TV review

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The Independent Culture
Old diseases have character. Syphilis was the gruesome scourge of the libertine or Romantic; bubonic plague was the wrath of God or, latterly, a verminous test of existentialist philosophy; consumption was the sickness of starving literary types in Dostoyevsky and Dickens. Once a disease is curable, it lives on only in the imagination. Or so we hope. It was shocking to learn, in Pioneers (BBC2), a new documentary series about early triumphs of the NHS, that consumption (under its more prosaic nomenclature of tuberculosis) was still killing up to half-a-million people a year in the 1950s.

There was no reliable treatment in the sanatoria of the day, which relied upon fresh air (windows were permanently open, so that patients would be snowed on come winter), a diet of three raw eggs a day, and lots of bed-rest, over an average stay of 18 months. About half of them still died. Often, eager medics (in disturbingly comical black-and-white footage) would perform a pneumothorax - deliberately collapsing a subject's diseased lung. Pioneers, excitedly subtitled "Battle with the Bugs", traced the efforts of Sir John Crofton, the first non-Scot to be appointed Professor of Tuberculosis at Edinburgh, to assault the disease with newfangled drugs.

Controlled tests, using streptomycin and a cocktail of secondary drugs, proved to be 100 per cent successful, although they were not without their side-effects. One nurse recalled smirkingly: "Either the drugs or the TB made them rather frisky with the nurses." A fruity old ex-patient, treated successfully, nevertheless reminisced wincingly on the enormous injections. These were often administered with a needle that had got bent by scraping on someone else's bones, leading to nasty abscesses on the buttocks, and the foul smell of the liquid medicine. Some patients, happier with the good life in bed, took to hurling their chemical soups out of the window.

This, as health managers might say nowadays, impacted negatively on the results. Crofton's colleague, Jimmy Williamson, retaliated with wounded- pride callousness: "All our failures were directly attributable to non- compliance." They wouldn't take their medicine; they died. Silly them. Scientists are not always wrong to dismiss, with boffiny exasperation, those who refuse to play by their rules. Crofton, too, cosy in a grey woolly jumper, chatted with the boy-scout insensitivity of James Bond's Q. But the film became touching when the joy he took in past achievements seemed overrun by today's brutal reality. TB is now a major killer in the Third World, and is even back on the streets of London.

Crofton still found it almost funny that the HIV virus should attack the very cells which protect us against TB infection. But his pleasure was simply the brain-juice of a good epidemiologist. He finished by remarking, quite unapocalyptically, on the possibility of a global epidemic emanating from the Indian subcontinent. "There really is a world crisis," he said with poignant surprise. Pioneers left it there, thoughtfully. It did not fulfil the threat of its ER-type credits sequence of psychedelic typography, melodramatic trumpets and slo-mo operating theatres. Disease was not demonised. Instead, the film soberly stripped the poetic from the physical, because sometimes facts speak loudest unadorned.

Garry Shandling, star of The Larry Sanders Show (BBC2), which returned last night, has an excellent face. Bouffant-coiffed, blessed with a superbly slimy grin, he looks like a puffier Jeff Goldblum, on high doses of Prozac. This, of course, is perfect for the role of Larry Sanders, a loveable toad who hosts a Letterman- style talk show. At one point he asks a pretty blonde colleague: "You look different. Have you shaved or something?" This sly satire is as understated and deliciously absurd as ever: a welcome refutation of the brash US sitcom stereotype. After all, if you really want loud and unfunny, there's always Men Behaving Badly.