Arts feature

The forgotten story of the pioneering surgeon who healed disfigured airmen

Lloyd Evans on a musical that tells the story of the pioneering maverick whose methods for treating disfigured second world war airmen revolutionised plastic surgery

27 November 2021

9:00 AM

27 November 2021

9:00 AM

‘You’re inside an incinerator. The cockpit is on fire. You are burning. You can see bits of your body melting off. And you are struggling to get out.’ This is Andrew Doyle, the creator of Titania McGrath, describing to me the experience of an RAF pilot trying to escape from a stricken plane during the second world war. He explains that the injured airmen were treated by a New Zealand surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, who developed new methods for repairing skin damage at a specialist burns unit in the 1940s. And this is the subject that Doyle has chosen for a new musical.

It may seem an odd departure for the anti-woke satirist but his passion for musical theatre is long-standing. He has written more than half a dozen song-and-dance shows with various collaborators. ‘I started to research this story long before I came up with Titania,’ he says. ‘To lose your face is an incomprehensible experience. It is your identity. It is the way the world sees you. And to go through that level of pain, to find a way out, and to rebuild yourself, suggests a degree of courage that I can barely understand.’

Archibald McIndoe worked at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead and he referred to his patients as the Guinea Pig club. The recovering airmen formed a lifelong bond that continues to this day. Doyle interviewed the club secretary while he was investigating the story. ‘They carried on meeting until a couple of years ago. The youngest must be about 92, so there are only 15 or 20 of them left alive.’

McIndoe didn’t just repair faces, he set out to heal the psychological scars as well. ‘He wanted the patients to be happy. He hired pretty nurses. He let everyone drink on the ward, and smoke on the ward, and they wore whatever they liked. They didn’t observe rank. And they had to go into the pubs in town and interact with the community, which was absolutely revolutionary. So the town got used to seeing disfigured airmen. Anywhere else in the country they’d be glared at, leered at, and treated like freaks.’

East Grinstead was proud of its tolerant attitude and became known as ‘the town that doesn’t stare’. But McIndoe clearly struggled with demons of his own. ‘It’s easy to romanticise him because he did a lot of good, but he was a nightmare to work with, apparently. His marriage broke apart. He had a considerable ego. They called him “God” on the ward. He kept his distance to some extent. And he could be brutal.’

He obliged new patients to sit in the gallery of the operating theatre and to watch as fellow airmen went under the knife. ‘They’d see an entire face being peeled off. McIndoe said they had to witness it, and understand it, so they were no longer afraid of it.’


The burns victims became celebrities during the war thanks to a documentary about McIndoe’s work. ‘But they dubbed it with cut-glass accents so everyone sounded posh. They weren’t like that. They were mostly young working-class men.’

The show follows McIndoe as he campaigns to secure cash from the scientific establishment. ‘He used to go to London all the time… but the Medical Council were really sceptical. It was something they’d never seen before and they didn’t think his methods would work. And he used to give lectures to try to persuade people. And that’s the structure of the show. He’s delivering a lecture, petitioning us to give him funding. And then we see the stories of the airmen.’

Will the musical be staged in East Grinstead?

‘It’s important to the people there and to the identity of the town. The building still exists. Ward Three is known as “McIndoe’s ward”. It’s now a café.’ But Doyle isn’t able to confirm the performance schedule because the script is still in development. ‘We’re not at that stage. We’re trying to get investors, and we’re looking into how we can make it come alive.’ Doyle isn’t the only one to have found dramatic potential in this story. A film about the club, starring Richard E. Grant as McIndoe, is also in pre-production.

What’s the most appealing factor for play-goers? ‘It’s a very, very powerful story about getting a second chance, and about superficiality… Today people are happy to judge each other on their looks, and to do it in such brutal ways, and such tribal ways, and it may sound cheesy, but this is about what’s beneath the skin, about our common humanity, which is something we need to restore.’

McIndoe’s work has a resonance today that is not entirely positive: our obsession with cosmetically enhanced beauty. ‘That’s all about cheating death,’ he says. ‘And I find it really horrible when I hear of teenagers injecting their faces with Botox. It really upsets me. But I believe in individual liberty. People should be able to do what they want with their bodies. And a lot of the contemporary treatments are derived from McIndoe’s work. I don’t think this is what he envisaged. I don’t think he imagined Joan Rivers.’

He assures me that the show has no message to offer. ‘I don’t like to do that when I write stuff. People can take what they want from it. I don’t enjoy being preached at in the theatre and I think that’s basically what all theatre is now.’

He says that this dogmatism has spread to TV and to the stand-up circuit. ‘Creative people are following a script and delivering state-produced art. And they’re afraid to think for themselves.’ Even watching Net-flix makes him uncomfortable. ‘I feel like I’m being tapped on the shoulder by a demagogue, saying: “That’s what you should be thinking.” It’s like I’m being taught all the time. It’s utter conformity masquerading as innovation and substance.’

Without revealing names, he mentions comedians who adapt and shape their material to fit in with the prevailing orthodoxies. ‘They know what the targets are meant to be and they know what the politics is meant to be — but that bears little relation to what they actually think.’ He understands their motives, of course. ‘It’s done to advance the career, fine, I get it. But doesn’t that, at a personal level, gnaw away at you?’ He’s clearly frustrated by those who are content to accept a parallel reality. ‘I meet so many people who say they secretly like what I do but they’re not going to say so publicly. But there’s a cost to lying. A cost to dishonesty. A personal cost.’ He would never contemplate ‘speaking what I know to be false’.

Strangely, he has no relish for the culture wars. ‘I want it over,’ he says. ‘I’m writing a book about it now and I hope never to write about it again. But I think it’s necessary, especially for those of us who care about the arts, and if I were prime minister I’d make a serious effort to address it and not capitulate to the tyrants, which is what the Tories are doing.’

But he doesn’t want to sound too pessimistic. ‘If I get to old age and we are living in a totalitarian state, I can say to myself: well, I tried and that’s OK. And by the way, I don’t think we will.’

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