Last night's viewing: Fitting reminder of chemistry's bad-boy lineage in Pain, Pus & Poison
Pain, Pus & Poison: the Search for Modern Medicines, BBC4
Mayhem and Mishaps: Britain Caught on Camera, BBC1
Ellen E Jones
Ellen is The Independent's TV critic. She writes a daily review of Last Night's TV and a weekly 'Inside TV' column for the i paper, as well as a column on general topics for the main paper most Wednesdays. Ellen is a former Hollywood correspondent and a contributing editor to Little White Lies, she's written on TV, film, lifestyle, travel and politics for publications including the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Total Film.
Friday 04 October 2013
In the week that Breaking Bad aired its final show, this first part of BBC4's Pain, Pus & Poison was a fitting reminder of chemistry's bad-boy lineage. Think that the fictional Walter White was the only chemist to live life on the edge?
Meet Friedrich Sertürner, the German pharmacist who killed a dog en route to isolating morphine. Meet Karl "Coca" Koller, the Czech optician who put cocaine into his own eyeballs. Meet Horace Wells, the pioneering anaesthetist and chloroform addict. For that matter, meet our presenter for this three-part historical documentary, Dr Michael Mosley. He's exactly the sort of man you can imagine opening a successful meth lab. No offence.
Mosley may be the respected veteran presenter of such memorable science programmes as Inside the Human Body and the friendly GP on The One Show, but there is also something thrillingly amoral about him. If you saw The Brain: a Secret History, where he was revealed to share some test scores with psychopaths, this quality won't surprise you, yet evidently it derives not from any character flaw, but from a very pure love of science. Mosley leaves the ethical questions out of it, because it's only the thrill of discovery that interests him.
It makes him an entertaining and unpredictable presenter of science television in general, and an appropriate choice for the "Pain" instalment of Pain Pus & Poison in particular. As Mosley told us, his show is about how the quest to control pain has been a driving force in the history of drugs, but it also prompts another observation: the same morally neutral chemical compound can be classed as life-saving medicine in one historical context, a commercial product in another and illegal narcotic in another still. It was also interesting to note that when heroin and aspirin were first synthesized by the German company Bayer in the 1890s, the latter was considered the more dangerous.
Self-experimentation played a particularly prominent role in the history of medicine and, in this too, Mosley is a worthy successor. The scene where he stuck a needle through his numbed hand and out the other side was a stunt worthy of a David Blaine Christmas special, and it was only one of many. For our viewing pleasure, Mosley stung himself with nettles, got high on laughing gas and lay still while a man in a white coat injected him with a potentially deadly dose of barbiturates. It was "like drinking a bottle of champagne," he said. All in the name of science, of course.
Some of us don't need to go out looking for trouble and many such unfortunates were featured in Mayhem and Mishaps: Britain Caught on Camera, last night. If, like me, you believe it's good for the soul to be reminded that one could – at any moment – be garrotted by a loose garden fence or electrocuted by a faulty toaster, this CCTV-based show promised a deeply spiritual watch. And if you simply enjoy laughing at people falling over, it looked good too. Sadly, the Mark Chapman-fronted Mayhem and Mishaps failed to deliver on both counts.
It should be obvious, but apparently I'm going to have to spell it out: a bunch of health and safety experts quoting insurance claim figures does not make for gripping television. We could also have done without the lengthy explanation of how to make toughened safety glass (just make it, don't tell me about it) and the 10-minute scene in which two blokes stood over a flipped bonnet, discussing the exact position of a car engine's air-intake pipe. Yawn, yawn and double yawn.
Mark Chapman from Radio 5 Live, you always seemed like a well-meaning chap, but clearly Dr Mosley is a lot more fun at parties.
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