Starring: Arthur Lowe, James Grout, Robert Lang
Germophobes probably won’t welcome the DVD release of this vintage BBC six-parter, but many others will be delighted. Combining fully dramatized scenes with factual narration (a format that has been all but abandoned nowadays but is very effective here), it charts the revolution in 19th and early 20th century medicine brought about by the discovery of harmful micro-organisms.
The first episode begins like a thriller, with a young doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis (Robert Lang) desperately trying to figure out why deadly puerperal fever is spreading through a maternity ward, and moves on through the decades, concluding with Paul Ehrlich’s work on syphilis. Different figures move in and out of the story, adding their nuggets to the sum of knowledge. But progress is slow, and not just because of the lethargy and ignorance of vested interests. One of the appealing aspects of Microbes and Men is the way it shows how these pioneers often combined high-mindedness and, in some cases, great personal bravery with the usual human frailties and pettiness.
The look of ’70s TV is perfect for evoking the chilly, grubby world of 19th century sawboneses, and the production achieves remarkable levels of authenticity, with some attractive location shooting and surprisingly gory moments as various experiments are reproduced on screen. The scripts are models of precision and lucidity, and the series also benefits from top-notch casting, with actors like James Grout and Milo O’Shea donning whiskers and tailcoats to bring these important historical characters to life. In particular, Arthur Lowe takes on the central role of Louis Pasteur, a towering figure who dominates much of the story (not that he was by any means a saint, as the series makes clear). It’s a major performance that Lowe’s legions of fans will be delighted to rediscover, and it’s just one of the good things about a series which can hardly be bettered when it comes to turning people onto science and medicine. 9/10