The Best of Men
One of the most rewarding aspects of this writer’s life is that I occasionally get the chance to work with good friends, people I love and trust. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The flip side to that is that when these much loved pals come along with an idea I reject at first glance, they know that with a bit of wheedling and nagging and a few decent cups of coffee, I’ll say grudgingly ‘OK, I’ll think about it.’
And so it was with Harriet Davison and Tim Whitby, when they came to me with the idea of writing a piece about Ludwig Guttmann. I pulled a few faces and moaned a bit and said no quite forcefully. A month later I was meeting Ludwig’s daughter, and his ex patients, and reading his life story. That’s how they get you. So, all you newish writers, that’s a lesson for you; be ready for the down-side of friendships.
The next lesson is to choose your friends well. Hat and Tim are much brighter than me, and have more patience and perseverance. They also love research. It makes them ideal pals for a woman with the patience of a gnat and all the perseverance of a two year old. If you find yourself working with people you value, try to keep that relationship going. If you don’t have a project to work on just meet occasionally for a catch-up, mull over possibilities, discover what each other’s current topics of interest are. Hat and Tim gave me my first job in series writing, twenty odd years ago, and my relationship with them has been central to my development as a writer and has enriched my life in many ways. When you find a team you work well with, keep them in your life, be ready to work with them again.
If I develop something with Hat and Tim I feel supported and challenged in equal measure. I really do have to run to keep up with them. Not only are they married, but they think with one mind, and if ever we have a blazing row (it has been known) they will single-mindedly unite against me. It’s a bit like being a singles tennis player facing a doubles team. Exhausting, exhilarating and fun. They come to script meetings after hours of discussion between themselves and they rip me and my latest offering to shreds, in the nicest possible way. They finish each other’s sentences. They butt in and out of each other’s ideas. I’m knackered listening to them. Sometimes I just glaze over. But I trust them, they value the writer more than anyone I know, and they understand me. They, and our friendship, are what persuaded me to look into the Guttmann story.
Once I started the research, Guttmann himself won me over. The character is so rich that any writer would walk over coals to write about him. The writing of the character was easy, and I found that all the other characters were there just waiting to walk and talk and take breath. The writing of the story was far more problematic; we had a very small budget and it’s a huge story to tell. This man was brought up as a Jew in Germany, when it was falling under the influence of Facism. He was an intelligent and resourceful man and was determined not to be held back. In spite of the politics and prejudice of the day, he rose to the top of the medical profession and became a neurologist of world wide renown. On Kristallnacht, when the Gestapo were dragging Jewish people away to concentration camps or the firing squad, when there were beatings and burnings and cruel mayhem, Ludwig Guttmann risked his own life to save more than 60 Jewish men, right under the nose of the Gestapo. Granted asylum in Britain, he and his family ended up living in a small house in Oxford, while he worked in a laboratory. It was only when the War Office was anticipating heavy casualties in the war that he was brought out of obscurity and allowed to practice as a doctor again. But our dilemma was that we couldn’t afford to show any of this. Our budget was so small that the two scenes I had written in a large and typically German 30’s flat couldn’t be afforded. We couldn’t afford the uniformed Nazis, we couldn’t afford the lorries that took the Guttmann’s away, or period cars, or a typically German street, we couldn’t afford more than a half day shoot in Guttmann’s Oxford home, we couldn’t afford to film in Whitehall. But we had to be disciplined and solve these problems if we wanted to make this film, and we really wanted to make this film. We made the hard decision to start the story on Guttmann’s first day in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, although it meant that his background is only sketchily conveyed.
We met Ludwig Guttmann’s daughter and spoke to his son, and we did want to be sensitive to their memories of their father, but I felt that I ‘had’ Guttmann’s character and I needed to tell the story my way if I was to tell it at all. Because there was no intention to write a hagiography, nor to hurt or offend, I felt that if we kept to the truth we’d be ok.
Filming presented us with a daily round of hurdles; some we sailed over gracefully, some were a bit of a sweaty stumble, but we managed to clear them all. When we filmed the Whitehall scenes the Producer took a small second unit, minus sound, to a location posing as London, and I wrote a voice over which I was still writing when we were in post production. For Guttmann’s home we transformed a pub, where we were already filming, into his sitting room. We wanted a 24 bed ward but we couldn’t afford to dress it and we certainly couldn’t afford twenty extras in the beds so we made do with a six bedded ward. And all the time that we were cutting and rationalising we kept sight of the true story and while we distilled months into minutes and a world of characters into a handful, we didn’t stray from it.
Corporal Bown (Rob Brydon), is resentful of Dr Guttmann's (Eddie Marsan) care regime.
We received a body blow when the exec producer at the BBC rejected the script, stating that, even knowing the terrible budgetary restraints, it ‘wasn’t epic enough’. Fortunately, Ben Stephenson disagreed with her and eventually we got the green light.
And so we were into the casting. There were two obvious problems, the first being directly of my making. I know better than to write a part that can be played really successfully by only one person. But I’d done it. I’d written a chunky part for the ever busy Rob Brydon. And we all agreed that the title role belonged to Eddie Marsan. But would either of them say yes? How many sleepless nights and fretting phone calls did we live through? Dozens. Even when they’d both accepted the roles I persuaded myself that something would happen to stop one or both of them taking the job. Discovering that Eddie was filming in America the week before our first day, I was convinced his filming would run over and he wouldn’t turn up. It wasn’t until I saw him there in costume (and in accent), that I relaxed. And of course he was so clever, so talented and fine in the part that, having seen him, I wanted to write more scenes and to develop some of the scenes we already had. Filming was tight, our days were long and our shooting rate was high, but we did manage to sneak in a few extra moments for him. Film making is collaborative and although there was no time on such a tight schedule for the luxury of improvisation, with two experienced actors like Eddie and Rob some wonderful little unwritten moments found their way in, new lines, little jokes, lovely stuff, and all of their creation.
In true Guttmann spirit this film had to be inclusive. We cast two actors, two extras, and two background extras with impairments. All other parts had to be able bodied actors for a variety of reasons: I had written a part especially for Rob Brydon (had to be Welsh, had to be funny, had to sing!) and the other ‘lead’ patient had to be able bodied as he was seen dancing before his back was broken. A minor part had to be taken by someone who could walk as we wanted to show that for some their paralysis was partial. The last minor part required lying immobile in a plaster cast for two filming days so he, too, had to be able bodied if we didn’t want to create physical problems for the actor (we also didn’t have the equipment to encase a disabled man in plaster, so we required the ‘patient’ to stand for hours). We would have liked to employ more impaired actors but we would have liked lots of things we just couldn’t have.
There comes a point at which the budget can’t be cut any further, and when the poor producer is even worrying about how many people will be having coffee, you know there’s not a lot of flesh left to cut. But through all the problems and hassles, we loved what we were doing. We loved the character of Guttmann and everyone we met at Stoke Mandeville, we were inspired by his ex patients, we drank lots of coffee, had lots of laughs, and we had a smashing crew. Everyone from extras to stars and everyone inbetween worked for little financial reward with great grace and generosity. It was a blast.
PS Ludwig Guttmann’s daughter, Eva Loeffler, loved the film. Phew!
The Best of Men will broadcast on Thurs 16th Aug, 9pm, on BBC Two