The Olympics may have been invented by a bunch of naked Greeks, but we should all be patting ourselves on the back because the (rapidly-approaching) Paralympics were conceived right here in Britain! You’re very welcome world. Such an uplifting and morally patriotic story is one that demands telling and thankfully Lucy Gannon does a fine job here. This may be standard ‘taking on the prejudiced establishment’ fare, but it’s largely irresistible.
The Best of Men picks up towards the end of the War when Dr Guttmann (Eddie Marsan) a Jewish refugee of Nazi Germany, is asked by the British Government to take over the National Spinal Injuries Unit, a small ward at Stoke Mandeville Hospital dedicated to the care of soldiers who have been left with limited or zero mobility after being wounded in action.
The Unit is an old-fashioned place with old-fashioned views on the perception of âCripplesâ and how to look after them. With no effort to treat them physically or mentally, the patients are heavily sedated and imprisoned under heavy blankets, or in one instance a full body cast. Ostensibly this is to protect patients from hurting themselves, but essentially it keeps them out of sight lest they upset anyone. The attitude of a society is summed by one of the surgeons.. âItâs not pleasant. Iâm sorry but itâs not, people in wheelchairs, withered limbs, damaged bodiesâ¦â?
Dr Guttmann, however has different ideas. Pioneering ideas. Life-changing ideas. Reducing medication he brings his charges back to reality from morphine-fuelled dream worlds and by taking on the medical establishment he fought prejudice and ignorance on their behalf. But, most importantly, Dr Guttmann argued for and instigated a physical training programme.
Within a few years these simple exercises and basic physiotherapy have developed into more serious sports, all the while gathering momentum and leading to what will be the first Paralympics Games.
The Best of Men is a fine piece of television. High production values and a lively score compliment Lucy Gannonâs moving and funny script beautifully, all enhanced by a cast chock full of excellent performances. Eddie Marsan as the good Doctor is particularly impressive, his energy and presence bringing veracity to a role which so easily mightâve become caricature.
Niamh Cusack is charming as the stubborn Sister who slowly begins to the see the truth in the Doctor’s vision and the relationship between Rob Brydonâs salty Welshman and William played George Mackay is often touching.
Itâs not only fascinating to see how the slick event of the modern Paralympics games grew from such humble beginnings, but also to see how far Britain has come in the way it treats the disabled. The system may not be perfect and there still much work to do, but without men such as Doctor Ludwig Guttmann we could still be in the dark ages.