Help is a sobering one-off drama by Jack Thorne set in a fictional Liverpool care home at the onset of the pandemic. It is gritty and rough edged and shows how appallingly neglected the care home sector was when its need was greatest.
Jodie Comer plays 20-year-old newly qualified carer Sarah, who finds purpose in life through her ability to connect and engage with the residents of a care home. Her introduction to the industry in which workers are paid an average of £8.50* an hour is intense and shocking and illustrates the challenges of bundling together all care needs irrespective of age.
Tony (played by Stephen Graham) has early onset dementia (he’s in his late 40s) and a propensity to wander if not considerately engaged with. In periods of lucidity he is one of the more capable residents and they form a bond alongside her care duties, through rounds of a card game called ‘Shithead’ and stories of how they failed to fit in at school and the similarities of their fractured family lives. These scenes are brilliantly realised, funny and sad and flawlessly executed.
Still in her probation period when the pandemic begins, the young carer is shocked that her manager is bringing in elderly patients discharged from hospitals to ‘help’ fight the virus and even more disturbed by the lack of PPE and guidance offered.
One of Thorne’s themes throughout Help is that the system of care is treading water at best in normal circumstance – in exceptional circumstances it is inundated. Ian Hart (Steve) is excellent as the committed and genuine owner of the care home, who begs and borrows to protect his residents and staff with makeshift PPE and builders’ masks and forlornly restricts visits early, in the absence of any authoritative government guidance, to try to keep the virus at bay.
The interconnectedness of services supplying care is exposed and ultimately crumbles as social distancing and increased cases cause the supply of staff and essentials such as clean laundry to be interrupted. For hospitals, GPs, care staff and the ambulance service it becomes an every-man-for-himself struggle with each seemingly unable to commit help to the others. As a result, the residents lose what little liberty they had and are forced to isolate in their rooms, but the toll is inevitable once the first positive case is discovered.
The nightmare scene of a 20-year-old newly qualified carer sinking under the pressure of a nightshift alone in a home ravaged by COVID with no medical expertise, equipment, or specialised support, with a bin bag and a builders’ dust mask as PPE is heart-breaking.
This is a brilliantly written and acted set piece that both saddens and draws anger, and it’s probably where the story should have ended because the final act just does not work.
Without dropping spoilers for those who are going to watch on catch up, there is no credibility to it and it undermines a lot of the character development done earlier in the piece. That said, despite the weakness of its ending, Comer and Graham deliver impeccable performances throughout. The first hour is a gut-wrenching watch and deserves to be remembered.
Help can be seen or catch-up services such as All-4..
*Skills for Care