When Dame Judi Dench was offered the chance to play a part in Richard Eyre's latest film Allelujah, she leaped at it.

Based on an Alan Bennett play, it is set on the geriatric ward of a small Yorkshire hospital - The Beth, in Wakefield - that's threatened with closure.

"I called Judi up and said 'there's this part in a film that's in a hospital and set in Yorkshire'" Eyre said. "And she said 'Yorkshire! I was born in York, brought up in York, and I've never played a Yorkshire part!'"

Signed, sealed and delivered.

Dame Judi plays the part of Mary, an elderly retired librarian being looked after at The Beth.

York Press: Bally Gill, Richard Eyre, Alan Bennett, Judi Dench, AllelujahBally Gill, Richard Eyre, Alan Bennett, Judi Dench, Allelujah (Image: Bally Gill, Richard Eyre, Alan Bennett, Judi Dench, Allelujah)

It is only a small part - but Dame Judi brings to it a heart-breaking sense of an elderly woman alone and utterly, utterly lost.

She stands at the fringes, never joining conversations, peering out from huge, dark eyes that contain nothing but confusion.

In one moving scene, the ward's young Asian consultant Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) manages to draw her into a conversation in which she admits she never really had a passion for books, despite being a librarian. All she was interested in was the marginalia - the notes people scribble in the margins.


It feels like a key scene. All the elderly patients and staff on this dilapidated ward are, in different ways, being treated as marginal by a system which puts efficiency ahead of care.

Eyre has worked with Dame Judi many times.

So what does she bring to a set?

"Judi is an incredibly warm-hearted, generous, witty person. She brings all that," Eyre said.

"But she also has presence. When she is in a room, in some way everybody has to come up to her standard. Film crews feel they have to up their game, and it is the same with actors."

Eyre says he very much wanted to show, in the film, the way that older people nowadays are marginalised.

Staff at The Beth, hoping to save the hospital, invite in a news crew to interview the patients .

That's how we get to meet Mrs Maudsley, a frail elderly woman, poignantly played by Julia Mckenzie, who is brought into hospital by her daughter, and who keeps saying desperately 'but it's my house!".

There's retired schoolteacher Ambrose (Derek Jacobi), desperately trying to hold onto his dignity in a world where he can't even control his bladder.

York Press: Jennifer Saunders as Sister Gilpin in AllelujahJennifer Saunders as Sister Gilpin in Allelujah (Image: Supplied)

And, most poignantly of all, there is David Bradley's Joe Colman, a former miner whose son lives in faraway London and who has nothing to look forward to but a hated care home. You can see the fear and loss in every line of his body.

Eyre admits that, as he himself approaches 80, the plight of the elderly is something he feels keenly.

"There's a whole cohort of people who are just on the margins," he said. "There's a lack of home care, a lack of proper care homes." The film didn't set out to be polemic, he says. "But you can't tell a story that sad without in some way having political input."

Allelujah will be in cinemas on March 17.