The script for Greater Love
The story of the Eyam plague was an important source of inspiration for Survivors screen writer Don Shaw as he drew up the brilliant and affecting script for the season two story Greater Love.
Shaw makes direct reference to the Eyam plague in the episode's dialogue. The episode's title also evokes the famous biblical quote which the Eyam rector is said to have made use of in convincing the villagers to accept the need for a strict quarantine for the duration of the outbreak. Several themes from the Eyam story find reflection in the narrative of Greater Love.
In Greater Love the second episode of the second season, Jenny — recently uprooted from the Grange settlement following a disastrous fire, and recuperating after giving birth to her new son — falls ill. After an examination from the community's physician Ruth, it becomes clear that without an urgent operation Jenny is likely to die.
The equipment and supplies that Ruth needs are only to be found in the storerooms of a large urban hospital. Yet the survivors know that the cities remain 'plague pits', and that anyone venturing inside one takes their life in their hands.
Jenny's partner — and the father of her child — Greg, volunteers to make the journey, but it is Paul Pitman (Ruth's new lover) who sets off on horseback for the centre of Birmingham, clutching Ruth's list, before Greg can intercede to stop him.
Paul returns, triumphant, having gathered all that Ruth requiries — yet he reports falling ill on the journey home. What initially seems like a viral infection, made worse by exhaustion, is quickly revealed as something more serious.
As Ruth prepares to perform the life-saving operation on Jenny, Paul is placed in quarantine — administering drugs to himself on Ruth's direction.
As Jenny convalesces, Paul's condition worsens. Ruth concludes that Paul may have contracted a form of the bubonic plague — now rife in the city in which the dead lie in unburied multitudes.
Outlining the options to the community, Ruth recounts the story of the plague at Eyam.
In Eyam, the villagers — unaware that the Black Death was being transmitted amongst them by the infected fleas of the rat population — sealed themselves off, and waited for the contagion to run its course. Ruth says that, to survive, the villagers should have fled — burning their settlement to the ground and shedding all belongings in which the fleas might have found a home.
Script extract: lessons of the Eyam outbreak
Here, Shaw has his Survivors characters make direct reference to the Eyam experience. Although their shared plight is separated by hundreds of years, these 'present day' plague survivors have lost nearly all of the elements of civilisation and technology which distinguished them from the seventeenth century residents of Eyam. What the residents of Whitecross still have, that the Eyam villagers lacked, is an awareness of the causes of the disease — and therefore of the implications of all of the difficult decisions that they must now take. And yet, as Charles suggests, 'charitable' help from nearby settlements in the event of a Whitecross quarantine might — partly because of modern medical common sense — be less forthcoming than it had been for Eyam in 1665.
Script extract: treatment and spread
Here, Shaw reinforces that sense of a chasm between what our Survivors, equipped with 'modern day sophistication', know to be necessary, and what — because of the consequences of the original plague — they are reduced to. Shaw also makes what may be a second reference to the Eyam experience — that the spread of the disease slows in cold weather: a factor which led the Eyam residents (ignorant of the 'plague carriers' amongst them) to celebrate prematurely the 'end of the Death' in the winter of 1665.
Script extract: containing the outbreak
All script extracts © BBC and Don Shaw
As the community discuss Paul's fate, it's possible to see many thematic parallels with the Eyam plague story. Although the Eyam villagers knew little about how the disease was spread, they realised the importance of disposing of the bodies of the infected dead as quickly as possible. Here, Shaw has members of the Whitecross settlement discuss the unpalatable fact that, even after death, Paul would pose a risk to the community as a whole. Greg, wracked with feelings of guilt (at not having made the journey to Birmingham himself) and grief (at the impending death of a friend) sees Charles and Arthur as heartless. Yet their desire to free Paul from his suffering is motivated as much by compassion as from a concern with self-preservation. As Greg would doubtless later reflect, to allow Paul's suffering to continue, and his infection to spread throughout the Whitecross community, would be to negate the very acts of courage and of self-sacrifice that Paul had freely offered to Jenny and her newborn child.
Aware of the huge risk now posed to the Whitecross settlement, and knowing that there is now hope left for Paul, Ruth prepares to put him out of his misery, and to burn down the barn in which his infected body lies.
Improvising a protective suit, Ruth gives Paul a final — terminal — injection: as Paul learns of Jenny's recovery, and Ruth and Paul declare their own love for eachother. Before the fleas and rats have a chance to spread, Ruth sets light to the barn, and flees to the woods to grieve for her loss — despising the cruel hopelessness of the post-Death world.
As Jenny revives, the extent of Paul's sacrifice is revealed to her. Through his courage, compassion and loyalty, Paul has surrendered his own life in the hope of saving Jenny's. Ruth's own selfless actions have destroyed a contagion that might have wiped the settlement out. The grateful Whitecross community emerges from the shadow of Paul's death, relieved, chastened — and wiser.
Although none of the characters in story refer to it directly, it seems all but certain that Shaw had been inspired to use the well-known biblical edict — 'Greater Love hath no man than this...' — for the episode's title, by its prominence in the Eyam plague history. In Eyam, the residents had risked death by isolating themselves in their plague village. In Greater Love, Paul risked infection by venturing into a disease-ridden city. In both cases these 'heroic' individuals were asked to embrace the ultimate sacrifice — to surrender their own lives so that others might live.
For a review of Greater Love, click here.
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