Breathtaking Review: Dignified Retelling of a Shameful Sh*tshow

This humane NHS Coronavirus drama speaks volumes from behind the mask.

Joanne Froggatt in Breathtaking
Photo: ITV

“If I were Boris Johnson, I wouldn’t want to read it” said the Sunday Times review of Rachel Clarke’s Covid-19 NHS frontline memoir Breathtaking. If I were Boris Johnson, and capable of experiencing shame, I wouldn’t want to watch this humane, truth-telling TV adaptation either.

Breathtaking is not about Boris Johnson or the corridors of power; it’s an unvarnished record of what happened in the corridors and wards of NHS hospitals during the Coronavirus pandemic. Over three one-hour episodes based on Clarke’s experiences and research interviews, it follows fictional consultant Dr Abbey Henderson (Joanne Froggatt) and colleagues through the early days and the worst of the virus.

Why should we have to go through all of that again on screen – wasn’t once enough? Perhaps. But if your pandemic, like mine, was more about sourdough and Joe Wicks than pain and loss, then it feels like our responsibility to stand witness. Director Craig Viveiros fluidly puts viewers right in the action, side by side with NHS staff being forced into impossible positions by a rampant virus and a political class that prioritises PR over clinical sense. Receiving the story they’re sharing and keeping the memory of what happened alive is the least that many of us can do.

Adapted by Clarke with former hospital doctors-turned-screenwriters Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and Prasanna Puwanarajah, it’s a dignified drama that knows its story is powerful enough without any need for sensationalism or embellishment. Abbey’s home life is touched upon for context (her daughter is medically vulnerable and so extra precautions and separation are necessary) but there’s no heartstring-pulling here. It’s a clear-eyed depiction of a regrettable sh*tshow.

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Froggatt does a remarkable job that’s made even more remarkable by the fact that she has to convey Abbey’s bewilderment and desperation from beneath a facemask. Events play out across her eyes as fear builds at the virus, and disbelief builds at the woefully unprepared official response. Without overstatement, the drama makes it clear that this isn’t a battle being fought on only one front. There’s the virus, and then there’s the volley of untruths and unscientific bravado coming from above. Both cost lives.

In episode one “Containment”, Abbey and colleagues repeatedly come up against brick walls as official guidelines are issued that they know aren’t fit for purpose. Suspected cases of Covid-19 without a history of travel aren’t tested. Personal protective equipment is only available to those working in ‘hot’ zones because Covid-19 hasn’t breached ‘cold’ zones… Except that it has, and NHS workers are having to treat patients suffering from a potentially fatal virus wearing single-layer paper masks and thin plastic aprons.

Worse than the failure to act quickly enough or with enough severity is how early the evasion begins from official spokespeople. When the need for PPE is downgraded, nobody will admit that it’s due to a shortage. When oxygen supply and ventilator levels run low, the official word is that everything is being done to support hospital staff, while shortages clearly left them and patients vulnerable. Frightened and unsupported, we see NHS workers put in impossible positions while the PM boasts about shaking hands on wards and brays about “sending Covid packing”. These events simply play out on screen without comment. There’s no need to adorn them to drive home a message. The combination is message enough.

It’s testament to how badly NHS workers were let down by the government that Breathtaking can make its points without resorting to sensationalism. Simply laying out the experience from Abbey’s perspective is enough to lay bare the shameful inadequacies. It doesn’t need diatribes to be affecting, just to retell a story that many of us were lucky enough only to ever glimpse side-on.

Importantly, the inadequacy isn’t the only story being told – there’s also one about human connection and decency. No, not from the minority of people who sent abuse and threats in the direction of doctors and nurses during the pandemic, but from more or less everyone else. The colleagues that gave of themselves, the pizzas delivered to the ward from the public, the PPE sent in from schools, all those felt tip pen rainbows… The series title taken from Clarke’s book could easily be seen as a judgement on the many and varied failures at the time, but it was apparently chosen as precisely the opposite – a celebration of the breathtaking way in which people pulled together and coped.

Importantly, blame doesn’t feel like the goal here. There’s no question where that lies, and with whom. Breathtaking’s anger and frustration isn’t at the mistakes that were made, but at the cruel and destructive choice never to admit to them or learn from them. This drama is about sharing the experience of hundreds of thousands of professionals who must feel incredulous, stupefied even, that after all the sacrifices made, the conversation has moved on so quickly and so callously, without the right lessons having been taken.

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Breathtaking airs on ITV1 at 9pm on Monday March 19, Tuesday 20 and Wednesday 21.


4 out of 5