In 2004, Hugh Laurie hit transatlantic fame as the eponymous protagonist of US TV medical drama House. But who knew that two years before, he and Imelda Staunton had already flexed medical muscles on an NHS training film?
The Strange Case of Penny Allison was screened on VHS players across the land in 2002, as a training film targeting clinical staff in vital matters of rigour when handling blood, using then largely analogue record-keeping procedures.
At the time restricted to internal audiences, this entertaining short is a modern morality play, a lesson in the form of a comedy of errors. In the film, multiple minor mistakes, accentuated by the foibles of the several characters making them (all played by Laurie and Staunton), conspire to cause potential medical disaster. Aesthetically, the film has a sort of lo-fi stylishness, its charm, wit and visual aesthetic achieved despite, or maybe because, of its time, money and location constraints, in the era of videotape.
The film sits in the grand tradition of British health information film, which has so often drawn on dark wit (when not going for graphic shocks). Its director, Paul Katis, later co-founded and is creative director of Pukka Films, whose strapline is ‘Films that save lives’. Pukka won multiple UK and international awards for digital training films and series, many dealing with health and safety topics. But it also brought its skills into mainstream cinema production – Katis’s feature film Kajaki: The True Story (2014), available on BFI Player, was acclaimed for its viscerally authentic depiction of British troops’ experiences in Afghanistan, though few critics noted that it had drawn on his and Pukka’s rich experience in the challenging discipline of training film.
In this 75th year of the NHS, we caught up with Katis for the inside story of The Strange Case of Penny Allison, and his thoughts about the wider world of health and safety filmmaking.
How did you come to direct The Strange Case of Penny Allison?
The production company 1871 got the commission from the COI (Central Office of Information) working for the National Blood Service. Andrew Kerr, a freelance writer, developed the script and 1871 hired me to direct as a freelancer.
How had you got into filmmaking?
I started out as a demonstrator at a kit hire house for the RM440 Controller and 2 x type 5 U-matics – for younger readers, these were machines used in professional ‘linear’ editing of analogue videotape. I was soon asked to do actual editing for people using these, and from there went on to direct.
How did you approach the film?
There was a need to show a broad range of NHS staff how their vigilance was vital in delivering the right blood to the right patient. Representing that range suggested a large cast – in this case translated to two actors playing everyone. The budget was not huge as I recall.
How were Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton convinced to star in a film the general public wouldn’t even see? And how were they to work with?
They were brought to us by the blood service so no convincing required by us filmmakers. They were a complete joy. Totally professional, of course, and committed to delivering the material. Both keen to experiment with the characters and develop them to wring out the comedy. Working with this calibre of talent it’s easy to look good yourself.
The film was produced using standard definition tape.
It was low-budget. I remember we shot at the Royal Free Hospital and they let us in over the weekend. So maximum two days of shooting, with a very small crew: no gaffer, one sound engineer. The tape format, Digibeta, had greater depth-of-field compared to other formats, so didn’t need a dedicated focus puller, reducing the crew by one camera assistant.
How did you accomplish the scenes featuring the same actor playing two characters, sometimes in the same shot?
This is pre inexpensive CGI, so we used a couple of techniques. The main one being simple lock-offs and split screens. We also had doubles so could shoot dirty over the shoulder reverses. My favourite trick was panning the camera through Hugh’s dark suit onto him playing a different character, giving the appearance of a single shot.
A lot of your set-ups are at tilted angles – Third Man style.
It seemed to suit the quirkiness of the script. Everything seems a little off and unsettling. It can also make ordinary environments appear more interesting. Also, the wide angles helped with the split screens.
How was it received? And what do you think of it now?
I think it was judged to be effective. It was well recognised at that year’s IVCA (International Visual Communications Association) Awards. A lot of credit should go to Andrew for the script. Looking back from 2023, though, I’m amazed we got away with it. Every type of medical stereotype celebrated to the max. Am I wrong in thinking that in today’s more puritanical world we wouldn’t be allowed to do it? At least we had a pop at everyone!
Does this film connect to your later work at Pukka?
Yes. Pukka Films has specialised in health (and safety) output along with security material. It’s allowed me to develop my dramatic chops, which led to Kajaki. We always start by asking what the audience would choose to watch by themselves and finding a genre to suit the message. We sometimes forget that viewing these films has to be fun. Penny Allison is undeniably fun to watch and re-watch.
For example: we made a series for Cunard geared towards improving service among their crew. A potentially dry subject was transformed by setting the scene away from the work environment and populating the films with recognisable characters and analogous storylines. The first film became very popular with the end audience, prompting the company to return to it again and again.
Similarly, but with a very different purpose, we made a high impact film for international construction workers raising awareness of three health issues specifically threatening this cohort. Rather than making a lecture we chose a genre recognised around the world – a ghost story – and packaged the learnings into that. We’ve worked with this client for many years and applaud their willingness to take risks. Having said that, they know it works.
What have you learnt about the dos and don’ts of health and safety filmmaking?
The key thing is look for authenticity. That may seem strange when you’re talking comedy, but it still applies. A stereotype is after all just an exaggeration of true common characteristics. Never portray a character the audience recognise as behaving stupidly. Maintain an internal logic at all times, conceal the bleeding obvious and avoid lecturing.
The Strange Case of Penny Allison starts with a caption: “You are about to see a very boring video.” Is breaking down complacency a key to health filmmaking?
We all strive to be comfortable in what we are doing. No one likes feeling on edge. The more familiar something is, the more our actions become automated. This is hugely advantageous, making us efficient. But it comes with dangers. Our antennae are less active and our senses dulled. “I’ve always done it this way and it’s never gone wrong before,” is a form of complacency probably leading to more poor outcomes than any other single factor. Many of our films touch upon this point, to demonstrate little behaviours that can combat complacency.
As The Strange Case of Penny Allison is a comedy, can you say a bit more about the uses of comedy, drama, documentary and animation in communication films?
You can entertain people, shock them, make them laugh. Choosing the right approach will vary with the message you’re seeking to convey and the proclivities of the audience group you’re addressing. In the case of Penny Allison, while the message is deadly serious, the medical audience is renowned for its dark humour. By packaging the message in an absurdist plot we could portray silly errors without belittling that audience.
Do you find a difference between public sector (such as NHS) and corporate clients?
Not really. They have the same ambitions and often similar budgets. Everyone now has convoluted pitching procedures. At least in the private sector you get to meet your clients before pitching.
Do you think this type of filmmaking is undervalued?
Of course. But we have some devoted clients who get it, understanding the power of storytelling connecting with the heart and leaving an enduring impression. We’re maybe a little cynical in the UK. As far as BAFTA is concerned… well, we simply don’t exist.
Explore the NHS on Film collection on BFI Player.
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