In an interview, Ophelia Lovibond described the project as “trying to help make sense of a really confusing time through drama”. Kenneth Branagh suggested: “Any way of understanding it better is important.”
It’s a laudable aim but on these terms, This England is a failure. How can we “make sense” of something as senseless as a pandemic? And while we are, as a nation, still coming to terms with the events depicted on screen. Indeed, they are still unfolding. The rapidity with which this was made seems bizarre. And why “a fiction based on real events” rather than a documentary? It used to be said that journalism provides the first draft of history. Now, it seems, hard on journalism’s heels, comes a high-profile six-part drama.
This England also contains what feel like serious missteps, such as the Johnson dream sequences, for instance. Several of these surreal black-and-white episodes would not look out of place in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There are cowled figures standing by a river and a sombre-looking Carrie holding a screaming baby while some of Johnson’s adult children intone quasi-mystical reproaches to their father. Johnson is a public figure and therefore, arguably, fair game. His children are not.
Then there is that clunking dramatic irony. In the first episode Johnson gives a triumphant post-election speech to jubilant staff at Conservative Party HQ, promising that 2020 will be “a year of prosperity, growth and hope”. Cut to a shot of thousands of bats flying from a cave and then a shot of a Chinese wet market. Subtle it ain’t.
However, the performances are terrific. Admittedly, Branagh, who apparently spent two hours in make-up every day, looks less like Boris Johnson than he does a man who has spent two hours in make-up, but it doesn’t matter because he has the politician’s speech patterns and physicality and is utterly convincing. Lovibond as Symonds is tremendous. One of the series’ most powerful images that does not involve a death is when a distraught, heavily pregnant Carrie emails the seriously ill prime minister a scan of their unborn child with the message “We both love you”. The scene in which she holds their newborn son for the first time provides a very welcome moment of joy. Meanwhile, Paisley Day plays Cummings as a ruthless, borderline obsessive who is by some measure the least sympathetic character in the piece. You would love to be a fly on the wall if Day and Cummings ever meet.
Yet This England’s adherence to actual events strips it of some key elements of a traditional drama. It’s difficult to build dramatic tension, for example, when we already know what happens to Johnson, Hancock, Cummings and the rest. Character development – usually a character adapts and changes over the course of a story – is tricky to do when your characters are real people. There’s a half-hearted attempt to give Johnson a “lessons learned” narrative arc, but it’s not entirely persuasive. And, again, it’s difficult to see what the point of it all is. Viewers who sit through the entirety of this often-harrowing series might be reminded of another Shakespeare line and wonder if, ultimately, this isn’t a tale “full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing”.
This England is on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW on 28 September.
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