How a 1965 documentary captured changing ideas about mental health

Drawing a close to our series of articles celebrating the NHS’s 75th anniversary, BFI curatorial archivist Rebecca Vick looks at a 1965 training film that challenged doctors’ preconceived ideas about the treatment of clinical depression.

21 December 2023

By Rebecca Vick

  • Warning: This film contains ableist language and references to suicide

Sponsored by pharmaceutical manufacturer Allen and Hanburys, …And Then There Was One (1965) is an unflinching dramatised documentary looking at the diagnosis and treatment of clinical depression. Three NHS patients from different walks of life are treated with the sponsor’s anti-depressants. In the case of Mrs Brown, the drugs are also combined with some electroconvulsive therapy – which makes for scenes that some viewers may find distressing.

In this tense and compelling portrayal of emotional crisis, the fourth patient, Mr Charles, an older gentleman, is told by his unsympathetic general practitioner to take a tonic and soldier on. Untreated, his mental turmoil is shown to deteriorate with dire consequences. Eloquently and sensitively written by Christine Nestcher, and produced by documentary veteran Oswald Skilbeck, this was more than a training film or advert for the manufacturer. Instead, it showcased a more compassionate approach to mental health, which the NHS hoped their wider medical community would adopt.

Aimed at medical professionals, the voiceover narration is delivered with authority by Dr David Stafford-Clark, who had a gift for communication, having been a radio broadcaster in the 1950s before later becoming the presenter for BBC’s groundbreaking Lifeline series. His books, including the 1951 tome Psychiatry Today, had always advocated for patient comfort, as well as cure, so Stafford-Clark was an excellent fit for this empathetic examination of newer medical treatments to improve mental wellbeing.

The film succeeds because it does not shy away from the grim reality of this condition, providing believable human scenarios where the audience are given no option but to confront the horrors of this psychological affliction. Aided by the blurry, shaky and sometimes spinning visual realism of Joe Ambor’s camerawork and the fast editing of Ted Hunter, the film also incorporates traditional animation to explain the science of this cure.

This was the first of a series of films related to mental health that the talented director Eric Marquis made over the span of his documentary career, and one that received much praise in the medical field, winning a silver award in the 1966 British Medical Association Film Competition and an award in the category of health from the British Industrial and Scientific Film Association. This led to its nomination to represent the UK at the 7th International Industrial Film Festival in Venice.

With the success of this commission, its distinctive director went on to make two further powerful ‘psychodrama-docs’ for the medical professional, this time sponsored by Swiss pharma giant Roche: Time out of Mind (1968) and The Savage Voyage (1971).

In celebrating 75 years of the NHS we look to transformative and compassionate sponsored documentaries like this one, which radically challenged and evolved traditional approaches to mental health.


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