'Dementia is the cruellest disease there is... people are in real pain'
A one-off BBC One drama tells the story of a single mum who becomes her mother's carer after she falls ill. By Georgia Humphreys
In the UK, women make up 70% of dementia carers - and 20% of those go from full-time to part-time work in order to do it. It's these statistics that writer Gillian Juckes wanted to focus on in new 90-minute drama Care, which will air on BBC One, and stars Sheridan Smith, Alison Steadman and Sinead Keenan.
Although a fictional account, the topic is something she's had experience with - and it makes for a heart-wrenching watch.
"We're not treating dementia with the dignity it deserves," declares Juckes, who co-wrote the one-off programme with Jimmy McGovern (he's penned hit dramas such as The Street and Broken).
"It's an illness, like cancer is an illness, and people are in real pain; they're not getting the right care."
Smith (37) plays Jenny, a mother-of-two, raising her girls alone after the departure of her husband, Dave.
She relies heavily on her widowed mum Mary (played by Alison Steadman) for help with childcare, so that she can work full-time at a supermarket.
But when Mary suffers a devastating stroke and develops dementia, Jenny finds her life completely changed - suddenly, she is responsible for looking after her mum and her daughters and cannot carry on working.
Plus, Jenny soon realises she has got a real fight on her hands when it comes to getting the best care for Mary - along with some tough choices to make. It's a topic which Juckes, who originally wrote Care as a piece of theatre, believes needs more awareness.
"We wouldn't leave a toddler in the home all day on their own, you'd be prosecuted for it, but that is what's happening to people in the community.
"We need more nursing homes and it's not the fault of the NHS, because 24% of their beds are taken with people over the age of 65 with dementia.
"It can't carry on."
Smith, who was born in Lincolnshire, and her co-star, Irish actress Keenan, are asked if they tried to laugh in between takes on set for Care to detract from how dark the material was.
"I think every actor takes it differently and does their own thing," suggests 40-year-old Keenan, who plays Mary's other daughter, Claire.
"Myself, if I'm doing heavy scenes, you go, 'Oh, this is going to be a fun day'. You keep yourself to yourself. You're not exuberant, you're not bouncing around between takes."
"Sinead is incredible at staying in the zone, so to act opposite her was a dream," gushes Smith, known for her intense roles in shows such as The Moorside and Cilla.
Discussing the challenging role further, she says: "In my mind, dementia is the cruellest disease there is.
"I can only go on being a carer for a parent (her father lost his battle with cancer in 2016) and trying to put my experiences into it.
"But it doesn't really come close to how I imagine that must feel.
"You don't tell jokes (in between takes), especially when this is the subject matter, and Gillian's been through it, and so many people have been through it. You stay in it when you're in those moments."
However, the outgoing star confides she finds it really difficult to stop crying once the tears start falling.
"I'm a nightmare, because I cry at everything."
An interesting element of Care is how differently Jenny and Claire deal with their mum's health issues.
"Claire has moved away and Jenny is the one who does the lion's share of all the caring, which I think an awful lot of people can empathise with, because, more often than not, people move away from their families," Keenan - star of dramas such as Little Blue Boy and Being Human - notes thoughtfully.
"Because I live away - I'm protecting myself now - I was keen not to portray Claire as the villain of the piece.
"Just because she lives away from home doesn't necessarily mean she loves her mother any less. She just doesn't have the ability that Jenny has of being hands-on and caring and warm.
"The way she advocates for her mother is when she comes back she is like the bulldog - 'We need to sort it' - whereas Jenny is much more loving."
It's an absolutely stellar performance from all the cast involved with Care, but particularly Steadman.
She is captivating in how she portrays the heartbreaking side-effects of Mary's stroke and consequent dementia: her inability to speak properly, her loss of language, her confusion and the way she lashes out at those she loves.
Smith and Steadman know each other well from their time working together on BBC comedy Gavin And Stacey, which first aired more than a decade ago now.
But Smith reveals they purposefully didn't discuss how Steadman was going to play the character of Mary - and they didn't rehearse together, either, as suggested by their director, David Blair.
It made for some really authentic reactions to the emotional material.
"The scene where she's wheeled past me in the wheelchair, it was really early on in the shoot, and I hadn't seen how she was going to be playing it," says Smith, who will be seen on our screens in the new year in new ITV drama series Cleaning Up.
"When we went for it and I saw how she was looking at me with those eyes... We had the most amazing crew, as well, who were literally going around Alison's face and my face to get all that emotion.
"It worked so well for me (not rehearsing together), because I haven't had experience of dementia. Just seeing that, it took my breath away."
Care, BBC One, Sunday, 9pm