This article originally appeared in Radio Times magazine.


Rachel Clarke’s panic attack came in January 2021. It was just over nine months after the Government called the first UK lockdown and only days before the publication of her Covid memoir, Breathtaking. She was driving to Horton General Hospital in Banbury, Oxfordshire, where she was a palliative care doctor, when she had to pull over to the side of the road, her heart racing. "My body started rebelling and I couldn’t breathe," she recalls.

She knew what was happening but could do nothing to stop it. Since March 2020, she’d offset the trauma of long days on the Covid wards by spending time with her husband and children – and the "nocturnal therapy" of chronicling her daily experiences into what would become her third book.

Now Clarke has turned that memoir into an ITV1 drama, with the help of another former doctor, Cardiac Arrest and Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio. Everything in it really happened, they promise of this nightmarish freefall into the relentless grind endured by the frontline NHS workers for whom we gladly clapped and banged our saucepans during lockdown. A sobering caption at the end informs us that an estimated 60,000 of them reported Covid-related PTSD in 2021.

Rachel Clarke holds a microphone and makes a gesture with her other hand while speaking at an event
Rachel Clarke Olena Znak/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Over three episodes, viewers see Dr Abbey Henderson (Joanne Froggatt) and her team leap from one crisis to another. Zoom funerals, PPE shortages and lack of hospital beds, operating on colleagues, patients' relatives refusing to wear masks… all this was experienced first-hand by Clarke or related by peers and friends still practising medicine to Mercurio and the third co-writer on the series, actor Prasanna Puwanarajah, who is also a former medic.

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Writing wasn’t part of Clarke's plan when she embarked on her medical degree at Oxford in 2001, aged 29. When she qualified as a doctor eight years later, Clarke says she thought she had “completely eradicated” her past life as a broadcast journalist, in which she’d produced and directed documentaries on al-Qaeda and the Iraq War for Channel 4.

We have former health secretary Jeremy Hunt to thank for her change of heart; specifically, a 2015 headline that read "Jeremy Hunt goes to war with doctors". "I was aghast – it felt like we were being attacked by the Government," she recalls. "But I had these journalistic skills I could use to fight back."

Media appearances soon brought a book deal. Fast-forward to May 2020 and Clarke was pouring into her writing her rising anger over the revelations about Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown rules. Her nightly "splurges" soon became a present-tense narrative that aimed to expose the truth of Covid and challenge the official line that rather than being overwhelmed by the crisis, the NHS "coped", as she puts it.

The adaptation of her book airs against a backdrop in which "staff are burnt out, broken and despairing", she says. "The tank is empty, and morale is even lower now than during Covid, when everyone rallied and had a sense of purpose."

Putting this on screen will, she hopes, illuminate "a world that is as alien as a space station or a submarine". We might know the basic reported facts, she says, but “the experience of being there on the wards is shocking, and revelatory in ways that people might not imagine”.

A vocal critic of the "clap for carers" trend, she admits that at the start it moved her to tears. But today she scorns the Government for perpetuating the "dehumanising" image of NHS "heroes" – Clarke wants to show medics "in all their shades of grey", and document the "remarkable, uplifting moments" she witnessed at the bleakest of times. "Staff and patients displayed so much courage, decency, kindness and compassion – you saw the absolute best of humanity," she says. "It was a privilege, and I clung to that."

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

Channelling her experiences through the fictional Abbey, Clarke hopes viewers will understand why she felt she had to speak out. And despite the online abuse she’s faced, and the cold shoulder from the upper echelons of the NHS, she says having an outlet to speak truth to power has been a relief.

"The NHS has a track record of treating whistleblowers terribly, of chewing them up and spitting them out," she says, pointing to the repeatedly silenced voices in the Lucy Letby baby murder case. "The onus is on NHS England to create a culture where people can speak out without their lives being ruined. I really hope this drama can generate discussion about that."

Clarke has found screenwriting liberating and is looking at how she might funnel more of her experiences through fictional characters. Medical career be damned, this passionate defender of NHS doctors and nurses won’t be muzzled. "NHS staff all have a statutory duty of candour, and I happen to believe that goes all the way up to the chief executive of NHS England, the health secretary and the prime minister.

"If we want to do better next time – and there will be a next time – the first step is to be completely candid about what happened. Collective trust is central to how you get through a pandemic. We can’t operate with individual agendas. If the cost of not being completely candid is that more patients may die, I’m never going to stop speaking up."

Breathtaking continues tonight at 9pm on ITV1. Stream all episodes on ITVX. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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