The creative team behind the Kenneth Branagh-helmed This England (formerly titled This Sceptred Isle) reach for the Shakespearean in this six-part political drama about Boris Johnson’s actions and decisions in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s decision to centre on the motif of the former PM’s affinity for Greek classics and the Bard – complete with allusions to the Tory’s much-delayed book on the playwright, The Riddle of Genius – seems fitting for an actor of Branagh’s background, but in actuality it is tired, careless and lacking much original insight.
Optimists may argue that such a description is in line with Johnson’s character and his premiership, but when the Sky Atlantic series hinges on the more fly-on-the-wall, behind-the-scenes conversations and conflicts inside No 10, to offer up another portrayal which leans far too much into the mumbling, exaggerated fist-pumping and inappropriate literary references is deeply disappointing. Branagh’s accent wobbles to begin with before settling towards the end of the episode, and most of the embodiment of Johnson comes with the commendable prosthetics job than the actor’s ability to emulate the Etonian’s mannerisms. If we aren’t fed up with UK politics at present, then we’re certainly seen enough caricatures of the ex-prime minister to last us for a good while.
Tragically, it doesn’t stop at Boris. Simon Paisley-Day addressing a room full of special advisers with a monotonous speech as Dominic Cummings is like a political version of Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape. We get it: love or loathe the former chief adviser, he has always been presented in the media as a blunt and outspoken workaholic obsessed with the strategy and machinery behind political operations.
The portrayal may well be accurate – we will, of course, never know for certain – but there’s little interrogation in this opening of the Brexit mastermind’s ideology, beyond a general dislike of the cogs of civil service and wanting a strong public image on Brexit following the 2019 election. A drive to get on with the job around EU withdrawal is fair enough, but we get a little sense of Cummings’ motivation for the civil service overhaul beyond a reference to one of his blog posts and the occasional disdain for the ‘Westminster Bubble’. An exception is Andrew Buchan, who nails ex-health secretary Matt Hancock’s general peppiness and smirk, as well as accent and demeanour.
But on the whole, it’s information and interpretations of key events and people we’ve seen and heard before, despite reports Michael Winterbottom’s script draws upon first-hand testimonies from those at the heart of government when all this unfolded. At one point Carrie (Ophelia Lovibond) and Boris (Branagh) watch Contagion together, a 2011 movie about a deadly virus causing a pandemic which was soon referenced in conversations around COVID-19, but many months after the initial outbreak as opposed to a matter of weeks as suggested in This England. As much as it should have been a harsh recollection of an unprecedented (sorry), historical event and how it unfolded at the time, there’s still a lot from episode one of this drama which suggests it’s applying hindsight and modern references to what occurred, rather than leaving that up to the audience to explore if they so wish.
But the tricky thing is, is that some viewers may not feel ready to do so. Is it too soon to chart the early days of Boris Johnson’s premiership and his initial reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, when we’ve only just got rid of him? Maybe. Is it too soon to reopen wounds and dive back into the collective trauma of COVID-19 and 2020 with This England? I’m afraid, with all its regurgitating of archive news reports and hospital footage, it still somehow feels a tad raw and triggering to return to two years ago. It could possibly have done with restructuring the narrative to be more around Shakespeare if it wanted to, as the first episode certainly felt tempestuous with UK floods and the metaphor of an oncoming storm with Covid, but it chose not to do so.
Perhaps a few months down the line, we might well be able to stomach the uncomfortableness of one more Johnson impersonator mixed with striking but unflinching flashbacks to a traumatic public health crisis, but investing in a drama as bleak as This England when things are already pretty dire in UK politics as it is, is asking too much of us.
The entire series of This England is available to watch on Sky Atlantic and the NOW streaming service from 28 September.
Images: Phil Fisk/Sky UK.