Life in Her Hands

Last updated
Life in Her Hands
Life in Her Hands (1951), Title.png
Directed by Philip Leacock [1]
Written by
Produced by Frederick Wilson
Cinematography Fred Gamage [1]
Edited byJocelyn Jackson [1]
Music by Clifton Parker [2]
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
June 1951
Running time
57 minutes [1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Language English

Life in Her Hands is a 1951 drama film sponsored by the British Ministry of Labour with the aim of recruiting women to the nursing profession. It was produced in response to addressing the short supply of qualified nurses in Britain after the Second World War, caused to some degree by the needs of the newly founded National Health Service (NHS). It was produced by the Crown Film Unit and distributed widely across all major cinemas by United Artists. The film was written by Anthony Steven and Monica Dickens, and directed by Philip Leacock. The cast included Bernadette O'Farrell, Jenny Laird, Jean Anderson and Kathleen Byron.


Byron, well known at the time for her role in the 1947 film Black Narcissus , plays the protagonist Anne Peters, who wrongly believes herself to be responsible for the death of her husband in a car crash. She subsequently decides to become a nurse to assuage her guilt. In addition to the fictional content, the film conveys a picture of life in British hospitals, the difficulties and compensations of nursing work and related attitudes and practices of the day, such as the rigid nursing hierarchy and gender roles.


Life in Her Hands was sponsored by the Ministry of Labour as part of a national campaign to increase the recruitment of nurses following the Second World War. [3] [4] An existing shortage was worsened by the creation of Britain's National Health Service. Recruitment subsequently extended overseas. [2] The film was produced by the Crown Film Unit and was distributed across all major cinemas by United Artists. [3] [4] It was released as a second feature and received a certificate A. [1] [5] Although fictional, it was advertised as a documentary and contained reconstructions of hospital life. [4] [5]

Documents at the National Archives reveal that Irish writer Frank O’Connor together with a retired senior matron and the editor of the Nursing Times were called in to advise on production of the film. [6]


The protagonist Anne Peters is played by Kathleen Byron, who had become well known for her role as Sister Ruth in the 1947 film Black Narcissus . [2] In Life in Her Hands, her character becomes a nurse to assuage her guilt after her husband dies in a car accident in which she was driving and for which she blames herself. [7] The story of her guilt and how she comes to terms with it forms the fictional content of the film. [4] She takes up the profession at an older age than normal and despite warnings from her middle-class family about the intensive training that will be required. [4] Byron plays Peters as vulnerable but resilient, with intense emotions that are accentuated by a combination of music and close-up shots. [2]

Through a series of vignettes, the day-to-day life of a nurse in a British hospital in the immediate post-war years is revealed, showing the strict hierarchy of nursing roles, lingering shortages, difficulties in dealing with boisterous male working-class patients, and gender divisions. [2] The film also devoted significant amounts of time to the benefits of nursing in accordance with its purpose of promoting the profession as an attractive career option for women. [2]


Life in Her Hands was directed by Philip Leacock. [8] Anthony Steven and Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, wrote the script; she had published in 1942 One Pair of Feet about her war service as a nurse. [2] [4] The film was scored by Clifton Parker. [9] Kathleen Byron was cast as the protagonist and other actors included Bernadette O'Farrell and Jenny Laird. [3] [4]

The cast includes:

Reception and legacy

The Monthly Film Bulletin reported the film as "combining impersonal information with a personal fictional story". [4] A sister at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary felt that Hollywood films about Edith Cavell and Florence Nightingale had greater impact than a film like Life in Her Hands. [4]

The British Film Institute has noted the expense and trouble taken in making the film despite it not being released as a main feature. It was one of the last films made by the Crown Film Unit which was closed the following year to save money with later British government-sponsored films being commissioned from private studios. [3] The film was shown again in 2018 at the BFI Southbank to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the National Health Service. [10]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kathleen Byron</span> English actress

Kathleen Elizabeth Fell, known professionally as Kathleen Byron, was an English actress.

<i>Smokescreen</i> (film) 1964 film by Jim OConnolly

Smokescreen is a 1964 British crime drama film, written and directed by Jim O'Connolly and starring Peter Vaughan.

<i>The Bridal Path</i> (film) 1959 film

The Bridal Path is a 1959 British comedy film directed by Frank Launder and starring Bill Travers, George Cole and Bernadette O'Farrell. It is based on the 1952 novel of the same name by Nigel Tranter. The film was an unsuccessful sequel attempting to match the success of Launder and Gilliat's earlier Geordie (1955).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jenny Laird</span>

Phyllis Edith Mary Blythe, known professionally as Jenny Laird, was a British stage, film and television actress.

<i>Things Happen at Night</i> 1948 British film

Things Happen at Night is a 1947 British supernatural ghost comedy film directed by Francis Searle and starring Gordon Harker, Alfred Drayton, Robertson Hare and Garry Marsh. The film is based upon a stage play, The Poltergeist, by Frank Harvey. It was shot at Twickenham Studios. Despite the film's comparatively large budget it ended up being released as a second feature.

<i>The Lamp Still Burns</i> 1943 British film

The Lamp Still Burns is a 1943 British drama film directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Rosamund John, Stewart Granger and Godfrey Tearle. Its plot concerns a woman architect who changes careers to become a nurse.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jane Hylton</span> British actress (1927–1979)

Jane Hylton was an English actress who accumulated 30 film credits, mostly in the 1940s and 1950s, before moving into television work in the latter half of her career in the 1960s and 1970s.

<i>Offbeat</i> (film) 1961 film

Offbeat is a 1961 black-and-white British crime film directed by Cliff Owen and starring William Sylvester, Mai Zetterling, John Meillon and Anthony Dawson. In the film, an MI5 officer goes undercover to catch a criminal gang.

<i>The Lost Hours</i> 1952 British film

The Lost Hours is a 1952 British film noir directed by David MacDonald and starring Mark Stevens, Jean Kent and John Bentley. It was produced by Tempean Films which specialised in making second features at the time, and marked Kent's first descent into B films after her 1940s stardom. It was shot at Isleworth Studios and on location around London. The film's sets were designed by the art director Andrew Mazzei. It was released in the United States the following year by RKO Pictures as The Big Frame.

<i>The Master Plan</i> (1954 film) 1954 film

The Master Plan is a 1954 British film noir drama film directed by Cy Endfield and starring Norman Wooland, Tilda Thamar and Wayne Morris. It is set at the headquarters of NATO. Based on a teleplay Operation North Star by Harald Bratt, it was produced as a second feature. It was made at Southall Studios with sets designed by the art director Scott MacGregor.

<i>The Harassed Hero</i> 1954 film

The Harassed Hero is a 1954 British comedy film directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Guy Middleton, Joan Winmill Brown and Elwyn Brook-Jones. It was based on a novel of the same name by Ernest Dudley. The film was produced as a second feature and shot at Walton Studios and on location in London. The film's sets were designed by the art director John Stoll.

<i>The Brain Machine</i> (film) 1956 film

The Brain Machine is a 1956 British thriller film directed by Ken Hughes and starring Maxwell Reed, Elizabeth Allan and Patrick Barr.

<i>Operation Cupid</i> 1960 British film

Operation Cupid is a 1960 British comedy film directed by Charles Saunders and starring Charles Farrell, Avice Landone and Wallas Eaton. The screenplay concerns a gang of criminals who win a marriage agency during a card game and plan to use it to arrange a lucrative marriage for one of their gang to an extremely wealthy heiress. It was made at Twickenham Studios in west London, for release as a supporting feature.

The history of nursing in the United Kingdom relates to the development of the profession since the 1850s. The history of nursing itself dates back to ancient history, when the sick were cared for in temples and places of worship. In the early Christian era, nursing in the United Kingdom was undertaken by certain women in the Christian Church, their services being extended to patients in their homes. These women had no real training by today's standards, but experience taught them valuable skills, especially in the use of herbs and folk drugs, and some gained fame as the physicians of their era. Remnants of the religious nature of nurses remains in Britain today, especially with the retention of the job title "Sister" for a senior female nurse.

<i>Tower of Terror</i> (1941 film) 1941 British film

Tower of Terror is a 1941 British wartime thriller film directed by Lawrence Huntington and starring Wilfrid Lawson, Michael Rennie and Movita. It was made at Welwyn Studios with location shooting on Flat Holm off the Welsh coast.

<i>The Diplomatic Corpse</i> 1958 British film

The Diplomatic Corpse is a 1958 British comedy thriller film directed by Montgomery Tully and starring Robin Bailey, Susan Shaw and Liam Redmond. It was produced as a second feature by ACT Films. The film's sets were designed by the art director Joseph Bato.

<i>Come Back Peter</i> (1952 film) 1952 British film

Come Back Peter is a 1952 British comedy film directed by Charles Saunders and starring Patrick Holt, Peter Hammond and Humphrey Lestocq. It was an independent film, released as a second feature.

<i>My Death Is a Mockery</i> 1952 British film

My Death Is a Mockery is a 1952 British crime film directed by Tony Young and starring Donald Houston, Kathleen Byron and Bill Kerr.

<i>Undercover Girl</i> (1958 film) 1958 British film

Undercover Girl is a 1958 British crime film directed by Francis Searle and starring Paul Carpenter, Kay Callard and Bruce Seton.

<i>Profile</i> (1954 film) 1954 film

Profile is a 1954 British thriller film directed by Francis Searle and starring John Bentley, Kathleen Byron and Thea Gregory.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 British Film and Television Yearbook. British and American Film Press. 1952. p. 36.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 McGahan, Katy. "BFI Screenonline: Life In Her Hands (1951)". Retrieved 18 November 2020.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "Watch Life in Her Hands". BFI Player. Retrieved 18 November 2020.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Julia Hallam (2012). Nursing the Image: Media, Culture and Professional Identity. London and New York: Routledge. p. 41. ISBN   978-0-415-18455-7.
  5. 1 2 Chibnall & McFarlane p.217
  6. Russell, Patrick (6 July 2018). "The National Archives - The NHS on film". The National Archives blog. Retrieved 24 November 2020.
  7. Wijdicks, Eelco F. M. (2020). "2. The Nursing Profession: Stereotype, RN". Cinema, MD; A History of Medicine on Screen. Oxford University Press. pp. 27–28. ISBN   9780190685799. LCCN   2019041715.
  8. Chibnall & McFarlane p.33
  9. Chibnall & McFarlane p.171
  10. McFarlane, Josie (19 June 2018). "Taking The Pulse Of The Nation BFI Celebrates 70 Years Of The NHS On Film". Keep The Faith ® The UK's Black and multi-ethnic Christian magazine. Retrieved 20 November 2020.