The first sign that This England (Sky Atlantic) will go wrong is the wig. Perhaps Boris Johnson’s hair is so unruly that it simply can’t be replicated. But the dodgy thatch worn by Kenneth Branagh is an early portent of doom. This six-part political drama is a dud.
Next, your eyes fix on the prosthetic make-up. Admittedly, it completely disguises the fact that you’re watching Kenneth Branagh. But it doesn’t look like Boris Johnson either. It makes him look weird and creepy, as if he might peel off the latex at any minute like Dr Kananga in Live and Let Die. Branagh does a half-decent job on the voice.
Early photographs of Branagh as Boris and Ophelia Lovibond as Carrie may have led you to believe that this would be a satire, and that it would be fun. Alas, no. This is a deeply serious drama about the government’s Covid response. It contains precisely one joke, which is that Johnson is forever palming off Dilyn the dog on unlucky staffers, handing them a poo bag as he ushers them towards the door.
It is a story of care home deaths, inadequate PPE, relatives forced to say deathbed goodbyes to their loved ones over FaceTime. The problem is that other dramas have told this story far better - think of Jack Thorne’s terrific Help, starring Jodie Comer as a carer. Here, the sadness of those scenes is undercut by the action switching back to Whitehall every few minutes, where an actor is attempting to impersonate Matt Hancock.
The show tries to build a sense of urgency through a score (by David Holmes) that thrums under the dialogue, use of real-life news reports, and figures on screen showing the rising numbers of Covid cases. Yet it doesn’t work when it’s paired with this living, breathing version of Spitting Image.
The opening chucks everything in: that infamous late-night row in the Camberwell flat, protests and proroguing, Charles Dance as Max Hastings, Jennifer Arcuri, Get Brexit Done. The script also introduces, at the outset, the fact that Johnson is working on a biography of Shakespeare. This is a device allowing Branagh to quote the Bard at regular intervals, and gives the drama its title.
There is a truly dreadful scene when Johnson is plagued by a Covid-induced, monochrome nightmare in which the women in his life appear as in some particularly pretentious perfume advert. Aside from that, writers Michael Winterbottom and Kieron Quirke bore us with endless meetings. Sage meetings, Nervtag meetings, Spads meetings. Meetings between Johnson and Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day) and the Downing Street communications director, Lee Cain (Derek Barr, the best thing here). The meetings are full of jargon: “We are pressing the ACDP to allow containment level 2 labs to be able to handle the samples.”
This England is critical of the government but it isn’t a hatchet job on Johnson. Here he is positively benign, a man who wants to avoid conflict and make everyone like him. Nor is Carrie a Marie Antoinette figure, but a young woman who feels stifled by living above the shop. The soapier moments include Carrie giving birth, Johnson’s hospitalisation with Covid and frequent scenes in which he leaves sad voicemails for his children, who seem to ignore him. The strongest element of the drama is the sense that Johnson is lonely, knackered and possibly regretting his life choices.
Andrew Buchan, meanwhile, plays Hancock as smug and way out of his depth, which Johnson and everyone else can recognise. The Prime Minister calls Kate Bingham and asks her to set up a vaccine taskforce, on the grounds that she studied chemistry at Oxford. “That was a long time ago,” she protests. “Yeah, well, Matt Hancock did PPE and he’s running the NHS,” shrugs Johnson.
But the real villain of the piece is Cummings, wandering around No 10 in his gilet and silly hat as if he owns the place. The writers have got his number. “We need dynamic tools to see deeper into complex systems, to see across time and see across possibilities, thus making it easier to work with reliable knowledge and interactive quantitative models,” Cummings says at one point, in that very Cummings way. A fed-up colleague retorts: “What does that actually mean?” Nothing, is the answer.
But Cummings does get an easy ride over his trip to Durham, which is replayed here in very neutral terms, and while Paisley Day can manage the arrogance of Cummings, he fails to capture his oddness. None of the big performances get it right. Even the dog doesn’t look like Dilyn.
This England begins tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and NOW; the box set is available on demand from Wednesday morning