Writers: Michael Winterbottom and Kieron Quirke
Directors: Michael Winterbottom and Julian Jarrold
At what point do recent events become history, is it possible to draw conclusions from the very recent past if the full consequences of those events is not yet known? Sky Atlantic’s new six-part drama, This England, written by Michael Winterbottom and Kieron Quirke, rarely tries to analyse the failures of the pandemic response in the Spring of 2020 and instead focuses on providing a multi-perspective narrative of political decisions and individual experiences, and while often harrowing, is a useful reminder of the chain of events that led to tens of thousands of deaths in this period alone.
Covering the months from Boris Johnson winning the Conservative leadership contest through the first four months of 2020, This England follows Johnson’s political and personal life as he balances a demanding, pregnant girlfriend (played by Olivia Lovibond) as well as a public health and social crisis that quickly overwhelms his minsters. Simultaneously, Winterbottom and Quirk follow medical staff working in hospitals, care homes and paramedic services, scientists in places like the Francis Crick Institute and SAGE group with a series of personal stories of contracting, suffering and dying from covid.
Winterbottom and Quirk’s drama is not quite a day-by-day reflection on the early months of the pandemic but has carefully reconstructed the complex events that led from the first outbreak in China to Dominic Cummings’ (Simon Paisley Day) disgrace. There is a journalistic scrutiny in this timeline that is filled with facts and sources that gives the viewer a clear sense of what was happening on any given day, supplemented by a ticking ‘official’ and ‘actual’ death count, occasional screen cards, news footage and interviews which are wrapped into this drama.
The story itself claims the licence of fiction, imagining conversations happening behind closed doors among civil servants, scientists and between Johnson and Carrie Symonds, while Cummings launches a kamikaze assault on the administrative structures. But what does This England have to say – well, very little on the machinations of government. Johnson is shown to be barely involved in the decision-making, taking a surface interest in events actually managed by Cummings, Matt Hancock (Andrew Buchan) and their teams, but it rarely dips below the surface to understand the psychology of these players, the strain of providing a national response or even any resentment at being abandoned to their lot by an errant Prime Minister.
Branagh’s Boris Johnson is a mix of contradictions, endlessly quoting Shakespeare and Latin phrases around the office but intellectually disinterested in the work of his premiership. The physical transformation is impressive, and the actor captures mannerisms and a recognisable vocal style if not Johnson’s exact blustering tone. It is clearly an irresistible opportunity for an actor, but you always know it is Branagh in there and the piece doesn’t fully investigate Johnson’s love of popularity and any sense of disregard for his own policies that has since come to light.
The dramatic problem is that all episodes start to feel the same and This England has few new insights to contribute to the assessment of this time. Episodes 1-5 are heavily focused on personal stories, many of which are deeply affecting and hard to watch, but they do strongly emphasise the inventive and dedicated work of NHS and care home staff to protect and help the public when politicians failed. Is it too soon for This England? Perhaps, but not because it is too painful, but because there is too little analysis of the man in charge.
This England is screening on Sky Atlantic and Now from 28 September.