It may be two and a half years since the UK started feeling the impact of Covid-19, but the pandemic’s after-effects on society persist. The UK is in the middle of an inflation crisis caused in part by the lockdowns, and we have a new prime minister after a succession of scandals brought down the last one. So when does “current affairs” become “history”? And when it comes to turning the recent past into fictionalised drama, how soon is too soon?
This is the question that stalks This England, a six-part miniseries that tells the story of the first phase of the coronavirus outbreak. Due to air on Sky Atlantic at the end of this month, it is directed by Michael Winterbottom and stars Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson. Winterbottom told me he was approached about the project in June 2020 – just as Britain was coming out of the first lockdown. Speaking via Zoom from an airy room of his house in London, the director explains his rationale for wanting to capture this moment now.
“There was this shared experience,” he said, comparing the nationwide Covid restrictions with the limitations of war-time Britain. “Think about all the dramas that revisit and rehash the Second World War endlessly. Here’s a chance to engage with something which has that certain uniqueness – but engage with it now, as soon as possible after it happened, as opposed to trying to recreate a war story from 70 years ago.”
This England focuses on the early months of the pandemic – beginning with reports of a strange new “Wuhan flu” and ending on the bombshell revelations of Dominic Cummings’s rule-breaking trip to Durham. The government’s indecisiveness over introducing a lockdown, the scramble over personal protective equipment and the then-prime minister’s own life-threatening experience with the virus are also explored. The most surreal moments from the pandemic are all here: Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) editing old blog posts in an attempt to seem prescient; Carrie Johnson (played brilliantly by Ophelia Lovibond) fixating on the guest list for her baby shower; Matt Hancock (Andrew Buchan) desperately trying to ramp up testing figures by any means necessary.
These performances are all strong, but the draw for most viewers will be Branagh’s take on Johnson. Transformed by prosthetics, Branagh bears an uncanny resemblance to the former PM, and successfully captures his quirks: the booming voice, the bumbling mannerisms, and even the infuriating charm – which, as the series progresses, turns pitiable and desperate. The first episode opens with real footage of Johnson campaigning to become Conservative Party leader; Branagh is seamlessly introduced through a convincing recreation of a recognisable photo of Johnson and Carrie celebrating on the night of his 2019 election victory.
Branagh’s first lines as Johnson are a rousing victory celebration, in which he compares himself to the Emperor Augustus and promises 2020 will be a year of hope and prosperity; later, we see him declaiming in ancient Greek and struggling to write his (presumably still unfinished) biography of Shakespeare when he should be focusing on the pandemic. “He pictures himself in relation to these historical figures,” Winterbottom told me, and “inserts himself into whatever he’s writing about”. This England punctures such delusions of grandeur: as Covid cases rise, Johnson recites overblown, irrelevant speeches yet can’t find the words to tell his adult children about his and Carrie’s imminent baby, and refuses to clean up after his untrained dog Dilyn.
This type of wry, anarchic humour is typical of Winterbottom, but he maintains that the show does not ridicule Johnson. “We weren’t trying to do a comedy or make fun of him.” If anything, Winterbottom seems to have some sympathy for Johnson, whose lockdown life in No 10 the director sees as “pretty suffocating, pretty depressing. We tried to imagine his life from that point of view.”
Johnson was undoubtedly under huge professional pressure in this period. “At the same time, he’s also about to have a baby, he’s also divorcing his wife, he’s also got problems in his relationships with his four children from his wife – and he almost dies,” said Winterbottom – who had to temporarily step away from directing This England due to his own period of ill health. “His family life was incredibly intense and difficult in this period.”
And despite This England’s focus on Johnson’s flaws – his weakness, dithering and impressionable nature – Winterbottom reiterates that the show’s role is not to criticise. “People make mistakes, but the starting point was we assumed that everyone responded in what they thought was the best way. I think that’s a legitimate assumption,” he told me. “Afterwards, people can think for themselves about whether they feel [they were] right or wrong.”
This is not the first time Winterbottom, 61, has been inspired by real events. Born and raised in Blackburn, Lancashire, he has made at least one film a year since his debut in 1995. The range of genres and topics is dizzying: from science fiction (Code 46) to sexually explicit romance (9 Songs). He has adapted a Thomas Hardy novel (Jude), directed a self-referential mockumentary starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (The Trip and its sequels), and released a number of documentaries and dramas on hard-hitting geopolitical themes: In This World, The Road to Guantánamo, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
As with Winterbottom’s previous projects which take inspiration from real-life events, the research process for This England has been extensive and meticulous. Hours of interviews were conducted for the series – with not only Westminster insiders but doctors, patients, care workers and scientists.
In fact, while This England’s list of Covid celebrities is dizzying (it features fictionalised versions of Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance, Jenny Harries, Dido Harding, Neil Ferguson, Sarah Gilbert and Kate Bingham), they are outnumbered by depictions of ordinary people whose stories begin with a cough and end on ventilators or in isolation rooms. Although the epicentre of the drama is Downing Street, much of the action takes place in hospital wards, care homes, testing labs, factories, and the bedrooms and kitchens of Covid patients.
The hyperrealism of the resulting scenes (some care home residents play themselves) makes them harrowing to watch – but that realism, Winterbottom argued, is the point. “It really did happen. Tens of thousands [of] people died.” It is clear that he is most proud of these sequences. “Most of the individual stories we have of patients are versions of stories people told us,” he explained, and described the process of collating individual pandemic experiences as the “most satisfying” part. He was struck by everything these individuals “went through, the work they did, the incredible kind of hours and effort and sacrifices people made”.
Winterbottom is reluctant to speculate on what political message or social commentary This England might posit to audiences. Drama, he believes, “shouldn’t be ramming something down their throat”. Are there any conclusions to be drawn about the state of our nation from the events the programme portrays? “It’s not a metaphor for something else.” As a keen observer of the human condition and British identity, does he have any thoughts on the national reaction to the death of the Queen? “I don’t have anything interesting to say about it.”
One of the few things he has a strong opinion on is the show’s title. Originally, the series was to be called “This Sceptred Isle”, from the same speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II that “This England” is taken from – a speech Branagh quotes from twice, in the first and last episodes, with very different connotations.
Winterbottom liked the implications of the initial name: the delusion Britain sometimes has that, as an island, it is insulated from global forces – even if, as the pandemic proved for the director, “We’re integrated, we’re not an island in any meaningful sense.” But “This Sceptred Isle” was deemed too obscure a title. “It wasn’t my choice,” he said.
Still, he insisted that “what I definitely was not trying to do was take a general idea about what I think about England and impose it on the pandemic – the opposite”. It may be too soon for some, but for Michael Winterbottom, the purpose of the show remains clear. “It’s very simple, what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Just to try and show what happened.”
[See also: How Boris Johnson comes back]