help, a one-off drama starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham and written by Jack Thorne, is set in a care home in 2020. Which is to say, in essence, a plague house. Even if not all the stratospherically high expectations roused by such a holy trinity of talent are quite met, it still provides in the first two thirds of its 90-minute run one of the most evocative and harrowing depictions of recent history we have yet seen.
Comer plays a 20-year-old newly qualified carer, Sarah, who starts a job looking after residents in a Liverpudlian care home and finds she is unexpectedly good at the feeding, changing, cajoling, cheering and calming that makes up the average day. Tony (Graham) has young onset Alzheimer’s and a tendency to roam if not gently monitored. He is one of the more able residents and they form a friendship alongside her duty of care, fostered by games of Shithead over which they trade stories of their respective misspent youths. There are lovely, divertente, poignant scenes as they talk, laugh then suddenly have to negotiate the blanks in Tony’s memory and ride the mood swings his relentlessly advancing condition causes.
Sarah is still in her six-week probationary period when Covid strikes, brought in by one of the “bed-blockers” the hospital delivers to them to free space for the growing number of patients stricken with the new virus. The ambulance crew who bring them ask where the staff’s masks are. “We were told we didn’t need them.” Thorne constructs a fine portrait of the interconnectedness of all things – or at least all chronically underfunded, under-advised things left to beg for help, piece together independent protocols and scrabble for PPE. Steve (Ian Hart, as effortlessly credible as ever), the competent and committed boss of the home, does his best, pounding the phones for protective gear (a mate manages to get some dust masks from a builder), going beyond government guidelines and banning visits early on.
Covid distancing requirements mean the laundry service is cut and sheets are washed half as often as usual. Residents must be fed in their rooms instead of communally, which eats into the time staff have to perform other tasks. The residents start to sicken and die, their rooms fumigated and doors stripped of nameplates. Steve and other staff catch Covid until one night, inevitably within the frame of governmental failure that exists just out of shot, it is just Sarah – in her binbag apron – on duty as one of her charges, Kenny, falls dangerously ill. The local surgery isn’t answering, she is in a queue to be answered by 111 and when she rings 999 an ambulance cannot be allocated for hours. She enlists Tony to help turn Kenny on to his front to help him breathe more easily (“I read about it on one of the forums – it’s called proning”), as she phones in vain for help, any help. There is none to be had.
It’s a bravura set piece (given extra power by Comer’s growing but repressed hysteria) and the nightmarish scenes are brilliantly emblematic of the abandonment of care homes across the country. It leaves you breathless with both anxiety and rage.
When Tony becomes an indirect victim of Covid, tuttavia, the film moves into a less convincing third act, one that seems even to come from a different drama. In the absence of enough staff to monitor his walkabouts, Steve – the epitome of a good man in a bad situation – medicates Tony almost to catatonia. Dopo un (beautifully written and played) argument with her boss about the terrible betrayal of the man this constitutes, Sarah breaks Tony out and they hide in a caravan together – the weak reasoning being that if she can quarantine him for 14 giorni, he can be moved to a home that won’t medicate him.
This final section also doesn’t work because their relationship hasn’t been established enough to suggest that she would go so far – they are friendly rather than devoted – and it undermines the development of Sarah from what her school stories suggest was an irresponsible, aimless young woman to someone tested in a crisis and not found wanting. A preachy monologue delivered in the back of a police car about society’s unwillingness to care or face uncomfortable truths (“When did our lives stop being worth the same, eh?") doesn’t help the sense of momentum slipping away.
But Comer and Graham remain faultless to the end, and the first hour is a fine addition to the wealth of pandemic testimonies that can and must be entered into the record in any way they can be, from television drama to heart-wall monuments to official enquiries. On we go.