This England review: If you can stomach the material, this show is hugely watchable

Michael Winterbottom’s dramatisation of UK’s Covid response portrays former prime minister as buffoonish and vain yet essentially well intentioned

Michael Winterbottom’s This England is two dramas in one. All the attention has been on Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Boris Johnson — and there is no denying the novelty of the Belfast-born actor in a fright wig quoting Churchill, Shakespeare and Pericles.

But the six-part series (available in full to stream on Sky and Now, and beginning on Sky Atlantic at 9pm today) is also a forensic chronicling of Britain’s response to Covid-19, with Winterbottom quietly excoriating the UK government for delaying its lockdown and so ratcheting up the death toll. Here there are shades of the director’s Welcome to Sarajevo, his 1997 indictment of western indifference to war crimes in the Balkans, which reached cinemas while people were still dying in Bosnia.

As a critique of the UK government’s response to Covid, This England is unflinching. It’s also compelling television

Is it too soon for This England? That will depend on viewers’ experiences of the pandemic. For those who lost someone to the virus the answer is potentially yes. (Winterbottom reportedly started working on the drama in the summer of 2020.) That said, this isn’t the first UK drama to aim at Downing Street’s handling of the calamity — Together, the Sharon Horgan–James McAvoy two-hander on the BBC last year, was far harder-hitting — while Covid-ward documentaries were common even before the pandemic had peaked.

Winterbottom is a pacy director, and if you can stomach the material This England is hugely watchable. I don’t know if bingeable is an appropriate description for a show about an unspeakable tragedy. But This England unquestionably pulls you in.

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What it isn’t is character assassination. Somewhere on the way to slipping beneath those prosthetics, Branagh seems to become rather fond of the mercurial former prime minister. He portrays Johnson as buffoonish and vain yet essentially well intentioned. He’s not a monster but an eccentric blundering about the corridors of power.

Others come out well, too. Winterbottom resists the temptation to paint Johnson’s wife, Carrie (Ophelia Lovibond), as a hurrah-for-hockey Sloane archetype — compared with Johnson she’s the sensible one, exasperated by the Game of Thrones-style goings-on at 10 Downing Street. Winterbottom, who writes as well as directs, also finds it in his heart to be kindly towards Matt Hancock (Andrew Buchan), the British health secretary, who, if out of his depth, is among the first to push for a full lockdown.

Hancock’s unexpected ally is Johnson’s adviser turned nemesis Dominic Cummings, depicted by Simon Paisley Day as an alien who has gleaned his understanding of humankind from repeated watching of The West Wing. He is cynical, data-focused and cruel — yet Winterbottom gives him credit for wanting an early lockdown too.

As a critique of the UK government’s response to Covid, This England is unflinching. It’s also compelling television. That ought not to matter, given its subject, but there’s no denying its effectiveness as drama.