TV: Ophelia Lovibond on playing Carrie Symonds in Covid drama This England

Kenneth Branagh as Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Pictures: PA Photo/ Sky UK Ltd/Phil Fisk
Kenneth Branagh as Prime Minister Boris Johnson Pictures: PA Photo/ Sky UK Ltd/Phil Fisk

The events of the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain are etched into our collective memory. Its terrifying uncertainty, isolating lockdowns and contentious political landscape have not been forgotten in a hurry, and the impact lingers two years later.

This England, a dramatisation of the fateful first few months of the pandemic starring Kenneth Branagh as then-prime minister Boris Johnson, is coming to Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW, taking us behind the curtain as Johnson grapples with Covid, Brexit and his own personal and political controversies.

We've spoken to director and co-writer Michael Winterbottom and star Ophelia Lovibond, who plays Johnson's partner (and now wife) Carrie Symonds, to find out more about the new series.

WHAT IS THIS ENGLAND ABOUT?

This England focuses on the first few months of the Covid pandemic in the UK, with government events entwined with stories of frontline workers tirelessly working to contain the virus, scientists desperately trying to understand it, and ordinary people whose lives have been turned upside down.

The cast and creators are quick to clarify that This England is not a satire, rather a dramatisation of the events that occurred in those first weeks of the pandemic

"I think some people have assumed because it was Michael Winterbottom, and because of his politics, I suppose he's spoken about them quite clearly, I think people would just make assumptions," says Lovibond.

"But reading the scripts, I was impressed by how the information is presented, and then you as an audience are invited to make your conclusions from that.

"It felt very naturalistic - not documentary style, that's going too far - and it certainly doesn't feel like a satire at all.

"It feels like it's just taking what happened and putting it into chronological order for you to make sense of this huge experience that we were all kind of thrust into."

WHO IS IN THE SERIES?

With Branagh and Lovibond appearing as Johnson and Symonds, it will come as no surprise that This England features dramatisations of several other government figures who had a seat at the top table during the Covid crisis.

For example, then-health secretary Matt Hancock is played by Broadchurch's Andrew Buchan while former chief adviser to the prime minister Dominic Cummings is played by Simon Paisley Day, who also appeared in 2019 political drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

Also portrayed in the series are Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, then-home secretary Priti Patel and then-chancellor Rishi Sunak.

CREATING THE CHARACTERS

When crafting the characters for the series, Winterbottom says he was careful not to caricature the politicians - a particular challenge when it came to Branagh's portrayal of Boris.

The star looks almost uncanny in his performance of the former PM layered up with prosthetics and mirroring his mannerisms, but despite the "big challenge" Winterbottom says "Ken did a great job of it".

"Boris, more than most public personas, feels quite larger than life and quite well defined visually, and also in terms of performance," he says.

"That does make it quite hard to replicate without feeling that you're sort of doing an impression.

"I think one of the great things about having Ken do it is that because he is such a great actor, he brings us a weight and seriousness. And I think the thing we wanted to avoid was caricaturing Boris, or making it a sort of slapstick or satire.

"Obviously, lots of people do very funny impressions of Boris, but we wanted to try and get away from that and try and root him a little bit more, and make him a little bit more complex than the pastiches of him often are."

Acting in the role of a real-life person is a challenge in itself but Lovibond says that playing a contemporary figure was even more tricky to navigate.

"It's not like you're playing someone from hundreds of years ago, so there is great leeway for interpretation - I was so conscious that people were still very much talking about her," she says of playing Carrie.

"I did feel a responsibility to not impress my opinions on to it, because they are irrelevant, and it wouldn't be serving the story very well if I, one way or the other, played her as someone I do like or played her as someone I don't like. That wouldn't serve the story."

IS IT TOO SOON TO MAKE A DRAMA ABOUT COVID?

With the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic very much in recent memory, some say it might be too soon to make a drama about this traumatic period in healthcare and politics.

"It's difficult to say how you want people to respond to something like this," muses Winterbottom.

"I think the first thing would be recognition. Even when we started researching it, even though it was incredibly soon after the first wave, as you started to talk to people, it sort of felt like it gave a slightly different narrative.

"We'd experienced it all, we'd seen it on the news every day, we all had our own personal experience of it... and yet it still felt like: 'OK, well, it feels differently put into this kind of narrative, and seeing all the different perspectives'.

"So I suppose the idea is when you watch it back you will remember it and recognise it, and at the same time perhaps just feel like it's being told in a way that is respectful."

Lovibond adds: "I think it's really important that they've recorded it as early on as they have, so that none of the details have been kind of forgotten or glossed over.

"I think it's a huge moment in history that we need to reflect on - I don't really think we've quite fathomed it yet. I think that people are still processing what's gone. I mean, not that it's over.

"I feel when I was reading the scripts, it gave a sense of order, to putting things into a chronological order and trying to make sense of what happened. Hopefully in a way that's quite cathartic.

"You just try to move on, don't you? In the best way you can.

"I feel like this show is bringing into focus that these were people, that these weren't just numbers.

"These were individual people."

All six episodes of This England will launch on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW on Wednesday September.