The latest films could soon be showing at a hospital near you under a scheme to bring the silver screen into the health service. Barbara Millar asks what managers would recommend

Actors Nigel Hawthorne, John Hurt, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Dame Diana Rigg would make an impressive cast list for any film. When you add Juliet Stevenson, Zoe Wanamaker, Claire Bloom, Edward Fox, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, plus directors Sir David Puttnam, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Lord Attenborough, comic and author Ben Elton, entertainers Eric Sykes and Tommy Steele, critic Barry Norman and, representing the British Film Commission, Sir Sydney Samuelson, then the product they are endorsing is undoubtedly worthy of attention.

They - and 30 other renowned cinema professionals - have all agreed to become patrons of MediCinema, a charity which aims, according to its publicity material, ‘to enhance the quality of life for those in hospital by bringing the magic of the silver screen to patients young and old’.

MediCinema hopes to open fully portable cinemas in hospitals around the country. Its first is scheduled to open next spring at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, ‘which is, appropriately, in close proximity to the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin’, says MediCinema chief executive Christine Hill, who has 16 years’ experience in films and fundraising.

Access will be free for all patients, including those in beds and wheelchairs, and their families and visitors. Auditoriums will be located away from the wards, in non-medical areas, although a nurse will be on duty throughout each performance. The intention is to stage screenings to suit the age group of the audience, says Ms Hill.

The MediCinema at St Thomas’ Hospital, for example, will show films at weekends - on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for children and in the evening for adults - in a lecture theatre which is not used at those times. ‘The lecture theatre is ideal,’ says Ms Hill.

‘It is a flat, open space and we will be installing telescopic, retractable tiered seating.’

The charity will also provide a Cinemascope screen and hire a professional projectionist for the showings.

‘What better form of entertainment could there be than watching an historic epic, a period costume drama, sci-fi fantasy, full-length musical or comedy in a cinema environment, especially if you are in hospital? Large- screen cinema is the best place to see a film.

‘It is an escapist experience, a unique occasion, and we believe it will provide therapeutic benefit to patients by relieving stress and boredom, creating a distraction from everyday concerns and problems, and providing a community atmosphere for patients, their families and staff.’

Certainly many health professionals are firm supporters. Professor Anthony Clare, radio psychiatrist and medical director of St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin, says: ‘For patients in general, and psychiatric patients in particular, time in hospital can often drag, and while the best hospitals provide appropriate rehabilitative and occupational programmes, staffing and other constraints mean that much time is still available and can hang heavily for even the most motivated patient.’

‘A cinema is an extraordinarily compelling and popular medium, and its greater availability in hospital would do much to enrich the lives of patients, and would help to relieve boredom and encourage and facilitate mental interest.’

Laura Tomlinson, consultant clinical psychologist in paediatrics at St Thomas’, adds that the pressure of hospital visiting, particularly during long stays, is much underrated. ‘Maintaining an intimate relationship with family and friends under public scrutiny has its own difficulties.

‘Most families have little experience of being together in the unfocused way one tends to be during hospital visiting.

‘Children can become easily bored and parents can find themselves burdened with the added responsibility of keeping visiting siblings occupied and under greater control than they may have to at home.

‘Easy access to the cinema could help relieve this burden and provide families and friends with a pleasant, perhaps special, activity they could all share.’

An increasing body of evidence shows that the response to treatment for a variety of conditions may be improved if the patient has a more positive mental outlook, adds Alan Maryon-Davis, consultant in public health medicine at Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham health authority.

‘A more positively motivated attitude is linked to a shorter recovery time.

‘This scheme will offer patients a unique opportunity to temporarily escape their predicament, psychologically as well as physically, and to engage with the hopes and the fears portrayed on the screen.’

Dr Maryon-Davis believes this could be ‘truly therapeutic and a veritable tonic, providing a window on the world in an environment dedicated to the purpose, quite different from the television burbling away in the corner of a busy ward’.

MediCinema will not be financed through NHS funding, Ms Hill stresses.’Sponsorship will be sought through the commercial sector, and all funds raised will be allocated to the instalment of cinemas in hospitals.’

Virgin Cinemas has ‘adopted’ the charity and provided free screenings in its cinemas of a special MediCinema advertisement which was funded by a£5,000 grant from the King’s Fund.

A film advisory committee, headed by Professor Clare and including representatives from healthcare and the film industry, will approve the film programmes, adhering to British Board of Film Classification guidelines.

Two children have also been co-opted onto the committee to help select suitable children’s films. Some distributors have already promised previews of films so that patients will be able to see them before they go on general release.

A further 12 trusts, including Aberdeen Royal Hospitals and Derby Royal Infirmary, have also expressed an interest in having a MediCinema. Christine Hill says: ‘Laughter is still the best medicine.’