As we enter November, it’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 4 years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the days of lockdowns, toilet paper shortages, Cloroxing groceries and Zoom everything seem like a distant memory at times, at others it feels like yesterday. A new miniseries recounts those first days, from the perspective of how it was handled by then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his administration.
Opening Shot: Scenes of Boris Johnson’s first days as British Prime Minister, taking office and greeting Queen Elizabeth II. We also see clips of his then-fiancée, Carrie Symonds.
The Gist: Boris Johnson (Kenneth Branagh) took office in the summer of 2019 after Theresa May resigned. His history as a journalist, book author, mayor of London, foreign minister, then backbencher MP was full of tabloid-worthy moments but less than dignified.
He came into office with a lot on his plate, namely an upcoming parliamentary election which would determine if he stays in office as PM and a little thing known as Brexit. Also, Carrie (Ophelia Lovibond, Minx) is pregnant, something the two of them are keeping hidden from the gossip-hungry press, as well as their families. He’s also in the middle of divorcing his second wife Marina, and desperate phone messages he leaves his adult children during the holidays shows that there’s a strain in those relationships.
Johnson, with the aid of his primary advisor, the flinty Dominic Cummings (Simon Paisley Day), communications director Lee Cain (Derek Barr) and spokesperson James Slack (Simon Lowe), runs with the slogan “Get Brexit Done” and wins by a landslide.
But we all know what happened starting in January, 2020: News out of Wuhan, China of a new strain of coronavirus, similar to SARS, that was discovered in bats sold at a wet market. As the virus, later named COVID-19, spreads through China and then makes its way into Italy, we see the response from not only British health officials working with both the Chinese government and the WHO, but Johnson and his cabinet. During that time, though, he’s also dealing with Carrie’s pregnancy and the fact that Dom Cummings is firing staffers and almost speaking for Johnson instead of deferring to him.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? To be perfectly honest, This England gives us vibes of Veep more than anything else, even though it’s not at all funny like Veep is — perhaps because it’s a fictionalization of real events.
Our Take: There are few shows where you can say that the lead performance is brilliant and absolutely riveting to watch, but the rest of the show is boring and forgettable, but this is what we saw with This England. Branagh so encapsulates the bumbling, controversial Boris Johnson so completely, from the lumbering way Johnson walked through the corridors of 10 Downing Street to his unusual speech patterns, that it’s at times hard to distinguish Branagh as Johnson from actual archival footage of the former PM.
The series, co-written by Kieron Quirke and director Michael Winterbottom, certainly doesn’t take a particularly positive view of Johnson. In fact, it shows him as indecisive and pathetic, led around at alternate times by either his fiancée Carrie or Cummings, his chief advisor. He spews literary quotes in an attempt to sound erudite but contributes little else besides mumbles. His kids hate him, and he seems unnaturally devoted to his mother.
Is that an accurate picture of Johnson? Maybe, maybe not. But Quirke and Winterbottom seem to have a lot of fun in showing how Johnson managed to stumble into the premiership just as a confluence of major events was tearing up the UK, including once-in-a-century flooding in the countryside. He’s shown to be more interested in weekends on his country estate than actually governing the country, and that inability to lead will only come into sharper focus as the country and the rest of the world locks down due to COVID.
The day-by-day buzzsaw of governmental meetings about COVID and other matters of pressing importance serve to show just how dangerous things got in a few short weeks, as if we needed some sort of reminder of those days. But those scenes, as well a interstitial footage from Wuhan and elsewhere show us what we already know; what we wanted to see more of was Branagh as Johnson. and the first episode simply spent too much time with everything else to satisfy that.
Sex and Skin: None, thankfully.
Parting Shot: Johnson is shown at his country estate leaving a very uncomfortable voicemail to one of his adult children, giving the news that he and Carrie are having a baby.
Sleeper Star: Ophelia Lovibond does just enough with the soon-to-be Carrie Johnson to illustrate the interesting relationship that Carrie and Boris Johnson had.
Most Pilot-y Line: Not sure why we needed to see scenes of bats being chopped up for food in a Wuhan wet market.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Despite Kenneth Branagh’s brilliant transformation into Boris Johnson, This England takes too much time rehashing the beginnings of the response to COVID-19 as if they were 20 years ago instead of something that, even though it was almost four years ago, still feels like it happened yesterday to most of us.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.