This England Sky Atlantic
Are we ready for a dramatised version of the coronavirus pandemic? Until now it’s a question on which the streaming giants have seemed uncertain. Some recent series, like And Just Like That..., have all but ignored it. Others have nodded toward the reality of the last few years, with characters wearing masks.
Producers of medical shows, like The Good Doctor, realising they could hardly gloss over the greatest health emergency of our generation, have dutifully quarried it for worthy human interest storylines, packaged as a tribute to frontline staff.
The makers of This England, a new Sky series, probably made much the same calculation. They could hardly, they must have thought, make six episodes – each around the hour mark – about the UK under Boris Johnson without showing the pandemic. And so they have gone all in.
The tick-tock of Covid’s arrival into Britain is presented as a Contagion-type thriller. The virus’s progress – which moves from the notorious Wuhan wet market to the French ski resort where coronavirus made landfall in Europe and eventually to the overwhelmed hospitals of the home counties – is flagged in ‘classified’ typeface.
The case count – a figure that only recently was still terrorising us from the headlines – ticks up on the screen in more typeface.
We see old people being isolated at nursing homes. We watch a man suffocate to death from the illness (and barely learn anything else about him). We see healthcare administrators and hospital workers thoroughly overwhelmed, as they try to work around PPE shortages, etc. And it all feels like a case of... too soon.
There is a parallel-esque exploration of the Johnson premiership
We’ve just lived through the sodding thing. To see it reworked in this exhaustive and exhausting detail is just a bit previous, almost as if the makers of The Crown were to shoehorn Elizabeth II’s death into their new series. Journalism may be a first draft of history, but we expect television drama to be a second or third draft.
Mercifully, there is something of a reprieve built into This England. Interspersed with all the Covid stuff, there is a parallel West Wing-esque exploration of the Johnson premiership.
Admittedly this, too, is painfully recent, but Irish viewers may be ready for a dramatisation of the fatally bumbling, compulsively dissembling PM. All the more so because he’s played by an Irishman, Kenneth Branagh, who – reminiscent of Brendan Gleeson’s performance as Donald Trump – manages to capture Johnson’s theatricality, bombast and calculation without ever making it feel like an impression.
While the death count creeps upward, our protagonist blusters into meeting rooms quoting Shakespeare, tinkers with a book he’s writing on Churchill, bleats out Brexit slogans, and leaves sheepish voicemails for the many children he’s fathered.
The portrayal of his cabinet discussions as the gravity of the situation dawns is fascinating.
Writer-director Michael Winterbottom depicts rule by focus group, with Dominic Cummings (a masterclass in tetchy self-importance from Simon Paisley Day) mostly being as horrendous as you might expect, but occasionally uttering thoughts which might seem more sensible in hindsight.
Pensioners enjoyed “double-lock” safety through austerity, he points out, before wondering what shutting down the economy would do for “generational justice”.
Matt Hancock comes out so well you almost begin to suspect he helped with the script. And perhaps most controversially of all, Winterbottom gives us a Johnson whose waking blitheness is belied by his conscience, which visits him in his dreams in the form of a Greek chorus.
It will be a dramatic licence too far for those who felt the evidence showed BoJo was never bothered by scruples, but I found it admirable that for all the haste in bringing it out, this series at least had something new to say about him.
And I wanted more of that aspect of it. This would have been far better, and easier to watch, if Winterbottom had focused purely on the personalities and politics, with the pandemic indicated rather than shown.
We don’t need the whole of World War II for a series on Churchill, and some interesting Boris revisionism would have been more palatable without what felt like every spit and cough of a trauma we are trying to forget.
Like Whitney Houston, who starred in the movie of the same name, this series began brilliantly and ended messily. Richard Madden is hotter than Kevin Costner, however, and the sexual tension between him and the politician sustains interests until the script goes off the rails.
The uninitiated may be astonished to see how much drama can be wrung out of thwarted healthcare bills and cabinet machinations in a tiny European country (Denmark), but this series does all that and gives us a politician – Birgitte Nyborg – we can actually root for.
The West Wing
There is a sleepy nostalgia that creeps over the viewer who delves back into this classic series. Maybe it’s because it presents the kind of government we wish America had, where the winner in the end is always the guy (or girl) who gives the best speech.