The Best of Men, BBC2, Thursday
EastEnders, BBC1, Monday
There will be gongs galore for the story of the Paralympics, but Walford is on the critical list
What better to counter the collective come-down and combat TV's post-Olympic slim pickings than a dose of drama about the doctor whose pioneering work led to the creation of the Paralympic Games?
The Best of Men tells the true story of the neurologist Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish émigré who arrives at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944 and, as director of its Spinal Injuries Centre, proves equally adept at helping patients come to terms with their disability and putting establishment noses out of joint.
Guttmann is played to perfection by Eddie Marsan – whose dedication to the role is revealed in one scene, when, exasperated, he takes off his glasses to reveal deep arm indents in his temples. It is a performance that is sure to be noticed when the time comes to dish out the gongs and baubles that reward such things.
Which is not to say The Best of Men is a one-man vehicle. The presence of Rob Brydon, Niamh Cusack and Richard McCabe sees to that. And though the story might superficially resemble Awakenings (Marsan has said that if Hollywood ever makes the film, Robin Williams will probably get the part), a studied lack of sentimentality means it is tears of triumph (by far the more satisfying kind) that are shed along the way.
What Guttmann finds at Stoke Mandeville is a ward full of paralysed patients, riddled with bedsores and heavily sedated. They are, in the words of McCabe's Dr Cowan, "moribund incurables". There is then, initially, fierce opposition to Guttmann's new-fangled methods. (These days there are those who would label them "political correctness gone mad".)
The good doctor's technique? He keeps his patients away from all unnecessary drugs and surgery. He treats the sores by turning the patients every few hours throughout the night. He treats their minds by encouraging them to talk to the nurses and each other about their hopes, fears, pasts and futures. In short, he treats them as people – which may not sound like rocket science today, but which was a quietly revolutionary idea in the 1940s.
His actions have a devastating effect. Brydon's ward joker Wynn is counselled into spending a weekend with his wife in spite of his fears that he will not be able to satisfy her sexually. Young William Gardiner (George MacKay), whose admission to the ward sees him begging staff to kill him, is soon strong enough in body and mind to battle the prejudices of his family who feel his future would be best served in a nursing home.
And all the while there is Guttmann's relentless programme of physical training. At first, the men can barely throw a ball. But soon they are taking each other on at any sporting challenge they can concoct. By the final scene, where real footage of the 1952 Stoke Mandeville Games (only renamed the Paralympics in 1960) takes over, you could practically hear the acceptance speeches – for Lucy Gannon's understated script as well as for the leading performances.
The other post-Olympic ace up the BBC's sleeve – much flagged during the Games – was supposed to be the return to EastEnders of Sharon, once Watts, then Mitchell, now Rickman. The teaser, in which Sharon wafted into Albert Square in a whirlwind and a wedding dress, was designed to lure back some of the many millions of viewers the soap has shed since its 1980s heyday. As one of those lost followers, I decided to give it another go. Reader, what I saw horrified me and it's hard to believe that it wasn't so long ago that The Best of Men's writer was providing the script here.
The storylines, which have often skated on the borderline of plausibility, are now so preposterous as to be comedic. The result is that EastEnders has become a ratings-chasing freak show lacking any character you can identify with or believe in.
Ian Beale has had a breakdown and is homeless. The costume department has taken this as an opportunity to refashion him as one of the Fleet Foxes. In the parallel universe that is modern-day EastEnders, a man can refer to Sharon as one of the world's great beauties and no one will bat an eyelid. For Ben Mitchell, on whom the week's plot centred, only a passing resemblance to a young John Christie seems to suggest he is capable of murder. And though the script is still riddled with references to the importance of "fahmley", all the characters seem to be at loggerheads with their own.
Time to bring back Dirty Den? Not even that old trick could resurrect this struggling soap.
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