Breaking the Mould: The Story of Penicillin

breaking the mould

I’ve learned a lot of history over the years thanks to a long-term relationship with my television. I’m going above and beyond though with BBC Four’s Breaking the Mould, which illuminates a lesser known chapter of medical history and throws in some gen chem for good measure. It’s the gripping tale of Australian Howard Florey and his team of scientists at Oxford who, in the early years of World War II, developed penicillin as a medical treatment.

This TV movie has all the ingredients of an intriguing drama with the added bonus of being true. The classic underdog story pits the scientists against everything and everyone. When Florey (Dominic West) hits on the idea of investigating penicillin, one colleague implores him to find a sexier subject while another caustically suggests he “concoct…an antidote for fascism.” The priorities of war.

Florey doesn’t get much support from the government’s Medical Research Council either. They’re reluctant to provide funding, though, as this is science, pretty much every organization is loathe to hand out money. It appears that half of research is scrambling over grammatically sound grant applications and bruised egos in order to find enough financial backing.

The other half, of course, is experimentation, and here, the team is plagued by the seemingly impossible task of making enough mold juice. As anyone can tell you, the antibiotic that will save your life must be extracted from vats of the stuff, but the lab’s humble resources can’t produce the quantities needed for effective trials.

Their difficulties result in a few testy exchanges that make more sense if you’d paid attention in AP chemistry. After some setbacks, Norman Heatley (Joe Armstrong) proposes “a basic back extraction,” reasoning, “if penicillin can be extracted from a neutral buffer of water into ether…it [should] be possible to transfer it out of the ether into a water-made alkalide.” Ernst Chain (Oliver Dimsdale), an irascible German scientist, insists it won’t work. It does.

The dialogue, handled gracefully by the actors, isn’t the stumbling block you might expect it to be. The road to clinical trials – first on mice, then on adults, then on children – is easy to follow even if the science isn’t. The work of Florey’s team, which includes Margaret Jennings (Kate Fleetwood), is daunting and wholly unglamorous, and purposely so. Every image is awash in muted browns and tans, and the actors, like their real-life counterparts, almost fade into the woodwork. But the visuals contrast with the plot, which offers up piecemeal victories.

Such moments are tempered by the war, however, and the story is placed firmly in this context. One celebration is cut short with news of Dunkirk, and events on the continent have lasting repercussions for Chain. When Florey sends his children to the countryside, his marriage troubles don’t ease but rather manifest themselves in other ways.

This human side acts as a buffer to the science lesson, and the acting puts a nice polish on the picture. West leaves his run of blustery heavies behind to play a sober academic, and shows he’s quite good at it. Dimsdale, on the other hand, butters on the accent and seems to relish the eccentric scientist role a little too much. My favorite performance belongs to Armstrong. As Heatley, the non-Nobel Prize winner of the group, Armstrong creeps in, mouselike, unassuming, humble – very much like this movie and the team that helped make penicillin treatments possible.

Released: 2009
Prod: John Yorke
Dir: Peter Hoar
Writer: Kate Brooke
Cast: Dominic West, Denis Lawson, Oliver Dimsdale, Joe Armstrong, John Sessions, Kate Fleetwood, Steven Boxer, Amanda Douge, Sam Heughan, Peter O’Connor, Jefferson Hall
Time: 81 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC Four
Reviewed: 2014