“I go when I go, don’t I?”: health promotion on film in the long 1980s

Peder Clark
Jan 18 2017

“I go when I go, don’t I?” was not, as Professor Hilary Graham quipped, a reference to frequency or otherwise of toilet breaks. Instead, it was an expression of fatalism by a young man in the 1987 ITV documentary Lessons for the Living, indifferent to attempts by health workers in Sheffield to advise him and his peers on diet, smoking and exercise.

Lessons for the Living was the final film in an evening screening and discussing health promotion on film in the late 1970s and 1980s. Professor Graham (York), Dr Alex Mold (LSHTM) and Dr Jane Hand (Warwick) formed a panel that provided both historical context and analytical insight (as well as the occasional gag).

A brace of films about alcohol, produced by the Scottish Health Education Unit, opened proceedings: Saturday Nightand Pool (both 1978). With titular and thematic echoes of Tony Richardson’s 1960 film Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, the first of these showed three couples enjoying a drink in the pub. One of the men’s misplaced machismo gets the better of him however, as he vomits his beer and whiskey straight back up, and is carried home while the more abstemious female drinkers continue their night at the disco. The latter film also employed social realism with its portrayal of a heavy drinker engaging in a disastrous round of drinks and pool. The central message of both is spelled out at the end of each film: ““Drink doesn’t make a man of you, stand on your own two feet”. As Alex Mold made clear both in her comments and most recent article, male drinking culture was a key target for health promotion campaigns in the late 1970s.

Gender was also a central preoccupation of the third film, If only we’d known (1979). Produced for the Spastics Society (now Scope UK), it told the cautionary tale of a pregnant young woman, cajoled into smoking and drinking by her feckless partner. But class was also a key theme; as Hilary Graham pointed out, the film was bookended by the same actor, dropping the working class affectations in his accent and reverting to cut-glass tones, lecturing the viewing audience on the potential health consequences of the couple’s actions for the unborn child.

Rounding out the evening, Lessons for the Living was distinct from the other films presented in that it was a current affairs programme rather than health promotion film. Concentrating on Sheffield’s attempts to emulate the successful Finnish prevention programme in North Karelia, it offered a counterpoint and context to the earlier films, highlighting that for much health promotion work, the focus has historically been on the individual’s lifestyle rather than wider social determinants. Jane Hand also noted the particular historical context of the week in which the programme was screened; the Health Education Council was abolished, its director-general David Player sacked, and a new body, the Health Education Authority, established in its stead.

During the panel discussion that closed the event, an audience member asked the discussants if they believed that health promotion films could ever be effective tools for behaviour change. The answers were measured but equivocal; maybe they could be successful, but on the evidence of these films, approaches that were more sensitive to class, gender and socioeconomic realities might be necessary. Health promotion campaigns could certainly learn from their past when developing them in the future.