Eddie Marsan as a German doctor. Rob Brydon as a paraplegic. It shouldn’t work but it did. This was the BBC Two drama about Doctor Ludwig Guttman, a German Jewish refugee who came to work at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944. Assigned to the spinal unit – the ward for no-hopers injured and paralysed from the war – he brought about a revolution in so many ways in terms of the treatment of paralysed patients and in introducing the paralympics. Mandeville, one of the mascots of the London 2012 Olympics is named after the hospital where the paralympics first started, and the drama is about the prequel to them.
Guttman (Marsan) joins a ward which is underfunded and understaffed, allowing men to live on morphine in their beds and wait for them to die. He introduces bed movements to avoid bed sores, encourages the nurses to talk to the patients and find out about their lives, brings in entertainment for them to cheer them up, and then introduces exercise for them.
The patients and nurses all hate Guttman at first, but soon they’re his biggest fans. Wynne (Brydon) can return to his family in Wales. William Heath (George Mackay) wanted to die at the beginning of the programme but by the end has a new zeal for life and can see a future full of possibilities. It’s all very heart-warming, with a nice mixture of comedy and drama. The aforementioned German accent by Marsan isn’t a concern as he really inhabits the role well. We know Brydon can play it straight, but his character required a bit of comedy anyway so it all worked out. Mackay’s character brings the heart to the drama too.
So apart from the sports that Guttman encourages his patients to pursue – first wheelchair hockey but then basketball, archery and javelin – he shows them that they shouldn’t be hidden away and they can be part of society. The national games are introduced in Stoke Mandeville, and Guttman dreams of a ‘parallel olympics’, a paralympics…
At the end of the drama, it is when they show real images of paralympics through the ages that a lump caught into my throat. I don’t think Guttman and his cohorts could have even imagined how successful their ideas of such games could be. To think – GB paralympics gold medalists are even getting their own Royal Mail stamps this year. I can’t wait for the Channel 4 coverage of the paralympics to start. I just hope that it’s not all a flash in the pan because they’re being held in London this year, but they continue to grip the public imagination in Rio in four years’ time.