TV

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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