Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As coronavirus crashed through the TV business, husband and wife Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory were among those cast adrift. Lewis was making Season 5 of Billions, while McCrory was on the brink of going into production on Season 6 of Peaky Blinders. Now, both are holed up in their British countryside home in Suffolk. But far from quietly riding out the COVID-19 tsunami, the pair have leashed an anchor of sorts and are using their platform for a much-needed mission to feed frontline health care workers in the UK.
McCrory said she spent one day doing hair and makeup and tests for Peaky Blinders, during which it dawned on much of the production team that “something very big is coming.” She explains: “The next morning I woke and told my producer I’m not comfortable doing this anymore… Cillian Murphy did the same. Together with the producers, we approached the BBC and said we’re going to pull this now before we have to do this down the line.” Production was halted March 16, a mere three weeks ago. “That all seems like a very different world at the moment. Terribly unimportant,” McCrory reflects.
The couple turned to their friends in the National Health Service and asked where they could help. Their initial idea was to cover parking fines for the nurses and doctors who were getting caught out on long shifts, but the government soon moved to waive parking fees for health care workers. The next idea came from Bob Klaber, who works at the Imperial College Healthcare Trust in London.
“He said the real problem is food,” recalls McCrory. With staff canteens in hospitals either not existing or shutting down, and nearby eateries closing amid the countrywide lockdown, some NHS employees were running on empty. Lewis and McCrory seized on Klaber’s idea and started getting pizzas delivered to intensive care units. The efforts were greeted by “lovely photos of smiling faces,” but it quickly became apparent that they needed something more sustainable — and nourishing — for those fighting coronavirus.
British food chain Leon was also starting to support the NHS with hot meals, so Lewis and McCrory contacted CEO John Vincent. Combining their efforts, Leon was able to open up kitchens and get food delivered directly to hospitals with as little human contact as possible. It was from this point that their plan to feed the NHS sparked into life. “They were looking for something that was repeatable and distant,” says Lewis. “Lots of people have done wonderful things and sent food donations to hospitals, and they were gladly taking them all. But to be able to scale up and get a delivery service going with some main catering groups was what we tried to implement.”
The mission is being funded through public donations, and Lewis and McCrory have helped raise nearly £850,000 ($1 million) through a Just Giving page, with fresh support from the Tortilla restaurant chain pushing this total to more than £1M ($1.2M). Alongside Tortilla, other chains have joined the efforts including Wasabi and Franco Manca, while food delivery firm Deliveroo — which is the subject of a $575M investment bid led by Amazon — is assisting with efforts to get the hot meals to hospitals. Lewis reckons they are now serving 6,000 meals a day to health care workers in London.
“There’s no centralized model for doing something like this and working with the NHS, there’s no centralized model at the NHS either,” Lewis says. “Crucially, this can only last as long as people give money. That’s the point. No one is funding this except the public.” Celebrity friends have been banging the fundraising drum, not least Bridesmaids star and future The Great British Bake Off host Matt Lucas, who has released a song about a baked potato offering public health advice after the ditty went viral on Twitter. And as Lewis and McCrory bid to roll out their Feed NHS scheme nationally, fundraising and logistics have become a full-time job of sorts.
“It’s interrupting me planting my hedge,” jokes Lewis, before handing the phone to McCrory. “We haven’t slept and we’re on the phone all the time,” she says. “You’re improvising and making it up as you go along because it’s never been done before. Now we’ve got a website up, feednhs.com, and on that website, hospitals can tap on and leave details. We can actually connect people to each other. This is the big fear: London has been hit hardest first, but unfortunately, this is going to ripple throughout the country and other areas are going to need that support.”
Lewis was in New York when the TV business began shutting down. He had shot the first seven episodes of Billions before production was halted. Showtime’s plan is to broadcast those seven episodes beginning May 5, before resting the show as filming is completed on the remainder of the season. Lewis thinks it’s “pie in the sky” that there won’t be a significant hiatus in the show, and it has also had a knock-on effect on another project he was due to begin filming in September through his production company Rookery Productions. While acting is off the agenda for now, he says there is demand for documentaries and Rookery is exploring the possibility of making a film on the Feed NHS initiative. “There are opportunities to make documentaries about the NHS from our kitchen — obviously archive-heavy, I would imagine,” he adds.
The couple says they have given thought to the countless industry freelancers who have lost work through no fault of their own. They have considered financial gestures to their crews, but the implications of donating to one person over another has given them pause. Initially, runners were at the forefront of their thinking — “the young people coming into the profession that live hand to mouth,” says McCrory — but then they gave consideration to older members of their teams, those with young families but who are not among the top earners.
“Giving is an incredibly specific endeavor, as we’re finding out,” says Lewis. “People have to be treated to be right, there has to be parity everywhere.” Showtime paid crews for two weeks, and Lewis is hopeful that there can be a continued support system for those affected. “If the studios won’t take care of their employees maybe there’s something the people at the top can do,” he adds.
The coronavirus crisis has also been a time for personal connection — a time for them to come together as a family with their two children. “It’s a great opportunity to spend some quality time together. Just doing things together, playing Monopoly, playing Risk, planting a hedge, doing some cooking together. The day goes by in a flash when you’re in one place,” Lewis says. He wonders whether the time in lockdown needs marking through a creative endeavor, like writing a novel, but as Deadline points out to the actors, feeding the NHS is not an inconsiderable legacy during a global pandemic.