Interview: Comedian Laurence Clark sounds a warning bell for the NHS
By Jay Richardson
Concerned David Cameron’s government is on course to wreck the NHS through privatisation, comedian Laurence Clark went to america to see just how bad things could get
JAMIE Laurence Clark is only five weeks old but already he's the subject of a BBC One documentary and an Edinburgh Fringe show. The son of comedian Laurence Clark and his wife Adele, Jamie is at the heart of a film broadcasting in the autumn, on his father's comedy career and the Clarks' experiences as parents with cerebral palsy. Cameras have followed the family for six months and will continue to do so at the Fringe, as the comic bemoans the festival's "lack of crèche facilities" and negotiates its cobbled streets in his wheelchair, all the while performing his show Laurence Clark: Health Hazard! in the evenings.
Like his brother Tom, Jamie was born within the National Health Service. And he's provided plenty of humorous material for Clark's staunch defence of free, universal healthcare, after the comic spent time in America investigating the US system and uncovering alarming precedents for the UK.
Two years absent from the festival, Liverpool-based Clark never imagined his latest show would be so timely, as the government faces a huge backlash over its proposed health cuts. "2011 isn't a very good time to be a disabled person in this country," he says. "The government seem to be attacking us from all sides at the moment."
Perversely grateful to Philip Davies MP, who has suggested paying disabled people less than the minimum wage to increase their chance of getting a job - "what you see is what you get, he shows up the ignorance in the Conservative Party for what it is" - Clark is nevertheless furious at the recently announced privatisation-via-competition and the smokescreen he perceives in the Prime Minister's rhetoric.
He hopes his US anecdotes and footage will serve as "a warning about where we're going if we carry on introducing competition". Even with president Obama's proposed reform, he says, "there's still lots of competition in American healthcare and that means a lot of losers."
Clark is no dispassionate commentator. An NHS project manager for Liverpool's Primary Care Trust from 2001 to 2003, aiming to provide better healthcare information for people with disabilities, he says that every one of his and his wife's demands as disabled parents have been met. However, he chuckles: "Our experience this time was a lot more positive than last. And we wonder how much that owed to the camera."
More sobering though, his cerebral palsy is the result of his mother being neglected during childbirth while hospital staff celebrated New Year's Eve. Left too long without assistance, a breech birth left Clark's brain starved of oxygen.
"I think I'm an interesting person to speak for the NHS given my experiences haven't always been positive," he reflects. Besides, after several critically acclaimed Fringe shows specifically about disability, he felt that he'd "said everything I wanted to say about the subject".
"I wanted to talk about something I cared about that wasn't a million miles away from what I've been doing, something a bit wider. The NHS affects everyone, we all have a stake."
Over the course of ten days in America recording interviews and hidden-camera stunts, Clark heard plenty of myths about the NHS, not least on the perils of "socialism".
"The instant that word came up, the shutters came down. One guy actually used the example of a sick child, saying, 'Well, it's a shame, but it's going to cost $20 million and who's going to pay for that?' Which is quite shocking to us. That wouldn't be an issue here I think."
Clark is uncomfortable with being labelled a "political comedian" ("the show is political but I'm showing how it works in real life rather than telling people what to think," he says) and he's equally wary of being perceived as worthy, or simply reinforcing the views of sympathetic, liberal audiences.
His 2008 show, Spastic Fantastic, "worked great with open-minded Edinburgh crowds but it wasn't something I could tour elsewhere. The NHS is more universal."
He is anxious to avoid accusations of lazy Yank-bashing too, exhaustively researching the US health insurance system, performing difficult gigs in places like Philadelphia after four hours of gospel music, and taking pains to listen closely to his subjects, even if some were reluctant to talk.
He evokes an American "underclass", revealing that "in Chicago, it seemed like on every street corner there was a disabled person begging. I really wanted to feature them but they wouldn't go on camera, I guess because (begging is] illegal there."
"It's a complicated issue. What Obama is doing is making insurance more affordable but it's also compulsory. So yes, it's universal, but it's not like the NHS, it's still a product that people have to buy. If you've got money, the US system is great. If you haven't, it really sucks. For people with quite high support needs, it just isn't as good - more people seem to be put into institutions. At least here, we try to have fairness and equality, though it doesn't always work."
He spent a day in Washington with a group of disabled campaigners, "literally outside the White House as they flung themselves at police and got arrested. They want support to live in their communities, not to be put in these institutions."
Before writing Health Hazard, he watched American film-maker Michael Moore's 2007 satirical healthcare documentary Sicko and feels his show is substantially different. "(Sicko] is really good," he says, "quite shocking, just not terribly funny. A little schmaltzy and American at times. I hope I've made (US health insurance] accessible in a way that's understandable and that people watch it and see the NHS in a new light. But it's a comedy show at the end of the day, and above all I hope it's funny."
In the past, he's has had no enthusiasm for single-focus documentaries "on one or two disabled people, they're not really my sort of thing", and admits to a certain hypocrisy with his forthcoming film. Still, he justifiably feels aggrieved that his many four and five-star Edinburgh reviews haven't translated into a broadcast vehicle beyond an appearance on Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies and a 2003 guest report on Newsnight, in which he highlighted discrimination against disabled people in abortion law.
"Hopefully, because the documentary is going to have comedy in it as well, that makes it a bit more entertaining" he says. "But I agree, it's a shame."
• Laurence Clark: Health Hazard! is at Udderbelly's Pasture, Edinburgh, from 3-28 August as part of the Fringe, www.edfringe.com