Drama giving heroic carers the starring role they deserve

Drama giving heroic carers the starring role they so richly deserve: They sacrifice so much to help so many. Now, as Killing Eve star Jodie Comer stars in a new TV drama, its scriptwriter reveals his own deeply personal inspiration – his mother

My mother is a hero. And I say this with total certainty. Because during this pandemic I think we all discovered who the true heroes of our society are — they are the care home workers like her.

They were the inspiration behind my new Channel 4 series, Help, which starts next month. It tells of an extraordinary friendship built in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic between a carer and her client, starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham.

I’ve been writing professionally for about 20 years now. My career has gone all over the place — from writing about wizards in the stage play Harry Potter And The Cursed Child and witches and armoured bears adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the BBC, to writing with Shane Meadows on This Is England 86/88/90.

More recently, particularly for Channel 4, I’ve been given the opportunity to write more politically, with a trilogy of mini series that we loosely called the ‘blame trilogy’: National Treasure, concerning historical sex abuse, Kiri which explored transracial adoption and The Accident, about an industrial disaster. But I have never been so compelled to write something as I have about the issue of care homes in the pandemic.

Carers were the inspiration behind my new Channel 4 series, Help, which starts next month. It tells of an extraordinary friendship built in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic between a carer and her client, starring Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham

And the reason why I felt so compelled is because I’ve seen care close up. What it means to give it and what it means to receive it.

For 20 years, from when I was about nine years old, my mum worked in a day centre and then in a care home both in Newbury and then in Tenby in Wales. She worked with adults with learning difficulties.

She didn’t earn much for doing so, carers are notoriously underpaid (the average is still just over minimum wage) but she threw everything at it. She retired on £4.60 an hour, but that was enough for her.

I wouldn’t say I was proud of her then, I was a child and easily embarrassed by any sort of emotion, but I am extremely proud of her now and I’m proud she always made her clients or residents feel part of our lives, and her family part of their world too.

While my older brother and sister were deep into their own lives, my sister Liz and I liked going there, up to the top of the Newtown Road, when there was something to see (they did a lot of performances) or we forgot our keys, or we were just bored.

Similarly, when she was working in a residential care home, we’d go over and meet everyone.

She regularly had to do anti-social hours, nights and whatever was required, and she volunteered a few times at Christmas and we’d go over on Christmas Day and show our presents and see what they got.

Her clients all knew us, and they’d all talk to us. Whether it was Simon in his 20s who wanted to know whether I’d go down the shops with him. Or Heather who told all sorts of secrets. Or Sue who was pretty much guaranteed to do inappropriate things. Or Keith, who conducted the jazz band when they came and had his own baton.

They all had stories, and they all loved my mum. And my mum loved them in turn.

Whenever there was a holiday to be volunteered for, which meant leaving her kids behind, she’d do it. Going for week-long trips to Butlin’s countless times.

Because otherwise her clients wouldn’t get a holiday. She was passionate about her job; the people she worked with were passionate about their jobs.

She took an interest in everyone, and always listened to their stories. In fact, with one of her residents, she was helping her write her autobiography. Some needed a lot of help, some very little. She gave that help generously and constantly.

Jack Thorne is pictured above with his mother. For 20 years, from when I was about nine years old, my mum worked in a day centre and then in a care home both in Newbury and then in Tenby in Wales. She worked with adults with learning difficulties. She didn’t earn much for doing so, carers are notoriously underpaid (the average is still just over minimum wage) but she threw everything at it

One of the things I most remember was in Newbury we had a thing called a Crafty Craft Race.

A race down the canal from Hungerford into Newbury on homemade boats. Some were made of bits of scaffold and water drums, others from the top of car roofs. It sounds crazy, it sounds a disaster, it was both. I was always with my dad’s team — he worked for the council as a town planner and our boats tended to always be quite close to sinking (insert your own metaphor).

But Mum’s boat was always something to behold. One year she went as 101 Dalmatians, with eight to ten clients dressed up and rowing, another as Alice In Wonderland.

At the day centre and the residential home, they made anything possible and it always was glorious.

All the people that worked with Mum cared, they all wanted to be there and enjoyed being there, and gave up their time without a second thought.

My mum was born to care. Her brother John was a paranoid schizophrenic and she was the eldest daughter, so she grew up giving him a lot of care.

John was a gentle man, a very loving man, but occasionally, because of his condition, he’d lose his temper quite violently. Sometimes she had to insert herself into fights and take the beating so her parents didn’t have to.

She had four kids and busied herself with all of us. She liked being pregnant and she mostly liked being a mum (when we weren’t really annoying).

She gave effortlessly. And in her work, she found a job which allowed her to do the same. She was brilliant at it. So when the pandemic struck and I saw what was happening in care homes I knew it was something I had to write about.

The story took me into elderly care and dementia in particular but there are stories about all these homes going through immense difficulty, and hopefully there’ll eventually be a forum to tell them all.

Stephen Graham, who I worked with on This Is England and also The Virtues, had already approached me about writing something for him and Jodie Comer, whose brilliant, extensive credits included Killing Eve and Doctor Foster. To have those two magnificent actors wanting to work with me was quite a thing.

When I saw an article on the deaths in one care home in a place I used to live I knew this was a story that needed telling.

I went to The Forge TV company, where I’d made that blame trilogy, and together we went to Channel 4, who were hugely brilliant and supportive (as always), and we set about trying to work out this story as well as we could.

As we started to research I was overwhelmed by the people I talked to. People like my mum. People who give effortlessly. And people given little or no support.

As a writer I have often worked in distressing stories. I’ve talked to victims of sexual abuse, people in adoption hell, parents caring for dying children. But I’ve never coped with the tears I experienced researching this.

I was locked in my room, they were locked in theirs, but I heard stories over Zoom from all over the country that will never leave me. Not tears of self pity, though those were deserved, tears of recrimination, tears of helplessness, tears of people who gave, gave, gave and couldn’t work out what to do in the middle of this crisis.

People who in some cases moved into the homes themselves, people who worked themselves to the bone, people who took responsibility when no one else did.

The thoughts I heard again and again were: ‘I wish I could have done more for my residents’. And ‘I was screaming for help’. And finally, and most brutally, ‘nobody came’. The shortage of support for care homes was horrific.

Patients were directly discharged from hospitals into care homes. Some carried the disease with them. The discharge requirements baldly stated, ‘negative tests are not required prior to transfers into the care home’.

People with the disease were put among vulnerable adults and left there. Once the disease was inside, the care homes had little they could do to prevent it spreading.

Barrier nursing (where you isolate a resident) is very labour intensive and not all care homes had the means to do it, and most importantly they couldn’t work out who definitely had it and who didn’t, because they were limited to a maximum of five Covid tests per home.

They were provided little or no PPE by central government. The Government supplied NHS Trusts with approximately 80 per cent of their estimated PPE need between mid-March and mid-July 2020. It supplied the adult social care sector with approximately 10 per cent of its estimated need of PPE.

Many were denied emergency nurses, some GPs (not all) were reluctant to give support, and hospitals by and large did not prioritise care-home residents.

This is in no way a slam on the NHS, they were coping valiantly with their own crisis, but this is a slam on the lack of support given to care. They were ignored, and they were left in Covid hell. Of the 48,213 Covid deaths in that first wave, 40 per cent were care home residents.

And in the middle of it all were care workers, a lot on the minimum wage, who went in to work every day, despite dangers to themselves, and cared with all they could for their residents.

There was heroism everywhere.

‘Help’ is a story about both love and horror. It’s the story of a young carer played by Jodie Comer who finds herself in a situation beyond her control. She’s not had a good time through the education system and has even ended up in a pupil referral unit at times.

In care, she finds her vocation, and particularly she finds it in the relationship she forms with a man with young-onset Alzheimer’s, a man played by Stephen Graham.

Then the pandemic hits, and the care home has to adjust and cope with everything thrown at it. Has to cope with the cruelty of the disease, and the cruelty of a system that doesn’t support them.

As residents die, Jodie’s character is forced into terrible choices which she tries to navigate a way through. It is a programme about care, the beauty of it, and the horror its absence can bring.

She fights, because that’s her nature, and she loves, because that’s her nature too, and the story is her story, and those of others like her who did all they could, and it’s about those outside who could have done more.

Nickie Wildin, a brilliant disabled director, has this phrase: ‘We are all pre-disabled.’ It’s really stuck with me through this. How little we value care, and how much we will all need it.

My mum is 80 this year, my dad 77. They live in a flat together in Bristol and as of next year they’ll have been married 50 years. My dad has cancer, diagnosed in the spring of this year and is coping with all sorts of sister ailments as he battles through treatment.

He was always a strong man, much more alpha than I am, and seeing him work his way through this has, of course, been heart-breaking.

Originally when I wrote this article I said ‘bravely work his way through’. I showed it to him and he disputed dealing with cancer was brave.

That’s the sort of person he is. I am aware, as they are, that the future for them does involve care of some kind. I’m lucky in that I have the money to support them in whatever they need, but that doesn’t mean I’m not scared that the options that are taken will be the right ones for them.

As a kid we used to go visit my grandad in a care home. My mum’s dad. His happiness depended on the care he received. On the love he felt.

He had dementia and I remember looking at him strangely as an eight- or nine-year-old as he cried, surprised at his neediness and not sure how to help. He was lucky; he was in a place where care and love were given freely.

But we need to start showing the same love and care ourselves. We need to support our carers, because Covid or something like it may come again, and unless we look it in the eye, this will repeat over and over.

We need to value carers like my mum, like Jodie’s Sarah, we need to protect our homes, our elderly and our disabled, because it is a future we all face, and because it is inhumane to do otherwise.

Help airs on Channel 4 and All 4 next month. Jack Thorne’s MacTaggart Lecture is available to watch on The Edinburgh TV Festival’s YouTube channel.

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