“Who on earth is going to want to watch that?” my housemate half-snorted, half genuinely enquired in December 2020. Arm extended towards our television, she was referring to an advert for Amazon Prime’s Songbird, Hollywood’s first Covid-themed thriller, in which the virus had mutated into Covid-23. I shrugged, perplexed that directors and producers thought the silver screen was ready to house stories of the pandemic, imagined or real. Issue put to bed for now, we returned to our third glass of wine and third puzzle of the day during Britain’s second lockdown. We were very hip and happening 23-year-olds, you know.
Nearly a year later, the French gave it a go. Dany Boon directed and starred in the Netflix comedy Stuck Together. It used the lives of the fictional residents in one Paris apartment block to poke fun and make light of the strange reality Parisians, and indeed everyone, found themselves in. Strangely, it succeeded. A hypochondriac father, played by Boon, morphs into Paris’s answer to Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, donning a snorkel mask to go out in public. On the floor above, another father panics that he’s caught the virus, flapping that he is unable to taste anything. His children tell him that he is safe – it’s just that his cooking has no real flavour.
It begs the question: when are the general public ready to consume recent real-life events on screen? Is it possible to strike a balance between being considered too soon and inappropriate and deemed too late, being met with a lack of interest? In This England, Michael Winterbottom takes on this charge, hoping to emerge as political drama’s Goldilocks.
This England revisits the first wave of the pandemic in six hour-long instalments, with Kenneth Branagh playing Boris Johnson and Ophelia Lovibond taking on Carrie. Considering the length of the time the virus dominated news cycles, this time frame feels minute. But then again, for a director, this was where the height of the dramatic tension lay. At this point, we’d never seen a pandemic before.
It is this factor that makes for sad watching (or arguably rewatching). Audiences are reminded of the empty streets, the longing for friends and family and quite frankly, how very ominous those early days felt. We had entered lockdown number one, without realising that it was part of a trilogy with the unimaginable yet to come.
From the first case in Wuhan to the first death in Italy and the then health secretary Matt Hancock referring to the virus as ‘this Covid thing”, it’s bizarre. On a personal note, the scenes exploring the first UK case discovered in York were particularly mind-boggling, purely for the reason that I was in the final year of my degree at York University in January 2020. I remember the rumours of the hazmat suit-wearing paramedics entering the Staycity apartment-hotel on the evening of the 29th. I remember the countless texts from my parents containing news stories paired with the captions that this was a bit too close to home. And, I remember the laughter that ensued when a housemate had shared that she’d seen said apocalyptically dressed paramedics that evening on Paragon Street, but had initially mistaken them for members of the drama society. How very little we knew.
Without leaving your seat, Winterbottom plonks you into a time machine, transforming you into the ghost of Covid past as you watch it all unravel again. Except in this version of the Dickens classic you’re muted, unable to warn characters of what is to come.
At the centre of all of this, naturally, is Boris Johnson. Branagh delivers a performance with spooky aural similarities to the real thing. He presents the man as a futile leader, with one foot in the past, both personally and politically. In between meetings, we watch as Johnson dashes off to ring his children – they always go to voicemail. His dialogue is studded with Latin, Greek and Shakespeare references as he tries to make some form of point. And all the while, he puts more effort into his new relationship with Carrie than into running the country. While this might sound closer to fact than fictionalised truth, some elements would have been best left to the imagination. Such as, for example, hearing the voice of Boris Johnson from behind a bedroom door, telling a giggling Carrie that power is an aphrodisiac.
At Johnson’s right hand is Dominic Cummings, played by Simon Paisley Day. It’s another ‘imagining’ that rings true, with its total disregard for any form of a Downing Street dress code and an off-the-charts scale arrogance, right to the political end. Joining the gruesome twosome other key figures, from a catapulted-to-power Rishi Sunak to then director of communications Lee Cain, with his colourful grasp of the English language. Rest assured, the gang’s all here.
Curiously, Winterbottom began dabbling with the idea of creating This England in June 2020. On that day, it was reported that 67 people died after contracting the virus. In hindsight, it’s an astonishingly small number compared to the months prior when we’d learn to process daily figures far greater than this. But, perhaps more striking is that Winterbottom chose then to begin his research. To set in motion the production of a feature that would explore a chapter of our history that’s not yet complete.
Perhaps this was the point. Winterbottom’s work tells all of our stories at once before news cycles dare to let them be lost to history. It’s a powerful reminder that This England, was, in fact, this England.
This England is streaming on Sky Atlantic and Now TV