Care: A pointed and heartbreaking drama about a Kafka-esque battle with bureaucracy

Jimmy McGovern cares. Even when he started out in Brookside, McGovern’s television writing had rare humanity to it.

That trait continued through Cracker (which had the flawed hero’s flawed hero in Robbie Coltrane’s Fitz), and on through The Lakes, The Street, and Hillsborough. As a screenwriter who learned his trade in soap opera, McGovern knows how to illuminate the big dramas of small lives.

That said, his work seems to have grown more pointed of late.

In 2017’s Broken he dramatised the dangers of high-stakes gambling machines but along the way that series also managed to muse on mental health care, police misconduct and suicide, all of it served with an appropriate degree of dramatic plausibility (and a dollop of guilt).

Family crisis: Jenny (Sheridan Smith) has to look after her mother Mary (Alison Steadman) when she suffers a stroke while driving (BBC/LA Productions/Dan Prince)

In Care, his focus is narrower.

In truth, it’s an unrelenting piece of drama, a battle with bureaucracy in which there is no particularly cheerful outcome. But for anyone who has dealt with the health service and questions of care for the elderly, it will ring true.

Care is co-written with Gillian Juckes, whose experiences informed the story. It starts out brightly. Mary (Alison Steadman) is looking after the children of her daughter Jenny (Sheridan Smith). Everything is playful. She is spoiling them, making sure they’re having mushy peas with their fish and chips, and then, while driving them home, she becomes disoriented and has a stroke, crashing the car. It’s not exactly a surprise. The plangent soundtrack, and the slightly masked colours in the picture, both point towards oncoming dread. But the film is really about what happens next.

It’s here that the cast do the heavy lifting. Smith, as ever, is a sympathetic presence, and her character makes light of her problems. She’s a single mum. She loses her job because she needs time off to look after her mother. Her ex, Dave (Anthony Flanagan), is a taciturn lump, and her sister Claire (Sinead Keenan) appears, at first, to be selfish and heartless.

Steadman, though rendered inarticulate, does most of the work. The words she speaks are nonsense and, in a heart-rending touch, her intended meaning appears in subtitles. “Nobody in here cares for me,” she tries to say. “You claim to be my daughters, so get me out of here.” But her speech is garbled and incomprehensible.

Leads: Alison Steadman, Sheridan Smith and Sinead Keenan (BBC/LA Productions/Tony Blake)

At the centre of the film is the question of how the elderly are dealt with in these circumstances. There is a horribly realistic depiction of the experience of being in hospital, with its routine depredations and bureaucratic logic.

Mary lands at first in an assessment ward, but once her condition has been looked at she must move on, because the ward is not staffed for rehabilitation. But there are no rehab beds. And so it goes on.

To a care home where people who care are at a premium, and ultimately into a Kafka-esque system of assessments and appeals. “I’m here to help this unit run as efficiently as possible,” says a discharge liaison officer, before the gloom begins to lift.

If anything, Mary’s story is sugar-coated, because her daughters are able to identify the people in authority who might be able to make a difference. That’s not always easy in a system where responsibility always seems to be someone else’s job.

Either way, it’s heartbreaking.

More about: | TV reviews | Care | Sheridan Smith | Alison Steadman | Sinead Keenan