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'Brilliantly realised': Lord Vaizey reviews 'This England'

Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in the new drama series, 'This England' | Image courtesy of Sky UK Ltd

3 min read

Well-written and totally absorbing, this six-part drama depicting events from the first lockdown is played to perfection

This England is going to be the must-see political drama this autumn, appealing to Westminster insiders and the general public in equal measure. Over six hour-long episodes, the series takes us on a journey towards and through the first lockdown, culminating in the discovery of Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to Barnard Castle. It’s a period of just two months, but it feels like a lifetime, and indeed a lifetime ago.

Contrary to expectations, the series was not commissioned by the wokey-lefty-Tory-hating BBC but the capitalist in tooth and claw Sky Studios. This means you will have to pay to see it. But it doesn’t mean it is in any way sympathetic to the government. All the key charges over the handling of the pandemic are brought to bear: failure to lock down in time, discharging patients from care homes, inadequate testing, dodgy PPE contracts and everything in between. Weary doctors comment regularly on the government’s idiocy. But at the time, everyone was learning on the job, and every country got things wrong. The series could well be renamed “This Hindsight”.

Dom Cummings, played by Simon Paisley Day, is deeply, deliciously unpleasant

The star of the show – no question – is Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson. The drama switches between the action in Downing Street, and ordinary people’s experiences on the frontline. But at its heart is prosthetic Branagh, made up to be the spitting image of our ex-PM. And he plays him to perfection, adopting mannerisms you won’t have noticed before, moving seamlessly between light and shade. He makes Boris the most nuanced of the central characters, and is utterly compelling. There is one element of caricature; Branagh Boris seems unable to even get out of the bath without quoting William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill or Homer.

The other protagonists are all caricatures – but no less enjoyable for that. Dom Cummings, played by Simon Paisley Day, is deeply, deliciously unpleasant. All those wronged by him will be punching the air in front of the TV screen, as he is slowly eviscerated by the filmmakers. There is a wonderful scene where Dom talks gobbledegook to a bemused and exasperated cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill. You will be left marvelling that Cummings got away with Barnard Castle. Lee Cain is a vicious and autocratic director of communications, but humanised by his eventual exasperation with Dom. Annoyingly, Matt Hancock, played by the handsome Andrew Buchan, comes across as elegant and efficient. He will be so smug about that.

The filmmakers have gone to astonishing lengths to find lookalikes – Simon Stevens, the then boss of the NHS, has two lines, but the actor is his doppelganger. Insiders will enjoy spotting their favourite spads. The sets are astonishing. You have to pinch yourself that it wasn’t actually filmed in Downing Street or Chequers. And the sinister low-pitch music that plays throughout ensures the unseen virus a constant threatening presence.

Many people will feel this drama is unfair, and intrusive. But it is well-written, brilliantly realised, and totally absorbing. I left wanting more and wondering if we could persuade the production team to channel their inner Crown and produce five more series up to Boris’s resignation

Lord Vaizey is a Conservative peer

This England
Broadcaster: Sky Atlantic and Now
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom and Julian Jarrold

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