Jimmy McGovern’s one-off drama Care (BBC1, Sunday 9 December) began with a loving grandmother called Mary having a lovely time with her loving grandchildren. During a laughter-filled visit to the chip shop, she also tested their maths by asking how much their order would cost, and they answered with impressive aplomb. So could it be that McGovern — whose previous work (The Lakes, The Street, Broken etc.) has never been difficult to distinguish from a ray of sunshine — was getting into the festive mood? Well, no. As she drove away from the chippy, Mary slumped forward on to the steering wheel as the children screamed and the car headed towards a roadside skip.
Happily, the children were unharmed, but Mary (Alison Steadman) had suffered a stroke that left her with severe dementia. Worse still, she’d suffered it in austerity Britain. Her daughter Jenny (Sheridan Smith) immediately rushed to the hospital where, after hearing the bad news about her mum, she realised she didn’t have enough cash to get her car out of the car park and was forced to take a costly taxi home. Nor did she get much help from her feckless ex-husband Dave — a man of few words, most of them ‘No’.
Meanwhile, back at the hospital, the staff had sprung into action: by trying to get Mary off their hands as soon as possible so as to free up bed space. Plan A was to send her home but, given Mary’s new-found habit of eating teabags rather than making tea with them, this didn’t really pan out. Instead she was dispatched to a stroke rehabilitation centre where, if anything, the staff were even more committed to neglecting her welfare.
As luck would have it, though, Jenny had lost her job by then and was able to take her mother in. While the house was being adapted to make it safe for her, Mary stayed at the Bella Vista nursing home (motto: ‘Quality Care and Compassion You Can Trust’). But not for long. Within hours, she’d managed to weave her way past her fellow residents — and the pools of urine in which they stood — and make her escape. She was found hours later wandering the streets in a dressing-gown and nightie.
And just in case we missed the point of all this, Jenny and her flighty sister Claire (Sinead Keenan) were regularly allowed to deliver the author’s rather paradoxical message. Essentially, McGovern seems to regard the NHS in much the same way as Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail regarded Britain. On the one hand, it’s completely great, obviously. On the other, the only things about it that aren’t going to the dogs have already gone there.
Fortunately, and not for the first time, the sight of McGovern swinging away with his sledgehammer often proved quite a stirring one, especially as he once again managed to combine his wider concerns with more intimate human drama. True, Jenny herself was a bit too unfailingly heroic. (Care was co-written with Gillian Juckes, on whose experiences it was apparently based — so perhaps McGovern was just being polite.) Claire, however, reacted to her mother’s condition with a powerfully believable mixture of guilt, sadness, love and resentment: ‘You know the best thing a mother can do for her children? Die,’ she said to Jenny at one crunching point. And, while Mary’s role was inevitably — and very poignantly — passive, Alison Steadman did convey her bewilderment and terror at what was happening to her.
The only real false note, in fact, came when McGovern unexpectedly wrapped things up with a blizzard of happy endings. (Perhaps he was feeling festive after all.) Jenny got together with the builder who’d adapted her house. She and Claire developed a closeness they’d never had before. And, most importantly, they got Mary into a beautiful nursing home, courtesy of the NHS’s Continuing Health Care programme — a programme that those meanies at the stroke unit had duly tried to keep secret, yet which the two sisters discovered and fought for nevertheless.
But the trouble with this solution, of course, is that it was only a solution for Mary. Back when I studied English, I remember thinking those left-wing critics had a case when they got cross with Dickens for presenting huge societal problems, and then seeming to think everything was suddenly OK when it all ended well for just one person — Oliver Twist, for example. (Spoiler alert: he was middle class all along.) For someone with McGovern’s politics to do the same thing felt not merely unsatisfactory but also distinctly odd.
In one of her author’s-message moments, Claire pointed out that there are a million dementia sufferers in Britain being badly let down by the NHS. By my calculations, that means we’ve now only got another 999,999 to go and it’s all sorted.