Last Night's Television: Engineering Britain's Superweapons, more4
Breaking The Mould: The Story Of Penicillin, BBC4

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?