BBC Radio 4 – Cancer Tales

February 4, 2009
Listen again to Cancer Tales via the BBC iPlayer (available until Monday 2nd February 2009)

Listen again to Cancer Tales via the BBC iPlayer (available until Monday 2nd February 2009)

On Monday 26th January 2009 BBC Radio 4 broadcast Cancer Tales as the Afternoon Play (aired at 2.15pm). This interesting and emotional radio adaptation was based on the play of the same name written by Nell Dunn (first published in the UK in 2002 by Amber Lane Press) which provides fictional accounts of experiences of cancer diagnosis and treatment. The accounts are very emotional and moving, and include the perspectives of the patients themselves, their family members and, occasionally, members of their clinical care teams. Dunn’s narratives are based upon the real-life experiences of cancer patients and offer a true-to-life snapshot of their experience of cancer diagnosis and treatment. Thus, Cancer Tales provides an opportunity to see many aspects of medical care and services from the patients perspective. This is particularly the case with the recent Radio 4 adaptation, which, within it 45minute running time, focusses on three of the narratives contained in the original script. These are all female experiences and explicitly dealt with experiences of clinical services (as opposed to wider social and psychological themes connected to cancer diagnosis). Read the rest of this entry »

WIT: A window on tensions in clinical trials

June 12, 2008

(Warning: contains plot spoilers!) Adapted from Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Wit tells the tragic story of Professor Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson). Vivian, a ruthless scholar of 17th Century English poetry, is diagnosed with advanced stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer. Dr Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd), Vivian’s consultant physician and leading figure in this area of medical research, explains that the most effective treatment option she has is an aggressive experimental chemotherapy at the full dose.

Professor Vivian Bearing

Professor Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson)  

She cautiously consents to the therapy and embarks on a degrading regime of eight cycles, which no other patient has completed before. With a fearless determination, Vivian does everything the doctors ask of her, and as such illustrates the central ethical issue observed in this film; the conflict of interest witnessed between clinical therapy and clinical research. Throughout, this is entangled with clinical incompetence, issues of informed consent, end of life decisions and Vivian’s frustration with the hospitals insensitive mechanistic approach to their patients, having been asked repeatedly “How are you feeling today?” (00:04:10 – 00:05:25) Read the rest of this entry »

Bird flu – The Influence

April 24, 2007

(Warning – contains plot spoilers!) Telling the story of a bird flu outbreak in the fictional Sussex village of Kelstone, The Influence is written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz , writer in residence at the BBC.  The play raises interesting questions about how infection might have surfaced and spread in a local community (brought in by wild ducks, and spread by an inquisitive cat to its owner and children who liked to stroke it on the way home from school, as it happens) and how the authorities would respond in order to stop the epidemic becoming a pandemic.

The Influence is 45 minutes long, and was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on February 21st 2007.  There is probably too little concrete science in it to justify use in a Biology lesson, and there are no obvious clips to use as discussion starters.  It may, however, be useful as the grist for a creative writing project with students of English.  A recording is available from the BUFVC (TRILT identifier 00612763).

Human cloning – A Number

February 28, 2007

(Warning: contains plot spoilers!) How would cloned sons react to one another and how would they interact with their father? These are some of the issues raised by Caryl Churchill’s play A Number.  The story consists of five conversations, snapshots into an otherwise untold narrative.  Each scene features the same two actors, father and son, but the younger is actually representing three different sons – one conceived naturally and two that are his clones. 

In the first conversation, the father (Salter) is talking with Bernard, a son he has raised on his own.  Bernard, aged 35, is aware that he is a clone and that other genetically identical individuals exist.  He is cross-examining his father about what happened to his older self and is informed (incorrectly, as we shall see) that he died in a car crash with the boy’s mother.  Bernard despairs that “I’m just a copy”, but Salter stresses he is “the one”, the reason why the cloning was originally done and that the scientists carrying out the process had deceived him by making other additional copies.

In the second conversation, it transpires that the first son (also called Bernard) is very much alive but was grossly neglected as a child, particularly after the death of his mother.  He knows that a clone exists and has been brought up by Salter in his rightful place, “you had a copy of me made from a ‘painless scrape’ and… you had the rest of me thrown away”.

In conversation three, the clone Bernard is talking with his father.  He has now met his older original and aware of the jealous rage of his neglected sibling, intends to flee from him.  As such, this conversation is partly goodbye and partly an appeal to know the truth before he goes – if his brother clearly hasn’t died in a car crash, then what came of his mother who was supposed to have died in the same incident?  Salter tells him what, we must assume, is the real version – she threw herself under a train.

The fourth conversation is between father and original son. He has tracked down and slain the other Bernard, the chosen clone.  What, asks the father, about me?  What about the other clones – will they all be killed?  The fifth and final conversation reveals the answer; Bernard has killed himself instead.  Salter is now talking with Michael, one of the additional twenty clones that were made without his permission.  Michael asks various questions – does his father intend to meet with all of the clones?  Do I look like the original son?  The striking feature of this exchange however is the ordinariness of Michael’s life – his job (maths teacher) and his family (married with three children). Were it not for the unusual circumstances of his birth he might have been an anybody.

Originally an hour-long stage play, a 45 minute radio version starring Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig was transmitted on BBC7 in November 2006 (TRILT identifier 005D6A7D).  A script is published by Theatre Communications Group (ISBN-10 1559362251; ISBN-13 978-1559362252).

How could I see A Number being used in a teaching setting?  A thoughtful class of A level students (that is 17 or 18 year old, for those not familiar with the UK system) studying English might discuss the place of cloning in fiction, perhaps drawing comparison with Never Let Me Go and/or The Island.  In truth, however, although cloning is central to A Number, the play offers more insights into relationships than either the ethics or science of human cloning.  As Matt Cheney has commented on his Mumpsimus blog “Churchill doesn’t write a play “about” cloning, but rather a play that includes cloning, a play that couldn’t exist without cloning.” The question of genetic determinism, nature v nurture might be raised; the three sons may be genetically identical, but their diverse upbringing has clearly led to dramatic differences in their personalities.  Having said that, the reality is that, although thought provoking, A Number is probably not the first choice for introducing science students to the arguments surrounding the ethics and/or technology of human cloning. 

Animal Experimentation – Every Breath

October 4, 2006

Every Breath is an engaging production by the Y Touring theatre group which has recently completed a UK tour (but has received funding for a further run in Spring 2007).  The play focuses on the lives of Sonny, an asthmatic who has growing concerns about animal welfare and has recently stopped taking his medication on grounds of conscience, and his sister Anita, whose work for her PhD involves research using mice.  They are joined in the story by their widowed mother Lina and her new boyfriend Raz, who is considering becoming a Buddhist.

The play is an excellent vehicle for raising the issues surrounding experiments using animals, without offering trite solutions.  A live performance includes a debate involving the audience and the cast, who remain in their characters throughout.

Even if you cannot organise a performance, the script by Judith Johnson is available from Oberon books (ISBN 1-84002-668-5).  It includes a thorough collection of teachers’ resources on the use of animals in medical research.  Apparently the play may also be available in other formats in the future.   To find out more details about securing a performance of Every Breath near you contact