When a newsworthy event occurs, often a tragedy, it's only a matter of time before it's reexamined through the lens of entertainment, but how soon is "too soon" to adapt trauma-filled true stories for the screen?


The COVID-19 pandemic, which was a global trauma, and changed all of our lives in some capacity, is one such event that is ripe for TV drama – as we saw with Jack Thorne's Help – and now with ITV's Breathtaking, which is based on Rachel Clarke's 2021 memoir, which looks at what was happening inside UK hospitals during one of the most turbulent periods in recent global history.

Clarke, who was working in a hospice as a palliative care doctor at the beginning of 2020, was compelled to go "where the need was greatest" when images started emerging from China and northern Italy, and asked to be moved into a hospital setting.

That unshakeable drive to save lives and support her colleagues also motivated Clarke to document her lived experience.

"I started to realise that these words... mattered," she said. "This was a kind of rough draft of history, my testimony of something extraordinary as it swept the country. And I felt it was valuable to try to share that with the public because I really wasn't confident the NHS experience inside hospitals was necessarily getting out there to a wider public audience."

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It's been covered extensively since but at the time, the dearth of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff working on the NHS frontline, who also suffered abuse from certain members of the public for the simple fact of doing their jobs, and the lack of immediate protection for care homes, were not broadly known.

Writing the book was also something Clarke agonised over.

"I felt an enormous weight of responsibility... because I desperately wanted it to succeed in my intended aim of communicating to the public something real, honest and truthful about the NHS experience," she added.

"I was horribly conscious of the responsibility of that and I was worried about whether I would get it right. Would I successfully manage to communicate what it had really been like? Would it strike a chord with other healthcare professionals as well as the public?

"I really cared so deeply to get it right. And tell the truth as I saw it in a way that accurately reflected reality."

Abbey standing in a hospital ward, wearing her blue scrubs and stethoscope with red marks on her forehead and mouth area from a medical mask
Joanne Froggatt as Abbey in Breathtaking. ITV

That is felt throughout ITV's Breathtaking, which has been meticulously constructed – you truly believe you've been transported into a working hospital in the midst of a crisis – and not just from Clarke's experience, but from extensive conversations with staff and patients from a number of "hospitals and settings across the country".

Clarke also co-wrote the drama with Line of Duty's Jed Mercurio, who previously worked in acute medicine, and actor and writer Prasanna Puwanarajah, who was an NHS doctor for three years.

But while the pedigree of Breathtaking isn't in any doubt, and the series was created with the very best of intentions, there are some viewers who believe it's still "too soon" to tell this story, and as such are unable to stomach what is an often gruelling, deeply devastating watch.

"Of course that's absolutely warranted and understood," said Joanne Froggatt, who leads the cast as acute medicine consultant Dr Abbey Henderson.

But the multitude of people Clarke engaged with, all of whom were impacted in the most direct and often unthinkable ways by the pandemic, want the public to understand exactly what they endured and for that, Breathtaking's arrival on our screens cannot possibly be deemed invasive or "too soon".

If anything, the drama could not come soon enough.

A doctor applying breathing apparatus to Yussuf
Yussuf in ITV's Breathtaking. ITV

While speaking to RadioTimes.com, Froggatt also highlighted how easy it can be to become "detached" from an event like the pandemic when all you have is data and "black and white" headlines rather than an emotional connection.

"But when you're taken by the hand and led on this journey through someone's experience, you have a very different reaction to it," she added. "You're feeling it rather than seeing it."

As we move further and further away from the COVID outbreak, which is rapidly becoming part of our collective past rather than our present, Breathtaking's existence takes on an even greater importance.

It's also noteworthy that it's airing as the COVID Inquiry, which began in June 2022, is ongoing.

An interim report is expected to arrive "before the summer", which would hold weight anyway, but with the UK gearing up for a general election, it's especially important that the government and its processes are held to account for what did or did not happen – although the report on political decision-making during the pandemic isn't expected to arrive until early next year, which is likely to be after votes have been cast.

But regardless, a drama like Breathtaking can influence the discourse, ensuring that COVID remains in the public consciousness, and possibly even enact vital change, as Mr Bates vs The Post Office has done.

"I would hope it would go some way towards that," Froggatt told RadioTimes.com. "I've certainly not seen a response like that from a TV drama before."

Abbey leaning against a unit at work with her head in her hands
Joanne Froggatt as Abbey in Breathtaking. ITV

Everything that happens on screen in Breathtaking happened in reality. What we, the audience, witness is the truth – not an interpretation, or an agenda. And only through those first-hand, at the coalface accounts can we truly come some way to comprehending what NHS doctors and their patients had to contend with during the pandemic. To truly see someone and understand their story is to honour them.

And only through the lived experience of people like Clarke can we ensure that lessons are learned to avoid repeating past mistakes if we are to find ourselves in the eye of the storm once again, a warning that has been repeated by numerous influential voices.

While that still won't be enough to convince some of Breathtaking's right to exist at this time, there can be no time frame placed on that.

All 3 episodes of Breathtaking are available to watch now on ITVX. Visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide or take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage.


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