Dissected: Getting under my skin

Monday 17 February 2014, 10:06

Paul Overton Paul Overton Producer

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I had my reservations when asked if I’d like to produce Dissected, a series about the dissection of a human hand and foot. 

Not because I’m particularly squeamish - I have made a lot medical series, including a stint in the main allied forces military hospital in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. I’m used to seeing the internal mechanics of the body.

I was more concerned about whether this was something that people would actually want to watch. It was an intriguing enough proposition to make me want to do it.

I’m very glad I did as it turned out to be a fascinating exploration into what makes us human.

The point at which the project really got under my skin, as it were, was when I met the hand surgeon in the series, Donald Sammut.

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Donald Sammut reveals which finger you could most easily live without

It was at Chelsea Arts Club because not only is Donald an eminent surgeon, he is also a talented artist.

This effusive and intellectual man knew every fibre of the human hand – and made me look at mine differently than I ever had before.

This was all very well looking at my own hand but we needed to dissect one.

Dissection is not something the public are normally allowed to see, it’s traditionally reserved for medical training.

This is partly for health and safety reasons to prevent the risk of the spread of disease and partly to protect the anonymity of the donor and their relatives. 

We had to get the permission of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Anatomy for Scotland.

They had never agreed to filming of a dissection before but they considered the request carefully and concluded that our project was a valuable opportunity to bring a greater knowledge of human anatomy to the public.

The next challenge was to find specimens and somewhere to dissect them. We discovered that we could order arms or legs for dissection from the USA.

Importing body parts wasn’t without its complications though so we were glad not to have to go down this route.

Anatomist Quentin Fogg at Glasgow University came to our rescue. He was enthusiastic about the project and became invaluable both on and off screen.

He was licensed to dissect in the university’s 100-year-old anatomy museum. This made a wonderfully rich and atmospheric location.

Crucially, the university’s involvement meant we could use limbs donated to them for educational purposes as long as we ensured the donors’ anonymity.

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Leading experts in human anatomy join Dr George McGavin to look inside our hands and feet

The Body Donor Programme throughout the country is something I wholeheartedly support.

We had chosen to only have the specimen preserved by freezing rather than embalming as this gave a more natural look.

This did mean, however, that the specimen would only last for two days.

The heat from our television lights meant the clock was ticking even faster on the useable life of our specimen.

The dissections were complicated so the time limit presented a real challenge to Quentin and the dissection team.

When Quentin first brought the limbs into the studio for filming there was a stunned silence amongst the crew. We knew we had a responsibility to make this donation worthwhile.

During the dissection, the director of photography, Alastair McCormick, who relies on his hands for his livelihood was engrossed.

Musician friends of mine have been slightly embarrassed that they’d never really considered what gave them their skill and dexterity.

I don’t think I’ve made a programme before that is so universally relevant.

The foot programme was equally as fascinating to make. In both episodes, we wanted to relate the fascinating anatomy we were seeing to the real world.

We included short insert films looking at the latest research into hands and feet including comparative animal anatomy.

We also brought people into the studio whose hands and feet have extraordinary abilities.

My personal favourite was foot painter, Tom Yendell. He had been born without arms due to the drug Thalidomide.

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George McGavin kicks off his shoes and tries his foot at sketching with Tom Yendell
 

Watching him flip open a tablet and operate it with his feet was incredible. He then went on to quickly produce a high standard painting with his feet. 

I hope people are not put off watching the programmes by the prospect of gore – they truly are a rare opportunity to see a part of ourselves as we’ve never seen it before.

Paul Overton is the series producer of Dissected.

Dissected begins with The Incredible Human Hand on Tuesday, 18 February at 9pm on BBC Four. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Dissected is part of BBC Four's Life Inside Out season: Watch clips examining bodies as never before

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC. 

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