‘TV let me remember what it is to be human’: the shows that got the UK through Covid shielding

It is March 2020 and a new illness called “coronavirus” means 3.7 million people with pre-existing health conditions in England are being told by the government to shield at home. As someone with weak breathing muscles in a respiratory pandemic, my mind goes to the important question: is there anything good on TV? With all entertainment venues – and basic human contact – off limits, reacquainting myself with an old friend called television seems like a plan.

I start with BBC iPlayer’s Him and Her: an alternative romantic comedy about people who never leave their flat seems fitting. As the world goes to hell, I continue with the genre known as “incredibly wholesome”: Schitt’s Creek; Ted Lasso; Ghosts. When TV soap production stops, I have even more time on my hands and decide to take this pursuit seriously. I use the hours to finally finish shows I let fall by the wayside in more sociable times. Parks and Recreation. Orange is the New Black. Pandemics apparently curb productivity, but not from where I’m sitting.

As the months go on, the rest of the country returns to newly reopened cinemas and theatres, but, for shielders like me, entertainment is still confined to my front room. National Theatre at Home transports me to my local playhouse for The Madness of King George. Grayson’s Art Club takes me to galleries filled with colour and light. Disney+’s WandaVision creates cinematic wonder for the small screen. I find myself using television as therapy and company. Classic epsiodes of The Simpsons make me laugh. Feel Good lets me cry. A BritBox subscription takes me from Rev to Twenty Twelve and, with it, to a pre-Covid era. It is comforting to notice eternal truths. Boris Johnson should not be allowed near public office. Olivia Colman really is in everything.

By spring 2021, I enter what I call the time travel phase, watching classics I was too young for when first broadcast (This Life) and rewatching shows I was technically too young for at the time but saw anyway (the entire Sex and the City box set). As I get used to working fully from home, I break the day with Steph’s Packed Lunch. Linda Barker is crafting with Michael Portillo. Denise van Outen is wrestling a small dog. You don’t get this in the office.

Hey Duggee: ‘My niece is visibly impressed that I know Duggee, too, as if she believes he exists in a magic box in her house.’ Photograph: Studio AKA/BBC/PA

Two years on and Boris Johnson has removed the last Covid measures in England. Many clinically vulnerable people who were venturing out worry they will have to return to a life indoors. Others are balancing the pros and cons, weighing up isolation versus safety. For my part, I risk a visit from my two-year-old niece. To ease meeting for the first time in a while, we stick on CBeebies’ Hey Duggee. She is visibly impressed that I know Duggee, too, as if she believes he exists in a magic box in her house and I have coaxed him out to visit mine.

Perhaps television is a magic box. It may not solve our problems in the toughest of times but it is there for us through them, a little glow of escapism in the corner to remind us what we are and how to feel.

Your stories

We asked Guardian readers how television helped them through shielding. Here are some of their e.

Ruth Murran, 52, from Co Durham, who has cerebral palsy
“Television has given me routine, a window to the world, a chance to learn things and something I can share with family and friends I’m separated from. I turned to Killing Eve and The Tourist (I often focus on programmes with people who are having a worse time than me!). I watch House of Games while my parents play along in Warwick at the same time. Say Yes to the Dress offers a way to be temporarily absorbed by something that doesn’t really matter. My husband has been drawn in too.”

Jenni Mills, 69 from Wiltshire, who has rheumatoid arthritis
“At the start of the pandemic, I set up a WhatsApp group for furloughed colleagues and we found ourselves WhatsApping each other about what we were watching on TV. We’d chat as we watched music documentaries on BBC Four and old Top of The Pops repeats, sharing memories – and sometimes photos – of what we’d been doing when that music was in the charts. Television became a way of feeling less isolated, knowing friends were watching the same programme at the same time.”

‘Foundation on Apple TV+ was one of my favourite shows of 2021.’ Photograph: Apple TV +

Rory McDaid, 33 from Suffolk, is immunocompromised due to medication
“TV has helped as a constant, ever present distraction. Whether it’s something I’m watching on repeat – like Friends and Taskmaster – or something zeitgeist-y – like The Mandalorian – that makes you feel like part of a collective experience, it has always been there. Foundation on Apple TV+ was one of my favourite shows of 2021. Various animated shows, such as Jujutsu Kaisen and Ranking of Kings, have been gems. Reacher has been a fun distraction. A huge guy punching his way out of most problems has perhaps been a reflection of my anger at the world!”

“Without TV, I truly believe I would have become seriously emotionally unwell while shielding. I turned to Detectorists, Foyle’s War, The Great Pottery Throwdown, The Dog House, 24 Hours in A&E, The Great British Sewing Bee. Just being able to sit down with others – real and imagined – helped. TV has allowed me to remember what it is to be human.

Simon Hawtin, 46 from Bristol, who has ME
“I’ve finished entire series on their day of release. Seen almost every Premier League goal on MOTD2. Shared the joy of new Star Wars stories with my kids. Through times of stress, sickness and isolation, television has been my companion and my comfort blanket. There’s a moment at the start of Gardeners’ World where the camera is still, there is no voiceover or music, simply the sound of bird song. At a time when my life felt completely empty and bleak, those moments gave me a sense of joy and hope that the world was still a beautiful place.”

Anonymous from Leeds, who has asthma
“My mother died at the start of the pandemic and I’ve had to adjust to living alone and shielding. We always watched an episode of something every evening while having dinner, and I decided to continue that. I finished watching Gilmore Girls, which I started when Mum was in hospital. I finished Heartland, which I’d been watching with Mum. I was sad that she wouldn’t see the characters get married.”

Gilmore Girls
‘I finished watching Gilmore Girls, which I started when Mum was in hospital.’ Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Denise Nolson, 52 from Stroud, has ME, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and rheumatoid arthritis
“I would be climbing the walls without television. Anything from The Haunting of Hill House, Carnival Row and Stranger Things to The Walking Dead and Bridgerton. For me TV provides simple, pure escapism, a way of shutting off from the real world and losing myself for a few hours at a time. The great thing about stories is, as when we were children, there may be struggles but generally good triumphs over bad. Hope is rewarded.”

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