Despite its ongoing effects, the pandemic often feels like an anxiety dream instead of a recent memory. Sky's six-part dramatisation This England makes you relive this collective trauma, with Kenneth Branagh transforming into Boris Johnson. In overwhelming and complicated detail, writer/creators Michael Winterbottom and Kieron Quirke analyse the extent to which Covid blighted Britain.
You're dropped back into the months before those torrid times: starting in April 2019, seeing Johnson's ascension to PM in July, and then the Conservative win at the December general election. Boris delivers a victory speech about 2020 being ‘a year of prosperity, growth and hope'… and then the screen cuts to a colony of Chinese bats, which are subsequently sliced up in a Wuhan street market.
Ophelia Lovibond and Kenneth Branagh as Carrie Symonds and Boris Johnson. Photo: Sky
This England has been interpreted as being all about BoJo. A fair assumption: the publicity is filled with Sir Kenneth donning the nest-like hair and excess skin to portray the former prime minister. Despite occasionally looking like a Madame Tussauds waxwork, Branagh vanishes into Boris – perfectly capturing his absurd gestures and Eton-educated mumble-grumble.
More curious as a performative challenge is Branagh pretending not to be a veteran of Shakespeare, as Boris recites speeches from Richard II and Henry V. Boris's biography about the Great Bard is due in April 2020, and he orates constantly – often for his new wife Carrie Symonds (Ophelia Lovibond). If Johnson is anything like his public persona, as is depicted in the series, then it’s a mystery why anybody would want to spend more than five minutes with him.
But although Boris is at the centre, he's a small part of an all-encompassing whole. There are long stretches when he doesn’t appear. The series looks not only behind the closed door of No. 10, but also inside the hospitals and care homes ravaged by the crisis.
Day by day, you traverse dozens of bleak houses, mundane labs and overpopulated wards across the country – drenched in coughs and spittle. So many characters, too: ranging from the sweary subjects in Downing Street to the doctors and nurses struggling on the frontline.
And with the bounteous number of meetings, This England could be considered a ‘meeting-room drama’. Many tables are circled by cabinet ministers, SAGE members, and focus groups trusted by the biliously anarchic Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day).
Mark Lewis as Stuart Goodman (on the bed) Photo: Sky
Did the activities shown in No. 10 actually happen? Were health secretary Matt Hancock (Andrew Buchan) and director of communications Lee Cain (Derek Barr) really like that? These scenes are perhaps less reliable than the well-documented experiences of those at the front, despite their believability.
The series' democratic survey of British citizens during this time offers a blunt and brutal display of universal suffering. From episode three, you return to the harrowing stories that populated the news cycles every day. It’s wave after wave of horror and confusion, tears and tragedy – exacerbated by a leader who prefers drinking red wine and chilling in Chevening to running the country.
This England will stir frustration in viewers. The key controversy will be in its brief sympathies for Boris: literally entering his guilt-ridden dreams, incongruously resembling an Ingmar Bergman film. Although it occasionally submits to these silly speculations, the series excels as a respectful, anxious, and absorbing recollection of a dire time in British history.
This England airs on Wednesday 28 September at 9pm on Sky Atlantic. It's also available to stream on NOW.
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28 Sep 22 – 28 Sep 23, ON SKY ATLANTIC
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