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19 February 2024

How Breathtaking brought tears to the Baftas

Also this week: In awe of maverick nurses, and why swearing should be prescribed on the NHS.

By Rachel Clarke

Standing on a Bafta stage this week in front of more than 100 NHS staff was, to say the least, nerve-racking. When, three years earlier, I’d first discussed the possibility of a screen adaptation of Breathtaking – my book about working on Covid wards – with former doctors turned TV dramatists Jed Mercurio and Prasanna Puwanarajah, it had all seemed like a distant dream. We were yet to reckon with the formidable resolve of Polly Hill, ITV’s head of drama who became the de facto leader of the opposition after her astute commissioning of Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

As we sat in her office in 2021, Polly breezily dispensed with wasting her time on anything as prosaic as us pitching the series. Its concept was pithy, and so was her reaction. This would be the NHS’s story of Covid, we told her – what really unfolded behind closed hospital doors. There was a glint of steel in her eyes as she responded without hesitation: “Don’t hold back. Get it all in the scripts. The more honest and unflinching, the better.” In a few seconds, I realised: we’d just been commissioned.

As the closing credits of the first episode rolled at the Bafta screening of Breathtaking, the audience was frozen for a moment in silence. When the applause finally came, I realised that many of the people clapping were also crying. NHS staff had witnessed on screen exactly what we’d lived through, four years earlier. The lack of PPE, the lack of Covid tests, the maddeningly illogical and ever-shifting guidelines, the mismatch between the emollient narratives presented to the public and my colleagues – some of them pitifully clad in their homemade PPE – beginning to fall sick themselves.

Imagine being forced to protect yourself with bin bags, or to buy your own respirator for £300 on Amazon because there’s nothing in the PPE stockpile that fits the faces of women. I found myself recalling those times in 2020 when colleagues would ask me to witness them signing their wills in case the worst happened and they ended up stricken on a ventilator in intensive care. And I thought to myself: will you watch it, Matt Hancock, Boris Johnson? And if you do, will you hang your heads in shame?

Demoted to wingman

From Bafta to the hotel bar with my husband and two of my nursing friends from work. You might think the former Royal Air Force fighter pilot would be leading on downing the cocktails, but no. Lou and Hazel were out in front, reminding me, yet again, that no one is as badass and brilliant as an NHS nurse. “You know they’re getting up at 5am to get the train back home?” Dave murmured in awe as we finally, drunkenly, flopped into bed. Mavericks, the pair of them.

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Profanity on the NHS

All hail Olivia Colman, who will not abide gendered double standards when it comes to swearing. Colman is promoting her new film, Wicked Little Letters, the true story of a 1920s scandal involving poison pen letters filled with obscenities and believed – shock horror – to have been written by a woman. She told the Radio Times: “If a woman swears, people act shocked. F*** off! Women are human – funny, filthy, loving, caring – just like men.”

Amen to that. I feel Colman would be totally at home in our hospital palliative care office. Not only is it well stocked with ice lollies, chocolate and luxurious hand creams – sometimes small acts of kindness can be more potent than morphine – but the air, at times, is so blue with expletives I simply bask in the linguistic pyrotechnics. For sheer, morale-boosting, stress-busting power, you just cannot beat a good, no-holds-barred, Anglo-Saxon tirade of filth and obscenities. If I had my way, we’d prescribe them.

Precious freedoms

Utterly devastating news from Russia, where Alexei Navalny has (presumably) been murdered by Vladimir Putin. I lie awake at night thinking how easy it is to forget our staggering good fortune to inhabit a part of the world in which free speech exists and the rule of law – even as Rishi Sunak tries to flout it by ramrodding his wretched Rwanda bill through parliament – means something.

I can assert, for example, with no fear of retribution, my sincerely held beliefs that Boris Johnson is a compulsive liar, Michelle Mone a rapacious vulture, and Matt Hancock a vainglorious narcissist. I won’t get flung in jail, I won’t be starved or poisoned. Parliamentary democracy is remarkable, fragile – and priceless. I fall asleep vowing never to forget this.

“Breathtaking” aired on ITV on 19-21 February and is available on catch-up

[See also: A&E doctor: I fear the job I love will one day break me]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation