Set in a Liverpool care home as the pandemic unfolds, this Channel 4 drama hits a lot of the right notes, and some that jar
Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) delivers a gripping performance as Sarah, a new carer with a shaky school record but bags of empathy. Opposite her is Stephen Graham (Line of Duty) as Tony, a 47-year-old whose young on-set Alzheimer’s has led him to being cared for at the home, alongside much older residents.
It’s late 2019 and the opening scenes show Sarah getting to grips with life in the care home. It’s clear she’s found her calling. On her first evening, she scours the streets with manager Steve (Ian Hart) after Tony absconds, and calmly talks him round. She manages the personal care of resident Gloria (Sue Johnston) with sensitivity and warmth. When one frightened gentleman knocks his cereal bowl to the floor, she remains unfazed, letting him stroke her hair and clasp her hand.
Given all we know is to come, the Christmas scene at the care home is especially poignant. The camera roves through the lounge as people of all generations freely mix – dancing, laughing, hugging. Overlaid are the rich tones of resident and former English teacher Polly (Cathy Tyson), reciting a poem by heart.
Then in the New Year news of the pandemic starts to leak in. A radio bulletin tells of the first person in the UK known to die from coronavirus. Steve gathers everyone together to announce that from now on residents will need to be fed in their rooms. Oh and the laundry service won’t be coming as often, so can staff please keep the sheets on the beds for longer? And ‘no’ there isn’t any PPE. Apparently it’s not necessary. Such announcements are met with dismay.
From here on in, as in real life, the pace of events ramps up. An ambulance arrives with a gentleman from a local hospital, discharged to free up beds. The paramedic expresses shock at the lack of masks, highlighting the disparity of provision between the NHS and the care sector.
Then Gloria develops a cough and a temperature, and quickly succumbs. One night Sarah finds herself working single-handedly after her co-worker doesn’t turn up and Steve himself is off with COVID. In arguably the drama’s most compelling sequence, we see Sarah caught in a living nightmare. As one of the residents, Kenny, struggles painfully for breath, she rushes between his bedside and the office phone, pleading for medical help and receiving none. In her desperation, she enlists Tony to help turn Kenny onto his front so he can breathe. It's a risky but relatable action.
Given such powerful storytelling and superb acting, it’s a shame that some details fall wide of the mark. The portrayal of care home manager Steve is problematic. At Sarah’s interview, he cuts across her and shouts her down in a way that is deeply unprofessional. A joking remark at the Christmas party leaves a sour taste. Later, he commits an act of gross misconduct.
For those working in the care sector, such a portrayal of a care home manager is frustrating. Even before the pandemic, care home managers worked long hours in challenging conditions. Throughout the pandemic, they have gone above and beyond for the sake of their residents and staff. And so the Steve-character grates.
And then the ending, disappointingly, loses it. The narrative takes a sudden swerve and the whole thing stops being believable. Endings are notoriously difficult and, perhaps the underlying problem is that it’s all too soon. We’re still living in the midst of a real-life drama and no-one knows the ending yet.
Still, Help, makes a very welcome plea on behalf of those who work in care, and those they care for. The drama concludes with a series of bald statistics comparing the levels of support received by the NHS, itself beleaguered, and the care sector.
With questions around how much the care sector will benefit from new care health and social care levy, it feels very much like we're still waiting to see whether this urgent plea for help will be answered.
Help is available to watch on All 4 (the on-demand service for Channel 4).
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