Help review: Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham lend humour and pathos to Jack Thorne’s powerful pandemic drama

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 (Brian Sweeney)
(Brian Sweeney)

The first ominous note in Help, Jack Thorne’s one-off drama for Channel 4, sounds when Jodie Comer’s Sarah switches on the radio while driving to work. It is March 6, 2020, and a news bulletin informs her of the UK’s first confirmed death from coronavirus. The announcer adds what will become a much-repeated refrain — that the woman, who was in her 70s, had “underlying health conditions.” Sarah’s immediate response is to do what so many of us did back then — drown out the warning signs by blasting out Physical by Dua Lipa.

She can only block them out temporarily, though, because she is a care home assistant at Bright Sky Homes in Liverpool, a new recruit who seems to have finally found rewarding — albeit gruelling — work after a number of bad decisions and false starts. She has formed a particularly strong bond with Tony (Stephen Graham) who has early onset Alzheimer’s, and is several decades younger than most of the home’s residents.

Sarah and Tony are kindred spirits, outdoing each other with tales of their bad behaviour at school and throwing insults at their rival football clubs: Tony has a poster of an early 80s Liverpool squad in his room, while Sarah is, as he gleefully points out, “a blue nose” Evertonian (just as the two actors are in real life). Comer and Graham, who also serve as executive producers on the project, briefly worked together on BBC drama Good Cop almost a decade ago, long before the former landed her career-making role as icy contract killer Villanelle in Killing Eve; Graham successfully lobbied his agent to sign this talented teenager, and they have been friends since. The pair have an easy rapport on screen that is wonderful to watch — Comer’s Killing Eve role requires a virtuosic knack for accents and imitation as Villanelle shifts from persona to persona, but it is a joy to see her thaw into a more naturalistic performance like this.

Stephen Graham as Tony and Jodie Comer as Sarah (Brian Sweeney)
Stephen Graham as Tony and Jodie Comer as Sarah (Brian Sweeney)

Soon Sarah’s boss Steve (Ian Hart) is told to “make space” for elderly patients from a local hospital. “Is that safe?” she wonders aloud. “We’re being useful, it’s good,” he assures her. It isn’t, of course. Bright Sky’s residents are confined to their rooms as Covid starts to spread, and its staff are pushed onto the front line of a healthcare crisis without adequate preparation or protection. The scenes that follow will be familiar from months of news reports — families shouting to their elderly relatives through windows, the absence of PPE (“we’ve got a box of eff all,” one of Sarah’s colleagues notes) — and Thorne, who spoke extensively to care workers while working on his script, writes with a power and fury that prevents us from being desensitised to their horror.

There is an awful sense of futility to the precautions Sarah and her colleagues try to take, like telling their elderly charges to wash their hands long enough to sing “two verses of Ferry Across The Mersey,” and the gap between reality and PR couldn’t be starker when the disembodied voice of a government spokesperson claims to have put a “protective ring” around care homes. One night shift is especially nightmarish. After her colleagues call in sick, an increasingly desperate Sarah attempts to care for a resident with a hacking cough and a rocketing temperature, rushing down dark corridors while her mobile phone plays the NHS 111 holding spiel over and over again. When she finally gets through to the emergency services on a landline, the operator admits that there simply aren’t enough ambulances. “What if I wasn’t calling from a care home?” she shouts.

Comer plays care home worker Sarah (Liam Morgan)
Comer plays care home worker Sarah (Liam Morgan)

Comer’s character makes a final act decision that jars somewhat with the drama’s realism, causing it to briefly lurch onto a more melodramatic plane. Her final, excoriating monologue, though, hums with a raw anger that is all too real.

Even though Help’s subject matter is unavoidably harrowing, Thorne doesn’t wallow in misery. Much like Jimmy McGovern, he is good at piercing the gloom with moments of humour (I can think of few things more authentically Scouse than Sarah’s nonchalant response to her boss’s coughing fit over the phone — “alright, don’t get dramatic about it”) and humanity (one scene showing Tony’s kindness to his friend Kenny is almost unbearably poignant). Plenty of TV dramas have already attempted to grapple with the human cost of the pandemic — and many more will undoubtedly continue to do so over the coming months and years — but this will surely be remembered as one of the best.

Help is on Channel 4, September 16 at 9pm

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