Director Mick Jackson had an affinity for the “fish out of water” tale. His LA Story, The Bodyguard andTemple Grandin all followed individuals who, immersed in an alien environment, managed to preserve their personality. Life Story (1987), aka The Race for the Double Helix, belongs in the same category. 25-year-old American biologist James Watson arrives at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in 1951 and is shunned by the scientific establishment. (His crewcut and gum chewing don’t help.) Within two years, however, he and Francis Crick have discovered the structure of DNA, and are on their way to a Nobel prize.
Made for the BBC’s science fact series Horizon (Nova in the US), Life Story departed from the fifty-minute documentary format to present the story at feature length, and as a drama. Jeff Goldblum and Tim Piggot-Smith play Watson and Crick. Alan Howard is DNA research pioneer Maurice Wilkins, their joint Nobel Laureate. Juliet Stevenson is Rosalind Franklin, who, while no less entitled to the prize, died before it could be conferred.
Most films about scientific discovery ignore its drudgery and collaborative nature, preferring to show an individual overcoming entrenched opposition to confound opponents. While not entirely abandoning this template, William Nicholson’s racy screenplay shows the circumstances surrounding the DNA discovery as a social comedy in the style of LA Story. In that film, London journalist Virginia Madsen finds supposedly laid-back Los Angeles to be beset with complex rules of behaviour, an experience shared by Jim Watson, who discovers that, if there’s an international brotherhood of science, it doesn’t want him as a member. But he finds a kindred spirit in genial under-achiever Francis Crick, and together they bluff, cheat and guess their way to one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the age.
Life Story contrasts the lifestyle of this unlikely duo, and of Cambridge generally, with that of King’s College, London, Britain’s other centre of DNA research. As the priapic Watson pursues French au pairs against a background of honey-coloured cloisters, punting on the Cam and dining at high table, Wilkins and Franklin labour in dingy Victorian offices in a London where it seems always to be raining. Even so, the timid Watkins , archetypally English, feels at home there, unlike the prickly Franklin, who, having spent most of her life in France, scorns the British for their "vacant stupid faces and childlike complacency," and dismisses her male colleagues as “little boys” playing schoolyard games.
The film contrasts the “try it on the dog” methods of Crick and Watson with her painstaking lab work. While she pores over murky X-ray photographs, documenting minute variations between them, they blunder towards revelation. Building an elaborate model opens them to attack from sceptical associates. Franklin is unsparing in exposing their ignorance. “Certainly a bad way to go out into the foulness of a [...] November night,” wrote Watson, “was to be told by a woman to refrain from venturing an opinion about a subject for which you were not trained.” On the trip back to London, Franklin allows herself a smile of satisfaction.
Alan Howard, better known as a stage actor, is convincing as the timid Maurice Wilkins, a pioneer sidelined by new and more aggressive rivals. He recoils in distaste when the brash Watson buttonholes him with a request to join his team, because it might bring “money, fame and glory,” but is equally offended when new arrival Franklin brusquely declines to exchange ideas in a spirit of collegial friendship. Characterising her attitude as “dog in the manger”, he belittles her as “Rosy” or “Our Dark Lady”, and solaces his bruised ego with fencing, a ritualised combat in which nobody can be hurt.
Crick and Watson, by contrast, are street fighters, not afraid to get their hands dirty. They pump colleagues for gossip about such competitors as superstar Linus Pauling, and eavesdrop on discussions of the latest research, slipping into the corridor to scribble notes from memory. As the race comes down to the wire and Franklin, now certain of her conclusions, sits down to painstakingly write them up, the boys, true to form, cobble together another model and, in doing so, glimpse the solution. Soon a succession of technocrats stares in wild surmise at the double helix hovering above their heads like a Calder mobile while George Delerue’s pastiche of a baroque trumpet anthem from Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine proclaims the primacy of the inspired guess.
“I could have seen it,” concedes Franklin when she inspects the model, “but I didn’t” She’s unconcerned with attribution, unlike Crick and Watson, who are on tenterhooks until they’re sure neither she nor Wilkins will diminish their achievement by demanding shared credit. Watson claimed Goldblum’s acquisitive character was nothing like him, but someone who later worked on his team at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory described him in terms that suggest otherwise. Having invited a new and attractive young staff member for a welcoming drink, Watson sent a joint telegram to the entire staff. “She’s eighteen,” it read succinctly “and she is all mine.”
Life Story disappeared after its first transmission.A VHS version had minimal circulation but the film was never issued as a DVD and became a rarity, occasional copies of the VHS appearing on eBay at $150 and up. Recently, however, an adequate transfer re-surfaced and you can find it if you click here