It’s not for me to weep and wail and say that I found Jack Thorne’s new drama unbearable; I didn’t lose anyone in the pandemic. But I must also be honest. Had I not believed that I needed to write about Help, set in a Liverpool care home in the first harrowing weeks of the pandemic, I might not have stuck with it. I’m glad that I did (I think). It’s very good indeed. However, if you are grieving, or feeling less than robust mentally, this is probably not for you.
Art may process catastrophe obliquely, or head on. Thorne’s screenplay chooses to do the latter, unrelentingly. Sarah (Jodie Comer, in luminous form) is a bad girl. As a child, she was excluded from school; as an adult, she has never stuck at anything for more than five minutes. But at Sunshine Homes, a family business run by Steve (Ian Hart), where she has just begun work as a carer, she has unwittingly found her calling (there were no other candidates for her job, so even she couldn’t mess this one up – though she still managed to lose her temper in the interview). She’s good at what she does – un squeamish about broken, elderly bodies; adept at deploying dark humour in moments of sadness, anger and embarrassment – and she enjoys it, too. It’s not only that, like Steve, whose own mother was once a resident, she wants the best for those she looks after. She likes them: gentle, curly-haired Gloria (Sue Johnston), who needs every joke to be repeated; and the often angry Tony (Stephen Graham), whose early-onset dementia means that he sometimes forgets that his mother is dead and not waiting at home for him with a pan of steaming scouse.
All this is established quickly, not only by Thorne, whose writing is extremely efficient as well as profoundly humane, but also by Comer, Hart and Graham, whose performances are stunningly convincing (they’re all Merseysiders in real life, which probably helps). And then the bomb hits. Eight patients arrive from a local hospital, a pitiful human tidal wave that Steve innocently welcomes, believing – of course he does – that the doctors know what they’re doing, and that his staff are helping the nation at a time of crisis. “Is it safe?” asks Sarah, who’s smart. “They’re blocking beds,” Steve replies, cheerily. “We’re being useful.” Cut to the new regime: patients shut alone in their rooms, children talking to beloved parents from the other side of a window, staff working every hour God sends with only black bin bags and some dust masks Steve has managed to secure from a builder friend for protection. People begin to die.
The effect of the forthrightness here is hard to put into words. It is horrifying. It is shameful. It is also prosaic: fact, not fiction. Between mid-March and mid-June 2020, 40 per cent of the 48,213 Covid deaths that were registered took place in care homes; between mid-March and mid-July 2020, NHS trusts provided only 10 per cent of the PPE these homes required. Thorne makes a drama of this without, as it were, making a drama of it – for which reason, I’m not sure we need the slightly improbable twist that comes near the end of the film (I won’t give it away here, save for to say that it involves, inevitably, Tony).
In the scene I found most powerfully affecting, Sarah is working a night shift alone (Steve now has Covid, too). A man can’t breathe. No doctor will come out. Ambulance control insists the home is not a priority. Desperate, she decides to try something she has seen on TV – “proning” – only she’s not strong enough. He rolls, and flops back again. What on earth to do? The only person around who has any muscle is Tony. So she puts gloves and a mask on him, and together they manage to get the man on his stomach.
At first, the viewer understands this operation to have been futile, and Tony’s life to have been risked for nothing, because the man dies anyway. But this is not quite the case. In this moment, Sarah is radicalised. In a flash, she understands that some people – the poor, the old, the out-of-sight – are more dispensable than others. Anger rises inside her, as it rises in us, too. Will there ever be a full and serious reckoning in the matter of this government’s handling of the pandemic? I don’t know. I can’t feel optimistic that there will. But in the meantime, there is art. Done well – done like this – it feels like a form of retributive justice.
Help 9pm, 16 September, Channel 4
This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor