Aidan Smith's TV week: Help (Channel 4) is the Covid drama they'll all have to beat. Plus All Creatures Great and Small (Channel 5) and Endeavour (ITV)
One of many scenes in Help which arrives like a kick in the stomach is when care home staff in binbags and builders’ dust masks answer the door to morgue attendants shielded by all singing, all dancing PPE.
“Don’t you dare come in here dressed like that again,” shouts Tori (Angela Griffin) as the body of a resident is wheeled out. “Give us your kit, you rich gits. Just a few pieces … ”
Jack Thorpe’s film for Channel 4 is the first television drama in response to Covid. To be precise: it’s the first great Covid drama. I hope for many more but the bar has been set extremely high.
The setting is the fictional Sunshine Homes in Liverpool and a splendid Merseyside Rep has been assembled, including Stephen Graham, Jodie Comer, Sheila Johnston, Ian Hart and Andrew Schofield - the latter an Alan Bleasdale regular who I remember as the singer in a rubbish punk band misjudging his audience, all of them elderly, with the chorus: “You’re gonna die, die, die … ” That was the sort of black humour in which TV could indulge, back in another age.
Hart is the manager coughing into the phone: “We’ve got it everywhere … don’t you dare hang up on me!” A pre-recorded “Welcome to NHS 111” answer-messages on repeat as the sole member of staff working nights tries to turn a heavy man onto his stomach is simply too chilling, as is Matt Hancock - remember him? - boasting on the radio about the “protective ring” thrown round care homes.
There are lovely, funny scenes between Comer as new carer Sarah and Graham as early-onset Alzheimer’s sufferer Tony who bond over tales of juvenile delinquency. Another resident, former teacher Polly, recites the poem My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is. Many at Sunshine may be losing theirs but, as Sir Edward Dyer wrote “My wealth is health and perfect ease”. And then that health is ripped away from them in the most horrible, undignified manner.
Sarah, who’s found her calling at Sunshine, can’t save Kenny but has promised Tony she’ll look after him. There are shades of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when, after Tony is subdued by stronger drugs, Sarah plots an escape. Timely, terrifying and brilliant.
After Help you may be in need of something gentler so there’s All Creatures Great and Small (Channel 5) which, in the opening moments, features a dozen sheep lying in a field apparently savaged while a near-blind woman loses her sole companion, Peter the budgerigar, after a visit from wannabe vet Tristan.
Spoiler alert: the sheep at least survive. This is the second season of the reboot of James Herriot’s Yorkshire yarns, a lockdown hit last year and returning with such jauntiness that I wonder if it’s not now better than the 1970s original.
Somehow this time round - we’re in 1938 - the skies seem bigger, the dales more verdant, the dry-stone walls sturdier, the vintage motors more virile as they crest the hills - and Samuel West as Siegfried more like the Robert Hardy portrayal in fetching knee-length leather boots for vaulting the cowpats.
“To conquer the ziggurat of life one must climb the first step,” he booms before demanding of housekeeper Mrs Hall: “What is it that the seventh commandment tells us?” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” she replies. “Ah, the other one then … ”
Mrs Hall’s roast beef dinners are certainly more bountiful because James (Nicholas Ralph), following a short visit home, is pondering a permanent return to Glasgow to become a different kind of vet after being told: “Pets are where the future lies.” He airs this prediction in front of Siegfried who snorts: “Why people keep animals as pets is beyond me. A dog should have a function - farmwork, guiding, shooting - and not just hanging around the place.”
Siegfried never hangs around anywhere. And he never stops to appreciate James or to encourage his brother. How good, really, are Mrs Hall’s Yorkshire puddings? Can they possibly persuade James to stay in Yorkshire with its cobbled lanes and pewter tankards and sonsy lassies like Helen who, in the Christmas special, called off her wedding to chinless wonder Hugh, which would seem to leave the field clear for our couthie Scottish hero?
Ah, but Jamesie is not one to take the bull by the horns. He’s normally as timid as a rabbit when it comes to matters of the heart, as meek as a lamb. But from somewhere he summons up a beaver’s eagerness, even though I’ve just read that these creatures disappeared from Yorkshire back in the 16th century, to shout after her: “I’ve missed you!” On a roll, he then spurns any more of his mother’s haggis and tatties to stick with Mrs Hall’s dumplings.
The new season of Endeavour (ITV) has reached 1971 with the cassette recorder the latest whizz-bang gadget, Roger Allam still looking funny with a gun in his hand and young Morse (Shaun Evans) probing a bomb explosion at Oxford Uni while shadowing a star footballer hit with a death threat.
The player has a George Best lifestyle and yet plays in a tiny ground in front of three men and a dog. Once again, TV drama doesn’t get football right. Halfway through I’m thinking Morse - ignorant about the game - is behaving suspiciously, only to remember this isn’t Vigil where Evans is coxswain and numero uno suspect at exactly the same time on Sunday nights.
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