Actors love Alzheimer’s. It lets them rummage around in the bottom of the thespian toolbox and flit between compassion, rage, terror, kindness, warmth, melancholy, and any other emotion they care to throw in. Reach a certain level of stature and eventually you will be offered a crack at a degenerative brain condition. It’s a tradition as old as Lear. Christie got Away from Her, Dench got Iris, Streep got The Iron Lady. Earlier this year Stanley Tucci gave us Supernova, while Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar for The Father.
Now Stephen Graham gets his shot, in Help (Channel 4), a much-trailed one-off drama about social care during the pandemic. In late 2019, a new nurse, Sarah (Jodie Comer), starts work at a fictional care home in Liverpool. She’s the only candidate for the job, but the owner Steve (Ian Hart, as ever more than holding his own in a role where he could easily have been overshadowed by his co-stars) gives her a hostile interview all the same. “This is about treating people with dignity…” he says. “I’m not just employing any old Nobby Nobstopper to wipe an arse.” We’re allowed to take a few seconds, I think, to appreciate the incongruity of Comer, one of Britain’s most glamorous and magnetic young actors, being described as a Nobby Nobstopper. She does get the job. It’s interesting to see Comer remind us of her range, as she frees herself from the increasingly shonky shackles of Killing Eve.
Graham plays Tony, a 47-year-old with young-onset Alzheimer’s and one of the home’s most difficult patients, still strong enough to be a physical threat. Comer and Graham are friends off-screen. They met on the set of the miniseries Good Cop nine years ago, and Graham introduced her to his agent. Comer thanked him in her Bafta acceptance speech two years ago. Help is their first project since Good Cop, both are executive producers, and it’s obvious they enjoy working together as Sarah and Tony strike up a bond. Sarah’s not scared of him, being well versed in difficult men from life at home. She has barely begun when coronavirus strikes. Residents start dying. The government hoovers up all the available PPE for hospitals, leaving care homes critically short.
After Time and The North Water, this is Graham’s third grand TV project of the year. Insofar as a line can be drawn through the bazillion roles he has now played, he is a master of in-between men: bright, fundamentally decent blokes, not born quite into the right time or place or class, pulled apart by institutions and circumstance. In Time, it was the prison system; in The North Water, it was whaling and imperial capitalism. Here, it is the disease and the strapped social care system. None of them will have you tumbling down the aisles, but the Graham stamp remains a reliable indicator of quality.
Help has been written by Jack Thorne, the most Stakhanovite scribe in England. If you think Graham has range, so, too, does he: hopping from Skins to This is England to Enola Holmes to His Dark Materials to this. His last outing with Graham was 2019’s brilliant The Virtues, about a man reckoning with his childhood abuse. Help can be similarly intense. It falls firmly into the category of programmes that will be described as “important” and “timely”, and other words critics reach for when admiration outstrips enjoyment. At times, it is hard to watch, as already terrified men and women die lonely deaths from a mysterious plague, and staff do what they can in impossible circumstances for terrible money.
But the pathos and tension are broken by a few superfluous flourishes. At the pre-pandemic Christmas party, an English teacher recites a surprisingly long section of 16th-century poetry. During the pandemic-arrival montage, a disinfectant spray lingers in shot while ominous Hollywood zombie-film-style music plays. The final act, in which Tony and Sarah go to the beach, might be designed as an antidote to all the gloom, but it sits awkwardly with the rest of the piece. The distractions are unnecessary. Whatever else it has been, the past 18 months has not been short on drama. Forget the grand gestures; Help’s at its best when it trusts its cast with the little unremembered acts of kindness and love that endured despite it all. With this subject matter, Graham and Comer are all the assistance you need.
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