The German who healed our war heroes and launched the Paralympics. Scriptwriter LUCY GANNON on the true story behind her latest TV drama
22:38 GMT, 10 August 2012
Writing The Best Of Men was a pure delight, because it’s about a man who could have stepped out of a Dickens novel: a surprising hero, a funny, single-minded, inspirational man who changed society for ever, and whose vision is still challenging us today, more than 30 years after his death.
Dr Ludwig Guttmann was a highly respected neurologist in pre-war Germany, and a Jew. When he fled to Britain with his wife and children in 1939, he lost his home, career and his wider family, only to be dealt another blow: under government regulations, he was not allowed to work as a doctor.
But the onset of war saw the rules relaxed and in 1944 Whitehall asked him to take charge of a new spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, to treat servicemen injured in the Second World War.
Eddie Marsan and Rob Brydon as Guttmann and Bowen
He was a cheerful dynamo, autocratic and unsentimental but compassionate and committed. As a celebrated specialist, he had a large, healthy ego and never took ‘no’ for an answer, making him both exhausting and inspiring.
He never lost his heavy German accent, which must have been unsettling for his battle-scarred patients when they first met him, but he was fiercely loyal to his new home, and considered himself British at heart.
So, what made Ludwig Guttmann a hero Until he opened the unit at Stoke Mandeville, any patient with paraplegia (especially those injured in battle) was treated with kindness and pity but little else. They usually died from bacterial infections.
Guttmann recognised that infections could be prevented and, paralysis aside, these could be healthy men again, and he was determined to return them to their lives and their families.
From his first day in the unit, he banned the routine practice of immobilising the spine by surgery, or by encasing a patient in a cast. He reduced sedation, got patients sitting up, sitting outside, working. This was the toughest of tough love, before it had a name.
Within a few months the improvements in his patients was so marked that the unit had a waiting list. Very quickly he was dubbed ‘Poppa’, partly an acknowledgement of his patriarchal style, but mostly in affection.
Returning these men to the outside world was trickier. Guttmann knew that when life had dealt its hardest blow, pointed a finger and bellowed, ‘You are not on a level playing field any more’, the only response had to be, ‘Stuff your playing field, we’ll find our own.’ But how to awaken that spirit of defiance
The real Guttmann with a patient in 1979
One day, seeing a group of patients playing a clumsy ball game in their wheelchairs, he realised he could use sport to tap into the competitiveness of these (mostly) young men.
He found that sport restored the kick of adrenaline and reminded them that they could still meet challenges. Seeing how the patients responded to competition, he organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games to coincide with the 1948 Olympics.
There were just 16 competitors – his patients – but a year later competitors arrived from other parts of the UK, and in 1952 the Netherlands sent a team. And the International Stoke Mandeville Games were born.
The event grew and in 1960 it took place in Rome, alongside the Olympics. In 1966 Guttmann was knighted and in 1980, the year he died from heart failure, 43 countries attended and the Olympic movement approved the term The Paralympic Games.
How to make a film about so large a character without it going wrong The role demanded an actor who’d embrace the heroic but not flinch from the flawed, enjoy the humour but respect the passion – someone who’d understand that this funny little man was a giant.
Eddie Marsan was our first choice and he was wonderful. There was a lovely Welsh fictional character in my head, too, someone who’d voice the anti-German sentiments the other patients would be thinking, and I wrote the part of Sergeant Wynn Bowen for Rob Brydon.
His performance is strong, funny and touching.
In 2012 it’s hard to comprehend the revolutionary nature of Guttmann’s vision but his legacy can be seen in every rehabilitation unit, gym and athletic stadium. He gave his patients a future and today’s disabled people their present – not bad for an immigrant who could barely speak English.
What a privilege to weave a story around him and to fall in love with him, just a little.
The Best Of Men, Thursday, 9pm, BBC2