TV Review: Breaking the Mould – The Story of Penicillin

“Dirt is the enemy”

Breaking the Mould was a 2009 TV movie for BBC4, starring Denis Lawson and Dominic West, about the development of penicillin for use as a medicine. It occupies that strange ground of fictionalised reality, in that it is based on real people and events but contains invented scenes “for the purposes of the narrative”. Added to that is a rather tight timeframe of 80 minutes in which the story is told, which results in a rather lightweight affair, which is nonetheless intermittently entertaining.

Starting in 1938, after beginning with one of those annoying flash-forwards to the end of the story, the film focuses on a group of scientists at the Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford, led by Australian Howard Florey. Aided by the German Ernst Chain and the English Norman Heatley, he was preoccupied creation of a stable form of penicillin that could be developed for medical use, following Fleming’s initial discovery of its antibacterial properties. Against the antipathy of the scientific community and the hardship imposed by the declaration of WWII, their determination to succeed eventually led to one of the most significant discoveries of the century, although it doesn’t always necessarily feel like it here.

There’s the distinct feeling that in order to make this palatable for a television audience, there had to be something akin to dumbing down of the material, even though it was on BBC4. Kate Brooke’s script is light on science but heavy on proclamations, and Peter Hoar’s direction relies heavily on montages featuring Benjamin Wallfisch’s atmospheric and moody music, lending it a rather slight feel overall. There’s a tendency for the storytelling to feel rather rushed too, somewhat ironically given the amount of time devoted to these wordless scenes. Sometimes it works well – the effects of a scratch from a rose-bush horrifyingly depicted with a devastating speed; sometimes it is too hurried – the over-simplification of the initial clinical trials on human subjects not giving enough of the sense of time and work necessary here. 

But at the same time, it is important to remember that is isn’t a scientific documentary but a piece of entertainment, and taken on this level, there is much to enjoy. Dominic West’s cool composure as the determined Florey is highly watchable, and he is brilliantly partnered by Oliver Dimsdale as the excitable Chain and Joe Armstrong as the highly efficient Heatley, who together work incredibly hard and inventively to get penicillin to a point where it can be produced for medical use and thus begin its trials on living subjects.

Denis Lawson makes a late officious entry as the advantageous Dr Fleming who, knowingly or otherwise, becomes the figurehead of the eventual discovery once it’s made public, thereby negating the contributions of the above trio. John Sessions and Sam Heughan make good impact with their small roles too. Perhaps a little too obviously to counteract the male-dominated environment, Kate Fleetwood, as research assistant Margaret Jennings, is shoehorned into several scenes but sadly gets little to do but correct grammar and make pleased faces.

At just 80 minutes, Breaking the Mould certainly never outstays its welcome but neither does it really justify its existence as a piece of powerful television making. Even stopping the story where it does feels like a bit of a mis-step – the frustrations of the scientists who feel gazumped by Fleming aren’t explored in any dramatic sense (as this is the end) nor ultimately particularly justified as Fleming, Florey and Chain were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945 as the closing credits inform us. So a curiosity, but not one worth really going out of your way for, in my opinion.  


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