Lost Gems: Life Story

Proper science TV

Tim Piggott-Smith and Jeff Goldblum in Life Story

Earlier this year, I was bemoaning the fact that not only is there very little mainstream science programming, the stuff that is around is dumbed down almost to the extent that it’s completely worthless. Okay, so BBC4 is trying to fill in the gaps with things like The Story of Maths, but everywhere else, there’s nothing but rubbish.

Which is a shame, because the BBC used to produce some truly excellent science programmes, usually as part of its Horizon strand. Possibly the biggest jewel in its crown was Life Story, which was billed as a “Horizon special”. This was a feature-length dramatisation of the race by Francis Crick and James Watson against Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins in the 1950s to discover the secrets of the structure of DNA. It depicts how the quick-moving Crick and Watson were able to beat the more methodical Franklin and Wilkins to the discovery using Franklin and Wilkins’ own work – while still finding time to flesh out the characters of the scientists involved and give an unpleasantly accurate picture of the misogyny of 1950s Britain.

This was how to do science dramatisation. Step aside rubbish like Egypt, Life Story had Tim Pigott-Smith and Jeff Goldblum as Crick and Watson, and Juliet Stevenson and Alan Howard as Franklin and Wilkins. It had a script by William Nicholson (Shadowlands), based on Watson’s book The Double Helix, and direction by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard). It ended up winning three awards, including a BAFTA for best single drama.

However, it was such a good dramatisation and the science was so accurate that it quickly became popular at universities and schools as a teaching aid. As a result, although it was made available as a VHS video, it was priced at the $160 institutional mark. It hasn’t been made available on DVD, it’s only been repeated a couple of times. It’s a Lost Gem.

Here’s the opening few minutes which sets the scene for the rest of the film.

The story follows the book pretty closely, adding in just a few ‘enhancements’, such as Watson’s gum-chewing, something he was never prone to do in real life but looked cool when Jeff Goldblum did it.

It shows how Watson became interested in discovering the structure of DNA after seeing a presentation by Wilkins at a conference and how he met up with Crick in Cambridge, where they quickly discovered they both wanted to be working on the same thing. There the fun-loving duo, rather than doing traditional practical science, try to solve the problem by borrowing other people’s work, talking to the right experts and using their own noggins.

Contrasted with that is the more desolate situation in London. Franklin, who had been enjoying the intellectual freedoms of 1950s Paris, comes over to set up a crystallography unit working on analysing the structure of DNA.

However, while she thinks she’s in charge, Maurice Wilkins thinks she’s working for him. Needless to say, the two don’t hit it off and work at loggerheads.

The result is that Franklin and Wilkins miss some important results of her analysis while Crick and Watson’s more agile, co-operative approach leads to their discovering DNA’s structure before those who were actually doing the science.

The scientists then have to come to terms with the fact their quest is over and they might never do anything as important again (another dramatic embellishment since Watson and co knew the results of their findings would only unleash something extraordinary and they could well be part of it).

Rosalind Franklin

It’s a fantastic piece of work. The performances are spot on, particularly Stevenson’s, but even Goldblum is on top form; the direction is gripping, the music by BBC Radiophonic Workshop favourite Peter Howell is evocative and the script intelligent – French people speak French, scientists speak science and everyone’s a character rather than a cipher. The Cambridge filming manages to recapture the 1950s without any hints of the changes to the town over the following decades. The science is amazingly detailed and accurate for a drama but is never pitched at a level the audience is unable to cope with. It’s just outstanding.

Best of all, Rosalind Franklin, who never got the Nobel Prize for her work since she died before she could be awarded it, finally gets the recognition she deserves.

Start the petitions for a repeat or affordable DVD now!

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