This England: Is it too soon to make a drama out of a crisis? - Alastair Stewart

"How do I get to Westminister?" was the line that killed historical biopics.

Actor Kenneth Branagh as Prime Minister Boris Johnson in This England, a drama series about the Prime Minister's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Actor Kenneth Branagh as Prime Minister Boris Johnson in This England, a drama series about the Prime Minister's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Darkest Hour (2017) has the correct scale and ambition but is an artistically liberal story of how Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940. In a fat suit, pinstripe suit, top hat and cigar, Gary Oldman sits on the London Underground discussing the mood of ordinary people about fighting the Nazis.

Later Churchill stands and addresses his MPs, listing the names and opinions of those same people behind his conviction “that every man of you would rise up and tear me from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender”. World War II was started because of a chat on the Tube.

Some reviewers dismissed the scene for its sentimental and deferential indulgence. Others praised it for encapsulating the Churchillian spirit. But historical movies owe audiences a grain of truth, particularly in their big moments.

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Can you make a series about events which transpired only two years ago? This England (2022) will try and do just that.

Michael Winterbottom's six-part TV miniseries promises a mish-mash about the pandemic, Boris Johnson falling critically ill with Covid-19, government machinations, and his own personal failings.

With Kenneth Brannagh as Johnson, we can look forward to a series of police line-up cameos of household names. Aside from the prime minister being a mononym, Sunak, Patel, Cummings, Hunt, Mogg, Hancock, Javid, and Dorries et al were made famous by the pandemic. Ubiquitous coverage of the crisis made that an unavoidable consequence and a reason why scrutiny was so intense.

The Greek Chorus aside, Sky is banking on a very strange form of entertainment. Who in their right mind will round off the first normal summer in years by watching a recount of the hell we all went through before it?

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2020 is five minutes ago, and there has been no chance to weigh Johnson's time in office. “Disastrous” is too quick and lazy a verdict. Squint your eyes, and Ken Brannagh looks spot on as the prime minister. This is less entertaining when right up to the very end, the real thing obfuscated and dodged the energy and cost-of-living crisis.

One YouTube comment on the latest trailer says: “I quite liked the scene at the end when he was looking out of the window expressing genuine care for the state of the country. That told me that this is a work of fiction.”

The same issues will soon plague The Crown as it starts to chronicle recent history. The Netflix drama must be sensitive to the death of Princess Diana, her private life and her children. For a show that kicked off with the Queen's coronation in 1952, it is fast becoming one part Downton Abbey, one part House of Cards.

Audiences are not stupid, but there is always a danger some will take drama as fact (often why there is a card explaining events are fictional). The trouble comes when mixing history and a political agenda. Showrunner Peter Morgan's other works, including his Oscar-winning film The Queen (2006), The Deal (2004) and its sequel, The Special Relationship (2010), were self-evidently fictions about Blair and the Queen, his rivalry with Gordon Brown and his relationship with Bill Clinton.

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The Trial of Tony Blair (2007) is one of the best political-historical-comedies of the last 20 years. It imagines war crimes proceedings against the former prime minister for his role in the Iraq War. It gave audiences what they wanted with Blair in irons, and Robert Lindsay excelled as the pastiche version of Blair.

The effects of Covid-19 were ubiquitous. No one could escape it. Pandering to the same old fantasies about world-ending disasters will not do anymore. Our appetites have changed, and the same thing happened after World War II, with a surge in the popularity of science-fiction writing.

Satire seems to be a struggling art, too. How can you ridicule governments that are now so obstinate that they are incapable of admitting wrongdoing when caught red-handed? There does not seem to be the same delight in watching po-faced policed be ridiculed. Incompetence and lies are the default now.

With all respect to Sky Original drama, how can they think there would be interest in a theatrical presentation of Johnson's sordid personal life as the country still reels from one of the worst Covid death tolls in the world?

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Winterbottom said This is England was not revised for the partygate scandal. His team spoke to care home workers, nurses, doctors, scientists and government officials.

Are they producing a factually accurate account of the pandemic crisis, a work of contrived fiction about Johnson, or both? The animus against Johnson and his government may well be the only redeemable quality of this misguided production.

We can only wait and see what is released on 21 September. Johnson's record is now in the hands of historians, but the story is not quite over as long as the Conservatives remain in power.

Churchill's rejection by the electorate in 1945 and the new Labour era expedited the process of consolidating the wartime government's record. There has yet to be such a reprieve post-Covid, and certainly no room for entertainment about life and death policy decisions.

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An excellent political thriller is what we need, not a rehash of something recent and definitely not about the pandemic. The consequences of Brexit are still being felt as the country roles from problem to crisis to disaster and repeat. Is it too much to ask for something as magnificent as A Very British Coup?

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