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Men Up: BBC viagra film challenges idea men can't 'show weakness' when it comes to mental health

Iwan Rheon, Paul Rhys and their Men Up co-stars speak to Yahoo UK about tackling taboo subjects with the BBC film

Men Up,29-12-2023,Meurig Jenkins (IWAN RHEON),Quay Street Productions,Tom Jackson
Men Up stars Iwan Rheon as Meurig Jenkins in a fictional retelling of the creation of Viagra, and the medical trials that led to it. (BBC)

Men Up examines the unlikely story of the creation of Viagra, but more than that the BBC film tackles the taboo subject of male mental health by challenging the idea that men can't show vulnerability or weakness with sensitivity, the cast tell Yahoo UK.

Iwan Rheon, Paul Rhys, Phaldut Sharma and Steffan Rhodri reflected on the forthcoming film and the way they hope it will change minds on the subject, and the way in which erectile dysfunction is seen in society.

Rhys commended the film for the way it approached the subject, saying: “I think it deals with it very sensitively, with so many levels of sensitivity actually because male fertility is a big issue globally because if you lose that, who are you? What does it mean to be a man if you're dealing with erectile dysfunction?

“It's never talked about. It still isn't talked about that much, and maybe the film can provoke a bit more of a conversation.”Paul Rhys

The film follows a group of men suffering with erectile dysfunction, who take part in the trials in Wales for the drug that would one day become Viagra. Each has their own reasons for going on the trial and each of their personal journeys are different, from Meurig who keeps his struggle to himself which has led to his wife thinking her recent battle with cancer is the reason their relationship is failing, to Tommy who lies about being gay in order to get onto the trial in a time when homosexuality was heavily stigmatised.

“My story particularly had to be dealt with really sensibly because it's easy to laugh at stuff like this, it's the butt of jokes all over the place, male fertility. It's just a joke, it always has been and there's a person behind the joke, there's a heartbeat — it's not a joke," Rhys adds.

"I think the film picks that out really beautifully, but we're suffering these burdens in silence. Meurig has his story, and I have that story, everybody has that particular burden and they can share some of it, not all of it. I think it's important to communicate and connect."

Men Up,29-12-2023,Colin White (STEFFAN RHODRI), Tommy Cadogan  (PAUL RHYS), Meurig Jenkins (IWAN RHEON), Eddie O’Connor (MARK LEWIS JONES), Peetham ‘Pete’ Shah (PHALDUT SHARMA),Quay Street Productions,Aiistair Heap
Men Up explores the taboo subject of male mental health through the experiences of characters played by Steffan Rhodri, Paul Rhys, Iwan Rheon, Mark Lewis Jones, and Phaldut Sharma. (BBC)

Rheon concurs with his co-star, adding: "Every character, when they do eventually unburden themselves, almost, by discussing this, that's the beginning of everything changing for them, rather than it actually being the drug itself."

Rhys commented that he hoped the film would help men realise that they don't have to carry their "burden alone" and it is important for men to share it. The actor adds: "Everybody carries a burden, nobody's born who goes through life without facing something big and men tend to do it in silence, and I think that this is a film that shows or gives you hope that that doesn't necessarily have to be the case because there's always healing in connecting to people.

"There's always healing in sharing your burden or getting out of the prison of self-regard, and men, historically, we've not been brought up, any of us, to think that that was the thing you should do.

"We're told to not cry, to not share, to not show our weakness, to not be vulnerable. It's a terrible, terrible thing to put that on a little child and life is changing, but for the generation in the film it hadn't changed — that's what it was like, and so the isolation is so awful."Paul Rhys

"Women keep secrets and don't share burdens, of course, but men are expected in just about every civilisation to be nothing but warriors, it's just ridiculous. You can see perfectly well how sensitive little boys are you can't ask them to be warriors all the time. It's terrible."

Sharma adds: "It seemed to carry the the the right ingredients for the way men like to address things, I think. There's the the use of humour and the use of camaraderie, and the way that's depicted in the piece is sort of allowing men to watch something like this and feel like it's OK, that you can talk."

Telling a little known story

Men Up,29-12-2023,Dr Dylan Pearce (ANEURIN BARNARD), 
Meurig Jenkins (IWAN RHEON),Quay Street Productions,Tom Jackson
Iwan Rheon (right) said he was moved to tears whilst reading the script for Men Up. (BBC)

The medical trials for the drug that would become Viagra first took place in Wales, at Swansea's Morriston Hospital in 1994, something that was a little known fact even to the cast. Many of them even had personal connections to the real-life event without realising it until they joined the production.

"You think it must be made-up and then you realise it's real," Rhys says. "And it just seemed incredible, like one of the big secrets, [you'd] never guessed it, and my my auntie worked in Morriston Hospital. So I've got some some funny connection to it... it's wonderful, isn't it, that it happened?"

Rhodri, who plays Colin, had an even closer connection: "I was born in Morriston Hospital where the trial took place, so I wanted more than anything to do a story about one of the most famous drugs in the world and the most important trial to bring that drug to the world, which happened at the hospital where I was born... that was really important to me."

Rheon didn't know about the story either, but was moved by the script in ways he hadn't before:

"I've never enjoyed read through like that, never cried."Iwan Rheon

"It just felt like every story was so clear and every emotional centre was so clear that everybody knew we were all just doing this big performance in the region... and it just really was alive. Each and every one [of us] just came together, everyone got on really well, everybody respected each other and we created something really lovely, and I think that really comes across on the screen."

Challenging stigma

Men Up,29-12-2023,Tommy Cadogan (PAUL RHYS), Rhys Lancey (NATHAN SUSSEX),Quay Street Productions,Tom Jackson
Men Up challenges the idea men shouldn't speak about their mental health, with Paul Rhys (left) saying: 'There's always healing in sharing your burden.' (BBC)

Rhys added that it made "a huge difference" to have a cast and crew that were focused on approaching the subject of erectile dysfunction, it's impact on men's mental health and the stigma during the period in a thoughtful way, rather than as a comedic thing.

This was particularly the case for Tommy, who is forced to keep his sexuality a secret in order to be part of the trial and which later becomes an issue because of societal prejudice at the time: "Tommy's story is a slightly separate story in some ways, it tells you a lot about the prejudice of the time —we're not talking about the 1940s, it's the mid 1990s — so things have changed a lot in a short time actually, and we need to change further. But I felt they handled his story very, very beautifully.

"I think it's so painful, but you deal with daily rejection in life if you're a gay man and he's dealing with the rejection from the only hope he's got to keep his relationship together, through keeping his virility together, it's just a terrible, terrible cost, but it somehow resolves itself."

Men Up,29-12-2023,Ffion Jenkins (ALEXANDRA ROACH), Meurig Jenkins (IWAN RHEON),Quay Street Productions,Tom Jackson
The Men Up cast said they hope the film helps show that men can and should speak about their issues. (BBC)

Rheon concurred, saying of the way the film approaches his character Meurig: "It's very real, I think you could really believe that storyline and how difficult it is for him to be able to express what's going on with him especially because his wife's had cancer at the same time as all this is happening, and yet he loves her so much and he wants to rekindle their relationship.

"I think he feels like he's betraying her, and that's leading him down all sorts of terrible [rabbit holes] and he can't talk to anyone about it because who does he talk to?"Iwan Rheon

"He can't even talk to his best friend until this magical opportunity comes out of nowhere and it changes everything. But, again, it's a lot about the moment he's able to get this off his chest that they can, as a couple, begin to heal because all of a sudden they're both on the same page, whereas [before then] she's worrying about herself, he's worrying about himself. I think that's a really important lesson."

Men Up premieres on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Friday, 29 December.

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