Sky’s This England: an important story told too soon?

A new six-part TV series about the start of Boris Johnson’s premiership and the Covid crisis landed on Sky Atlantic last night amid mixed reviews. 

Starring Kenneth Branagh as the then prime minister, This England is TV “at its most triggering”, said Hollie Richardson in The Guardian

But while Branagh’s performance has been widely praise, some critics argued that Michael Winterbottom’s new drama was made and broadcast too soon after the pandemic.

‘Sickeningly accurate’

Branagh is “sickeningly accurate” as Johnson, said Richardson. Rachel Cooke in The New Statesman agreed that Branagh perfectly mimics the former Tory leader’s “striding stoop and gibbon arm-swing”.

The Times’ Carol Midgley also lauded Branagh’s “barrelling, air-punching, at times uncanny” impression of the then PM. “Special mentions” must go to Ophelia Lovibond as Carrie Symonds (later Johnson), Midgley added, and to Simon Paisley Day as Dominic Cummings. And Andrew Buchan’s voice as Matt Hancock “is so convincing it’s as though he’s in the room (lock up your wives!)”.

But not everyone was convinced by the star of the show. According to Anita Singh in The Telegraph, the result of Branagh’s heavy prosthetic make-up “doesn’t look like Johnson” but rather “weird and creepy”, though he “does a half-decent job on the voice”.

‘An inexplicable decision’

While the reviews are generally positive about the performances in the news series, “should Sky have known better than to air it now?” asked Robert Jackman in The Spectator. The show, also released on Streaming service Now, has arrived “at exactly the same time that British politics enters its own cliffhanger mode with drama that could rival any season finale”, Jackman wrote.

Branagh has suggested that “any way of understanding” the pandemic better “is important”. But “on these terms”, said the BBC’s Neil Armstrong, “This England is a failure”.

“We are, as a nation, still coming to terms with the events depicted on screen,” he continued, so the “rapidity with which this was made seems bizarre”.

This England is “engaging and well-paced” with a “fantastic” cast, wrote Radio Times’ James Hibbs, “but imagine if this series had been stored away like a time capsule, only to be unveiled for the first time in five, ten or 15 years”. It would be “arguably more impactful and artful”, Hibbs argued.

The criticisms about the timing of the series have been challenged by Branagh’s co-star Lovibond. “It’s like trying to write a diary entry a week later – you can’t remember the specifics,” she told Digital Spy. “So something like this is on such a grander scale, I personally think it’s important to record things while they’re still fresh in your memory.”

The Independent’s Nick Hilton remained unconvinced. “The rendering of the miserable past two years as a form of entertainment was an inexplicable decision,” he wrote, “and the botched execution is simply a by-product of that central commissioning error.”

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