Last Night's Television: Engineering Britain's Superweapons, more4
Breaking The Mould: The Story Of Penicillin, BBC4
Thursday 30 July 2009
Breaking the Mould: the Story of Penicillin began and ended with the same scene – a government apparatchik addressing a scientific committee to tell them that the PM himself had given the go-ahead for the industrial development of penicillin, and then calling for a vote of thanks to the man responsible for this great scientific advance. The camera eyed up a likely-looking cove with a centre parting and gold-rimmed glasses, bracing himself to look modest, but then it became clear that it wasn't his name that had been called out. It was, as every schoolboy knows, Alexander Fleming who got the credit and the postage stamp, while Sir Harold Florey – whose team did most of the heavy lifting in developing penicillin as a practical medicine – had to content himself with a third share of the Nobel Prize and (a bit too late for his benefit) this BBC4 drama putting the matter right.
The structure of Breaking the Mould – a sandwich of misdirected accolade with a fat filling of scientific diligence and determination – rather implied that Fleming had dishonourably taken a credit that wasn't his. But there was little in the drama itself to substantiate that charge beyond the casting of Denis Lawson as Fleming, who played him as a kind of scientific showboater, all bow-ties and vanity. And the drama had been artificially tweaked by turning Florey, played by Dominic West, into a more simplistic white knight than he probably was. It was true that he opposed the patenting of penicillin on ethical grounds (a debate that featured in the drama), but he wasn't quite the hero of compassion shown here. "I don't think it ever crossed our mind about suffering humanity," he once told an Australian interviewer, pointing out that it had been the scientific challenge that motivated his work on penicillin. He also expressed concern in later life that advances in health care might lead to a population explosion.
If Kate Brooke's drama had contained a few more awkward facts like that, Dominic West would have had a bit more to work with in the way of human ambiguity. As it was he just had to furrow his brow and look determined as we got the bare bones of the story – a triumph of make-do-and-mend and a triumph for the kind of cross-disciplinary approach that Florey helped to pioneer. There were eureka moments ("Professor! Come and see! All the penicillin mice look right as rain!") and there were heartbreaking setbacks, such as the moment when one early patient – a man who'd been brought to the brink of death by a scratch from a rose thorn – first recovered and then relapsed, because the production of penicillin couldn't keep pace with his need. There was a heavily Cherman sidekick in the form of Ernst Chain ("It vill vork!") and there was also a canonical one-last-push scene when a bereaved parent mastered his grief and stiffened the team's wilting backbone: "Keep going with the drug," he said."Don't let Jerry get their hands on it... keep it for our boys." I don't think the budget quite stretched to a Spitfire fly-past but you could feel the hankering there.
A title card at the end revealed that the Americans had promptly swept in and patented the process, which meant that the institute that actually developed it ended up paying fees for their own discovery. Transatlantic breaches of trust also featured in the evening's other story of white-coated triumph, Channel 4's Engineering Britain's Superweapons, which this week covered the development of the British hydrogen bomb after the Americans had declined to let us look at their instruction leaflet. Running the team on this occasion was William Penney, working on a very tight budget and having to pretty much start from first principles to earn Britain a place at the big boys' table. "Ethics went out of fashion when Hitler invaded Poland," somebody snapped at one point in Breaking the Mould, and they didn't appear to have come back into fashion by 1954, when the question wasn't so much whether it was morally right to develop immensely powerful weapons but whether it could be done before growing public opposition to atmospheric testing made it politically impossible.
Cannily, Penney had covered himself against possible failure with a Plan B. Build an atom bomb so big that no one could tell it wasn't a hydrogen bomb. The first H-bomb did actually work but was, comparatively speaking, a bit of a squib. The giant A-bomb convinced everyone, including the British press, who obligingly printed the government's whopper. And the final H-bomb test was so successful that the testers managed to demolish some of their own aircraft hangars. Down on the ground, squaddies employed state-of-the-art safety gear: a long- sleeved shirt and both hands over the eyes for the moment of explosion. Even so, they could see the bones in their hands through their eyelids. It was a story of the right stuff applied to the wrong end.
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