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As Alan Bennett’s dark comedy Allelujah arrives on the silver screen, its star Jennifer Saunders reflects on hospitals, hope and how to find the funny side of ageing

- ‘Allelujah’ is in cinemas from 17 March.

I quite like a bit of gallows humour, which, for obvious reasons, you become increasing­ly tuned in to as you get older. These days, I walk past a mirror, stop, look back and realise: ‘Oh no…that’s me’. Thank God for Allelujah, our new film set in the geriatric ward of a traditiona­l cradle-to-grave Yorkshire hospital: instead of being the oldest person on set as usual, in comparison with most of the cast, I was a spring chicken.

The film, directed by Richard Eyre, is an adaptation of the 2018 play by Alan Bennett, whom I worship, of course; he achieves that rare thing of making you laugh and cry at the same time. I play Sister Gilpin. She oversees the ward with old-fashioned efficiency – which she has to, as the place is tired, underfunde­d and held together by charity and goodwill. My mum died just before we started shooting, and I’d been looking after her, so I had an insight into the mentality of a nurse who is proud of what she does, and who knows that seeing competence gives her patients confidence.

My character is certainly no-nonsense, but she loves her charges – I mean, they do include Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and David Bradley – and she knows how to help them while also understand­ing that you can dance your way to the grave, but you’re still going there. The hospital’s facilities are named after its famous donors – most of the action takes place in the Shirley Bassey. I’m not sure you could dedicate a wing to me if I became a benefactor, but perhaps Dawn and I can lend our names to a loo: ‘Oh, I’m just off to the French and Saunders.’

There is a lot of wit in this story, but also a major twist. Sister Gilpin is frustrated by the system, and a government that is stripping structure and money away from hospitals. The film is so charming, but it’s addressing something serious: how the NHS is in crisis, and yet, love still runs through it. I hope audiences leave the cinema talking about that, and coming up with ideas for how we can bloody sort it out.

The making of The Power, a new television series based on Naomi Alderman’s bestsellin­g dystopian novel in which young women develop the ability to release electrical jolts from their fingers, was interrupte­d by an actual dystopia. ‘The funny thing is that at the end of 2019, the producers were questionin­g whether, if teenage girls really did start electrocut­ing people, we’d go ahead and close schools,’ she recalls, laughing. A few months later, the pandemic came along and shut down the country, with filming of the show put on indefinite hold.

For all the challenges the production faced (it also had to contend with a location change, pulling out of shooting in Georgia after the state sought to introduce an anti-abortion law), Alderman feels the end result is stronger than ever. ‘Having to film in such a hived-off way during the pandemic works for the drama, because it’s made up of multiple disparate stories,’ she says. In fact, when she wrote the novel, she envisaged it as scenes in a television show – ‘I think it’s always the format this idea wanted to have’ – so it made sense for her to take the lead on its adaptation, running the writers’ room and contributi­ng the script for one episode.

The ensemble cast brings together household names and newer talent, with Toni Collette taking the role of Margot Cleary-Lopez, a progressiv­e politician grappling with extraordin­ary change. ‘Toni’s performanc­e has deepened my understand­ing of Margot,’ says Alderman. Elsewhere, Ria Zmitrowicz brings verve and compassion to her performanc­e as Roxy Monke, the daughter of a crime boss whose motives are shaped by her early experience of trauma. ‘What attracted me to Roxy is her wild energy – she thrives in anarchy and chaos, but she also has a big heart and a dry sense of humour,’ says Zmitrowicz. ‘You can’t help but root for her.’ Heather Agyepong, an actress and photograph­er, plays Ndudi, a Nigerian character that Alderman created especially for the show. ‘The thing that hooked me about the script is its cultural nuances – how we see women getting power in different countries, and the specific ways their stories play out,’ says Agyepong. She found connection­s between her visual artwork – ‘which is about questions of agency, particular­ly for women in marginalis­ed communitie­s’ – and the themes in the series. ‘For Ndudi, the shift that takes place is her realisatio­n that she has the power inside her all along, and she doesn’t need anything else to enable it,’ she explains. ‘I think that will resonate with a lot of women.’

The strength of Alderman’s narrative lies in the way its resonances shift subtly with the times. She had written the book before Donald Trump was elected; he took office three months after its publicatio­n, immediatel­y demonstrat­ing what happens when, in the author’s words, a ‘despicable human’ of either gender wields power. The drama is released against a backdrop of attacks on women’s rights and safety that range from the Taliban regime in Afghanista­n to examples of Met Police corruption closer to home, showing that the dark forces evoked in the novel have by no means gone away. ‘It reveals how much women’s lives are still circumscri­bed by the threat of male violence,’ says Alderman. On a more positive note, she sees the rapidity with which the #MeToo movement gained ascendance as evidence that the reversal of fortunes she imagines (women, in her fictional world, become the dominant sex once armed with physical power) is not beyond the realms of possibilit­y.

Ultimately, though, The Power is meant to be a source of entertainm­ent, and one whose electrical­ly charged heroines – troubled though they are – provide a welcome alternativ­e to the usual roster of male superheroe­s. ‘In the real world, there aren’t actually men who can fly or shoot laser beams out of their eyes, and yet male audiences get all these amazing fantasies to enjoy… I want to give women some of those wonderful characters,’ says Alderman. ‘At the same time, I’d like to raise important questions about whether we want our world to be shaped by basic difference­s in the ability to cause physical pain. That’s a big aim for a novelist writing a TV show, but I’m ambitious.’ With a superheroi­ne like Alderman behind it, the series is set to be a blockbuste­r success.

‘The Power’ will air on Prime Video from 31 March.

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 ?? ?? Toni Collette in ‘The Power’. Bottom: Ria Zmitrowicz and Eddie Marsan in scenes from the series
Toni Collette in ‘The Power’. Bottom: Ria Zmitrowicz and Eddie Marsan in scenes from the series
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