Your Very Good Health: how a cartoon helped launch the NHS

When the National Health Service was first established 75 years ago, the Ministry of Health commissioned a short animated film to help get the word out about how the service would affect the “ordinary family”.

27 September 2023

By Jez Stewart

Your Very Good Health (1948)

Call the cartoon squad! A year before the National Health Service Act came into effect, 75 years ago on 5 July 1948, the Ministry of Health reached out to the Films Division of the Central Office of Information with an animated request.

A three-reel theatrical release explaining the details of the new NHS had already been commissioned, later emerging as the rather dour and deliberate drama documentary Here’s Health (1948). To complement it they wanted something a little different: a cartoon. Specifically “a coloured cartoon” that would need to show how the Act would affect the “ordinary family”, give full details of the new service, and tell the public how to use it. And do all that in under 10 minutes (and not cost more than £5,000). 

Animation had been used as a communications tool since its origins, but its call to service during the Second World War had further demonstrated its unrivalled possibilities for producing succinct, direct and engaging public information films. Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films was established in 1940 to make cinema commercials for breakfast cereals and washing powders. By the end of the war they had produced dozens of official films on subjects ranging from encouraging wartime salvage to warning soldiers overseas about venereal disease. 

In fact, John Halas and Joy Batchelor had made such an impression that their company became a key part of the communications strategy of the postwar Labour government. Their engagement to make this NHS cartoon was just one of seven similar shorts in their COI-backed series built around their everyman character Charley. 

Joy Batchelor had a gift for cartoon scripting and design, and, in collaboration with various ministries and the COI, she presented Charley with a range of epic political ambitions such as the New Towns Act of 1946, the National Insurance Act of 1946, the Marshall Plan, the nationalisation of coal, farming subsidies and changes to education. In each film he was won over from a position of cheerfully naive scepticism to cheerfully naive acceptance, as a hopeful proxy for the British public as a whole. 

Your Very Good Health, as the NHS cartoon was jauntily titled, starts with Charley on his bike, fringe flopping away, engaging in a friendly banter with a benevolent-sounding narrator. Both the live action Here’s Health and the cartoon Your Very Good Health look at the different consequences of accidents and injuries with and without the NHS. But while housewife and mother Mrs Carter’s fall is hinted at but never seen in Here’s Health, Charley’s elaborate bike crash is a slapstick set-piece of cartoon calamities. In fact, we also have time to see what would happen if Charley’s wife suddenly swooned, or his haughty neighbour fell from a tree, or Charley presented himself to the GP with “some unusual, undiagnosable illness”. 

Here’s Health strives for realism, with a non-professional cast, steady exposition and location filming. Your Very Good Health reaches for every shortcut and visual embellishment to drive its messages across. Both are effective in their own way, and are best considered together as part of a wide-ranging state communications campaign attempting to reach different audiences in different ways. 

Whatever their differences, what they both have in common is a fervent belief from their progressive-minded filmmakers that the NHS was a necessary and humanitarian development that would change the lives of many people in Britain for the better.

With thanks to Sarah Castagnetti and The National Archives for access to the production file for Your Very Good Health.

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