You hear the voice, and then you see the hair. Boris Johnson left Downing Street only two weeks ago, but here he is again, back on television already, quoting Roman emperors. Yet something important has changed. Squint past the bird’s nest, and you realise the face belongs to Kenneth Branagh. The actor has been cast as the former prime minister in This England, a six-part dramatisation of the first wave of the Covid pandemic in Britain.
Like a government, a production of this scale has many captains. But chief among them is film-maker Michael Winterbottom, who multitasks as producer, co-director of the first and last episodes, and co-writer of all six.
Today he is at home in Norfolk, and has the air of a busy family GP. He speaks with relief about Branagh taking the role. While the series aims to reflect the breadth of the British experience with Covid — taking in care homes and hospitals as well as ministers and special advisers (spads) — Johnson is its largest moving part, a character who calls for an actor of heft. “You can’t underestimate how hard Boris is to play,” Winterbottom says. “So much of what anyone sees is already a performance — and a performance of endless onion layers. None of us know where it stops.”
To some, the very rise of Johnson to the top was proof of a screwed up Britain. They may find This England a surprisingly sympathetic portrait, the principal rendered as a harried middle-aged chief executive with a new partner in Carrie Symonds (Ophelia Lovibond) and a baby on the way; adult children with whom he would like to have better relationships; money worries; erratic colleagues; finally the case of Covid that saw him hospitalised himself. (Inflammatory quotes from his time in journalism turn up in dream sequences, plaguing his conscience.)
“I can see people might say we went too easy,” Winterbottom says. “We definitely wanted to humanise him.” The “Boris strand” of the series eventually grows speculative. “So our Boris is more self-reflecting than it turns out he probably is in real life. Maybe our version is closer to the person Britain wishes he had been.”
The series ends with the ebb of the first wave in June 2020. Filmed and edited throughout the pandemic, research began in the strange lull of that same summer. Scientists and NHS staff were among those interviewed, Winterbottom and his team creating a timeline in order to build up a narrative mosaic. The Johnson camp was approached; there was no response, Winterbottom says.
Senior Downing Street advisers were more forthcoming, however, even then. “I was surprised how willing they were to talk. But I realised I’d been naive about spads. I’d always assumed they had actual specialist knowledge, but in fact they’re all ex-journalists and comms people. So talking is what they do.”
On paper, the logic behind the series is obvious. Winterbottom has long zigzagged between conventional fiction and dramas rooted in news. His films include The Face of an Angel, riffing on the case of Amanda Knox, and Greed, with Steve Coogan playing a proxy of fallen Topshop impresario Philip Green. And This England — billed as a “fiction based on real events” — is the kind of project the TV industry feels good about producing, an of-the-moment epic putting cats among pigeons. Yet less obvious is who or what it is really made for: an audience or the record?
Winterbottom doesn’t see the question as either/or. “I just think British television should at least try to capture something as momentous as what the country has gone through.”
He also knows the buzz around the series comes from the promised glimpse behind the curtain into a famously chaotic Number 10. For many, the resulting picture of focus groups and acrid rivalries will already seem familiar. It still makes grimly compulsive viewing.
But as a snapshot of Downing Street in lockdown, you also note the lack of the office parties that would later help undo Johnson. News of them was still to break when the script was being written. Even when it did, however, Winterbottom resisted talk of amending his storyline. Only one party fell within the timeframe, he argues, which was always designed to end with the revelations around Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle. And dramatically, he says, the parties would only echo a point already made by that first scandal. “Public discovery that the people making the rules weren’t following them all started with Cummings,” Winterbottom says.
The former chief adviser to the prime minister may be an especially unhappy viewer. His portrait here is some way from the electoral savant played by Benedict Cumberbatch in another political re-enactment, 2019’s Brexit: The Uncivil War. Now played by Simon Paisley Day, this Cummings is not just a workplace nightmare, but an emptier vessel than often imagined. A key role is taken by the personal blog illicitly re-edited to make it appear he had forecast Covid before the pandemic.
Yet he might also see the series as vindication. A key takeaway from Winterbottom’s research is a Russian doll of state dysfunction, starting — as Cummings loudly complained — with the physical flaws of Downing Street.
“Obviously this government had a particular character, but the problems go much deeper,” Winterbottom says. “Number 10 itself makes no sense as a centre of government — an upstairs flat over a few cramped offices. But the NHS has all these structural issues too, because it’s been reformed to be at once a set of autonomous bodies and a top-down pyramid. The common thread is paralysing complexity.”
If 2020 was a trial for everyone, Winterbottom was no exception. Greed came out in February of that year; Covid had already reached the UK. By the summer, he was working on This England when his mother was taken to hospital in the family’s northwestern home town of Blackburn. Local hospitals were still not admitting visitors. While his brother was finally allowed in to see her, she died unexpectedly before Winterbottom could be. “It’s strange. I’d heard the stories early in lockdown about people not being able to visit relatives in hospital, and I remember thinking: ‘Well, I would never allow bureaucracy to stop me.’ And then I ended up in exactly that position.”
Still, This England is careful not to apportion blame. “We took huge pains not to editorialise. Which is tricky across a six-hour drama when you’re showing so many crucial decisions being made, or not made.” For all the allure of Downing Street psychodrama, it keeps the lens wide as well, making space for less celebrated lives caught up in the national crisis. “When I was writing, I realised I was absolutely as interested in what was happening in Nottingham care homes as the inside of Boris Johnson’s head,” Winterbottom says.
But of course that mystery still demanded attention. This has always been Johnson’s gift. As Branagh’s blond likeness now lures in viewers, so conversation keeps returning to the original. An inevitable question to end on: does Winterbottom expect a political comeback, a Downing Street sequel? “You know, I actually don’t think so. Won’t he just want to go off and make a lot of money?”
On Sky Atlantic and Now from September 28