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.
“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.