Spain has given us many things to be thankful for; a place to deposit beer swilling yobs in summer, paella and a haven for criminals, however, perhaps the most unwelcome of its gifts to us was a strain of flu which decimated millions all over the world.
Last night’s drama, timed as it was when the panic about swine flu seems to be abating, may just have caused a minor upswell in the tide of worry. And it also proved that time moving on doesn’t necessarily mean that much changes when it comes to fundamental things such as protecting the most vulnerable – and that usually equates to the poorest – from illness and death.
Bill Paterson starred – and did so with finesse – as insightful and determined Doctor James Niven, a man who worked tirelessly in his efforts to protect Manchester and its populous of mostly poor working class people from illness. However, in 1918, as troops returned home from the Great War and celebrations were in order, a killer was stalking the streets; pandemic Spanish flu.
The film opened with archive footage of a Manchester vista, dominated by smoking chimneys and row upon row of terraced housing before seamlessly segueing into colour and a woman hurrying to work, her sick little girl lolling heavily in her arms. When she got to the mill, she learned that there was to be no schooling that day so the workers’ children had to stay outside.
“But it’s cold!” cried the worried mother. “It’s fresh air” came the heartless response.
So, leaving her sickly child with regret, we watched as the little girl elegantly succumbed to what transpired to be Spanish flu right there in the yard of the mill.
Similar stories followed with poverty and tragedy all around, and with the clever use of archive footage interspersed with the drama, it went from feeling rather like a televised history lesson and more into the realms of what it really was, an autobiographical dramatisation.
We saw Dr James battling bureaucracy and governmental inertia – after all, it was only poor people who were dying – to halt the flu pandemic in its tracks. However, his calls to close the mills, schools and to ban public gatherings were falling on largely deaf ears because, as often remains the case today, it would’ve cost money to do so.
His frustration was brought vividly to life by Patterson and was almost palpable as the stories of the central players unfolded. Kenneth Cranham was as ever utterly convincing as the embodiment of the bureaucracy that Niven had to butt heads with as he instigated infection control policies that are still in place today.
He also instigated the delivery of basic foodstuffs and other necessities to the poorest and worst affected households which saved thousands of lives. However, the virus then began to attack the strong, previously healthy men and women, and Niven declared of the bug, “It actually likes a fight.”
And he was right, it did. In fact, James Niven was right about most things, including the imminent arrival of a “third wave” of the virus when all around him, those in authority denied this was the case and ‘opened’ Manchester again so that businesses and schools could go about their business. It was a big mistake and the third wave killed another thousand people in Manchester.
The film ended with the information that Dr Niven killed himself in 1925 but the reason why wasn’t mentioned, however, one might speculate that the man felt overwhelmed with responsibility and was rendered powerless by those with far less altruistic intent at the heart of their behaviour.
The man was an unsung hero, a genius who, until this dramatisation was largely unheard of and uncelebrated, but we owe a debt of gratitude to him for laying the foundation for the fundamental rules of epidemiology and its principles, to which we still look today. And Bill Patterson did him proud in this truly gripping, atmospheric and timely film.