TV

Covid drama Help is the 'distinctively British' TV the government wants

Channel 4's Help, starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham, is a Very British Horror Story, writes TV Editor Adrian Lobb

Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham. Image: Pal Hansen/Guardian/eyevine

British acting dream team Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham star in the first major Covid-19 drama. Image: Pal Hansen/Guardian/eyevine

It’s A Sin, Small Axe, Stephen and now, airing tonight, Channel 4’s Help. Vital political drama has made a big comeback in 2021, and not a moment too soon.

Help, written by Jack Thorne and starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham, is the best kind of political drama. It is political drama fueled by fury but with a real clarity of purpose and storytelling.

The feature-length C4 drama is set in a fictional Liverpool care home during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic as Sarah (Comer) takes a job and finds her vocation, which is helping Tony (Graham), a man living with young-onset dementia.

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.

Ex-Media Minister John Whittingdale’s last major speech before he was reshuffled out of the cabinet involved him telling the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge: “In our upcoming white paper, we intend to include proposals that will expand the remit of public service broadcasters, so that it includes a requirement for them to produce ‘distinctively British’ content.”

Examples given included Only Fools and Horses, Doctor Who, Blackadder, Fleabag and the Carry On films.

Well, Help is a uniquely British drama. It is a Very British Horror Story, a litany of Great British Governmental Failure, telling the story of Britain’s Great Care Home Scandal. This is the tale of how disastrous decision making led to thousands of the most vulnerable people in British society dying. It’s Carry On Dying of Covid in Care Homes.

The show’s writer Jack Thorne told The Big Issue recently: “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…”

Comer added: “The fact that we’re all a part of this speaks to how we all collectively feel.”

And her co-star, Graham, said: “There was a huge collective consciousness. And that went right across the board. That was everyone. We knew we were we were part of something that had a voice and it was our duty to give it everything. This was based on real experiences. And we had an obligation to get it right.

“It’s the injustice of what happened to these people. Not just not just residents but also the workers being asked to put themselves in these vulnerable positions constantly.”

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Writer Thorne believes television is crucial for giving politics a human face.

“I love telly,” he said. “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.

“When telly does that, it’s extraordinary. So I did feel like telly could do something here. But I was very aware of the responsibility of it. And there wasn’t a day that went by when I wasn’t scared about it.”

Just as all political careers famously end in failure, many television political dramas begin with failure. For when politicians fail, dramatists swoop in and shine a light, revealing the impact of these failures on our lives. In 2021, there seems to be a lot of political drama being made. There may be much more coming soon. What could possibly be more British?

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