Aidan Smith's TV week: Breathtaking (ITV), The Way (BBC1), Martin Compston's Norwegian Fling (BBC2)

Joanne Froggatt in Breathtaking.Joanne Froggatt in Breathtaking.
Joanne Froggatt in Breathtaking.
It’s all a bit of a blur now. You never want to forget what it was like, and you won’t, but at the same you probably wish you could, and pretend that it never happened.

Round the tea-table we were talking about the pandemic, trying to remember some of the gory details. Daughter No 1: “How many lockdowns were there again?” Daughter No 2: “Which was the Christmas that got cancelled and Granny was stuck on her own?” Our youngest son, just two at the time, wants to know when Grandpa died and we tell him, pointing out it wasn’t from Covid. “So why wasn’t I allowed to go to his funeral?” he asks, and we tell him that, too. Then my darling wife pipes up: “Remember how all five of us caught it and Daddy was boasting about superior genes and natural fitness only for it to get him by the end of the week?”

Now there’s a drama bringing it all back. ITV’s Breathtaking is terrific but virtually unwatchable, even if your family got off relatively lightly, not counting all the kids’ lost learning. I can’t imagine what reliving the horrors must be like for those who didn’t.

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And what must that be like for the doctors and nurses? Captions at the end of the three-parter record that 414 healthcare workers died from Covid between March and December in 2020 while the following year 60,000 staff reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Sophie Melville and Steffan Rhodri in The WaySophie Melville and Steffan Rhodri in The Way
Sophie Melville and Steffan Rhodri in The Way

Breathtaking, what a clever title. There’s the desperate gasping on the wards but also Dominic Cummings’ “eye-test” news conference, the word perfectly summing up the country’s reaction. Matt Hancock talks of a “clear plan” to beat Covid. “We’ll send it packing,” says Boris Johnson, who’s keen to stress he’s been shaking hands with some of the first affected, almost as if he was Jesus encountering lepers. Meanwhile, just in case, those on the frontline are swathing themselves in binbags, that being all they have as protection.

The drama is based on the memoir of a real doctor, Rachel Clarke, collaborating with two ex-medics - Prasanna Puwanarajah and Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio whose first TV after leaving the profession was Cardiac Arrest, shot in Glasgow in the mid-1990s and a black comedy of hospital life.

There are, needless to say, no laughs in Breathtaking although you might find yourself jumping on the tiniest glimmer of one, willing a fully-fledged joke. Anything for a brief respite from the wailing (sirens, victims), the crashing of doors (not always leading to a ward, sometimes “that bloody cupboard”), the scrambling over PPE and the completely flat-out knackered staff admitting in therapy to hallucinating about drowning (“I’m scrabbling in the water trying to reach the surface, pushing all the bodies blocking my way”).

Joanne Froggatt is consultant Abbey Henderson, the Clarke character, who’s advised to buy her own powered respirator (“Amazon, three hundred quid”) and books into a Premier Inn to keep her own family safe from infection until she can’t tell any more of the guidelines and the grieving and the hell of it all and turns whistleblower.

Martin Compston (and wolf) on his Norwegian FlingMartin Compston (and wolf) on his Norwegian Fling
Martin Compston (and wolf) on his Norwegian Fling

Edinburgh actor Bhav Joshi delivers the sorrowful humour. “Keep your expectations low,” his doc tells the dying Archie, 81, before sawing a final lament on his school violin for this classical musician whose wife cannot be bedside at the end. Then, when a barking mad conspiracy theorist who thinks Covid is a hoax tells him she pays his wages, he says: “Good. Can I get a raise?”

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Clap for carers? Remember, we did that. But in Breathtaking Abbey must run the gauntlet of a spitting mob. That’s breathtaking, too. Clarke was trolled after she spoke out and, as she revealed this week, the lunatics are still doing it.

There’s another Westminster-enforced lockdown in The Way (BBC1) only this one is saving the rest of the country from the revolting Welsh. That’s revolting as in angry, insurgent, taking the fight to the streets. So the M4 is closed along with the train lines.

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The drama centres around steelworks in Port Talbot and begins shockingly: a young man working at the plant has died after falling into a vat of molten slag, which provokes his father into an act of self-immolation. Someone says: “What must be going on inside a fella for that to be less painful than the grief?” Someone else remarks: “There’s a lot of desperate people out there: angry, alone, stuck.”

Imagine, if it’s not too clunky, this saga as a giant, burbling, fiery pot. Perched on the lip are the state-of-nation scriptwriter James Graham, the dystopian documentary-maker Adam Curtis and the actor and passionate Welshman Michael Sheen. Together they chuck in politics, history, myths, legends, Brexit, globalisation, surrealism, sci-fi spookery, menacing sound-effects, family conflict, half-naked doomsayers, the ghost of a crimson-caped monk, the ghost of Margaret Thatcher and the refugee crisis in reverse. Our trio were up and running with the idea long before last month’s shock announcement by Tata Steel of the closure of their Port Talbot blast furnaces. The drama is a psychedelic nightmare. It’s all over the place. It’s definitely one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a while, and definitely one of the best.

Graham’s previous series, Sherwood, picked at wounds from the 1984-85 miners’ strike which had never healed and there’s more of that in The Way with Sheen, who also directs, playing yet another ghost - that of a pitman who hung 200ft in the air from a crane during the dispute to block shiploads of foreign coal.

And, again if it’s not too clunky, the last time we saw Steffan Rhodri and Mark Lewis Jones was Men Up as guinea-pigs for Viagra trials whereas here they bow down to the steelworks’ stack light which looms phallically over Port Talbot. This place built the world, Rhodri’s shop steward tells kids on a school outing, and its steel is holding up the White House roof. “If the pilot light ever goes out, the town will fall.” And that’s when the trouble starts …

The Way is too weird to be deemed Event TV and Breathtaking is too distressing. Mercurio at least can claim to have achieved the honour, even if Line of Duty is to be no more. I’m undecided about another season, although the stars might be relieved to be back on surer ground. In its absence Vicky McClure has been appearing in a boring drama about bomb disposal, which should be impossible. Adrian Dunbar has persuaded the producers of his new show, still as a copper, to allow him to burst into song. And Martin Compston has had to flee to Scandinavia to escape questions about the prospect of an AC-12 return.

Martin Compston’s Norwegian Fling (BBC2) sees him reunite with pal Phil MacHugh for more travelogue-ing. There’s bromance with the latter’s attempt at roller-skiing prompting Compston’s admiration for his “incredible arse”. The winter playground around Oslo brings reminiscing for Greenock’s ice disco. Compston tells a 21-year-old MP that at her age he was “lying steaming in a field at T in the Park”. The candour of the man is endearing, not least when he admits: “I genuinely didn’t think anybody would be daft enough to give us one series, never mind two.”



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