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Hail the heroes

24 August 2012


IT HAS been all medals lately; so it seemed natural to watch members of our emergency services getting some, too. The BBC 999 Awards (BBC1, Thursday of last week) brought on to the stage a mixture of ordinary people who had done extraordinary things.

There were the two police officers who refused to leave a man to die in a burning car that was about to explode. In fact, the woman officer climbed into the car as flames engulfed it, and refused to go until help arrived to drag him from the wreckage. There was the volunteer doctor who performed a life-saving amputation, 100 feet above the ground on top of a piece of machinery.

Then there was the Welsh paramedic who stayed on a beach caring for an injured patient while the tide rolled in, until, with a rescue helicopter overhead, he was desperately holding the man's head above the waves.

And there was the schoolboy who ran across the road to intervene when he saw a girl attacked with a knife, rugby-tackled the assailant, and then fought off blows that left him bleeding from multiple wounds. His was the award for a "member of the public" who had behaved heroically. His explanation was typical of them all: "I saw it happen, and just ran across to help."

The programme was a tribute to humanity at its best, as well as to the courage of our emergency services. The default testimony of the winners was simple: "I just did what I could." It never seemed to occur to any of them to pass by on the other side. Indeed, the whole programme was built around the assumption that, if someone was in trouble, it was "normal" to help them, even at the risk of one's own life.

It was marred only, for this reviewer, by the show-business-style production, with gorgeously clad celebrities handing over the awards, kissing the winners, and offering a few patronising comments. It seemed like a case of real life meeting fantasy world.

A factually based drama, The Best of Men (BBC2, Thursday of last week), told the story of Dr Lud- wig Guttmann, the German/Jewish émigré doctor who used sport at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, at the end of the Second World War, as a means of rehabilitation for servicemen with crippling spinal injuries. It presented a compelling portrait of this awkward but brilliant man. His work led in due course to the Stoke Mandeville Games, the linear predecessors of our present Paralympics.

Needless to say, his ideas were not readily accepted. "Cruel" was the word the ward sister used. Could throwing balls and playing wheelchair hockey really transform their lives? The Paralympic Games surely vindicate the reputation of this bold, unconventional pioneer.

Has anyone noted a cooling-off in the British public's love affair with soap opera? The evidence is two-fold: steadily declining audience figures (Coronation Street and EastEnders down about a third from their peak); and the desperate attempts by production teams to win back those missing millions.

So far, bringing back long-departed characters, spicing up the storylines, violence, sex, and bitter feuding have failed. I wonder whether if they might try going back to those likeable, ordinary, characters of yesteryear, such as Ena Sharples and the Duckworths.


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