk and morphine to those who she deems to be on “her list” of those who most need relief from their situation. When confronted by the doctor she justifies her actions with a multifaceted answer based on the requirement to provide more beds to a broken healthcare system, but also insisting “I had ended someone’s suffering”.  

When Dr Valentine remarks, “I like old people” a visitor responds “not even old people like old people”.

The manner in which Nurse Gilpin goes about what is effectively enforced euthanasia, is deeply chilling. And yet her reasoning is not entirely foreign to us – to end suffering could be deemed a noble cause. In fact, the need to simply delete the reality of suffering, particularly the suffering of the old is one that perhaps is not so uncommon. Throughout Allelujah!,we are reminded of our tendency to run from, to detest, to reject the suffering of the elderly in our society. When Dr Valentine remarks, “I like old people” a visitor responds “not even old people like old people”. A teenage intern declares to a patient “I hope I never live to be your age”. At the same time, characters look back on the days “when the elderly weren’t farmed out”, and questions are asked of families “if they love them, why do they put them away?”. A very good question. Of course, care needs are often too great for families to endure, yet it is still important to ask why the suffering of the old has become a professionalised service, which most of us avoid at all costs. Perhaps the answer to this is that we don’t like to watch the old suffer, we don’t like to watch them die, because their suffering and their death remind us of our future selves, our future suffering, our future death. In our sanitised, anything-is-possible-with-medicine-and-science society, death and the suffering that comes with it, is something from which we flee at all costs. Instead of acknowledging and working with it, we would rather pretend it wasn’t there at all.  

And yet, even as we try to avoid it, suffering and death are both certain parts of all our futures. 100% of us will die. For Nurse Gilpin, the solution to this is to bring on death prematurely, to erase the pain, overcome the misery by offering a false hope – that it doesn’t need to exist at all. In direct contrast to this, in a film which is littered with Christian references (Allelujah, The Bethlehem), there is a different approach taken by a messiah-type figure who seems to get everything right. Dr Valentine is compassionate and understanding. He not only challenges the political systems which undermine those most at the margins of society, but also has the kind of bedside manner we would all hope for in a doctor. In a closing monologue Dr Valentine utters the words of the doctors in the NHS, “We will be here when you are old, and we would die for you, we are love itself and for love there is no charge”.  

It is this suffering with which is so compelling, this suffering with which is truly sacrificial.

Nurse Gilpin and Dr Valentine offer two fundamentally different approaches to end of life care. One hastens the end quickly, deletes the suffering as efficiently as possible in order to make way for those in less pain. The other sits with those who suffer, holds their hand, gently cares for the human person that is in front of them. Even more, and perhaps most significantly Dr Valentine does not only watch from afar, but is willing to suffer himself for the sake of those in pain - working tirelessly, giving himself over day after day, fighting on with little sleep for limited pay just to make things a little less painful. It is this suffering with which is so compelling, this suffering with which is truly sacrificial, this suffering with which speaks of something much greater than politics, efficiency or inheritance, this suffering with which is indeed “love itself”, completely free of charge.  This is the logic that Christians see in the ancient notion of the incarnation, celebrated every Christmas, of God with us. This is what our older people need, this is what we will all need when we grow old. Let us only hope that when we get there, we find the one who is willing to offer it.

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.