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This England, Sky Atlantic review - how Boris's No 10 got Covid wrong | reviews, news & interviews

This England, Sky Atlantic review - how Boris's No 10 got Covid wrong

This England, Sky Atlantic review - how Boris's No 10 got Covid wrong

Kenneth Branagh gets Boris (mostly) right, but what does this docudrama hope to achieve?

Big dog, grey day: Kenneth Branagh as Boris JohnsonSky UK Ltd

From underneath the messy ash-white thatch of hair, a strange mooing suddenly issues: Sir Kenneth Branagh is wrestling with Boris Johnson’s odd way of saying the “oo” sound. It’s a brave attempt but ultimately a bit wayward, rather like the drama series Branagh is starring in, This England, Michael Winterbottom’s six-part reconstruction of Boris’s early days as PM, Covid, lockdown and all. 

Branagh has certainly captured the former PM’s stance, arms held unnaturally behind him, shoulders hunched, trousers at risk of dropping as he shuffles in and out of a quick succession of government offices and posh ministerial retreats, punning and jesting as he goes. Who better than Branagh to spout Shakespeare, Churchill, Caesar and Pericles, as his Boris is made to do every time he enters a room, even if he does slip into an Afrikaans accent at times? 

CarrieBut what – who – are we watching here? Each episode begins with an ominous warning: this is “fiction based on real events”. Immediately, we have to be on the alert, trying to assess how much of each scene is “real” and how much fictionalised. And as ordinary viewers, obviously we can’t. We recognise the events we all lived through, but what went on behind closed doors we are in no position to know.

Take Boris’s Brexit Day jingoistic speech to the nation, full of empty assurances about the nation’s great future. So far, so accurate. But then we see him addressing his team privately later, amid cork-popping and riotous braying, sounding out the parts of John of Gaunt’s speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II that suit him, about our “sceptr’d isle”. Did this happen? Or is that speech there just so Winterbottom can set Boris up for another speech in the closing moments of the series, as UK Covid deaths soar, where he completes John of Gaunt’s speech, with its reference to “That England... [that] hath made a shameful conquest of itself”. Has Boris ever been that sombrely circumspect and regretful? Give the scene to a tragedian as practised as Branagh, and it is bound to sing. But is this bit of fictionalising in aid of truth or, just as likely, dramatic impact?

Throughout This England, we are asked to submit to its imagined vision of Boris v Covid, as the price of admission. I would have preferred a fully fledged documentary, like the films made by the BBC’s Hospital strand at the Royal Free, with added political commentary by people working at No 10 at the time or observing its machinations as journalists (surprisingly, the latter aren’t really in the picture in This England until Pippa Crerar and others investigate Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle visit more than halfway through; Tim Shipman of The Sunday Times acted as consultant to the series).

Take off the table the issue of whether Winterbottom’s fictions are true or not, and we are left with a series of entertaining impersonations, spliced with very poignant chunks of ordinary people’s lives as they battle Covid (and succumb to it). Some of these impersonations have substance, such as Jeremy Seal‘s Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, holding his own against a vituperative Cummings (Simon Paisley Day, even more wraithlike than the real thing, pictured below), but, for all the Shakespeare quoted, there isn’t a villain here worthy of the bard’s writing skills. 

CummingsCummings is depicted as a monomaniac whose only strategies are to focus-group an issue and give people the sack. He’s on the side of winning at all costs. His attempt at running No 10’s policy is so nakedly ambitious that even Carrie Symonds notices what’s happening (Ophelia Lovibond is a spitting image, pictured above) and starts poisoning the PM’s ear against him. Did she? Cummings is hardly an Iago, not even a cold Henry Bolingbroke to Boris’s jolly Falstaff (whom the PM doesn’t seem to quote). Even health minister Matt Hancock (an excellent turn from Andrew Buchan) seems more glib and cocky than malicious, impressively forceful in his demands for thousands more track and tracing kits. His slip shows when he doesn’t reach his announced target and then finds a fudge to make his sums seem to add up.

Meanwhile, Carrie is made to act like a Sloaney Marie Antoinette, asking Boris to consult Chris Whitty about a personal health matter as he is fighting the pandemic, arranging a baby shower even as people start dying and lockdown looms. Her concerns, other than giving birth, seem to revolve around going on holidays and getting the family out of No 10. Did she really behave like that? It echoes sentiments in the press and oils the wheels of the drama, but how do we know? She and Boris are like a panto pairing, denied full dramatic density because the script is busy making them seem out of touch and wrong-headed. The memorable characters here are the victims: the skeletal elderly residents of care homes and their distraught staff, an ailing Black care worker and his wife and young family.

Some of the comic touches in the piece work well, such as the running gag of Boris phoning all of his many children to tell them family news, one by one; also, his stylised nightmares, purportedly his children intoning on the banks of the Styx. As the episodes progress, an insistent drumming on the soundtrack becomes louder, attempting to ratchet up the tension further. But there is no last-act crisis or resolution in sight: we know the pandemic will continue into 2022, with different strains emerging to plague us. Lee Cain (Derek Barr), the foul-mouthed comms director at No 10, will quit before 2020 is up, as will Sedwill and Cummings, though none of these departures is fictionally re-enacted. 

Instead, we get the predictable end-captions about total UK infections and deaths by May 2020 and, for extra firepower, footage of the real Cummings usefully telling a select committee that lockdown was called too late, that ministers failed and that leaving the nation’s fate to advisers like him was “crackers”. Happy to agree with him there, but a more forensic approach would have hit harder. As some of the families who lost loved ones in care homes are now taking legal action against the government, we can look forward to that, revisiting all these events again without the prosthetics and knee-jerk Bard-bait. 

Carrie is made to act like a Sloaney Marie Antoinette, arranging a baby shower even as people start dying

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Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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KENNETH BRANAGH MY LONDONGRAD – BORIS JOHNSON’S LEGACY Kenneth Branagh should have called "This England" My Londongrad and had Russian puppets playing Larry the Cat and Dilyn The Dog and of course emulating the puppet master Carrie. Why? First ask yourself why hasn’t MI5 thoroughly investigated Russian interference in British politics? Why should anyone believe Johnson put his country before himself or believe his anti-Russian rhetoric? In 2016 when campaigning for Brexit he accused the EU of provoking Russia’s attacks on Ukraine. Indeed, Johnson/Cummings delivered Brexit beyond Putin's wildest dreams. Combine Brexit with Trump's divisiveness and no wonder Putin concluded the USA/EU/UK/NATO club was a crippled anachronism. There is some curious fact based research published on the web by Bill Fairclough (ex-spook codename JJ and author of The Burlington Files autobiographical espionage series) about Boris Johnson et al called Britain's Dismal Dossier on Russian Political Infiltration. He puts forward hard evidence to support the facts that many past British Prime Ministers (and one US President) have been compromised by Russian intelligence usually prior to becoming political bigwigs. Dozens of other Tory Party supporters including Cummings, MPs et al with Russian leanings are named in the article. Any of them, Trump, Johnson and Cummings included, could have been unwittingly manipulated. After all, flattery is a narcissist's best friend. In fact, Kenneth Branagh could have made hay while the sun shines with this research. Google TheBurlingtonFiles and in the News Section select the article for July 21, 2021. You might also want to read Bill Fairclough’s biographical novel Beyond Enkription – it’s a must read for espionage cognoscente.

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