Joanne Froggatt reveals why the script for Covid drama Breathtaking made her cry

Dubbed the next Mr Bates vs the Post Office, Breathtaking shines a light on the Covid crisis in our hospitals and stars Yorkshire actress Joanne Froggatt. Phil Penfold talks to her about the series.

As one of our leading and most-loved actors, Joanne Froggatt gets sent a lot of scripts to read and she goes through them all meticulously – the good, the bad and the indifferent. “There are those which don’t interest me, others I don’t think would be suitable, and a few which grab my attention,” she says.

“There are those which don’t interest me, others which I don’t think would be suitable, and a few which grab my attention.” But none, until she was sent the screenplay for Breathtaking, made her turn the pages, astounded at what she was reading, and burst into tears. Would she accept the role of Dr Abbey Henderson in a new three part drama? You bet your life she would – and did.

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“It involved me immediately," she says quietly, “and yes, there were tears on my cheeks. In the nigh-on 30 years that I’ve been performing professionally, nothing, absolutely nothing, has affected me so personally and so very deeply. I could see it all, in my mind, and so vividly. I knew that I had to do it. No question”.

Joanne Froggatt as Abbey in Breathtaking on ITV and ITVXJoanne Froggatt as Abbey in Breathtaking on ITV and ITVX
Joanne Froggatt as Abbey in Breathtaking on ITV and ITVX

The ITV series, which is shown over three nights on ITVX starting on Tuesday, is set in a fictional city hospital (it was actually filmed in a disused three-floor facility in Belfast) and it follows acute medical consultant Henderson as she and her colleagues face up to the enormity of the Covid crisis, and their battle to save lives as the virus begins to overwhelm the NHS. Chronological news footage from the early months of 2020 is cut into the drama. But the action is not make-believe, because it’s based on a best-selling memoir by Rachel Clarke, herself a consultant, who worked tirelessly on the front line through the pandemic. Clarke was so stressed at the end of shifts that she went home, when she could, and sat at her kitchen table, faithfully recording the unfolding disaster. “I just sat tapping away on my laptop," she says, “trying, and always failing, to make some sense of what I’d experienced. In a sense, I suppose, it was very cathartic. But it was all grotesque, and I wanted to make it public”. The series is devastatingly candid about government and NHS management and policy failures, and there’s no doubt that it will affect viewers, and make a huge impact on them, in the same way as the recent Mr Bates versus the Post Office.

Clarke shaped the script, and honed it with Prasanna Puwanarajah and Jed Mercurio, both of them talented writers – and former practicing doctors. “It spoke to me instantly,” says Froggatt, “because here was a 100 percent real account, direct from the heart. We were all affected in some way by the pandemic, some lost loved ones in terrible circumstances, so many went through hell. Me? Well, I was alone at home, and I coped….I made myself go to the supermarket for my personal supplies, nearly always out of normal hours, and never without a mask. Like so many, I got through it, but deprived of real social contact. But, for a lot of people, Covid wrenched them apart. Making Breathtaking was a huge and weighty responsibility.

“The interesting thing for me, as a performer, is that wearing a mask hides a lot of emotions – you can’t see a smile, or a frown. All you have is to to read the eyes. And, in the case of someone who was being treated, that’s all they saw. Not their loved ones, but the eyes of the people caring from them. For the ones who died so tragically, that’s the last thing they saw. Not a face giving comfort or solace, just a pair of eyes, and without identity. That’s appalling to think about. And a lot of people had to say their final goodbyes to loved ones on phones, or iPads. That’s heartbreaking, dreadful. When I think about it, if you are acting on film, or TV, a lot of the emotion, much of the story, is carried through the eyes, so the whole thing became fascinating to me, and to everyone else involved.”

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There was a two week boot camp where all the actors went to see how the hospital staff, at every level, worked and moved – how to put on, and to take off gowns, a lot of donning and doffing, and all sorts of medical procedures. “It had to look authentic – there were a lot of long, sweeping ‘takes’, and our director Craig Viveiros is brilliant at that. We had to learn moments when it was appropriate to touch a patient – and where, and how. And then another part of the rehearsal period – and it’s very unusual to get anything other than basic rehearsal time these days, believe me – was aimed at getting all of us to get our heads and mouths around so many verbal terms that doctors and ward staff use. To them, they know precisely what they’re saying. For us, we had to learn quickly, and to say things with assurance. It was personally very moving because, as actors, you can take a break, have a snack, scratch your nose, whereas for these real-life people, on the wards and as it happens, dealing with the sick and the dying, it was relentless. And we should never forget that over 850 frontline workers died because they caught Covid from their patients, and over 150,000 others are still suffering from the long-term effects of the virus, many of them are now disabled – and they are being forced to sue the NHS for compensation. The truth is slowly coming out.”

Pictured: JOANNE FROGGATT as DR Abbey Henderson.

Pictured: JOANNE FROGGATT as DR Abbey Henderson.


Yorkshire-born Joanna (she was raised on the small-holding in Littlebeck, near Whitby, owned by her parents, Ann and Keith) made her TV debut in The Bill, back in 1996, and then joined Coronation Street to play Zoe Tattersall. After that came Bad Girls, and afterwards the role that really made viewers sit up and take notice – Danielle Cable, Eyewitness. Joanna was Danielle, a real-life teenager who saw her boyfriend murdered in an unprovoked road rage attack. It was critically acclaimed, and BAFTA nominated, but, best of all, Danielle herself contacted Joanna to compliment her on her performance. But the role which won her international acclaim was for playing Anna Bates, the lady’s maid to Lady Mary Crawley, in Downton Abbey. For that, she won a prestigious Golden Globe Award.

Littlebeck is aptly named. Joanna laughs: “It’s not even a village. It’s a hamlet, just a few houses, and a village hall, tucked away in the middle. You can drive through it without even knowing that you are driving through it!” So how did she discover acting? “Through television at first, I suppose”, she reflects, “and then my mother would take me down to Scarborough to the Stephen Joseph Theatre, to see plays by Alan Ayckbourn, which were wonderful. Even being so young I could see that they were something very special.” From there, it was drama classes in Scarborough, and, at the age of 11, she auditioned to join theatre schools. “Mum and dad were great, but they let me think about it for another two years, just to make sure that this was the path I wanted. Then I applied to Redroofs in Maidenhead, and I got in. It was so different – for a start, I had a strong Yorkshire accent, and the other seven girls in my group couldn’t understand a word I said. There was homesickness at first, but I overcame that, and I am so pleased that those girls and I are still firm friends to this day. That’s a lot of years. It’s the same with the cast of Downton. We’re still all friends, and we still keep in touch, and an eye on what the others are doing.”

She has several things “in the pipeline” but has Downton taken its final bow? Froggatt is a little coy. “Well now…… Let’s see.”

Breathtaking airs on ITV1 on 19, 20 and 21 February.

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