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Help | Interview with Ian Hart (Steve)

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What drew you to this story?

It was kind of obvious from watching the news that something wasn’t going quite right. By the time we shot it was well established that the situation in regards to the care homes was being mismanaged. The nature of the story was one of the things that attracted me to it. But also Jodie, I think she’s fabulous, and Stephen I love to bits. And Jack, the whole package. I know it’s a cliché, everyone probably said the same thing. Good people, people who care about their writing, a director who cares about that person’s writing.

Your character Steve manages Bright Sky Homes. What does his job mean to him, and what kind of boss is he to Sarah?

I think he thinks he’s ok at it. I think he thinks he works in an environment where both the staff and the residents are happy and safe. He’s not going to set the world on fire with a new way of thinking. The thing that’s interesting from the storyline is that he inherited the home from his mum, which gives me the indication it was never his life’s ambition to be in that business. He does his best in that business. He’s not trying to reorganise the care system. He’s just plodding, a regular guy.

How much did you know about the Covid crisis in care homes before taking on this project?

There are people who I assume receive their news from Twitter and from Facebook, but I’ve got a very old-fashioned views because I’m old! I read the newspapers. So, it’s obvious to me if you’ve got a semi-decent newspaper and the BBC news, it was clearly in crisis. The basic premise was to save the NHS, whatever that meant to different people, so from a Tory party perspective it meant something different to those receiving the message further down the line. If the object of the exercise was to save the NHS, they wanted to stop what they regarded as bed blocking, so they took people out of the NHS and into the care system. Matt Hancock said he put an iron ring around it, but it was more a rubber ring. I don’t think its Matt Hancock’s incompetence, he just said what he did to reassure people. Or releasing people and putting them into the care system without testing them, it could only go in one direction. Just a brief glimpse at China and what was happening in Wuhan, you could figure it out for yourselves without three years of university education. This was a very active virus and putting people whom you didn’t know were infected or not into a system where you’ve got a closed unit is ideal for spreading any kind of viral infection. Even the flu, it would have been negligent. To send a bunch of people with the flu there and expect them not to catch the flu. I understand there was a whole variety of reasons, they didn’t have test capacity, it was a brand-new thing, they didn’t have the organisation. But what happened is what happened, that’s not deniable, despite statements made by certain politicians.

How did you prepare for the part?

I spoke to someone whose mother is in a care home. Kind of just a general chat re. their day to day, when they visit, what’s that like. When they made the decision to put their mum in a care home, what’s that like. What reassured them that this was the right place. If I did any other research it was with Jack and Marc as we rehearsed. Unlike most people we actually got time to rehearse, to read and discuss things, educate ourselves on the matter, something you seldom get. I very rarely get rehearsal now. But we did have rehearsal and we were fortunate to spend that time listening to other people. Information that Stephen had gathered, or information that Jodie had gathered, or articles I had read. In that way it was quite a collaborative information sharing. Marc and Jack were forensic, they didn’t want any spare weight on it. If this scene is frivolous then we don’t need it, how do we adjust that. Jack was incredible, he sat there through this whole process and said ok I’ll go back and think about that and maybe I’ll alter that.

Did filming across the third lockdown heighten the atmosphere on set?

We had a Covid marshal and we had a Covid protocol. I’ve done a few productions through Covid and everyone’s version of a Covid protocol is different. On this job we were very much at the sharp end of the Covid protocols. You would finish your scene and then go off. Normally on a film set you see people chatting away, the costume department, the camera department, whatever, or just to each other. But this was very regimented. You had to be in your room, on your own. And we filmed in a care home and every day you’re surrounded by the leftovers of that care home. It hadn’t been long vacated, so you just felt a tiny scintilla of what it must have been like. Obviously, you don’t have the jeopardy of people actually dying. It was the first time I’d worked under those conditions and induced the feeling that this is a serious illness that can do you harm. It heightened your sensitivity towards it. And the fact that you had people who were there constantly drumming it into you that this is happening in the real world and we all need to stay safe. Because if one of us got sick that’s production closed.

What do you think a drama can add to our understanding of this historic moment?

People get news fatigue. Whenever there’s a major disaster, a fire, people kind of get interested in it for 5 minutes. And by day 7 the fire is still raging, people turn off. What drama allows you to do is to refocus, it gives you a way in. Jodie’s character gives you a way in. A normal girl finds herself in this incredible environment and how she copes, how she deals with it. And the things that happen to her. And you go, “ah yeah I remember that.” It gives you a lens, it allows the audience to re-see events. People are so desperate to move on, but questions have not been answered by this government and the year that we will have forgotten about in two years’ time.

What other themes does Help tackle?

It’s about love isn’t it? Jodie’s character, goes in there and there’s so much love coming out of her. And the more that those obstacles, in terms of death and then in terms of all the things that happen with Stephens character- the way she overcomes them all is through love, and I think it’s very heart-warming. Also, who’s the strongest person in it? A young girl. That says everything really. Powerful by itself.

What is it like acting alongside Jodie so many years since you appeared together in My Mad Fat Diary?

To quote Bruce Lee, “Be like water”. She’s so talented that girl, you’re not aware of anything at all, no acting required. Best way to say, it’s easy. It’s easy to act with Jodie, she’s so good at it.

How important was the sense of place for this story what was it like returning to Liverpool and being surrounded by the cast?

I’d never met Sue Johnston before and didn’t really, if I’m quite honest, meet her this time. Cathy Tyson I’ve known since I was about 15. Stephen I’ve known for a while. Drew Schofield I’ve known since I was about 17, he plays her dad. There were people there I’ve not seen for ages and it was like a reunion or whatever. But in such strange circumstances. You want to go over to someone to hug and celebrate and say you want to go for a pint but none of those things you can do.  You spend most of your time with a mask over your face. It’s a very odd environment to work in. You’re removed from the usual social interaction that inhabits every film and TV set. Personally speaking, I found it difficult, I like to know everyone, I like to engage, I like the process of making film and television. I like to know why we’ve chosen the lens we’ve chosen, things like that. There was no room for that. We weren’t making it in the normal circumstances, we were making it under Covid.