With the runaway success of ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, ITV is in the spotlight as a home for gritty, true story, campaigning drama.

Streaming platform ITVX has allowed the channel to commission more drama and with room for different approaches.

Speaking to Televisual for our Drama genre report, before Mr Bates vs the Post Office aired, ITV head of drama Polly Hill was clear about why it was on the ITV slate: “because it’s an important story to tell.”

Despite the perceived risk of funding what are often seen as difficult stories, Hill told Televisual that ITV aims “to continue to offer audiences those important true stories, brilliantly told.”

New series Breathtaking, from Jed Mercurio’s HTM Television launched on ITV this week. Based on the book by TV current affairs producer turned doctor Rachel Clarke, the three-parter tells of the struggles in the NHS during Covid.

For Breathtaking, Rachel Clarke and Jed Mercurio, who trained as a doctor before going into TV, were joined by a third doctor turned TV writer Prasanna Puwanarajah as co-writer and executive producer.

It was filmed at the former University of Ulster Jordanstown campus in Belfast, with the production gutting three floors of an 1970s building to double as a hospital, installing an Emergency Department, a ward and an intensive care unit. with Ashleigh Jeffers, production designer, and Thom Petty, as lead medical advisor.

“We’ve written the show to feel fluidic,” says Puwanarajah. “Scenes flow into each other. You follow characters in and out of spaces…..We wanted it to feel like a living, breathing hospital that cameras had just got into to witness events unfolding.”

Director Craig Viveiros was forensic about details physically being present on the sets, from room ventilators through to old bits of Blu-Tack that haven’t been removed from the walls. Procedures were filmed in real time, to make them closer to reality.

“I wanted to have a working landscape that was always operational,” says Viveiros. A 360 set, a hospital always full of extras, everybody had an action. “Everything was going at all times to maximise the realism of it. And I wanted to move from scene to scene to scene, so we would often spend the first half of the day blocking everything and then the second half shooting it.

“I didn’t want it to be filmed in a very conventional way, I wanted it to feel real, so you will see how I tried to limit the number of edits.”

The production also featured archive footage of press conferences during the pandemic.

Viveiros worked with colourist Andrew Daniel, who also worked on All Quiet On The Western Front. “We wanted to move away from this common aesthetic of a low contrast, low saturation, digital look….My frames are all very composed photographically. The way I design my scenes is all through very specific cinematic grammar.

“This approach was more tailored to finding a unique realism and a believability in terms of placing our audience in the space. So that meant coming off the eyeline and capturing it as an observer. Sometimes shooting things three-quarters over the back of someone’s head. Not cutting around on the dialogue. Just all of these interesting choices that feel accidental and like you really have captured it.”

Also based in Belfast, sound was by Yellow Moon with re-recording mixer Paul Maynes.

Breathtaking is by no means the first Covid drama. In the UK, Channel 4 and The Forge made an impact back in 2021 with another gritty and award-winning Covid drama Help, written by Jack Thorne. It shone a light on the extreme challenges for care workers during the pandemic. Last year, Channel 4’s Partygate, from Halcyon Heart Films used comedy drama to show the reckless defying of Covid rules at Downing Street.

While Channel 4’s remit calls on it to “challenge with purpose”, the last year has seen funding issues which must stymie its ambitions for campaigning drama.

Today comes the news of 66 hours of new drama commissions from the BBC. Director of Drama Lindsay Salt announced twelve titles, saying: “I believe that the BBC is the only place that can promise true boldness and braveness in all our decision making. In an era of caution, it’s our time to shine.”

Salt cited dramas such as State of Play, Three Girls and Our Friends in the North as state of the nation dramas, along with I May Destroy You and This is Going to Hurt.

The most recent of these – This is Going to Hurt – launched on the BBC in 2022. The BBC will be hoping that one of the twelve new dramas will cause similar ripples and challenge the societal status quo.

Important stories aren’t always winners with audiences. Investing in drama, rather than unscripted makes it a bigger roll of the dice for broadcasters.

But, if Mr Bates vs the Post Office tells us anything, it’s the power of drama to tell these stories. One of the BBC’s newly announced titles is the thriller Reunion, from Warp Films. At its heart is the struggle of a man caught between two worlds, unable to fully integrate into the hearing world and shunned by the deaf community.

Today, Deadline reports that ITV is working with Peter Moffat on a story about the contaminated blood scandal of the ‘70s and ‘80s in the UK. Another important story which will hopefully strike a chord with millions.

Pippa Considine

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