From a distance Kenneth Branagh, the undoubted star of Michael Winterbottom’s pandemic drama This England, does indeed resemble Boris Johnson: behold the striding stoop, the gibbon arm-swing, the head always tipped down slightly, almost as if he’s half expecting a slap to the face. And of course, the blonde mop, now rapidly thinning. But move closer, and the effect is somewhat lost. Now the actor looks more like Johnson’s father, Stanley, after a bad facelift – though this is not as comical as it sounds. The prosthetics make Johnson seem pathetic, in the fullest sense of that word: vulnerable, inadequate, enfeebled. From this spongy pinkness a pair of tiny eyes peer out. They plead for understanding, for courage, for a brief respite from the awful business of being oneself.
Has Winterbottom been too kind to Johnson? Perhaps. This England’s script may be merciless at points, but it also pays almost as much attention to the prime minister’s seeming loneliness as it does to his government’s ugly and egregious failures in the face of Covid 19. Johnson, by this telling, has no true friends, a stupid and self-obsessed fiancée (a delicious performance by Ophelia Lovibond) to whom he cannot really talk, and adult children who refuse to take his telephone calls. Around him, as if in a play by Shakespeare, the subject of his long overdue book, the cast divides roughly into plotters and anarchists; even his Jack Russell, Dilyn, is against him, an un-biddable beast. Lee Cain (Derek Barr), the tabloid hack who was director of communications at Downing Street, is depicted as a yob, and Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) as a whispering henchman, forever dripping poison into ears. As for fools, there are several worthy of jester bells, but let us plump in the first instance for Matt Hancock, the randy little health secretary, brilliantly impersonated by Andrew Buchan. The steepled fingers, the piping voice, the middle-management self importance: he has quietly caught them all.
What an odd and oddly repellent thing This England turns out to be. Is it documentary or drama? Winterbottom, his co-writer Kieron Quirke, and his co-director Julian Jarrold seem not to know the answer to this question. Though their recreations of events in hospitals, nursing homes and ordinary houses up and down the country are naturalistic and convincing, they’re also relentless, and while you might say that this is just as it should be (the pandemic was horrifyingly relentless), they sit uncomfortably – distastefully, even – with those scenes set in Downing Street or at Chequers, which have a more satirical bent. The people we see dying, or fighting to save lives, are too numerous and geographically disparate, and we meet them only very briefly, their agony set to unceasing electronic music, as if they were in a pop video. Thanks to this, we never become fully involved with them, for all that the scenes are distressing to watch (I hardly could, sometimes). Our dramatic relationship is always with Boris and co, who get all the best lines, which induced in me a terrible and growing feeling of neglect and complicity.
I was ashamed that Carrie’s baby shower (all her pals invited to Chequers) held more interest for me than what was happening in intensive care units – or, at any rate, that I was glad of the comic relief it provided. And I was worn down, too, by the repetitiveness of both narratives: ventilator after ventilator spliced with yet another shallow little FaceTime conversation between Boris the “bear” and his “otter” Carrie. This England is unnecessarily long, and having watched four episodes (of six), finally I could take no more. Winterbottom, I felt, had long since made his point, which is basically that when catastrophe came calling on these shores, the worst – the craziest and most disturbed – prime minister in living memory was in office, a man stymied not only by personal entitlement, sexual incontinence, bloated grandiloquence and deluded self-belief, but also by the fact that he’d carefully surrounded himself with bullies, morons, ideologues and, yes, Michael Gove.
Is it “too soon” for a series like this? No. The very notion is ridiculous. The BBC screened its documentary series Hospital Special: Fighting Covid-19, in May 2020; Jack Thorne’s drama, Help, set in a care home during the pandemic, went out on Channel 4 in September 2021. Both were horrifying. Both spoke eloquently of everyday heroism, stoicism and kindness as well as of the shame that should be heaped on Johnson’s government like manure over a field. And both, alas, were wiser and more deeply considered than This England. Elected politicians in this country have for too long been treated as minor celebrities by the media and Winterbottom, I’m afraid, has caught that corrosive disease. Johnson and Branagh’s portrayal of Johnson – indisputably, two show stoppers – distracted him I think, and thus tragedy became farce, a Rada-alumni-and-Old-Etonian end-of-the-pier double act that eventually sent me out into the bar in search of a refund and a strong drink.