Comment by Adam Gee, Head of Content, DocHearts

Monday night [19th February, 9pm ITV1] saw the broadcast of the first episode of Breathtaking on ITV, with the other two episodes stripped until Wednesday. In some ways it was bound to be perceived as a ‘follow-up’ to Mr Bates vs The Post Office, being a primetime ITV drama addressing a real-life home-grown social crisis.

On the day of writing this (19/2/24) whether it will have anything like the same impact remained to be seen. Like the Post Office scandal, it does connect to an issue and process playing out right now (in the form of the on-going COVID-19 independent public inquiry), on the other hand lightening rarely strikes twice in the same place.

Breathtaking’is set in the run-up to the first wave of Covid-19 in the UK and centres on an acute medicine consultant, Dr Abbey Henderson (played by Joanne Froggatt), and the NHS staff around her as they struggle to cope with fast-rising numbers of Covid patients. The series is based on the insider memoir of palliative care doctor and author Rachel Clarke, specifically her third book, Breathtaking (2021). Interestingly, Clarke was a broadcast journalist before she studied medicine, producing/directing current affairs programmes for the BBC and Channel 4.

A common question which came up in watercooler and pub moments in the wake of Mr Bates vs The Post Office, and which I broached in my previous post ‘Important Television‘, is why did a mainstream, traditional TV drama ignite public interest and move matters on where solid, persistent journalism and political activism failed? The answer I would contend lies in what television’s main strengths are. TV is not great at explaining things – it takes the medium a relatively long time to get across facts and information. What it is brilliant at is prompting emotion.

You can judge most programming, and indeed most performance and art, on whether it creates a strong emotional response in you. The films and plays and gigs and pictures which most evidently fail are the ones that leave you feeling little or nothing. All great (and even good) art is some form of emotional experience and sentimental journey (in the sense of relating to sentiment and feelings).

The other main reason for this drama’s stand-out success is story and narrative drive. By presenting the well-aired facts behind the sub-postmasters’ tragedy in story form with all the powerful dynamics of well-structured narrative they were elevated from the predominantly rational to a fully rounded expression with emotional depth and relatable feelings.

I designed and delivered a module on Storytelling for an MDes course (an MBA for designers and creatives) at Ravensbourne university/film school on the Greenwich Peninsula a few years ago. I used it to draw attention to the way the Left often relies on cogent statistics and well marshalled information to make their argument, where the Right simply deploys better stories and trumps them regardless. In this year of elections it is worth keeping in mind that politically it is a mistake to undervalue story and overrely on rationality, facts and figures.

It will be interesting to see whether Breathtaking boosts the public’s anger at what was done in its name by Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and co. and if so, whether that anger can be channelled productively to improve our society and make any future response far better and more just.

[Coming back to this piece with a coda after the TX, there are no signs of an impact anything like that of ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’. There will be numerous reasons for that, not least that the narrative structure and pacing of ‘Breathtaking’ are inferior – but that’s for another post…]

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Pippa Considine

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