I once spent 24 hours trying to match Churchill’s daily alcohol consumption — and failed catastrophically. It was strictly for journalistic purposes, and I suppose my downfall wasn’t too surprising. By the time he had got to my age, he’d spent a good few decades softening up his liver to be able to take a pint of champagne at lunch and the best part of a bottle of Cognac while he worked after dinner, often until 3am.
Such stamina seems almost alien today when, for the majority of British office workers, a glass of wine at lunch on a Friday is regarded as positively risqué. And that was before pubs were shut and people started working from home. But now that Dry January is officially over, what if Churchill was actually on to something? To be more precise: what would happen if we drank alcohol throughout the day and maintained a functional level of mild drunkenness?
That is the premise of Another Round, a riotous new film from the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg with a terrific central performance by Mads Mikkelsen. The story revolves around four jaded, middle-aged secondary school teachers — all men — who latch on to a scientific theory which claims that humans are born with an alcohol blood level that is 0.05% too low. To remedy this, to reach mankind’s optimum level of productivity and happiness, they take it upon themselves to drink throughout the day, using breathalysers to make sure they stay at the correct level.
It all sounds a tad deranged — and, of course, things quickly get out of hand — but the actual hypothesis explored in the film is drawn from real life. It is, in fact, the brainchild of Finn Skårderud, a Norwegian psychiatrist, psychotherapist and author. And he’s hardly a complete crank — he’s an international celebrated expert on eating disorders and even works as a psychiatrist for The Norwegian Olympic Committee.
Does that mean his theory holds any water? Would we be happier and more productive if, as one of the characters does in the film, we started sipping from a bottle hidden in your office’s stationery cupboard?
It seems highly unlikely. But in Silicon Valley, the concept of micro-dosing — taking tiny amounts of LSD or other psychoactive drugs on a regular basis — has become popular in recent years, not just with hippies but with successful entrepreneurs. They report feeling more energetic, more creative and generally more at peace with themselves. Could the same be true for alcohol?
Not if you ask the vast majority of doctors. To start with, they claim, the idea that we have any level of alcohol permanently in our blood — let alone one that is too low — doesn’t make physiological sense. Yes, a number of animals in cold climates do have some alcohol in their bloodstream to effectively act as a de-icer. And there is something known as “endogenous ethanol production” in humans, where your stomach digests carbohydrates and produces an effect similar to fermentation, causing trace levels of alcohol. But it’s not a meaningful amount. Unless you’ve just had a G&T, your blood is naturally free of alcohol.
Still, even if we don’t suffer from an alcohol deficit, could we still benefit from increasing our levels by 0.05%? In terms of physical health, the scientific consensus also appears to centre around a “no”. That’s why, back in 2016, the UK’s chief medical officers reduced the recommended weekly amount men should consume from 21 units down to 14 units — roughly six pints of beer.
For some doctors, however, even this modest limit is too much. “Basically, consuming alcohol is dangerous to health,” says Rudolf Schutte, a senior lecturer in Medical Science at Anglia Ruskin University. Meanwhile, Peter Anderson, a Professor of Substance Abuse, Policy and Practice, thinks that “there is no level of alcohol consumption that is risk-free.” But if you stick to 14 units, “the evidence shows that the lifetime risk of dying from an alcohol-related condition is about 1 in 100”.
And surely that’s the key thing. It’s a risk. But so too is crossing the road or, during a pandemic, entering a supermarket or jumping on a bus. The question is: how serious is that risk?
David Spiegelhalter, Professor of Understanding Risk at the University of Cambridge, has become something of a household name during the pandemic — at least in my house, he merits a cheer whenever he comes on the radio. He compares that 1% risk of dying to other everyday activities: “An hour of TV-watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health.” He tells me that there are a lot of “exaggerated claims” about the harms of moderate drinking. In short, if you derive a lot of pleasure from a glass of wine every lunchtime, it’s a risk worth taking.
Of course, to maintain a blood alcohol level of 0.05% during working hours, the four men in Another Round need to drink a great deal more than one glass of wine during the day. (The drink drive limit in the UK is 0.08%.) But then again, they never pretend that their physical health will improve by being permanently, if lightly, sloshed. They argue it’s for the good for their psychological health.
“This film is about being alive and being activated when you are dwelling through your midlife crisis,” Vinterberg, the director, said in a recent interview. And as Martin, the character played by Mikkelsen, points out, various great men spent much of their waking hours slightly drunk: Ulysses S Grant, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway.
But while it’s true that Hemingway occasionally went on heroic benders, he didn’t drink while writing. The accusations that Grant was a full-blown alcoholic were mostly spread by his political enemies; it’s likely he was a moderate if persistent drinker. As for Churchill, he was less of an old soak than he was often portrayed. It was Hitler who called him an “insane drunkard” and Churchill himself sometimes thought it beneficial to burnish his own mythology.
However, one drinking habit of his that I did find deeply civilised was his fondness for kickstarting the day with what he called “mouthwash” — a weak whisky and soda, which he would take from about 9.30am and keep continually topped up. But the whisky (simple Johnnie Walker, no fancy malt) would only just cover the bottom of the tumbler; the bulk of the drink was fizzy water. For the morning, at least, Churchill was the embodiment of Another Round’s idea of perfection: just enough low-level inebriation to take the edge off and fire your imagination, but not so much that one made mistakes or felt tired.
Matt Field, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Sheffield and an alcohol and addiction expert, agrees that “alcohol serves a number of purposes”. It may not be good for your physical health, “but it can help you relax and it’s a big part of social occasions”. Interestingly, he points out that “the benefits of regular drink-free days are relatively understudied”. Even so, he still recommends having days off.
Still, perhaps the wisest advice comes from Churchill himself: “I’ve taken away more out of alcohol than it’s taken out of me.” As for whether that’s borne out in Another Round, I couldn’t possibly say.