Last Night's TV - Meet the Elephant Man, Channel 4; Andrew Marr's Megacities, BBC1

The comfort of strangers

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas