Britta Von Zweigbergk:





Late summer, early autumn 1982 saw Bexley Hospital used as a backdrop for a television series, "THE NATION’S HEALTH". This was a series on Channel 4 - then in its first year of existence, a four part docudrama, at the time a rather a different approach to drama, with its lack of music and its semi documentary feel. It was also controversial as it was critical of medicine generally and the NHS in particular.

The changes since the NHS was first established in 1947 had been immense, not least the drug and rehabilitation treatments available. By 1982 there was a general emphasis in restructuring the NHS in order to make it a more business like organisation and it was with these changes that G. F. Newman’s series was concerned - for instance - the appointment of general managers, economic implications concerning drug treatment and the pharmaceutical industry, the struggling with crumbling institutions like St. Clair in the series and Bexley Hospital in reality.

The filming was divided between the Whittington Hospital, Highgate Hill, St. Olaves, a hospital with past connections to Bexley and Bexley Hospital itself. At Bexley hospital, The Camberwell Unit, a former research facility linked to Elmdene the Alcohol Dependency Unit was miraculously transformed into the ‘Brechin Unit’.

The episodes in Bexley were produced by Irving Teitelbaum with Max Stafford Clarke as Dr Hendrix and Vivienne Ritchie playing Dr Jessie Marvill.

The series overall was produced by the renowned Verity Lambert and Euston Films had a steady record at that time of producing dramas for television that became winners - like ‘Minder’, ‘The Sweeney’, and ‘Widows’.

The series followed the clinical and emotional experiences of Dr Jessie Marvill as she joined the staff of St. Clair - a large teaching hospital, like others at that time struggling with budget cuts and other difficulties. Continued survival meant a surmounting of problems that would not go away, like closure of wards, to save money, the resulting reduction in staff, the struggle between the private sector and the public. The welfare of the patients in this continued struggle often caused conflicting emotions.

One of the most striking aspects of the filming was the attention given to detail. Actors spending time wandering the endless corridors of Bexley with its shifting population of nomads and fugitives. They were not exactly under cover and true to Bexley Hospitals liberal past they were well tolerated by staff and patients alike.

Although the Hospitals identity was not disclosed in the series, first glimpses of Bexley Hospitals distinctive entrance with its gatehouse was very recognisable to those who knew the building and its grounds. There was some criticism by staff at Bexley who followed the series with great interest. They criticised the ‘squalid appearance’ of the ward depicted and an overall comment was that it was ‘over the top’.

An article in the local press highlighted this dismay as it had done with previous controversies surrounding the hospital, i.e., various news stories had circulated over past years - beetles in the kitchen, drugs being passed through windows, a ‘dangerous’ patient being transferred from Broadmoor and at that particular time a local furore over the planned construction of the Bracton Centre - A Medium Secure Unit with high fences and a forensic team

The Bexley Hospital administrator at that time, who, himself had come AFTER the filming, Mr Graham Howard commented in the article;

‘Staff who saw it when it was first shown thought it was a pretty fair reflection of life in a mental hospital
- however part was filmed in one of our empty wards which is not maintained and kept up to date. So the film probably gives a more squalid appearance. It was made a bit more intense and over the top than common day life actually is. One scene in a therapeutic group seemed to have a slightly more odd bunch of characters than we would have’.

This was Bexley Hospital management speak at its best - mild and understated. Those of us immersed in the daily life of the asylum at the time were quite approving and nodded our tacit support. Management at Bexley Hospital in the 1980’s particularly was a paternalistic affair and one tended to feel reassured by the particular vagueness of the statements that emerged at particular times.

Mr David Pinchin, on behalf of the Bexley Health Authority emphasised the fictional nature of the series na the fact that permission had been given to film some episodes in the hospital provided its identity was disguised in the film.

The storylines ranged from physical illness, operation and treatment to mental health issues and although distance was attempted to be maintained by the mild and benevolent administrative team at that time, a member of staff at Bexley Hospital did feature in the series - Sara Craze, who, as drama therapist had worked with me on Ashdown, the drug dependency Unit, She played a staff nurse in the series and her experiences at Bexley Hospital.

Oaklea 1, the art therapy department at Bexley Hospital became quite involved as art therapy was used in the series. It was good to highlight the therapies available in such places. It might have been one of the few positives in its sometimes withering view of the NHS as a whole.

The series provoked lively discussion, not least in the art therapy department. At that time it was unusual to show daily life in an asylum. And although there may have been those who complained about the squalid view of daily hospital life there was a real sense in which it seemed to add to the grittiness and raw quality of the drama. The final two episodes were filmed at Bexley Hospital and followed the tragedy of Henry Staples and his wife, Bernice Attwood.

The Camberwell Unit, in which much of the filming of the psychiatric sequences took place was conveniently near the art therapy department on the eastern side of the hospital with its views over the meadows and outer perimeter road. The unit was ideal really for the purposes of transformation and quite easily became the Brechin Unit in the series, becoming a teeming ward, full of disturbed individuals with bizarre behaviour, shouting and despair and as Mr Howard had commented ....‘A bit more intense and over the top than everyday life‘

Members of the cast prowled round the department, sitting in obscure corners and just watching. It might have been quite a shock to the system, for there was a certain bizarre quality at times, an almost surreal sense of somehow being locked in a dream at times in the department, with its paint encrusted walls, its graffiti and its trails of visitors and would be artists. There was a strong sense of anarchy and individualism and clay was used a great deal. And in fact it was clay that was used in the series, with a patient sitting in front of a piece of clay and moulding it urgently with her fingers. We had known over the years how powerful this could be and how it could contain and calm the most agitated of individuals.

The presence of these discreet onlookers did take a little time to adjust to, there was much that might appear inexplicable to an outside audience not used to the vagaries and idiosyncrasies that our acceptance helped to contain - in a department that catered for the most disturbed and restless individuals in the hospital. The corridor wanderers who often included us on their endless travels. leading me to imagine us at the centre of a giant labyrinth.

And what was our actor art therapist likely to make of it all ? The answer was in the eventual translation and we were pleased, It took the most subtle of observations to understand and explain the intuition that had become second nature for us and the development of a chameleon like personality that could adapt to various moods and to understand and know who wanted to be spoken to and who did not, who needed encouragement and who did not. It had become second nature to us over the years to be tolerant of those who merely wanted to watch, after all, initial watching may lead to eventual doing and often did. It was a role that needed seamless and swift movement into different modes, yet maintaining warm and acceptance.

The eventual result in the episode called ‘Collapse’ was a sensitive one. the patient in the episode working with clay in the kind of urgent way that was its familiar with us and the actor who played the art therapist gave a quiet and accepting, passive yet selectively transparent performance. It was quite an achievement and we were pleased that it showed a positive affirmation of art therapy and most importantly brought it to the awareness of a wide audience. It was important, particularly then, for a profession still struggling to find its feet at times. I was particularly pleased at the emphasis on the practical and the concrete strength of clay and paint as portrayed and its ability to ground and infiltrate agitation with a calmer and more settled mode.

Bexley Hospital had welcomed Euston films and it was a memorable time for those involved, staff and patients alike.

(for further glimpses of an admission ward and the art therapy department at Bexley hospital during the 1970’s/1980’s - plead refer to ‘Wards and Departments’ in ‘The Village on the heath’ by Britta von Zweigbergk and Michael Armstrong, published by Oxleas NHS Trust, 2004)