Interview with Joanne Froggatt who plays Dr Abbey Henderson in ITV's Breathtaking


ITV Press Centre

Why did you want to be involved in Breathtaking?

I had worked with our director Craig Viveiros before on Angela Black and he approached me about Breathtaking. It sounded an incredibly important project to be a part of. Then I was sent the scripts and they just blew me away. They are some of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Definitely in the top percentage of great scripts I have read in my time. So that obviously was a huge factor. Just from a dramatic point of view.

Reading the scripts I was very moved and shocked. Also moved to be involved in telling this story. I was shocked by what was really going on behind the closed doors of the hospitals here in the UK. We’d had little insights, bits and pieces we were told. But the story the public was fed by the government through the media is very different from what was actually happening. And so I was really shocked. I actually cried just reading the scripts. I don’t think that’s happened to me before. So it was a no-brainer for me to be involved.

I’ve played roles that have tackled sensitive subject matters before, such as sexual assault and domestic abuse. It’s important to tell stories about sensitive subject matters and things people may not have thought about or understood. It’s a different way to get people to view certain issues.

But what’s very different about this is, this is a lived experience for the entire world. Rather than it being a lived experience for a group of people who have lived it or who have had loved ones that have lived it. We’ve all had experience of this pandemic. The weight of that responsibility does feel great. But I don’t shy away from that either. Because it is such an incredibly important story to tell and I really wanted to be a part of telling it.

How did you prepare before filming started?

I did a lot of preparation. I started with reading the scripts and looking up all of the medical terms so I could get a broader sense of what was what. Then I read Rachel Clarke’s book Breathtaking and also her previous book called Dear Life which was about her experience as a palliative care doctor before Covid. Rachel Clarke is an extremely inspiring human being.

Her book Breathtaking just moved me in a way that I can’t really explain. It’s beyond words. The way Rachel writes in both Breathtaking and Dear Life is just so beautiful. Dear Life reframed the way I thought about death and how I thought about life and death. She writes about how you can make those very last moments filled with so much, even if it seems like the worst of circumstances. And she speaks with such grace, knowledge and gratitude for life.

I wanted to bring that into Abbey who is a fictionalised character. She’s not Rachel. But it was really helpful to listen to Rachel’s experiences with patients in their last few days of their lives. How that feels for a doctor, what her responsibilities are and what her emotional connection to that is. How much she cared for her patients. How much she really cares for each human being that she looked after and their families and loved ones. And how linking those things together was really helpful.

To think you’re dealing with that on a day to day basis. But then the pandemic hits. So from seeing death maybe on a daily or every couple of days basis, you’re seeing four or five deaths a day.

I spent an afternoon with Rachel at the hospital where she works and was able to chat a lot to her. I also talked to her ward sister. I had conversations with both of them about their experiences during the pandemic. And I did a lot of research online, watched documentaries and some of Rachel’s TED talks. Then we had two days of medical boot camp with our medical advisors followed by a five day rehearsal period which turned into more trying to drill the Resus scenes than an acting rehearsal.

Our medical advisors Thom and Andrew filled our brains with so much knowledge in such a short space of time. We couldn’t have coped without them. They were incredible. They talked us through the basics of hospital care and what you would be dealing with during Covid. Plus everything that comes up in the script. But also teaching us how to look like we know how to do the procedures.

That gave us a great base understanding. So when we were saying the lines and using the medical terms we knew what we were talking about. And it sounds obvious and simple but it is really important. Because if you don’t believe what you are saying then no-one else is going to believe it.

Thom and Andrew were on set during filming for most of the time but if they weren’t we could message at any time. So I’d be going through the next scene and texting, ‘Do you think Abbey should say this?’ And they were like, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re thinking like a consultant. We’re so proud of you!’ They were like proud parents that I’d acquired so much knowledge. And obviously I don’t know anywhere near enough to do any medical procedures on anybody. It was an intensive learning process but incredibly important. We really did learn so much.

Rachel, Thom and Andrew - all of us in the team - wanted to make sure everything was as perfect as we could get it. That this wasn’t like a medical drama. That it was as real and realistic as we could make it. We also had a team of other medical experts on set, including another doctor and three intensive care nurses for when we were doing scenes in the ITU (Intensive Therapy Unit). It was fantastic to be able to speak to all of those NHS professionals and to chat so openly about their experiences. Not just for the technical side. Andrew and Thom especially were brilliant at explaining to us the emotional side of what they went through.

Who is Dr Abbey Henderson?

Dr Abbey Henderson is an NHS consultant in acute medicine. From the little knowledge I’ve gained - I’m not pretending I’m an expert - she seems to be a good representation of an acute medicine doctor. Abbey is very caring with a husband and two children at home. A family she loves. She cares about her patients. She cares about the fact the NHS is already overstretched and is then catapulted into this horror that was the pandemic.

Abbey is based on both Rachel’s experiences during the pandemic but also those of many other doctors and nurses. She is a fictional character with many different stories incorporated into one person. But every scenario in the script is based on reality. Every patient’s story is based on something that happened somewhere in the UK. That was an incredibly grounding experience.

Once the pandemic hits, Abbey is trying not to drown emotionally. Because she knows she can only help people if she stays afloat herself. I think what drives her in her core is to serve her patients and do the best she possibly can for them. She just wants to do the best. Which was made extremely difficult for her, to say the least. Abbey is trapped between following the rules of the NHS Trust she works for, which are coming from the government, and the reality of what is actually happening.
Most of the doctors I’ve spoken to for my research say the same as Rachel. You’re used to organised chaos. But you have the steps you go through. Your ABC - airwaves, breathing, circulation - and so on in an emergency situation. Once those things are OK, you find out the root cause and then take action. It’s a list of steps always in a doctor’s mind. But Covid was completely unknown. Not just in terms of their patients but also in how safe they are themselves. And as we know, many of them weren’t. How much they were putting themselves and their families at risk. What are they taking home to their families? I see it as more like fighting a war with something you can’t see. And our NHS front line workers were the people fighting that war.

You can, of course, in no way compare it to the real life experience but some of the scenes must have been challenging for the cast and crew to film?

I’m always the first to say we’re recreating, telling the story, pretending, putting it in crude terms. Obviously we haven’t lived these experiences. We just do our absolute best to recreate them as believably as possible. But we’ve all lived through this and many of the cast and crew had their own personal experiences of loss from Covid. Many people, including myself, had moments where it was very emotional to film. It was very real and there were moments where it just hit you.

It was never out of my mind that every scenario we were filming was based on a real scenario. Every patient character is based on a real person and their real family and their real loved ones. It was an incredibly unique experience because of that. I don’t think there was anybody on the set that didn’t have a moment where they felt slightly overwhelmed by it during filming.

Having worked with our director Craig Viveiros on Angela Black we had a shorthand. I trust his instincts implicitly. He had such a strong vision for how he wanted to shoot this. Some people have said it’s like you’re watching a war film. Our story starts in full action and carries on in full action for the whole first episode. Because Abbey is so active and it’s literally one thing after another after another.

We shot it for real as much as we could. Craig linked so many sections together so we had these big sections rather than scenes we were filming. Which worked well for keeping the energy flow and showing this organised chaos on the NHS frontline that people are used to but then moving into just chaos. Craig also filmed a lot of close shots. As the story unfolds we are wearing PPE a lot and sometimes you can only see our eyes. That’s obviously a challenge in terms of getting the audience to connect with you emotionally. So Craig did a lot of really close shots on eyes.

All of the actors and crew were constantly asking the real doctors and nurses, ‘How did you do this?’ People were doing four hours at a time in ITU in full PPE which is hot. And proning patients - moving patients very carefully from their back to their front - which is hard work. In real life you can’t go to the loo, you can’t sip water or have a snack. Once you’re in that PPE you can’t let anything in. They were working in incredibly difficult circumstances physically as well as emotionally and medically. It was an added challenge just acting that so I can’t really comprehend how difficult it must have been to do it for real.

We also show how our NHS workers were left completely vulnerable at the beginning. With little or no PPE. We see Abbey angry and upset. And it made me so angry on their behalf. But they carried on. They put their own lives at risk and the lives of their loved ones to care for us as a nation. And with not just inadequate but sometimes no PPE. It’s amazing. They really are heroes to me. They carried on and did their job and put their patients first above everything else.

We first meet Abbey and her colleagues when they are already overstretched and seeing very vulnerable patients who should be in ITU coming in to the Emergency Department and having to put them in a store cupboard area because there’s nowhere for them to go. And that’s before the pandemic hit. So you imagine being that stretched and then somehow having to deal with not just tripling but quadrupling - and some - your capacity and the number of ITU beds. How do you do that?

The drama reflects the fact that some NHS workers paid the ultimate price in the pandemic...

Breathtaking is dedicated to the health care workers who lost their lives in the pandemic. I saw someone on TV recently who had lost her husband. He was a paramedic and she said their daughter had begged him not to go work. He said, ‘The guidelines are that I should be safe so I’m going to follow the guidelines.’ And he passed away from Covid. That says it all to me. ‘They told us we were going to be OK and we weren’t.’ They were put in the most dangerous of situations.

We see the personal sacrifices NHS staff made in relation to their own families?

Abbey’s daughter has asthma and she is very concerned about her welfare. So Abbey realises it’s not safe for her to go home. She moves to doctors’ accommodation on site and then to a cheap hotel. I read one piece written by a nurse about her experiences of going to work every day. She was doing a 10 hour shift and would leave the hospital knowing there was one ITU bed that had become available with four patients on her ward that needed it. She’d come back in the morning and know one of those patients will have got the bed, probably two of them would have died and one would still be there. And that was just a daily occurrence. Imagine dealing with that emotionally every day and also being away from your family and being alone in poor quality accommodation where you don’t want to be. All you’re doing is living, breathing, eating and sleeping this horror. That’s the sacrifice NHS staff made which is astonishing. Nothing less than heroic to me.

How would you describe the emotional impact on Abbey and how she changes as time goes by?

We meet Abbey at the very beginning just before the pandemic hits the hospital. Then very early on in episode one we see them receive ‘Patient One’ and things snowball rapidly from there. During the first episode we see how capable and competent Abbey is and how she deals with the pressures on the NHS, including having to deal with patients in a store cupboard. It’s frustrating and difficult but she does the absolute best she can and so does everybody else.

Then as the pandemic unfolds Abbey becomes more and more aware about the lack of planning from above and the difference in the rules and regulations they are being told to follow and the confusion about PPE and who should wear it and how much you should wear and during what procedures. No-one was actually telling the truth that they had a PPE shortage and that’s why they put the stipulations that you should only wear full PPE if you’re doing aerosol generating procedures.

Abbey sees this horror unfold. She starts off following the guidance that she has been told from above because that’s her job. She is a consultant with a team of people to protect. With rules she and her team are supposed to follow. But as things develop Abbey realises the rules are completely inadequate, out of date and ridiculous. So we see her follow that horror unfold during the first episode and trying to hold it together. Trying not to drown in it. Then as time goes by in the pandemic she has a new sense of, ‘OK, this is what we’re dealing with so let’s deal with it the best we can.’ With a renewed strength to stride forward and do the best she can for her staff, patients and family.

And then as we get towards the end of 2020 it is a tougher Abbey we see at that point. But also an Abbey who has become so angry at the fact that no-one is telling the public what is really happening. And how can people possibly understand? With some denying Covid is real. She’s reading all sorts of things online, including on social media. This anger inside her grows and grows and she decides she can’t just sit back.

You filmed scenes where Abbey faces abuse from people who say Covid is a hoax?

That really did shock me. If you think of what these NHS staff go through on a day to day basis. In November and December 2020 they were seeing an influx of patients and much younger patients than before. Suffering and dying from Covid. Having to deal with death on that level every day and be so overstretched that you’re making impossible decisions. Then walking out of the hospital having to face abuse from Covid deniers who maintained it was all a hoax. Going back to a grim hotel room, going to bed, getting up and doing it all again in extreme circumstances. It doesn’t take much to imagine what that would do to your mental health. The fury that would ignite in you.

Filming those scenes of Abbey facing abuse, people calling you a liar, makes you feel so angry and betrayed on behalf of the NHS workers. I feel the government betrayed our NHS workers. But they carried on, fought through it and they are still doing that today. And, of course, the impact of what they went through during the pandemic still lives with them today.

Every patient in this drama is a human being, not a number or statistic?

Exactly. Every patient we focus on has their own story and emotional journey. That was very important because they’re not just numbers, they’re people.

It also shows how the NHS staff went that extra mile to make patients, including those who were dying, feel comfortable and not alone. They sat with them and held their hand and tried to give them as much as they could of what was important to them in their finals days and hours. It’s that emotional care and respect for life and love of life and humans that is what’s so poignant and special about Breathtaking.

What does it mean to you to have been involved in Breathtaking?

It has changed my views on death...and life. It’s not something that I’d never thought of or had never crossed my mind before but I came away from filming Breathtaking feeling incredibly grateful for my life and for life in general. For every morning we wake up and get to have another day. And how you just never know what’s around the corner. Good or bad. The great moments in life we have to absolutely make the most of. There will be difficult moments in life for every single human being. Nobody lives a life without pain or difficulty, no matter what their situation.

It did give me a great belief in people’s humanity. Yes, there are people who are selfish and do bad things. But there are also people that are unselfish and do incredibly great things for other humans all of the time. That is really beautiful and something to be celebrated.

I’m filled with gratitude to have been involved with Breathtaking. That I was trusted to play Abbey. I feel really honoured to be able to be a small part of telling this story that I think is so important. It has given me a real renewed sense of gratitude for life.


Breathtaking airs on Monday 19th, Tuesday 20th, Wednesday 21st February on ITV1 and ITVX as well as STV and STV player.

February 20, 2024 2:00am ET by ITV Press Centre  

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