On the day in June 2020 when Michael Winterbottom started researching This England, 67 people died of Covid. It feels like an astonishingly small number now. This was before we had a vaccine or even mass testing; before we had test and trace or any clue how much money had been wasted; before we knew about the dodgy contracts, the Downing Street parties, the devastation in care homes. It’s hard to say what’s sadder about this six-part drama: the memory of how ominous those months were, the sense of marching towards a staggering death toll, or the realization of how deluded we were back then about the true scale of how many lives would be lost.
The period This England covers is quite tight, just that first wave. In retrospect, of course, that was the most dramatic time. We’d never seen a pandemic before. We’d never heard birdsong so loudly or missed our friends en masse. We’d never tried to process how large a number 1,000 is when attached to deaths in a day. We didn’t have a clue. As later events – worse surprises, fresh lockdowns – piled up, it was like building a carapace of cynicism. But those early days were defined by ignorance and innocence. “I felt it important to underline that this was a new virus,” says Winterbottom. “One of the main things we wanted to capture was how quickly people had to respond to this ever-moving target.”
One shock was the sudden realization of how interconnected we all were, how much we relied on each other, how much gratitude we felt. I remember genuinely thinking we might emerge from it all with a new social contract, a new respect particularly for the low paid. That’s one of the saddest things about This England: seeing those Thursday claps re-enacted, remembering the belief that you were watching the dawn of a new kindness – and now knowing you weren’t.
Winterbottom talks about what he calls the “discounting” of daily deaths: “‘It’s only people who are older,’ or, ‘It’s only people with underlying conditions.’ That discounting is wrong. We filmed in two hospitals and two nursing homes. One of the care homes is the real one it was based on. The reason they did it for us is that they felt so passionate about what they’d been through, what their residents had been through.”
The director is famously eclectic. He can be very funny (24 Hour Party People, The Trip, A Cock and Bull Story) and very political (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Road to Guantanamo). There isn’t an obvious through line to his interests. He can turn his hand to romcom (With Or Without You) or period drama (Jude), and doesn’t shy away from controversy (The Killer Inside Me). He was criticized for the portrayal of violence against women in The Killer Inside Me and says of it now: “There is a question about whether you should ever show violence. But if you are going to, I want it to be how it really is – incredibly ugly.”
One of the most surprising elements of This England is the prime minister. Kenneth Branagh plays Boris Johnson with a physical and aural similarity that borders on terrifying. He comes over as a feckless man who’s bitten off more than he can chew with running the country; who’s missing his adult kids but trying to make it work with his new relationship; who nearly dies of Covid and afterwards gets out of breath chasing his dog. Hundreds of hours of conversation went into the show, with Downing Street staff, doctors, scientists, care home workers, Covid survivors, grieving families – and you can see the density of research in every detail, not least that un-housetrained dog. Johnson’s political enemies love describing his living quarters as covered in shit, as if it’s some kind of metaphor.
Simon Paisley Day’s portrayal of Dominic Cummings as breathtakingly arrogant feels individually modeled, while other characters are more like patchworks. But it’s Johnson who cuts across, has an interior life, isn’t focused entirely on reacting to events. We see him writing his memoir in his head, giving himself a hero’s journey. Winterbottom, talking about the disgraced PM’s books about Churchill and Emperor Augustus, says: “He deliberately writes so you’re aware of a parallel he’s making between this character and himself. It felt like that was a legitimate device we could use, imagining his own experience in relation to Greek tragedy.”
In feverish, guilty dreams, we see his conscience played back to him in chorus. And this, along with Branagh’s all-too-human eyes, buried under his prosthetic pouchy face, could be where people take issue: Winterbottom’s PM is a flawed man, trying his best. In real life, though, few saw much sign of a conscience. “Well,” says Winterbottom, “it was a time when he was getting divorced. He was having a baby. I almost died. There’s a huge amount of personal life stuff at the same time as being a politician, at the same time as responding to the pandemic. Whether you’re prime minister, or whatever your job is, your children are the most important thing in your life. Your partner is the most important thing in your life. Having a baby is the most important thing in your life.”
Really? “When you’re making a story, you try to see it from the protagonist’s point of view. I fully accept responsibility and blame for the fact that that was the starting point. The assumption was that everyone was trying to do the right thing. That seemed to be the fair one.” Seriously? “We were really trying not to be commenting, not to be putting value judgments on people’s behavior.” Why the hell not? The director, exasperated by my line of inquiry, finally says: “I have to tell this story without editorializing. You can editorialize.”
Naturally, given its timespan, the scandalous hypocrisy in This England centers on Cummings and his trip to Durham, the trip to Barnard Castle, the half-truths surrounding it, the battle to get the story double-sourced before the Guardian and the Mirror could publish it. From this distance, given the illegal behavior that later emerged, it feels almost surprising that people reacted so strongly to it. I even felt a certain sympathy for the Cummings in This England: if everyone in the office is living it large with suitcase carryouts and ending every Friday vomiting into bins, it doesn’t seem like a huge deal to drive to your parents’ place, the fact that you’ve ordered the nation to stay home regardless.
This part is incredibly delicately told. Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield go about their business, not feeling very well, recovering, piecing together careful deceptions before eventually getting busted, their story juxtaposed against appalling, almost panic-inducing scenes of ordinary people unable to see their loved ones as they died , shouting in the street.
The classic concept in drama is that you have to give every victim a backstory, even if it’s just a sliver of one. This England doesn’t do that. “We decided early on,” says Winterbottom, “that a character who dies would only have their story told in relation to the virus, in relation to what happened to them in hospital. They’re all anonymised and fictionalised, but most are quite specifically drawn from people or families we met. The shape of what happens to them is directed by the research, not the writing or the acting or the backstory. We weren’t asking: ‘What’s the best way to tell this individual’s story?’ Just a narrative of events is enough. It reminds you of what you’ve just lived through: any power it has is because you lived through it.”
This England is a powerful reminder of the differing experiences of death: if you didn’t lose anyone close to you, then you were still watching this mounting toll. Whatever illusions of unity we had at that time, we were separated by this chasm – those who had lost and those who hadn’t. Winterbottom was on the former side of the chasm. “My mum died in 2020, not of Covid, in a hospital in Blackburn, where I’m from. It was when different rules applied to different areas and Blackburn was still in lockdown. So we weren’t allowed in to see her for those last nine days of her life.” I want to yell: “So how can you possibly have stayed so fair-minded?” But I figure I’ve said enough at this point.
Winterbottom says he worked on This England the way he works on everything. “You try to get to know a world, meet as many people as you can, then condense it into a story.” It strikes me, though, as a very unusual piece of film-making, an attempt to tell all of our stories at once, a task so vast that it’s done more by stimulus and atmosphere than by words and character. It is like going back in time. The big question is if we’re ready.
This England is on Sky Atlantic/Now on 28 September.