The Killing Eve actor stars opposite Line Of Duty favourite Stephen Graham in a heartbreaking story of friendship and fighting for survival.
2020 brought with it an exhaustive list of ways to thank and help key workers as the UK struggled through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic – we were told to clap for them, to donate to charities that supported them, to campaign for them to be paid more fairly.
Help – starring Jodie Comer and Line of Duty’s Stephen Graham – brings to our screens the specific lived experiences of care workers as they continued to do their jobs while the virus spread like wildfire through care homes. With this depiction comes a reminder that time may have passed, but the losses that were suffered in those times were severe, bringing an urgency for lessons to be learned when it comes to future – and present – handlings of social care.
After all, of the near 50,000 Covid-19 deaths between March and June 2020, 40% were care home residents, according to the National Audit Office.
The Channel 4 drama tells the story of Sarah – a rebellious misfit of a young woman who feels disconnected from her family – and Tony, a middle-aged Liverpool fan who has early onset Alzheimer’s and is living in a care home called Sunshine Homes. The two develop a friendship when Sarah begins work as a care worker, leading her to go to extraordinary lengths to keep Tony safe once the Covid-19 pandemic hits.
Work on Help began when Comer slid into Enola Holmes writer Jack Thorne’s DMs to tell him she wanted to work with him. Not long after that, Graham pursued Thorne too and before they knew it the trio were workshopping ideas and arranging to begin filming in Liverpool.
Fellow Liverpudlians Stephen and Jodie – who have executive produced Help, as well as starring in it – have been friends for years after working together on miniseries Good Cop, which was released back in 2012. With the absence of intimacy co-ordinators back in those days, the pair formed a relationship of mutual respect, with Graham helping with and acknowledging Comer’s boundaries as she played a character he was abusing.
After they wrapped, Graham gave his agent Comer’s number and the rest, as they say, is serial killer history in the form of Killing Eve’s tulle-dressed villain Villanelle.
The history between Help’s leads partially defines the visceral impact it has, because the most tender and impactful moments of a very difficult (yet no less important and compelling) watch lie within the simple scenes between Sarah and Tony.
They play cards, they tell stories, they laugh and sing football chants together. It’s an ease that is precious, seeing as the world (and the scenes that depict it) around them is so hard and heartbreaking. But their friendship is just as real as the tragedy unfolding. Comer has described Sarah and Tony as “kindred spirits” and watching the pair’s connection is a truly beautiful thing.
Throughout, we are taught a lesson we learned every day of lockdown – the importance and irreplaceability of human connection, especially when it is taken away for indeterminate periods of time. Comer’s outwardly spiky character, Sarah, demonstrates this when she charmingly uses Lily Allen’s 2008 single The Fear as a lullaby and lets a distressed elderly man play with her hair to make him laugh.
As more and more patients and care workers are diagnosed with Covid-19, Sarah is faced with a night alone in the care home and turns to Tony for help – a sequence that brings to the fore the horrific state that institutions like this were left in when staff fell ill and PPE stocks ran low (the adult social care sector were given only 10% of its estimated need of PPE, according to the National Audit Office).
The camera very rarely leaves Comer’s face as Sarah fights to keep her patients alive, her fear constantly shown in her eyes, often the only part of her face we can see due to the medical mask obscuring the rest of her face.
These raw scenes devastatingly convey the chaos and horror of those first few months of the pandemic in the UK, whether or not you were working in a care home. Then, the true horror of a care worker’s life – and what they must have seen – settles in, leaving with it the undeniable debt we owe them (the average pay is £8.50 an hour, which is below the minimum wage for workers aged over 25). They were left in a nightmare, and continued to do their jobs in the most terrifying of circumstances.
At times, Help feels like a dystopian, post-apocalyptic thriller – it’s certainly filmed like one – but this illusion is shattered by our collective knowledge that this was the lived reality for so many people.
“I hope that this film goes some way in telling the unseen and unheard stories of our country’s carers and the horrendous position they found themselves in,” Comer has said of the drama’s primary aim, which is arguably one carrying a demand for social justice.
The isolation that care homes felt from government help is expressed in lines that pull no punches. “It’s rationing, pure and simple. They want to protect the NHS and the care homes can go to hell,” one of Sarah’s co-workers tells her. Sarah herself screams: “Care homes, they don’t matter anymore do they?” down the phone to an emergency services operator when she is told there aren’t enough resources to help her.
Released a year and a half after the pandemic hit the UK in full force, Help powerfully depicts the trauma and loss so many have suffered – revisiting this time period only emphasising how long the events of 2020 will stay with us. But it’s also a masterpiece on the importance of friendship, human connection and love, something we all need to remember as the fallout of the pandemic continues.
Help is available to watch on Channel 4.
Images: Channel 4