Engage: Cast of Channel 4 drama Help talk about bringing the care home crisis to the small screen

Screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne has penned many poignant pieces of work. His list of credits is long, from co-writing on This Is England, to writing 2018 Channel 4 series Kiri, to his memorable adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the BBC. But his latest project, a two-hour long drama called Help for Channel 4, surely ranks as a deeply personal one.

Written by Thorne and directed by Marc Munden, Help is set in a fictional Liverpool care home in spring 2020, and tells the moving story of the relationship between a young care home worker, Sarah (played by Jodie Comer) and a patient named Tony (played by Stephen Graham), a 47-year-old man with young-onset Alzheimer’s, both of whose lives are changed forever by the coronavirus pandemic.

For Liverpudlian Comer, 28, who has been catapulted into mega stardom following her turn in Killing Eve, filming something in such close proximity to the event happening was, she reflects, “very surreal”.

The actress, who also recently starred alongside Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds in the film Free Guy, told the PA news agency in an exclusive interview about making Help: “We started filming when we’d just gone into the third lockdown and, like you say, these events and experiences happened very, very recently.

“There was a real energy on set that everyone was handling this with the utmost care and respect, and it felt bigger than all of us – there was no ego on that set which was just so heartwarming.

“Everyone wanted to give their best in telling a truthful and respectable story, so it was rewarding and quite sombre in many ways. We also got on very, very well, and there’s a lot of joy in this script. There’s some really beautiful, light moments.”

A total of 42,855 care home residents in England and Wales have had Covid-19 recorded on their death certificate since the pandemic began, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. And in preparation for her role, Comer spoke to care home workers, which she says was “invaluable” in informing the role.

She explains: “I was just so incredibly lucky that they were willing to jump on a Zoom with me and just say, ‘Look, nothing’s off limits, anything you want to ask, feel free’. And it was so important for me to also capture what life was like for them before the pandemic, to really get a sense of what this little community is, which is essentially really like an extended family.

“Like, the biggest thing that I got from everybody who I spoke to was that there is no manual to being a care worker – nothing is black and white, it’s not residents and carers, they very much act on instinct and ‘If this was my mother, how would I want my mother to be treated?’ Which I think you really see [with] Sarah, she gets faced with some very, very tough decisions, and she has to act in the moment, and she does what she thinks is best.”

This Is England star Graham speaks passionately about his portrayal of Tony. According to the official Alzheimer’s website, young-onset dementia is when a “person develops dementia before the age of 65”.

Speaking to PA, Graham said: “I watched Vicky McClure’s documentary about the choir, which I got a hell of a lot from because there’s a couple of people who are close to my age in that, who suffer from early-onset [dementia]. So to be able to see somebody and how they were captured in real time was huge for me.”

The script reflects the frustrations well-documented in the news as the pandemic surged through 2020 and beyond, including PPE (personal protective equipment) shortages for key workers, and in the background of a scene, footage from a press conference held in May 2020 during which the then-health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes.”

Thorne says: “My mum was a carer, my mom worked in a residential home, and I saw the work she did, I saw how amazing the work was that she did. And that thing of minimum wage workers who were made to… no, they weren’t made to, they chose to go back into work again and again and again through this and show love and care and respect for people who everyone else was ignoring.

“I think that sort of heroism, we can celebrate, and we can also acknowledge that neglect at the same time.”

Director Munden adds: “It’s really important that people get angry about this… it’s set in this time that we all are still living. And there was a lot of injustice.

“And it’s important that people come away realising that there’s more to the health sector than just the NHS – that it’s about care as well. That is just as important.”

Asked if the project felt a very personal one, he says: “My mother was in a care home for 10 years with Alzheimer’s, and so I spent a lot of time going to and fro.

“It was a small family care home; it was very similar to the care home in which the story takes place, so it really felt like… I mean, Jack always said that this should be a love letter to the care sector, and when I was doing it I was thinking, ‘Well, I hope I’m giving a little bit back to that sector by telling their stories’.”

Graham adds: “We were trying to create a piece of social realism and create a drama which would resonate with people, hopefully.”

He elaborates: “To me, these people are heroes, and what Jodie said beautifully, it’s to give a voice to the voiceless. And Sarah is one woman, Tony is one man we’re trying to tell a story from, imagine how many other thousands of them are out there that went through similar experiences or an even worse experience?

“So, for me, it was that trying to shine a light on the beauty of humanity through the storytelling of this story. When I was starting it, it was not going to be that, it was just a chance to go and work with our kid and see what we could do – and just the buzz of that and then work with Marc.

“But then it developed into something which has moved me profoundly and it’s a piece that I am extremely proud to be a part of.”

Help airs on Channel 4 on September 16 at 9pm.

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