The chronicling of Covid in This England

The chronicling of Covid in This England

Wednesday, 1st February 2023
This England (Credit: Sky)
This England (Credit: Sky)
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Film-maker Michael Winterbottom tells the RTS how he made Sky Atlantic’s This England, reports Matthew Bell.

Sky Atlantic’s This England, which aired last autumn, was television’s most ambitious attempt to tell the story of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Made by Michael Winterbottom, one of the UK’s ­premier film directors, the six-part docu-drama was meticulously researched and featured a note-perfect performance from Kenneth Branagh as the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

At the end of last year, Winterbottom discussed This England with the journalist Stephen Armstrong at a special online RTS event.

Winterbottom, known for films such as Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People and Greed, co-wrote and directed This England, which explores the impact on the country of the first wave of the Covid pandemic, while at the same time focusing on the tumultuous life of Johnson.

“I don’t think I would have thought of that idea,” admitted Winterbottom, “but, once I was asked, it seemed to me that during that first wave there had been a lot of talk about a sense that we were all in it together… a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices for other people.

“There was a lot of talk about the parallels between that and, say, the Second World War, the experience of the Blitz or the Dunkirk spirit, which are cliches, but I think there’s an element of truth in that. This was a once in a generation, once in a century experience.”

He recalled: “It was an incredibly intense experience. When we began the process of doing research it was ongoing – we’d just got through the first wave, but it was clear that there was going to be a second wave.

“My starting point was that, with Covid, everyone was trying to do their best; no one was thinking, ‘I wonder if there’s a way that I can get more people to die from Covid.’ Obviously, big mistakes were made.” These included delaying the lockdown, he said, which it is widely accepted cost thousands of lives.

“It’s incredibly impressive what the scientists did. The Chinese put out the genetic code of the virus incredibly quickly and, over a weekend in Oxford, they worked out the structure of their vaccine – it’s just incredible.”

Winterbottom described This England as a “mosaic”. He said: “We could hop from inside the Jenner Institute to inside the Department of Health to inside a care home to inside a hospital. Piecing all that together, you could see the thing we’d just experienced in a different way.”

Johnson, though, is This England’s central character. “Not only was Boris the Prime Minister and therefore ultimately responsible for how the Government responded, but he also got Covid himself… he was in intensive care and close to dying,” he said. Subsequently, of course, Johnson became embroiled in the Partygate scandal and resigned as Prime Minister – events that the Sky Atlantic drama could not include, with the film already in the can.

“Because Boris is such a famous figure you just had to have the best possible actor to play him… and so we picked Kenneth Branagh… fortunately, he wanted to play Boris.

“It’s hugely difficult when you’ve got someone who’s not only famous and current, but also has such a big, clearly defined image himself… the real Boris has almost a cartoon projection of Boris; he’s almost acting Boris himself. That makes him a very difficult person to impersonate and I thought Ken did a great job.”

Winterbottom added: “You couldn’t do a story which included Boris without trying to engage with his personal life – his personal life was as turbulent as his political life at that time.”