Scary monsters, super creeps: Danny Boyle on the NHS

The NHS portrayed at the Olympic opening ceremony Pictire: Shimelle Laine
The NHS portrayed at the Olympic opening ceremony Picture: Shimelle Laine

Children’s literature and the NHS – Danny Boyle could hardly have come up with a better wheeze to capture my interest (unless he’d thrown in some greyhounds).

Westminster health secretary Andrew Lansley might not have much liked being represented by Voldemort (or possibly worse, a Voldemort puppet), but the message – hands off our NHS – came out pretty loud and clear.

The sequence annoyed many right-wing commentators – writing in the Daily Mail, Melanie Phillips said it seemed “a piece of gratuitous political propaganda”, while American talk show host Rush Limbaugh called it “honouring socialism and collectivism”. (He said this as though it was A Bad Thing, by the way.)

Limbaugh also suggested that Boyle (“a leftist”) had included the NHS to help Barack Obama in his quest to provide universal healthcare in the US. Loth as I am to admit to sharing an opinion with this particular shock jock, the same thought did cross my mind when watching the ceremony.

Because, in my view at least, the event was littered with messages to the rest of the world – couched in the self-deprecation for which Boyle’s vision has been rightly praised. Some of Britain’s most internationally recognisable symbols were celebrated, from the traditional (Shakespeare and Peter Pan) to Harry Potter and Mr Bean. Including the NHS in this celebration was a clear indication that Britain’s “socialised healthcare”, as the US would have it, is another thing we’d love to export.

But there were also messages for the home audience; surely it was no coincidence that the nurses and patients were beset on all sides by some of the scarier characters from children’s fiction. The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts and Cruella De Vil – best known for being mean to dalmatians – were some that I recognised, although I couldn’t place the scary hairy creatures.

It really isn’t too much of a stretch to read into that a warning that the NHS as we know it – in England at least – is also under threat, in this case from increasing privatisation which was introduced by the previous Labour governments, then gleefully accelerated by the current Tory/Lib Dem coalition.

But what did Americans make of the NHS chapter? While researching this article (OK, I admit it, I didn’t know how to spell Limbaugh), I found an article written on the site by American Cassie Cambers. She whimsically imagines how the scene would transpose itself “across the pond”, saying that insurance agents would pluck the children from their beds as they decided “to retroactively deny care” while a clock in the middle would show the highest healthcare costs in the world adding up as the scene unfolded.

Is this what we want? (I can’t believe it’s what America wants, but there you go.) Or do we want to keep – and, indeed, celebrate – a health service which is universal, free at the point of delivery and where high-quality care doesn’t, for the most part, depend on how much money you have?

Despite the horror in the Danny Boyle scene, there was a happy ending: Voldemort and his evil companions were defeated by Mary Poppins, who literally parachuted in to save the day. I wish I could be sure there will be similar salvation for the English NHS, let alone American healthcare. That really would deserve a gold medal.