Early on in the new Channel 4 drama Help, elderly residents at the care home where Jodie Comer’s character, Sarah, has recently landed a job celebrate Christmas in their paper hats and tinsel necklaces. The scene was originally longer, with a DJ spinning old-time discs. “Is there anyone around here who supports Everton?” he called, and Comer started jumping up and down, waving her hand in the air. “The whole storyline was that I was pretending that I was a Liverpool fan. And I was like: ‘Oh, shit, they can’t use that. I totally slipped out of character.’ And I looked at you, and you were like: ‘You’re killing it.’”
Comer’s reminiscing over Zoom with her co-star Stephen Graham, and – in their living rooms, in different parts of the country – they both dissolve into giggles. Interviewing them is like trying to steer a runaway train: they career all over the tracks, one minute talking to me and the next to each other, chuffing away in broad scouse accents. It’s not the sort of homey exuberance one would expect from Comer, who is best known as the ice-cool, multilingual psychopath Villanelle in Killing Eve. Neither is it the kind of on-set anarchy one might expect from Help itself, a relentlessly powerful and driven 120-minute drama documenting the UK’s care home crisis in the early months of the Covid pandemic.
Stephen Graham as Tony and Jodie Comer as Sarah in the forthcoming Channel 4 drama Help. Photograph: Brian Sweeney
The anecdote does, however, reveal the spirit behind the project and the friendships that brought it into being. Comer and Graham are executive producers as well as the stars of a film that is scripted by Jack Thorne and directed by Marc Munden in a style that combines the political urgency of Alan Bleasdale’s Thatcher-era classic, Boys from the Blackstuff, with the horror tropes of a Stephen King chiller.
It’s the first time the pair have contrived to work together since becoming firm friends on the set of a TV miniseries nine years ago. Comer, an unknown still in her teens, was playing a girl abused by cop-killer Graham in the Liverpool-set series Good Cop. “There were no intimacy coordinators in those days,” recalls Graham. “So I’d just say: ‘iIs it all right if I put my hand there?’ It was only a tiny little scene, but she was so trusting, and had such a blazing talent, that when it was finished I said: ‘Look I’m a happily married man and all that, but would you give me your number, because I’d like to put you in touch with my agent.’” He did, and the rest became history two years ago, when Comer thanked him for kickstarting her career in her Bafta best actress acceptance speech for Killing Eve.
Like Sarah, Comer is an Everton supporter. She could hardly not be, since her dad has been a masseur at the club for more than two decades. Like Tony, the lovable rogue with early onset dementia he plays in Help, Graham is a diehard Liverpool fan. How diehard, given that, by his own admission, he has spent more of his life now living in Leicestershire than in the city of his birth? “Like this much,” he says, brandishing a mug depicting four of the 2019-20 Premier League-winning team strolling across an Abbey Road-style zebra crossing. “Oh my God,” butts in Comer. “At the virtual Baftas, he was wearing this shirt and blazer on top and Liverpool shorts on the bottom.”
It goes without saying that Help is set in Liverpool. The Christmas party scene is an emotional high point, not just because it is the calm before the storm, but because it assembles some of the city’s most famous stars into ghosts of their former selves. A still beautiful but vacant-eyed Cathy Tyson recites a poem, My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is, before subsiding into the silence of her armchair. Among those applauding her are Sue Johnston, whose character Gloria will be the first to succumb to the new plague, and Ian Hart as the box-ticking but kindly manager, who finds himself utterly out of his depth as hospital patients are discharged into his care and his residents start to die. In one of the film’s many masterful changes of mood and tempo, the dreamlike sentimentality of the scene is punctured by Tony jumping to his feet to tell a filthy joke.
Stephen Graham as Combo in This Is England, 2006. Photograph: Allstar/Optimum Releasing
It all came about in “one of those magical moments”, says Comer. “Jack, Stephen and I were all having these separate conversations about how we wanted to work with each other.” She shamefacedly admits to having sent a “gis a job” message to Thorne on Twitter in the days before she wised up to the dangers of social media and abandoned it to her publicists. “Yeah,” picks up Graham, “and I’m sitting next to Jack at this awards thing for The Virtues [the TV miniseries] and I went: ‘Jack, do you know what you’re doing next?’ And he says: ‘A few things.’ And I was like: ‘All right, Jack, do me a favour. You know what? I really want you to write something for me with Jodie Comer. And he was like: ‘Funny you should say that, because she wants to do something set in Liverpool.’”
The care home theme didn’t come immediately. “Initially it was going in a completely different direction,” says Graham. “It was going to be a brother and sister relationship and we did this improvisation, but as you know, a lot of Jack’s work is extremely political and he said: ‘Look, this is not right.’ But just being in that room together, there was like a double energy, with these two little characters we’d already slightly started to play with, and Jack picked up on this instantly. Then he went off and wrote this first draft, and sent it to us.”
It was important to capture the joy in care homes. There was so much devastation, but there is so much life in themJodie Comer
Graham has dyslexia, so his wife, Hannah Walters, read it for him, “and she just went: ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’” Comer was sitting out the pandemic with her parents in Liverpool when the script arrived. “And it was really perfect. So fully fleshed out and moving.” They collaborated on the casting, and filmed it early in 2021, in the hiatus between the second and third lockdowns.
Neither has lost any family members to Covid, though just as they were on the point of starting rehearsals, says Graham, “Hannah and the kids went down with it, so I had to spend 10 days on me own in a hotel”. It gave him “the luxury to really dive in and absorb as much information as I could, not from an intellectual or medical point of view but in terms of the human elements of this disease”. Tony’s brain fog is rendered all the more poignant by the bursts of clarity, when he emerges into the full glow of his cheeky-chappy self. To understand him, Graham joined a WhatsApp group for people with dementia. “And it was lovely. I could really see how frustrating it was. I shed a few tears if I’m honest, with the lovely people that I met, and I carried them with me through the filming process.”
Comer, meanwhile, concentrated her research efforts on local care workers. “It was really important to me to capture the joy in these care homes. You know, there was so much devastation last year, but previous to that, these were homes: there is so much life and fun in them. What I realised from speaking to the women was that it isn’t carers and residents, there is no them and us, you know. It’s so integrated. The way in which they treat the residents is how I would like my family to be treated.”
There’s a disarming innocence in the way the two actors chat. Comer is slightly less forthcoming, more anxious to protect her privacy, but they’re so warm and unaffected that, were it not for the minders lurking off-screen, who occasionally interrupt to warn them off giving away too much about forthcoming projects, it would be easy to forget just how successful they are. In the same awards season that Graham sat around that table with Thorne and director Shane Meadows for The Virtues – in which he pummelled the heartstrings as an alcoholic survivor of abuse in the Irish orphanage system – he also picked up best actor awards for his ghost Jacob Marley in Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight’s TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol and as a rogue undercover cop in Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty.
Johnny Depp, with whom he appeared as cocky cockney pirate Scrum in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, called him “one of the finest English actors of his generation”, and he’s on first-name terms with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci after working alongside them as the terrifying “little guy” in The Irishman. It was his third project with “Marty”, after Gangs of New York and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, but his feet are firmly on the ground. Three or four first-class flights home were dangled as bait to lure him to take on Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire, and he traded them in for 20 economy seats, so he could nip back at weekends. The only true difference between filming in Hollywood and Liverpool, he insists, is the amount of money involved. “If you see a crane, you’re like, OK, we’re going to be here all week. You don’t really see a crane in nice little British dramas.”
Comer, front left, in My Mad Fat Diary, 2013. Photograph: Phil Fisk/Channel 4
Comer, meanwhile, arrived at Killing Eve via prettier-than-thou bezzie Chloe in My Mad Fat Diary, adulterous Kate in Doctor Foster, and the plotting Elizabeth of York in the Tudor miniseries The White Princess. “The fun thing about those characters is playing around with people’s moral compass: what they think is bad and what they end up finding themselves agreeing with is always kind of fun to mess around with. I mean, it’s crazy. People should hate Villanelle but they don’t, they love her.” From the off, says Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett, she confounded any prejudices the audience might have had about Kate as “the other woman”. “She made it complicated and human. Jodie is a genius. That much was clear from very early on, when I saw her in My Mad Fat Diary. She makes wonderful decisions as a performer – when to communicate something, when to hold back, and works with total commitment and detail. There’s a fierce intelligence combined with a humanity that means you just need to know what the character is going to do next, and you care.”
She’s currently on screen opposite Ryan Reynolds in the Disney video gaming comedy Free Guy, and this autumn will appear with Matt Damon in The Last Duel, a revenge drama set in medieval France and directed by Ridley Scott. She was seven weeks into filming the fourth series of Killing Eve when it was pushed back 18 months. “I would eat my hat to write for her again,” says the series’ writer-creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “As well as being one of the most outrageously fun people in existence, Jodie has a profound wisdom at her core that enables her to play both naivety and damage with incredible dexterity.” In Help, Comer plays a character very different to herself, for all the surface similarities. Sarah is a secondary school drop-out, a rough diamond whose parents and brother have given up on her, and who boasts of breaking a school friend’s nose after “she called me a slag cos I had bigger boobs”.
Comer as Villanelle in Killing Eve series two, 2019. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
Comer also has a younger brother, who has followed their dad into football, as an analyst, but they’re so close that, until recently, both lived at home with their parents. She dedicated her Bafta award to her grandmother. Growing up on the opposite side of Liverpool to Graham’s childhood home, she went to a local Catholic girls’ school, where she became best friends with the future champion heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson, and got her first acting break at the age of 13 after a drama teacher spotted her talent and sent her off to audition for a Radio 4 play. “I had no reason to be rebellious,” she says. I didn’t go to drama school but I was very lucky to have people like Steve who were kind enough to extend a hand.”
While they were filming Help, her mum, Donna, who works in public transport, would turn up every Tuesday with portions of the classic Liverpool stew known as scouse for the cast. “And you know,” chips in Graham. “Donna’s scouse was absolutely up there with my Auntie Vera’s. Sorry ma, sorry, but it’s far better than yours.” He too comes from a close-knit working-class family, though at first it was just him, his mum and his grandmother, whose surname he adopted and in whose memory he now has a cupcake tattooed on his arm. He stayed in touch with his biological father, who is half Jamaican, but it’s his stepfather – also mixed-race – whom he calls “Pops”, and who helped him to grow into his own mixed-race identity.
Pops was a head paediatric nurse and his mum was a social worker, he says. The difference between his own background and Sarah’s in Help is “coming from a family that gives you nothing but support. That gives you the motivation and the drive to follow this supposedly unobtainable dream – and Jodie and me are similar in this. To be proud of that working-class heritage, and where we’re from, not necessarily just because it’s Liverpool. Hannah’s from Leicestershire and has that same ethic, which we try and pour into our children.”
We went down the route of country-house dramas and I feel there was a time we did lose authentic working-class dramaStephen Graham
He met Walters during a brief period training at Rose Bruford drama school in London, and they kept in touch after he suffered a breakdown and dropped out, only getting together as a couple several years later. They live in the small former mining village of Ibstock, with their two children. “Let’s get it straight, my kids are middle-class: they’re not growing up like me, struggling in certain places. But we still have to teach them the ethics of having pride in what you do, you know what I mean? So that’s where I come from with my mum and dad.”
Unsurprisingly, this decency is becoming as much part of the Graham brand as his talent. It’s what makes him so special as an actor, says Jimmy McGovern, who worked with him on the recent prison drama Time. “You look at that face and you see it etched in every single crease: tremendous humanity.” In a Hollywood context, it can look like naivety (“He’s a normal, decent, happy-go-lucky bloke who loves his missus and kids and is dead genuine,” he said of Depp, just months before the star’s infamous libel trial). But for all that he might project his own values on to the people he encounters, there’s no doubting that he’s genuine. Thomas Turgoose, the troubled kid from This Is England, recently revealed that Graham offered to adopt him after his mum died when he was just 14 years old. Among the familiar old faces in Help is that of Andrew Schofield (Johnny Rotten in Alex Cox’s 1986 film Sid and Nancy), who lived across the road from Graham’s family home and turned the boy’s life around by recommending that he try out for the Everyman youth theatre, after spotting him as an eight-year-old Jim Hawkins in a school production of Treasure Island.
Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer
Such working-class pride and solidarity used to command prime slots in British film and TV, but went out of fashion in prosperity Britain. “Times change, stories change. This is not a criticism, but obviously we went down the route of country-house dramas,” says Graham. “It’s what sells, and that’s fine if it’s what you want to watch, but I feel there was a time where we did lose authentic working-class drama. But there were also no black stories, Asian stories, Chinese stories: all of those voices were lost for a while and we became very slick and very good at making To the Manor Born kind of pieces.”
From his name-making fascist thug Combo in This Is England, through the haunted Joseph in The Virtues, to the excruciatingly compromised prison officer Eric in Time, Graham has played his own, increasingly impressive, role in returning the lives of ordinary people to the small screen. When I ask what he’s doing next, he gets tongue-tied for the first time. There’s a series of Peaky Blinders, he says tentatively, looking over his shoulder to Walters, who is listening in from the next room. “What’s that boss?” he shouts. “Oh yeah, Boiling Point. How can I forget about that?”
Boiling Point is the first film for a production company he and Walters have just set up, Matriarch Productions. It’s set behind the scenes in a restaurant with Graham as the head chef. “It’s all one shot, no trickery with editing. And it’s a beautifully multicultural, diverse cast, and a fair representation of a kitchen in a London restaurant.” It’s directed by his friend Philip Barantini, an actor who really wanted to become a director. “So we did a short and he loved it. And then he got the money to raise it for a feature. And it was all shot over the course of three days. We want to be a creative platform that gives people opportunities and tells diverse stories that haven’t been told before.”
It’s all part of a belief in giving back and passing on, which Comer hopes to emulate. “I have to say, personally, one part of Stephen that I hugely admire is the voice that his work has, and how important it is,” she says. “Help is the first time that I’ve stepped into something like that, which really does have a powerful message and is uncomfortable viewing, but is giving a voice to the voiceless.”
The film ends with a shocking series of statistics. Of the 48,213 Covid deaths registered in England and Wales between mid-March and mid-June 2020, 40% were care home residents. During that time, the government is estimated to have supplied only 10% of the PPE needed in adult social care. The average wage in the sector is £8.50 an hour. “We wanted it to be a slice of social realism, a free, handheld camera kinda thing, harking back to those great classic kitchen-sink dramas – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Cathy Come Home, A Taste of Honey – and all those quintessential British films that are watching women, and tell the story of a woman’s journey,” says Graham. “But I love the way Marc captured the looming threat of those early months, because we need to remember that we didn’t know what it was, this terrible thing: it had no face. That’s horror.”
Help airs next month on Channel 4 and All4