In Michael Winterbottom’s short story drama over the recent – arguably ongoing – Covid crisis, This Englandformer British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Kenneth Branagh, for better and for worse, unrecognizable) faces a personal and professional quest: to complete a biography of Shakespeare, commissioned for the 400e anniversary of the death of the bard (which took place, by the way, in 2016). Johnson blusters through the six-part series quoting Shakespeare, recalling an avid A-level student: “Beware the ides of March,” he mutters to himself one gray morning (and sure enough, the Julius Caesar reference precedes government machinations). One dark and stormy night, as Johnson progresses through the book, he intones, “No one ever used time more dramatically or effectively than Shakespeare.” You can read all sorts of stuff in there, and Winterbottom used it frequently. of a literary vanity, from 2011 Robust adaptation, Trishna, to 2003 Code 46a retelling of the Oedipus myth. Is this man better suited to deliver Shakespeare than to run the country? Is he a man of letters or a swaggering amateur? But this probably won’t be the first time these questions have crossed your mind.
One of the main problems of This England, which is available now on Sky Atlantic is that it examines a number and time that is tediously familiar. The series dramatizes – and you might be able to roughly remember – the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, tracing its beginnings in Wuhan, its rapid international takeover and its eventual British invasion. It unfolds in Johnson’s sometimes equally turbulent life: his appointment as Prime Minister in the summer of 2019, his COVID infection and subsequent hospitalization, and the birth of his sixth child, a son, Wilfred, courtesy of his third wife, Carrie (Ophelia Lovibond).
Against all the door pot–the ringing, contact tracing, neighborhood Whatsapping, is a mix of Westminster drama. Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) flexes on number 10, drawing fresh-faced hopes; Matt Hancock (Andrew Buchan) – here a health minister with a less than ideal boss – is doing his best to prepare for a situation that, for just about everyone, was unprecedented. But honestly, do we still care? The real Cummings, no doubt an important figure in British politics at the time, blogged a bit too often, tweeted too much to be more interesting. It doesn’t help that James Graham’s version of Cummings, played by a feverish Benedict Cumberbatch in 2019 Brexit: the uncivil war, was a more pungent and entertaining take. The drama around Hancock seems fresher, even if it cut before anything gets too juicy (Hancock’s affair with aide Gina Coladangelo is relegated to the epilogue).
It was a weird time, and weird times can make for good TV, but they’re usually not that close to such recent history. The crown, in its classy tale of glitzy royal gossip, gives it at least a few decades. For some viewers, it will be too much, too soon. The piling up deaths, the alleged lockdown failures, Barnard’s Castle: no, thank you. There was little mystery in this work in progress when it actually unfolded; we all watched the press conferences, read the headlines, updated our calendar. Seeing him again so soon seems masochistic, and worse, boring.
But for others, that might not go far enough. It presents the ongoing crises – both global and Johnson’s – as one long reel of news, saying nothing new about the pandemic (you might remember it was bad) let alone about the politicians in charge (who, you may also remember, people had a lot of opinions). This England is a simple show, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing. A linear account of turbulent times can be clarifying, even important, and the scenes of how UK care homes and family life are strained by Covid are undoubtedly evolving. But, inevitably, the series lacks tension, point of view.
Branagh – who certainly looks like a Johnson, if not Boris himself – and his relationship with Carrie is the most compelling part. Of course, we know little about their life together, but the drip of rumors has generated a lot of projections. Is Carrie the Lady Macbeth type, influencing Boris’ decision-making? Was she sidelined by a campaign led by Cummings? This England paints a nuanced picture of a political marriage, helped greatly by Lovibond’s pleasingly chic and lived-in performance, where all of this could be true. Carrie is by turns a worried pregnant woman, a privileged party girl, and someone who knows exactly how to pin down Boris (mostly referencing Churchill). It’s refreshing to see Lovibond breathing live someone most people will know as “Princess Nut Nut” (Cummings’ supposed nickname for her). For some, their domestic scenes will probably be unbearable. Do you want to watch the Prime Minister and his partner swim in the azure seas of Mustique? Doubtful! But it’s at least new territory for viewers and gives Winterbottom more breathing room.
Towards the end of the first episode, Boris and Carrie are lying on a sofa, watching a viral action thriller Contagion. Kate Winslet, playing the film’s doomsday doctor, explains what the R number is, a term no one had ever heard of that was suddenly everywhere. “It’s a bit like homework,” Branagh says as Boris, downing a glass of red. It’s a moment many will be familiar with – how things from disaster movies became everyday life. And, in that moment of connection, you surprise yourself: why did the British Prime Minister learn crucial scientific terminology from a 2011 Steven Soderbergh film?
Which of course he didn’t. Or did he? Because, given the erosion of our expectations of man, honestly, it seems quite plausible. It’s here, in the Johnsons’ private, imagined moments, that the drama of Winterbottom works best. Another playful example: Carrie’s baby shower, during which gifts are blue: not an indicator of the child’s gender, but of their likely political affiliations. The event is happening at Checkers, the Prime Minister’s vacation home in Buckinghamshire, as the virus spreads across the UK. It could be read as a moment of great insensitivity, with a dose of elitism. But as Lovibond recently told Esquire, “I’m playing the scene of an expectant mother having a baby shower. The thing is, this baby shower was during the pandemic, so what you, as a viewer , infer from this juxtaposition speaks for itself. This England finally hitting on something interesting.
In fact, it’s only in the moments where dramatic license is exercised, like the wine-on-the-couch and baby-shower scenes, that the show possesses a satirical spark. For the most part, the true story of what happened, the events as they actually unfolded, offer more bathos than the TV show can muster. (Johnson’s masterpiece of Shakespeare’s life? Still nowhere to be found.) Perhaps, like the characters at its center, Winterbottom’s drama should have taken a few extra liberties.
‘This England’ airs weekly on Sky Atlantic from September 28, while all episodes are available to stream
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