British acting dream team Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham star in the first major Covid-19 drama. Image: Pal Hansen/Guardian/eyevine
This is drama. And this is drama built from outrage. It may be crafted brilliantly and acted impeccably by a cast led by Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham, but there is real fury in Jack Thorne’s script for Help.
The feature-length Channel 4 drama is set in a fictional Liverpool care home during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. But although the characters are fictional, it is based on the real-life stories of those at the frontline of the pandemic. And these stories demand to be heard.
“The fact that we’re all a part of this speaks to how we all collectively feel,” Comer tells The Big Issue. And how they feel is that care home residents and workers deserved so much better.
“There was a huge collective consciousness,” agrees Graham. “We knew we were part of something that had a voice and it was our duty to give it everything. This was based on real experiences. So we had an obligation to get it right.
“It’s the injustice of what happened to these people – not just residents but also the workers being asked to put themselves in these vulnerable positions constantly.”
Graham, who made his name in Shane Meadows’ This Is England, and has since starred in everything from Gangs Of New York to Line Of Duty, plays Tony – a man living with young on-set dementia. Comer, who found fame as Villanelle in Killing Eve, plays Sarah, who takes a job at the care home and finds her vocation, just as the pandemic starts to bite.
One long, drawn out close-up of Comer as she puts her last drops of energy into caring for one dying resident before moving on to another, stopping only to replace her flimsy mask, is particularly striking. In the background, her phone is on speaker. The entire time she has been on hold to the 111 emergency services hotline.
“Sometimes you’re very fortunate to be a part of something which holds a mirror up to society and asks us to be accountable for our actions and for the choices we make,” says Graham, who knows a thing or two about high-impact drama, with The Virtues and Time his most recent TV big-hitters.
“I feel very fortunate to be a part of something that will strike conversations within households. It is just to present the facts of what actually happened.”
By the midway point, the care home is a haunted house
It grew from writer Thorne hearing about a shocking number of deaths in a single care home in Luton. “The more I looked into it, the more I thought there was a story there,” says the writer, who delivered the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival last week.
“I didn’t think the world was ready for a Covid drama. Then George Faber, who runs [production company] The Forge basically said, ‘You’re missing the whole story.’ And the more research I did, the more horrifying it became.
“There’s stuff we can say and there’s stuff that we’ve heard. And the stuff that we’ve heard is even worse than the stuff that we can say.”
This is a horror film
By the midway point, the care home is a haunted house. And the residents and care workers are trapped inside, facing a demon they cannot escape. A demon unleashed, knowingly or recklessly, into their midst by government failures.
But we must not look away as these fictional care workers rage against the lack of PPE – instead wearing only disposable face masks sourced from friends in the building trade and bin liners – or struggle to get medical help for their residents.
Because this story was replicated across the UK at hundreds of care homes, thanks to the disastrous policy whereby people were moved out of hospitals without being tested for Covid-19 – spreading the disease to the most vulnerable people in the country.
“There’s a numbness you get when you’re watching TV, and you hear about this number of people or that number of people [dying],” says Comer. “And it so easily just becomes a number. But it’s important to remember that these are their lives.”
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“Matt Hancock talked about throwing a protective ring around care homes,” says Thorne. “Well, there was a ring around care homes but it wasn’t protected. It was like they all became plague villages. And we left people in them. It was just horrifying.”
Thorne talks of 30,000 people dying unnecessarily in care homes because of “the indifference and incompetence of our government”. And adds that, “Of the first 100,000 people to die [with Covid], 60,000 of them were disabled.”
These are shocking numbers. A football stadium full of people.
“When you visualise that and just imagine it – that’s a lot of people lost through negligence,” says Graham. “And it was negligence.”
It was a change of pace for Comer, one she embraced. “It felt like we’d all been stripped bare,” she says. “I love that there was no vanity. There are no extravagant costumes, as much as I love extravagant costumes. It was just about the story. That’s all it was about and all anybody cared about. Is this truthful? Do we believe this? Is it accurate? It came from the fact that this is true to real life.”
Adds Graham, “We wanted an element of social realism. A lot of [director] Marc Munden’s stuff is exceptionally stylised. And I love it. But this was very much fly-on-the-wall, hand-held, close and intimate.
“The aim for me and Jodie from the very beginning was to play it as truthfully and honestly as possible and make it super real.”
This is a love story
As we watch Comer’s character connect with the residents we see the care, the heart, the struggle. Families gather at Christmas, reminding us that care homes are also places of joy and community.
But when the responsibility for vulnerable people in the last stages of their lives during a pandemic rests, almost entirely, on the shoulders of a young woman on the minimum wage, the system has clearly failed.
Comer spoke to many carers in her research. “A lot of it for me was trying to understand the emotional connection that they have with their job and the people they care for. The love that they have for them,” she says. “Really understanding how much of themselves they put into this job.
“One of the biggest things that struck me was that they felt like they had failed. Because they pride themselves on giving end-of-life care, making people feel comfortable and loved when they’re in the final hours of their lives.
“And they felt they couldn’t give it. Looking at it from the outside in, we’re like, how could you possibly think you have failed, you know? Seeing and hearing that, we got a sense of how important their role is to themselves.”
“The stories I heard were harrowing and upsetting and yet you felt their love,” says Thorne.
“My mum was a care worker. And that idea that we let vulnerable people and our elderly and disabled fellow citizens die, but also that we left the responsibility for them with this group of workers on minimum wage is so unfair.
“It’s so bad that we undervalue care workers to the degree that we do.
“There were people crying down the phone to me. And it wasn’t because they were angry – it’s because they felt culpable. The idea we’ve made them feel like that, the idea that we left them so isolated.”
Graham also had a personal connection, as a close family member works with people recovering from injury at a specialist unit that encountered similar issues to those we see in Help.
“They explained how difficult it was to get hold of PPE, and how they were told by the hospital that they have to help them out and take some patients,” he says.
“Everyone was very responsive to that. So they took them in and they were told they didn’t have Covid. But obviously, inevitably, they did. And it affected the whole unit. So some people lost their lives.
“It was that kind of mismanagement aspect of it that Jack’s really captured within our drama.”
The power of television drama lies in reminding us of the bigger picture while bringing these individual stories to life. And Thorne harks back to some of the greatest television ever made to underline this point.
“I love telly,” he says. “I think telly is wonderful. I love that you can tell big stories, small stories, all sorts of stories through it – but I also love how political telly is. The seminal drama of my lifetime is Boys From The Black Stuff because it told a story about a world I didn’t know. I think when telly does that, it’s extraordinary.
“There’s lots of people who will say, I don’t want to watch a drama about Covid, I want to watch drama about detectives in the Caribbean. And that’s fine. But television can turn a beam of light on something and say: we all need to be looking at this. That is important right now – because the government are trying to forget about it and are delaying a new social care bill for ever.”
This is a story of community
It is a story of working class people looking out for each other when they were abandoned. The story also grew out of community and friendship. It began when the unknown and unrepresented actor Jodie Comer won a small role in TV drama Good Cop opposite established star Stephen Graham.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry. I always have to listen to him tell this story. You know that is the only reason I did Help, right?” laughs Comer.
Graham dutifully tells their origin story. “These were two tiny little scenes with practically no dialogue, but the amount of talent I saw straight away… We were talking through a scene and Jodie was mesmerising. Then we did the rehearsal, and I thought, wow.
“When we did the scene I was like, this girl’s amazing. I asked her what stuff she’d been going up for and, no disrespect, I instantly thought, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you’re too good.’”
Comer joins in: “I remember saying to Stephen, I’m going to an audition once every four months. That was where I was at.
“I knew I had to step up but I had sent CVs out to agencies and hadn’t heard anything back. Like a lot of young people in the industry, how do you navigate it when the competition is so big? How do you make sure that your CV doesn’t slip under the big pile of papers on their desk?”
Graham’s agent took on Comer, whose talent found an audience. Doctor Foster and Killing Eve happened. And the actors decided it was time to work together again with both, separately, approaching Thorne.
“There was this triangle of conversations happening – I messaged Jack to say ‘I think you’re brilliant, I’d love to work with you’,” says Comer. “I’d had the conversation with Stephen. Stephen had the conversation with Jack. And it came to be.
“We kept having moments on set where we’d just look at each other and be like, fucking hell, how mad is this? Ten years had gone and look at us now, leading this show we both care so much about. It was just the best experience.”
Casting Drew Schofield – a Liverpool legend – as Jodie’s father in Help added another level.
“Drew was the reason why I’m an actor today,” says Graham. “He saw me as a kid and said to my mum and dad, I think your son’s got talent, you should take him to the Everyman Youth Theatre.
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“He used to live a lot across the road. To me, he is a bit of a hero. At that age, to see Drew on the telly with the same voice I had showed so much.
“So you can imagine from my point of view, watching Drew and Jodie. I had this beautiful moment of things going full circle – for Drew, Jodie and myself, three people who have worked really hard to get to where we are, doing the job that we love, coming from where we come from – it was a wonderful experience. It meant the world to me, that.”
Setting Help in Comer and Graham’s native Liverpool was both exciting and daunting for Thorne.
“Liverpool is a city with such character. And knowing Stephen, it is such a part of his identity,” he says. “I knew Jodie was Everton and Stephen was Liverpool – little things like that help tell the story of the city.
“But to have Alan Bleasdale and Jimmy McGovern coming from Liverpool and to be the one who’s writing a drama set in that city is quite a thing. The two great social realist writers of our time and I’m writing a piece of social realism in their city. I’m very nervous about that!
“But the Liverpool mafia came out. Drew Schofield, Cathy Tyson, Sue Johnston, Ian Hart – the great and good of Liverpool came out and did their bit. I felt honoured to be around that level of talent.
“Some were there because Stephen literally forced them – I don’t think Sue Johnston had a choice! But they were also driven by true passion.”