Despite continued interest in true stories, British television has a tendency to spotlight a certain version of ‘real life’. More often than not, these narratives surround those who are well known and concentrate on high-profile scandals that allow the average viewer to peer into another world. This is perhaps why Channel 4’s new special, Help, feels so profoundly sobering, providing insight into one of the world's most widely experienced tragedies: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Standing as one of the few working-class stories to be told by working-class actors, Help is led by Liverpudlian titans Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham. Set in 2020, the film begins as Sarah (Comer) arrives for an interview at Sunshine Homes. With no GSCEs and little job experience, the manager proceeds to bait Sarah about her skill set, but her fiery attitude and personal circumstances prove her to be a valuable asset to the care facility.
During her first day on the job, she meets Tony (Graham), a 47-year-old resident who has early-onset Alzheimer’s. On the surface, Tony appears to be relatively healthy, his quick wit and cheeky demeanour helping to keep Sarah in good spirits. But his mental state changes by the day and we see him suffering from periods of intense confusion or lashing out at staff. Despite this, Sarah and the rest of the carers at Sunshine Homes remain positive, patient and kind, pushing through tiring night shifts and dramatically reciting Lily Allen lyrics to poetry-loving residents.
This air of sweetness begins to fall away as COVID-19 enters the public consciousness. A stark reminder of the misinformation that was shared at the start of the pandemic, the care home staff are informed that they have no reason to wear PPE. As cases multiply across the country, the healthy state of the care home begins to feel like a ticking time bomb and the workforce grossly underprepared for the months ahead, with only fragments of information to go off in keeping the residents – and themselves – safe.
The confusion and stress around the situation is best epitomised when Sarah’s teenage brother comes back to the house after a night out with friends. As they fight about his reckless attitude towards isolating, Sarah explains how his actions have the potential to affect her job. Her mother steps in to play peacemaker, explaining that the job isn't vital for the family's income but for Sarah, it stopped being about the money a long time ago. Instead, she's desperately worried about the people she committed to protecting.
There has been a fair share of pandemic-set television over the last six months but nothing captures the gravity of the situation quite like Help. Emphasising both the humanity of the COVID-19 era and the total disregard for certain human life, the film condenses the intensity of the last 18 months into 105 minutes. Help does not shy away from the political failings and vast wealth inequality present throughout the pandemic and, as a result, feels like the first film to showcase the true consequences of the government’s response to COVID-19 in Britain.
Though the drama begins to take creative licence with the characters' storylines towards the end, the through-line remains achingly accurate to the experiences of young carers during the pandemic. Moreover, Help stands as a wider testament to the people who work tirelessly to care for others during the last years of their lives, and highlights the upsetting state of social care in Britain today. Touching on underfunding, staff shortages and low wages, Help demands answers about the lack of regard shown to care home residents and staff alike.
For those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 or have had a family member living in a care facility throughout the pandemic, Help’s heavier emotional scenes may be a distressing watch. But for those seeking an unwavering depiction of the turmoil faced by key workers across the country, the film is a searing portrait of the events of the last 18 months. Made even more affecting by the profoundly grounded performances of its lead cast, Help is a testament to those we lost and those who tried their best to help them in their hour of need.
Help airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Thursday 16th September and will be available to watch on All4 shortly after.