Review: This England (Sky Atlantic)

AMONG the programmes postponed following the Queen’s death was the premiere of Michael Winterbottom’s much-trailed drama about the British Government’s response to Covid. With mourning now over, This England airs tonight on Sky Atlantic.

Having watched all six hours I can safely say that Boris Johnson and those closest to him might wish the mourning period could have gone on for longer. Say 30 years? Sixty? It is going to take some time to wash off these stains.

This England is as brutal as only drama can be, despite only telling half the story. Covering the first wave of the pandemic, it stops before the Downing Street parties start.

The former Prime Minister is played by Ken Branagh, the Belfast-born, Oscar-winning, Shakespeare-whispering knight of the realm. Despite the layers of prosthetics he is not a dead ringer for his subject, looking more like Johnson senior. The voice is similarly patchy. Our Ken is no Jon Culshaw.

“This is a fiction based on real events,” says a caption as This England gets underway. It is 2019 and Johnson has won the leadership. Footage of him in Downing Street is followed by the sound of slap and tickle from a bedroom. The demon captioner is back: “Boris and Carrie’s baby was born nine months after they moved into Downing Street.” Nudge nudge, wink wink, eh?

Moving on to early 2020, and Covid has begun its spread around the world with a vengeance. Yet the Government is slow to act on lockdown, on testing, on protective equipment. The only area they excel in is fighting among themselves, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock (Andrew Buchan giving us peak smarminess) and Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) going at each other like ferrets in a sack.

Cummings gets a tougher time here than in Brexit: The Uncivil War, which flattered him by casting Benedict Cumberbatch in the role. While he is shown to be correct in some of his assessments, he is portrayed as just as much of a plonker as the rest of them.

Also having a bad time of it is Carrie Johnson (Ophelia Lovibond), who at one point is seen on the toilet. In general, Carrie is portrayed as a mix of lightweight and arch plotter, a princess type who asks too much of her husband even while his kingdom crumbles.

There is a good running joke featuring Boris or Carrie asking some poor staffer to look after their dog Dilyn, handing over a poo bag as they do so. What a pair, always expecting other people to clear up their mess.

But what of Boris? Branagh delivers an intriguing portrait. There is learned Boris, spouting Greek and quoting Churchill; blokey Boris, with a hello for everyone; naughty Boris; bad tempered Boris. Yet there is also the Boris who is prone to having Churchill’s black dogs of depression at his heel; the Boris who is kind to his beloved mother, who gets up at night to feed the baby. Above all there is the Boris who came close to dying from Covid.

Lying in a hospital bed, his breathing laboured, his body lashed with sweat, yet still trying to give the nurses and doctors the thumbs-up.

Even unconscious he cannot get a break, his dreams filled with Bergmanesque women bewailing his faithlessness.

Going over the top comes with the territory, as the director of Greed and 24 Hour Party People knows. There are other flaws in This England, its title taken from the soliloquy beautifully delivered by Branagh. It is sprawling and baggy and yes, it should have touched on the parties. To leave them out is like making a drama about the Titanic and omitting the iceberg.

Yet all is forgiven when it comes to This England’s portrayal of the pandemic’s real heroes. The doctors and the nurses and the cleaners and everyone else who gave their all; the carers; the scientists, the patients who made it through and the 207,000 who did not. Winterbottom’s cameras are by their side, sparing the viewer little. There are warnings of distressing scenes but nothing can prepare you for the suffering and grief portrayed here.

This England is not the definitive drama about those times, it is too early for that. But it is a start. In its anger, its determination to call the powerful to account, there’s a swagger about This England that deserves to be saluted.

Sky Atlantic/NOW, 9pm tonight

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