Last Night's TV - Meet the Elephant Man, Channel 4; Andrew Marr's Megacities, BBC1
The comfort of strangers
Friday 03 June 2011
It was the 1880s when the surgeon Frederick Treves discovered Joseph Merrick posing as the "Elephant Man" in a London freakshow, and the 1980s when Brian Richards was diagnosed with Proteus syndrome, the bone-growth disease that Merrick is believed to have had. Still, in that interim, fewer than 10 cases of Proteus have been diagnosed. The causes are still unknown and treatment remains elusive.
The idea, in Meet the Elephant Man, was for Richards to "uncover details of what Merrick was actually like", the point being that his own experience would offer some kind of unique connection across the decades. This was all a little hokey. Richards traipsed around Liverpool Street railway station, repeatedly assuring us how vivid a connection he felt to Merrick. "I can really imagine what it must have been like," he mused, negotiating the hordes of commuters, charity collectors and neon-signposted shops that line the modern-day station. No doubt, were the infinitely more disfigured Merrick to do the same, it would be almost unrecognisable in comparison with the smoky, steamy series of platforms along which he, on one unfortunate visit, was chased by crowds of children.
It didn't really matter. Meet the Elephant Man was still interesting, both as a bit of schlocky history and as a profile of Richards himself. His is, by all accounts, a fascinating story: born without any known health problems, diagnosed with Proteus at the age of three, bullied at school, and still alive despite repeated predictions that he would die. Thanks to hundreds of operations, the external effects of his syndrome are minimal. His hands are overgrown – an impediment he refuses to let get in the way of an all-consuming scroll-sawing hobby – and his posture slightly askew. The only area where he demonstrates anything approaching Merrick-like features is his feet. They have, he explained, no fat left in them at all. "It's like walking on pure bones," which, presumably, is precisely what he's doing.
Without the modern medicine that's allowed Richards to lead, if not a normal then at least a functional, lifestyle, Merrick's gait was considerably more impaired. He relied almost entirely on a single oversized leg to carry his ever-growing weight; the other, shorter one dragged behind him like a cane. We know this thanks to a team of scientists who'd been brought in and allowed to examine Merrick's skeleton, usually off-limits in the upper echelons of the Royal London Hospital. Their investigation revealed a lot more, too. With the skeleton run through an MRI scanner, they were able to create a digital version of Merrick's form, layering up muscles and training it to walk. An actor was brought in and plied with prosthetics in an attempt to capture Merrick's voice. He was, in all likelihood, virtually incomprehensible, thanks to an overgrown jaw, blocked left ear and distorted torso.
Interspersed were Brian's various outings to Merrick's haunts: the private room he occupied in the bowels of the Royal London, the Dury Lane Theatre, the operating room where onlookers would cram in to watch Treves work on his famous patient. It was only at the last of these that Richards's much-discussed "connections" with his fellow Proteus sufferer rang true. Throughout his life, he explained, he's been in and out of surgeries. Invariably, every nurse, doctor and medical student in the vicinity would traipse in to take a look...
Ah, Mr Marr, I know what you're doing. You're trying to distract us. You know, from a certain injunction story? It's been hovering in the background each Sunday like an unacknowledged stage-prop (yes, even when you interviewed Obama) and so here you are, back on evening telly, gently reminding the general populace just how great you can be.
And you know what? It works. Andrew Marr's Megacities was really, really good, despite some rather wobbly foundations. The purpose, said our host, was to capture "the great story of our times", of the millions of people who "are hearing the summons" – ie upping sticks and heading to the city. There are some 21 so-called "megacities" in existence around the world, with more than 10 million people living in each. By 2050, 70 per cent of people will have urbanised, having moved, as Marr put it, "from somewhere where they're known, to somewhere where they are unknown".
If it didn't quite live up to these grandiose aspirations – we were only looking at five cities, and didn't get anyone in the process of moving to one of them – it was still jolly fascinating. The broad theme was one of community. We saw the startling inequalities of Shanghai, home to seven thousand billionaires, and the "cold" equality of Tokyo, with its minute housing units and sub-culture of recluses. The Dhaka slum where Marr spent a night was neither cold nor populated by billionaires, though it was brilliantly organised. His favourite megacity, despite its crime rate and traffic jams, was Mexico City. Not only did a nice taco seller offer him a grasshopper taco (a proposition he gamely accepted, apparently devouring the entire meal with, if not relish, then at least no I'm a Celebrity-style face-pulling), but he also found himself the most desired dance partner in the country. Trying to broadcast from one of the dances held regularly in the city's streets, he could barely get a sentence in for women interrupting and asking for a twirl. No wonder he liked it so much.
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