Monday, February 1, 2016

Thalidomide’s been a silent voice in Britain's 'Call The Midwife' drama... until now

From The Sun in the UK:

WITH its mix of beautiful babies, heart-warming stories and tragic tales, Call The Midwife regularly leaves its viewers in tears.
But series five sees the cosy Sunday night show scale new emotional heights as it takes on its boldest storyline to date, becoming the first drama to tackle the tragedy of the thalidomide scandal.
At the end of series four, viewers were horrified to see Dr Turner, played by Stephen McGann, innocently prescribing the drug to a mother suffering from severe morning sickness.
In the new series, which is set in 1961, the doctor and his midwifery and nursing colleagues are distraught when limbless baby Susan is delivered after a hard birth.
She is among the 10,000 babies worldwide who were born with similar deformities after their mothers were given thalidomide in the late 1950s.
The drug had not been adequately tested and its catastrophic side-effects were not yet known.
Series writer Heidi Thomas — who is married to Stephen — told The Sun: “I was born in a Catholic nursing home and I was delivered by nuns.
“In the same week a baby was born in that same hospital minus all four of his limbs. I don’t know what became of him — I never saw a baby or a child answering that description where I grew up. I’d like to dedicate this episode to the memory of my little lost cradle-mate.”
Call The Midwife has been able to depict the thalidomide scandal, thanks in part to advances in digital technology that allow a limbless baby to be portrayed on screen.
Entirely prosthetic babies are often used for birthing scenes but Susan was partly a robotic model, with CGI giving the tot a real baby’s face.
Stephen, 52, who has played Dr Patrick Turner since series one, said: “When we first got the prosthetic it was named immediately. It was not going to be named ‘the prosthetic’ or ‘the prop’, it was to be named Susan, because that’s the baby’s name.
“Our little tribute was that it was always Baby Susan from the very first time we saw it. We just sat in silence for a minute and it was strangely very moving and I just said to Stella in make-up, ‘No one has ever done this before.’
“Thalidomide is the silent voice in drama until someone tells the story. This is the first time anyone has had the chance across the world, because the programme goes to 212 countries, and that’s what they’ll see and that’s what they’ll know. It makes me intensely proud.”
Other cast members admitted sobbing on set after being left so moved by Susan’s deformities.
Helen George, who plays nurse Trixie Franklin, said: “I couldn’t stop crying, it was raw and heartfelt.
“It was quite horrific because we had the baby in make-up for quite a long time. She had her own special box so it was always there in the background — awful to be around, really, and heartbreaking for the make-up team to have to make up.”
Emerald Fennell plays nurse Patsy Mount, who delivers the baby. She said: “The moment any of us are filming something sad, we are all moved and start crying.
“I’m just so surprised no one has ever done the thalidomide story before, because it’s such an enormously important story.
“My parents had friends who were affected by it and they have lived amazing and brilliant lives, even though it was so shocking at the time.”
Viewers will see the baby seconds after she is “born” and later as the nuns and nurses discuss how to dress the limbless child.
Charlotte Ritchie, who plays nurse Barbara Gilbert, said: “It was incredible to see the face of the baby superimposed on to that, I don’t know how they did it.
“The baby didn’t feel animatronic, it felt very lifelike. There were pipes and valves to make it breathe and move.”
Pam Ferris, who plays Sister Evangelina, is not involved in the Susan storyline but was still greatly affected by it.
She and co-star Judy Parfitt, who plays Sister Monica Joan, both had sisters who were giving birth at the time of the thalidomide scandal.
Pam, 67, said: “It’s Russian roulette, isn’t it? They may well have taken thalidomide and not known it, because what they were taking was not always mentioned. But their babies came out all right.”
She also recalls how the public’s attitude towards disability and deformity was one of fear and misunderstanding rather than compassion in the 1960s.
She said: “There was still some medieval attitude left, that it was the work of the devil and something gruesome that you could catch and was not nice to be near. Early on, there was this desire just to let the child slip away.
“You’d hide it away, you’d whisper about it. It took ages for it to be known that it was the fault of a specific thing.”
Jenny Agutter, who plays Sister Julienne, was shocked to learn that some thalidomide victims are still struggling to get compensation.
She said: “It’s extraordinary that the story isn’t quite finished yet.
“I hope it helps people understand the case — that there are people still affected by it.”
Although there have been plenty of documentaries about thalidomide, Stephen hopes that Call The Midwife will be able to portray the real human suffering as well as how people learned to adapt and find happiness despite their difficulties.
The programme makers were advised by the Thalidomide Society charity and nurses who delivered the babies in the early 1960s, and Stephen said: “When you do drama you don’t show them tables and dates, you show them how a nurse would react when they first see it.
“We’ve heard stories from nurses who were actually there, reacting to it. We’re bringing the history to them as feelings, like we’ve always done.
“If it gives closure, if it gives balance, if it gives respect, which is what should be given, then justice will be done.”
For writer Heidi it is all about giving a voice to thalidomide survivors. She said: “The people affected are still fighting for proper compensation.
“Yet it was obvious to me that people of the younger generation, including some of our own actors, didn’t know what had happened.
“At Call The Midwife that’s our dialogue. It’s the dialogue of real life, of the history of the 20th Century and with people who perhaps have never had a voice before.
ED FREEMAN, seen as a youngster in the main picture and above today, was born with shortened limbs after his mum Beatrice, now 91, took the drug for bronchitis.
Now 56 and chair of the Thalidomide Society, Ed helped the producers of Call The Midwife make the new storyline accurate.
He says: “I was one of the first few babies to be born affected. My mum has always felt so incredibly guilty. Even now she can’t stop blaming herself – a tragedy in itself.
“My dad joined the Thalidomide Society straight away. In 1974 he and Mum got £5,000 compensation each.
“I still see us as the lucky ones. I know so many other families ripped to pieces by this completely avoidable disaster – divorces, suicides, you name it.
“Until I was ten I had artificial limbs, but as I got older they weren’t much use – I couldn’t walk far.
“My teacher managed to get the local council to pay for an electric wheelchair, which was a complete life-changer.
“I’ve been head of the Society since 2012, helping share information. We also support the remaining parents and thalidomiders.
“ We want to stress that thalidomide wasn’t just given for morning sickness, it was sold as a “wonder drug” to help pregnant women with anything from anxiety to depression.
“Ours is a story that must never be forgotten.”
— For more information see

Years of torment
1953 – Drug created by German firm Grunenthal.
1958 – Licensed for UK use.
1961 – Aussie doctor William McBride notices mums of deformed babies at his hospital had all taken thalidomide and writes to The Lancet. Drug withdrawn in the UK later that year.
1968 – UK distributors, now owned by Diageo, reach a compensation settlement.
1972 – Sunday Times publishes a front-page investigation by its Insight Team into the scandal and pushes for far more compensation. A total of £28million ends up paid during the Seventies.
2009 – Scientists at the University of Aberdeen finally discover how thalidomide causes limb defects, by preventing growth of blood vessels. The Government grants £20million to the Thalidomide Trust.
2012 – Grunenthal Group releases a statement saying it “regrets” the consequences of the drug it invented.