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Review: This England

Rating: 2 out of 5.

This England, created by Michael Winterbottom, chronicles the mishandlings of the Covid pandemic by Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government. It concentrates heavily on the first lockdown, the failure to deliver adequate PPE and the disregard for care homes, culminating in the Dominic Cummings-Durham saga. The six-episode series is led by Kenneth Branagh, baring a questionable resemblance to Johnson, and a slightly more convincing Simon Paisley as a ruthless Cummings. Whilst the premise has the potential makings of a riveting political drama, the end result is an elemental retelling of much too recent events, translating into an episodic narrative which lacks sufficient nuance or subtlety. 

The drama is not without some merit. Branagh’s creative use of prosthetics in his Johnson impersonation makes for a lot of the show’s intrigue. However, the technical accomplishments are somewhat overshadowed by the hollowness of the actual content. A significant flaw is the portrayal of Boris Johnson as a bumbling intellectual, rather than a calculating politician. The culpability of the Government’s failures is often diverted away from Johnson and instead cast onto Dominic Cummings. Cummings is portrayed as the real villain, the true figure orchestrating the Government’s failed Covid response. In contrast, Boris Johnson is depicted as a fragile character, an academic spouting endless Greek and Shakespearean quotes, who is weakened further amid his own battle with the virus. However, the continuous wrongdoings of Johnson in real life, leading to his ultimate resignation, make the emptiness of this depiction clear to the viewer. This England works hard to try and make the audience feel sympathy for a truly unsympathetic character and in doing so fails at being a compelling critique. 

The show is at the same time intriguing and distressing, portraying people’s real-life tragedies amidst the backdrop of political scheming and policy making. There are some moments of true emotion as the Covid scenes reflect the realities of the seemingly unending battle with the virus. Although, at times these moments feel intrusive and are often undercut by the disjointed goings-on at Downing Street. The freshness of its subject matter fundamentally hinders This England. It is hard to reflect thoughtfully on such a current situation with any level of depth. I’m sure, whilst interesting, some viewers will not be choosing to watch this show as it hits just too close to home. Although, I’m sure the technical achievements and the inherently captivating themes will keep others entertained. 

Admittedly, This England does draw you in with an admirable attention to detail, making for a largely comprehensive recounting of the first few months of the pandemic. However, the show suffers greatly from the fatigue caused by the seemingly endless news cycle of Covid tragedies and Conservative blunders. At the end of the day, who wants to watch the real events that have plagued the last few years re-told in their own living rooms? The fundamental question is whether this programme needed to be made or had anything new to say. There is a strong argument that the answer to this is ultimately, no.

Image by Phil Fisk courtesy of Sky UK.