Breathtaking Film Review
What Katy RevIewed Next We go inside the NHS response to the pandemic and follow a group of doctors on a London hospital ward as they battle not only COVID-19 but Government bureaucracy and their own emotions.


Season: 1 Episode(s): 1-3
Overview: We go inside the NHS response to the pandemic and follow a group of doctors on a London hospital ward as they battle not only COVID-19 but Government bureaucracy and their own emotions.
Genre: Drama
UK Release Date: 19-02-2024
Studio: HTM Television, ITV Studios
Director:  Craig Viveiros
Top-Billed Cast: Joanne Froggatt Bhav Joshi Donna Banya
Running Time: 41 minutes
UK Classification:
Katy's Score:
91109  (Translation: Superb)
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The pandemic might seem like a lifetime a way for a lot of us but many people are still dealing with the loss and trauma caused by this global event.

While we stood outside clapping at 8pm every Thursday for a few months in 2020, thousands upon thousands of care workers, NHS staff and key workers faced COVID-19 head-on risking their own health (and sanity) in order to keep us safe.

And until now we didn’t really get to see their side of the story apart from a few anecdotal paragraphs in newspapers, tweets asking people to mask up and, more recently, revelations from the COVID-19 Pubic Enquiry.

Breathtaking aims to address that imbalance. Based on the book of the same name by Dr Rachel Clarke (Amazon affiliate link), Breathtaking follows Dr Abbey Henderson (Joanne Froggatt – Downton Abbey) as she tries to navigate the politics, emotions and human cost of the pandemic in an unnamed UK hospital.

The limited series by ITV is split across 3 episodes which each focusing on a different period of the pandemic: episode 1 starts around 20 days before the first national lockdown, episode 2 is at the end of the first lockdown and moves into the summer of “Eat Out To Help Out” and the 3rd episode is set during the winter of 2020 into January 2021 where the effects of mixing households thanks to “Christmas Bubbles” are felt.

I went into the series not knowing what to expect but I left it with a newfound respect for the NHS and a renewed fury at the Government for their mishandling of the pandemic.

We follow Dr Henderson in the run-up to the first lockdown where miscommunication and a lack of basic equipment leads to confusion and a loss of lives that could have easily been prevented.

We also accompany Donna Banya (War Of The Worlds) who plays Emma, a student doctor, whose character is essentially there as a way to explain things to the audience and to provide a more empathetic foil to Henderson’s experienced and world-weary senior doctor. Through Emma we are able to see how empathetic NHS workers are and how vulnerable they are to the loss of patients and the mental toll it took on them.

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That’s not to say that Henderson is an unfeeling robot, far from it! She deals with the situations she’s thrown into with a typically British “stiff upper lip“, taking everything in her stride but her frustration at NHS/Government bureaucracy is palpable as it leaps out at you through the screen.

Breathtaking shows how otherwise healthy patients caught COVID-19 thanks to a lack of resources and beds, how rules put in place kept families apart at the most harrowing times, how doctors concerns about releasing patients back into care homes were ignored and how a lack of basic PPE caused NHS staff to get sick and, in some cases, die.

The most shocking part of Breathtaking though is how it puts the dramatic content in context with actual news footage of the daily COVID-19 briefings and cheerful iPhone video messages from then Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

As Johnson is saying that we’re going to “knock this thing on the head in about 12 weeks” we see Abbey and her team being swamped by an influx of new patients. As we’re told by the Government that “testing is the way out of this”, we see that Abbey’s ward aren’t allowed to run COVID tests on people if they don’t fit certain criteria, and we see how Abbey separates herself from her family to live in a hotel as Dominic Cummings tries to explain away his little jaunt to Barnard Castle.

The way that the series is filmed makes you feel like you are a participant in the events unfolding in front of you on the screen with the camera embedding in with the actors, panning from one person to the next as they are conversing. While it’s probably a difficult watch for those prone to motion sickness it really does make you feel like you’re part of the action which further heightens the intensity of emotions that you feel.

Some reviewers have criticised the show for having little “character development” or not showing Henderson’s human side enough, but I’d argue that that’s exactly what the show was trying to achieve – there’s no development because Henderson was on autopilot moving from one patient to the next trying to save lives with little or no time to think about herself – and if she did she’d probably have a breakdown and not be able to function. In the same vein she has to suppress her human side so she can cope with the death on an unprecedented scale that she is forced to deal with every day..

It’s important to remember that while the events in Breathtaking are unfolding, the Government was acting counter to their own advice and hosting numerous parties within Number 10 Downing Street and while this isn’t explicitly mentioned in the drama, our knowledge of it makes the events depicted even more infuriating.

Having been in A&E in early March 2020 and having heard that coronavirus was spreading in China and Italy, I did wonder why so few NHS personnel were in PPE when they were dealing with suspected COVID-19 patients (they were in a separate triage room, not in the main A&E area), and now I know why: chronic underfunding in the NHS, mismanagement and a belief by the Government that this will “all blow over soon”.

Watching Breathtaking will give you a even more admiration for our wonderful NHS in the UK and if you don’t feel furious at how the Government mishandled their pandemic response after seeing what happened then I think you might have missed the point of the series entirely.

Watch Breathtaking if you feel like getting mad at something and throwing a cushion at the TV

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All 3 episodes of Breathtaking are available to watch now on ITVX in the UK