Channel 4’s The Cure airs less than a week before Christmas, and on the face of it, it may not seem like the ideal scheduling. The standalone factual film is based on Julie Bailey’s real-life campaign to reform the NHS, after her elderly mother Bella was admitted to Stafford Hospital with a treatable hernia condition, but later died due to appalling levels of care. It makes for bleak and upsetting viewing; at the press screening, sobs could be heard during Bella’s graphic death scene.
But although it’s not exactly festive, the film’s story about an ordinary woman who manages to expose one of the worst hospital care scandals in the NHS’s history is still inspiring. And The Cure (formerly known as The Whistleblower) is also scheduled to air exactly one week after the general election; the future of the NHS was one of the most debated issues and a major talking point for several political parties.
Sian Brooke (Sherlock, The Moorside) is brilliant in the lead role of Julie, as is Sue Johnston (The Royle Family, Downton Abbey) as Bella. At the start of the film, Julie runs a pet grooming shop, and we see mother and daughter muck about and catch the giggles, with Bella in the role of class clown. Seeing her like this only makes it more painful when we watch her health decline inside the hospital.
We see Stafford Hospital through the family’s eyes, in addition to the perspective of compassionate nurse Helene (Tamla Kari), who has been instructed to prioritise hospital targets over patient care. The wards are dirty; patients are left in soiled sheets for hours at a time; and Julie (who refuses to leave Bella’s bedside, rightly believing her to be in danger) witnesses an elderly and dehydrated patient attempting to drink water from a flower vase.
Bella was in the hospital for two months, during which time she was dropped on the floor by a healthcare assistant, and on another occasion left without oxygen for a day. She died at Stafford Hospital from heart problems that had developed there.
Soon after her mother’s death, Julie launched the campaign called Cure the NHS, as she sought out those with similar experiences to her own; the cafe that she opens became an unofficial meeting point for campaigners. The ‘Cure’ campaign and the resulting media scrutiny eventually revealed that the hospital trust had been prioritising performance levels and statistics at the expense of patient care and hundreds of lives. Julie’s efforts resulted in a public inquiry that yielded 290 recommendations aiming to safeguard patient safety.
But the campaign also takes its toll on Julie, which the film doesn’t shy away from. She’s spat at by hospital workers who believe she’s out to close their workplace, and her relationship with her daughter Laura (Broadchurch’s Hannah Rae) deteriorates as she continues to prioritise the campaign over her own safety. In a scene that’s first teased at the start of the drama, Julie is trapped inside her cafe as angry protestors bang on the glass and hurl abuse.
The drama pays tribute to how much difference a single voice can make, but it also doesn’t sugar coat the impact that being a whistleblower can have on a person’s life — even someone as passionate and, in the end, as steely as Julie Bailey.
Despite the cast’s brilliant performances, perhaps the most moving moment comes from the film’s final footage: a home video of the real-life Bella, dancing, which plays before the credits roll. As viewers, we can become desensitised to distressing television and film, but the video serves as a final reminder of the very real woman who needlessly lost her life.
The Cure will air on Thursday 19th December at 9pm on Channel 4