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This England: Does Kenneth Branagh let Boris Johnson off the hook?

This England, starring Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson, shows the early days of the pandemic. It will trigger sorrow and fury. But are we ready?

Kenneth Branagh is terrifyingly good as Boris Johnson in new Sky series This England. His physicality and speech are uncannily reminiscent of the former Prime Minister. Branagh’s portrayal is so close to the real thing as to feel almost uncomfortable – with Michael Winterbottom’s dramatisation of the early days of the pandemic set to trigger despair, dismay, sorrow and, quite possibly, real fury in viewers. But are we ready?

This is recent history, recent tragedy, presented as drama-documentary. Real footage is intercut with a dramatic interpretation of what took place behind the scenes in government, in meeting rooms and in hospitals as the pandemic took hold in 2020.

Across six episodes, we witness a portrait of a Prime Minister completely out of his depth. The wrong man in the wrong place at the very wrong time. Boris Johnson, as depicted here, can’t even take responsibility for the care of the family dog Dilyn, let alone take charge of a country during a national emergency. Instead even dog duties are delegated to civil servants.

The series has a herky-jerky energy. Short scenes. Fast cuts. Panicked switches from Boris and Carrie Johnson in Downing Street, Chequers or on holiday in Mustique (paid for, of course, by a Conservative Party donor) to hospital wards becoming increasingly overrun, then on to Dominic Cummings and his maverick team of advisors given free rein to take charge of proceedings in Downing Street during the many absences of the Prime Minister. 

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“We don’t want to be distracted by events, we want to focus on long term strategy,” says Cummings (played, brilliantly, by Simon Paisley Day) in the opening moments. What follows, as catastrophic events are tackled with seemingly zero strategic thinking, would be ironic were it not so serious.

The overall effect is dizzying. Boris Johnson and his government seem completely out of control. Johnson is always performing – quick to quote Shakespeare, slow to seize the seriousness of the times, never fully engaged on the job in hand. This is a man shown to be constantly distracted. Always in a hurry. Never still. And, seemingly, never fully focused squarely on the vital job in hand. 

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This is why, when asked to deliver the message in an early Covid press conference about washing hands and avoiding unnecessary contact with others, he instead blusters and boasts of shaking hands with everyone he met during a recent trip to hospital. It is left to viewers to deduce that this buffoonery cost lives.  

Johnson is constantly playing catch up in his private life too. He wants to tell his children about his imminent wedding to, and baby with, Carrie before they read about it in the papers. But he only appears to talk to their voicemails. There is the book he knows he has to deliver (a Shakespeare biography, for which he has already been paid three times his Prime Ministerial salary as an advance).

As the crisis builds, Johnson misses or delays Cobra meetings for further trips away (but is back to raise a toast to celebrate of Brexit Day). Carrie Johnson and Cummings begin to lock horns. The depiction here is of a Prime Minister flailing, a chaotic presence in the eye of the biggest public health storm in centuries.

This England - a patient in a hospital bed is treated by doctors
This England – a traumatic, terrifying reminder of the early days of the pandemic. Image: Sky UK Ltd

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock (played by Andrew Buchan) is in charge of sourcing PPE and it is not going well. Again, the incompetence on display is almost funny. Almost.

But then the story cuts to a care home wanting to test 50 vulnerable residents after a case of Covid is detected. Computer says no. There are insufficient tests. They are only available to people already displaying symptoms.

“If the government was an employee of mine I’d sack them for gross negligence,” says one desperate, distraught care home manager as more of her residents get sick and die. We all know the catastrophic results of the governmental incompetence and inaction. But witnessing it like this is as vital as it is distressing.

Winterbottom also shows the quiet heroism. The seriousness of the SAGE scientists. Richard Horton and the journalists at the Lancet publishing quick turnaround, peer reviewed articles on the threat of the virus first detected in Wuhan – and his incredulity at the lack of swift response. The incredible work of the vaccine scientists at the Jenner Institute – Professor Teresa Lambe and Professor Sarah Gilbert and their teams – creating a vaccine within 48 hours of the Covid-19 genome being shared.

Winterbottom’s attempts to depict all sides of the pandemic is most effective at these moments. He highlights the successes in the vaccine development as happening despite, not because of government action.

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This England builds and builds. A short scene of an elderly woman in a care home talking to loved ones via Zoom precedes a shot of Dominic Cummings watching the late Queen’s speech about Britons making sacrifices for the greater good. The Barnard Castle story is about to break. And the Prime Minister becoming increasingly sick with Covid himself. Care homes are at breaking point due to the lack of PPE.

There was so much news to take in at during the pandemic. Crisis after crisis. Tragedy after tragedy. This England serves as a vital reminder of key moments in the response to the pandemic. The chances to act missed. The way politics rather than scientific advice and expertise guided too many decisions. The lack of care for the most vulnerable people in our society.

It may be due to Branagh’s soulful performance, his ability to go deep into character with such empathy and skill, that Johnson never feels truly held to account by This England. The person in charge of the country is instead shown as a hostage to events, a passive player, an oddly peripheral figure. But if This England largely lets Johnson off the hook for what took place on his watch, it is a stark reminder of the timeline of trauma and loss, the national crisis, and the poor response from the most powerful people in the country.

This England is available now on Sky Atlantic and Now

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