Breathtaking review: Covid drama is deeply sad and often triggering

Joanne Froggatt plays an A&E consultant who we see transform from cheerful leader of a hard-pressed but dedicated team into a woman barely able to comprehend what is happening around her

Sean O'Grady
Monday 19 February 2024 22:00 GMT
Breathtaking trailer.mp4

After the great critical acclaim for, and political impact of, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, lots of people wondered, half-jokingly, whether ITV could produce more dramatisations of public policy scandals that might lead to some sort of justice for other victims. Right on cue, ITV brings us the harrowing three-part drama Breathtaking, which painfully recalls the blunders, complacency and misfortunes inflicted on NHS staff in the earlier phases of the Covid pandemic.

In fact, the filming ended long before Mr Bates jolted the government into (possibly) giving the sub-postmasters their money and their lives back, so Breathtaking isn’t actually part of some rolling ITV mission to right societal wrongdoing. Yet, no doubt this new show will also prompt some further sharp arguments about what went wrong, as we approach the fourth anniversary of the lockdown. And so it should.

This is a deeply sad and often triggering drama, and also a highly authentic one, based on the moving Covid memoir by Dr Rachel Clarke, who worked on acute wards during the pandemic. Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and Prasanna Puwanaraja (The Crown) are on board as fellow executive producers. Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey) plays A&E consultant Abbey Henderson, who we see transform from cheerful leader of a hard-pressed but dedicated team into a woman barely able to comprehend what is happening around her, let alone prevent it.

Beginning a few weeks before the lockdowns of early 2020, the drama takes us with Abbey through the successive unpredictable, bewildering phases of the pandemic, the terrible sense of fear and then the reality of being completely overwhelmed by this mysterious new virus. We see Abbey losing patients and colleagues to the plague-like sickness (then poorly understood), spending whole weekends on shift and, among many other depredations, denied the PPE (personal protective equipment) that would have saved the lives of carers and staff alike.

Making a mark: protective masks and visors leave indentations on the skin of Joanne Froggatt as she portrays a consultant in ‘Breathtaking’ (ITV)

Most poignant is the plight of nurse assistant Divina Aquino (Georgia Goodman), seen at first tending as normal to patients who she assumed had a temperature and a nasty cough, and then being intubated and placed in an induced coma herself. The makers of Breathtaking capture superbly the sense of Abbey and her colleagues facing impending doom, as the “low oxygen” alert goes off on the ward, meaning that the hospital, as well as its patients, are running out of breath. No suitable masks, no aprons, no ventilators, no oxygen, and Abbey soon has to start making life or death decisions in the back of an ambulance.

Much of the action echoes the kind of hospital drama tropes we’re familiar with from the likes of Casualty – lots of professionals running around shouting, a cacophony of beeps and buzzers, semi-comprehensible medical jargon – but the director, Craig Viveiros, lifts it above the usual soapy style. With the camera moving with Abbey for long sequences, the effect is to immerse the viewers in the chaos and drench them in the nervous sweat of trepidation. It gives the story a dark and claustrophobic feel, and it is fairly debilitating for the audience too, but that’s inevitable. And in the series, a disproportionate number of victims, both staff and public, come from ethnic minorities, another well-caught reflection of reality.

Without lapsing into heavy-handed propagandising, the drama has the voice of Boris Johnson in “Mayor in Jaws” mode floating above the traumatic scenes, with the juxtaposition between lazy spin about “sending the coronavirus packing”, and the frantic reality of people basically drowning, adding to the tragedy.

The only error in the makers’ judgment is the way the hospital manager Mike (Mark Dexter) and NHS Trust boss Jo (Stephanie Street) are portrayed in a two-dimensional, unsympathetic and dismissive manner. It’s not easy to see how they were to blame, and there’s actually been no suggestion of managerial failings at that level in all the many Covid inquiries since.

And that, as it happens, is the crux of the difference in political status between Breathtaking and Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which is that, unlike the Post Office Horizon scandal, the shortage of PPE, the crisis in the hospitals, and the amateurishness of the official response to Covid was perfectly apparent to us all from the very beginning of the pandemic. That doesn’t, however, mean that we, like Dr Abbey, should be any less angry. The failures were, and still are, breathtaking.

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