Published by BBC NEWS - 29th December 2023
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It’s the Russell T Davies flagship BBC festive drama about the little-known Viagra trial that is hoped to get men talking about erectile dysfunction.

Men Up is inspired by the “brave” men that tested the pill that became Viagra at a time when opening up on impotence issues was even more taboo than today.

Doctors and Men Up’s cast hope the show can help end the stigma.

Experts say impotence awareness needs a champion like how Davina McCall has helped women with the menopause.

Erectile dysfunction can affect about half of men over 40, according to the NHS.

But men are warned the condition might be a sign of more deep-rooted health problems so should “use their penis as a health barometer” and see a doctor as soon as possible.

“As men, we’re not particularly great at talking about our feelings or issues of this kind,” said Men Up and Game of Thrones star Iwan Rheon.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on men’s mental health and it’s really important this story is being told now.”

Iwan Rheon in the new BBC series Men Up, pictured sitting at a table in front of pill bottles

Image source, BBC/Quay Street Productions/Tom Jackson

Men Up is a feature-length BBC drama about five ordinary guys who take part in a new impotence drug trial.

“It was extremely brave of these men to open themselves up for a trial like this,” said Dunkirk actor Aneurin Barnard, who plays pioneering consultant Dr Dylan Pearce in Men Up.

“Especially in society at this point in time where men held their cards very close to their chest and any mention of sexual dysfunction or impotence was a no-no.

“But they were all seeking to find something they’d lost – that’s the powerful thing.

“It’s about normal people trying to gain back their manhood, their confidence as it was like having their mojo taken away from you – and that caused huge problems within their relationships.”

Even though erectile dysfunction is a common condition among older men, patients are reluctant to talk about their problems – even with medical experts – and that can risk the health further.

Aneurin Barnard, Joanna Page, Ian Rheon, Paul Rhys, Mark Lewis Jones, Steffan Rhodri and Phaldut Sharma in Men Up

Image source, BBC / Quay Street Productions / Tom Jackson

So with half over 40 likely to have erectile dysfunction at some stage, doctors have joined Men Up’s star-studded cast and urged men to open up for the benefit of their health – and their relationships.

“It’s very hard for men to realise it isn’t about being less of a man if you have erectile dysfunction,” said leading men’s health expert Dr Jeff Foster.

“There could be real medical reasons as 90% of cases have a biological cause, like diabetes, heart disease or low testosterone. That completely dismisses the idea it’s just in your head.

“It isn’t just a case of buying a Viagra and it’ll be fine, that deals with the symptom and not the cause.

“Men need to think of their penis like a barometer of your health and if it’s not working, you need to see a doctor and say I’ve got a medical problem.”

Dr Jeff Foster

Image source, Dr Jeff Foster

Dr Foster runs a specialist sexual dysfunction clinic in Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, and, on average, his 1,000 erectile dysfunction patients took three years to see him.

“Erectile dysfunction and issues around sexual function in men are an enormously stigmatised in the UK,” added Dr Foster, a member of the British Society of Sexual Medicine.

“If you had most medical conditions, you probably wouldn’t wait three years before you go to see a doctor. If you leave it, relationships suffer and the risk of underlying more serious medical conditions gets worse.”

TV presenter Davina McCall has campaigned to increase awareness of the menopause and its affect on women and now there are calls for an equivalent male champion for erectile dysfunction to help end the stigma.

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“Like what Davina McCall has done for women and the menopause, I can’t tell you how much I wish we had a super-famous man to do that for erectile dysfunction and normalise it because it’s a very normal condition,” said andrology specialist Dr Janine David.

Dr Foster agrees, adding: “It’ll take a brave bloke to say ‘I’ve got a erectile dysfunction’ but it won’t take much for one or two others who are gutsy enough to say ‘yeah, I’ve had this problem too’ and for attitudes to start to change.

“This Men Up drama is really good because even if it doesn’t change a population’s attitude, it will get men thinking – and maybe a couple will go and see their doctor if something is not quite right.”

BBC iPlayer

Five ordinary Welshmen face up to their secrets and lies when they embark on one of the world’s first medical trials for the drug that would become Viagra.

Men Up poster

Catch Men Up on BBC iPlayer and on BBC One on Friday at 21:00 GMT.

BBC iPlayer

Dr David set up and became medical director of Men’s Health Wales to help improve the health of patients in an area she feels is “often overlooked”.

“Men with erectile dysfunction and diabetes must have a testosterone blood test to rule out it being low because half will have low testosterone,” said Dr David, secretary of the British Society for Sexual Medicine.

“Testosterone deficiency needs to be checked as it can make men feel depressed, which can cause erectile dysfunction which can, in turn, make them more depressed so its a vicious cycle.

Dr Janine David

Image source, Dr Janine David

“Erections will not improve without testosterone replacement but also having low testosterone and diabetes doubles your mortality rate so that check is really important.”

It is hoped the drama can help transform the “sniggering behind closed doors” taboo attitude to men who cannot get an erection.

“Men’s mental health and opening up is the heart of Men Up,” said Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Gangs of London star Mark Lewis Jones, who plays macho Eddie O’Connor in the drama.

“We’ve made a bit of progress but we’ve still a long way to go – and I count myself within that as well as I find it difficult to talk about feelings and identifying them.

“We hope people take away from it that these men’s lives changed as a result of an experience they shared.”

Men Up is based on a medical trial in Swansea in 1994 for the pill then known as Sildenafil UK-92,480 by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and included men with diabetes and heart disease, where erectile dysfunction is a common side effect.

After the study at Morriston Hospital, Viagra went on to become one of the most controversial, profitable and well-known drugs in history that has been used by millions of men across the world.

Joanna Page

Image source, BBC / Quay Street Productions / Tom Jackson

“The story of the men is utterly heart-breaking, it’s such a terrible time in their lives and affects their relationships, their mood and their whole family,” said Gavin and Stacey star Joanna Page, who plays nurse Moira Davies.

Phaldut Sharma, who plays married accountant Pete Shah, said Men Up’s humour was a “wonderful” and important part for men to engagement in such a serious subject.

“It uses a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down using the comedy to address the issue. Getting men to laugh is probably a good way into it,” said the former EastEnders actor.

What causes erectile dysfunction?

Most men occasionally fail to get or keep an erection and this is usually caused by stress, tiredness, drinking too much alcohol or a side effect of some medicine – and is nothing to worry about.

If erectile dysfunction happens often, it may be caused by a condition such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, diabetes, depression or anxiety or hormone problems.

Healthy lifestyle changes, losing weight if you’re overweight, eating a healthy diet, exercising daily, stopping smoking and reducing stress can sometimes help with erectile dysfunction.

Source: NHS

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